If I cannot move heaven, I will stir up the underworld. Virgil, The Aeneid
My reading—and life—were swallowed by subterranean forces in 2019—and I’m all the better equipped to face our civilizational crisis because of it.
Besides the fact that I work out of a collective literary cave called the Writers Grotto, the primary reason for the obsession with underworldly literature is my own book: a reported memoir about my 30-year journey across the 2,500-mile chain of mass graves, forgotten dead, and devalued life. The book takes me from wartime El Salvador to the remote tropical forests, cartel-controlled deserts and other infernal places where underground elements—MS13 and other gangs, as well as governments—have killed, dismembered, and buried tens of thousands of their victims.
Underneath a refugee crisis story conveniently curated to begin at the U.S.-Mexico border is an altogether different reality from that contained in spectacularly shallow headlines that have, at different times, dominated the electoral and news cycle for weeks, as we will soon see again in the coming election year.
The refugees’ epic journeys through Mexico and the United States, my home country, are the closest thing many U.S. citizens will ever come to western civilization’s foundational underworld stories, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer’s Odyssey or Virgil’s Aeneid.
Yet, if there was ever an English-language story that could benefit from narrative power of the depths it is the Salvadoran epic. Outside of translations of the virtuoso writing of award-winning journalist Oscar Martinez, the author of the The Beast and The Hollywood Kid (written with his brother, Juan), there are few to no major English language Salvadoran narratives about the ongoing crisis written by actually existing Salvadorans. Scholarly works by Leisy Abrego, Joaquin Chavez, Cecilia Menjivar, and other U.S. scholars do much to fill in the academic void in the English language. Journalism and literature are another story.
My research shows that a similar erasure of Central Americans and the resultant superficiality in storytelling exists in recent media coverage of the ongoing humanitarian refugee crisis. The effects of this lack of a English-language Central American perspective (except, that contained in two dimensional images of pain and sound bites of suffering) can be seen in the controversy surrounding the video of Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez, a Guatemalan migrant who died in a south Texas immigrant prison.
After a news organization failed to ask their permission before releasing the disturbing footage of their boy’s horrific final hours, his parents released a statement in which they declared the following: “It’s been really painful for our family to lose Carlos….but having all these people watching him die on the internet is something we couldn’t have imagined in a movie or a nightmare.”
Left out of the crisis stories is a deeper context that includes the 74 other migrants who died similarly horrific deaths between March 2010 and early 2017. Unlike Hernandez Vazquez’s, these stories and bodies were buried in anonymous media graves by the inconvenient fact that they weren’t killed by Donald Trump.
Desaparecido in the English language is the voice of those hailing from cultures that the great Nicaraguan-Salvadoran poet Claribel Alegria described as a “map of deep mystery.”
In search of a deeper way to tell this perpetually-urgent story, I found the ideal trope with which to explore ideas and emotions in times of such epic and interconnected personal and political crisis: the trope of the underworld.
The magical literary workings of the Great Below are described in Wendy Lesser’s masterful The Life Below the Ground: A Study of the Subterranean in Literature and History. Hands down the best survey of the subterranean in literature, Lesser’s book helped me understand (pun kind of intended) how different authors have used narratives of descent as a way to structure, move and animate fiction, nonfiction and poetry, especially in times of profound personal and civilizational crisis.
Central to the different genres using underworld tropes—noir (i.e. The Maltese Falcon), thrillers (i.e. The Third Man), sci-fi (i.e. The Time Machine), psychological, working-class struggle (Hard Times), racism (Invisible Man)—argues Lesser, is the way such literature contrasts a surface world or reality with a parallel world below. And, more often than not, this contrast serves to attack the existing order. In our Age of the Spectacular Superficiality, dissent necessarily means descent.
To complement the shortcomings of Lesser’s marvelous book, my own reading drew primarily from the wells of a underworldly Latin American literary tradition that includes the Popol Vuh, the Mayan book of creation, Antígona González which uses the Greek tragedy Antigone to tell a story of the search for Mexico’s thousands of desaparecidos, and Yuri Herrerra’s outstanding Signs Preceding the End of the World, the story of a lyrical, hard-boiling journey into the criminal, political and migration depths. The first words of the protagonist, Makina, who works as a telephone operator, make clear the story’s abysmal ambitions: Estoy muerta.
A great 19th-century illustration of how the narratives of descent disorganize the senses of readers in ways Rimbaud demanded of all poets is Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Carroll deployed Alice’s journey, in part, to disrupt and deconstruct Victorian English sensibilities. He did so using a defamiliarizing technique that defines the workings of the underground in literature: literally deforming a character’s (in his case Alice’s)—and everyone else’s—body, their sense of identity and meaning. Also known as “katabasis,” the underworld journey of rebirth also serves to alter notions of time and space, as Carroll does to the spatio-temporal ideas created and enforced by the forces of industrial capitalism.
A more contemporary filmic example of the uses of the underworld trope to disorganize our senses is The Matrix, released at the beginning of the century, in 1999. Neo, the Wachowski sisters’ central character, undergoes an Alice-like descent into the depths of the myths and lies of post-industrial capitalism. These myths and lies are delineated in John Beaudrillard’s epochal Simulacra and Simulation, a book featured in the movie. Both remain relevant.
All the prizes and plaudits recently won by narratives using subterranean tropes appear to indicate that the literary and cultural establishment also believes these tropes can help us to grapple with our astonishing global crisis and inequality. Jordan Peele’s Us used underworld themes to great effect and garnered numerous awards. My favorite award-winning filmic example this year is Korean master Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, a brilliant satire about the class conflict brewing in the nuclear bunkers turned into housing beneath the apartment buildings and homes of post-war South Korea. The film’s acid critique of the Korean “economic success” story has already racked up Cannes’ Palme d’Or, eight Golden Globe nominations, and is generating serious Oscar buzz.
In similar fashion, this year’s Nobel prize in literature went to Olga Tokarczuk, the author of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, a book whose protagonist balances her heavenly pursuit of astrological truths with her love of one of the greatest English language promoters of underworld power, William Blake. The theatrical re-telling of the Orpheus myth of Hadestown won eight Tony awards this year, including Best Musical, while The Ferryman, the story of a former member of the Irish underground, the IRA, won the Tony for Best Play.
On television, HBO’s Westworld series regularly takes viewers on this underworld journey each time its (robot and human) characters descend into the high-tech storeroom where androids, some of which/whom are becoming sentient, have the stories they’re programmed to enact in the amusement park world above erased. This descent into erasure parallels the crossing of the Lethe, the mythological Greek River of Forgetfulness (or, in some interpretations “river of Unmindfulness) that the souls of the dead must drink from before entering the afterlife. The literary treatment of the Lethe is described smartly in Herald Wienrich’s Lethe: The Art and Critique of Forgetting. “Lethe” is also at the center of the adventure and search for truth in the recent His Dark Materials television series based on the Phillip Pullman book series of the same name. The instrument guiding Lyra, the story’s central character, as she navigates a world layered in lies, intrigue and erasure is called a “alethiometer,” a kind of compass that finds the truth behind any question asked of it. This association of of the Lethe with truth also harkens back to the Greeks for whom the search for truth was directly related to remembering forgotten truths.
Our time, our literature require the narrative alethiometer that is the underworld. Recent revelations that 3 U.S. Administrations—Bush, Obama and Trump—lied to the public to keep almost a trillion dollars of our tax dollars flowing to military industrial contractors and others profiteering from death and war in Afghanistan should serve as a reminder to go deep—and then keep going deeper.
For these and other reasons, I let the underworld swallow my attention this year. And, from a glance up at the future, I will continue to follow Blake and and AC/DC in seeking salvation on the highway to hell.
At the end of 2019, I am reading with very different eyes from a year ago. My wife and I learned that she was pregnant on the last day of 2018, and our son, James, was born just before Labor Day. Two weeks after we learned of the pregnancy, we moved from North Carolina, where between us we had spent half our lives, to New York City, where we both began new jobs. New arrival sharpens vision: I paid closer attention to the details of changing seasons in Manhattan’s sui generis climate than I had in familiar places. I watched the first snowdrops bloom on the east-facing northwest shoulder of Central Park (late January), the first daffodils appear on the lower slopes of the Morningside escarpment (the end of February), and the redbud explode to announce the real beginning of an Eastern spring.
Books often bring the new for me, but this year they were more of a trace backward, stitching new experience into what underlay it. Looking at children’s books seriously for the first time in decades, I discovered images indelible in my mind but lost to conscious memory. When I opened Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day (1962), with its sharp-edged collage—a red snowsuit sharply outlined against white drifts and a brown-and-yellow cityscape—I realized I had been carrying it around all my life. It might have been my first way, as a rural child who loved snowstorms, of picturing life in cities, and imagining common experiences across racial lines. I had a purple snowsuit at about the time I first encountered Snowy Day, and this year I tracked down a false memory: I had thought of the fictional snowsuit as purple, putting myself in the story and bringing it into my own mornings when hours of play turned crisp chill into soggy cold.
I also learned that, in a place as iconic as New York City, something that catches your eye may already have a literary memorial. On one of the last weekends before James’s birth, I bicycled up Manhattan to the George Washington Bridge, where a snug red lighthouse nestles under the immense gray span. In replies to my predictable Instagram post, I learned that The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge (1942) is a local touchstone on the attractive theme that everyone’s work is necessary—the lighthouse thinks the bridge will make it obsolete, but is reassured that its little light still matters. Now James has that book, a gift from a friend, and I wonder whether he will notice that the tugboats and barges that occasionally ply the river still look much the same as they did 80 years ago.
I spent a part of the summer reading the Library of America’s new two-volume edition of Wendell Berry’s nonfiction. This was another backward reach: I met Berry before I could read, at a draft horse auction in Ohio, and I’ve read his agrarian essays and communitarian, anti-capitalist criticism since I could read as an adult. His ideal of an economy of caregiving, not extractive but renewing, not acquisitive but joyous and generous, has been a point of my compass. So has his version of patriotism: a burdensome, trying, mandatory struggle with your legacies of harm, as well as a special interest in your country’s chance at being “a thing decent in possibility.” But I’ve struggled with his faith in the local and his mistrust of politics on any ambitious scale. I can’t imagine a transformation as deep as the one he wants that isn’t sharply political and doesn’t expand our sense of responsibility internationally, even if it also deepens that sense locally. Rereading him didn’t resolve any of these questions, but it took me back to finding, in him, a writer who had made a voice from materials I knew well: brushy, eroded hillsides; the bare gray trees of Appalachian winter; the way cool air comes down on a hayfield after sunset and soothes scratched arms that have been wrestling bales in the heat.
Another book helped me to reckon with my own past as a child of the late Cold War—middle-school age when the Berlin Wall fell. I had an abstract bent, and when I arrived at college, the political philosopher John Rawls was teaching what I think was the last lecture course of his long career, on the themes of his Theory of Justice, probably the most influential work in the field in the second half of the 20th century. In my earnest undergraduate way, I revered Rawls’s ambition to define a philosophical formula that could justify a social order on truly equal terms, but I also resisted a certain abstraction that made the theory hard to connect with the on-the-ground environmental justice work I had been involved with at home in West Virginia before leaving for school. Katrina Forrester’s new study of Rawls and post-World War II liberalism, In the Shadow of Justice, brilliantly maps the terrain where I was wandering, showing how Rawls’s monumental work, which defined what political philosophy was for generations, was itself a product of a very specific American moment: a time of elite consensus, economic optimism, and an ascendant philosophical method that put great stock in implicit agreement rather than pervasive conflict. That world has passed, but the thought it produced remains, and the awkward way that the one has perched on the other accounts for some of my bewilderment decades ago.
One of my favorite books of the year was another new one, Robert Macfarlane’s Underland. It is a study of the landscapes of deep time, the ways that descending into caves and catacombs, underground rivers and ancient glaciers, can train us to see how very old and strange the world is beneath its surface. It is the most fully achieved work in Macfarlane’s project of finding paths to re-enchantment—new sources of wonder in a damaged world, motivations to defend it that have joy as well as fear in them.
Time is also the theme of Martin Hagglund’s This Life, which had lodged this thought in my mind: a great part of the point of progressive politics is the struggle for time—for control of it, for the freedom to face an honest reckoning with what is worth doing with our fleeting lives. Imagine Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day,” which famously asks, “what is it you plan to do/With your one wild and precious life?” and extend it to hundreds of pages of dense and passionate arguments with St. Augustine, Kierkegaard, Marx, Knausgaard, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and you have a sense of Hagglund’s project.
When James was born, sleepless but lifted by the energy of falling in love with this new person, I read him Milton’s Paradise Lost. I had never been through it. It is amazing—so much richer and more vital than I had allowed myself to expect. Reading it aloud—as my wife and I did with Emily Wilson’s Odyssey when it came out—was the way to meet it. Small freaks stayed with me: Milton has the rebel angels “canceled” by God from heaven’s memory, upon landing in hell Satan sends Mammon to found a mining operation (the devil a mine boss! It would have made sense to James’s coal-miner great-grandfather), and when the angel Raphael visits Eden, Adam and Eve make him a fruit salad. But the real wonder of the work is the reminder that language really is the first special effect: The scale of the story is literally cosmic, with angels and devils tumbling across galaxies and planes of creation, and the account of the Earth’s coming into being stirred a mental montage of every episode of Nova that I watched as a child and of Planet Earth as an adult: a world swirled into being from the materials of chaos, shaped by the planetary floods of its “God moved on the waters” phase, eventually birthing herds of beasts from its soil.
Milton’s account of creation famously gave Philip Pullman the phrase, “his dark materials,” the rubric for his wildly popular YA trilogy. As early-parenthood exultation receded before exhaustion, I started looking for simpler fantasy than Milton for long nights. Pullman’s prequel to His Dark Materials, The Book of Dust, was almost unreadably flat and derivative. I remember weeping while staying up all night reading the original series, so the disappointment felt close to betrayal when the only storyline that held my interest was the protagonists’ recurring difficulty finding diapers for the important baby (Lyra, later the heroine of the series) in their care. I did, however, thrill to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928), feeling the same wonder I always do in reading Woolf that a writer can be so incisive at every level: the cut of the observation, the perfect unsentimental sympathy of the feeling, the fine balance of the sentence. Orlando suited the moment because it is a romp, a pastiche of literature and of literary culture (any one of its set-pieces on the vanity of writers would set the standard for a decade of The New Yorker’s “Shouts and Murmurs”) that is also a brilliant, prescient treatment of gender’s fluidity and strangeness. Woolf spotted that late-Medieval romance, with its phantasmagoric scene-changing and wild unreality, was the perfect template to let a character switch from “man” to “woman” and explore the boundaries between those while imposing no obligation on the author to explain the shifts except as occasion for remarking on the strangeness of both categories.
Maybe the greatest intellectual pleasure of this year was making the belated acquaintance of Stuart Hall, the very great cultural theorist and trenchant critic of Thatcher’s neoliberalism who died in 2014. I began reading Hall’s essays in Selected Political Writings (2017), and soon found that there was no one else with whom I wanted to think about our own moment of political sadism and confusion. Hall put together “discourse,” feeling, and political economy in a single mode of seeing a social world. Of course that is what we need to do; it’s just that it is so hard to do. The best way I have found to attempt it is begin by reading your way into a transient harmony with someone who does it well. So I have read Hall for instruction, and also for the pleasure of thinking on the page.
How should we think about this terrible and confusing time? I learned a lot about how to think about American nationalism from historian Greg Grandin’s The End of the Myth, a study of the continuities between the bloody frontier that was central to the first hundred years of American history and the southern border that has become central today. The country’s edges have always been rallying-points for chauvinism and racism, Grandin shows, and he argues that these nationalist themes have served as distractions from inequality, class conflict, and flawed democracy at home. The border becomes a mirror through which the country sees itself darkly.
Political theorist Corey Robin also gave me a new set of lenses, in this case for the jurisprudence of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Thomas is often dismissed—in ways Robin notes are pretty racially loaded—as a lightweight right-wing hack. Robin argues that Thomas actually has a deep and tragic view of American history and the law’s place in it, which centers around the political pessimism of conservative black nationalism. Thomas doesn’t become any less disturbing in Robin’s forceful interpretation, but he becomes far more interesting and emblematic. His politics is fundamentally despairing, and much harm flows from that in his bleak view of law. But, Robin argues, this racial pessimism ironically links Thomas with much of the liberal left, which has learned to deplore the country terrible history and indefensible present injustices without developing a new politics radical enough to overcome them, so that despair feeds on itself.
This was the year that I gave belated readings to two great studies in the political economy of the present: Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s Golden Gulag (2007), on mass incarceration in California, and Quinn Slobodian’s Globalists (2018), on the ideology and institution-building of neoliberals after World War II. Rather in Hall’s spirit, they make good work of the impossible premise that to understand anything, you must understand everything. To see mass incarceration whole is to understand “the new Jim Crow,” of course, but it is also to understand the regulatory environment of municipal bonds, the condition of unused semi-rural land in post-industrial California, and the development strategies of local officials in the declining hinterlands. To understand the rise of global trade as the vanguard of a world in which “the market” is everywhere and irresistible, you have to understand the theories of politics, law, and government that its architects advanced, and the ways that “market fundamentalism” is not a flight from politics but a tactic for turning political energies to the politics-handcuffing goal of encasing markets from popular resistance, reform, or revolt.
A very different political economy, a weirdly enchanting one, is Bathsheba Demuth’s new Floating Coast, a history of life on the Bering Strait, a harsh place rich in energy—whale blubber, walrus oil, petroleum—and victim of the changing and clashing visions of modernization that the American and Russian empires have visited on it decade after decade. I don’t know a work that better combines love for the strangeness and specificity of a region—like Barry Lopez’s great Arctic Dreams in that sense—with a rigorous account of how world markets and programs of development have torn at and transformed it.
I had a strange year in fiction. Ordinarily I read a clutch of novels—Ferrante was my beloved for a season of eager discovery, and just before this year I binge-read Rachel Cusk—but this time I was immersed in Anthony Powell’s four-volume aircraft carrier of a series, A Dance to the Music of Time (1951-1975). Sometimes called “the English Proust,” Powell actually did something very different in his semi-autobiographical portrait of upper-crust English life from the Edwardian era to the 1970s. One gets little sense of the narrator’s interiority—pace Proust!—except as it is refracted through thousands of pages of close social observation, worked through willfully crooked sentences and jokes that sometimes take a page to work themselves free of the drawing rooms, bars, and hotels where they are taking form. Sometimes a couple of hundred pages would be nearly unreadable, and I’d stall out for a month. Yet it portrays how age and experience change us in the most fundamental ways, by changing who we believe the people around us to be, what we love and admire, and what bores or disgusts us, even what kinds of people we suppose that there are in the world. In these ways, a schoolchild lives in a very different world from an old person, and it changes all along the way, as if the stage on which we act is set by the implicit world-making of our own minds, which we cannot really escape except by living through it. Powell never says this, but he tracks it painstakingly, so that even the limits of the work—dullness here or there, snobbishness everywhere—are folded into its achievement: a portrait of life as the slow planing of soft boards, a self-wasting absurdity that is also our only topic.
It was in that headspace that I found myself reading Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited—looking for a sort of light Powell when I couldn’t take the denser stuff, like turning to Pullman from Milton. I didn’t know Waugh when we came across his first novel, Decline and Fall, in a tiny cache of English-language books in Greece last year, and his spare-nobody satire and perfect sentences made ideal beach reading. Brideshead is a strange book, like a religious interlude in the midst of one of Powell’s lives, as coruscating and deft as any of the satires, but walking a drunken path to some kind of mystical Catholicism. Whatever Waugh thought of this book, to me it read like the work of someone perfectly in command of his tools but overwhelmed by his themes, like a master costume-jewel whose workshop has been lifted by a tsunami.
I usually read more poetry than I did this year, but one collection got to me: Ryan Walsh’s Reckonings, which describes growing up in West Virginia, around mines and chemical plants, surrounded by people you love who are dying. There is claustrophobia here, in hollows, big families, and very small towns, but also helpless attachment, which combine in the feeling that you have to get out of the only place you will ever belong. I lent it to my father-in-law, who grew up in the “chemical valley” of the Kanawha River, son of a coal miner. He handed it back not much later. It was too much, he said, to absorb such a fine rendering of such implacable pain.
Chigozie Obioma explores the thematic power and appeal of fate in his masterful sophomore novel, An Orchestra of Minorities. “I think it’s the question of fate’s unknowingness, its unquestionability, its irrationality, its madness, its unpredictability, its mercy, its brutality, its generosity, its elusiveness, its banality, its vitality, and all the things you can ascribe to it. It is the most metaphysical of all phenomena—if we can call it a phenomenon. I cannot conceive of a greater topic for great literature,” he said.
Narrated by a chi, or guardian
spirit, Obioma’s latest novel follows the life of Chinonso, a poultry farmer,
whose entire world changes when he comes upon a young woman named Ndali, who is
preparing to jump from a bridge. Soon, Chinonso and Ndali find themselves in
love. But, like most things, their relationship proves itself to be more
complicated than either of them could have expected. Burdened and blessed by
the weight of sacrifice, determination, and destiny, Obioma takes readers on a
journey that weaves from the physical world into the spiritual one.
Obioma and I spoke about classic
literature, Nigerian influence, and human limitations.
The Millions: When I
read your novels, I recall elements of myths, epics, and even Greek tragedies.
When you set out to write, do you know you’ll be telling your stories in a
style and language that is reflective of these forms?
Chigozie Obioma: My answer would be that I grew up consuming Greek myth and Shakespeare, and Igbo tales. Across them, there is a tight thread, woven into a knot, which makes it almost impossible to tell them apart from each other. The universality of the archetypes in these stories—whether it is of the murderously ambitious serviceman who becomes convinced he must become king (in Macbeth) or the murderously angry man who becomes convinced that his life’s duty must be to hunt down the man who killed his father (Oedipus Rex) or of the man who embarks on a far journey into the forest of the Living and the Dead to reclaim his male potency (the tale of Ojadili)—make some of the most fascinating stories I have encountered.
So when I write, I’m often drawn unconsciously to these. The only conscious choice I make in this regard is in picking my subjects. I’m more chiefly concerned with metaphysics of existence and essence as they relate to the Igbo philosophy of being. We believe that life is in essence a dialectic between free will and destiny. It is a paradox: that you can make a choice, yet, that everything is preordained? And it is in this space that I anchor my stories.
TM: Do you think
you’ll ever veer away and write another kind of novel?
CO: I’m not sure but I know, by the short fiction I’ve written, that I’m capable of doing that. The issue is, the subjects I have been choosing are often so vast, so expansive they demand to be told in new ways. It is a constant surprise for me, personally. In fact, when the idea of narrative structure of The Fishermen first came to me, I waved it off as crazy. But as I wrote the book, it demanded that Ben tell the story that way. For An Orchestra of Minorities, I resisted the very challenging task of creating the chi. But again, the subject and vision for the novel demanded this structure. We will see what happens in the future.
TM: Your two novels
are both set largely in Nigeria, and there is a clear love and respect of place
in your prose. Do you think of Nigeria as being a character in itself in your
CO: Absolutely, in
both novels. The Fishermen has been correctly read as a metaphor for how
Nigeria was created by the chaos left in the aftermath of the encounter with
the madman (therein the colonialists who insisted we must become this specific
way). Nigeria has a more physical presence in An Orchestra of Minorities.
It is the land that sends its child—Chinonso the main character—away into his
great suffering and is also the mother that embraces him when he returns.
This is my complex relationship with Nigeria even on a personal level. It
is at once the home that sent me away, out of it because of its lack of
provisions for me, and it is the home that embraces me whenever I return.
TM: From where did you
get the idea to write An Orchestra of Minorities?
CO: I had been thinking for a long time about writing a novel about the Igbo civilization, a cosmological novel that will document for posterity the complex systems of my people. I wanted, in essence, to do what John Milton and Dante Alighieri did for Western civilization. But I didn’t know how to go about it until I moved to the Turkish republic of Northern Cyprus and encountered a Nigerian man who was duped into moving to North Cyprus and, when he discovered he had lost everything, got drunk and died tragically after falling from a three-story building. That became the inspiration for Chinonso. I wrote about that experience for The Guardian in 2016.
TM: I have to ask
about the narrator of An Orchestra of Minorities. A chi, or guardian
spirit, is who tells of the story of Chinonso and Ndali. Is having a narrator
who isn’t restricted by human limitations more difficult to write because of
the unknown boundaries? Or does that sense of freedom make the chi easier to
CO: The answer would
be both, but I imagine that the latter category will receive precedence. This
is because of the nature of the chi itself and the journeys it undertakes. The
Igbo has a concept of the heavenlies, a place where the afterlife happens. But
various zones and places in the Igbo nation do not have a unified description
of what it looks like. And where the descriptions are present, they are not as
comprehensive as you’d have, say, heaven in the Judeo-Christian tradition. So,
I had to invent something as close enough to what our ancestors would have
believed Alandiichie must have looked like. Things like this were very
difficult to do. But also, as you noted, the chi isn’t restricted by human
limitations so one has some space to write it without any fear of logical
inconsistencies or logistics. But the chi is also limited by a central
cosmological belief of the Igbo people. And it is more than 700 years old, so,
its memory is vast and to keep up with its commentary on life and being, to
continuously give it consistent prelapsarian eloquence—which sometimes allows
it to function as both a first and third person narrator—was difficult.
TM: Most of the
chapters begin with Chinonso’s chi offering wisdom. In one of the early
sections, the chi says, “Fear exists because of the presence of anxiety and
anxiety because humans cannot see the future. For if only a man could see the
future, he would be more at peace.” Do you think that’s true for contemporary
CO: I think so, at least as far as I know. There is a constant quest to know the future, to divine into matters we do not know. This is an ancient, almost primal quest that humanity has been engaging in. This is why Americans go to the tea leaf readers and Nigerians to “Miracle Center” churches and traditional priests. Que sera sera—what will I be? Will I be rich? Will I get that job? How about kids, will I have them? Are you sure this is the right man or woman to marry? OK, well, when will I die? And etcetera. I dealt with this fear as the central inciting action in The Fishermen as well.
TM: Thematically, this
novel looks closely at the value of sacrifice and the limits of love. However,
I want to focus on one theme that I think of most of all when thinking of An
Orchestra of Minorities: how fate shapes our lives. Chinonso struggles
constantly with the idea of his own life’s fate. Ndali and Chinonso’s chi do
too, but with some limits. What is it about fate that makes it such a compelling
CO: I think it’s the question of fate’s unknowingness, its unquestionability, its irrationality, its madness, its unpredictability, its mercy, its brutality, its generosity, its elusiveness, its banality, its vitality, and all the things you can ascribe to it. It is the most metaphysical of all phenomena—if we can call it a phenomenon. I cannot conceive of a greater topic for great Literature. As we speak, I’m writing an essay titled “Retreat from the Metaphysical” which looks at how great fiction has always tackled these questions and how modern fiction seems to be looking more and more at the self and to become more and more solipsistic because our vision of the scarcity of life is being obscured by the overwhelming abundance provided us by capitalism. Think of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Milton’s Paradise Lost which dealt with the question of foreknowledge and predestination—these are centered around the question of fate.
That said, fate is at the center of the Igbo-Odinani belief system. And if there is anything I have been trying to achieve in my work to date it is to center African philosophical ideas in the world discourse. Look around at the vast oceans of ideologies that mean anything today even to Africans themselves and none comes from us. The agelong erroneous belief that we had no complex systems of thought continues unchallenged, and today, even our intellectuals tramples on our cultural beliefs and philosophy. An Orchestra of Minorities shines a light on many strands of Igbo thought, and one of them is the essence of fate and its place in the cosmology of human existence.
TM: Chinonso is such a
complicated man. He saves someone’s life by sacrificing that which he values so
much. He loves. He tries to better himself. But he is also deeply flawed. He
does things rashly. He has a bad temper. He abandons who he is. I don’t want to
spoil too much, but what do you hope readers take away from Chinonso?
CO: I think this is open to the reader. I completely agree with you that Chinonso is very complicated and he is all of these things. But there is a line about him from the book that I always think about: “He has been vandalized by a spiritual politics into which he had been unwillingly conscripted.” This is my view of him. I think he is changed mostly by the things that had happened to him, and that test his humanity. And sometimes, when our humanity is tested beyond what we can bear, we can fail. This was the central theme of William Golding’s classic, Lord of the Flies.
But also, there is the element of
the physical politics that vandalize him: being defrauded by others and the
international racism he faces in Cyprus, which causes him to be unfairly
jailed. These things shape and reshape him, and his character evolves all
through the story till the last act in which he becomes, himself, a vandal.
TM: Readers fond of Homer’s epic Greek poem The Odyssey will likely view An Orchestra of Minorities as a contemporary retelling of sorts. How heavy of an influence was that text as you began writing? Did you always know your novel would have some similarities?
CO: In a way, yes. As I was plotting, it occurred to me that Chinonso’s journey would resemble that of Odysseus. So, I had him read the book as a child and use Odysseus’s story as a device to encourage him to continue on during times when it feels as though his troubles are beginning to sink him. But this is not a rewrite or re-imagining or retelling of Homer’s tale. There are just similarities.
recommendations are basically what I live for. There are a few weeks until An
Orchestra of Minorities is available, so I want to ask you something a
little different as we close. Are there any books you suggest readers check out
before they pick up your book? Ones that might help put readers in the perfect
place before they get to know the story of Chinonso and Ndali?
CO: I would ask them to read John Milton’s classic Paradise Lost, if they haven’t done so. I would also recommend Dante’s Inferno. For an understanding of some of the Igbo traditions readers will encounter in my book, I recommend Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God. But absent these, great contemporary books I have recently read and loved are Gun Love by Jennifer Clement and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean Dominique Bauby.
Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities is scheduled
to hit bookstore shelves on Jan. 8, 2019. Chigozie will be on tour to promote
his latest release. Be sure to check him out at one of his scheduled events:
1/8/2019, 5:00 PM: University of Nebraska/ Lincoln, NE
7:30 PM: Greenlight Bookstore/ Brooklyn, NY with Nicole Dennis-Benn
7:00 PM: Harvard Bookstore/ Cambridge, MA with Okey Ndibe
7:00 PM: Books & Books/ Coral Gables, FL
7:00 PM: Novel Neighbor with the International Institute of St. Louis and
WeStories/ St. Louis, MO
7:00 PM: Brazos Bookstore, Houston, TX
7:00 PM: Raven Bookstore/ Lawrence, KS
7:00 PM: Madison Central Library/ Madison, WI
6:30 PM: Indigo Bridge Books/ Lincoln, NE
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for June.
Looking for additional book recommendations? One of the benefits of subscribing to The Millions is access to our exclusive monthly newsletter in which our venerable staffers let you know what they’re reading right now. Learn more here.
Frankenstein in Baghdad
An American Marriage
Three books are off to our Hall of Fame this month, but one of them is completely blank, which I believe is a first for our site. Back in November 2017, in Hannah Gersen’s Gift Guide for Readers and Writers, she noted the benefits of the 5-Year Diary‘s design:
The design is unique in that every page represents one day and is divided into five parts, with each part representing one year. So, when you write your entry for Feb 1, you can look back at Feb 1 of the previous year to see what you were doing/writing/reading/thinking/weathering. I think it’s especially useful for writers because if you use the space to track writing and reading projects (as I often do), it’s a great way to gauge your long-term progress.
Accompanying the Diary are two works from Carmen Maria Machado and Jesmyn Ward.
Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties was the darling of our most recent Year in Reading series, picked by seven participants – Jamel Brinkley, Morgan Jerkins, Rakesh Satyal, Julie Buntin, Lidia Yuknavitch, Louise Erdrich and Jeff VanderMeer – who together sang a chorus of Buy this Book, Buy this Book, Buy this Book. Over the chorus came Nathan Goldman, who wrote in his review for our site that “for all its darkness, Her Body and Other Parties is also a beautiful evocation of women’s—especially queer women’s—lives, in all their fullness, vitality, and complex joy. Formally daring, achingly moving, wildly weird, and startling in its visceral and aesthetic impact, Machado’s work is unlike any other.” Evidently, Millions readers dug the tune.
Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing was also well-received, drawing praise from four of the seven Year in Reading participants linked above, as well as from Kima Jones and Sarah Smarsh. In her review for our site, Nur Nasreen Ibrahim observed that “Ward’s fiction is about inherited trauma in a deeply divided society, where the oppressor and the oppressed share a legacy” and she also pointed to the other works invoked within the text. “By invoking [Toni] Morrison and [William] Faulkner for new readers,” Ibrahim wrote, “Ward excavates not only the suffering of her characters, but also the long tradition of fiction about slavery, fiction that grapples with racial injustice that extends into the present.”
Elsewhere on our list this month, My Favorite Thing is Monsters returns after a monthlong hiatus, and newcomers An American Marriage and The Overstory fill our ninth and tenth spots, respectively. In the weeks ahead, we’ll publish our Great Second-Half 2018 Book Preview, and surely several of those upcoming titles will be reflected on our July list. Get ready.
I imagine the only thing worse than being a kid with a summer reading assignment due in little more than a month is being the parent of a kid with a summer reading assignment due in little more than a month. Has the fighting begun? The daily reminders and the task-mastering and the endless, tedious, summer-joy sucking arguments? We might still have a good week or so before the upcoming school year reaches back into blissful summer time and asks, not kindly, how far along you are in your summer reading assignments.
I teach high school English in a town that has a mandated summer reading program. The program prides itself on being more progressive than most: students are allowed to choose their books, provided that those books are represented in the Accelerated Reader Program database. The kids keep track of how many “points” each book is worth, as determined by the program, and are asked to read a different number of points depending on what level of English they are enrolled in. Students in Standard English must read 10 points, Academic English students read 20, and Honors read 30. Point value is determined, as far as I can tell, by the number of pages. So this means that on average, students are asked to read somewhere between one and four books over the summer to meet the requirement.
Then comes September. We don’t quiz them on the first day, or even the first week, because everyone would fail. The policy is that the students have until the end of September to “finish” their summer reading, and by this date, must log into the software in their English teacher’s presence and complete the AR quiz on the books that they read. Most students use this time afforded to them to swap summaries of books with simple plots, to recall what books they might have read with their middle school English classes and never tested on, or to calculate how many three-point Dr. Seuss books they would have to test on to reach their assigned point value. Last year The Hunger Games movie was released, and about 50 percent of my students tested on that book. Students test every year on the Harry Potter books, because HBO runs the films for week-long stretches, giving kids every opportunity to get the plot down.
Watching them game the system, it seems it takes more work to successfully not read than it would to just pick up a book.
Yes, there are ways that I could crack down on the requirements and my watchfulness of their testing practices. But I can’t bring myself around to it. Summer reading assignments are a waste of time, and I’m a busy lady. Not only that, but focusing on the Accelerated Reader point values of books and testing the students on inane and helplessly specific plot points would fly directly in the face of all of the work that I am doing in September to teach my students about being readers.
I have some readers in my classes: they are the kids in September who couldn’t care less about the Summer Reading assignment. They’ll search through the database for two or three of the 10 books they read this summer, and test on those. They’ll do well enough, though they will often be frustrated to earn a 70 percent on a book that they read 100 percent of because they missed question 6: Couldn’t remember what color shoes the protagonist’s uncle bought him before moving away. For readers, AR will just be an annoyance, or at worst a source of unwarranted stress, because they already know how disconnected summer reading assignments are from the true motivations and rewards of reading.
But my non-readers. I’m spending September trying to teach them the practices of readers. I’m stressing the payoffs, I’m playing book matchmaker, I’m modeling my own practices and talking about my favorite books in my classroom library. I’m telling them how they were born with a love of reading, reminding them of The Giving Tree and The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and Captain Underpants, and telling them that school took this love of reading from them, killed it. And then, gritting my teeth, I’m reminding them that they have to complete their department-mandated summer reading assignment by September 28th.
Summer reading assignments and reading quizzes and book reports don’t teach our students how to be readers. They teach them that reading is a school-centered activity. That it is a chore. That they aren’t good at it if they can’t remember insignificant plot points. These assignments set students up to cheat, or to fail, and always to regard reading as a drag.
This is how we breed kids who say they “hate reading.” The very act itself. They don’t like the books they have been forced to read, and so they’ve written off the entire activity, as if being forced to eat their vegetables had driven them to swear off food entirely.
Summer reading assignments aren’t just ruining students’ last few glorious weeks of summer, aren’t just adding to the already arduous load of summer assignments from other classes and adding stress to what should be a period of freedom, aren’t just causing fights at the dinner table and taking away Xbox playing privileges. Summer reading assignments are killing a love of reading.
You read for its own sake. To learn, to travel, to be spooked or heartbroken or elated. To grow.And when you do this, when reading becomes something that you authentically value, you become a better reader and writer without even trying. You start to reach for more advanced reading material, inferring word meaning, connecting with characters and identifying their growth, interpreting nuances of meaning and symbolism with delight and awe. When you write, your sentence structure becomes more complex and sophisticated. You write with greater imagery. You take emotional risks, understanding that good writing is honest.
I know because I see it happen. When I take away book reports and reading quizzes, when I eliminate deadlines for finishing books and specific title requirements, my students are free to read books that they choose, and as the year progresses, they choose more and more and more.
“How are we being graded on this?” they ask, at the beginning of the year. “You get full credit just by reading,” I respond, and they stare at me confused for a second longer before shrugging and turning their eyes back to the page.
I don’t assign anything to reward or punish them for being readers. What I do, is assess their skills as the year progresses. That’s how I know that that when you read a lot of books you like, you become a better reader and writer without even trying. That’s how I know that my instruction meets the Common Core State Standards for Education without ever forcing them to read The Odyssey, or making them take a test on a book.
That’s why I don’t want anything to do with assigned summer reading.
In June of last year, my students wrote book reviews which I posted on my website organized by genre. Their classmates and my students who followed are able to reference this list for recommendations. This year, my students wrote letters to an author who influenced them. Almost all of the students were writing to an author of a book that they chose to read this year. Many of them were writing: “Your book is the first book that I actually read.” Or: “Your book taught me that I don’t hate reading.”
Because there were no reading deadlines, most of my students were in the middle of a book when the last day of school came around, and so summer reading was something that was just going to happen.
And what if it doesn’t? What if, after reading all year and understanding its value and feeling the sense of ownership that comes with making his own decisions about what he does and learns, a kid still chooses not to read a single book in July or August?
Like I said, I’m a busy lady. This is just not something I can get worked up over. I’ll catch you in September, and we’ll do it right.
Image Credit: Flickr/Martha W McQuade.
My daughter’s birthday comes in June. Every year since the first year, I’ve made her a birthday cake—strawberry shortcake, which seemed appropriate for the summery month, her love of berries. The cake became an instant tradition, as many things with children instantly do. It’s a Hot Milk Sponge Cake, berries macerated in sugar, whipped cream. It isn’t a shortcake, which is commoner. And it isn’t better than another sponge cake recipe I have, one that’s quicker, easier, requiring fewer ingredients and less time. But I keep going back to the Hot Milk Sponge, because of the recipe.
Not the ingredients. Not taste. The paper with the handwritten recipe itself. Because it reminds me of Betty, a long ago boyfriend’s mother, the woman who first made the cake, then wrote out the recipe for me. The writing’s faded, the green lined paper it’s written on going waxy with age. I’ve typed it out against the possibility that one day I’ll open my Joy of Cooking, where I store recipes I’ve cut out of magazines or printed or that have been given to me like this one, and like an ancient Polaroid photo, it will have disappeared. And along with it, my connection to her.
Because what I’m looking for when I hunt through my recipe collection isn’t really Hot Milk Sponge Cake. It’s a connection to my personal history, a road map of where I’ve been and who I’ve known. Recipes are connectors, the roads too small to show on maps.
And they aren’t all written down. Like The Odyssey or a Studs Terkel interview, they can be passed along in other ways.
When my mother-in-law died, we had a small service with food afterwards. It was mostly family, a few close friends. Her friend Anita was there. They’d known each other for more than 50 years, and Anita was very upset. I extended a hand, reached out to touch her shoulder, but she didn’t want consolation.
After the service, we ate the food we’d carried there. I’d brought egg-and-onion, a dish my grandmother made. She knew it was a dish I loved, and when I was coming, she made it for me. It is how some people show love, by giving you the things they know you like to eat: that repetition. I once told someone I liked her lemon meringue pie. She made it every time she saw me after that.
I’ve updated my grandmother’s dish — I make it with olive oil, though she likely used chicken fat. Mine is lighter, less deadly. Anita had some after the service.
“Who made this?” she said. “I haven’t tasted this taste since my mother died.”
I told her its history — the part about my grandmother, the part about the olive oil. I’ve told this story many times, I am fluent in it.
“It’s so good,” Anita said, and said again. Later, she asked me for the recipe. I sent it to her. It comforted her in a way she couldn’t otherwise be comforted. And it connected us — me to my grandmother, Anita to her mother, the two of us to each other.
In the front of my Joy of Cooking is a recipe, in her hand, for Elizabeth’s Raspberry Buns. I make them smaller than she did, and my daughter and I renamed them Thumbkins, because you push a floured thumb into the center of each ball of dough before filling it with jam, but what I remember when I make them is Elizabeth herself, the antique samplers she collected and hung on her walls, the lunches and dinners we had together.
There is Andy’s rice salad, written on a piece of stationery so familiar to me it trips longing to be in their house whenever I see it.
There is a recipe in my own handwriting on the back of a piece of paper with notes from a biography of Margaret Mead I wrote and published years ago. There I am.
Recipes are a way of bridging metaphorical distance too: another way they are like maps. On Thanksgiving, we go to Kate’s house, where a table is set for 20 or more—some who wander in because they are temporarily or otherwise without family, others who always come. Everybody brings food.
Last year I made a green bean casserole, the kind my aunt always made at Thanksgiving when I was a girl out of canned soup and crispy canned onions. I made a version that used fresh everything and I brought it to Kate’s and two of the other women there came over and said How did you do it?! We’ve been trying to make a good version of this for 25 years! I told them what I’d done.
There I am again.
We are cooks, my friends and I: cooking is something that binds us and grounds us. My sister takes cookbooks to bed, reads them the way other people read novels. My daughter and I like biographies, or volumes of letters about/by people who’ve made their lives in food—James Beard, Ruth Reichl, Amanda Hesser. Recipes, like maps, give you places to go, tell you how to get there.
I’ve been friends with Tessa since childhood, we’ve had many many meals together. I ate the wonderful food her mother prepared when we were girls; now I cook some of it. We’ve cooked together and separately, with and for each other. The orange marmalade she and Andy make every year, a long, painstaking process. My pasta with tomatoes and breadcrumbs. Her cinnamon rolls.
A few Saturdays ago we were speaking on the phone. We hadn’t talked in a while, we had things to catch up on, some difficult. We are at an age where, often, things are difficult—work, aging parents, questions of health. Things that made me feel cracked with sadness. And then we talked about lentil soup.
How much better it is made with tiny green lentils than the musty brown kind. How I like to make it thick and put tomatoes and vegetables in it and serve it over rice.
We were reassuring each other. Patting our way back to the beginning of adult life, when we both first started to cook—to continue the traditions of food we’d grown up with or to transcend them, begin our own. My egg and onion isn’t my grandmother’s. My green bean casserole isn’t my aunts. But they also are. Food—recipes—are what we talk about when we are telling each other: I’m here. It’s okay. Life, despite sadness, has this in it too.
Recipes themselves appeal to me because they are small and finite: little works. You set yourself a goal, pursue and finish it, it doesn’t take very long. That’s the opposite of what I spend my time doing. The longest, most complicated recipe I ever made took me a day. A novel takes years.
But recipes connect me to people too, both people I don’t know (Beard, Reichel, Hesser) and people I do — all the people who took the time to write out a recipe for something I loved, something they’d first prepared for me—friends, my aunt, my once-upon-a-time boyfriend’s mother. I haven’t always made the recipes. But it’s the handwriting, the road that travels both forward and back, that’s important to me.
When we were talking about lentil soup, Tessa told me Zina, her daughter, had made one with coconut and lemon grass.
“That sounds delicious,” I said. “Will she send me the recipe?
And when my daughter calls and says she wants me to teach her to make a certain dish my heart expands.
She once asked me what the most valuable thing I had was. I wanted to say “you,” but she was too old for that answer to satisfy. She meant something tangible—silver, paintings, pearls.
I don’t have things like that, or miss them or crave them, nothing spectacular to leave her. But if I had said to her then “It’s my old Joy of Cooking, stuffed with recipes,” I don’t think she would have understood it. Now I think she will. Because inside the front cover of that book is her past and mine and my grandmother’s. Tastes she’s grown up with, things she can give her children when they come. A true inheritance.
Oh, look, she’ll say one day, thumbing through the recipes. Hot Milk Sponge Cake. I remember that.
Image credit: Flickr/billhr.