The Riff

Book Review: "Half Blood Blues"

| Fri Feb. 24, 2012 7:08 AM EST

Esi EdugyanEsi EdugyanIn 2011 Esi Edugyan’s bestelling novel Half Blood Blues snagged Canada’s highest literary honor, was a finalist for Britain’s Man Booker Prize, and was translated into nine languages. A Canadian with roots in Ghana, 34-year-old Edugyan’s novel explores the overlooked histories of Africans and mixed-race foreigners through the travails of a popular jazz band trapped in Nazi-era Europe. With a light touch and a deft hand, she provides original insight on the black American experience. So it’s a shame the novel is only now being released in the US, by Picador on February 28th. 

The story opens as the Hot-Time Swingers, whose members include African-Americans, a Jew and a German with African ancestry, cut a record in occupied Paris. Their sound will become legend, but in Nazi Europe jazz is the degenerate music of half-breeds, or mischlings. When the band’s frontman, the young trumpeter Hieronymus Falk, nicknamed Hiero, rashly decides to venture outside for a glass of milk, he is arrested.

A shy 19-year-old, Hiero is the locus of his band’s hopes and an undisputed genius. In one scene Louis Armstrong gifts the boy with his trumpet. But as one of Germany’s ‘Rhineland Bastards,’ (the offspring of German women and French-Senegalese colonial soldiers posted in the Rhineland following WWI), Hiero is a mischling of the first order and a refugee of sorts: considered stateless in Germany and a despised German in Paris, he’s a young man in limbo, an easy target. When Hiero is banished to a concentration camp and presumed dead, what remains of the band disintegrates.

The virtuosity of Edugyan’s writing is noticeable in how Hiero, who serves as a projection screen for the motivations of others, is himself barely sketched. The narrator is Sid Griffiths, a jealous bassist whose talents at rendering the sounds of jazz into words, in a brassy, thumping patois, overshadows his musical abilities.

Fifty years later, Sid is a retired medical transcriber in Baltimore with a secret: he committed a betrayal that sent Hiero to the camps. When his old bandmate Chip turns up, he informs Sid that Hiero is alive. As they set out to find him, the story moves between the dawn of a reunified Europe and Sid’s flashbacks from the early days of the war. The old man’s shame is slowly exhumed—along with the complex implications of the band members’ skin colors, nationalities and ethnicities in hostile territory.

And yet Edugyan avoids the familiar tropes of Nazi thuggery. Rather than dwelling on their well-documented rape and mayhem proclivities, she reveals how the Red-Hot Swingers transform the Nazi Party anthem into protest music.

The novel's surprising end, and Edugyan herself, are proof that the mischling experience beautifies art in all of its forms.

 

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Street Talk With Grammy Hopeful Ana Tijoux

| Mon Feb. 7, 2011 7:00 AM EST

According to French-Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux, Chileans really know how to butcher Spanish. "Every culture has their own slang, but I think in Chile specifically we speak very bad," she says over the phone. "So we have a lot, a lot of slang."

Despite this, or maybe because of it, Tijoux has an incredible way with words. Even if listeners don't understand her Spanish, they will sense the graceful fluidity of her style, which often relies on unusual syncopations and internal rhymes. Tijoux, who spent a childhood in France after dictator Augusto Pinochet forced her parents into exile, says she's "always been fascinated by the aesthetic of words." As down-to-earth as they come, she manages to make use of quotidian conversations, minor details, and yes, plenty of "slahng" (as she pronounces it), to render the world in poetry.

'Parent-Trigger' Proponents Sue Compton's School District

| Thu Feb. 3, 2011 3:12 PM EST

[Update: A Los Angeles judge just issued an order temporarily restraining Compton Unified School District officials from requiring signature verification from parents of McKinley Elementary School students. The Court scheduled a hearing on Feb. 24.]

The "Parent-Trigger" saga at Compton's McKinley Elementary School continues with a new twist today. From Parent Revolution's press release:

"McKinley parents—along with pro bono lawyers from Kirkland & Ellis filed a lawsuit against Compton Unified School District for Compton Unified's illegal infringement upon the constitutional rights of McKinley parents and children.

The legal complaint against Compton Unified (Murphy et al v. Compton Unified) details not only violations of the Parent Trigger law itself, but violations of the constitutional rights of parents and children by the Compton Unified School District. Having already denied the children of McKinley their constitutional right under the California Constitution to an "equitable public education," the school district has subsequently infringed on the federal and state's constitutional First Amendment rights of parents to petition their government to remedy this violation of their children's rights "by crafting an onerous and burdensome process" intended not to verify their signatures, but to simply throw them out."

From the summary of the lawsuit against Compton Unified by the parents of McKinley Elementary (Murphy et al v Compton Unified School District):

"[Compton Unified has] consistently exhibited bad faith in their dealings with the Plaintiffs. CUSD refused to respond to emails, letters, and phone calls by the parent and failed to provide basic information about the verification procedure to parents until less than a week before they implemented a verification procedure."

Meanwhile, The Los Angeles Times editorial board came out against the current version of the "Parent-Trigger" law and some of the tactics used by Parent Revolution to organize this campaign. From their Jan. 29 editorial:

"The first parent trigger petition, at McKinley Elementary School in Compton, offered an example of how the process shouldn't work. The signature drive was held in secret, to avoid a backlash from the school, but with the decision pre-made for parents that the school would be taken over by charter operator Celerity Educational Group. There was no public discussion of parents' options or rights. McKinley is not a school that has resisted change; though low-performing, it has dramatically raised test scores in recent years. Some parents complained afterwards that they didn't understand the petition they were signing; others accused school personnel of threatening and harassing them to get them to rescind their signatures. Meanwhile, the school district has set up a process for verifying the signatures that is harder on parents and more intrusive than is reasonably necessary."

I Have A Scheme

| Thu Feb. 3, 2011 8:03 AM EST

If you think that race relations in your urban hipster enclave have much improved since the 1950s, you probably haven't seen Clybourne Park, a hilarious, devastatingly spot-on play by Bruce Norris that has been making audiences squirm in New York, London, and Washington, DC. At moments during Clybourne Park's West Coast premiere in San Francisco last week, some people laughed and others scowled, as one would expect from a play that mercilessly shreds Obama-era pretensions to social enlightenment.

Expertly directed by Jonathan Moscone at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, Clybourne Park juxtaposes two scenes in the same Chicago townhouse across the span of a half century. In the first, a war-scarred white family is selling the house, which looks like the set to a cheery postwar sitcom, to an African-American couple over the objections of the all-white neighborhood's Rotarian booster (theater buffs will notice this as a re-imagining of "A Raisin in the Sun," a famous 1959 play about race). The second act shows the same house bare and mouldering as two white bobos (Steve and Lindsey), who want to replace it with a modernist tower, square off against black neighbors (Kevin and Lena), who view themselves as defenders of the neighborhood.

That's when things really get interesting. The PC blather deployed by both sides—the acknowledgements of past injustices, the oblique claims to victimization, the emphatic repetitions of "I hear you"—thinly veils the same jurassic territoriality of the '50s. A rhetorical arms race has complicated and in some ways deepened the old divisions, with matters of "taste" substituting for race and class in an an ostensibly post-racial world.  

Even the well-educated, well-off, obviously liberal San Francisco theater audience had trouble navigating these shoals at times. There were jokes about deaf people, gay people, black men, and white women that may or may not have been funny. (Why are white women like tampons? "They're both stuck up cunts!"). There was the moment when several people in the audience cheered as Steve tried to find common cause with Kevin by condemning the War in Iraq, only to learn that Kevin's minivan was plastered with three "support our troops" magnets, one for each of his relatives fighting overseas (statistically, African-Americans are overrepresented in the armed forces). But in other ways Kevin is a classic latte liberal.

Clybourne Park ends by suggesting that neither side in the gentrification wars really pays enough heed to the true nature of the history that it enshrines. I hear you, Bruce Norris. I totally hear you.

Realization of the Week: The Same Classroom Is Never the Same

| Wed Feb. 2, 2011 1:15 PM EST

Editors' Note: This education dispatch is part of an ongoing series reported from Mission High School, where education writer Kristina Rizga is embedded for the year. Click here to see more of MoJo's recent education coverage, or follow Kristina's writing on Twitter or with this RSS Feed.

[Previous Mission High dispatch: Will Darrell flunk this test?]

There's a spring in my step as I walk to Mission High School this morning. I can't wait to tell Natalie—the aspiring astronaut who was "kicked out" of two charter schools—that my NASA friend has agreed to meet with her and give her some college advice.

But when I enter Ms. Bowman's World History class, Natalie's not there. Where is she? I wonder. Is she okay? At least Pedro's here, I notice.

When I enter Ms. Bowman's World History class, Natalie's not there. Where is she? I wonder. Is she okay?

Bowman begins class by writing the mnemonic "EMPIRE" on a white dry-erase board for a review of the motivations behind Imperialism. Each letter of EMPIRE stands for a key concept: "E" for economic interests, "M" for military bases, "P" for patriotism and nationalism, "I" for ideology of Social Darwinism, etc.

"I want to answer the ideology question, please!" says Pedro, the sweet skateboarding kid whose T-shirt hides gang-inflicted knife scars. He has already answered the first two questions and seems to have a hard time staying still today. "Just a minute, Pedro," Bowman responds. "I want to allow others to participate in our discussion." "A body of beliefs!" Pedro yells anyway.

Pedro starts chatting with his friends in a loud voice. Bowman first offers him the choice of moving over a few seats. He refuses, promising to stop talking, but doesn't follow through. Bowman then asks Pedro to read out loud the four rules she has written near the classroom door: "Be respectful, no cross-talk, step up, and step back."

Pedro reads them out loud, then continues to joke around with his friends. Nearby, a girl is reading a Bible with a pink cover, ignoring the other students. Last week she participated in collective discussions. This week, she seems annoyed by Pedro and protests with silence. "Pedro, could you come with me for a second?" Bowman asks in a calm voice. The two walk outside the classroom for a minute. Bowman walks back in without Pedro and keeps teaching. Three minutes later, Pedro reenters the class, sits down, and starts working calmly on an exercise with the rest of the class.

As the students write in silence for a moment, it hits me: This class feels completely different from last week. It's not just Pedro's behavior. The students are still learning, but there's more tension, more cross-talk, less engagement as a group.

"Class dynamics change constantly. It's a constant work in progress."

After class I talk to Bowman; she agrees. "A part of it is not having Natalie in the class today," she muses. Since Natalie's always very engaged in class discussions, it's possible that her participation balances out Pedro's desire to be the center of attention, and other students benefit. But Bowman doesn't seem too worried. "Class dynamics change constantly," she says. "It's a constant work in progress."

I now have heard many teachers at Mission High school refer to these small, frequent cultural shifts in a classroom as little bumps. Skilled teachers feel them right away and know exactly how to smooth them out.

WATCH: Lazy Teenage Superheroes vs. Robot Bollywood [Videos]

| Tue Feb. 1, 2011 8:20 AM EST

Speaking of pot, the charming little stoner film embedded below brings $300 worth of special effects to a plot just a tad more absurd than Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. Though sadly lacking in Neil Patrick Harris cameos, it's still worth a watch, if only to see what $300 will get you these days in the way of ninjas and giant robot effects. (Answer: A lot.) Boing Boing's Cory Doctorow sums it up thusly:

Lazy Teenage Superheroes is an extremely funny, extremely well-executed 13-minute rude little superhero movie, made by Michael Ashton for a mere $300. It's full of cussin', lewd speculative scenarios involving the private lives of slacker teen supes who are mostly interested in using their powers to get loaded and/or laid. And there's ninjas and herpes jokes.

Watch LTS below:

But wait: What could possibly be better than a $300 action film about superheroes who use their powers only to get high? You guessed it: Robot Bollywood. Alas, no Neil Patrick Harris in this clip either, but the lo-fi special effects are still pretty darn awesome. Watch it below:

Top image: Lazy Teenage Superheroes.

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The Hook Up: Relationship Advice For the Gases

| Mon Jan. 31, 2011 7:59 PM EST

Have you been wondering how to help a girlfriend who has a gas problem or what to do when your partner treats you like her child? Look no further than my latest AfterEllen advice column. Excerpt:

I don’t know how to put this delicately, so I’ll just say it: My girlfriend has a gas problem. Her diet is great (she’s a chef even!) and she’s not like obnoxious about it or anything. She leaves the room when she can, but man, sometimes it smells so foul that I want to fumigate her entire gastrointestinal tract. I know in the long run, this is not a big deal, but it’s still gross and I don’t really know how to deal with it! Help! — Bean There, Done That

Anna says: Finally, a serious question! Happy New Year to me. I will help your wind-breaker transform into the beautiful firework that Katy Perry intended us all to be, minus the explosions I guess. So maybe one of those sparklers or ashy snake things.

According to The Mayo Clinic, which has devoted several web pages to the topic, but is probably useless for Trivial Pursuit nights, the leading cause of gas is bad digestion. The big dietary offenders are: beans, onions, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, radishes, peanuts, raw apples, dairy and foods heavy in preservatives. So if she’s eating any of those with regularity, tell her to drop that faster than a straight-to-DVD Olsen Twins movie. Another biggie is soy, which is heavily processed and hence harder for us to digest. As someone who has dated my fair share of vegans, I can personally attest to the havoc that tofu has wreaked on the conjugal bed! Less common, but no less poignant, causes for gas involve eating too quickly, drinking from a straw, and listening to too much Taylor Swift....

Read the rest at AfterEllen

In Egypt and Beyond, Democracy Through...Soccer?

| Mon Jan. 31, 2011 7:20 PM EST

At Sports Illustrated, Dave Zirin analyzes the role of Egypt's "most organized, militant" soccer clubs in organizing opposition to the Mubarak government. He quotes Egyptian  blogger Alaa Abd El Fattah, who told Al-Jazeera that the clubs "have played a more significant role than any political group on the ground at this moment." Explains Zirin:

The critical role of Egypt's soccer clubs may surprise us, but only if we don't know the history that soccer clubs have played in the country. For more than a century, the clubs have been a place where cheering and anti-government organizing have walked together in comfort. Egypt's most prominent team, Al Ahly,  started its club in 1907 as a place to organize national resistance against British colonial rule. The word Al Ahly translated into English means "the national," to mark their unapologetically political stance against colonialism. Al Ahly has always been the team with the most political fans. It's also a team that's allowed its players to make political statements on the pitch even though this is in direct violation of FIFA dictates. It's no coincidence that  it was Al Ahly's star player Mohamed Aboutrika, aka "the Smiling Assassin," who in 2008 famously raised his jersey revealing the T-shirt, which read  "Sympathize with Gaza."

Soccer fans are notorious troublemakers. Egyptians are prime offenders: In 2009 things got ugly after a heated match against nearby Algeria. Here are some other examples of the sport's political side in the region:

Gang of Four Finds Its Rare Essence

| Mon Jan. 31, 2011 7:45 AM EST

Circa 1979, on the recommendation of a nerdy record-store clerk, I bought a rust-colored LP called Entertainment!, the debut full-length from the British group Gang of Four. I was immediately intrigued. Led by the songwriting core of singer Jon King and guitarist Andy Gill, the foursome had created a sound that stood apart, even at a time of great experimentation in rock and roll. It sounded neither like the punk rock that preceded it, nor the synth-driven music emerging with bands like Devo, the B-52s, and dozens more.

Gang of Four's songs were dark, stark, and spare, the lyrics deadpan, the beats martial yet funky, the guitar lines jagged as the obliteration of a beer bottle (as Kurt Vonnegut might put it) with a ball-peen hammer. King's politics-infused-yet-metaphorical lyrics evoked images of a Western culture run amok. The band's lone love song was an anti-love song, the distortion-laden "(Love Like) Anthrax." Even the cynical album title was a perfect companion for youthful alienation. It rarely left my turntable.

Happy Fred Korematsu Day

| Sun Jan. 30, 2011 1:00 PM EST

Mother Jones' guest blogger Angilee Shah is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist who writes about globalization and politics. You can read more of her work at www.angileeshah.com.

This weekend, American civil rights activists celebrate a new icon: Fred Korematsu, the Japanese-American who resisted placement in a World War II-era internment camp. It's the first holiday in the US commemorating an Asian-American—and it's proof to some judges and civil rights activists that a new generation of Asian-American leaders can't be far behind.

Korematsu's story is an instructive one for civil rights advocates.

During World War II, fear loomed in the lives of Japanese-Americans. The United States government moved more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans and immigrants from the Pacific coast to internment camps inland. Korematsu, who refused to go, was arrested and convicted for his defiance. His conviction was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1944. Although the exclusion order was rescinded in 1945, it wasn't until the 1980s, when Korematsu reopened his case, that the courts overturned his conviction. In 1988, the United States declared Japanese American internment unjust and paid retribution to its victims and their heirs. Until his death in 2005, Korematsu himself advocated on behalf of prisoners held in Guantánamo Bay and Middle-Eastern Americans persecuted after 9/11.

Retired California judge Lillian Lim, widely considered the first female Filipino-American judge in the US, recalls the impact Korematsu's story had on her in law school. "It shows the vulnerability of people who are in minority communities," she remembers. "But it also shows how people can win vindication—even if it takes forty years." Legal rights advocate Karin Wang says that much of the Asian-American activism that began in the 70s and 80s was built on the Korematsu experience and spurred by traumatic events. The brutal 1982 murder of a Chinese-American by two Detroit auto workers in 1982 led to the creation of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center where Wang serves as vice president of programs. Four years ago, after entering semi-retirement, Lim began a campaign to teach more people about Korematsu's journey.

Last year, CA Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared January 30 to be Fred Korematsu Day. The holiday is widely considered to be the first time American public schools anywhere will officially commemorate an Asian-American icon. For civil rights activists, the recognition is a reminder to continue engaging in politics. 

A less reactionary type of political engagement is hard won, however. Janelle Wong, associate professor of Political Science at the University of Southern California, says that Asian Americans vote at the lowest rates of any minority groups in the United States.

"The biggest challenge for Asian-American voting is meeting the eligibility requirements of becoming citizens and becoming registered," Wong says. Almost 80 percent of Asian-American adults are immigrants and many live in Democratic states, giving political parties little incentive to calibrate their campaigns and registration drives. A diversity of cultures and languages also makes it challenging to engage politically with Asian-American communities.

But Wong argues that ignoring these communities is a short-sighted strategy. 2007 Census data shows that 14.9 million Americans now identify as Asian or partly Asian—a 25 percent increase from 2000. At this rate of growth, Asian Americans will make up 10 percent of the US population by 2060, according to projections by the 2008 National Asian American Survey. The 2008 survey also shows that the Asian-American vote is up for grabs; more than 50 percent are nonpartisan and identify with neither Democrats nor Republicans.

"Parties work to win the next election, but it might be wiser to lay the ground work," Wong says. "They should go after even non-citizens now to build long-term engagement."

Lim concurs. "The next big thing is when it's not a big thing that we have an Asian-American as a governor or a US Senator. I don't doubt that one day we'll have a president who is Asian-American."