Friday, September 06, 2013

first/third world problems

1. i had to look up the spelling of rosh hashana

My boss sent me an email wishing me a happy Jewish New Year. I told her that my dad’s dad converted and became a priest and I wasn’t technically Jewish, but that I liked fresh starts of all kinds, so I’d accept her good wishes. And today was my first day back at work after surgery, and wearing something other than glorified pajamas did feel kind of first-day-of-school-ish.

(And, like many actual first days of school in SoCal, it was absurdly hot. How many times did I trek to my public high school sweating in plaids and sweaters that evoked some East Coast prep school fantasy?)

Orange is the new school year.
My convalescence was a nice balance between serious rest and writing/reading, meaning I felt like I didn’t do quite enough of either. Today I began my new life as post-cancer patient for reals. Meaning I get to spend a lot of time making sure my meds don’t give me osteoporosis (another tally mark in the Prematurely Old column) and hoping that I don’t get funky scar tissue in my radiated right boob that would require another surgery.

My college history prof liked to remind us that post-modernism was by definition linked to modernism. I would say the same of post-cancerism.

But hey, it’s all better than cancer, right? (My weary but true mantra. Also a mantra that is sometimes stated—subtly or unsubtly—to me by doctors and friends. I want to say, Yes, absolutely, I am thoroughly and genuinely grateful to be alive and have good health and health care…but when you complained about that guy who boxed you into your parking spot, did I shame you for disliking something other than cancer? Part of the glory of being alive is complaining about life!*)

2. real lives happen somewhere else

I spent a lot of my week off reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and watching a documentary called The Farmer’s Wife. The former is an epic novel about two immigrants who leave Nigeria for better educational and job opportunities. One comes to the U.S. legally and is relatively privileged—she gets a degree and has nice boyfriends and starts a blog—though her life isn’t without struggle. The other, her college sweetheart, lands in England illegally and cleans toilets and feels depressed and anxious and (spoiler alert -->) gets deported.

It’s a wonderful book for many reasons that I’ll post on Goodreads when I finish, but one thing I love is how it’s about survival. I suppose all good books are on some level, but this one breaks it down penny by penny, visa by visa.

And yet it’s also about spiritual survival. As Obinze observes: “The [British party] guests…understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave.”

Real lives happen here.
I’ve mentioned before how the idea of “first world problems” is problematic, and this novel breaks down the barrier between the first and third worlds while being more explicit about cultural/racial/economic differences than almost any other book I’ve read. If wealthy Brits and academic Americans think they’re the only ones who care about intellectual fulfillment and how their hair looks, that’s just another delusion of their caste.

The Nebraska farm family at the center of The Farmer’s Wife is less educated than Obinze and Ifemelu, although they have access to government programs and other amenities that would be off limits to Americanah’s Obinze and Ifemelu. Filmed for three years in the mid-nineties, Darrel and Juanita work from before sunup until the wee hours of the morning to maintain their small farm while earning money by working in a factory and cleaning houses, respectively.

All-American family that has been fucked by America.
It, too, is a penny-by-penny story, but it’s also the story of artistic passion and marital struggle. It’s easy to side with Juanita, who despite having only a high school education, quickly learns the business skills necessary to save them from financial ruin. All while caring for three little girls, slopping the hogs and sharing her knowledge with other local farmers. Darrel, who can be a bit of a jerk, resents her leadership and feels like less of a man. But when he talks about how much he loves planting seeds in the dirt in the moonlight, you know you’re listening to an artist. As much as farming may seem like the ultimate survival-oriented “third world” activity (why do you think so many gentlemen use their trust funds to do it?), it’s as spiritual and elevated as any poem. (And in our fucked-up factory-farm economy, it’s also a luxury.)

So, is anything that feeds you—literally—third world? And is anything that feeds your soul first world? What if something does both? What if it does neither?** If you die in a first-world way—if you get a brain tumor because you’ve had a cell phone pressed to your ear since the early nineties—are you less admirable than if you die of malaria? If you are rendered invisible by the facts of your race and immigration status, are your thoughts and emotions less nuanced than those of a tenured professor?

I have a tendency to take everything to heart, so maybe I am getting worked up about a claim no one is actually making. Adichie would say this is a very American trait, this obsession with honesty regardless of context. But, well, these are the things I think about when I’m not busy preventing osteoporosis.

*In this way maybe I am a little bit Jewish?
**I guess that would be Facebook.


RT said...

"Americanah" is next on my towering bedside list of reading material. And luckily, being not-so-Prematurely Old, I'll have forgotten the spoiler by the time I get to it!

Glad you're up and about. We'll have to do lunch.

Cheryl said...

It's not so much a book about plot anyway. A common refrain in book club was, "I kept waiting for something to HAPPEN." And lots does happen, it just takes many good, good pages.

Lunch = YES. I've been thinking the same thing!