I read a lot. This is a selection of what I read this week (11/23/20 through 11/29/2020) that I think you should read, too.
As always, my weeklies/weeklies-ish:
*Huda Fahmy’s Yes I’m Hot in This
*Phylecia Miller and Jules Rivera’s Hi, Phylecia!
*Taejoon Park’s Lookism
*Jules Rivera’s Mark Trail
*Linda Sejic’s Punderworld
*Jessi Sharon’s The Sea in You
*Rachel Smythe’s Lore Olympus
*Sensaga’s Ham and Mat
*Steenz’s Heart of the City
I unloaded a lot of my PTO this week, so I finished two books sitting in my pile for a long time and started on a third. That’s whycause there’s no articles. There was time now.
Slowly and not even a little bit surely, I’ve been working my way through the Edible series by Reaktion Books. They’re simple capsule histories of food looking at the cultural, medicinal, biological/botanical, environmental, and/or political significance of individual ingredients and dishes, depending on the subject in the spotlight, and include recipes in the back. Since different authors contribute, the books can be of variable quality, but even the least informative or interesting of the bunch still leave me walking away with at least a few interesting tidbits. Heather Arndt Anderson’s Berries: A Global History is a pretty typical entry in the series, predominantly covering the basics of the horticulture and medicinal uses of berries across cultures.
Though Anderson maintains an even, professional tone throughout, there was a moment of condescension that bothered me, especially since as far as I remember I haven’t read anything similar in the other Edible books. At one point, she laments that bagels outside of Eastern Europe taste completely inferior. Considering just before that, Anderson offered a thoughtful look at how American Jews hold mixed feelings about blueberry bagels, this was a completely jarring and even cruel statement. Diasporic foods are by definition different from those found at their origin point due to differences in available resources, but that doesn’t make them inherently less than. Implying otherwise by raving about the superiority of the homelands is a giant slap to the face to immigrants and refugees learning how to adapt to their new homes with what they have on hand.
There isn’t a Bagel: A Global History book yet, but if there is I hope it doesn’t insult the Jewish diaspora like that. I am not accusing Anderson of anti-Semitism or asking that people boycott this book, but I do think with this comment she’s fallen into the trap of “authenticity” that food writers get caught in (and I speak from experience) and erase geographical and/or geopolitical circumstances that force recipes to change. “Authenticity” is a complex mess at best and a myth at worst, but that’s a topic for a different day. Or for reading by writers far savvier about the topic than myself.
And speaking of savvy, although published in 2007, Jack G. Shaheen’s Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs After 9/11 still makes for thoughtful and sadly relevant reading for anyone interested in media criticism, particularly pertaining to the role fiction plays in shaping and spreading stereotypes. Sure, everyone claims that they’re independent thinkers who don’t let fiction influence them in any way… but that’s not even remotely accurate. Humans are social creatures. We’re always absorbing the ideas and images around us, passively and actively. Admitting that reality is the first step to critically thinking about the media we take in. Rather than holding ourselves up as Paragons Of Freethought, all of us are better off investing more time in self-reflection rather than self-aggrandizing.
Shaheen, a consultant and lecturer on Middle Eastern affairs for the news and movies (including Prince of Egypt, Three Kings, and Syriana) until his passing in 2017, provides an incredibly comprehensive commentary on post-9/11 depictions of Arabs in film and television. After studying thousands of movies, he breaks down the frequency of misconceptions such as all Arabs not only practicing Islam, but the same interpretation of Islam (Shaheen was a Christian all his life), Arabs all hate Jews (Shaheen himself speaks frequently about wanting fair depictions of Jews and Israelis and discusses the peace summits and talks he’s attended), and fiction’s tendency to lump Muslims, Arabs, Sikhs, Berbers, Bedouins, Turks, and Persians under one homogenous cultural umbrella.
However, he also notes that the post-9/11 tendency to vilify all Arabs led to some of the better depictions in movies like Kingdom of Heaven, which inspired cheers in Beirut theaters for the friendly and noble relationship between the Christian and Muslim protagonists. Shaheen lists multiple movies as examples of “getting it right,” including Munich and Babel as well as the ones on which he served as consultant.
In the end, his overarching ask is a simple one: Write three-dimensional characters of all races and nationalities. Do research and hire consultants so you include mistakes and flaws that read as human without resorting to stereotypes. It’s OK to want to write about tough and uncomfortable and scary topics, but do so with nuance and care. For example, he notes many of the war movies and political thrillers he reviewed rarely ever include the Arab translators, soldiers, and civilians often active in real scenarios; the Arab actors are only allowed to play the villains. I highly recommend anyone interested in working in film and television or wanting to learn more about media criticism to add this to their to-read list.
Another book to stack on the critique pile is Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-first Century, edited by Alice Wong, though its focus is social, not media. The only essay in the collection that I read this week is the first one, the intense “Unspeakable Conversations” by Harriet McBryde Johnson. She recounts her complicated colleagueship with professor and philosopher Peter Singer, with whom she has engaged in many debates and Q&As. They get along friendly enough, and she sometimes likes him despite herself. But he also believes in eugenics via the mercy killing of disabled infants and adults. Their academic encounters involve forcing Johnson to justify her own existence as well as the existence of other disabled people, and expend considerable emotional labor in the process. It’s a complex and deeply honest story, and makes for an appropriate introduction to the collection.
See you next week, fellow bookish buffs!
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