Joy Post: This Week’s Favourite Media

Oof. I was far too busy two weeks ago to read/watch/listen to much for pleasure, so this week I’m catching up:

Netflix Event: Master of None, Season 2

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Aziz Ansari’s first season of Master of None surprised me in its mature, measured treatment of the aimless, absurdist way in which adults of a certain age tend to go through life–in part because of the digital era, but also in part because of a) a disconnect from the histories of life even close to home, and b) the subjectivity of a meaningful life in general. I’m only halfway through Season Two, but the show continues to illustrate how meaning can emerge in fleeting moments, and be lost just as suddenly. We are an active, engaged, yet still-lonely people, and Ansari’s treats all these multitudes with great humour, compassion, and hope.

Music, Part I: Tinariwen

I came across this group of Kel Tamashek musicians (known more broadly as the Tuareg people, hailing from the Saharan Desert region of northern Mali) by accident, but I was immediately riveted by their sound. In the process of learning more about their music–a kind of “rebel blues,” with that notion of rebellion literalized in the band members’ histories of political and military resistance–I was introduced to new and striking terms. Assouf, for instance, is a concept similar to the blues but also untranslatable–something of longing and nostalgia, but something also triumphant, for having overcome hardship even if hard times lie ahead. Tichumaren, meanwhile, is a term for guitar music emerging from violent political histories: a style of music entrenched in the liberation of the Tamashek people from colonial powers. And even Tinariwen is profoundly political– plural for the Tamashek word for “desert,” and as such a stand-in for the plurality not only of deserts they regard as the Sahara, but also of experiences carried by people who live within them. This is a band that contains multitudes, literally and figuratively.

Music, Part II: The Mountain Goats

There’s something quite satisfying about solid concept album, and this one–The Mountain Goats‘ homage to a particular set of goth culture histories–is warmly and wisely produced. I was never a goth myself, but the lyrics to these songs capture a deeper, more universal body of experiences through their specificity. One can easily resonate with the line “I’m hardcore, but I’m not that hardcore” in relation to just about any interest that opens a human being to a spectrum of fellow fans, while the whole song “Wear Black” speaks playfully to the way that our loves become our lifestyles. This album is in some ways a departure from The Mountain Goats’ usual, but the intelligence of their lyrics–the deft, precise strokes that convey whole, complex emotional spectrums–remains, and is joined with some thoroughly satisfying melodic arcs, like the one above. This album hit the writer in me in just the right way.

Book: Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky

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At first, I could not bring myself to read this volume, despite its glowing reviews in journals like The New York Times Book Review and The Atlantic. I kept picking it up and getting thrown by the opening paragraph of the first short story, which reads:

Enzinma fumbles the keys against the lock and doesn’t see what came behind her: Her father as a boy, when he was still tender, vying for his mother’s attention. Her grandmother, overworked to the bone by the women whose houses she dusted, whose laundry she washed, whose children’s asses she scrubbed clean; overworked by the bones of a husband who wanted many sons and the men she entertained to give them to him, sees her son to his thirteenth year with the perfunction of a nurse and dies in her bed with a long, weary sigh.

Now, I love a long sentence–I read Alan Moore’s 1,262-page Jerusalem last year; I’m reading Mathias Enard’s Compass now–but this one just broke so many rules of coherence at once that I couldn’t grok its aims. First, we get a list structure (Her father, Her grandmother), but then that second item sprawls, using “bone” as its own subdivider (overworked by the bone of X, overworked by the bones of Y)… and then the sentence takes yet another turn with the final clause, “sees her son…” which has neither the benefit of a semi-colon nor shared verb tense to bind it to its ostensible subject (the grandmother). Chaos!

…And I would have left off the volume right there, frustrated by that syntax, if I hadn’t already given up on another book at its second line for similar reasons. This is from Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, another highly acclaimed volume I had also been interested in reading for its use of speculative elements to advance pressingly contemporary issues:

In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her. For many days.

Why. Is. This. Two. Sentences. What value was added by this heavy-handed emphasis on a phrase that, by virtue of ending the sentence, would already be lingering on the reader’s mind? Suffice it to say, as knee-jerk a reaction as mine was, I could not bring myself to trust the narrative voice after that stylistic trick–and I skimmed ahead, then put the book aside.

On the plus side, though, that knee-jerk reaction to Hamid’s syntactical variation made me take stock of my knee-jerk reaction to Arimah’s. Was I missing something that would become clearer with a little more trust in the author? So–I read on, and I’m tremendously glad I did. Chaos was the point, and although the whole first story is strung up on word play in the opening and closing paragraphs, it was a satisfying journey. The next story, more traditional in form, then clinched for me Arimah as an author who can encapsulate huge moral landscapes and the sweeping weight of life’s myriad experiences in only a few pages. By the time her stories took their fantastical turns, in a mode of magical realism well suited to histories of trauma and recovery, I found myself quite happily giving up my usual, more critical approach to any text. Arimah’s stories reminded me how much fun it can be to let a writer surprise you at every turn.

And… that’s it for now! Going forward, I’m delighted to have more time for my own writing again, and I can’t wait to a) start submitting proper stories for the first time all year, and b) return to finishing the novel project.

Wherever your own creative practice finds you, good skill and good luck!