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

masterofnonedev

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

31522415.jpg

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!

Joy Post: This Week’s Favourite Media

Nine days into a tricky work schedule, I’m having a rough time not letting my exhaustion get the best of my mental state, which possibly explains the melancholy nature of my “joy” selections this week–but hey, a) it’s nice to know one’s not alone with certain feelings, and b) look! Week Two of this type of post! I can almost call it a series now. Almost.

Netflix Event: Maria Bamford’s Old Baby

maria-bamford-old-baby

I watched two comedy shows this week that played with location–Bamford’s, and Vir Das’s Abroad Understanding. Das gives nearly identical comedy sets in two different venues–a small New York comedy house and a huge stage in New Delhi–and generally uses his platform to advance a globalist approach to the human experience, while mostly teasing Americans for, well, America. Not everything lands (e.g. throwaway jokes about Africa), and I had to push myself to wait out the opening guitar number, but there are quite a few good laughs, and the overall message is optimistic–which is why my pick this week is Bamford’s set instead.

Bamford also plays with location, aided by the excellent directing of Jessica Yu, in a way that offers its own, understated commentary. Bamford–a versatile voice actor playing dozens of parts on Adventure Time–has bipolar spectrum disorder, a diagnosis I share. But whereas I simply become furious with myself three or four times yearly for wanting so much to engage with the world, when I know full well the impossibility of ever being understood, and the greater likelihood that I’m just doing harm to myself and others in the process… she has centred, in her artistic practice, that relentless wavering between wanting to connect through performance and wanting to crawl away and never risk engaging with another human again.

In this special, she starts in front of a mirror and the tiny audience of a living room, counselling viewers who were dragged to this Netflix special and who are already irritated by her voice to take a victory lap, secure in the knowledge that they’ve been good people in indulging their friends this far. As the special develops, so too does the size of her audience, and with it, the force and verve of her comedy–but never her confidence with self-promotion at post-show merch stands. The seamless interweaving of locations with material allows her comedy to reflect her own, relentlessly changing relationship with pursuing this career at all–and without coming to definitive conclusions; without finding “peace” in the end. As such, it made for precisely the reminder I needed this week, that struggling and not giving up is still possible.

Poetry: Safia Elhillo’s The January Children (2017)

https-%2F%2Fcdn.evbuc.com%2Fimages%2F26252896%2F4876951350%2F1%2Foriginal.jpg

Technically, I read this book as part of one of my side-jobs, but I was so glad I had. I was fortunate to have a translator help mediate this text on two accords–first, through cultural references like Abdelhalim Hafez, who plays a huge role in this work; and second, after my reading, through explaining some of the Arabic phrasing. Even without full comprehension of all the language in these bilingual poems, though, the work sings. Elhillo, a Sudanese slam-poet-turned-page-poet, especially excels at presenting the free-associative chaos of memories and experiences trapped between languages and cultures, while remaining, by and large, cleverly in control of how this effect is managed on the page. Where gaps in comprehension exist (for this non-Arabic speaker), the poems instead invite conversation on, and reflection about, what it means to live in such gaps all the time. I was highly moved by a number of individual pieces in this collection, but also the strength of will with which Elhillo reclaims reductive identity labels and life in the diaspora throughout.

Graphic Novel: Kristen Radtke’s Imagine Wanting Only This (2017)

Cover+2c+new+skyline-01+(2).jpg

Memoir is a huge sub-genre of graphic novels, and I’ve read my share of fair to middling specimens. This one, though–this one stands out for reasons I’m not certain I can do justice to with words alone. Suffice it to say, Imagine Wanting Only This is a reflection on all the ways in which things can end in even a gentle life, an “easy” life (and our protagonist does have the means to brood in some pretty fancy changes of scenery), and how one carries those losses as questions not meant to be answered in full. Our protagonist meditates on this theme through the loss of a relative, the stages of loss in a young relationship, the inherited health risks that loom over everything in her life, and the ways in which other people she stumbles into–strangers, really, out of time and space–have lost themselves in their own attempts to understand and immortalize loss. It was a mesmerizing hour’s read, and a testament to the author’s understanding of the distinct benefits that text and image can bring to the same page.

Music: Perfume Genius‘s “Slip Away”

I came to Perfume Genius from the song “Queen” on Mr. Robot‘s TV-show soundtrack last year, and Mike Hadreas just released a new albumNo Shape, this week. On the one hand, I resonate with this work for pretty unsubtle reasons: I read a familiar ache into Hadreas’s overtly queer-theatric music videos. Granted, everyone across the queer continuum has distinct issues (bisexual female persons like myself, for instance, face higher rates of a whole spate of health problems, which seem at least in part to stem from a lack of full safety and belonging among both queer and straight communities), but I feel there’s a fear of something being especially doomed about queer love that male-queer persons seem especially well-situated to convey in art. (Perhaps because gay culture has been haunted for decades by HIV’s impact on one’s sense of life prospects? Or perhaps because male portraits of queer experience have a more prominent place in the canon? Or perhaps I’m just stereotyping–who can say for sure!)

On the other hand, though, when Hadreas’ music veers towards–well, euphoria–as this piece does, it feels earned in a way that musical acts more frequently centred around the free-wheeling happiness of human interaction (for me) don’t. Put simply: I smiled a lot this week thanks to this piece’s place on my soundtrack.

And… on that note, it’s time for me to finish a book review before running the bookstore for the day, then coming home to mark and tackle course prep for the week. I didn’t have time for full works of fiction or proper films this past week–but I’ve got my eye on a collection of journalistic character portraits and a handful of wonderful speculative stories, plus one movie I’ve been looking forward to for a while.

Wherever your own readings and viewings find you, I hope there is at least joy in the little things in your lives these days. All best wishes for the work to come.