Fighting ‘Erasure’

07mag-07firstwords-t_CA0-master768

Illustration by Javier Jaén

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Magazine, Feb. 2, 2016

EFFORTS TO FORCE collective amnesia are as old as conquest. The Roman decree damnatio memoriae — ‘‘condemnation of memory’’ — punished individuals by destroying every trace of them from the city, down to chiseling faces off statues. It was considered a fate worse than execution. But there are subtler, everyday forms of banishing people from public life.

In December, Daniel Holtzclaw, a former Oklahoma City police officer,stood trial for sexually assaulting 12 black women and one teenager. He preyed on the vulnerable — the poor or drug-addicted or those with outstanding warrants — threatening them with arrest if they wouldn’t comply. Few people were following the case, however, until black women on social media began calling out the press for ignoring the story. Many reached for one word — ‘‘erasure’’ — for what they felt was happening. ‘‘Not covering the #Holtzclaw verdict is erasing black women’s lives from notice,’’ one woman tweeted. ‘‘ERASURE IS VIOLENCE.’’ Deborah Douglas, writing for Ebony magazine, argued that not reporting on the case ‘‘continues the erasure of black women from the national conversation on race, police brutality and the right to safety.’’

‘‘Erasure’’ refers to the practice of collective indifference that renders certain people and groups invisible. The word migrated out of the academy, where it alluded to the tendency of ideologies to dismiss inconvenient facts, and is increasingly used to describe how inconvenient people are dismissed, their history, pain and achievements blotted out. Compared with words like ‘‘diversity’’ and ‘‘representation,’’ with their glib corporate gloss, ‘‘erasure’’ is a blunt word for a blunt process. It goes beyond simplistic discussions of quotas to ask: Whose stories are taught and told? Whose suffering is recognized? Whose dead are mourned?

The casualties of ‘‘erasure’’ constitute familiar castes: women, minorities, the queer and the poor. In some cases, the process is so routine that it has a name; the suppression of women’s contributions to science, for example, is known as ‘‘the Matilda effect,’’ named for the 19th-century women’s-rights activist Matilda Joslyn Gage. It refers to how female scientists have been left out of textbooks, and seen their research appropriated and their deserved Nobel Prizes given to male colleagues and supervisors.

But there has been resistance from these overlooked quarters, too. As with the Holtzclaw case, black female journalists and activists have been spotlighting how crimes against black women are met by silence and seeming unconcern — like the 19 transgender women of color murdered in 2015. The #SayHerName movement draws attention to black women believed to be victims of police brutality, like Alexia Christian and Meagan Hockaday, whose deaths received a small fraction of the attention given to Eric Garner or Michael Brown. In December, a group of activists organized a die-in at the Tacoma Art Museum in Washington State to protest that only five out of 107 participating artists in an exhibition called ‘‘Art AIDS America’’ were black. They publicized the event online with the hashtag #StopErasingBlackPeople and released a statement saying the exhibition ‘‘paints H.I.V. as an issue faced predominantly by white gay men, when in fact the most at-risk group are currently black trans women.’’

With the recent ubiquity of ‘‘erasure’’ has come a flurry of correction and confusion. There are attempts to create hierarchies of erasure among various minority groups as they try to square their particular histories — who has silenced whom? Who is now hoarding attention? Is asexual erasure more profound than bisexual erasure? Why was Daniel Holtzclaw described as white instead of half Asian-American during the trial? And what does it have to do with the race of the women he raped?

These internecine skirmishes can turn petty, but they also reveal that we’re part of ever-shifting power relationships. Our identities and our privileges are not static but deeply contextual. We who are silenced may yet silence others. This awareness is central to the genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop musical, ‘‘Hamilton.’’ In a play that’s so self-consciously an act of historical restoration, with its cast of mostly black and Hispanic actors playing America’s founding fathers, there is a twist. While burning letters from Alexander Hamilton, his wife, about whom little is known, sings, ‘‘I’m erasing myself from the narrative/Let future historians wonder/How Eliza reacted when you broke her heart.’’ It’s an acknowledgment of the stories this play cannot fully restore, and of a group — women — who are still left out of history.

Wherever it is found, erasure, as a practice, can be detected by its preference for what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called the single story — for easily legible narratives that reinforce the existing order. Take the furor around the film ‘‘Stonewall,’’ released last year. Continue reading

A Conversation with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Photo: (from left) Tim Hout; © Frantzesco Kangaris/Eyevine/Redux

Photo: (from left) Tim Hout; © Frantzesco Kangaris/Eyevine/Redux

By Parul Sehgal, Tin House Summer Issue, 2013

Sinclair Lewis wrote that “every compulsion is put upon writers to become safe, polite, obedient, and sterile.” Few writers have so flagrantly flouted these pressures as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the celebrated Nigerian author of Half of a Yellow Sun and The Thing Around Your Neck. Her new book, Americanah, will be published in May by Knopf and, like its predecessors, it’s a thrilling and risky piece of writing that takes on taboos, shatters pieties, and combines forthright prose, subversive humor, and a ripping good story.

The fifth of sixth children, Adichie grew up in Nsukka, a university town in Nigeria, in a house once occupied by the celebrated Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, who became a great influence on her.

“It was Achebe’s fiction that made me realize my own story could be in a book,” she said in an interview with the New York Times. “When I started to write, I was writing Enid Blyton stories, even though I had never been to England. I didn’t think it was possible for people like me to be in books.”

Adichie studied medicine briefly and moved to the United States at nineteen, eventually receiving an MFA from Johns Hopkins. Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus (2003), was well received; her second, Half of a Yellow Sun, was a sensation. An unflinching look at the horrors of the Biafran War of the 1960s, it earned her an Orange Prize and comparisons to Achebe. In 2008, she was awarded a MacArthur “genius grant.”

“Here is a new writer endowed with the gift of the ancient storytellers,” Achebe praised her. “She is fearless.”

In Americanah, Adichie fearlessly takes on what is so euphemistically called “American race relations.” Our heroine, Ifemelu, a Nigerian transplant to the United States, writes a blog, the tartly titled “Raceteenth or Various Observations about American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black,” in which she scrutinizes Obamamania, white privilege, the politics of black hair care, interracial relationships, and the allure and savagery of America.

Adichie and I chatted over e-mail.

Parul Sehgal: I just finished the book and find myself moping and missing Ifemulu beyond all reason. She feels terribly real to me. Where did she come from? More broadly, how do your characters announce themselves? As a gesture? A voice? An argument?

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: All of those, and more. Sometimes a character just forms in my head; other times a character is based on somebody real (although the character often ends up being quite different from the “real” person). Ifemelu is a more interesting version of me. Both Ifemelu and Obinze are me, really.

PS: How so?

CNA: I think I have Ifemelu’s questioning nature, Obinze’s longing. Like them, I’m always looking to learn. A bit of a romantic, but I hide it well.

PS: Ifemelu is the “Americanah” of the title, yes? Can you unpack this term a bit?

CNA: It’s a Nigerian (actually, perhaps more regional than national, it’s more often used in the southeast, where I am from) way of referring to a person who affects Americanness in speech or manner, or a person who is (genuinely) Americanized, or a person who insists on her Americanness. It’s not exactly a polite word, but it isn’t derogatory either. It’s playful.

PS: Obinze and Ifemelu are that real literary rara avis: a happy couple. With romantic happiness so difficult to render on the page, I very much admired how you made them come to life. Did you have models, literary or otherwise, for their relationship?

CNA: Well, I had the old and grand tradition of the Mills and Boon romance novels that I read as a teenager! More seriously, my vision as a writer is dark. I am more drawn to the melancholy, the sad, the nostalgic. And so I wanted to do something a little different. I wanted to write a love story, a love story that would be both unapologetic and believable.

PS: Let’s stay on love a moment more. Ifemelu writes on her blog that the solution to the problem of race in America is romantic love: “real deep romantic love, the kind that twists you and wrings you out and makes you breathe through the nostrils of your beloved. And because that real deep romantic love is so rare, and because American society is set up to make it even rarer between American Black and American White, the problem of race in America will never be solved.” Now, I find Ifemelu utterly persuasive and charming and—sometimes, I must confess—a bit of a bully. For all these reasons, I’m inclined to agree with her. Do you?

CNA: I have been told that I am a benevolent bully, so I suppose Ifemelu gets that from me. I do agree with her, very much. I completely believe in the power of love. I think that race, as it has been constructed in America, makes it almost impossible for people of different races to have a real conversation about race, let alone understand how the other person feels. Storytelling helps. Storytelling can be an entry point.

PS: But why are we at such an impasse?

CNA: Race is, I think, the subject that Americans are most uncomfortable with. (Gender, class, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion are not as uncomfortable.) This is an American generation raised with the mantra: DO NOT OFFEND. And often honesty about race becomes synonymous with offending someone.

Continue reading