In the second episode of the mini podcast series “Antidote to Apathy,” I talk about refining the self as a way to gain knowledge. In the past few months, I’ve learned so much more to live with myself and my own thoughts. In the shower and the delirious post-morning half-dreaming state and while doing mundane tasks, like my laundry or cleaning my room, there is no where that I can escape my mind or my infinite and growing number of selves that make up who I am today. The world is constantly filtered through my perception of it, through my almost painful subjectivity. But I’m learning that it’s not in spite of the self that we gain knowledge, but because of the self, through the self. Doing that work is grueling and difficult, but it is, perhaps, the only antidote to apathy.
There’s this interesting point in autumn where I forget that the earth is temporarily dying because I’m entranced by the bursting, almost blooming colors of the leaves. I’m trying not to deny myself the pleasure of enjoying autumn. I’m trying not to condemn it to my hatred because I know it’ll bring winter. My walk yesterday was uncommonly beautiful, and I want it to move me. This first installment of the podcast “Antidote to Apathy” explores how we can love things, even with the knowledge that they may end, and that they hold the power to hurt us. Though the leaves may die, my love can still last. And there’s something really beautiful about that. I want to hold onto it. It’s a small antidote against apathy.
I wrote an article titled “Here’s Why Rupi Kaur’s Poetry Sucks” over a year ago which gained an overwhelming readership (you can find the old post here). There were verbal battles breaking out in the comments, people purposefully downvoting others’ votes a couple hundred times, and someone even posted the link in the reddit thread in which someone commented, “First thing I read of Fareah Fysudeen” (I really wish it weren’t the first thing). Frankly, I’m quite embarrassed by this attention, because I hardly agree with my past self. I can’t be proud of an article whose contents I no longer uphold. I can still see myself writing it: slouched in a study cubby typing away between classes, buried in the Hatcher stacks of the University of Michigan, in my sophomore year of undergrad, believing that I finally had access to the great, profound knowledge of the world. I’m here to reflect on that past article and what it means to me now, over a year later, a soon-to-be graduate, and hopefully a more introspective and worldly individual.
In most ways, my opinion about Rupi Kaur’s poetry itself hasn’t changed. I still think she is the crowned champion of “fake deep” poetry that finds its home in niches on Tumblr and Instagram. I still think her clever use of enjambment and thematic seriousness adds to the illusion of depth to her poems. But in the article, I draw a much more dangerous parallel argument in order to prove (with apparent exacting mania) that the reason Rupi Kaur’s poetry is bad is because it doesn’t fit the criteria of “good poetry.” I say it doesn’t fit into a “larger poetic narrative.” I say that there is a definite dichotomy between good and bad poetry, and that this dichotomy exists as an objective reality. My exact words, if you will: “If all literature was subjective, then, there would be no point to literary criticism and an entire discipline dedicated to the study of good literature. Poetry is not subjective. There is good literature and there is bad literature. Your experience of either can be subjective— as in, you can like bad literature and hate good literature, but your preferences don’t change the fact that it’s bad or good.”
In many ways, re-reading this series of sentences was especially painful to me, because not only do I no longer hold that opinion of art and literature, but because it consigns to a standard of artistic excellence determined by the English literary canon. The literary canon doesn’t exist to be the sole arbiter of artistic value (whether it should exist at all is also worth considering). This isn’t so much a question of whether or not Rupi Kaur’s poetry is good, per se. This is a question about how we interpret poetry, what baggage and preconceptions of art we are bringing to the table. It’s a question about what system of rationality we adopt. And the more we adopt systems of rationality that have historically and continue to marginalize the voices of women and non-white people, the more we perpetuate whiteness— or any other arbitrary marker of artistic merit— as the standard of good art.
I’m reflecting on why it was so important to me that I uphold the canon in that article. Why was it so crucial to me that I maintain proximity to this historically stuffy and pretentious group of authors and titles that aided in constructing the Western empire? The thing is, I think I wanted the stability of being able to determine whether something was good or not, because without that system of rationality, I feared that there would be a lack of real power or worth to my opinions, as a non-white person. Can you see the problem? The dominant culture is so hegemonizing that I feared its absence means I am stupid. Instead of repudiating a system that made me feel stupid in the first place, I tried to wholeheartedly accept it in order to be part of that dominant cultural frame of reference. In some way, I was playing that historical role of siding with the bully in order to gain agency for myself… What I didn’t know is that there is so much more power in letting go of what does not serve you.
I don’t like Rupi Kaur’s poetry. But the reason I don’t like it has changed. Whoever finds power, love, creativity, inspiration, vitality in her poetry— who am I to tell them that it’s not there? Find the art that moves you, and let it move you. There is no greater power than constructing the world for yourself.
I’ve been thinking about the representation of marginalized communities in the arts a lot lately. My thoughts on the underrepresentation of POCs in American popular culture is slowly turning into an understanding of the misrepresentation of POCs in the little space we do get in the creative sphere. People with any understanding of popular “liberal” discourse are always pushing for more strong, leading, and nuanced characters on the big screen and in the bestselling novels– and so we get a black lead in Star Wars, a half-Korean teanager in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and all-Asian cast in Crazy Rich Asians, a way to offset Islamophobia with a relatable Arab f-boy in Ramy. But something about this all still feels grossly unsatisfactory to me. Something is essentially off about these representations of POCs.
To me, they still seem to be obviously whitewashed, catered to suit the image of POCs that white people are comfortable seeing, an image that sinks down to the level of a white audience and lays identity out on the table: this is what it means to be in an interracial relationship, this is what this foreign word means, this is how benign POCs are– see! They’re just like us! In an effort to be palatable, I think artists of color often water down their work and cater it to the whims of a white gaze.
I think, of course, that it is important that we’re getting narratives about people of color made by people of color, of course– I cannot belittle the importance of all the works I’ve mentioned and they are continuing to complexify our politics of representation. We need a multiplicity of representation, so many that it mirrors our own complex and diverse experience, and dispels our monolithic perception– we need good, bad, poor, rich, suburban, inner-city, gendered, intersectional stories. Not one work of art can possibly do all the work to end racism or discrimination, because not one person of color is perfect.
But sometimes, I think even artists of color have a hard time making their work authentic. I think they often perform authenticity as a way to prove to a white audience that they are equals to the WASP. For instance, Ramy, a show about a confused, hilarious, and relatable Egyptian-American Muslim in New Jersey tracks the highs and lows of his love life and his relationship with himself and his faith. But for a show that was so widely well-received, it made me cringe with annoyance. It was trying so hard to appease a white audience, trying to make Muslims seems “human” and “normal”– both of which de facto meant whitewashed. In the first episode, we see Ramy on a date with a girl who his mother set him up with, and he says, flirting, as they walk through the city sharing ice creams, her laughter interspersed throughout the monologue:
Look, I know it was terrible, but the day the Muslim ban happened, I had a really good day. Like, personally, you know? It was just, like, one of the those days. Remember– the weather was great. I killed it at this meeting. I found a Metro Card that had $120 on it. That doesn’t happen! It was wierd, ‘cause I’m watching the news and this guy on TV is like, ‘this is a terrible day for all Muslim.’ I’m like, ‘well… not all Muslims.’
It’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility that a Muslim would say this, and it’s certainly not unfathomable that this is a likely scenario. But what makes it so lauded is that it seems to normalize Muslims, when in fact it just whitewashes them.
I think we may have set the bar too low by being satisfied with POCs creating works of art. Though I don’t personally like Ramy and I think it actually damages perceptions of Muslims, I also think it needs to exist– but I believe ardently that it’s not enough to just have POCs make works of art and call it good. The white gaze is ever-present, even in works by artists of color, and it’s exactly the kind of work that gets picked up. There are so many movies, books, poems, songs that don’t get recognition, and that’s because those artists are entering their spaces as their own rather than formulating them based on the perception of white people. I think we should actively seek those out as a way of undermining the system from within.
I spent last weekend in New York City with a few of my friends, reveling in the much-needed break from the routine of classes and work and extracurriculars. In the last night of our trip, my friend and I found ourselves rushing through the baffling, disorienting, punchy landscape of Times Square, laughing and delirious, to secure a seat for The Book of Mormon eight minutes before the show started, got standing tickets, and waited eagerly to be beset with raucous laughter.
I was laughing throughout the show. And so did the majority white audience, as well. The show is a raging satire about the incoherence of Mormon beliefs and practices, with songs ranging from critiques about their missionary quest and suppressed desires (“Turn it off/ Like a light switch/ Just go flick/ It’s our nifty little Mormon trick”) to Spooky Mormon Hell Dream and All-American Prophet. This musical is a hilarious and unflinching caricature of Mormons in America, digging deep into some of the inconsistent and disturbing consequences of the religion’s practices. The story follows two young missionaries, Elder Price and Elder Cunningham. To their dismay, they get placed in Uganda (hilariously contrasting Price’s ardent dream for Orlando, Florida). When they get there, they find a highly caricatured and stereotyped African city with people who say “fuck you” to god, where the only town doctor also has– as we’re always reminded to cue laughter– “maggots in his scrotum”, and where General Butt-Fucking-Naked wants to mutilate the genitals of the women in the town. Elder Price is appalled, tries to civilize the town, but leaves and loses faith in God, while Elder Cunningham (the dumb one) teaches them Mormonism all wrong, mingling it with Star Wars and fantasy worlds. The Ugandans believe they are true Mormons and to share their excitement, they put on a huge play to demonstrate their understanding of Mormon history, but because they were taught it incorrectly, we have a painful ten-minute song with All-American Joseph Smith jerking off to frogs, unsettling sexual innuendos, and something that resembles a minstrel show– but not to be feared! By the end of the musical, Elder Price and Elder Cunningham start their own form of Mormonism, and all the black people are Mormons in the end, again reinforcing the incoherence of the faith.
But this musical also reinforces something else, and that is anti-black racism. It was hard for me to tell in the moment if the jokes were appropriate to laugh at– they were smart, raunchy, and it seemed to be in the position that we were laughing at everyone. Nothing was safe in the musical. The white people, the black people, the Mormons, the atheists. It was highly irreverent, and drove home its purpose: to show how silly not only Mormon practices were, but how generally blind religious practices that were pursued for ego and fame, and that strove to “civilize” others always backfired in the end.
But The Book of Mormon only complexifies the white narrative, not the black one. By the end of the musical, we get a progressive critique about Mormonism– but they had to use African people in order to achieve that. They had to caricature Africa, reduce it down to the most obvious stereotypes: uneducated, gullible, oversexualized, impoverished. Against this setting, our understanding of Mormonism complexified and were challenged, even through the satire: we see that Elder Price is narcissistic, that Elder Cunningham is ignorant, that there are problems with repression and self-righteousness. But this wasn’t the case for the Africans in the musical. Their narrative remained caricatured and degraded, all the way until the end. There is no growth to our understanding of their existence in the play– they are there simply as a plot device to support the complexity of the white characters’.
A popular clapback is that it’s not only the black people that are caricatured, but also the whites! However, this doesn’t hold water– the musical literally reinforces the white savior complex because by the end, the Ugandans convert to the disformed form of Mormonism anyway. The white characters achieve some level of success in their attempt to “civilize” the Africans; and even though the musical makes fun of this success, it still seems to me like The Book of Mormon desperately wants to maintain the power balance from the white savior complex.
I don’t regret watching the show, but after thinking about it for a week, I realized how uncomfortable I had been in the theatre as one of the only people of color there. This is a musical that white people can heartily laugh to– it’s the only time they get a pass for laughing at jokes about Africa because they are thinly veiled in the form of satire. But if you look any closer, the musical only reinforces the stereotypes it purports to repudiate.
(Image from Google Images.)
There are periods in my life where I completely fall out of love with fiction. I’m not entirely sure why it happens, but suddenly there’s a switch that goes off in my brain, and I hate even the concept of fiction and media– the falsity of it, the mere entertainment, the meaningless indulgence in the aesthetic, as we all slink closer and closer to our deaths, and the earth keeps turning, and we watch a movie or turn the pages of a magazine or forget a poem.
For example, at some point in sophomore year of high school, I read Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, a coming-of-age novel about the unparalleled bond between two boys. I still remember crying on the floor of my bedroom past midnight when I was supposed to be doing homework, and just let the book completely wreck me (it’s a very good book, you should read it), and when my mom walked into the room, I had nothing for defense except “It was a good book.” I realized that I couldn’t invest my time into a book without getting so attached and emotionally invested. It controlled me. After that, I went for months without reading anything– I got too invested, it hurt me too much, it surprised me with the pliability of my own emotions. I wanted to dominate my emotions, not let fiction dominate them.
I got over that, of course– it’s silly to have such powerful connections to books and movies and take it so innocently for reality. I developed a crucial distance from literature, almost as a defense mechanism to not let to get it to me too much, not allow it to break me and tear me apart, scare me or enthrall me. I started to see it from an “intellectually” distanced standpoint, observing it from the superior perch of examining craft and theme and symbolism, stroking my monocle and saying things like, “Ah yes, the intertextuality…”, or, “The symbolism of this hat demonstrates that…” And that helped me understand art, helped me tame the wild and crazy and unexplainable forces of literature.
Coming to college, things started to feel too crystallized. I stopped connecting to the things I was reading as much, and that may have just been because even though we were reading “diverse literature” in my English classes, it was still taught by white professors to a mostly white student body, creating a strange dissonance with the work. And more than that– the Western-centric perspective of everything I read was so glaringly obvious to me, I couldn’t connect to it at a personal level. The emotional connection I’d once had to art– the kind of cosmic, universe-warping feelings that had made me cry in my childhood bedroom– had all gone. They were replaced with terms and definitions and critical theory. Wasn’t it supposed to move me?
I can’t say I’ve found conclusions to my constantly fluctuating relationship with literature. But I have found a little reminder of why I love what I love. Columbus is a movie about the unexpected friendship between a homebody architect-enthusiast and the son of a renowned architect set in the town of Columbus, Indiana, known for its modernist buildings. In one of the lines in which the main character is trying to explain to Jin why she likes a building, he stops her and asks if she likes the building intellectually.
“I’m also moved by it,” she admits.
“Yes!” He says. “Yes, tell me about that: What moves you?”
“I thought you hated architecture.”
“I do. But I’m interested in what moves you.”
As I most likely move towards a career that intellectualizes art, I must ground myself to my own heart, and remind myself to stay true to the contents of my mind. I want to be committed to that which moves me.