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
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)
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)
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 album, No 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.