Monthly Archives: April 2013

Botswana for Beginners



Years ago, I read a positive notice in the New York Times Book Review about an unusual series of novels about a woman in Botswana who opens her own detective agency.  It sounded weird and interesting, so I got the books and fell in love with the stories of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Gaborone, Botswana.  Since then I’ve read nearly all the books in the series, although I’ve fallen off of late, and I’ve continued to love them, mostly because of the main character, Precious Ramotswe, who started the agency with a small inheritance from her father.  Mma Ramotswe is irresistible: uneducated but clever and street-savvy, plucky and independent, wise and compassionate, and unfailingly loyal to family, friends, and Botswana.

The other characters are delightful as well: Grace Makutsi, Mma Ramotswe’s assistant; Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, Mma Ramotswe’s husband and “the finest mechanic in Botswana”; Silvia Potokwane, the matron of the orphan farm from which Mma Ramotswe and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni adopted their foster children, Motholeli and Puso; and an assortment of others.  Even Mma Ramotswe’s tiny white van has a personality of its own.  But the central character in the series, and the element that makes the book unique, is Botswana itself, and, more broadly, Africa.  The books paint a vivid and loving picture of their setting, and each ends with a kind of poem, or prayer: the word “africa” printed 9 times in a diamond shape just after the last line of each book.

tea timeSo I eagerly picked up one of the recent No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books that I had not yet read, Tea Time for the Traditionally Built.  The title reflects two central preoccupations of the series, which in turn point to one of its major themes: tea and the “traditional build” of African women like Mma Ramotswe, who is, from a western perspective, fat.  But these books resist western conventions, viewing Botswana and African culture more generally through the positive lens of their traditions of respect, generosity, community, and a more realistic conception of the actual range of female body types.  Alexander McCall Smith, the author, who was born in what is now Zimbabwe and spent considerable time in Botswana, has repeatedly said that one of his goals was to show the depth and breadth of the Africa he loves.

All this is well and good, necessary, even, but as I read Tea Time I was also reminded that my love of the series is always tempered by a dose of discomfort.  The source of this unease is the sense that, in attempting to depict Africa positively and to respect Botswana and its culture, McCall Smith has created an almost naïve portrait of both the land and his characters, an oversimplification that verges, at times, on a patronizing and imperial tone. Though he is himself African (now living in Scotland), as a white man McCall Smith represents the colonial powers in Africa, and while I applaud his attempt at a sensitive, multifaceted portrayal of Botswana and its people, certain of his editorial decisions seem insensitive to the power of privilege.

A case in point: McCall Smith’s treatment of the AIDS crisis in Africa.  Necessarily, AIDS haunts the margins of these books, but it is never even named.  In the third book, Morality for Beautiful Girls, we learn that Mma Makutsi’s brother—dying of what is only called “that illness,” “that terrible illness,” or related epithets—is living with her, apparently untreated, and by the next book he has died.  In Tea Time, too, AIDS appears obliquely, when Mma Ramotswe accompanies one of Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s apprentice mechanics home, and finds that he lives with his grandmother.  “Mma Ramotswe nodded.  It was not unusual for a grandmother to be the head of a household, especially now, with that illness that had stalked the land.”  McCall Smith, responding to a question about why he never directly addresses AIDS, answered, “I do not mention it too directly because they are very distressed about it and I am trying, as far as possible, to show the positive side of Africa. This is not to deny what is happening, of course; it’s just that there is so much about the trials and difficulties of Africa and so little about ordinary life there.”  This may be true, but the desire to present an uncomplicated and unreservedly positive picture of a place that is just as complex, difficult, and problematic as any other place on earth (and perhaps more so as regards AIDS) is a form of infantilization that, in the hands of a white male writer, reeks of imperialism.

This oversimplification extends, in some ways, to other aspects of the books.  Mma Ramotswe, for example, is a paragon of virtue.  Although she admits to an uncharitable thought once in a while, generally she is so perfect and so good that she is almost inhuman; the same might be said of her husband.  And although Mma Ramotswe is no innocent—we learn in the early books that she was once married to an abusive man and lost an infant child—Mma Makutsi, with her childish insistence on the importance of her 97 percent GPA at the Botswana Secretarial College, seems to be.  To be fair, McCall Smith does address some important questions through the characters and plots: Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni has suffered clinical depression; Mma Makutsi’s hardscrabble upbringing and striving for education and independence raise class issues; and we see a backdrop of cheating and corruption through some of the investigations conducted by the detective agency.  But almost inevitably, although I enjoy these books, while I’m reading something will make me cringe.

I have no real answers about whether these books do a service or disservice to Africa—I will leave that to experts.  I do know that my process in reading them is complicated by the coexistence of their very real appeal and the pride they take in the characters and the land with the simultaneous oversimplification of those characters and that land that lends them a slightly colonialist feel.  In some ways, the very things that give me pause are also the things that attract me.  But the enjoyment I get from them is genuine, and I will probably keep reading them even as I continue to critique my own pleasure.


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Birding Your Way Through Life

ImageYears ago, when I was panicked about finishing my dissertation – I had also just had a second child and was trying to find a job, so there was really nothing much to worry about – I broke down while talking to my mother and she just said, “Bird by bird.  Bird by bird.”  She knew I would know what she was talking about because it was she, years before that, who had given me Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.  Since then, the phrase has become a kind of replacement in my family for the empty, comforting clichés you offer to overwhelmed and anxious friends.  And I can’t count the number of times when, confronted with the chest-tightening panic of a deadline, or overdue bills and no money in the checking account, or a living-room floor covered in toys and a sink full of dishes an hour before ten people come over for dinner, I’ve whispered to myself, “Bird by bird.  Bird by bird.”

Unfortunately, although this is clearly a book with tremendous importance to me, I couldn’t remember any other lesson, even another idea, from its pages.  So I reread it, and discovered that (of course – I mean, this is Annie Lamott we’re talking about) it’s full of little gems of wisdom like “bird by bird.”  They aren’t all as pithy, but they’re all useful, and although the book is ostensibly about writing the advice contained within is probably as useful to a fork-lift operator or a pediatrician as it is to a writer.  I’m generally skeptical of advice and self-help books – in fact I hate them, because who are you to tell me how to live? – but there is something magical about Anne Lamott’s attitude, her funny self-deprecation, that makes her advice better, wiser, and worth listening to.

Re-reading this book also awakened me to the benefits of academia (yes, really!), which benefits I have really lost sight of lately in the fog of impending unemployment and a perpetually horrible job market.  So here it is: the one tremendous benefit of academia is that you must learn well and live by all of Anne Lamott’s best writing lessons or you’ll never make it, whether you know they’re her lessons or not.  No one finishes a dissertation without writing “shitty first drafts,” as she calls them, quieting the voices of perfectionism, or creating short assignments to complete.

Sadly, it also sounds like the world of professional creative writing is not so different from academia.  Lamott describes writing conferences where “students have come to me crying because the famous writer who critiqued their work that day had savaged it” and where colleagues’ harsh criticism made them feel like it was “the Lord of the Flies Writing Conference.”  I can’t count anymore the number of times I’ve seen a senior academic ridicule or embarrass a junior faculty member or a graduate student at conferences – it’s almost a rite of passage to be asked an unkind or tangential question by an older professor, especially for young female academics.  It doesn’t make it any better to know that this happens elsewhere, but it is always nice to know that assholes are everywhere, and not just in your own profession.  There is comfort in the crowd.  And one of the things that endears me to Anne Lamott and to Bird by Bird is her unrelenting compassion for us, writers and everyone else, who have been too harshly critiqued or embarrassed in front of colleagues or just left unsupported and unencouraged by those who should be our biggest cheerleaders.  It’s also not a bad thing to be reminded to be one of those cheerleaders when you can.

One of the reasons I started this blog was just to sit down and write without any of the professional pressure I feel when I write academically, to choose my topics whimsically and write spontaneously about them without fear of judgment and to no particular end.  I didn’t consciously remember it then, but it must have been Anne Lamott whispering in my ear.  Her core advice about writing in Bird by Bird is to do it for yourself, without expectation of accolades or even publication.  Like life, the act of writing itself is far more important than its outcome.

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Lament of a Sore Loser


Ross Douthat

This Sunday, Ross Douthat, the New York Times’ resident social conservative (I use the adjective “social” to differentiate him from David Brooks, who I’m pretty sure opposes so-called conservatives on every social issue although he would never admit it in print), published his take on the effects of marriage equality on, well, marriage.  Other than that marriage equality would mean more people getting married and more money for all those wedding-related businesses, a seemingly ideal socially and fiscally conservative win-win.

There are so many things wrong with Douthat’s reasoning, including that it isn’t reasoning at all, a fact he himself admits somewhere in the middle of the essay, when, after trying to prove that creeping marriage equality has led to a falling marriage rate, increasing out-of-wedlock births, and more cohabitation, he admits, “Correlations do not, of course, establish causation.”  Sigh.  Alex Pareene takes apart Douthat’s non-argument pretty well on Salon, pointing out that Douthat and other social conservatives have had to refine their presentation of their case precisely because their case is so abhorrent to most people: “Social conservatives, in general, believe that we were better off when sex necessarily led to babies and babies necessarily led to lifelong marriage. None of them deny believing this, they just rarely (these days) put it in such stark terms, because that’s not a very popular position.”

All this I’ve heard before.  But what really bothered me, and what bothers me about every Douthat column I’ve read (which isn’t very many because I can barely stand to keep my eyes on the page) is his self-righteous, know-it-all sanctimony.  If you made it to the end of the essay (and believe me, I do not blame you if you stopped reading at paragraph two), you could read Douthat’s personal prescription for liberals, who are, as usual, doing things all wrong: marriage equality proponents should concede that there are social costs to “redefining marriage,” as he calls it, but that they support this “redefinition” because the benefits of change outweigh the costs.  That’s bad enough (more on that in a minute), but then he goes on:  “Such honesty would make social liberals more magnanimous in what looks increasingly like victory, and less likely to hound and harass religious institutions that still want to elevate and defend the older marital ideal.”

First, Douthat’s “correlation is not causation” argument has in no way demonstrated that “redefining” marriage has had any detrimental effect on the institution of marriage at all.  As Alex Pareene points out, there’s not even a correlation: marriage equality only exists in a handful of states, and only very recently, so to claim it has influenced a much longer and broader trend of divorce, elective single parenting, and cohabitation, among other things, is patently false.  Second, marriage equality is only a redefinition of marriage insofar as monogamy is a redefinition, or allowing married women to own property is a redefinition, or any of the major modifications and changes to so-called traditional marriage that have been undertaken in the last two thousand years are redefinitions of some non-existent, originary, authentic conception of marriage.  So, to be clear: there’s nothing to be “honest” about here.  Marriage— what it is and what it does—like every other societal institution, has varied widely over space and time depending on the conditions that obtained in every society in which it existed.  Generally speaking, it has been the institution of marriage itself that has extracted far heavier social costs than any changes to its constitution: think only of Elizabeth Bennett, for whom the only way to avoid homelessness, basically, is marriage to a man of means.

Maybe it’s the fabricated “redefinition” and social “costs” that make Douthat’s preachy tone so unbearable.  He also manages to slip in another exaggeration (if not an outright lie) about liberals “hounding and harassing” religious institutions, when the fight for marriage equality has always been about civil and legal rights, and never about religion (except for social conservatives, who have tried to make it about religion).  But it seems to me that Douthat’s holier-than-thou advice only thinly masks the reality that it is not marriage-equality proponents who need to be magnanimous about their certain victory (and it is certain now).  In the light of that victory, Ross Douthat’s essay sounds more than anything like the whiny lament of a sore loser.

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