Thursday, November 30, 2006

does poetry come back?

When I was applying to graduate schools I dreamed that my beloved poetry professor from college told me that she thought I should not go to do a PhD—that I had so much more promise as a writer. The dream haunted me. I wondered if it were true—if that was really what she thought as she wrote me all those recommendation letters. The thought that she might be thinking that made me angry and sad and fearful. I wanted to prove that I could be an academic—that I could be a scholar. But, at the same time, I felt a wistful regret—that I had somehow left poetry behind for a more predictable career path.

I had been one of only a few recent college graduates chosen for the Bucknell Younger Poets programme. We wandered about the lush Bucknell campus in June and read novels and books of poetry and went to writing workshops and strung our clothes up on a clothesline hung between two stair railings outside a dorm. We holed up in our little rooms, where we were supposed to be writing. I spent a lot of time watching a spider re-string a web between the edges of my open window. My initial impulse had been to knock it aside. Instead, I left it there, and watched the spider spin her intricate designs. Day after day, she would suck up the old strands to weave a new pattern—to mend torn bits wafting in the breeze. She was constantly creating, constantly revising.

I did not write much poetry that month. Instead I rested from four years of college. I nursed a recently broken heart. I gossiped with the other young poets and took photographs of us, young barefoot bohemians sprawled out on benches, scrawling words in hardback notebooks. As a recent graduate of a Christian college, I realized for the first time what it felt like to be among people who thought Christians were quaint. I looked for jobs in New York on the internet, and worked on my resume. I drank wine and ate cheese at the occasional parties at poetry professor’s houses. I tortuously pushed out a few un-noteworthy poems, and felt stupid when I shared them in the workshops.

It was a beautiful month. I liked all the poets. I realized I didn’t like poetry all that much. Other people’s poetry bored me. My own poems left me dissatisfied. I wrote poems that were stories, concrete images with solid and grammatical sentence structures. I wondered if maybe I shouldn’t try to start working more on short stories—rather than poems. Maybe I had become a poet by default.

I moved to New York and I read through great-book lists, borrowing books from the library. I filled hardback notebook after hardback notebook with subway musings. A few poems. But mostly just observations on the train, thoughts about my dying grandfather, daydreams, sketches, memories, the conversations of people around me. And then I got the (student) Fulbright back to Nigeria. While there, I applied to graduate school.

This semester my undergraduate college gave me an alumni award. I felt funny about getting an alumni award when I still haven’t gone very far—I’m still a student after all. I went back in October to collect it. It was mostly a great excuse to see old professors and old friends. My poetry professor is now a professor in an MFA programme at a respected state university. She wasn’t there. The professor who had given me all the advice about graduate school and had encouraged me to present at conferences even as an undergraduate had nominated me for the award. At a luncheon he had put together for students to come and talk with me, he introduced me by saying, “We are so proud of her, and the only slight disappointment in welcoming her back is that we imagined that she would be returning as a great poet and instead she’s becoming a great scholar.” He put it much better than this, and I wasn’t at all offended. I knew what he was saying—it is the same bittersweet pang I often feel. He has an MFA as well as the Phd, but he teaches literature and his publications that I’ve seen are academic.

I wonder sometimes if the poetry will ever come back? Now that I’ve become so lazy with my words, so verbose. Have I lost the ability to string together those tight concise lines that punch you in the stomach? Will I ever write with the passion I had when I was in college writing long letters to the boy I loved? When I was on the subway writing descriptions of the city I loved?

Is it worth it—graduate school? Does one path ever meet back up with the one not taken, or do they grow further and further apart until they end up on two opposing horizons, feeding into two separate seas?

Tuesday, November 28, 2006


So, my advisor finally wanted to meet. We met today.

The overall impression I get is that he thinks my thesis is incoherant twaddle.

No, I shouldn't be so negative. He actually said that it's obvious that I've read the text well and smartly, and I quote from his written comments: "This is generally well-written and articulate.... there are beautiful and terrific flashes of close readings scattered here." But, as is hinted in this ambiguous final comment, he thinks that my text is scattered--that my analogies with other texts overwhelm my close reading of the novel.; that I too often restate the obvious and engage with obsolete arguments. There also seems to be a serious organization problem, that apparently stems from (his "aha" moment in our conversation, when I admitted when he went off on my titles that titles were a weak point for me) my inability to write good titles.

In his philosophy of writing, which is very sensible and scholarly and which I should have worked on more before getting to this point of my career, one creates a title and then logically creates an argument to prove the title. Therefore, one seems to know what one is saying from the very beginning, everything develops beautifully and systematically from that point, and, voila, all of a sudden, you have a thesis, a dissertation, or a book.

I, obviously, have not mastered this, although I thought I had worked from a fairly clear (to me) outline (developed with the help of the writing centre), which I unfortunately had not brought along for our meeting today. He told me that I was writing as though I were Soyinka or Habila (ie. the novelist) rather than a critic. As a critic I cannot use symbols in the same way they use them; i have to be more critical. So, for example, he said that in the chapter "The Angel," there is an obvious problem that I had missed: simply that, one cannot narrate one's own death. When I ventured that perhaps one could look at it through the lens of the marabout who talks of there being other stories, other layers of reality beyond death and could we look at it in that way? he said that, yes, the author could do that and could create those moments, but that I couldn't. I had to be more critical than that. So, basically, (this is my own interpretation of what he is saying) I cannot immerse myself in the novel and write from within the reality of the novel, but must stand outside and pick it apart and be more critical of the author. Which, yes, yes, seems rather obvious, now--but destroys the beauty of it.

It all makes sense, and I know he is a brilliant man and that I am but a lowly student who just can't quite seem to get the damn MA thesis done (a plague upon my department, which does this to almost every single student), even though I am fairly far along in my damn phd dissertation research. This often makes me uneasy: in some ways I am moving WAY too fast, but in others I'm moving WAY too slow. It is discouraging. I have known for a long time that my writing methods are impractical for scholarly work. When I write, I find it impossible to start from an outline. I think through things by writing my thoughts out--an argument develops in an organic way, and then I go back and create a reverse outline and re-organize. This is time-consuming. And it also means that I often do not succeed in completely re-organizing the argument in a logical 1, 2, 3 step way, but it has seemed to work for a long time.

As i sit hear sniffling, tears somehow entering my nose although I am in an upright position, I feel like saying, childishly, well, maybe I just can't do this. Maybe I should just drop out and work on a novel and write intertextually and symbolically and non-critically to my hearts content, If I ever published a novel, many more people would read than it than would read my MA thesis, even if the novel was a flop. What is the point? What, really, is the sense in spending so many years on such esoteric nonsense?

But, even, as I say this, self-pityingly, I know that I won't drop out, and that I can't drop out even if I sorely wanted to because I have gone too far, and too many people and grant-giving organizations have invested in me. And I know, too, that it is good for me to have to work on my writing. I have gotten by with a lot of carelessness up until now, just because what I'm saying is(apparently) smart. And I know that my advisor is not saying that I am stupid or incapable. In fact, as gruff a man as he is, he kept repeating that it was obvious that I had read widely and that I knew what I was talking about and that my readings were very smart. He said he was being hard on me now because he didn't want me to get stuck at the dissertation level. He also said that most of what I need to say is already there. It's not a matter of doing a lot of new analysis; it's just that I need to remove the extraneous analogies that get in the way of my argument, make my argument more coherent, and then reorganize everything to fit in with this coherence. In the end, though, I don't think I'm going to be able to end up making all my points about the ambiguities between fiction and reality which have driven my interest in this novel all along. I don't think he agrees with me on that--maybe it's a bit too novelistic.

Here are some samples of the comments in the margins of the text:

"Oh, Ms. [my last name], you exasperate me!" (at a moment when I call upon deconstruction, Esu-syle. I wish he would state what exactly exasperated him about it because that would help me know what to get rid of and where to go from there.)

"The more inappropriate and disjunctive analogies you call upon, the more incoherent you become." (I make an analogy between the disrupted time structure inWfA and the reversed time structure in Alejo Carpentier's short story "Viaje a la semilla")

"See? There is nothing in this. You just make a mountain out of a molehill. This is life's (?) dialectic." (I write poetically on the paradoxical nature of time in the narrative.)


I really wish he had also noted in the margins where I make the "beautiful and terrific flashes of close reading." But, alas, nothing of the sort. Perhaps he just made it up to have something nice to say before slaughtering me. He's good for me. He's right. I'm a peon.

Woe is me.

How was I ever a writing tutor and editor? And why can't I tutor and edit myself as effectively as I do it for other people. And how will I ever get it all done? And how will I put this out of my mind to focus on my seminar paper due next Monday, which I am now scandalously behind on? How do other people do this?

Kash! Kaico!! Wayyo!!!

Woe, woe, woe.

Rain at night

Outside it is raining steadily. The roads glisten under streetlamps, and the quiet murmur of rain makes it all the cozier to be tucked in bed under my comforter working on my laptop. I suppose it would be even cozier if I were actually lying down in the dark in preparation for sleep. But no such luck quite yet. A light green apple scented candle flickers on my chest of drawers. (My visit to R's reminded me of how nice it is to make candles a part of my life.) And I have probably hit replay on the jem album "finally woken" about five times now. jem is slightly obsessive.

so, i write evaluations of my classmate's seminar papers. and listen to the rain outside, and sing along:

"Save me, save me, ohhh, i've gotta stop my mind, working overtime. it's driving me insane, it will not let me live, always so negative, become my enemy, mmhhhmmm, save me, save me, ohhhohhh, save me, save me, hmmmmhhhmm... none of these thoughts are real... i need to take control... my mind is on a roll... it's not listening to me... save me... save me... aohhhh, save me"

and somewhere outside, a car alarm has gone off. it's enough to make me feel i'm back in brooklyn. oh joy...

(and just as i prepared to shut down after finishing my evaluations i ran across this article about a Bollywood star who is being charged with complicity in 1993 bombings in Mumbai. Interesting.)

Monday, November 27, 2006

Psalm 103

There is this cluster of psalms from Psalm 100 to 104 that are so beautiful, such amazing poetry, that I'd like to copy them all here. For now, I'll make do with Psalm 103. This is from the New International Version. Since the New Revised Standard Version is supposed to be more "literary," I looked at it, but for some reason, I also really like this one. It feels fresher somehow. The NRSV, on the other hand, does a very good job at gender neutrality. But for now, here's the NIV.

Psalm 103
Of David

Praise the LORD, O my soul,
all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
Praise the LORD, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits--
who forgives all your sins
and heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit
and crowns you with love and compassion,
who satisfies your desires with good things
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's.

The LORD works righteousness
and justice for all the oppressed.

He made known his ways to Moses,
his deeds to the people of Israel:
The LORD is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger abounding in love.
He will not always accuse,
nor will he harbor his anger forever;
he does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion on his children,
so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him;
for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust. (from NRSV
As for man, his days are like grass, (As for mortals, their days...
he flourishes like a flower of the field; (they flourish like a...
the wind blows over it and it is gone, (for the wind passes over...
and its place remembers it no more.
But from everlasting to everlasting
the LORD'S love is with those who fear him
and his righteousness with their children's children---
with those who keep his covenant
and remember to obey his precepts.

The LORD has established his throne in heaven,
and his kingdom rules over all.

Praise the LORD, you his angels,
you mighty ones who do his bidding,
who obey his word.
Praise the LORD, all his heavenly hosts,
you his servants who do his will.
Praise the LORD, all his works
everywhere in his dominion.

Praise the LORD, O my soul.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Thanksgiving in Brooklyn

It was a grey day in Brooklyn, so we stayed indoors all day long. Woke to R. cooking, and fell into the rhythm of being her assistant again, chopping, grating, stirring, washing dishes. It is such a pleasure. There were five of us girls in the house: R. (from Nigeria), D. (her roommate from Colorado), M. (from Lesotho), C. (from Zambia), and me (from various points in between R. and D). At one point, M. said, “R., you are my ideal. I want to be you,” and I thought, “me too. I always have.” She’s such a wonder. She cooks gourmet, she keeps a spotless house, she is a successful ivy league graduate, she reads eclectic and beautiful books, she hosts a ladies bible study, she sews, she does yoga, she takes photographs, she is a practicing architect, she speaks fluent French, she sings, she has the gift of hospitality that makes everyone perfectly comfortable and makes everyone want to pitch in and help. When we were in high school, she completed several novels. She’s one of the classiest yet still down-to-earth people I know. Being with her reminds me of everything that I love and everything that I aspire to be. This is my dear R. I sorely miss living in Brooklyn, living in New York, but most specifically living with her.

It was a perfect day. R. cooked. M. made curried squash. We ate a smooth carrot soup sprinkled with roasted almond, pounded turkey stuffed with water chestnuts and cranberries, curried squash, leek casserole, fresh cranberry sauce. Lemon tart. Hot chocolate melted from semisweet chocolate squares and mixed with hot milk. Wine. Potfuls of tea with fresh ginger grated inside. We laughed. Gossiped about old friends and church. Moaned about men. Took naps scattered about the apartment like cats. Washed dishes. Took turns fanning the spastic fire alarm that goes off when you make a piece of toast or open the oven. Lit candles. Listened to Erykah Badou, Jem, Gregorian chants, and the soundtrack to Monsoon Wedding. Sat around playing word games, which involved timers, and yelling, and guessing eachother’s minds. Played scrabble till midnight. And woke at 4:30am to a drunken brawl on the street outside the windows.

What a delightful houseful of women. I miss it. I miss that life. That camaraderie.

On Friday, we lazed about the house with waffles and tea. Then walked to the Brooklyn Museum to see the Annie Lebowitz show and the amazing Walter Ford show “Tigers of Wrath,” watercolours strongly influenced by Audubon paintings, yet subtly overlaid with excerpts lifted from other texts and handwritten onto the paintings like Audubon’s field notes—Microsoft statistics, journals entries from colonial officials, tourist guidebooks. Behind the huge paintings of animals are often significant backgrounds—slaves being rounded onto a ship behind a giant ostrich, a mob with torches in the snow behind a great panther; or animals taking on characteristics of humans: monkeys taking on the identity of their colonial owners, a Brahman cow and a leopard in the act of copulation. A striking show, which you could spend all day pouring over (the hour we spent before feeling exhausted didn’t really do it justice.) The paintings are so intertextual that they could be read simultaneously as paintings and as postmodern poetry.

After the museum we ventured to Daffys and DSW at Atlantic Avenue (resisting Manhattan); shopping was insane, of course; I was proud of myself for only buying sensible things that I actually needed, like a cardigan and shoes for next summer. After the rest of the girls left, R. and I played another game of scrabble till 2am and laughed when a garbage truck blared a horn through surprisingly heavy traffic at 1am. Only in Brooklyn…

Today, I flew away back to this Midwestern town, shared a taxi home, swept and Murphys oiled the floors and the bathroom before I lit a candle to study. I am horribly behind on multiple papers and projects, but I feel renewed. I am SO glad I went. It’s good to be reminded of such simple things that make me happy.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The short version of the San Francisco trip; now on to New York

I got back from San Francisco late last night and am heading out to New York early tomorrow morning. The ASA conference was encouraging and invigorating, and my presentation went well. Before I presented, this man rushed up to me, showed me his programme on which my presentation was circled, asking if that was me. When I said yes, he thrust his business card and call for papers into my hand (he seems to be the editor of some interdisciplinary journal), asked me to email him my paper, and rushed off. I am flattered that he found my title interesting, but I'm not sure what to do about it since it is a presentation I put together two weeks ago and certainly not a publishable paper. Two administrators of the pre-doctoral grant I got this summer sat on the front row, alongside one of my old Hausa professors from SCALI, and all three of them beamed at me the whole time as if I were their favourite niece, which made it much easier to give a confident presentation! Afterwards, my old professor from Niger, who has written some brilliant feminist analysis of Hausa women's oral literature that I often quote in my own papers, stood up and was so complimentary that my friend from the department asked if she were a plant. (I suppose she kind of was since she did know me...) Afterwards at the membership meeting of the organization, the grant administrators bragged on me and sought my opinion on future panels. It was very encouraging and made me feel like I'm on the right track--also that I'm finding a supportive academic community around the nation (and the world) that will be very helpful to me when my major professor retires at the end of next semester. So, although I would have liked to have spent a bit more time wandering around San Francisco in the lovely 60 degree weather, I would say that the overall pupose of going to a conference was fulfilled and that I am satisfied and happy about my decision to go.

I'm going to end this post here as I need to repack and try to get a little done before I head off tomorrow, but before I go, I must advertise the amazing Mosser Hotel in San Francisco, which was only three blocks from the conference hotel located on Union Square. Far from being the crack house of my doom-predicting friends, it was a completely charming little hotel that I would recommend to anyone, and you really can't beat the price (I paid $48 a night--I think that was a special, but even if you paid twice that amount it's good for SF). If you don't mind going down the hall for the bathroom (and I never ran into anyone in the halls or had trouble getting into the shower or toilet), then it is probably the best deal you're going to find in San Francisco. My room was about the size of a large walk-in closet, but I didn't need it to be bigger. It had a sink, a tv, a closet with an ironing board and iron. It was a little less elegant than it looked in the web photos (The flowers in the room are silk, not real... The 20s style seats in the lobby are pleather), but very reasonable for the price. The front desk kept a bowl full of apples for guests, which served a nice breakfast for a penny-pinching student. And while the conference hotel charged $1.50 per laser-printed page, when I asked the Mosser hotel staff at the front desk if they could print a 9 page paper for me, they cheerfully did so without charging me a cent. The staff were friendly and helpful. The sheets were smooth, the building clean. Amazing deal. I highly recommend it for anyone travelling to San Francisco!

University Community Devastated by Minneapolis Tragedy (a fictional piece written on the airplane by TC)

The University of ____ was thrust into mourning last night when Northwest Flight 9## from San Francisco crashed only 10 minutes before landing at its intended destination at the Minneapolis Saint Paul International Airport. Particularly devastated is the African Studies Program at the university which lost eight faculty and students returning from the 49th Annual meeting of the African Studies Association in San Francisco. Among the victims were world renowned scholars Prof. S_____ of the Anthropology Department, one of the leading experts on Dafur, Prof. F_____ of the History Department, and Prof. M________, a distinguished professor of Political Science, and also the head of the African Studies Programme. Also on the plane were two graduate students and one undergraduate student from the Department of African Languages and Literature, a graduate student in the History Department, and a representative of the University of ____ Press.

“This is a great blow to the university and to the field of African Studies worldwide” said University of ____ President ___ in a statement issued early this morning. “These were the best and the brightest, and their loss will be sorely felt.” The African Studies Program at the University of _____ is widely considered to be one of the top programs of its kind in the nation. “These scholars were the leading authorities in the field, and the students some of the most promising,” noted Prof. _____ the newly elected President of the African Studies Association in an email to recently parted members of the association. Other University of ____ faculty and students who had arrived back into the Midwestern town a few hours earlier were distraught. “It could have been any of us,” said Prof ____, who arrived into ____ in the early afternoon. “I will never forgive myself for not going to the panel that my student was presenting on. It makes me realize how much we take our colleagues and students for granted, and how fragile our lives really are. This is a great tragedy.”

Authorities have not yet identified the cause of the explosion that caused the 9pm Northwest Airlines crash, from which emerged no survivors, but one top level TSA employee, who did not want to be identified giving out details before the official transcript of the black box had been released, maintained that the explosion was likely an act of terrorism carried out by a passenger carrying a bottle of hair cream that exceeded TSA regulations by .5 oz. The source claims that on black box recording, a passenger can be heard loudly complaining about not receiving pretzels or peanuts on the three hour flight and threatening to denonate the oversize bottle. After the crash, an SFO security screening employee confessed that he had allowed the bottle through, citing the passenger’s complaint that the Northwest website had specified 3.5 oz as the cut off size. The security screener has since been disciplined, and the Department of Homeland Security is considering further action against him. Experts predict that this most recent crash will bring about further restrictions on carry-on items, and a renewed effort to increase communication between the TSA regulatory body and airline authorities.

In the meantime, the midwestern university community and the network of Africanist scholars across the nation and globe grieve. The president of the university noted that counseling will be available to distressed university students and faculty members. A candlelight vigil is scheduled for 7pm tonight at _____ outside the building that houses the African Studies Program.

(SORRY… I have a sick sense of humour…. In reality, we all made it back fine, but I amused myself, exceedingly, composing this on the flight back….)

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Excerpt from Handel Kashope Wrights essay "Editorial: notes on the (im)possibility of articulating continental African identity"

As I sit here (hungry) in my building waiting for my late night class and trying to finish up a midterm presentation, I come across this essay, which I will excerpt here: "Editorial: notes on the (im)possibility of articulating continental African identity" by Handel Kashope Wright, from Critical Arts, pub date 1 July 02. I intend to quote from this at some point. I like how he concisely notes the importance of the ideas found in poststructuralist theory, while pointing out that these ideas have long been a part of certain African philosophies, in this case Esu-Elegbara. I try to make this point briefly in my MA thesis, using Henry Louis Gates, etc, but he does it much more elegantly than I do.

I'm posting it here because I think it is less likely to get lost on my blog than if I email it to myself, but if anyone else finds it useful, bismillah. See the excerpt below:

Fifth, I am interested in the application of contemporary European theoretical frameworks (sometimes collectively referred to as 'the posts'), (post-)Lacanian psychoanaltic, postmodernist and, especially, poststructuralist theory, to our understanding of African identity. For example, identity (including African identity) is best thought of not as singular, whole and given but rather in Lacanian influenced psychoanalytic theory terms, as a series of identifications come to life (Butler, 1990, 1993; Fuss, 1995). Thus, if we think of identity as whole and singular, it would appear that given the many popular and high culture, leftist and capitalist, western and African elements it supposedly contains, 'raray boy' identity as Abdullah articulates it, is both unlikely and untenable in its complexity and multiple self contradictions. However, 'raray boy' identity becomes both viable and comprehensible when we consider identity as a series of identifications come to life and, even more specifically, Fuss's (1995) assertion that "identification travels a double current, allowing for the possibility of multiple and contradictory identifications coexisting in the subject at the same time" (p. 34).

It bears pointing out that my interest is not in merely imposing poststructualism on Africa as a fully formed, hermetically sealed western theoretical discourse. Even as I turn to poststructuralism, I am guided by Soyinka's admonishment that Africans not simply embrace western ideologies and theoretical frameworks so fully and enthusiastically that we not even stop to consider whether the messages of such ideologies might already be present in African gnosis and worldviews. As he put it, "Like his religious counterpart, the new [African] ideologue has never stopped to consider whether or not the universal verities of his new doctrine are already contained in, or can be elicited from the world-view and social structures of his own people" (Soyinka, 1976, p. xii). Taking Soyinka's admonishment seriously and combining it with my present preference for ambivalence, I believe it is useful to hold poststructuralism influenced ambivalence not only about established constructions of and approaches to African identity but even about taken for granted constructions of poststructuralism itself. Thus, rather than merely imposing a purely EuroAmerican conception of poststructuralism on African identity, I have identified ways in which the nature and function of the Yoruba deity Esu-Elegbara, can be considered poststructuralist since it already contains many elements and characteristics of what has come to be labelled in European theory as poststructuralist thought.

Esu is both an aspect of and a pointer to the politics of theory and theorisation (especially the link between language, meaning and theory). According to Henry Louis Gates (1988) the Fon of Benin refer to Legba as "'the divine linguist', he who speaks all languages, he who interprets the alphabet of Mawu to man and to the gods" (p. 7). Gates goes further in asserting that "Esu is the indigenous black metaphor for the literary critic" (p. 9). I go further still in (re)conceptualizing Esu as 'the original poststructuralist' because Esu is the epitome and embodiment of indeterminacy and multiplicity of meaning. Esu is represented sometimes as a male figure, sometimes as a female figure, sometimes as a paired figure (male and female) and sometimes as an androgynous figure. S/he walks with a limp because s/he has one foot in the world of the gods and the other on earth. In appearance, therefore, Esu draws attention to yet obfuscates and transcends gender and (dis)ability. Esu's odus (sacred verses) are the manifestation of Derrida's notion of differance (Derrida, 1976, 1986; Harvey, 1986), not in writing but in speech. With Esu meaning is constantly differing and ultimate meaning is perpetually deferred.

Esu makes the will of the gods known to humans by communicating it through the oracle of Ifa in a series of fixed, formal versed texts. As Gates (1988) points out, the meaning of these texts are "lushly metaphorical, ambiguous, and enigmatic, function[ing] as riddles which the propriate must decipher and apply as appropriate to his or her own quandary" (p. 10). In other words, then, Esu deals with formal language, metaphoric language, language in which meaning is always expressed in riddles to which there are never fixed, correct solutions. There is never a fixed ultimate meaning to Esu's poems, only specific attempts made by specific individuals to pin meaning contingently and fleetingly. And even then, meaning is fixed only as it relates to specific propriators and their specific situations. The oracle Ifa is a metaphor for text and Esu is a metaphor for the interpretation of texts (or more accurately, the impossibility of single, final interpretation of texts). Esu's signs are the antithesis of closure: s/he gives us a fixed signifier and watches us postpone meaning as we scramble to select from an endless number of signifieds that one meaning that has relevance for us and our specific situation.

It can be inferred, even from the very brief explication above, that the appropriation of Esu as poststructuralist theoretical category has considerable potential for exploring and articulating African identity. At the same time, such an appropriation undertakes what I consider a very necessary aspect of work on poststructuralism, namely the challenge of poststructuralism itself. It is rather ironic that while 'the posts' have contributed greatly to exposing the limitations and indeed dangers of Western thought, grand narratives and essentialist concepts and categories (Fuss, 1989; Spivak, 1990, 1993), they appear to have passed from being incisive tools of deconstruction and critique that (among other things) welcome the input of the West's others to becoming new EuroAmerican grand narratives themselves.


San Francisco and New York!!

Stupidity begins to sink downward from the brain to the fingers. It is almost 1am, and I am still up, still working on my conference paper, which does need to be worked on. I decided at 11pm to do some serious structural revisions... But I also have a "midterm" presentation in my Globalization and Cosmopolitanism class tomorrow on an Mbembe article, and I have not figured how exactly I want to "extend" his argument as our prof wanted us to do. I sit here tinkering with my paper, listening to the Hausa film Zazzabi in the background as I work.

Here's my fabulous schedule for the next two weeks. I will fly to San Francisco early Thursday morning for the African Studies Association Conference, and I will stay in my own room in a very cheap hotel that I found when I couldn't find a roommate. Whereas rooms at the conference hotel were $170 per night (!), I found a room fairly close by for $48 per night. I am very, very proud of myself, although all my friends tell me I'm probably in some crack house... It looks great on the web (probably doctored photos of a grand old hotel from the 1920s), although I will have to go down the hall to shower, and the elevator is broken (thus it is 30% off). Some Europeans left good reviews. My family stayed in a hotel in France once where we had to go down the hall for the bathrooms and it was fine. It will be an adventure. {-; I've long been obsessed with staying in hotels, and having a room to myself will be a real luxury.

I get back late Sunday night, will go to my two classes on Monday, and Tuesday morning I will jaunt off to New York for Thanksgiving with my dearest friend R. Reading about New York on Modal Minority has made me long to be back. I can't wait.

Then, of course, somehow I've got to write a seminar paper and a class paper on the planes and the trains. But it will all get done. It always does.

And in the meantime, I'm covering a whole continent in the space of three days. I recently read something about how plane traffic and our jetsetting lifestyle is a major contributor to global warming, and it made me feel guilty. But what does one do?

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

In the beginning

Against all better judgment (better judgment saying I should be either sleeping or working on a conference paper right now), I am going to post a journal meditation I had last spring in response to a thread of debate between Jeremy and Doton on the blog "Is it just me?" The debate has to do with whether evangelical Christianity is just an "opiate of the masses," a sop for anti-intellectual literalists, and a platform for prosperity-gospel con-artists, or whether there might be some actual thinking and interpretation going on among evanglicals. Of course... I believe there is some actual thinking going on, as I would define myself as an evangelical, and I would hope that I "think."I am defining "evangelical" in the broad sense of the term stemming from the teachings of the Anglican founder of "Methodism" John Wesley (who actually remained Anglican his whole life, I think) in the 18th century and the movement toward simplicity and distrust of political movements. In popular usage the term seems to have narrowed to a caricature, using such unfortunate representatives as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson. Some amount of confusion lies between this popular definition for people I would term "right wing fundamentalists" and many Christians who self define as evangelical in their belief that the Bible is the inspired word of God. (And what that means is also up for debate.) There is some amount of overlap between "evangelicals" and "fundamentalists," but they cross back and forth--there is no one unified creed--no one political stance. Isn't terminology such a tricky thing? I've sat through too many tirades about evangelicals by leftist academics using such fuzzy language and who really don't know what they are talking about (I'm sorry, but it's true--evangelicals are the great scapegoat in American academia), to want to remain silent any longer--come on, how can we allow huge swaths of the globe to be stereotyped in this way? Is it acceptable to define Islam by Al Quaeda? No, of course not, so should Christianity be defined by those who have performed evil in its name? No, of course not. Yes, yes, I've acknowledged the damage done by self-proclaimed spokespeople for the "evangelical" movement. I'm not going to get into that now. Yes, they have screwed up America and compromised millions of people who were browbeaten and blackmailed into supporting them. No, they shouldn't be taken as representative of most of us, even if there were an unfortunate majority of votes for Bush in the last presidential election--that's partly because such extremes were drawn--so little middle ground emphasized.

So, here is my meditation. It is not political. It is a statement of faith--that which excites me. That which makes me passionate about life. That which ties together my love of literature for my love of the creator of our reality. This is what I believe.

From my journal around April 3, 2006

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, and the Word was with God in the beginning.

Harold Scheub theorizes that at the heart of every story is a poem, a mythic centre from which the rest of the story ripples out like a stone thrown into a pool.

In the Hausa dodo stories, we see the fearful monster/the well/the facing of death/puberty at the centre of the story. If the heroine can face her fears and face the dodo, the feared thing turns out not to be that bad--or at least, it loses much of its power because it is no longer fearful. It is the transformation of the child to the adult, from poor to wealthy, from oppressed to wielder of power, from the path of death to the path of life.

It suddenly came to me as I as reading my Theories of Modernity notes on Benjamin, that the incarnation of Christ is the mythic centre of this story told by God--this series of lives, this history that cycles back on itself. He is the bridge between one age and the next; he plunged (like the Yoruba god Ogun) into the chaos to bring God back into relationship with humanity.

The cross is not only a literal instrument of death but a visual manifestation of the crossroads. In that space where the horizontal limb meets the vertical, that is the pulsating heart of history, of time, of the universe.

Christ is the ultimate liminal figure--both God and human, Lord of the Universe and humble peasant, the omnipotent omnipresent one and a man who was born and who died in thirty-three years. That ever present moment hangs still in time, his limbs flayed on a wheeling cross. Christ as God enfolds that moment and every moment. He embodies paradox. He is the writer and speaker of the universe and by becoming man, he is also the interpreter of that universe, facing the ultimate fear of a humanity: a slip into nothingness. He emerges bringing us the key to transformation. Death isn't that bad now because He has paved a way out of it, ripped a tear in the fabric of it so that it cannot hold us. Death becomes the transforming door between one reality and the next.

C.S. Lewis speaks of the "good dreams" humanity has had throughout time, the archetypal myths of every culture. We could say, as so many have, that Christ is just one of those myths because his life so clearly follows the trajectory of the universal myth (as we see in Joseph Campbell's explication of epic form)


We could say that myth follows that trajectory because it is the nature of the Story that has been written from the beginning and is working itself out in human history. That is, story echoes and foreshadows the One True Story. Those good dreams of humanity are the shadows and reflections that escape the overwhelming power of this Story.

We can read the world as text, a complex web in which each of the ciphers has the free will to choose a variety of pre-imagined paths. History pours down into this abyss marked with an X and then, as if light refracted, flows back out transformed. (I owe "His Dark Materials" fantasy trilogy for this image, although Phillip Pullman would likely not approve of my bricolage!)

Christ, then, becomes our model and the one we must request to come into us and thus join us to the pattern of history. With him in us, we retrace the path into the abyss, death to the old self and rebirth of the new. This is both metaphoric and literal.

Christ is the copula (this formulation borrowed from Henry Louis Gates on the Yoruba god Esu), the "and" connecting the old law with the new, the interpeter of the ancient to transform it into the timeless.

In the grave, he is hidden in the earth and bursts out of it. Rather than say this merely reflects an age old fertility ritual, the coming of spring after the death of winter, the coming of rains after a season of drought, we can say that the very nature of the universe is designed around this story, that the rituals pre- and -post are the waves rippling out from the trauma of the creation encapsulating the creator. That from the Fall, the very body of the earth has been promising a rebirth, and every story line and dance is incorporated into this design.

Winter --> Spring
Harmattan/Dry Season --> Rainy season

In this story, metaphors spring to life--
In our creativity, we mirror God ,
But in the case of God, the word is the WORD--the metaphoric lamb is the LAMB, the light is the LIGHT, the water is the WATER, the well, the site of transformation

And in our encounter, we have no choice but be transformed or else escape pale ghosts, ciphers that refuse to join others to make words (to drink of this life) to become living metaphors.

This is the power of Word and thought--this is why Jesus said that if you murder or commit adultery in your heart, you have actually done it. He knew the power of the word and the imagination to actualize reality, which exists on so many levels, and that if the imagination is twisted away from the good, it disintegrates, it deconstructs our humanity. All of us have mis-used the imagination in this way, we have all murdered and comitted adultery in that other level of reality, we have all missed the mark, our nature pushes us towards the banality of an eternity alone with ourselves. That is why Christ said that only in losing ourselves will we find ourselves. Only in surrendering our petty judgments, those shadowy secrets eating a hole at the centre of us, will we be able to be free to be humans we were meant to be. C.S. Lewis has a beautiful passage in his allegorical novel the Great Divorce, in which a man finally gives up an addiction in the form of a lizard that is tormenting him, but instead of disappearing, the gnawing lizard is transformed into a beautiful steed that he can ride. In giving up those things which master us, we find that our weaknesses have become our strenths. We control them rather than the other way around. And in using our reborn imaginations, we join our creator in creating the universe, we become a part of an intricate patterned multi-dimensional text, a dance, a song, which shimmers and flows. It can not be captured in one word or one phrase or one step or one note. It just IS.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

President Babangida shows Nelson Mandela the way

So, OBJ forces Atiku out and lets IBB in? I'm not surprised IBB is running but under the PDP flag? Somebody de craze....

I thought this little picture from with its caption--note the great scissor job--just sort of summed everything up. I suppose it would be too much to expect the man to have a sense of irony. His website shows more of the same.... Oh Hail to his excellency Sir Dr. Chief Alhaji Ibrahim Babangida, our once and future ...!

Saturday, November 11, 2006

improving air safety in Nigeria.

From my google alerts on Nigeria, I see that the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority is taking measures to improve air safety in Nigeria ... by requiring passengers to carry their liquids in "transparent, sealable" bags.

Ah, ah, me yake faruwa? Wetin be dis, oh? Na dem say dem go follow follow American wahalla? No be PLANES dem go inspect? No be AEROPORT dem go inspect? No be CONTROL TOWER dem go inspect? Na passenger wey dey carry shampoo cause pilot dem go waka im plane for bush? Na wah for dis Naija oh!

Note: 12 Nov 06
Ok, never mind. Apparently this is on international flights....

Friday, November 10, 2006

the first (half-assed) snow and thoughts on paradoxes

Interesting article from This Day about the exportability of Nigerian film. I went to a conference in Kano this summer co-sponsored by the Centre for Hausa Cultural Studies and the National Export Board (or whatever their official name is.) I love thinking about Nigerian film being a major export (and friends from Uganda, Zambia, Tanzania, Ghana, Niger, and the U.S. have told me about Nigerian films they've seen--so it's definitely an export even if much of it is pirated before the money can get back to Nigeria) because it is not something that is a non-renewable resource like oil, but is dependent on human energy, creativity, and entrepeneureal spirit, something of which the youth of Nigeria have a-plenty. It excites me.

The latest New Yorker arrived today, and I sat down and read it through with my usual reading rhythm (starting with "talk of the town," then "shouts and murmurs," [hilarious this week!] flipping through the cartoons, and then turning back and settling in for the meatier articles.) There is an interesting article about Lagos "The Megacity" by George Packer, which is unfortunately not available online. It captured a lot of the ambiguity I feel in my own work. I tend to be optimistic. I like to talk about agency, about the basic humanity of people, no matter how downtrodden. Spivak's essay "Can the Subaltern Speak" has always annoyed me a little bit, because I think, well of course they can speak. They speak all the time, the question is "can the elite listen?" And I know that I'm oversimplifying and that Spivak says something about them "talking" but not being able to speak on a global stage, but still, it still irritates me. But, I realize that in all my talk of agency, my glorification of the art of the ordinary, popular culture, in my irritation at seeing Africa always portrayed as suffering and wanting to see more stories celebrating the good things going on in Africa, I risk downplaying the actual extreme poverty, the desperation of existance that so many people do face every day, as the New Yorker article illustrates potently. I have to remind myself sometimes: there is destitution, there is starvation, there is suffering. I snipe at Madonna adopting, and I even snicker a little bit at how George Packard used the old cliche of interviewing his taxi driver for the bulk of the article. Yet, I am troubled, because the paradox is there. How can we celebrate life while still acknowledging the poverty, the often very deterministic conditions people find themselves in. At the same time how can we discuss extreme conditions of "the subaltern" without disrespecting the subaltern in such a way that we say they have no agency? (And what if in some extreme cases, I ask myself, they don't actually have agency?) I take offence too often at people who are sincerely trying to help out poor people, but maybe that is because I belong to a privileged class and have the luxury to take offence. I think that it is harmful when we think that because people are poor they never experience moments of happiness, but do I sometimes overestimate how happy people can be?

This paradox is at the very heart of our existence in the world. And perhaps all we can do, after becoming involved where we are, is to realize that it is a paradox--that we strive to make what changes we can, yet always with a self-consciousness that we know so little, that our best efforts may be looked upon later as futile or even wrong. The best writing explores this contradiction, and I love Helon Habila's work because he presents the despair without giving into hopelessness.

So.... today, I walked into campus in a windy sleet-rain. By the time I got to my building my umbrella (I have one right now) had been blown inside out twice, my hat blown off into a puddle, and my shoes wet through. I had an appointment with a prof to look over the conference paper I am presenting next week. As usual, she was way too encouraging (I wish she'd be a little harder on me sometimes), but did give a few good suggestions. I sat around in the departmental administrator's office with other stranded grad students, watching out the windows as the town was swallowed in mist, the occasional flourescent flash of lighting. Eventually, the lightening died dow. Longing to be cozy at home in my pajamas drinking some hot chocolate, I slogged back in the direction I had come from, giving cars that attempted to encroach into the crosswalks evil looks. (Imagine a vague Brooklyn accent in my head: Hey, buddy, you're in a car and I'm walkin' in this--so back off.) It was snowish by the time I got home, the grass turning a soggy water-logged white. When the cold first comes, I'm miserable. I speedwalk to get out of it, but there is a certain point where you give in to the misery, you wallow in it. So, you find yourself, like me today, meandering home, shoes and socks and gloves dripping wet. Jeans soaked to the knee. Cold. In no particular hurry. There's a perverse kind of wonder in it--realizing how much the body can withstand, realizing that it will be the same in the sub-zero weather. That you will give in to the misery, and you will survive (as long as there is a door to fumble open at the end, as long as there is a radiator, and hot tea only a few minutes away.)

Outside the windows now, an inch or two of snow has fallen over everything, the lawn, the cars, the spidery tree branches so newly stripped of leaves. The cars swish past. The living room light glares in the windows and competes with streetlights outside, so that when I try to see the snow, I see my own face instead. I am glad I am inside, that it is a Friday. Yesterday, I said something stupid in class and had one of those moments, wondering why I am here, why I am doing a damn PhD, why i'm making a fool of myself like this. Then today, talking with my professor, realizing that theoretically I could be done with my coursework, out of here and back in Nigeria by the end of next summer (theoretically), the happiness came back. This school business is hard but it's good. I think I'm meant to be here.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Hausa Film Series November and December

Here's a break down of the rest of the films we will be watching this semester. As usual, we are meeting Monday evenings at 6pm in 579 VH.

Nov 13: Zazzabi (no subtitles)

Nov 20: Babu fim (no meeting)

Nov 27: Bakar Ashana (no subtitles)

Dec 4: 'Yar Gagara (no subtitles)

Dec 11: Sanafahna (subtitles)

We will be continuing with the HIV theme for the next three weeks with Zazzabi, Bakar Ashana, and 'Yar Gagara. Bakar Ashana and 'Yar Gagara will transition us from a focus on HIV to the alternate moral universe of karuwai. If people are up for one last final film on December 11, we will leave on a more positive note by watching Sanafahna, one of the most popular films in Kano, while I was there this summer. (Photo of actress Sadiya Muhd and dancers on the set of Sanafahna in Niger. From

November 13
Zazzabi: Fever
Produced by Auwalu Madaki
Directed by S.I. Belaz
Sa'a Entertainment, Kano, 2005
Starring: Mansura Isa, Sani Danja, Ibrahim Maishunku, Nura Imam, Shehu Hassan Kano, etc.(No Subtitles)

A doctor who has quarrelled with his eldest son and kicked him out of the house. The doctor's beautiful university-educated daughter, who attracts the attentions of two handsome young men. The spurned son who becomes a policeman. An AIDS test that comes out positive. A mysterious murder. A dedicated investigator who interviews everyone involved, and a plot that keeps you guessing the whole way through.

November 27
Bakar Ashana: Burned out Match
Bright Star Entertainment, (date?)
(No Subtitles)

This film was banned by the Kano State Censorship Board and is not supposed to be available in the market. It delves into the world of karuwai (prostitutes) and the men who frequent them. A young man falls in love with a beautiful karuwa and wants to marry her... What will happen? If not for anything else, this film is worth watching for a couple of fabulous dance sequences. The storyline seems to be based loosely on Ibrahim Sheme's novel 'Yartsana: Babydoll.

December 4
'Yar Gagara: Rebellious Girl
Produced/Directed by Aminu Bala
Bright Star Entertainment, (date?)
(no subtitles)

Following the conventions of Hausa video films, this sequel to Bakar Ashana should be called Bakar Ashana 2. However (according to my informant), because Bakar Ashana was banned, the censorship board said that the film could not be named Bakar Ashana 2, because there was "no" Bakar Ashana 1. I have not seen this one yet, so I can't give a synopsis.

December 11 (If everyone is up for it)
Sanafahna: (the name of the heroine from Niger)
Produced by Aminu Sherriff
Directed by Nura Sheriff
Screenplay by Nasir Gwangwazo (the one who also wrote Waraka)
Starring Sadiya Muhammed, Aminu Sheriff, Ummi Ibrahim, Hafsat Sharada, Hammude Booth
Movie World in conjunction with Kumbo Production.
(with English subtitles)

Synopsis quoted from the vcd jacket cover:"...A young man finds himself embroiled in a web of cover-ups; on one hand to protect the lady he loves, on the other to save a second from impending doom.

From the simple Hausa life of Kano City to a colorful but complex nomadic culture of the beautiful hinterland of Niger Republic, three beautiful people are placed in an emotional dilemma.

...A conflict of nature, and cultures could not be more beautifully expressed..... (with time the truth shall dawn)"

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

I voted today

I did my civic duty and voted today. (and no the picture is from another website. I wish I had gotten some sort of sticker--I always like to display my good-citizenship...) It was heartening to see a long line of newly registering young voters (looked like a lot of undergrad students), almost out of the door of the Catholic church where we voted. The voting officials apologized for the long line and brought around candy and cookies. Fortunately, since I was already registered and had voted at the same polling station two years ago, I got to skip ahead of the line, but I liked to see it. Nothing like a HORRIBLE government to make people want to make their voice be heard. So, despite my moanings about having to choose between two extremes, I do feel like a good virtuous citizen for going ahead and voting--and, yes, to all who are not able to vote but wish they could, I did vote Democrat on pretty much everyone who was nationally important. To maintain my independent status, I voted for a Republican for County Sheriff, but that was because I looked at the statements by the two candidates on the website for the League of Women Voters and the two candidates for sheriff had exactly the same positions, concerns, and experience (the republican had slightly more education, with an MA degree). I had also seen the Republican candidate at a community event in the poorer part of town, which indicated to me that he knew his constituency and was serious about his claim that he wanted to recruit a more diverse police force. Anyway, I hope that today's election will make a real statement of discontent to the leaders who have done such an awful job the last few years. I also hope that in the future, we will have more middle ground to choose from. The latest Newsweek devoted its cover stories to evangelicals in the political process. Overall, other than the few simplifications they made that I talked about earlier on this blog, it was a pretty good issue. This dichotomy we often have to choose from is a false one; there is a lot more diversity out there than the media often represents, and this time Newsweek did a good job of capturing that.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

She Plays with the Darkness

I recently read Zakes Mda's novel, She Plays with the Darkness, for my South African Literature seminar. I love Zakes Mda's works--they are filled with haunting and exquisite images--descriptions that are so beautiful they make you ache and sometimes so terse and bitter that they slice right through you. From the first page I was captured "Even in the middle of winter, when the whole land hibernates under thick layers of snow, they sing and dance to the songs of the pumpkin. The white slush swallows their stamping feet right up to the calves, and then spits them out again in a frenzy" (1). I was intrigued by this description snow. I had known that there is snow on the mountains in Southern Africa, but for some reason, I had never imagined people living in the snow. Here is a site with some amazing photos of Lesotho, from which the one here is taken.

The story revolves around two "twins," who are not really twins, but were born within a year of each other: Radisene and his sister Dikosha, who was concieved at a night dance a month after Radisene was born. The smart Dikosha is at the top of her class, but is withdrawn from school when her mother runs out of money. Radisene loves nothing more than herding cattle, and he is not so great at school, but when he tells the Catholic fathers that he plans to be a priest, they pay for him to attend high school in the low lands. So, Dikosha stays behind wandering with the herdsboys that Radisene wants to be, while Radisene goes to school where Dikosha wants to be. When Radisene abandons his mother and sister for years wanting to make something of himself before returning, the close connection between him and his sister is severed. She won't have anything to do with him when he returns some fifteen or twenty years later. As Radisene becomes a successful "ambulance chaser" and conman, Dikosha withdraws futher and further from mainstream society, living in a cave and communing at night with the images that come out of the paintings to dance. Radisene sends money for a large mansion to be built for his mother and sister, complete with a mirrored dance studio for Dikosha, but when he finally comes back to the mountains to see them, he finds the mansion in shambles, dust layering over everything but the room meant to be the kitchen, where his mother sleeps. Dikosha has never set foot in the new house, preferring the old house she once painted over with her own designs.

As Radisene becomes more corrupt, Dikosha becomes more mystical and otherworldly, planting music in the head of a small mysterious boy who sings songs to her. There are political coups, massacres of police brutality, a beautiful policeman who is abused by his wife and who lashes out violently on his own; a seductress who becomes a harpy; a football (soccer) star who becomes an outcast, and an outcast who becomes a rich man; there are rumours and rapes and murders and lawsuits; and Nigerian 419 con artists. In the end, the twins ironically seem to take on two opposite aspects of the careers they could have had, had Dikosha told the Fathers that she would become a nun as Radisene told them he would become a priest. Radisene, as part of his repetoir, becomes a desperate preacher at a funeral, preaching on the glories of insurance. Dikosha, like a saint who has retained her youth into late middle age, stays in her rondeval hearing confession after confession. When Radisene kidnaps her to take her to the flatlands, someone asks him where he his going with his grandaughter, and the story of the twins breaks off abruptly as they desperately sit in a car together in the rain

An excerpt from the passage I find the most haunting, about the small boy Shana, who appeared from nowhere to play beautiful music on his sekgankula and sing obscene lyrics about women. His only fear was the mist:

Pages 166-167
Since he had materialized in the village, Shana had never ventured further than the fields and the hillside. He protested that he was afaid to go to the distant mountains. But Father-of-the-Daughters barked at him, 'Don't be a weakling, Shana! Be a man! You have no reason to be afraid because I'll be there with you.'

While Father-of-the-Daughters was busy with his ablutions, Shana ran to Dikosha's rondavel and played his sekgankula outside her window. At first Dikosha thought he was playing in her dreams. But when she realized that she wa awake she knew that the Shana of flesh and blood was outside her window. She opened the window, and he stopped playing. And for the first time since they had known each other he spoke to her, 'Please keep my sekgankula for me ... until I return. I am going to the far away mountains. I will see you when I come back.'

They set off before sunrise. Father-of the-Daughters rode on his horse while Shana walked beside him. They drove the cattle toward the horizon where mountain peaks kissed the pink and purple sky. They travelled for many hours, climbing one mountain after another, and crossing streams and rivers. Sometimes, they stopped for a while so that the cattle and the horse could graze and drink. Father-of-the-Daughters gave Shana a pice of steamed bread and some sour porridge froma billycan.

Later in the afternoon they descended into a gorge, and all of a sudden everything looked white. It was the mist. Shana shivered, but Father-of-the-Daughters urged him on. The boy resisted. He wanted to turn back. Father-of-the-Daughters would not relent. 'Come on, stupid boy! We still have a long way to go!'

The mist was rising, and Father-of-the-Daughters also began to be fearful. Shana held tightly to the hind leg of the horse. It kicked him away. He stood up with the mist swirling around him and plucking at his clothes. Then he turned and ran as fast as he could. But the mist was at his heels. It caught up with him and threw him to the ground. The mist began to suffocate him. He let out a muffled scream, and kicked his legs, fighting against the mist, as it wrestled him over and over. Then suddenly he was still. Hsi body lay sprawling on the ground, his face controted by a frozen scream.

And the Nigerian 419-ers, who have taken on the aura of myth.
They were two huge dark men in flowing West African robes. Their boubous were made of a cloth so rich that even Jabbie could have only dreamt about it. They introduced themselves, and said that they were from Nigeria....

They decided to hold their discussions in the cosy surroundings of the Lesotho Sun, where the Nigerians had a suite in the most expensive wing of the hotel, the one normally reserved for visiting heads of state and other dignataries.

'Well, we'll be on the level with you,' said the bearded, fat-faced Nigerian.

'We don't believe in beating about the bush,' added the clean-shaven, high-cheekboned one.

We are involved in a scam and we need your assistance. There is a big share for you,' said the bearded one.

They said they were from Toronto, but had recently opened an office in Johannesburg. In Canada, they had insured the clean-shaven one for five million dollars. They had paid the premiums for four months. Now the time had come for the clean-shaven one to die, in order that the bearded one, the sole beneficiary of the policy, should get his five million dollars.

Radisene was taken aback. He asked, 'You mean your friend is willing to die so that you can get all that money?'

The Nigerians laughed in their booming voices. 'Of course I won't die,' said the clean-shaven one. 'That's where you came in. We need a death certificate to the effect that I am dead. I was a tourist in Lesotho, you see, and then I fell ill and died ... or perhaps I died in a car accident. Your country, like our Nigeria, is famous for its glorious car accidents.'

'All we need from you is use your connections to get a death certificate. If it's a car accident we'll also need a police report. A car accident sounds more convincing, and you deal with those a lot.'

Radisene was fascinated by the suaveness of the Nigerians. And their ingenuity. 'They make our own little crooks look like Sunday-school teachers,' he muttered under his breath.

End of quote... Can you imagine what happens?

All quotes taken from Zakes Mda. She Plays with the Darkness. New York: Picador, 2004.

Newsweek article on "An Evangelical Identity Crisis"

The latest Newsweek article on "An Evangelical Identity Crisis" is well researched and makes some good points, but also makes a few vast simplifications like the statement quoted below:

"Some Christians, exhausted by divisive wedge politics, are going back to the Bible and embracing a wider-ranging agenda, one that emphasizes reaching out to the poor and disenfranchised. Almost unanimously, these evangelicals cite as a model Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif."

Really? Any Christian who focuses on reaching out to the poor and disenfranchised is doing so because of Pastor Rick Warren? I beg to differ? While I admire Pastor Warren's committment to shaking up the evangelical agenda, my own exhaustion with a political hijacking of evangelical faith has nothing to do with him or with the large Saddleback Church. Indeed, while I respect his position and applaud his efforts to create a social conscious among his parishioners, I am wary of mega-churches and making idols of specific leaders, as so many evangelicals of previous generations have done with Dr. James Dobson or with Bruce Wilkinson, who wrote The Prayer of Jabez and set out to use Swaziland as an example of the power of transformation inherent in organizational "naming and claiming blessings." The project was a miserable failure, and he ran back to America with his tail between his legs. Humans are invariably fallible, even those most "loved by God", as we see in the biblical example of King David. We do not base our faith on human leaders but on the performative life of God incarnate in man, our Christ.

Rick Warren's bestselling book The Purpose Driven life seems to have blessed many people, so good for him and good for them. But I'm not a formula Christian, who follows the fads, and neither are many of my friends. I admit that I do have a copy of TPDL in the basement somewhere, because my church was reading through it (my church is not entirely free of the "trends"), but I actually never quite got through the first chapter.

The crisis of conscious among evangelicals is not so simple as follow-the-leader, as Newsweek implies. I think it's more a case that thinking Christians who look at the life of Jesus and the teachings he emphasized are together realizing that there is something very wrong with how evangelicals are being used to further a certain political agenda. Jesus led a life of simplicity among the "wretched of the earth." Time after time, he resisted attempts by his disciples to claim political power (and he firmly rejected the temptation of Satan to gain political power over the whole world if only he would bow down and worship Satan), instead emphasizing a change of heart, a change of lifestyle, a grassroots committment to enacting what we believe. The closest Jesus came to making a political statement was when he threw the money changers out of the temple. And notice how he said "you have made my Father's house into a den of theives." He did not go charging into Herod's palace or Pilate's mansion throwing tables around; presumably, he was quite aware of the political corruption of the Roman empire. The hope for change he offers is found in the individual lives of his disciples, who through living exemplary lives make more disciples, even drawing in some of those Roman leaders, as we see in the Roman centurian who had faith that his son would be healed, in the Phillipean jailor who was so impressed by the hope of Paul and Barnabas that he took them home and together with his whole family decided to follow the new way. Jesus refused to be drawn into partisan debates about taxes, saying "give unto Caeasar what is Caeasar's and until God what is God's." Instead, he was angry at the bringing of the marketplace into the house of God. Current evangelical leaders and pastors of mega-churches would do well to focus more on Jesus's words about tackling our own spiritual corruption, the hypocrisy, materialism, and legalism of our own churches. As more and more examples of hypocrisy and abuses of humanity in the name of Christianity come out in the news, it is clear that the Christian leaders of our age are more like the Pharisees who thought it would be better to let one man suffer than to risk damaging their relationship with the Roman empire. Probably one of the most damaging things to happen to the Christian faith in the early years of its existance was when Constantine took the humble faith of the servants and the streets made it the official religion of the Roman Empire. Of course, the heart of the faith has survived the abuses comitted in it's name, because the Crusades, the inquisitions--these were political in nature, Christian in name alone. The truth at the centre of Christianity deconstructs the authoritative discourse that claims authority in its name, and no true Christian should be afraid to declaim those abuses.

As Christians, we are called to be like Christ, not those whom he called "whitewashed tombs." A renewed movement to distance ourselves from the powerful and corrupt and to revive out committment to the poor and disenfranchised is at the heart of Christianity. We do this because this is who we have been called to be, (not because Rick Warren told us to do it).

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Is it democracy when you only have two choices?

This morning I recieved an email from a friend in Kano, saying in Hausa that he hoped I was well, that everyone greeted me, and that he hoped I wouldn't vote Republican in the upcoming elections because Bush is enemy number 1 in the world.

I admit, guiltily, that I had contemplated not voting in the upcoming elections. I shamefacedly confess that up to now, I haven't been the ideal citizen. I have only voted in Presidential elections and not in the midterm elections. However, I had been planning to look at the candidate's positions and try to go ahead and vote, since it would be a bit hypocritical of me to be so critical of our current government and then not utilize the miniscule bit of power that I have as a voter to make my statement. When I recieved the email this morning, I remembered earlier convictions I have had in presidential elections that my vote is more than just mine--it also stands for the many people I know around the world and non-American citizens living in this country.

So tonight I spent about 3 hours trying to research the positions of each candidate. It has left me discouraged and tempted just not to vote (a temptation, which I will resist.) For Senate, there are four candidates: The incumbant democrat, and a republican, an independent, and green party challenger. For congress, there is the incumbant democrat and her republican challenger. Turning to Vote Smart, a national website that gives candidate information based on a national political awareness test (henceforth referred to as npat), I started looking at the positions for each candidate.

In the Senate race, every candidate except for the incumbant democrat had filled out the npat. In the Congressional race, neither candidate had filled it out. Seeing the independent senate candidate, I was excited, thinking maybe I had found a moderate candidate who doesn't kowtow to any party line; however, when I looked at the npat, I was alarmed. He was much further to the right than the republican candidate, to the the point that he wanted to pull out of the UN and didn't want to prohibit torture. The Republican seemed to pretty much toe the part line, with the interesting idea that he could raise government funding for everything (that is everything but International aid and welfare, both of which he would cut back drastically...) while still cutting taxes. Out of the three, I was the most in agreeance with the positions of the "working mom" green party candidate. The incumbant democrat, of course, didn't turn in his form.

In order to try to figure out the positions of the incumbant democrat congressperson and democrat senator, I attempted to plow through their voting records. This is incredibly time consuming and difficult to understand. What discouraged me the most was realizing that I will probably, despite all my attempts at research, end up voting for these candidates that didn't seem to care enough about the voters to fill out the npat on their positions, simply because I cannot, in this current political environment and state of nation, stomach voting for any republicans. The other thing that really disturbs me is realizing that not only are both of these candidates "pro-choice," which I suppose is to be expected since that is the party line, but that they both voted against banning partial birth abortion (a law which had caveats about it being allowable if it needed to be done to save the mother).

Now, I realize that writing about my moral dilemma may cause some of the readers of this blog to think that I am too conservative or politically naive. I often remain silent on these sorts of political issues because I know that they often evoke emotional responses (case in point being certain people in the English department at this university who villified as intolerant, gender self-hating, and idiotic the few brave souls who dared to mention that they questioned the right to abortion.) However, since this is my blog where I find myself coming out and saying what I think, I feel like I must express this. I am against abortion. I am also against embryonic stem cell research and cloning. Much of this has as much to do with the lasting impact of reading Aldous Huxely's Brave New World and Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" in high school as it does with my evangelical upbringing. These questions are also raised in Ursula Le Guin's powerful essay/short story "The Ones who walk away from Omelas (Variations on a theme by William James)," in which the very happiness and freedom of a utopian society is built on the mistreatment and neglect of one imprisoned child. Ethically, I just can't stomach the idea of the means justifying the ends, human fetuses being harvested in order serve the greater good of finding cures for diseases. I am all for adult stem cell research and attempting to find cures for tragic and debilitating diseases like Parkinsons or Alzheimers, and I realize that for many people living with those disease, theoretical arguments about the ethics of what kind of stem cell is used in the research seem impractical and heartless. I am very uneasy, however, with the idea of harvesting and manipulating human embryos in order to serve a more elite class of older human beings. I am also disturbed with rhetoric that devalues a growing embryo as something that is "owned" by the woman in which it is growing and which she has the right to discard if she wants because it is part of her body. (I have a similar squeamishness to the idea of creating test tube embryos and discarding some of them once there has been a successful implantation. And if some people are angry about cats being declawed or dogs being fixed, how much more human beings being tailored in this way?) How much do we own of ourselves? of other bodies? How ethical is our manipulation of science to create children for ourselves when we want them and discard them when we don't want them? Why is the life of the woman automatically more important than the life of the child? How will history judge these decisions? How do other societies judge these decisions? Will we be/are we considered decadent--or will my objections eventually fade away as mere reactionary prudery, as ridiculous at taking offence at the idea that the earth might circle the sun?

Now, the problem with my position, of course, is that I CAN see the gray areas. That's what literature does for us right? I can imagine myself into the position of a young girl who is pregnant; the shame of an accidental pregnancy; the horror of having to face parents, friends, teachers with the results of a liason you swore to keep secret; the despair of realizing that this could mess up all your dreams; the crisis of not being economically able to support a child; the feeling that this would entrap you in a relationship/situation/position/reputation you wouldn't be able to get out of; the dreadful realization that a wanted child is likely to be severely handicapped; the desire to have this child but the painful reality that you just can't manage it all by yourself. I realize that if abortion were outlawed, that there would probably be many women who would have dangerous illegal abortions performed. I realize that, in some ways, my anti-abortion position is much more comfortable while abortion is legal, than it would be were abortion to be illegal. And, yes, I am troubled by the rhetoric used in the state of Utah, where abortion has recently been made completely illegal. I am open to discussion. I now realize that it is a much more ambiguous area than I once thought it was. I am willing to say that abortion might be an option in certain circumstances, where the mother's health is an issue, where there might have been rape or incest. (The prochoice counter-argument of the10 year old pregnant by her father is a powerful one.) However, despite all of these grey areas, I cannot honestly say that I am pro-choice. There need to be other options and choices available: more social support for teen mothers, more free daycare services for single and working mothers, and, yes, more access to contraceptives. This is where other Christian friends may disagree with me, but I'd rather contraceptives be used properly than abortion be an option. Ideally, teenagers would not be having sex at all, but this is something that the culture needs to discourage--not the law.

Perhaps, abortion is just symptomatic of a larger feminist/womanist issue. We must ask if the insistance on rights to abortion is a specifically Western feminist option of preserving women's rights? Why is it that children become these symbolic and actual burdens to women's reputations or their careers? Shouldn't we tackle these deep structural problems in our cultures--work on solutions that will give women opportunities to pursue their dreams while also being mothers? Give them multiple choices on how to do this? Everyone talks about adoption, and of course that is an excellent option, but there have to be other systems of support as well. I don't have any solutions, and perhaps this is just naive idealism, but mustn't we question a practice which just gets rid of a pregnancy, gets rid of the symptom, when we can imagine more creative ways to preserve and celebrate both the mother and the child's life? While I AM anti-abortion, I think the rhetoric of the pro-life side needs to change as well. Instead of always talking in negative terms about murdering babies, we need to actively start providing more choices.

So, all this to say, this is why it upsets me that I will probably be voting for two candidates who voted against a ban on partial-birth abortion. I will vote for these candidates because the most pressing issues right now seem not to be abortion (which will probably still be debated 20 years from now) but how America is presenting itself in the world, the ambiguities this administration has created about torture, the misinformation and dissimulation and propagands, the morass of Iraq, the complete inattention to environmental concerns, the repressive tendencies, human rights abuses, and xenophobia of the Patriot Act, and the looming spectre of global warming. Basically, this current administration has flunked in almost every possible way, and I have a responsibility to voice my concern on these issues with my votes. My concern is consistent; I am worried about any kind of human rights abuse. The literature I cited above is just as relevant to the mistreatment of minorities in this country as they are to the mistreatment of human embryos. But, why are the choices always such extremes? Why must the only people who are concerned about our position in the world, the environment, social justice, also not have a problem with the gruesome proceedure of partial birth abortion? Is it that they think that if they show any squeamishness about any kind of abortion that suddenly they will be hurtling down the slippery slope of being anti-feminist? Can't we meet half way somewhere? Compromise?

Or is it that all the good moderates out there, who can see many different sides to an issue, are too cynical and disillusioned to enter politics? I suspect that is a very strong possibility. I'm almost disillusioned enough not to vote. But I can't let down all my non-American friends who are counting on me to strike out symbolically against this administration. This vote, as morally dubious as it is, as morally dubious as most of our decisions are, is for them.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Quoting Kevin Federline

From one of America's most brilliant role models, Kevin Federline, the (wanna-be) hip-hopping husband of Brittany: "I want to go to Africa – I think it's a place where you can go and really, really help people and make a difference. And it's also a place I want to see – I'm into the safari animals and all that stuff. I grew up watching the Discovery Channel.",26334,1552629,00.html

I suppose he has caught on that Africa is the celebrity thing to do right now. Now, the question is... why exactly was I reading an article on Kevin Federline?

Fire and Ice: A poem for my grandfather

This morning I was thinking of this poem I wrote in college about my grandfather. He died in 2000, after a five year decline. As I re-read the poem, I wonder why, in my editing process all those years ago, I took out the part about him being buried in an avalanch in the Aleutian Islands during World War II. They dug in the snow for hours without finding him, and the tide was coming in. The next in command called off the search, but the men refused to leave him. Eventually they found a hand and uncovered the rest of him. In the original poem, I linked that to his frozen fingernails. I don't know why I took it out. I should work on it some more.

Outside, it is cold and grey. Most of the leaves have blown away, only a few still hang bedraggled onto skeletal branches. A few small snow flakes wander by the window every once in a while, but not enough to make a difference.

Here's the poem.

Fire and Ice

Papaw nearly talked us into 1998
a redundant stutter
until Mom stopped him with a bright excuse
and all the young people scattered
outdoors to set off firecrackers.

I stayed and held his soft hands,
peered at his finger-nails
which have always been brittle like ice
but are now smoother,
as if the ice is melting
and leaving him mortal.

He tried to tell me something.
I couldn’t understand.
The lights exploded outside.
The New Year ticked in.
I felt heaviness in my cheekbones,
He let go
of my hand, and I went out
into the finger-numbing cold to scream
and crouch as whirls of fire flew
over my head and splashed transient
against the everlasting constellations.