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.


Teju said...

You've expressed the struggle very well. And this is our work--yours, mine, Helon's--to give voice to that which is terrible, but not hopeless.

Beautifully written.

Anonymous said...

if nigeria can get a better hold ofits copyright laws, there is no shortage of intellectual products we can't export. i have friends from the west indies that send me copies of nigerian movies they love. i doubt many of the producers see a penny of these exports

Talatu-Carmen said...

I'm sure the producers don't see much of the money from their exports, and it is hard to see directors struggling for money when you know how many people are watching their films. But it IS encouraging to see how many people ARE watching. I don't know about the websites that sell Nigerian English films, but I know that the films sold at actually do make it back to Kano. One of the producers has an aunt in the US who runs the website, so there is a direct connection there. It would be interesting to know how many of these direct connections there are. Another problem, of course, is between the marketers and distributers and the filmmakers. Piracy is a huge problem.

stefan said...

how many films are cca. made yearly in Nigeria?

Talatu-Carmen said...

I don't know off the top of my head. But I do know that Nigeria has the 3rd largest film industry in the world after Bollywood and Hollywood. And it might even be creeping up to place #2. Later I'll try to post some links on this, but I'm on my friend's work computer right now and don't have a lot of time.