Unorthodox Captures Many Truths of Leaving Hasidic Communities

This week in North Philly Notes, we repost Degrees of Separation author Schneur Zalman Newfield’s recent article from The Society Pages that considers the Netflix series, Unorthodox, about exiting ultra-Orthodox communities, the subject of his new book.

Like many who left ultra-Orthodox communities in which they were raised, I eagerly awaited the release of the Netflix miniseries Unorthodox, loosely based on Deborah Feldman’s first memoir by the same title that chronicles her journey out of her Hasidic community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and her efforts to join the broader secular society. I was curious to see in what ways the narrative of the miniseries would reflect the experiences of the 74 ex-Hasidic men and women I interviewed for my PhD dissertation and forthcoming book, Degrees of SeparationIdentity Formation While Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Judaism. Hasidic communities adhere strictly to Orthodox Jewish law, members tend to marry young and have large families, and generally shun non-Jewish culture and outsiders.

Degrees of Separation_smThe miniseries revolves around the attempt of Esty Shapiro—brilliantly portrayed by Shira Haas—to leave her socially and culturally isolated Williamsburg community and start a new life in Berlin, Germany. The miniseries is deeply compelling and captures many truths about the lives of the people I interviewed as well as many others who make the complex journey out of ultra-Orthodoxy.

The miniseries highlights Esty’s traumatic experiences inside her Hasidic marriage. Although Esty rejects the term “escaped” to describe her journey and protests that her community was not “a prison,” she did suffer a lot. As Esty reflects at one point about her life in Brooklyn to her new friends in Berlin, “God expected too much from me.” She is perplexed when informed just before her wedding of the basic mechanics of sex and the complex details of the “family purity” laws that require her to chart when she is menstruating and to abstain from sex during those times and for a week afterwards. Esty cries through the sheering off of all her lush hair the morning after her wedding and is terrified and alienated when she visits the ritual bath (mikvah) and immerses herself in order to make herself “pure” and available to have sex with her husband. She also suffers extreme physical pain when having sex with her husband and after months of trying, they are only able to engage fully in intercourse a single time. The physical pain is only heightened and given an added sting by her nosy and insensitive mother-in-law’s intrusions into her sex life aimed at securing her another grandchild. Ultimately, her mother-in-law encourages her son to divorce Esty because it is believed she will never be able to get pregnant.

I will focus on three themes of the exit process from religion that are significant in my own research and are all dramatized in Unorthodox: the dire warnings from community members to potential exiters; the maintenance of religious beliefs and practices by exiters even after they exit; and the hybrid technique of integrating aspects of an exiters’ past into their present and future.

While still in Williamsburg, Esty secretly took piano lessons for several years from a non-Jewish woman who rented an apartment from her grandfather. Before Esty leaves Brooklyn, the music teacher gives her student a small compass to help her find her way once she exits her community. Indeed, it is an extremely difficult task for exiters to create a new life for themselves once all the rules, norms, expectations that they grew up with are discarded. These communities tell those contemplating or suspected of contemplating leaving that it is impossible to do so, that all who leave are crazy and end up with ruined and dysfunctional lives. It is clearly a lie, but for those inside the community lacking information about the outside world and those who make it out, this can be a very compelling argument to stay.

One of the most powerful scenes occurs shortly after Esty clandestinely travels from Brooklyn to Berlin and finds herself on a beach, surrounded by scantily clad carefree swimmers splashing around and enjoying their time in the sun. Esty is still wearing her Hasidic garb, including her conservative long skirt, thick opaque brown tights, and wig (sheitel). We feel Esty’s internal struggle, her desire to be “normal” and join in the fun, while being simultaneously horrified that people could expose so much of their bodies to total strangers. She has internalized the teachings of her community that stipulate that the body, especially a woman’s body, must always be covered up in order to protect its sanctity and the purity of those around her. Esty wavers for a moment, but then gathers her courage. She takes off her opaque tights and walks into the lake fully clothed. As she enters the shallow waters, she pulls off her wig and releases it. It floats away. This emersion is a sort of reverse mikvah, a ritual cleansing of her former life and a symbolic rebirth into her new secular identity.

Esty’s internal struggle mirrors what many of my interviewees grapple with once they leave their community but still hold onto numerous religious practices and beliefs from their old community, such as an aversion to eating pork—which is strictly forbidden by Jewish law—and the persistence of belief in God, and conservative views of gender and race. These practices and beliefs can prove difficult, if not impossible, to jettison.

One of the best techniques that Hasidic exiters have found for integrating into the broader secular society is taking a hybrid approach to their life. That is, to find a way to incorporate elements of their past into their present and future. This approach is powerfully exemplified in the final scene of the miniseries when Esty auditions for entrance to a prestigious Berlin music institute. Esty first sings a short piece from Schubert entitled “An die Musik,” and does a competent job. Then she is asked to sing another song and chooses a Hasidic one with Hebrew words that was chanted at her wedding. She sways (shuckles) just as Hasidic Jews typically do when lost in a melody.  Her rendition is soul stirring. The viewer is mesmerized by Esty’s blending of classic European and Hasidic music. In that moment she has decided not to ghettoize her past but to allow it to blend into her present and future. In my book I call this “embracing a hybrid identity.” It’s not a brief transitional phase, but a long term strategy for pursuing a life that is deeply different from the life one was raised and trained in. Examples of hybridity include schuckling, like Esty in Unorthodox, while engaging in secular activities such as studying American law, or occasionally taking the time to study a passage of Talmud while pursuing a doctorate in French literature.

The main weakness of the miniseries is its inclusion of a spy-like theme that distracts from its beauty and authenticity. This theme begins in the opening scene of the miniseries with Esty surreptitiously collecting hidden items from around her bedroom—a wad of cash from inside a foam wig holder—in preparation of her departure. The covert ops continue with a scene where Esty is taken by an aunt to a kosher supermarket so that her prospective mother-in-law can furtively inspect her, like a piece of meat at a butcher shop, to see if she passes muster. This entire scene makes no sense. The mother-in-law doesn’t know her from around the small and close-knit neighborhood?  She can’t ask a friend? The espionage intensifies when the Rebbe, the spiritual leader of the Hasidic community, orders Esty’s sheepish husband Yanky, accompanied by his cousin Moshe, a thuggish character and former renegade himself, to travel to Berlin to track down and bring back Esty. Moshe even receives the obligatory box with a pistol when he checks into his Berlin hotel. Who does he get the gun from and what exactly is he supposed to do with it once he meets up with Esty?

This espionage subplot seems truly absurd. It makes Hasidic Jews and those who leave their community seem entirely foreign to the viewers who are finally coming to know this “exotic” community through shows like this one and to see them for the normal human beings they are, albeit living a wildly different lifestyle.

Sociologically speaking, exiting from strict religious communities is an example of the broader phenomenon of personal transformation and resocialization, similar to the processes people experience after a divorce and when immigrating to a new country. Leaving a religion is traumatic and complex, but not unrelated to other kinds of social experiences. It is helpful to think of religious exiters in relation to other forms of exiting. This helps humanize religious exiters and helps us realize that the process of resocialization is a more common one than we might otherwise imagine. People from all walks of life may need to engage in resocialization at some point or another.

Ironically, the actress who plays Esty, Shira Haas, starred in the international hit show on Netflix Shtisel, which was a huge success because it made the ultra-Orthodox appear normal, or more accurately, as troubled and complex as everyone else. They have distinct religious dress, beliefs, and rituals, but they too have romantic problems, marital disharmony, financial woes, struggles to find a career, and disappointments from their children.

Notwithstanding the distraction from the spy element, Unorthodox is a powerful series that celebrates the human capacity for personal transformation. It affirms that birth is not destiny, and gives voice to a group of survivors that are often marginalized in mainstream culture.

Schneur Zalman Newfield is an Assistant Professor of Sociology in the Department of Social Sciences, Human Services, and Criminal Justice at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, City University of New York. Visit him online at zalmannewfield.com.

Social Distancing with Shakespeare

This week in North Philly Notes, Jeffrey Wilson, author of Shakespeare and Trump, writes about why people are cycling experiences with coronavirus through Shakespeare.

First came the meme to wash hands for the duration of Lady Macbeth’s “Out, damned spot” speech.

Soon society was shutting down. “I’m worried about Covid-19 causing theatres to go dark,” tweeted theater-maker @MediocreDave on March 9, 2020. “Not because I’ll lose income, but because we’ll inevitably be subjected to opportunistic Shakespeare scholars making smug but superficial analogies to the playhouse closures of the late Elizabethan plague years.” That’ll be the end of that, I thought.

The next day, Slate ran a piece from Ben Cohen, “The Infectious Pestilence Did Reign: How the Plague Ravaged William Shakespeare’s World and Inspired his Work, from Romeo and Juliet to Macbeth.” Two days later, Shakespeare scholar Emma Smith was historicizing appropriations of Lady Macbeth’s hand-washing scene for Penguin Books. Another two days, and The Atlantic ran Daniel Pollack-Pelzner’s “Shakespeare Wrote His Best Works During a Plague.”

The content of these essays—Shakespeare born in plague, shuttered theaters prompting his poetry, Romeo and Juliet derailed by quarantine, playwrights sustained by wealthy patrons, disease threatening rival acting troupes, great art created in isolation—is not as fascinating as the questions raised by their method. Why are people cycling experiences with coronavirus through Shakespeare? What do we gain from comparisons between social distancing in Shakespeare’s time and in ours? How might our experiences with social distancing help us better understand Shakespeare’s? How can these examples help us think about academic work in 2020?

On March 14, @rosannecash caused a collective groan by tweeting, “Just a reminder that when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he wrote King Lear.”

Twitter did its thing. “Just a reminder that when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he wrote Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” wrote @sydneeisanelf. “Just a reminder that when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he masturbated incessantly,” said @emilynussbaum.

With doors shuttered, some theaters offered plays and programming online, free to the public, including Shakespeare’s Globe, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theater, the Public Theater, and the Folger Shakespeare Library. Then came pop-up performances like Patrick Stewart’s #ASonnetADay and The Two Gentleman of Verona on Zoom. What is the value of art in times of social distancing? How is social distancing changing the way art is done? Based on the analogy to Shakespeare, what might the art that comes out of coronavirus look like?

Academics followed suit. On March 23, Andy Kesson, Callan Davies, and Emma Whipday launched A Bit Lit, featuring open-access, of-the-moment interviews with early-modern literary scholars. What is the role of humanistic thought and conversation in times of social distancing? What is the importance—if any—of studying Shakespeare when society is in such turmoil?

Social distancing with Shakespeare soon became A Thing. Kathryn Harkup in The Telegraph on March 15; Andrew Dickson in The Guardian on March 22; James Shapiro on CNN on March 30. The genre was common enough to call for satire. On April 1, Daniel Pollack-Pelzner wrote “What Shakespeare Actually Did During the Plague” for The New Yorker: “Day 25: Definitely too dark. Keep the mood light! No one wants to see a tragedy after a plague.”

Emma Smith tackled that tension with a straight face in the New York Times, arguing that “[Shakespeare’s] fictions reimagine the macro-narrative of epidemic as the micro-narrative of tragedy.” Is our experience with coronavirus tragic? What makes something tragic?

Elsewhere in the New York Times, Ian Wheeler cited Shakespeare to argue that, in America, “We need a better patronage system for artists.” In The New Yorker, James Shapiro lobbed Coriolanus-shaped bombs at the Trump administration: “The casual insults, the condescension, and the refusal to accept responsibility will be familiar to anyone who has lately tuned in to the daily White House briefings on the coronavirus pandemic.”

Shakespeare and Trump_smThese various ShakesTakes sift into terms developed in Shakespeare and Trump, my recent book about the surprising—and bizarre—relationship between the provincial English playwright and the billionaire President of the United States. There are the ShakesMemes. There are the Politicitations. And there is the Shaxtivism.

Above all, the Shakespearean gloss on social distancing shows the power—and pitfalls—of Public Shakespeare, where scholars eschew peer-reviewed academic writing in favor of public engagement.

I come not to bury Public Shakespeare, nor to praise it. I want to ask what it is, where it comes from, how it works, and why it elicits simultaneous enthusiasm and nausea. What is behind the push in some scholars to filter current events through Shakespeare? What is behind the tendency in others to get annoyed when they do?

Why are Shakespeareans suddenly authorities on everything—from presidential politics to social distancing? At a time when Donald Trump nonchalantly disclaims, “I’m not a doctor,” then proceeds to use his power and platform to promote hydroxychloroquine, why are Shakespeare scholars going widely outside their areas of expertise surrounding a 400-year-old English playwright to comment on current events?

Four points:

  1. As an early-modern playwright who often represented medieval and ancient history, Shakespeare built into his texts the practice of engaging the present with the distant past.
  2. As artworks that often have scholarly sources, yet are performed for a broad audience of mixed social backgrounds, Shakespeare’s plays have public engagement built into them.
  3. The long tradition of modern-dress Shakespearean performance and adaptation provides a model for scholars looking to bring ideas that are old and artistic into conversation with current events.
  4. At a time when the humanities are said to be in crisis, Public Shakespeare gives scholars a platform to illustrate the practicality and utility of our field.

There is tremendous energy right now behind public-facing ShakesWork with an ethical if not activist edge. There is also legitimate skepticism of that endeavor. As @ClearShakes wrote on April 12, “Guys, sometimes there just isn’t a Shakespeare play that’s relevant to our situation.”

But recognizing Public Shakespeare as more closely related to Shakespearean performance than Shakespearean scholarship helps us understand why, like any show that takes creative risks, some cheer and some hiss.

 

Announcing Temple University Press’ Spring 2020 Catalog

Happy New Year! And Happy New Catalog! This week in North Philly Notes, we announce the titles from our Spring 2020 catalog

 

Shakespeare and Trumpby Jeffrey R. Wilson

Revealing the modernity of Shakespeare’s politics, and the theatricality of Trump’s

Rude Democracy: Civility and Incivility in American Politicsby Susan Herbst

A look at how civility and incivility are strategic weapons on the state of American democracy, now with a new Preface for 2020

The Great Migration and the Democratic Party: Black Voters and the Realignment of American Politics in the 20th Centuryby Keneshia N. Grant

Examining the political impact of Black migration on politics in three northern cities from 1915 to 1965

Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right: American Life in Columnsby Michael A. Smerconish

Now in Paperback—the opinions—and evolution—of Michael Smerconish, the provocative radio/TV host and political pundit

Good Reasons to Run: Women and Political Candidacy, edited by Shauna L. Shames, Rachel I. Bernhard, Mirya R. Holman, and Dawn Langan Teele

How and why women run for office

Gender Differences in Public Opinion: Values and Political ConsequencesMary-Kate Lizotte

Explores the gender gap in public opinion through a values lens

Under the Knife: Cosmetic Surgery, Boundary Work, and the Pursuit of the Natural Fakeby Samantha Kwan and Jennifer Graves 

How the pursuit of a “naturally” beautiful body plays out in cosmetic surgery

Sport and Moral Conflict: A Conventionalist Theoryby William J. Morgan 

How we make our way morally and otherwise when we cannot see eye to eye on the point and purpose of sport

Whose Game?: Gender and Power in Fantasy Sportsby Rebecca Joyce Kissane and Sarah Winslow

How fantasy sport participants experience gendered power

Biz Mackey, A Giant behind the Plate: The Story of the Negro League Star and Hall of Fame Catcherby Rich Westcott

Now in Paperback—the first biography of arguably the greatest catcher in the Negro Leagues

Allies and Obstacles: Disability Activism and Parents of Children with Disabilitiesby Allison C. Carey, Pamela Block, and Richard K. Scotch

Addresses the nature and history of activism by parents of people with disabilities, and its complex relationship to activism by disabled leaders

Degrees of Separation: Identity Formation While Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, by Schneur Zalman Newfield

How exiting ultra-Orthodox Judaism is not a single act of defiance, but an interactive process that extends for years after leaving

Psychobilly: Subcultural Survivalby Kimberly Kattari

How people improve their lives by participating in a rebellious music-based subculture

Metro Dailies in the Age of Multimedia Journalism, by Mary Lou Nemanic

How daily metro newspapers can continue to survive in the age of digital journalism

Reinventing the Austin City Councilby Ann O’M. Bowman

Examining how Austin, Texas changed the way it elects its city council—and why it matters

Disruptive Situations: Fractal Orientalism and Queer Strategies in Beirutby Ghassan Moussawi

The first comprehensive study to employ the lens of queer lives in the Arab World to understand everyday life disruptions, conflicts, and violence

Transnational Nationalism and Collective Identity among the American Irishby Howard Lune

How collective action creates meaning and identity within culturally diverse and physically dispersed communities

Communists and Community: Activism in Detroit’s Labor Movement, 1941-1956, by Ryan S. Pettengill

Enhances our understanding of the central role Communists played in the advancement of social democracy throughout the mid-twentieth century

A Collective Pursuit: Teacher’s Unions and Education Reformby Lesley Lavery

Arguing that teachers’ unions are working in community to reinvigorate the collective pursuit of reforms beneficial to both educators and public education

The United States of India: Anticolonial Literature and Transnational Refractionby Manan Desai

Examines a network of intellectuals who attempted to reimagine and reshape the relationship between the U.S. and India

The Winterthur Garden Guide: Color for Every Seasonby Linda Eirhart

How to build a garden with the “Winterthur look”

Sequestrada: A New Film by a Temple University Press author Sabrina McCormick

This week in North Philly Notes, Sabrina McCormick, author of Mobilizing Science, promotes the Sequestrada, the film she co-wrote and co-directed with Soopum Sohn, about the devastation of the Brazilian Amazon. Based in part on her research about the anti-dam movement in Brazil—the subject of Mobilizing ScienceSequestrada stars Tim Blake Nelson and Gretchen Mol. The film opens November 15 at the Village East Cinema in New York, followed by a VOD Release on Tuesday, December 17.

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Synopsis:

Sequestrada follows Kamodjara and her father, Cristiano, members of the Arara, an Amazonian indigenous tribe. When they leave their reservation to protest a dam that will displace their people, Kamodjara is separated from her family and kidnapped by traffickers.

Roberto, an indigenous agency bureaucrat overseeing a report that could change everything, is under pressure to support the dam’s construction. Thomas, an American investor in the dam, makes his way to Brazil to sway Roberto’s opinion. The film tells the story of how these three lives intertwine against a backdrop of geopolitics and environmental disaster.

Sequestrada was shot on location in Brazil and is based on the real-life event of the construction of the Belo Monte Dam, which is displacing the Arara—who have lived along the Amazon River for countless generations. The film, which had its world premiere at the Beijing Film Festival last April, deftly incorporates the experiences of local non-professional actors to tell a gripping local story of global consequences.

Artist’s Statement:

Sabrina had been doing research in Brazil for fifteen years and had made her first documentary about people displaced by large dams. She had received funding to go to the Amazon where the world’s third largest dam was being built and contested by indigenous groups who were illegally affected. We mapped out a plot. Sabrina had worked with organizations contesting dams for a long time and we planned to meet with a few of them based near Belo Monte to find out more of what the past thirty years had been like, beginning with Sting protesting the dam and a Kayapo woman slashing a government official in 1984.

Then we left for Altamira, ourselves. The last plane to the Amazon was full of men. Sabrina and a flight attendant were the only women. The men were all workers going to the Belo Monte Dam. When it landed in Altamira and the doors opened, we felt the sauna of the Amazon.

Altamira is a small town where indigenous tribes visit to buy flip flops, t-shirts, and supermarket junk food. We approached a group that we learned were Arara. We spent about three days to see if they wanted to be on camera. Then the whole Arara tribe disappeared. They re-appeared with a huge bag of live turtles. They invited Sabrina to sit in the local indigenous housing and eat a turtle they had just cooked. Then they started to open up. We learned they have a system where a chief (cacique) decides everything, so we mainly tried to speak to him. He was a quiet, young man. Later, we found he had only been cacique for one year. There was another man with thick glasses, who had been watching us. We talked to him. It turned out that he had been the chief for many years before this young man.

When he decided we were not dangerous, he stopped being a quiet man. We created a character for him so he could speak about the Arara tribe and the Belo Monte dam. The last day of the shoot, he asked Soopum if he could try his hat. He wore Soopum’s hat and was silent for long time, smiling. He seemed proud and happy. But it was Soopum’s only hat and the Equator sun made Soopum’s black hair so hot, that he really needed the hat. Sabrina didn’t want to give up her hat, either. Soopum politely asked for the hat back. He and tribe members thanked us making this film. We hugged the Arara and parted ways.

Sabrina guided the storyline exploring how government corruption undergirded the illegal construction of massive infrastructure, damaging lives and releasing methane from the degradation of flora and fauna. Soopum added fictional plot lines with traditional film language under given location and situations. Together, they captured true moments with the actors when they were living normally. We wrote together based on footage and the tribe members writing with us such that each character’s life and the fictional plot became interwoven. We constructed scenes with them, explaining where we thought the storyline was going and recording their reactions, modifying the plot with their perspectives and lines from their personal experiences.

With that approach, we fused real and imagined worlds in multiple layers, the real effects the dam has on climate change and the lives of indigenous people who live nearby, along with a narrative of imagined characters who reflect the stories of how Belo Monte came to be what it is today.

About Sabrina McCormick’s book, Mobilizing Science

Moblizing Science sm compMobilizing Science theoretically and empirically explores the rise of a new kind of social movement—one that attempts to empower citizens through the use of expert scientific research. Sabrina McCormick advances theories of social movements, development, and science and technology studies by examining how these fields intersect in cases around the globe.

McCormick grounds her argument in two very different case studies: the anti-dam movement in Brazil and the environmental breast cancer prevention movement in the U.S. These, and many other cases, show that the scientization of society, where expert knowledge is inculcated in multiple institutions and lay people are marginalized, give rise to these new types of movements. While activists who consequently engage in science often instigate new methods that result in new findings and scientific tools, these movements still often fail due to superficial participatory institutions and tightly knit corporate/government relationships.

University Press Week Blog Tour: Arts and Culture

It’s University Press Week and the Blog Tour is back! This year’s theme is #TurnItUP. Today’s theme is Arts and Culture

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MIT University Press @mitpress
Is planning a Q&A with our longtime editor Roger Conover (who is retiring next year) and one of his authors Slavoj Žižek , a philosopher and cultural critic, about his career here at the Press.

Athabasca University Press  @au_press
Discusses Frankenstein’s influence on Canadian pop culture with a focus on music. Naturally, the author had to create a mix of all the songs mentioned in the book and so we will be discussing how university presses can quite literally #TurnItUp.

Rutgers University Press @RutgersUPress
Dedicates a post to our new book Junctures in Women’s Leadership: The Arts by Judith Brodsky and Ferris Olin

Yale University Press @yaleARTBooks
Based on the book Essential Modernism, edited by Dominic Bradbury, we’ll have a post by Dominic about how immigrants enrich a country’s art and architecture (discusses a number of artists and architects who arrived in the US at midcentury).

Duke University Press @DukePress
Features some recent collaborations with museums, sharing why these collaborations work for both of us.

University of Minnesota Press @UMinnPress
Adrienne Kennedy will be inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame on Nov. 12th. We’ll run an excerpt from The Adrienne Kennedy Reader.

University of Toronto Press @utpress
Social media specialist Tanya Rohrmoser discusses how social media can be an effective vehicle for communicating research in the arts and humanities

Considering gay economies of desire, intraracial romance, and sexual intimacy

This week in North Philly Notes, Cynthia Wu, author of Sticky Rice, writes about issues of race and sexuality, the subjects of her new book, a critical literary study.

Last month, Sinakhone Keodara, a Lao American actor, screenwriter, and entertainment executive, made headlines when he announced on Twitter his plans to file a class-action lawsuit against Grindr, a popular geosocial networking app for men interested in dating other men. The problem? The commonplace declarations that announce “no Asians,” which are allowed by moderators to remain on user profiles. Those who broadcast this restriction are mostly, but not exclusively, white.  Their ubiquity creates a hostile climate for Asian American men.

In a separate statement, Keodara clarified that white men should not “flatter [themselves]” to imagine that Asian American men need to convince them of their appeal. Rather, these outward expressions of racial loathing tap into a larger historical fetch of inequities leveled against people of Asian descent—from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the World War II Japanese American internment, and the Department of Homeland Security’s present-day profiling of Arab and South Asian Americans.

Keodara’s refusal to uphold white men’s primacy in the gay economy of desire resonates with the premises of Sticky Rice: A Politics of Intraracial Desire.  “Sticky rice” is a term coined by gay Asian American men to denote those amongst them who prefer intraracial romantic and sexual intimacies. As the logic goes, Asian American men who stick to themselves—like the types of rice grains favored by many Asian cuisines—disrupt presumptions about their aspirations to both whiteness and heteronormativity.

Sticky Rice_smMy book is not an ethnography of these men, however. It is a literary critical study that borrows from their language of intraracial bonding to revisit some of the most widely read selections in the canon of Asian American literature. In so doing, it revises an origin narrative about this body of work that has taken the heterosexuality of its seminal texts for granted.

John Okada’s 1957 novel, No-No Boy, presents a key example of how returning to old texts with new lenses produces a more nuanced story about the rise of an Asian American arts and culture movement. The novel, ignored upon its publication, was later championed by an all-male vanguard of separatist cultural producers in the early 1970s. These novelists, poets, and playwrights were known for their public condemnation of femininity and queerness. Okada’s work, they asserted, portrayed a shining model of politicized Asian American manhood in line with their stringent ideals.

No-No Boy, set in the period right after World War II, tells the story of an unlikely friendship between two Japanese American men, a disabled veteran and a nondisabled draft resister. The former holds the approval of the United States for his patriotic sacrifice to the nation, while the latter is condemned for his refusal to join the Army from within the confines of an internment camp.

The novel is often read as a treatise on the impossibility of choosing between a violent and—ultimately—fatal assimilation and a resistance that could not be realized in the midst of the Cold War. What has been overlooked in the literary criticism on No-No Boy is the erotic and sexual attraction between the main characters. I argue that the bond between the two men dissipates the either-or dichotomy that divided Japanese Americans during and after the war. Moreover, it calls into question the favorability of proximity to whiteness and heterosexuality alike.

That men of color could afford or would want to turn away from these trappings of legitimacy is often unthinkable. The lawsuit Keodara is threatening against Grindr, after all, is a reaction to the social acceptability of rejecting Asian American men on racially discriminatory grounds. We all know that a common response to rejection is more impassioned efforts at inclusion.

However, rather than compensatorily clinging to mainstream standards, the male characters in Asian American literature’s seminal texts show that we need a wholesale rethinking of love, intimacy, justice, and community. Their bonds with one another and their relentless intent to stick together become the basis on which we can imagine a different order of values.

Another chance to see Tommy and Me

Tommy and Me, the autobiographical play by Ray Didinger, author of One Last Read and the forthcoming Eagles Encyclopedia: Champions Edition, is getting an encore production at the Media Theater August 8-26. This week in North Philly Notes, we re-post the author/playwright’s blog entry, slightly tweaked from what published last summer after the original production ended its run.

I didn’t know it was possible to have an experience that is both exhilarating and painful. But that’s what I was feeling when Tommy and Me, my first—and probably last—stage play, had its final performance at the Fringe Arts theatre.

It was exhilarating because the sellout crowd sent the play off with a standing ovation and afterwards people stayed around to say how much they enjoyed it. The story flashes back to the 1950s and ’60s and the career of Eagles great Tommy McDonald and dozens of people came up to me to relate their own memories of Franklin Field. Some still carried the ticket stubs in their wallets. Three bucks for a seat in the end zone. Yes, it was a long time ago.

TommyandMe SetThe painful part was walking back into the empty theatre and seeing the crew dismantle the set. During the two-week run I virtually lived in that theatre. It became my world and each night when the lights went down and the actors took the stage, I was transported back to my boyhood when I was the freckle-faced fan who wanted nothing more than to carry Tommy McDonald’s helmet as he walked to the practice field. It brought a lump to my throat every night. But on Sunday, seeing it stripped down and silent, reminded me it was, indeed, over.

I knew this night was coming. I knew there would be that moment when I had to let go and Tommy and Me would become a memory, but it did not lessen the sense of loss. We sat at the bar for a long time—the cast, the crew, the whole Theatre Exile team—and talked about the play and how it grew into something larger than we first imagined. All 12 performances were sell outs and each show ended with a standing ovation that seemed to grow louder each night. Tom Teti, the veteran actor who played Tommy McDonald, said, “This was a rare one.” The others at the bar nodded in agreement.

Picture_r688x459Once we left the theatre that night last year we would go in different directions. I would return to talking about the Eagles on WIP Sports Radio and Comcast Sports Net.

Eagles;Champions_smBut for a little while longer, we were sharing the bond that was Tommy and Me, the play I wrote about my boyhood hero and our unlikely 40-year journey to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I had never written a play before and when I started I wasn’t at all sure it would ever be produced. But thanks to Joe Canuso, who believed in the project, and Bruce Graham, the superb Philadelphia playwright who helped in its development, we were able to bring Tommy and Me to life. To sit in the theatre each evening and hear the audience laugh, sometimes cry, boo any reference to the Dallas Cowboys and ultimately applaud at the final curtain was a thrill unlike anything I had experienced before. I know I’ll never forget it.

Each night ended with the cast returning to the stage to answer questions from the audience. The very first night, a woman stood up and said: “I’m not an Eagles fan. I don’t even like sports…” I thought, “Where is this going?” Then she said, “But this story really touched me.” Several theatre critics [reviews below] made the same point: it isn’t a football story. It is a story about a boy, his hero and dreams coming true. It is a story I always wanted to tell and that’s why it was so hard to let go.

Read the DC Metro‘s review. 

Read the Broad Street Review‘s review

Read Philly.com‘s review

Read NewsWork‘s review

Read Philadelphia Magazine‘s review 

 

 

Celebrating Black History Month with our African American Literature titles

This week in North Philly Notes, we focus on our African American books about books in honor of Black History Month

From Slave Ship to Supermax: Mass Incarceration, Prisoner Abuse, and the New Neo-Slave Novel by Patrick Elliot Alexander

In his cogent and groundbreaking book, From Slave Ship to Supermax, Patrick Elliot Alexander argues that the disciplinary logic and violence of slavery haunt depictions of the contemporary U.S. prison in late twentieth-century Black fiction. Alexander links representations of 2426_reg.gifprison life in James Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk to his engagements with imprisoned intellectuals like George Jackson, who exposed historical continuities between slavery and mass incarceration. Likewise, Alexander reveals how Toni Morrison’s Beloved was informed by Angela Y. Davis’s jail writings on slavery-reminiscent practices in contemporary women’s facilities. Alexander also examines recurring associations between slave ships and prisons in Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage, and connects slavery’s logic of racialized premature death to scenes of death row imprisonment in Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying.

Alexander ultimately makes the case that contemporary Black novelists depict racial terror as a centuries-spanning social control practice that structured carceral life on slave ships and slave plantations-and that mass-produces prisoners and prisoner abuse in post-Civil Rights America. These authors expand free society’s view of torment confronted and combated in the prison industrial complex, where discriminatory laws and the institutionalization of secrecy have reinstated slavery’s system of dehumanization.

Black Regions of the Imagination: African American Writers between the Nation and the World, by Eve Dunbar, a title in the American Literatures Initiative

Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Chester Himes were all pressured by critics and publishers to enlighten mainstream (white) audiences about race and African American culture. Focusing on fiction and non-fiction they produced between the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement, Eve Dunbar’s important book, Bla2239_reg.gifck Regions of the Imagination, examines how these African American writers—who lived and traveled outside the United States—both document and re-imagine their “homegrown” racial experiences within a worldly framework.

From Hurston’s participant-observational accounts and Wright’s travel writing to Baldwin’s Another Country and Himes’ detective fiction, these writers helped develop the concept of a “region” of blackness that resists boundaries of genre and geography. Each writer represents—and signifies—blackness in new ways and within the larger context of the world. As they negotiated issues of “belonging,” these writers were more critical of social segregation in America as well as increasingly resistant to their expected roles as cultural “translators.”

Pimping Fictions: African American Crime Literature and the Untold Story of Black Pulp Publishing, by Justin Gifford, a title in the American Literatures Initiative

“Lush sex and stark violence colored Black and served up raw by a great Negro writer,” promised the cover of Run Man Run, Chester Himes’ pioneering novel in the black crime fiction tradition. In Pimping Fictions, Justin Gifford provides a hard-boiled investigation of hundreds of pulpy paperbacks written by Himes, Donald Goines, and Iceberg Slim (a.k.a. Robert Beck), among many others.

Gifford draws from an im2186_reg.gifpressive array of archival materials to provide a first-of-its-kind literary and cultural history of this distinctive genre. He evaluates the artistic and symbolic representations of pimps, sex-workers, drug dealers, and political revolutionaries in African American crime literature—characters looking to escape the racial containment of prisons and the ghetto.

Gifford also explores the struggles of these black writers in the literary marketplace, from the era of white-owned publishing houses like Holloway House—that fed books and magazines like Players to eager black readers—to the contemporary crop of African American women writers reclaiming the genre as their own.

Black Theatre: Ritual Performance in the African Diaspora, edited by Paul Carter Harrison, Victor Leo Walker II, and Gus Edwards 

Generating a new understanding of the past—as well as a vision for the future—this path-breaking volume contains essays written by playwrights, scholars, and critics that analyze African Americ1429_reg.gifan theatre as it is practiced today.

Even as they acknowledge that Black experience is not monolithic, these contributors argue provocatively and persuasively for a Black consciousness that creates a culturally specific theatre. This theatre, rooted in an African mythos, offers ritual rather than realism; it transcends the specifics of social relations, reaching toward revelation. The ritual performance that is intrinsic to Black theatre renews the community; in Paul Carter Harrison’s words, it “reveals the Form of Things Unknown” in a way that “binds, cleanses, and heals.”

Savoring the Salt: The Legacy of Toni Cade Bambara, edited by Linda Janet Holmes and Cheryl A. Wall

The extraordinary spirit of Toni Cade Bambara lives on in Savoring the Salt, a vibrant and appreciati1900_reg.gifve recollection of the work and legacy of the multi-talented, African American writer, teacher, filmmaker, and activist. Among the contributors who remember Bambara, reflect on her work, and examine its meaning today are Toni Morrison, Amiri Baraka, Pearl Cleage, Ruby Dee, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Nikki Giovanni, Avery Gordon Audre Lorde, and Sonia Sanchez.

Admiring readers have kept Bambara’s fiction in print since her first collection of stories, Gorilla, My Love, was published in 1972. She continued to write-and her audience and reputation continued to grow-until her untimely death in 1995. Savoring the Salt includes excerpts from her published and unpublished writings, along with interviews and photos of Bambara. The mix of poets and scholars, novelists and critics, political activists, and filmmakers represented here testifies to the ongoing importance and enduring appeal of her work.

Yo’ Mama! New Raps, Toasts, Dozens, Jokes and Children’s Rhymes from Urban Black America, edited by Onwuchekwa Jemie 

Collected primarily in metropolitan New York and Philadelphia during the classic era of black “street poetry” (i.e., during the late 1960s and early 1970s) these raps, signifyings, toasts, boasts, jokes and children’s rhymes will delight general readers as 1453_reg.gifwell as scholars. Ranging from the simple rhymes that accompany children’s games to verbally inventive insults and the epic exploits of traditional characters like Shine and Stagger Lee, these texts sound the deep rivers of culture, echoing two continents. Onwuchekwa Jemie’s introductory essay situates them in a globally pan-African context and relates them to more recent forms of oral culture such as rap and spoken word.

Unbought and Unbossed: Transgressive Black Women, Sexuality, and Representation, by Trimiko Melancon, a title in the American Literatures Initiative

Unbought and Unbossed examines black women’s literary and cultural production of the 1970s and early 1980s. Considering texts in the socio-cultural and historical moments of their production, Trimiko Melancon analyzes representations of black women that not

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only transgress racial, gender, and sexual boundaries, but also diverge from both discourses of “whiteness” and constructions of female identity imposed by black nationalism.

Drawing from black feminist and critical race theories, discourses on gender and sexuality, and literary criticism, Melancon illuminates the complexity of black female identity, desire, and intimacy. She sheds light on a more complex black identity, one ungoverned by rigid politics over-determined by race, gender and sexuality, while also enabling us to better understand the black sexual revolution, contemporary cultural moments, and representations in the age of Michelle Obama.

Re-Viewing James Baldwin: Things Not Seen, edited by D. Quentin Miller, foreword by David Adams Leeming

This new collection of essays presents a critical reappraisal of James Baldwin’s work, looking beyond the commercial and critical success of some of Baldwin’s early writings such as Go Tell it on the 1463_reg.gifMountain and Notes of a Native Son. Focusing on Baldwin’s critically undervalued early works and the virtually neglected later ones, the contributors illuminate little-known aspects of this daring author’s work and highlight his accomplishments as an experimental writer. Attentive to his innovations in style and form, Things Not Seen reveals an author who continually challenged cultural norms and tackled matters of social justice, sexuality, and racial identity. As volume editor D. Quentin Miller notes, “What has been lost is a complete portrait of [Baldwin’s] tremendously rich intellectual journey that illustrates the direction of African-American thought and culture in the late twentieth century.”

African American Writing: A Literary Approach, by Werner Sollors

Werner Sollors’ African American Writing takes a fresh look at what used to be called “Negro literature.” The essays collected here, ranging in topic from Gustavus Vassa/Olaudah Equiano to LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, and in time from the Enlightenment to the Obama presidency, take a literary approach to black writing and present writers as readers and as intellectuals who were or are open to the world.
From W.E.B. Du Bois com2396_reg.gifmenting on Richard Wagner and Elvis Presley, to Zora Neale Hurston attacking Brown v. Board of Ed. in a segregationist newspaper, to Charles Chesnutt’s effigy darkened for the black heritage postage stamp, Sollors alternates between close readings and broader cultural contextualizations to delineate the various aesthetic modes and intellectual exchanges that shaped a series of striking literary works.
Readers will make often-surprising discoveries in the authors’ writing and in their encounters and dialogues with others. The essays, accompanied by Winold Reiss’s pastels, Carl Van Vechten’s photographs, and other portraits, attempt to honor this important literature’s achievement, heterogeneity, and creativity.

Temple University Press’ Annual Holiday Sale

This week in North Philly Notes, we prepare for the holidays by promoting our annual Holiday Sale December 7-8 from 11am-2pm in the Diamond Club Lobby, (lower level of Mitten Hall at Temple University)

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Announcing the new issue of Kalfou

This week in North Philly Notes, we highlight the new issue of our journal, Kalfouedited by George Lipsitz at the UCSB Center for Black Studies Research

Kalfou volume 4, no. 1, continues the journal’s pioneering work in creating timely and lively conversations among academics, activists, and artists. The new issue features a forum on the BlackLivesMatter movement and its impact on and implications for the Black Prophetic Tradition in religion and politics. Participants in that discussion are Juan Floyd-Thomas of Vanderbilt University; Johari Jabir of the University of Illinois, Chicago; Lawrence Brown of Morgan State University; and Kalfou senior editor George Lipsitz of the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Arts activist Natasha Thomas-Jackson writes about the ways in which her innovative youth performance troupe RAISE IT UP!! mobilized young people to step up and speak out about the water crisis created by racially targeted privatization schemes in Flint, Michigan.

University of Wyoming American Studies Professor Lilia Soto compares and contrasts the commemoration of the activism of César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, and the United Farm Workers movement in Napa, California, with public commemorations of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.

Musician, arts administrator, and researcher Russell C. Rodríguez contributes a moving eulogy for Ramón “Chunky” Sánchez, a legendary Chicanx musician and activist.

Also featured is a teacher’s guide to the film Becoming Ourselves by Asian Immigrant Women Advocates; a rumination on apologies and reparations by Washington University anthropologist Peter Benson; and a discussion by Venise L. Keys of her artistic practice.

Table of Contents

Feature Articles

Lawrence T. Brown
Johari Jabir
Juan Floyd-Thomas
George Lipsitz

Talkative Ancestors

Keywords

Peter Benson

La Mesa Popular

Lilia Soto

Art and Social Action

Venise L. Keys

Mobilized 4 Movement

Natasha Thomas-Jackson

Teaching and Truth

Asian Immigrant Women Advocates

In Memoriam

Russell C. Rodríguez

Book Reviews

Barbara Tomlinson
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