I probably shouldn’t have chosen to read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie whilst holidaying on a Greek island if I didn’t want to think about said topics whilst on holiday, but equally it might have been difficult to have had a classically ignorance-is-bliss vacation on any Greek island if you have been plugged into any kind of news media over the last week.
I am really into freddo espressos. I should admit this upfront. They have reintroduced my love of sugary coffee with a fervour, combining the cocaine-like goodness of the white gold with my already well-nursed addiction to coffee (churned with a tonne of ice in 35 degree heat). I order them and they unfailingly arrive in a plastic cup with a plastic lid and a plastic straw (in plastic packaging). Europe loves plastic, and no doubt the plastic companies love Europe. Resisting the packaging seems futile in a place that often responds to your refusal of a straw with the non-requested gifting of a plastic stirrer that goes straight into the cup. Did I mention that tap water is undrinkable on the island? Add a few litres of plastic bottles to that equation and hey presto – the impending ecological collapse feels undeniably the fault of you and every other holiday-maker on any equatable island in the world.
But back to Chimamanda: I read Americanah and can’t help but feel grateful for the fact that this writer has articulated her experience of being a ‘Non American Black’ in a way that allows me – an Indian (Australian citizen), brown woman – to feel a little less guilty about my non-compliance to asserting the appropriately nuanced political stances that a Person of Colour/Progressive Leftie ought to have in the Western world in 2019. What this book suggests to me, or more importantly, what resonates with me from this story, is that perspectives on race, class and politics occur in context to one’s experiences across various geographic locations and who/how they are perceived as in those locations. The benchmark is always shifting depending on where you’re standing. Added to that is the fact that your conditioning under the social and cultural mores of multiple cultures can collide with one another and manifest into multiple grey areas on how you see the world. Depending on both your experiences of prejudice and class privilege, and on the opinions and experiences of those around you, you could be occupying various points across the political spectrum simultaneously. Political ideologies have a long and global history and even simple statements can often be coopted into (and read as) the rhetoric of propaganda despite your best intentions.
How could this happen? As I unfold on my sunbed among my holiday-making peers who are for the most part European/British/American/Australian, whilst a few kilometres away people fleeing violence and war bank upon the islands of Samos and Lesvos and crowd into camps of inhumane conditions, (to be later possibly processed into countries governed by anti-immigrant politicians) it seems to me that the answer is what is so often called privilege. Race privilege? Class privilege? Passport privilege? All of the above? Yes, and No. Because all of the above collides and coagulates depending on what/where you are talking about, and nobody has the perfect answer without throwing somebody else’s experience under the bus (which all current political ideologies seem to do). This is the symptom of systemic dysfunction. So these influences occur, yes, but is that all that is at play? I’m not sure.
This not-sureness plagues at me as I watch the bobbing waves over my sundrenched belly and feel the rising existential crises within myself.
I listen to Dr. Cornell West and Joe Rogan discuss race politics, music and art on a podcast. West talks about how the greatest flaw of the American dream is that ‘the dream’ tends to regard an indvidualised sense of liberty, and rather those of us with liberty ought to work to assist others less fortunate to gain access to that liberty. I hear this, and agree with it, and think about how often immigrants come into the country of their salvation and pursue their own version of this American dream. They/we want this safety, security and wealth for themselves and for their families, and they want to leave the conflicts of the past far behind and be left the fuck alone after everything they have been through. I think about how much my upbringing, and that of so many in my community, has been about pursuing that neoliberal dream hard enough that I become untouchable (pardon the pun dear Indians), peaking at the hierarchy of the Australian (model minority) dream.
Privileges grow and change, ideologies collide, frictions mount, and no one is who they were anymore.
Clearly though, for so many of us – brown, white, purple and otherwise – who achieve this safety, we reach the top and look out at the world and say: what the fuck? And then we start to descend the stairs of the capitalist pyramid scheme (albeit with the embodied sensibilities of someone who has had it all), to try and help The People.
Which people? The refugees? The disadvantaged? The sick? The poor? The depressed-anxiety-laden-opioid-addicted-millennial? The 12-year old Ethiopian boy trying to walk to Saudi Arabia whilst wearing a t-shirt that says ‘Always Seems Impossible #Until Its Done’?
My mind goes spiraling in trying to crack – in a few hours – the nut that most spend their entire lives breaking open. What should I do to help this situation? How can I gain access to the resources I need to do it? What is the pressure-point of the problem? What is my role in improving this?
Needless to say within said few hours I am shorn of any holiday cheer that my environment seems to subliminally demand. Every known avenue of potential salvation seems mired in the impending apocalypse. Human beings are too fucked, I think to myself; this chaos is too far gone, too systemically embedded for anything to truly reverse the situation. My heart is cloudy and I stay away from the waves lest I should sink from my general surrender to doom. I go online for that other addiction, but I realise quickly that social media, like sugar, will only distract me in further hype and procrastination rather than provide any real solutions. Instead, I allow the seeming truth to sink in: my complete and utter powerlessness to change the world.
It seems lame that this should depress me, seeing as how I have had this realisation cyclically and reliably over most of my young life (except when I’m hopped up enough on said sugar or some sort of post-art buzz that fills me with real hope). But simultaneously it dawns on me that it is a trap to fall into the depression that this realisation beckons.
West says to Joe that the world is a cruel, cruel place, and that any individual, group or collective that thinks it is the messiah is dangerous. Rather, he says, we ought to work towards the connection and inspiration we can provide for each other. The hope and the love we are able to cultivate despite the despair.
What this says to me is that somehow love and hope must exist alongside suffering and despair. That my falling into despair at the cruelty of the world only seeks to deplete whatever hope and love I might be capable of if I had not already conceded defeat. What also occurs to me that despite empathy and compassion for others, multi-billion lives occur across the world that are each subject to different experiences, and that whilst the internet now connects us to each others experience, it is not our experience. So, if I try and deduce from this fluffy-feel-goodness something of value it comes out like this: my falling into despair is not helping the situation.
So I reluctantly decide that right now, i.e. whilst on holiday inbetween working contracts and figuring out where I’m supposed to live and where money is coming from after the next six months, is probably not the ideal time to brood over the existential crises of the coming climate-change-mass-migration-civil-conflict-resource-depletion-apocalypse with any appropriate sanity or attention. Right?
I sleep. I drink one less freddo espresso. I finish Chimamanda and submerge myself in the salty water. I let ideas float in and jot them down in my notebook, and see emails from others who are actualising their small acts of love and hope and inspiring me to feel like I could do the same. I listen to another podcast by Russell Brandt and Brene Brown and consider their stances. I hear them say that a spiritual path can and will save the current political climate of the world.
And – rightly or wrongly – I call bullshit.
It turns out I can be full of love and hope, and still hold the despair and injustice. I can believe in inspiration, and still observe where race and class privilege breed short-sighted and feel-good rhetoric – both in myself and in others. I can meditate and practice yoga, and still feel unwavering in my belief that fundamental socio-political, economic and structural adjustment is required for us to actualise those spiritual beliefs. I can be on holiday and feel despair and still find, amid this all, the inspiration to go back to work.