Sunday, August 7, 2011

Roots (Picador Books)Roots by Alex Haley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Roots traces the journey of seven generations of a family, from the birth of Kunta Kinte in the Gambia in the mid 1700s, through his capture and removal to the United States. Life in Juffure is vividly described, and we follow Kunta Kinte through his childhood, goat herding, manhood training, rites of passage and the development of his relationships with his father, brothers, friends and elders. And then it all stops.

The first half of the book details Kunta Kinte’s journey, through his torturous journey from the Gambia to America, from masser to masser, from Kunta Kinte to Toby, through his escape attempts, lashings, and gradual outward resignation. Having to hide being African; anything that might threaten sensibilities and voodoo. Having half his foot hacked off, and the tenderness with which he is treated by the doctor, who becomes his master. Who seems a good man, though.. white. It is hard to separate men from their place as white men, and all it entailed.

Partway through Kunta Kinte’s story I started reading reviews of the book, which I can never stop myself from doing, and found the usual ‘this book is so important’, ‘it really makes you think how beautiful the simplicity of life in Africa really is, maybe we should all take a leaf from their book’ type drivel. Somebody’s comments about how they felt cheated when they realised that the book is embellished and that it isn’t entirely true to Alex Haley’s own ancestry. Which seems to be a grievous missing of the point. How terrible, reader, that you feel cheated. What you are really being cheated of is an understanding and shallow empathy (for that’s all that we can really claim) for generations of people, who were wrenched forcibly from their lives only to be transplanted as sub-human work horses into somebody else’s.
These are the people who were cheated. People are still cheated, now.

As each protagonist becomes the focus of the story, the previous families are left behind, more quickly and severely as the book progresses. We are left not knowing what becomes of Kunta Kinte and his wife Belle, once their daughter Kizzy leaves with her new husband, and again and again, to the end. The book gathers pace and seems to rush through generations, for the second half of the book, though without sacrificing or compromising the connections with the characters. They are robust and weighty, still lingering in my head.

There are moments of abject despair, when freedom is promised and so close, only to be snapped away with little more than a cursory consideration. The lives these people live are inconceivable. It is as if they are on a leash loose enough to give the illusion of freedom, to enable more productivity and less ‘trouble’ to ‘deal with’, only to be yanked back when it appears too close and real. Families being ripped apart, being sold, being cheated and lied to. I read parts of this book with my heart in my mouth, it was so real as to detach me completely from my own life.

The landscape and the slave rows are etched in my mind, along with the road down to Chicken George and his fighting cocks. Sucking blood clots out of their wounds and sharpening their spurs. Chicken George, born of his mother’s rape by her new master, who served that master as a slave.

There are moments of tenderness between master and slave, at various points of the book, almost enough to muddy the relationship. Almost enough to feel thankful that, well, at least in such a sickening situation and irksome period of history, there were kind men. But it’s a trap. And it’s a trap that thankfully, this book does not let us fall into for longer than it takes for us to feel it snap back in our face. Just like it did, again and again. Because, hey, Just kidding! Remember your place.

The born sense of entitlement and superiority, which I wish was something that this book could bring to life, as an historical artefact to grapple with. Conversations that make my skin crawl. Parts of this book brought me to tears. Parts of it I read with dread, not wanting to even know what would come next, while knowing, already. The promises of freedom. What happens when freedom finally comes. Freedom in name, which is still subject to whims and norms.

This book will stay with me for a long time. I went to Zanzibar a few years ago, the last slave trading outpost to have existed, where slavery was only abolished in 1897.

I sat in the chamber where slaves were kept, the ceiling too low to enable an adult to stand, where excrement ran down the gulley between platforms. Where light could get in through
Where men were kept, those that survived, the strongest, sold for higher prices. The whipping post, formerly in the slave market, now the altar of a church.

I thought that slavery had been abolished officially in the nineteenth century. Apparently not.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

I feel like I don’t know anything about economics or finance and that as a result, things like raising the US debt ceiling and the impact of the national economies on the EU go over my head. I assume the parameters of the debate around something like my mother’s ‘there’s nothing necessarily wrong with debt’ ideas and the ‘I’ve been saying for years’ comments section of the Age, where conspiracy theorists rail about The Government and The Left and various other amorphous beasts.

I had a cursory look at the Business section of the Age at lunchtime today, but am not interested in shares prices of companies I’ve never heard of, and can’t comprehend the articles that require a basic understanding of The State of Things. Oh, it’s gone from 0.4 to 0.9! Oh.. I suppose that’s.. good?

I just don’t know where to start, apart from the Wikipedia ‘2011 US debt ceiling crisis’ article. I feel like I’ve come back from overseas having not read an Australian newspaper for a few months, in the midst of a juicy scandal that everyone already knows about. Like the gangland wars. No idea. Names and suburbs and people shot each other. If you miss the start and the lead up, you’ve missed the boat, and I seem to have missed a lot of boats.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

On hell, and other people.

Even worse than looking for a new sharehouse is looking for a new housemate. Instead of an afternoon filled with procrastination and the dog park, then dinner at mum’s and the family Masterchef viewing, last Sunday was filled with back to back interviews.

It’s not the interviews themselves, but the prospect of not finding someone that clicks and having to settle with someone who doesn’t outwardly appear to have a narcissistic personality disorder or prohibitively bad personal hygiene, but doesn’t feel right. I have lived with both of these, and with alcoholics of varying degrees of functionality, with self-important, socially inept recluses and people who are always gushing, smiling and painfully ‘on’. I have lived with people who slip instantly into an easy friendship, and with people that I still see and care about, years later. There’s no test for that, that can be performed in a 15 minute ‘here’s the room, it’s this much and we have great internet and everything works’.

I don’t care what music you listen to, what you are wearing, your education level, your parents’ socio-economic background or that you only watch Good Quality TV. I don’t care whether you have experienced hand-to-mouth poverty yourself or just read about it. I don’t care about any of these things, unless they’re defining features of your personality and sense of self – in which case, your desperation to impress (or perhaps one up me, because I can tell) is tiresome. We’re not fighting over a boy, competing for a job, or courting each other.

If you like to watch TV and have a job that you hate and that doesn’t define you as a person, that’s .. fine. You don’t have to prove your value as a person, and how well you’ll fit into Moreland. You don’t need to drop names of people and HBO and warehouse parties and yeah, man, RAD, yeah, rad. Rad.

You can be whoever you are, and I’ll be who I am, and that way we can both be relaxed around each other and have a smoothly functioning household. That’s what I’m really looking for. This is about a house, where we are both going to spend a lot of time, together. Your affectations exhaust me, on your behalf, and I don’t know whether to raise an eyebrow or actually worry about when you’ll snap.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

In defence of myki

Whatever issues myki had with being delivered late and over budget, the Baillieu government’s decision to remove ticket vending machines from trams and remove short term tickets is a ridiculous response.

Being unable to top up myki cards on trams is a key shortcoming of the system, and what I assume was a cost cutting measure that I cannot believe was ever considered justifiable. The system has had implementation problems, and its introduction would have benefitted from user education about how to touch on (not to swipe), among other things. However, this decision doesn’t improve the situation at all.

Abolishing short term tickets forces all users to purchase a $10 myki card, making life unintuitive and compromising public transport’s value as a spontaneous, easy and default transport option. Cities all over the world are moving to curb motorised transport, in the face of rising petrol costs, the proportion of emissions contributed by the transport sector, increasing populations and congestion. Cities including Melbourne.

Making public transport a less attractive transport option is one outcome of this policy choice, which makes compliance harder and accidental or unintentional fare evasion easier. Making public transport require forethought and a trip to an outlet to purchase a card makes it less user friendly and harder to navigate. This is particularly the case for those who are likely to be infrequent users of the system (both infrequent public transport users and tourists), and who are by virtue of this, those users most likely to use short term tickets.

The Baillieu government was never going to abolish myki. A cursory understanding of the reasons an alternative ticketing system was developed shows that the Metcard infrastructure was designed to function for nine years, initially until 2007, at which point it would be replaced. The contract was extended in 2005, to cover for the development and introduction of a replacement system. Retaining Metcard was never a viable option, its infrastructure now having been in operation for longer than its designated life cycle and gradually failing, with replacement parts no longer being manufactured. Scrapping myki would require replacing it with something else, which, aside from being a horrendous waste of money, time and resources (not necessarily a key concern for a new government) would require the development of something new. This would take years of development before roll out, and would require a system in the mean time.

Keeping it, however, left the government with a perfect excuse to buy some time and effectively removed any sense of urgency about making (or announcing) its decision about retaining or scrapping myki. It was a perfect gift for any new government: an inherited problem, in a system supposedly beset by issues since day dot, none of which are their fault and all of which can continually be wheeled out and highlighted as an example of what this government has to deal with. The fact that they didn’t commission its development and have been extolling its problems during their time in opposition mean that they were able to take their time with a ‘review’ (7 months), completed by Deloitte for $350,000.

Despite initial teething problems, I think the system is working well. Beyond a single incident wherein a machine froze while topping up my myki, removing money without adding credit, I have not personally had any problems with the system at all. This issue was immediately rectified, with a friendly and apologetic customer service call, myki credit added to my card within one working day, and a follow up call to let me know. Nobody likes change – no new system was ever going to be embraced across the board, and people don’t get excited about ticketing systems. In other cities, the cost of the existing/old system ticket was increased when new smart cards were introduced, to encourage take up. This didn’t happen in Melbourne, and perhaps the real issue lies in the failure to properly encourage take up of myki in the first instance. It’s really not that bad.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Some time in my late teens, I told my mother that I couldn’t wait until I was 30. I was serious, and because I was serious, she was horrified. At some point in the intervening years I wrenched some degree of control over my life, and stopped having to be defined by my age, by virtue of what defined my life.

The only thing that enabled me to keep chugging through high school was the prospect of it ending, and being able to stop going to sleep and waking up with the impending sense of doom. And the same group of blood thirsty teenage girls who I’m sure have no idea of the effect they continue to have on me, if they even knew at the time.

It was high school; years have elapsed, and it no longer matters. But it is permanently hovering at the back of my mind. I am wrenched back there often, when something reminds me of one of them, and I feel as small and confused as I ever was, and as they ever made me. I see women, together, and their relationships confuse me, because I can’t comprehend voluntarily entering into something so reminiscent of high school. It has tainted my ability to talk to women without catching myself and being conscious of making eye contact, which then means eye contact has gone on too long and, oh, now I’ve fucked it, fuck, get me away… fuck…

Whether through avoidance, ineptitude or circumstance, I didn’t make friends at uni. The people I spoke to were older than me – 22, 23 – “mature age students” – and a constant reminder, constantly reminding me of my age and immaturity. I knew then as I know now, drinking coffee with them on the lawn was a way to fill in time and avoid having to justify not meeting other people. It wasn’t an attempt to one up everyone else, being friends with an older crowd. I didn’t care about them, or being their friend, and knew I was using them as fillers, until I no longer needed fillers.

Something happened, and somewhere along the way I started work, went overseas, do things in my daily life with people whose experiences to this point I do not share. The books I have read, the things I have studied, the things I eat – it’s not judged as much as considered. I don’t worry about people looking at what I eat, and if I choose to eat while reading my book at a table in the lunch room. I thought this would come with age – that at a certain point, you stop caring.

It’s nothing to do with age. It’s circumstance. I no longer spend my days surrounded by people my age, going to school or uni, where everyone does the same things, with the little variations the only things to pick up and magnify. I didn’t care more then, by virtue of anything other than there being nothing else to care about. I am able to be concerned with bigger things now, surrounded by people who aren’t ashamed to be concerned with bigger things, even if they are home renovations and their children’s birthday parties. My age, and the things I do, the age-inappropriate things I care about, are finally acceptable.

I’m not concerned about getting old or older, and I don’t feel as though I have been wasting time, putting off growing up. I don’t have regrets about putting things off or not finishing them, because I never allowed myself enough leeway to even steer close to the rails. All I really worry about is that time is chipping away. I wanted to be 30, because by 30 I would have stopped caring, and having to pretend to like binge drinking and going out with people I’m supposed to identify with.

Sometimes, when I’m buying cleaning products and driving in the car with my little dog, I feel adult. I drive her home from mum’s house, her asleep in the front seat like I used to be, when mum drove us home. I talk to her – it’s ok, go to sleep little one, you can sleep, we’ll be home soon. And I am hit with an overwhelming sense of responsibility and adulthood. I have a set of keys, and I need them all. I carry a handbag because I need to carry my things, things that adults need. I never buy chips or fruit juice. I drive to the supermarket and put my shopping in the boot. I have a subscription to The Age, and have mail delivered.

And all it takes is the smell of new carpet in a floor of my building, or the way a school girl stands on the tram, to throw me back in my place, to high school. I shrivel from the inside and run my tongue along the inner curve of my teeth, suddenly conscious of my dirty hair, the nails I’ve gnawed the nailpolish from, my height. And I wonder whether it’s ever going to stop.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Laws (or lack thereof) protecting livestock

This article just alerted me to the fact that
There are no Federal laws protecting food animals. They are not protected by State based animal welfare laws. As ‘livestock’ or ‘farm animals’ they are exempted from these laws, their only protection being voluntary codes of practice or industry produced standards. These codes and standards are intended to guide farmers on acceptable practices...

I had no idea. I assumed that there were enforceable codes of conduct, or something regulating the treatment of factory farmed animals. Another thing to investigate.

The personal and political and the personal political

Reading about the live export ban, animal rescue and various other things has made me mull on my conflicting personal moral/ethical views, and more pragmatic understanding about ‘the way things work’. As usually, writing through it has opened a can of worms in my head, and left me reeling (again) about whether to go vegan or eat a chicken sandwich.

Working in government has jolted me into a greater appreciation for how hamstrung the lumbering beast can be, by interests, pressure groups, un-explored but promised policies, and its own modus operandi. Questions and issues for which, on a personal level, I can supply clear and logical answers, become stilted by the complexity and links that I know are the real factors. As a result, I don’t know where I sit, and whether I sit in different places depending on whether I’m navel gazing or reacting to simplistic proposals and ideas by people who tend to be on my side. I’m antagonistic, and in my head, wont to argue more fiercely with people in my camp, who are so narrow in their thinking that they make us look ridiculous to the other side.

For example, the live cattle export ban, and the meat and dairy industries more generally. My own ethics and attitudes have prevented me from eating meat since the age of 14, and on one level, would love to see these industries disappear. Factory faming, animal cruelty, and the way that meat is considered in this country have made me repulsed for years. But at the same time, I know that in holding these views I am in the minority, and that there is more to these industries than cruelty. While they may be based on what I consider to be a wasteful and horrific practice, it is a practice that supports and is supported by the broader community.

It would be ridiculous to ignore the broader economic and social implications of shutting down the industry. While on one hand I don’t consider that the industry, and anything associated with it should be supported, the pragmatic side of me knows that this would be selfish and untenable in itself.

The issue lies in the ‘and then what’. What happens to the industry, its employees, infrastructure, to the supporting and complementary industries. To the cattle, to the
employees in Indonesia, to the trade and other relations between Indonesia and Australia, and Australia and the other countries in the region. The unintended consequences and the immediate consequences, the structures built around them – they don’t also disappear, or not without bringing something crashing down around them.

My instinct is to think so broadly about the effects of any action or conclusion, that any movement at all carries so much consequence that doing anything is wrong. Which is so at odds with my instinct and anger that there are even abattoirs in the first place.

Actually writing through these things makes them seem childish and banal – as if what I am grappling with is the tension between holding on to a childish sentiment and “growing up”, living in the real world. Perhaps that’s partly it, but that also implies that growing up means leaving behind any sense of morality and real desire and incentive to do or change anything. It may even be some variation of Stockholm Syndrome, whereby having worked in government, and knowing the complexity surrounding any Big Issues, to really grapple with them seems futile.

What I don’t understand is how to marry these, holding personal tendencies and beliefs, knowing that they are untenable on a broader scale. Does that mean that they are purely untenable, and what does that mean for my own attitudes and beliefs? What should the interplay be between the real, broad scale implications of a view, and that same view when held on a personal, smaller scale?

Is this balance really what divides people into opposing camps – be they left/right, or something else. Is it on par with something like the philosophy of short term loss for long term gain, and people’s propensity to fall on one side of it. And am I really just a fence sitter in the guise of a bleeding heart, because it makes me feel better? I have never considered that because a decision or action isn’t going to have a flow on or broader effect, it’s not worth taking. I believe in acting on my morals and making decisions accordingly, and that to do otherwise would be hypocritical. But upon interrogating what I believe, perhaps I’m just as hypocritical, only worse, because judgmental as well.