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Zunguzungu
By Aaron Bady
Anyone claiming to be an expert is selling something. I brandish my ignorance like a crucifix at vampires.
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Against Students Stories

DUKEDUKE

On Friday, the Duke Chronicle—the student paper—ran a story whose headline declared “Freshmen skipping ‘Fun Home’ for moral reasons.:

“Several incoming freshmen decided not to read “Fun Home” because its sexual images and themes conflicted with their personal and religious beliefs.” Freshman Brian Grasso posted in the Class of 2019 Facebook page July 26 that he would not read the book “because of the graphic visual depictions of sexuality,” igniting conversation among students.”

Since then, the story has been picked up by: CNN, USA Today, Salon, The New Civil Rights Movement, the Washington Post, the Onion AV club, Inquisitr, Slate, the Daily Beast, and a variety of other newsy-journalistic-ish outlets. But as far as one can tell, Claire Ballantine for the Duke Chronicle is the only journalist who has actually seen Freshman Brian Grasso’s inflammatory words. And this is as it should be. The “Class of 2019” Facebook page is a closed group—and I presume only Duke students have access to it—so it’s not surprising that the Duke student paper is the only media outlet that has actually reported on what actual people there are actually saying. Since the Duke student paper reports on things that are of general interest to Duke students, this otherwise fairly bland story isn’t out of place. “A student said something on Facebook and then some other students said some other things in response” is a run-of-the-mill “Talk About Town.” For context, this particular student journalist has recently written such local interest campus stories as “Renovated Rubenstein Library ready for students,” “University revises sexual assault policy for clarity,” “Freshmen reflect on O-week” and “Duke librarian doubles as scrabble whiz.”

For Duke students, in other words, this is a story in the same way that “Freshmen reflect on O-week” is a story: it’s a thing to read in the free newspaper you pick up as you walk to class, or to peruse in the morning if the student paper is your home page. It’s local interest, not “news.”

This is a point worth underscoring: unless you are a Duke student, this is not a conversation for you; a conversation on a closed Facebook group is a conversation by and for Duke university students. Why and how, then, has this become a story for anyone else? How has the story of a conversation that happened on a closed campus Facebook group, a month ago, managed to become a nationally reported story, today?

In most of the specifics, the story being reported (or recycled) by national media is almost exactly the same as the story reported by Claire Ballentine for the Duke paper. I don’t want to call it plagiarism, exactly—since they do credit her—but re-packaging and re-reporting another publication’s story is the lowest form of journalism. Even if they do link and attribute, they know that most people don’t follow the links, or care. It’s the sort of lazy hack-work that freshmen writing students must be taught not to do, in fact. If you simply re-package what someone else has said, you haven’t done any interesting work.

The national media has not reported precisely the same story as the campus media, however; as viruses must, this story has had to evolve in order to spread to new populations. And since none of the media that have picked up the story have any new reporting to add—other than getting a few reaction quotes here and there and/or adding some moralistic commentary—they tend to re-frame what the student paper wrote in a more sensationalist vein. It becomes less of a Duke story, and more of a “College Students” story (more than a few mild inaccuracies are introduced, too, as the writers come to be farther and farther from the original context). But these subtle changes and shifts in emphasis are exactly what make it a national story: without changing it, a local interest non-story would not be worth reporting in the national media, and it wouldn’t be.

Take, for example, the Washington Times, whose headline describes how “Duke Freshmen boycott ‘Fun Home’ Summer Reading.” If this isn’t exactly false, it’s not exactly true, and it’s certainly misleading. Duke has around 1,800 incoming freshmen; the fact that one of them posted on Facebook objecting to this book (and a handful of students commented favorably) tells us less than nothing about “Duke Freshmen.” It’s a terrifically bad sample population, anec-data at best, noise at worst. But calling a few Facebook comments a “boycott” goes a step farther, giving the clear but inaccurate impression that this is an organized protest. In the same vein, when the story at Inside Higher Education describes how “a number of students have taken their concerns public,” what does that word “public” mean? Does this simply mean that a Facebook thread happened? Maybe, but the phrase “taken their concerns public,” implies, again, something larger and more organized; does one usually call posting on a closed Facebook group “going public” with one’s concerns?

If the Washington Times headline is the worst, nearly every headline gives the definite impression that a strong plurality or a very vocal minority of the freshman class are taking a stand of some kind. For example:

Let me suggest some equally accurate headlines:

  • “One Freshman Says On Facebook That He Won’t Read A Particular Book”
  • “99.9% of Incoming Duke Have Not Declared Any Opinion About Whether They Will Read This Book.”
  • “Most Expect that the Majority of the Incoming Freshmen Won’t Read the Book, But For No Particular Reason, Just That They Didn’t feel Like It, And It Wasn’t Required Reading Anyway.”

These headlines didn’t happen because they would not have grabbed clicks and eyeballs. Only by making a bad copy of a copy—only by subtly shifting crucial details just enough so that a non-story comes to seem like a story—can this non-event come to seem worth reporting by CNN, etc. Only by exaggerating what happens can it become the occasion for moralistic indignation. At Duke it was worth reporting; anywhere else, not so much. Which is why, again, every national news media that has reported the story has had to change it, in order to make it into a story; it’s not a story if they don’t report it inaccurately. “Duke Students Have Conversation on Facebook” is not a story. So it has become one, by becoming something different.

We understand why this happens. It’s the collective hunger of the online, for-profit media for tasty content that creates a situation where we find apparently reputable news outlets copying a student’s work, and doing it so badly—and so strategically badly—that a story is created where none would otherwise exist. The collective news consciousness is vaguely aware that college students are Anti-Speech Social Justice Warriors Who Also Generally the Worst, because we keep seeing op-eds declaring that it’s a real problem. It’s an easy story, especially when there’s a Man-Bites-Dog twist, such as the students in question being Christians. For hungry journalists who’d rather not do their homework, a whole set of confirmation biases and moralisms swings into action the moment they sniff anything of the sort. But just as plagiarism is a symptom of student apathy, shoddy content production is a symptom of journalistic apathy, but distributed: one outlet’s carelessness get replicated by the others and it adds up to a compelling (but misleading) narrative.

Take, for example, the fact that the USA Today story links to and relies on a story published by The Inquisitr.

USA TODAYNow, the USA Today is not the most reputable news outlet you’ll ever find, but it’s the newspaper you get stuck with in hotels and it’s been around for long enough that one generally assumes it’s not completely worthless. The Inquisitr—which is where USA Today’s first link goes to—is pretty worthless.

inquisitr

The Desk has a nice run-down on what The Inquisitr is and does, but the short version is that it’s an aggregation content mill that produces misinformation for clicks. But note how precisely similar the two stories are, how the USA Today has literally outsourced the reporting to the Inquisitr—reporting that it has been reported and linking to that reporting—but the first paragraphs are very similar:

The Inquisitr: Duke freshmen are refusing to read Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. A sizable number of incoming Duke University students have cited their Christian beliefs when uttering the refusal to read the LGBT book.

USA Today: Incoming freshmen at Duke University are reportedly refusing to read their summer novel, Fun Home— an LGBT, graphic novel by Alison Bechdel — due to their Christian and moral beliefs.

Both of them eventually link to the Duke Chronicle, but after the Inquisitr excises the qualifying phrases “For some members of the Class of 2019” and “Several incoming freshmen” from Claire Ballentine’s original piece, USA Today inherits this omission, continuing to report that “Incoming Freshmen,” in the plural, are “refusing.” But the original Duke Chronicle piece doesn’t use the word “refuse” because that’s the wrong word to use in that context, the wrong word to describe not reading a suggested summer reading selection. On campus, there is nothing remarkable about not reading a non-recommended book; lots of schools have these programs, and lots of students ignore couldn’t care less. My dear alma mater, for example, the University of California, Berkeley, has suggested that new students read Freedom’s Orator, the new biography of Mario Savio. A fine choice! And a huge percentage of the incoming class won’t even bother to pick up the free copy the University buys for them. I would be very surprised if this weren’t equally true at Duke, where a great many students who don’t read Fun Home will choose not to read it because they don’t feel like reading a book, or because they read a different book, or books, or for no reason at all. They won’t have read it, because they aren’t required to read it.

People say things on Facebook, and sometimes the things they say represent deep beliefs… and sometimes people are just typing words because they have nothing better to do. But when a whole bunch of people start Having VERY Strong Opinions About The Kids These Days, based on a handful of facebook comments—possibly the universe’s least significant speech-acts—it tells you that they are not really reacting to a thing that happened; they are enjoying the occasion to make a performative spectacle of their disgust. Social media is filled with people being appalled at these students right now, but none of them are appalled at “Brian Grasso and the several other people who apparently agreed with him last month”; they are upset at Students. What upsets them is the spectacle of Students Protesting, and that spectacle is so appalling they don’t even have to see it to be appalled.

No one is all that interested in Brian Grasso. Instead, we are seeing what Sara Ahmed describes, in “Against Students,” as a very common knee-jerk rhetorical position, a performance for which “students” are necessary, “a series of speech acts which consistently position students, or at least specific kinds of students, as a threat to education, to free speech, to civilization, even to life itself”:

“In speaking against students, these speech acts also speak for more or less explicitly articulated sets of values: freedom, reason, education, democracy. Students are failing to reproduce the required norms of conduct…Students are not transmitting the right message, or are evidence that we have failed to transmit the right message. Students have become an error message, a beep, beep, that is announcing system failure.”

In practice, those “students” usually turn out to be a caricature. But in the absence of Brian Grasso’s words–since the hue and cry has proceeded gleefully with only a few quoted fragments of his words–it has been easy to read him as representative of students, or of Christians, of of those “precious little darlings at Duke University.”

As it turns out, he isn’t. He’s an outlier when it comes to student opinions about sexually explicit images. We know this, because the Washington Post just published an op-ed in which he explains his position, and you can disagree with him if you want–I do, for example–without reducing him to a caricature. He’s a fundamentalist of a particular kind: he says he is open to reading material that challenges his beliefs (“I’m not even opposed to reading Freud, Marx or Darwin”) but claims that his brand of Christianity is specifically iconoclastic, in that he distrusts images in particular and feels particularly forbidden to look at pornography, which he judges Fun Home to be.

As he observes, correctly, “I’m well aware that my ethics make me an anomaly on campus, in contemporary culture and even among many professing Christians.” Indeed, if he’s serious when he says he’s “not opposed to reading memoirs written by LGBTQ individuals,” then that would put him ahead of an awful lot of comfortable homophobes, professors and students alike. And he might actually be a hypocrite who objects to images of sexuality, in theory, but in practice mostly objects to, say, images of homosexuality. I don’t know. But I feel confident in saying that, either way, Brian Grasso is not “students.” He is one very particular and rather un-representative student, which is what most students are. And I suspect that the religious beliefs he brought with him to Duke will evolve over the next four years, because that’s what often happens. But outliers exist; his beliefs also might not evolve. And they don’t have to, and we can tolerate him. That’s kind of the point.

“The Sacred Mattress”

Fachada-de-la-casa_550
“The fortress-mansion has high walls built of ashblack-brown volcanic stone, the same stone cut into large bricks for the heavy, fortified-hacienda-style architecture inside, which included a massive watchtower with arched windows, topped by a crenellated mirador. To provide access during the fortress’s construction, El Indio had to carve out a new side street, which he named Dulce Olivia after the actress Olivia de Havilland, whom he had some kind of thing for. Three seemingly separate residences—did secret corridors or sliding bookcases connect them?—faced the main courtyard, which had a dry fountain in the middle. A broad stone staircase led back into the rest of the mansion, always permeated by the chill of cold stone, and filled with staircases and corridors and rooms and galleries and halls that had once held huge parties attended by Marilyn Monroe and other stars but that no longer seemed to serve any purpose. The whole place had the abandoned air of the ruined presidential palace where Gabriel García Márquez’s ancient monstrous dictator lives out his last days in Autumn of the Patriarch, stray cows chewing on the velvet curtains. The mansion-fort was a mess. There was always dog shit in those long empty corridors, at least that’s how I remember it. Our room was just off that main staircase. Formerly a guest room,” Adela told us when she showed us in. On its walls were colorful murals of wasp-waisted, long-legged nude woman bullfighters with luscious, pointy breasts, painted by a friend of El Indio, Alberto Vargas, who was famous for his illustrations of pinup “Vargas girls” featured in Esquire magazine, back before Playboy introduced its centerfold. Our horsehair-stuffed mattress was ancient, dingy, really disgusting-looking, but when I said that I would buy a new one, Adela declared that I certainly could not. “You don’t know the great men who’ve left their semen in that mattress,” she said. She then pointed to the big French windows and told us how as a girl she used to hide on the wide stone ledge outside and spy on her father’s famous friends and their lovers. She had seen many immortals fucking on what was now my and Tina’s bed. Anthony Quinn, André Breton, John Huston, Peckinpah, Agustín Lara—she rattled off a list of celebrities and artists, Mexican and foreign, who’d spent nights in that bed. That afternoon, Tina and I walked to the shopping center on the other side of Avenida Miguel Angel de Quevedo and bought a stiff plastic covering, the sort used for child bed-wetters, in which to enclose the sacred mattress.”
plastic mattress

from Francisco Goldman, The Interior Circuit

We Are All Gawker Now

Who the hell knows what is really happening at Gawker, and who the hell cares? Answer: Gawker and Gawker. Which is the interesting thing to me about all of this, the way a story about Gawker has, primarily, been reported on Gawker. And without Gawker leaking internal Gawker memos to Gawker, would we know what’s happening at Gawker? And would we care?

Probably not, and probably not. Which is to say, simply: this is how “the news” is made. Not “reported,” which would imply that it was already news before news-media decided it was, but “made”: news is news because the news says it is. This is why Nick Denton gets points for admitting that his litmus test for a story’s newsworthiness is whether it’s “interesting”: he is interesting in publishing stories, primarily, that he is interested in publishing, and this tautology is the thing itself. How do you know if a thing is newsworthy? Well, if it’s on the news, then it must be news. There can therefore be no question of ever taking down a post, once the editorial collective has decided to put it up, because publishing is a self-fulfilling prophecy: having declared it to be news, it becomes news. This must be what takes the place of “the public interest” for a media organization that does not derive its sense of journalistic ethics from that sense of its social constituency. Gawker is because Gawker is: the purest of pure media, speech as a good absent other considerations. It is Reddit, but so very much better at it.

It’s not surprising, then, that the Gawker “Brand Book” is as wondrously and perfectly vacuous as it is. Here, for example, are all the phrases containing the word “real”:

So what really happened? What we want is the real story. We reveal what’s really happening without restraint, inhibition, or ulterior motives. We tell the real story. What We Do: Get the real story. Media Brands: We tell the real story. We explain what’s really happening. Explain the intricacies of the real story to the people who need to hear them most. Media Platform: We help anyone find the real story. To create and discover the real stories that matter to them. Commitment to surfacing the real story. This is what we ask you to do when finding the real story. To push beyond the surface to reveal the real story and diverse perspectives.

The word “real” is the fetish object whose incantatory rhythm lulls us into blissful submission, into overlooking the fact that the question “What is Gawker for?” could never have an answer. If Gawker had a purpose, it wouldn’t be Gawker. Gawker is for Gawker, world without end, amen, and the end of all our gawking will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. Gawker is as Gawker does, and as it turns out, Gawker sure as hell does.

Short Story Day Africa: Interview with Rachel Zadok

terra-incognita-ssda_20141123

Short Story Day Africa is a wonderful initiative that was started by the South African novelist Rachel Zadok — author of Gem Squash, Tokoloshe and Sister-Sister – and in the three years of their existence, they’ve already managed to do excellent things. In the last two years, they’ve put out two of the best anthologies of new fiction I’ve read in some time (Feast, Famine & Potluck and Terra Incognita: New Short Speculative Stories from Africa) as well as a lovely looking anthology of young fiction by young people, Rapunzel is Dead, that I just purchased for $0.99 (and so can you). They’re fundraising for their third anthology Water – you can donate here and I anticipate it will be amazing. Did I mention that you can donate here? You can donate here.

I had a chance to meet Rachel a month ago in Kampala, and interviewed her over email yesterday. A very lightly edited transcript is below.

AB: As you told Bwesigye in March, Short Story Day Africa (SSDA) began with a focus on Southern Africa, “but then decided to expand because writers from the north wanted in.” Could you talk about how that happened? 

RZ: We’d always intended the project to develop organically, though how we thought that would happen turned out to be very different to the end result. I guess we didn’t expect the response to the project that it got. I think, when it started, writers on the continent were looking for somewhere to publish their work, work that didn’t necessarily have appeal to a Western publishing industry that pretty much wanted to tell the same stories the media was telling about Africa. Social media was just a couple of years old and it was either get published in the West, or you were pretty much voiceless. In the first year, we just published an extended circle of writers we knew and writers they knew on a website I’d thrown together. We were email based then. The second year we were inundated with requests from writers to send us their stories, and we started the Facebook page. By the third year, writers beyond Southern Africa were asking to be included, so we changed the name, made a new Facebook page and opened it up to any African writer.

The issue then was that the concept of celebrating the short story on the shortest day of the year no longer made any sense, because countries from the above the equator were participating, but we were kind of stuck with that.  21 June still remains the official day to SSDA celebrates short stories, but it always throws a bit of a conundrum at the team because it’s not really what we do anymore. What we do is: publish startling voices telling nuanced stories about Africa and assist them in developing their work. We profile writers and run mini-workshops online. We’re a support platform for African writers and publications featuring African writers.

I guess I mainly just know SSDA from the anthologies! Could you tell me more about the ways you function as a support platform outside of the work you publish?

We run a feature every Wednesday under the hashtag #WriterWednesday in which we interview an African writer and publish the interview on our website blog. Then, throughout the day, we publish links to their work, website etc etc on our social media sites.  So basically, our social media for the entire day, from the morning read to the final quote is by that writer.

We link back to the work other online journals are doing via our social media sites, so that they and the writers they publish get more attention. We also publish all their calls for submissions etc, on our social media sites.

On Facebook we run an event every two weeks called #WriterPrompt. It’s for writers to hone their skills and get writing advice. We provide a prompt and they write 200 word flash fiction stories. Everyone who writes is encouraged to comment on the other stories, and the writers edit and work on their skills as one would in any creative writing workshop. Tiah Beautement, a member of our team, runs the events and provides professional support – she’s a published writer but also has a lot of experience running workshops. It works as a mini-workshop, but also a way for writers to showcase their work. At the end of the event, we select one of the stories and run the story and an interview with the writer as the #WriterWednesday feature. It’s a way for emerging/unpublished writers to get a moment in the limelight.

Why do you feel like the South African literary scene has been so insulated from the rest of the continent? And is that changing?

There’s been a whole lot of upheaval in the SA literary scene of late, under headings ‘decolonising literature’ and #litapartheid, which refers to the white dominated publishing industry in South Africa. The weird thing is that, if you speak to South African writers on both sides of the race divide, both feel the other side has the better deal. White South African writers feel they stand very little chance of publication here or abroad, and that publishing houses favour black writers. Black writers feel that their work is of anthropological interest to white audiences, and that the structures of literary festivals and publishing houses capitalize on that.

Both are right to some extent, but I think the real issues are more complex. The readerships for local fiction are pitiful (read Tom Eaton’s scathing but very astute article about publishing in SA for more about that), books are incredibly expensive and everyone is looking at the wrong place to sell their work, i.e. the USA and Europe. No one is looking to the rest of Africa for markets. At least in the offices of the publishing houses, there seems to be this belief that beyond South Africa is a dark continent of illiterate hut dwellers. I asked my publisher to send my last novel to other publishers in other African countries, like Cassava Republic for example, but was told it was pointless, that there was no market.

It’s a total fallacy. But no one here is talking about the vibrant and growing publishing industry on the continent. It’s like shouting into a gale force wind of dissent if you bring it up. I did during a panel at the Franschhoek Literary Festival earlier this year and had people up in arms.

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Why were people up in arms?

I’m not really sure why it hit such a nerve. I basically said that writers in South Africa needed to look to Africa as an alternative market, and not keep trying to publish in markets that had little interest in the stories we had to tell, unless they fit into a certain paradigm, and that writers moving off the continent ended up writing about the experience of being African in the diaspora, and that we were limiting the African story by only looking to the west for publication. One publisher said that if Africans were really interested in reading our novels they could buy them off Amazon, and another woman wanted to know why I thought the immigrant experience wasn’t a valid one, which I hadn’t actually said. I don’t think writers here are ready to admit that they’re not going to find an audience in Europe and the USA necessarily.

Why did you decide that the second anthology would be a speculative fiction anthology?

A very practical reason. All the submissions for the first anthology, Feast, Famine & Potluck, were literary fiction. When I asked why no genre writers had submitted work, they said they viewed SSDA as a project for literary writers. We didn’t want that. So we sent out a call for speculative fiction (including every genre under that umbrella, and literary fiction) and placed it the theme of exploring unchartered territory, Terra Incognita.

Since you write speculative fiction, I’d love to hear your thoughts on what seems to me to be a real boom in African writers writing in this category, these days.

I actually write what is considered by publishers to be literary fiction with speculative elements, and by other speculative fiction writers to be spec fic. I don’t know why there needs to be these categories. I find it confusing, unhelpful and divisive to label work in terms that either isolates the readers or makes writers feel insecure about their work. I choose to read work that appeals to me stylistically and has a subject matter I’m interested in. I don’t care if it’s spec fic, historical fiction or literary fiction. Besides which, all fiction is speculative.

I think it would be easy to box the appeal of spec fic for African writers, but I doubt the answer of why is so simple. Maybe and it’s because it lends itself to being able to discuss issues without the risk of landing up in hot water? Maybe, for some writers, it fits the story they’re working on? Maybe it’s just one of those things that becomes popular via osmosis? I think we have to be careful of looking at African spec fic and trying to pin some sort of anthropological reason onto its existence.

What does SSDA bring to the literary landscape that wouldn’t otherwise be there?

An openness to all kinds of stories that you wouldn’t traditionally find in one anthology. We have a reading process that choses readers from a wide range of cultures, and every story is read by three readers who score it. A story that appeals to a reader in Uganda and Botswana sometimes scores low with a reader in South Africa, for example. In a way, the stories are curated by an African readership rather than a single entity. Those stories are then edited by two editors who work closely with the writers over three months to develop the story but also the skills of writer without every imposing voice. It’s intense and it can be trying, but it’s a beautiful thing.

I love the fact that you don’t simply select short stories, but that you work to develop the stories you’ve accepted. [say more about that process? Perhaps a good example/anecdote?]

It’s difficult to give an anecdote without naming the story, but I’ll try. One story scored two 10s (10 out of 10 – yes, it’s like ice-skating our scoring system) from a reader in Botswana and a reader in Nigeria., and 2 from the South African reader. I read the story and found it challenging – honestly I just couldn’t see what they had loved so much to score two perfect 10s – but because it has scored so highly from two of the readers who come from a different narrative sensibility – perhaps a traditional way of telling stories that is lacking my personal history – we went ahead and included it. We then realised that the story needed to be read out loud to be truly appreciated. It’s a beautiful piece of prose poetry that I’ve come to appreciate, but when I first saw it I didn’t get it. If it had been just me curating the anthology, that voice would not have been heard.

feast-famine-potluck_ssda_20141123

Why have you focused specifically on the short story? I ask partly because of the strange way the Caine prize (AKA the “African Booker”) is a prize for short stories, and because it seems like that’s where so much of the action is, these days.

Honestly, there are only three of us in the SSDA team!

Jokes aside, I don’t know why the ‘African Booker’ focused on the short story. A lot of people feel the reason was an insulting one, but I also think perhaps the short story in Africa is like the short story in the USA. People love them. We love to write them and we love to read them. In the UK, short stories are not popular, nor do they sell very well in South Africa. I think the literary scene is just a vibrant and growing one where many forms of literature are appreciated still. Also, people are publishing on the internet quite a lot now, and that lends itself better to short stories than novels.

How is SSDA funded? The anthologies are gorgeous and very high quality. But I’m assuming that sales don’t cover the operating costs? 

Well thank you. We do make an effort. Funds come from a variety of sources. Worldreader gives us seed funding every year and that covers the cost of the editing. But he majority comes from crowdfunding. We pre-sell the anthologies before we’ve even selected the stories, and we sell sponsorships.

We’ve been very lucky because the project was designed around the idea of community, as in an African writing and reading community both on the continent and beyond, and people have responded to that. There’s a sense of ownership, that it belongs to the community. So people give in kind as well as cash. Last year Fox & Raven, a small indie publisher, e-formatted the books for us. This year, Electric Book Works is formatting the ebooks.

We still need to raise money to pay the team and the writers, as well as our admin costs, hence the crowdfunding. If you go to the donate page on our website, all the ways people can fund us are listed. http://shortstorydayafrica.org/donate/

rapunzel-is-dead

Inside Out, Namwali Serpell’s “The Sack”

Möbius_strip

Namwali Serpell’s “The Sack” stands on its own, if it must. When I discussed the story with a classroom full of undergraduates—as part of my “Global Contemporary Short Story” class—I think they found it both rewarding and challenging, which is a nice way of saying it was frustrating, but that there can be something nice about being frustrated. There is a certain formal unity to the story, in that the beginning feels like a beginning and the ending feels like an ending—leaving the middle free to feel like itself—and yet, at the same time, that narrative arc does anything but resolve. It ends up where it began, yet inverted, like running your hand along a Möbius strip until you reach the same point (but underneath) and there’s nothing to do but keep going until you get back to the beginning. If you began in the sack, you end up on the outside, or vice versa: if once you saw from the outside, now you see from the inside. But in the very neat and precise machinery of the story’s narrative completion, it un-resolves itself, taking you back to the beginning… only now, you’re inside out, upside down, looking out from looking in. If you turn a sack inside out, you’ll find yourself holding, again, a sack.

Serpell is the rare writer whose earliest fiction is already preceded by a formidable work of literary criticism, the book she published last year called Seven Modes of Uncertainty, but which has been in different stages of preparation for over a decade (it began as the PhD dissertation, she completed in 2008, though the project has grown and evolved quite a bit since then). I found it helpful to read. This is not always the case; many critics make terrible fiction writers, and many fiction writers make the worst critics. In her introduction, in fact, Serpell discusses a broadcasted conversation between Lionel Trilling and Vladimir Nabokov—respectively playing Critic and Author from central casting—and though Trilling was an author and Nabokov was, also, a critic, their conversation produced a symmetrical conflict between the outsider looking in to the work of art and the insider looking out. They saw anything but eye to eye. Or at least they did, in that moment, in that conversation in 1958. Who knows what Nabokov thought of his novel when he wasn’t performing Author? Or what Trilling thought of his own writing, when he was?

Among other things, the point was that critics and writers do not and cannot read the same way, but it’s fine that they don’t, and maybe even necessary that they stay at arm’s length. Perhaps what a critic can say is dependent on what a writer can say, but which the critic cannot, and vice versa? In any case, while Namwali Serpell is one person, her fiction writing and her critical writing are at most and at least adjacent to each other. In the reading below, she describes this adjacency as a conversation which she isn’t party to, like Jekyll scribbling marginalia in Hyde’s books, and said that she makes a point of alternating between academic and creative writing, with as little overlap as possible. There’s something about that suspension that feels exactly right, and I find myself—again—going back to the image of the Möbius strip, the way critical brain and creative brain are on opposite sides of the same single-sided strip.

How should we read “The Sack”?  It’s a story that is susceptible to being read as an allegory of reading, if one is so inclined to read it that way: as Lily Kroll observes, the story “calls into question the privilege of readers’ insight” by letting us follow a path that takes us back to where we started. Like so many stories, the opening tempts us to search for meaning, to pick up the pieces, to look for clues, and to discern connections. Who are these people? What is their history together? What is the story behind this story? But if we struggle to see in the story what it is initially hidden—to look in the sack to find what’s inside—we’ll find, looking inside, that we end up inside the sack, ourselves, peering out. What is inside a skin? Which is the inside, which the mask?

It seems likely that one of the two J’s of the story is a white man, for example, and the other a black man. Their names are Jacob and Joseph—there is a third, Naila, the woman who gives their mimetic triangle its second dimension, and a boy who may or may not be a function of a coupling—but the narrative withholds the knowledge of which J is “J” and which J is “the old man.” In the absence of Naila, it doesn’t seem to matter; a two-dimensional triangle reverts to a one dimensional form. By the same token, if one of them is white and one is black—if the old man means something when he says, of J, that “I know what the colour of my skin means to someone of our generation”—it’s hard to find where this withheld fact impacts the narrative, or what recovering it does for our reading of the story. What does it matter? What would it help us to know about their relationship? For a relationship apparently constituted by the phenomenology of race, race turns out to be one-sided, with nothing underneath. In being a story all about race, it finds that race is nothing to be about, all surface, no depth. Like a sack, perhaps? But a sack doesn’t need to be deep to contain oblivion.

If “The Sack” is about reading—if “reading” is what’s inside the sack—then it’s a sack whose outside contains everything else in the world: call the outside of a sack “the inside,” and suddenly it contains the whole world, bounded in nutshell, troubled only by bad dreams. If it’s about race, then it’s about how we struggle to look beneath surfaces that reveal nothing more than new surfaces. As we oscillate between white and black, between J and J, the inadequacy of the only thing we have becomes ever more perilously obvious. And if the story is about gender—and this, too, is what it’s primarily about—then it’s about the inevitable flattening of masculinity into violence when men are deprived of an other to be masculine against, the narcissism of the subject which men use women to blunt and muffle. Or perhaps it’s about something else entirely? Perhaps it definitely is.

I found these things when I looked in this sack, in part, because I dreamed about them and then they came to life. You might dream something different, and find it. You might have no choice but to do so, because you have to choose. As Serpell observes in Seven Modes of Uncertainty, this is where reading cannot escape the problem of ethics: literature produces free choice because the reader must decide what something means,and yet it’s a free choice which the text forces on us. That’s an uncomfortable place to find yourself, as reader, to be forced to take responsibility for what you chose to put in the sack. Passivity can be an alibi for readers who prefer to keep their hands clean, to let the author carry the burden. But what if, instead of playing detective, soothsayer, code-breaker, psychoanalyst—instead of being readers who follow the trail of breadcrumbs as mindlessly as ants—what if we are projecting our dreams forward as we read, living out what we imagined into existence? One retreat from that paradox—that freedom which becomes mandatory  as you slide your hand along the Möbius strip and inside turns seamlessly into outside—is to take refuge inside the withheld narrative object, the un-said, to disown responsibility for the dream by finding it in the sack, suspending it there, burying it there, waiting for it there. It’s not in me, you might say, it’s in the sack. But if there is one thing “The Sack” does, it turns out, it’s to insist on turning that sack inside out.