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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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Spoiler, Serial


Spoiler: at the beginning of the last episode of Serial, Sarah Koenig tells us that she’s going to have an ending. But she doesn’t. She also tells us that she’s going to give us her opinion, but she doesn’t really do that either. She says what she would do if she was on a jury — she would vote to acquit — but that’s not an opinion, that’s a refusal of certainty. In the end, she doesn’t uncover and show us the truth of what really happened, and she knows it, and says so. Which is to say, she is still basically where she was at the beginning of the series: Adnan could be innocent but maybe he isn’t. This is where we started. By the end, we have a lot more facts and information, as the story gets piled on top of itself, week after week, but all of it adds up to… a story about Sarah Koenig doing a journalism, which ends.





This is probably how Serial was going to have to end. Because it isn’t a mystery novel. A mystery novel begins with a disruption and ends with resolution: a corpse becomes a murderer, and justice is done as disorder becomes order. How on earth could Serial end that way? And we knew from the start that the ending wasn’t already written; we knew from the start that she was still researching it, still working towards a conclusion. She could have continued, almost indefinitely; I fact, there’s something interesting in the fact that she didn’t. She decided that this was enough. And so the thing ended.


Spoiler: I wrote the following few paragraphs before I listened to the last episode of Serial, and though I’ve listened to the whole series (I think), I haven’t worked very hard at it. I don’t really remember whether or not the cell phone tower thing is damning or not, and I’m not sure why the Nisha call is evidence of anything, or what.


Spoiler: this blog post goes nowhere in particular.








The American criminal justice system is a marvelously creative fiction. It is like a detective novel, because it reveals the killer at the end, letting everything else fall away. There are facts that turn out to be clues, elements of the truth, the building blocks for constructing a “Case.” Retroactively, they become important because of who turns out to be the killed. Everything else, retroactively, turns out to have been a distraction, a blind, just camouflage. That which convicts, matters. That which does not, does not. This is why you should never talk to police: nothing that can’t convict you will ever turn out to be true. Never talk to the police.










Police lie, constantly. Perhaps not everything the police say is a lie, but at a certain point, it stops mattering: an occasional truth cannot survive buried in lies. As former San Francisco Police commissioner Peter Keane wrote, a few years ago:

“Police officer perjury in court to justify illegal dope searches is commonplace. One of the dirty little not-so-secret secrets of the criminal justice system is undercover narcotics officers intentionally lying under oath. It is a perversion of the American justice system that strikes directly at the rule of law. Yet it is the routine way of doing business in courtrooms everywhere in America.”

As Michelle Alexander more recently observed, the system of mass incarceration rewards dishonesty. In this way, human beings become cops:

 Research shows that ordinary human beings lie a lot — multiple times a day — even when there’s no clear benefit to lying. Generally, humans lie about relatively minor things like “I lost your phone number; that’s why I didn’t call” or “No, really, you don’t look fat.” But humans can also be persuaded to lie about far more important matters, especially if the lie will enhance or protect their reputation or standing in a group. The natural tendency to lie makes quota systems and financial incentives that reward the police for the sheer numbers of people stopped, frisked or arrested especially dangerous. One lie can destroy a life, resulting in the loss of employment, a prison term and relegation to permanent second-class status.

We all lie. But when a person lies who happens to be endowed with a badge, a gun, a phallus, and/or a prison-industrial complex, human beings have a way of turning into one of two things: cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, black and white, masters and slaves, humans and animals. These binaries sometimes line up and sometimes they don’t. But they have in common a single unifying thread, the distinction between those who have the power to tell a lie and make it true, and those whose rights a cop is not bound to respect.






















You cannot shame a novel for being fiction: it knows that it is not true, and it doesn’t care. All it wants is your belief. The same is true of the police. They don’t care why you do anything; they only want obedience. They only want respect. They only want order, and to give order. Like a novel, the criminal justice system is realistic without bearing any necessary relationship to reality; it is truthy without needing to be true. If its stories might be true, and if they are obeyed, that’s enough. They have plausible assertability, warranting the belief of those who want to believe. And we suspend our disbelief when we read, because we must; if we don’t, it falls apart, and we want the center to hold. It is the only thing “we” can want: if we don’t suspend our disbelieve, who even are “we”? We would cease to exist.




Cynicism tells us not to expect truth. A properly cynical view of the police would say, look, the police lie constantly, the court system is a clusterfuck at best, and the prison-industrial complex is a predatory, cannibalistic, and corporatist system of neo-slavery. The police might occasionally intervene in positive ways, the courts might occasionally give something resembling justice, and some of the people in jail might genuinely be homicidal psychopaths whose freedom would be a ticking time-bomb. These things might be true, but as exceptions to a more general rule: any resemblance to real justice is more coincidental than not. Especially after Ferguson made it impossible to ignore, such cynicism is surely warranted: the burden of proof is and must be on anyone who wants to insist that the criminal justice system is anything of the kind.




































Especially after Ferguson, Sarah Koenig’s belief in the possibility of criminal justice can be particularly hard to stomach. She wants to find the truth. But what is truth? One of the hardest parts of the show to swallow is the fact that the truth really doesn’t matter any more. It doesn’t matter if Asia suddenly pops up and declares that she has an alibi for Adnan; that boat has sailed. It doesn’t matter if Sarah Koenig puts together a breathtakingly perfect summation of the closing argument that the defense attorney should have given. There is no such thing as substantive justice for Adnan anymore: there is only the procedural reality of prison. He has been convicted, in the present perfect tense. He is guilty, no matter what did or did not happen in the past. His guilt is now a fact. To un-fact it would require proving procedural failures, delegitimizing the system as such. His presumption of innocence is long gone.





For all the ways in which Serial is and isn’t what it should be, or what we want it to be, maybe it demonstrates the fictionality of criminal justice, by believing it to death. Sarah Koenig’s belief is very white, as lots of commentators have observed or complained; she has a kind of naivete about how the system works—a naive expectation that it does work—that rubs a lot of people the wrong way, especially as she observes that it doesn’t. She expects a good faith search for the truth on the part of the criminal justice system, and repeatedly finds nothing of the kind. And then she looks for it again. She suspends her disbelief, all the more when—at the end of the show—she puts things in the hands of the Innocence Project and the Reddit detectives. Let them sort it out. Let them continue. Let them keep going with it. She had a radio franchise to continue, a season two to plan.








Serial decided when it would end, so it could continue.

The body must be protected, not the thoughts.

I’ve been thinking about Maaza Mengiste’s piece on Ferguson, “From a Shrinking Place,” because her demand that the body is not a metaphor, that it’s not “the body,” brings me up short. It’s not the body. It’s that body. And that body comes first.


I can’t stop thinking about it, because the inadequacy of thinking is the place where it takes me, and I feel that place shrinking around me as well. She demands of us that the ethical demands of the body must interrupt the normal course of intellectual work. It has to come first. But she’s not talking about “the body” in the abstract. She’s talking about that body. And any body can be that body, and will be, when it’s yours. The 43 students whose bodies were burned at a landfill, placed inside plastic bags, and thrown into a river. Each of those bodies is not a metaphor.

As Maaza writes “I thought it was possible to live in the world of metaphors and literature, to eschew the physical trappings of the body.” But she is brought up short by Hassan Blasim’s words, as I am brought up short by hers: ““The body must be protected, not the thoughts.” And so she reminds us: “When we lose a body, we lose everything.”

The body has to come first, and “the body” is not a metaphor. It doesn’t have the luxury of being a metaphor. It’s a real body, bleeding to death on the pavement, for four and a half hours. It’s his body.

I’m thinking about this because to be scholarly, “impartial,” to have a “conversation” in the midst of violence, is to continue the violation, to normalize it, to take it away from him. To intellectualize “Ferguson,” without starting by protecting the body, first, last, and overall, is an abdication of our humanity.  You don’t have an intellectual conversation when the body is not a metaphor. The body must be protected. The body is still warm, still lying ignored on the pavement like a piece of meat. The killer is still waving at the camera. The hands are still up. The blood is still flowing. The body must be protected, not the thoughts. The body must be protected, not the thoughts. The body must be protected, not the thoughts.

Some observations on Taiye Selasi’s “Driver”


It may surprise you to learn that Taiye Selasi’s short story, “Driver,” absolutely seethes with class antagonism. It does so very quietly. “I am the full-time driver here,” is the first line of the story; “I am not going to kill my employers” is the second. Instead, the protagonist—Webster, a formerly college-bound young man whose ambitions were halted by his father’s illness, and who has become a driver for a wealthy Ghanaian family—writes “I will make just a few observations.”

This is all he will do. He will not kill them. He will merely see them.

He does not burn down his employers’ house, for example, but he does make some heated observations: the madam’s flowers are, she tells him, the “toast of all of Ghana”; some of us, he responds, do not have bread. But he doesn’t say it; he only imagines saying it to her. It’s the kind of bitter play on words that a frustrated mind would knot itself up with, but it’s a signifying that he doesn’t dare speak out loud. He doesn’t dare burn down their house, though he kind of wants to; instead, he ruminates on how the pots of flowers “burst into flames” as they “pretty” the walls of the compound. How beautiful their house would look in flames, he doesn’t say. The story does not turn into Faulkner’s “Barn Burning.” He does not attempt to reclaim his masculinity with violent action. He is passive. He observes.

It took a second reading before I noticed how intensely freighted the protagonist’s words are, in fact, how tightly wound his consciousness is. The antagonism is there, but the double meanings are also not quite meant to be heard; they might even be unconscious to him. His observations to us are as guarded as his words to his employers, his thoughts couched and hidden; he is surprised, at one point, to find himself crying. Nothing in what he has said, up until that point, explains why he has tears in his eyes. Which is another way of saying that he does not speak: he’s not telling any stories about what he sees, as the second meaning of “observations” indicates. He observes, passively, but he does not—except to us, and we must still draw it out of him—say what he has seen. He remains silent. He sees but is not heard.

He certainly doesn’t speak back to his employers, for instance. His great fear is that his employers will see him seeing them, and fire him for his observation, so he is scrupulously dumb, mute. His father is sick with cancer, his family needs the money from the job, and he particularly likes this particular job because it allows him time to read, to continue his studies, as he puts it. So he does what he needs to do to keep it. He keeps his mouth shut.

Instead of observing what he sees, then, he says what he is supposed to say to keep his job, which is, mostly, nothing. Like his father—“a smiley man…a dimpled, deferential, diminutive man”—he plays the part well. He says “yes, ma’am” and “yes, sir,” as little as he can get away with. But unlike his father, he knows the mask he’s wearing. His father believed. The son does not. His father thought that hard work and subservience would pay off; his son has seen that it does not, but he makes the best of it.

This, at least, is how the story is set up at the start. Our protagonist wears the mask, plays the role he has been hired to play. He follows the rules. He does what he is told, and he keeps his mouth shut. He is defensively cynical, making a protective shell out of a mute exterior. But the persistent difficulty of servile life is that his employers do not keep their end of the bargain, and do not have to. Employment is not a contract; employment is a form of subjection.

For one thing, his father’s boss does not take care of his sick servant’s family, as the father had expected, as the implied contract of their relationship does not turn out to enforce. Instead of acting as a benevolent patron, the boos simply offers a job as driver to the son (“offers”). If anything, the father’s sickness is an opportunity for his boss: another driver becomes available, and his sister needs a driver (for reasons which later become apparent).

Another example, is the employer who pretends the situation is something other than what it is, who pretends they are equals, friends, when they are not. The boss’s stepdaughter tells him he can call her “Bianca,” for example, but there is no choice implied by the word “can”; when he chooses to call her “ma’am,” she corrects him, compelling him to choose correctly. She tells him that she knows how he feels—implicitly compelling him to “feel” that way—and forces a range of intimacies on him: she takes him to coffee, sits in the front seat of the car, and touches him frequently. He wants none of it; the last thing he wants from a employer is the pretense of sympathy. The last thing he wants is to be touched. The last thing he wants is intimacy with his employer.

The protagonist’s masculinity makes it easier to overlook the undercurrent of aggressive seduction that threads through the entire story, but it is there. Were the protagonist a woman, it would be easier to see his employers harassing him, forcing intimacies upon him that he spends the story trying to evade, but which he cannot avoid. We’d recognize this story in an instant if it were a frustrated male employer seducing his female servant, forcing her to choose to be seduced; Samuel Richardson wrote Pamela in 1740, and it’s been written a time or two since. But though it’s less clear that we are seeing a version of that story, we are: his mistress is frustrated with her husband’s infidelity, and she eventually forces the protagonist to choose to be seduced.

It begins when he walks past his mistress’s bathroom window and accidentally sees her naked. He is doubled over with panic that he will be fired for “peeping”; he hides, and literally weeps with fear. “Peeping” is a firing offense. But like most forms of policing, what seems like a contract—don’t do the crime, don’t do the time—is actually a power relationship masked by the illusion of choice. He sees her naked, but not because he “peeped”; it is her who left the window “undressed,” projecting her naked body out of the room where she bathes, onto the eyes of the unsuspecting Webster, who had no intention of seeing her. He didn’t actively look; he was just walking by, and was, passively, made to “peep.” But the moment he does, he is in her power.

The story ends when, fifteen minutes later, she walks out into the garden, where he is frozen, speechless, paralyzed. She tells him what he has feared: she saw him seeing her. She tells him he can keep a secret. Finally, she tells him that she will help his father if he has sex with her and, without using words, that she will fire him—like the last driver—if he will not. Here the story ends. She takes him in her arms; he reciprocates, and a curtain of modesty falls over the proceedings.

If she had used violence, it would be possible to call this “rape.” But he does not say no, does not resist, is not forced. He reciprocates, as he has no choice but to do. Which is the point. Because she allows economics to do the work for her, there is no word for his violation. We cannot say he was raped, because he chose, even if it wasn’t the choice he would have chosen, even if we see him weeping with fear and frustration, even if she catches him like a spider catches a fly. Of course, she needn’t be the spider in her own mind; she didn’t force him, after all, and maybe he really does want it? He doesn’t say no, after all, and she’s doing him a favor. She can think all of these things, plausible. And he says nothing to contradict her.

This, then, is the movement of the story: from an impulse to violent action to words, and from words—from actually speaking—to merely seeing, silent acquiescence. The silence of seeing and knowing what one does not dare to say. And the violation without violence of economic force. With no power to say no, silence is subjection.

(NOT) Five African novels to read before you die


University of Leeds professor Brendon Nicholls made a list of the “Five African Novels to Read Before You Die” yesterday, and it’s a fine list, if your best-case scenario is that literate first-world types manage to read a handful of creative works from Africa in their lifetime. And let’s be real, most Westerners are not even going to do that. So his list is fine, albeit extremely predictable: Achebe and Ngugi, of course, and let’s add Ayi Kwei Armah’s most canonical novel—because we need more than one West African male novelist from the 60’s—and, hmm, oh, shoot, we need some women, so, okay, Tsitsi Dangerembga, obviously, and Bessie Head, I guess. But not the really hard Bessie Head novel, let’s try the one that won’t confuse people. DONE.

I’m giving Nicholls some good-natured sass, here (sorry dude), because, as someone who studies, reads, and teaches contemporary African literature, I’m just very bored with this list, which is a fine list, but it’s a bit, I do’t know, “Five White Writers You Should Read Before You Die: Shakespeare, Milton, Dostoyevsky, Austen, Woolf.”  Does the world need another suggestion that you read Things Fall Apart? It’s a great novel, but everybody knows that, or if they don’t, there’s no hope for them anyway. Therefore:

  • Henceforth, it is implied.
  • Violators will be tweeted at, grumpily.


Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, I want to scratch another itch that this list brought to life: why don’t people who work on contemporary African literature actually seem to read or work on contemporary African literature? The ones Nicholls listed are important novels, and you should read them, if you’re into that whole “being a better person by reading things” thing (though you should read Arrow of God instead of Things Fall Apart, and if you want “post-independence existentialist malaise,” maybe read Yambo Ouologuem’s Bound to Violence, and for Christ’s sake, read A Question of Power, not Maru. Oh, and read Yvonne Vera’s Butterfly Burning instead of Nervous Conditions). But four of these authors were born in the 1930’s, and although Tsitsi Dangarembga was born in the 1950’s, Nervous Conditions was published 28 years ago. This is canonical, important stuff. But it’s old.

It’s only relatively recently that “Contemporary African Literature” has come to mean a different set of writers than “African Literature.” This is because, before Chinua Achebe and the rest of the born-in-the-1930’s writers, “literature” was not one of the forms of creative expression that most of the continent practiced, for all sorts of historically obvious and intuitive reasons ot worth going into right now. In the 50’s and 60’s, this changed: a generation of writers, educated in missionary or colonial schools, began writing books that could be called “literature,” and thus, “African literature” was born. A few years later, literary critics realized that there was such a thing as African women writers, and so they re-discovered people like Bessie Head and also new writers like Tsitsi Dengerembga. This, basically, was African literature in the 1990’s: a core of West African male Anglophone novelists, plus Ngugi, plus some women, preferably from southern Africa, because we almost forgot about southern Africa. (and um, not Nadine Gordimer, though, because, you know).

Moving On. As we peer forward towards 2015, the literatures of the Africas are much more interesting than those five books and the canon-making principles they index. The old canons have become a critical crutch: Nicholls’ list is a good place to start if you want to appreciate what has been going on for the last decade; anyone worth reading will probably have read at least most of these people, and if they haven’t, the people they have read probably will have. Those writers are really helpful for appreciating what African writers are doing right now, and there’s no getting away from that. They’re also great writers.

However. If you want to really understand what Gabriel García Márquez is doing, you should probably read William Faulkner, like García Márquez did. And Faulkner is not a bad writer; you should check him out. But Faulkner is not a prerequisite for García Márquez. By the same token, the born-in-the-1930’s generation is not a prerequisite for reading what has been written in the last decade, or even the last three decades. It helps, of course; the born-in-the-1930’s generation had a lot of things in common, and so did the things they wrote about. And this meant two things: first, for a long time, as long as those writers were at the center of the literature, “African literature” could seem (even for people who weren’t wildly racist and stupid) like a singular thing, a category whose center more or less held; second, it meant that all the writers who came after them tended to contend with their predecessors, measuring themselves by the example of those who came before. Achebe, et al, set the mold, which was what allowed everyone else to come along and try to break it.

For this reason, Nicholls’ list is a perfectly good place to start, as long as you don’t want to read anything written in the last three decades. If you do want to read things that were written in the last thirty years, however—maybe, for example, because you want to read things that were written in your lifetime, and you were born, say, in 1979, like me—you are in luck! I have a list for you.

My criteria: not Brendan Nicholls’ list. And Kenya is overrepresented, because it’s my list, make your own.

That’s it. This is just a fun little exercise—at best, an attempt at a counter-intuitive set of suggestions that might even help you find a book you like—and I’m not going to pretend that there’s any kind of canon-making ambition here. But I’m going to use his list as a platform for a different list, so let me track changes here:


1. Yvonne Owuor’s Dust (2014). Everything changed when she wrote this book. It’s glorious and great, and brave and beautiful, and as you’re reading it, flip back and re-read the prologue, which is the poetry that the rest of the book works to explicate. Also, remember that it’s the story of an artist holding a paintbrush like a stabbing knife. This book is doing work. (alternate: Binyavanga Wainaina’s One Day I Will Write About This Place, which is pretty much all of those things too).

2. Shailja Patel’s Migritude (2010). This book is as beautiful as its cover, and I’ve learned almost as much from her writing as I’ve learned from her example. So brave and strong that you almost don’t notice the melding of an acute artistic sensitivity with painful self-reflection. So worldly that you almost don’t notice how rooted she is. So political that you almost don’t notice that she writes about love, always. (alternate: Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go, which is a lot more of those things than the “I’m not an Afropolitan” people seem willing to notice).

3. Alain Mabanckou’s Blue-White-Red (1998, 2013), African Psycho (2003/2007), Broken Glass (2005/2009), Memoirs of a Porcupine (2007/2011), Black Bazaar (2009/2102), Tomorrow I’ll be Twenty (2010/2013). Did you know that there is such a thing as African literature written in French? Neither did I! But Alain Mabanckou turns out to exist, and he’s a completely amazing and interesting and delightful writer, and as you can see from the dates above (original publications/translations), his English translators are slowly catching up with him. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because he’s funny and playful that he’s not deadly serious, and cruel. (alternate Francophone writer that is finally getting most of his stuff translated in the states: Abdourahman Waberi).

3.5. Oh, and what the heck, here’s a bunch of other novels written recently-ish by Africans, in French, that have been translated into English:

  • Ken Bugul’s The Abandoned Baobab: The Autobiography of a Senegalese Woman (1982/1991)
  • Gaston-Paul Effa’s All That Blue (1996/2007)
  • Fatou Diome’s The Belly of the Atlantic (2003/2006)
  • Gabriel Mwene Okoundji’s The Wounded Soul of a Black elephant & A Prayer to the Ancestors (2002,2008/2010)
  • Léonora Miano’s Dark Heart of the Night (2005/2010)
  • Edem Awumey’s Dirty Feet  (2009/2011)
  • Kossi Efoui’s The Shadow of Things to Come (2011/2013)
  • Scholastique Mukasonga’s Our Lady of the Nile (2012/2014)


For most of these writers, this is the only book which has been translated in English, so for crying out loud, at least you could read that one book, you gauche provincial. (Alternate Europhone language whose African writers are finally getting translated into English: Portuguese. Look for names like Mia Couto, Pepetela, and Ondjaki.)

4. Hisham Matar’s In the Country of Men (2006) and Anatomy of a Disappearance (2011). Variations on a theme. Haunting, lovely, and wonderfully perceptive about masculinity and power, and his prose is crystal sharp. (Alternate Libyan novels: Ahmed Fagih’s Maps of the Soul, which is 618 pages and comprises the first three books (Bread of the City, Sinful Pleasures and Naked Runs the Soul) of his twelve novel epic, already published in Arabic.) (alternate African literary language that I can’t even begin to: Arabic. SO MANY BOOKS IN ARABIC.) (also, the Maghreb, what about them…) (what about the islands, do those count) (Africa is big)

5. Africa39: New Writing from Africa south of the Sahara. These are not at all the only interesting writers under the age of 39, but it’s a damned good anthology and a damned good list of writers. Most anthologies are not nearly this full of interesting surprises, and the level of quality is a lot higher than I had even hoped. And it’s 39 writers, from all over the place south of the Sahara, which is a lot of people and places. If you’re going to make an impossible list, it’s a good backstop to keep everything from sliding out of control (alternate: all the other books ever written by African people (alternate alternate: literature in non-European languages, let me know what you find).



Protests Flare After Ferguson Decision Fury Boils From Plains to Both Coasts Protests erupt in Ferguson Ferguson burning after grand jury announcement Ferguson Decision Sparks Violence Fires, looting erupt after police officer is not indicted Burning Rage Fires burn in Ferguson, gunshots heard in streets Smoldering City. Ferguson in flames: Officer cleared in teen’s shooting death No Indictment: Ferguson inflamed Ferguson Burning Violence flares after grand jury forgoes any charge against officer in Michael Brown shooting Fires, violence and looting in Ferguson after grand jury decision Ferguson erupts: Officer Darren Wilson cleared in Michael Brown shooting death Chaos returns to streets of Ferguson after police officer goes unindicted “Burn This Shit Down” Mayhem and Protests Engulf Ferguson With no indictment, chaos fills streets in Ferguson, Mo.

These are all headlines from major newspapers and news organizations based in the United States. Most of them are illustrated with a picture of something burning.

This is not the only story being told right now, but it is one of the dominant ones. It is a simple story, so simple we can all hear it, and know it, without having to hear it explicitly said.

The story is this: the police are protecting you, and your property, from people who want to burn it all down. The people that want Darren Wilson to be put on trial are the people that want to destroy your property. They are filled with rage. Only the police stand between them and your property. Your property is in danger. The police will protect your property from people that want to burn it. The fire wants to burn your property. Only the police can protect you. Only the police can protect you. Only the police can protect you from the fire that erupts, inflamed.