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My Favorite Books - a Reflection on Culture and Identity
The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Season of Migration to the North, The Fatherland, Americanah, The Great Gatsby
What I find so magical about “favorites” - favorite anything’s - chocolates, cities, books, movies, people, is that they’re rarely memorable because of a tangy flavor, a pinpointable quote, or a specific memory. If anything, they’re often quite unjustified, perhaps a result of someone putting words in our mouths by demanding a self -introduction involving favorites, which ensures that many of these choices are often arbitrary or tainted with recency bias, which we subconsciously internalize afterwards into canned responses to future introductory questions that we can conveniently dish out. But largely, they’re favorites because they somehow refurbish how we see ourselves; we like the version of ourselves that existed in the quiet dawn over Stockholm city, or perched upon a windowsill looking for her own enchanting green light.
So much of our identity lives only in the palace of our mind. Unhappiness, as I’ve experienced it, often finds roots through events in our life that contradict our idealized image of ourselves –– a moral slipup, or a failure that temporarily impedes our progress towards a future we’ve conceived –– or perhaps the loss of someone whose external gaze gave rise to more self-affection. The haze of time also grants “favorites” a magical sheen, and they become sacred, embellished, redefined. The reason I say all of this is because I realize the sore lack of justification for why exactly many of the works below transformed me; I can only speak to the feeling I felt when experiencing them, some fleeting, some more persistent, but most appropriated into memories of the works that only carry shadowy whispers of the artist’s original intent.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera (1984)
This is one of those books that worked its magic steadily only years after I initially read it. I had been ensnared by the title, and upon picking it up, romped through the pages starry-eyed and frankly, with an air of pseudo-intellectuality. I read it quickly, and the only remarkable dent it left in my life were the scratchy, scribbly copies of Kundera’s lines in my journal from summer of ‘15. The plot of the piece quickly faded, but I found myself returning often to those lines; etched in dark ink, I copied: “anyone whose goal is 'something higher' must expect someday to suffer vertigo. What is vertigo? Fear of falling? No, Vertigo is something other than fear of falling. It is the voice of the emptiness below us which tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves.” I was a rising sophomore in high school then, and this quote is sandwiched between journal entries of “to-do list before school starts” and “2015-2016 extra curricular activities plans” ––and numerous notes belonging to someone with an internal sense of self that still struggled to find light: someone who found identity solely through exploration, achievements, and the happiness of my parents. But despite this fledging sense of self that was shadowed by a need for external validation, what spoke to me then speaks to me now: a desire to succumb to the indifference in charting my course ahead, yet the simultaneous demand to climb “higher” ––whatever that may mean. Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom, and as I clamber up into the clouds to survey the infinite research grants, self-study opportunities, and speaker events available below, I feel a simultaneous exhilaration and extreme vertigo. And as I further postpone these choices, albeit often subconsciously, I find myself seeking solace in the passivity that scrolling through instagram, clicking mindlessly through NYT articles, and “sophomore slump,” which offers the fact that a choice can’t be wrong if it’s not made in the first place.
Sometimes, I find the title of Kundera’s novel on my lips, with no prompting. Sometimes, blurted out as a banal response to a friend’s banter. The impact of his novel is most condensed in the simple words: “In a world in which lives are shaped by irrevocable choices and by fortuitous events, a world in which everything occurs but once, existence seems to lose its substance, its weight. Hence we feel the unbearable lightness of being.” Being itself is not unbearable; it is the gravity with which we treat this state, and the simultaneous realization that everything matters so little, that leaves us so uncomfortable. Especially in this social media age, we have been conditioned to believe that being happy is normal. We have to remind ourselves that we are designed for disquietude, and that this unbearable lightness only exists because of the moments that weigh infinities.
Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North (1966); Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Fatherland - The Refugees, (2017)
The crux of Nguyen’s short story Fatherland is the protagonist Phuong’s realization of her disillusionment with her Vietnamese family that never leaves Saigon. She feels pity for her father, a “a failure without even the glamour of decadence and bad behavior,” who plays up foreign stereotypes of Vietnam to advance his career as a tour guide, and who also loves Phuong’s sister, his daughter who had grown up in the US and who he met for the first time in 2 decades, more than he ever loves her. This disillusionment extends also to her nation, as father refers as much to her Fatherland as it does to the short, caricature of a man; she pities her nation and how it shaped its image to appease the eyes of foreigners who “only knew one thing about this country, the war.” There is no emotion as scathing as pity, and as such, it always draws my eye. Afterall, it necessitates a moral high-ground, and a renouncement of empathy through the bleak acceptance of the current state as fact, as absolute. In that same absoluteness, Phuong disdains an identity constructed solely based upon the gaze of the external eye, where that identity is reduced to an outline, a series of stories, and an itinerary of war sights.
For a culture to be palatable, it may often exist as stereotypes. For a conversation about culture to continue, it cannot remain that way. The Fatherland demanded that I also stop and ponder the image of my own motherland I had constructed in America. I have built a cross-cultural identity backdropped against formidable city skylines and refurbished with a glossy history. I proudly recount escapades from my upbringing in Shanghai; I take pride in my familiarity with Tang dynasty literature. I understand my role now as an ambassador of Chinese culture: a title that I did not invite upon myself, but was automatically bestowed upon me. I take upon this role with pride, but I also realize that at times, I flaunt not just my culture but also my “otherness”; it embellishes my identity with uniqueness, but in the process of doing so, I run the risk of bundling complex, nuanced aspects of my identity into more flavorful, digestible tropes: cheap blue and white chinaware, bamboo chopsticks engraved with Chinese print, fabric shoes embroidered with dragons and phoenixes.
I only began really thinking about the Self versus the Other upon reading Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, and as a result, this list is not complete without its mention. Set in post-colonial Sudan, it follows an unnamed narrator’s fascination with the protagonist Mustafa Sa’eed, a man educated in the West, who had a violent, hateful and complex relationship with his western identity and acquaintances. Salih explores how a clash of cultures can often lead to the generation of dualities between the perceived “Colonizer” and the “Colonized”, “East” and “West”, and the “Self” and “Other”. In these dualities, complex, multifaceted experiences are reduced to simplified snapshots that manifest as stereotypes. These stereotypes are often romanticized to the point that they become idealisms, residing in this untouchable space of perceived “absolute difference.” For months after reading Salih’s novel, I always had the words “The Noble Savage, The Exotic Other” on my lips. By then, I had stripped those words of their literary meaning, and simply began to see everything as a dichotomy between Self and Other; I became obsessed with analyzing the refurbished, carefully curated identity that is externalized through social media, exemplified in our outwards appearance and dress, and recounted through our stories. Drawing attention to how I use Celcius instead of Farenheit; posting a photo of a glamorous Shanghai city lights and captioning it “missing home”; showing a “funny” conversation between me and my parents in mandarin; what am I trying to say? What are other people trying to say in their construction of identities?
One of the earliest images emblazoned in readers’ minds in Season of Migration is that of the traditional Sudanese village. The village and its people is an image that the narrator himself cherished during his studies abroad, explaining how “For seven years I had longed for them, had dreamed of them.” his idealized village is unchanged, sterile, and rooted in the past, resulting in the division between his idealized village and the present-day one when he finally returns. I myself recognize the sterility of my own image of “home” in the traditional Chinese village where my father’s family still lives, and which I visit twice a year during Chinese holidays. My cousins, aunts and uncles lives take on a two-dimensionality rooted in locality: home-cooked food unique to Anhui, rolling hills chiseled with levels of rice paddies, dusty roads lined with remnants of firecrackers from the night of celebrations before. It is incredibly narcissistic, but I realize what looms over these memories is the image of the westernized, urbanized self that I am pressured to project when I return to the traditional Chinese village. Surprisingly, it is less about the image of America that they ask me to paint; instead, it is my image as someone who had finally left the village in pursuit of a brighter future in faraway lands. My dad, of course, carries the same burden, and attempts to alleviate mine constantly: “Ally got the Leadership scholarship! Ally is going to Brown University! An Ivy League! She’s doing this! She’s doing that!” These achievements mean nothing to them; what matters is that I am “thriving.” I realized later, however, that this image takes on another kind of importance for my father; he cherishes his image as a self-made man who, as the only one in his year to leave for university, still carries the hopes of his entire village. It is upon this image that he constructs many facets of his sense of self.
Americanah - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)
I found Imefelu’s interrogative gaze annoying at first, but as Adichie's Nigerian protagonist gained reputation as a critic of American culture, I in time, also bought into her perceptive observations: “I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.” I began to look at the country I was now living in with a fresh eye, and more deeply scrutinize my own racial and cultural narrative that I had learned to construct. Ifemulu states that “I spent a lot of time explaining.” I realized that in the process of finding the words to explain my culture and upbringing – the confucianist moral tradition that underpins Chinese society, a faith in the nuclear family, and that yes, my English is surprisingly unaccented –– I gained a newfound sense of pride for it. I also became part of a minority for the first time. Perhaps one does need the Other to better understand the Self, and the homogeneity of culture in China meant that my identity had been very much different before I had arrived at Brown—in a less complex, fleshed out, reflective way. Racism, if I ever experienced it, was only surface level: like a white girl remarking that she couldn’t tell Asians apart because they looked the same. But it became much more insidious upon my arriving in the States, as I soon realized that it was a slippery, intangible force always cushioned with excuses and punctuated with a question mark: maybe I just wasn’t interesting enough...… but if I were white, would I be, then? Ifemelu helped me find the words to describe those intangible forces: “In America, racism exists but racists are all gone.”
What grants Americanah its place on this list is not limited solely to its critique on race, but rather how it is nestled within explorations of a cross cultural identity that is nurtured but also challenged by our relationships. “She rested her head against his and felt, for the first time, what she would often feel with him: a self-affection. He made her like herself.” Is there anything more purposeful in life than the pursuit of people, passions, and possessions that make us like ourselves more? In the same way that Obinze “cherished his image of himself” in Ifemulu’s eyes, contentment in life at the end of the day is constantly refining the collection of ways people see us. While we must ultimately be happiest with how we see ourselves, America insists that our narrative only exist once it has been told. America didn’t just turn Ifemelu “black”: it demanded an explanation of why, how and what she learned by being that way.
The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
There are few images in the annals of literature more well known than the one of Jay Gatsby gazing at the distant green light, the “orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter--tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.... And one fine morning-- So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” I memorized Fitzegerald’s closing line to his era-defining novel upon first completing it as a sophomore in high school, and have found myself occasionally murmuring those words in times when I needed a reminder of the romance offered by the American Dream. Fitzgerald’s use of collective pronouns “we” and “us” promised me entry to an elite club of people who dared to love life at its fullest; to seize the world as their oyster. And of course, there is the play on “current,” a word that can signal both tranquility and turbulence, as a body of water moving in a definite direction, yet defined as being rooted in the present. This is a sentence filled with dashes, ellipses, and incomplete phrases uttered by someone with barely curtailed energy and yearning for the future. We are borne back into the past: with wistful affection, but also with a desire for rebirth. There is, afterall, something extremely seductive about the idea that history will always repeat itself; our selves have been preconceived, and no amount of flailing, chasing, reaching, will ever change their course. It’s absurdist, because we know we will always continue to try, and from this process alone find fleeting joy. This mix of chaos, nostalgia, and longing for what has been and what is to come filled high school me with a bubbling excitement that I still struggle to find words to explain. Its resonance has changed with time, but Fitzgeralds words kindled a sense of hope and empowerment that only beautiful literature has the ability to unlock, and in times of uncertainty, will always be a safe place for me to return.