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November 02, 2008

As Sarah Failin' Would Say: Readin' Update

So I just finished Obama's Dreams From My Father.

Not sure how to get into this discussion. Obama is, surprisingly, a very good prose writer: assured, smooth, with a good sense of prose rhythm and shape. Maybe I shouldn't be surprised: there are a lot of lawyers who end up writing fiction, so there must be something in the education that trains one's prose style. But the outlines of his career that he lays out in the book tend to indicate little interest in the life of the imagination, or in aesthetics.

But maybe it's what I talked about once, with language issues and writing. I don't know if I ever blogged about this, but when I first lived in Berlin, I was part of an American writers group: five of us, two women and three men, two poets and three fiction writers, all in our twenties, most of us creative writing or English majors, all--except me--white. We didn't do too much workshopping (thank oG), we mostly just sat around talking about books and reading. We'd have poetry face-offs, where one person would bring in a favorite poet and read the favorite poems, and then another would respond with poems on similar topics or using similar tactics. Good--if geeky--times.

So one day I told the group that I had--apparently, I was too young to remember--had a bit of a problem with language acquisition as a toddler. I had started out in Cantonese (I was born in Hong Kong). When I was one and a half, we moved to the States and at about two years, we started speaking mostly English at home. Between two and three, I spoke a personal brand of Chinglish--not one I learned from a community, that is--which mixed vocabulary, grammar, and tones from both languages. Apparently, only my older sister fully understood me. By the age of three, I had separated the two languages and was speaking both correctly, and by four I had pretty much stopped learning Cantonese.

So I told the group  maybe my fascination with language and my desire to master it through writing arose from my early troubles with language acquisition, and suggested that maybe a lot of writers had early troubles with language as well. They all immediately pooh-poohed the idea. Then, over the course of the next hour, it turned out that: the other woman in the group had actually spent her early childhood somewhere in Africa with her linguist father, and apparently (she doesn't remember) spoke the local language fluently; one of the men in the group had had a bad stutter as a child and had to go to speech therapy for years; and another of the men in the group--and this is the best story--had been unable to learn to read or write until he was fourteen years old. He came from a well-off family of all college-educated professionals, and his disability simply stumped everyone until he was fourteen and they sent him to a new program that taught him how to juggle. Something about developmental steps that connect eye-hand coordination and mental processes. In any case, he caught up with thirteen years of school within three, and was able to go off to college "on time".

So, out of five writers, four had had some sort of issue or circumstance in their lives that had made language acquisition either "thorny" (in the words of the one writer of the group with no thorniness) or something of particular import and weight. Something to think about.

All that just to suggest that Barack Obama, who lived in Indonesia from six to ten and spoke Indonesian fluently, might have something similar going on here. With the language issue, the writing issue. With the wanting to be the most powerful man in the world issue? Not sure what's up with that.

Although it's well-written in the prose-style sense, it's poorly written in the emotional sense. Obama sticks too closely to the expected emotional/dramatic arc of search and redemption. Along the way, he writes remarkably little--and that very ineffectively--about his own feelings or responses. When he does write about his feelings, it's in a detached way, and he eliminates feelings from the narrative frequently. In what is supposed to be the book's emotional climax (I had not thought, until that moment, that there was going to be one) I didn't even know that he was experiencing any emotion until he described the tears running down his face. Very strange.

All this might have something to do with the fact that, throughout this book, which is an autobiography, not a memoir, there's an 800 pound gorilla in the room: Barack Obama Sr. had three wives and a girlfriend, usually simultaneously, two of them white Americans, and couldn't--didn't--take care of them or the six-odd children he fathered with them. The situation is made clear in the book, but no one addresses it directly. The book is full of resentments toward fathers, full of passive aggressive moments of almost-accusation made toward Obama the father or the grandfather. But no one, not even the narrator, ever sits down and says: we have a problem with fathers and fatherhood here; let's state some facts baldly before we attempt to interpret them.

Maybe Obama felt he would be betraying the complexity of his father's story if he laid out the facts that way ... although I have to say, he had no problems betraying the complexity of his grandmother's feelings about race in his much-praised race speech earlier this year. This is one of my ongoing problems with Obama: the half-assedness of his gender awareness compared with his race awareness. Maybe he felt he would be underlining a stereotype of black men if he characterized his father as being an irresponsible Johnny Appleseed with six or more kids from four women whom he left to the rest of his family to support ... but then that would be the truth. Maybe it would be a betrayal of complexity to point out that his father left his first--African--wife, twice, for white women. Maybe it's too much to ask Obama to speculate on the meaning of this. But I don't think it's too much, given that he wrote the damn book--subtitled "A Story of Race and Inheritance"--in the first place. And while he was ducking this issue, writing a book about a father who hadn't cared enough about him to include him in his life, his mother was dying of cancer.

Yes, I'm supporting Obama. And I read the book with a great deal of excitement, because I felt convinced that maybe I had misread what I perceived earlier as Obama's lack of enthusiasm when it came to women's issues and gender equality. I was reading the book to increase my knowledge of, and excitement about, Obama's candidacy. But there it all was, in his book. Let me clarify: you don't have to be an outright sexist to just not give a shit about women's rights. You can love and respect the women in your life and like women in general, and still feel that gender equity really isn't your problem. And this is the feeling I get from Obama.

I just got an email this summer from a man who was one of my best friends in college. He had contacted me again about a year and a half ago and we've been emailing back and forth. In response to a complaint from me about the lack of confidence I see in men I'm dating online, he wrote, "All the men our age grew up being beaten down by the Feminist Revolution." I have been unable to write back to him since receiving that email, because I simply don't know how to express my outrage and betrayal at such a simple-minded and viciously wrong statement, that faults the liberation and uplift of HALF OF HUMANITY for the loss of a few privileges of a few members of the other half.

It is this same betrayal I'm feeling from Obama and his campaign and too many of the men of my age cohort who support him. I thought this was over, but it's not over and it's not gonna be over. He cares about the big issues, but not about a little tiny issue like the difficult climb to equality for half the world. Fuck him.

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