Range: Try, try, try, and then focus

Throughout my life, I’ve explored many paths and taken different routes. When I was fourteen, I wanted to be an opera singer, so I spent years being classically trained. I then joined the Model United Nations team at my school and decided that I wanted to study Political Science instead. I didn’t stop singing, though. Instead, I spent the next five years trying to choose between Opera and Political Science. I also danced classical ballet for eight years. I finally chose Political Science and moved to Germany to study it.

A year and a half into my bachelor, I switched to a double bachelor program and also studied English Philology. My focus was language science and, in particular, historical linguistics. I spent many semesters looking at old texts, translating poems and learning Old English. Hwæt!

And no, Shakespeare is not Old English. Shakespeare is Early Modern English. This is Old English:

After finishing my bachelor’s degree, I moved back to Mexico City, where I enrolled in a professional make-up course that lasted three months and I got a certificate that allowed me to work as a make-up artist. I was also working as a translator and as a language teacher.

Nevertheless, I moved back to Germany, where I started my master’s degree in Political Science. On the side, I still work as a language teacher and I spend my days trying to decide whether I should study another master in Linguistics or whether I should move on and pursue a PhD.

I have also spent a lot of time during the last five years feeling guilty about doing so many different things instead of choosing one and focusing, specializing. For a long time, I had no idea what I wanted to focus on in Political Science. I like so many things, I have so many interests, surely to focus on one is not the way to go. Oh, but it is, my mind would say. If you don’t focus, you will not be able to find a job. You’ll never be truly great at something. You need to specialize in something, be as specific as possible, be the only one doing it.

But I wasn’t doing that. I mean, a master’s degree in Political Science is as broad as it gets. And I have done a lot of things: I have gone deeper into populism, nationalism, language in politics, humanitarian aid, state-building, and gender. Not to mention the fact that I’m really into political theory and philosophy. And for the most part, I’ve enjoyed everything that I’ve explored. But there has always been that little thought in the back of my mind, especially when I start thinking about pursuing yet another interest: You’re doing too many unrelated things, you need to focus, you need to specialize now.


Range, by David Epstein

David Epstein is an investigative reporter at the nonprofit ProPublica. He is also a writer. He wrote The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance and Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. Before that, Epstein worked at the sports magazine Sports Illustrated, but his bachelor’s degree is in Environmental Science and Astronomy, and he has two master’s degrees in Environmental Science and Journalism. It seems like a long way between Astronomy, Sports Illustrated and a nonprofit newsroom. And yet here we are.

Epstein spent over a year doing research for this book and it shows. It is a series of case studies and investigative journalism, and they all point to one idea: overspecialization is not always (in fact, almost never) the best way to move forward. Instead, people need range. That is, diverse experience across multiple different fields, in order to succeed in today’s complex world. The world, has tons of wicked problems, and the environments in which we usually work are wicked environments. In Epstein’s words, “wicked environments, [where] not all information is available when you have to make a decision. Typically you’re dealing with dynamic situations that involve other people and judgments, feedback is not automatic, and when you do have feedback it may be partial and it may be inaccurate.” To Epstein, our world demands “conceptual reasoning skill that can connect new ideas and work across contexts” (Range, p.53). In short, having range means having more tools to deal with problems, it means being able to see a problem from different perspectives.

The point is, we need range to be able to solve problems and late specialization because we’ve spent the first years exploring different things is better than early specialization.

Ever since I read this book, I have worried less about not having specialized yet. And not worrying about it has helped me dive deeper into different themes and topics that I was hesitant to explore before. I know now what I want to really dive into, I now know my area of specialization, but I also know that I don’t have to be limited to one thing, one field. It has been by pursuing other interests, really getting into them, that I was able to find my niche, the one thing that I want to specialize in. At least for the foreseeable future.

I really hope everyone reads this book, and I really hope that everyone who reads this book gets motivated to try out new things and is not afraid of pursuing their interests. Have, as Epstein calls it, a “sampling period”, see what works for you and what doesn’t, explore every path and find your way.

“We learn who we are in practice, not in theory.”

Herminia Ibarra

As to the link between make-up and political science. I still haven’t found it, but at least I will look fabulous while writing my dissertation.

Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” and The Big Question

Last year, I bought Michelle Obama’s autobiographical book, Becoming. It was a bit long but it was rather good and pretty interesting. She talks about her life, her early childhood in Chicago (the south side, as she proudly says), how she was placed in a group for particularly talented students, how she went to college at Princeton and later to Harvard Law School, and how, after so many years of academic excellence and success after success, she came to a realization: 1) Her need to be the best had been rather aimless, and 2) she was still asking herself the same question over and over: Am I good enough?

And these two key aspects of her life are what stayed with me the most. She went down a path that many people can only dream of: she was smart, motivated, had high marks at school, got into the best schools and programs, and got a high-paying job at a law firm in her twenties, and after achieving all of this, she realized that she did not feel like she was living a fulfilling life. It was a successful life, but not a fulfilling one.

It is interesting to see that this rather straightforward but ultimately disappointing path to success was guided by her constant need to prove to herself and to the world that she was good enough.

Am I good enough?

This question has followed Michelle Obama since her early childhood. It made her insecure, but it pushed her to be the best she could be, and then it kept haunting her.

Becoming resonated with me because that four-word question is the same one I ask myself at least every week. It’s the same one a lot of us ask ourselves.

Am I good enough?

I asked myself that question when I applied for my bachelor’s program and then my master’s program. I have asked myself that question every time I apply for a job, every time I start a new project, every time I write an article, a university paper, a blog post, or a script for a video. It is always with me.

I have found that the only way to go, is to move forward. There is no way I can say “no” to that question because then I’d never get anything done. For Michelle, the only answer was also to push forward with all the energy and intensity that she had until she crashed into a wall. But then, she started looking for other projects, projects that were meaningful and that helped her have a fulfilling life.

This book helped me remember that, no matter what I do, I want my life to be meaningful, to be fulfilling. I don’t want to be successful just for the sake of it.

I can’t say, however, that I loved this book. It is well written and it is very interesting to read about her life and her adventures, first as a single woman and then with Barack Obama, who is undoubtedly an interesting person, even if I disagree with many of his policies. But there were some elements of this book that simply didn’t click with me. For starters, it is decidedly U.S.-American, which is totally fine and expected (she is the former First Lady of the United States, after all), but I’m not American. I’m not into all that patriotism and American exceptionalism. I expected those elements, of course, but I never enjoy them, and this book was no different.

But the honesty with which she talks about her life, her flaws, her ambitions and insecurities, as well as the warmth of her storytelling made it worthwhile. It made me connect with her. She and I have virtually nothing in common, but I found myself in those pages, feeling those insecurities, asking myself that same question, the big question, am I good enough?

I sure hope yes.

Happy Easter.

The Portrayal of Teenage Mental Health: Turtles All the Way Down

“The thing about a spiral is, if you follow it inward, it never actually ends. It just keeps tightening, infinitely.”

John Green

Aza Holmes is 16 years old, she lives in Indianapolis with her mom, and she has OCD. There is a callus on her finger that she presses every time she gets anxious about a possible infection, and she’s constantly worried about microbes and pathogens. While she struggles to get through her high-school life, news break that billionaire Russell Pickett, who is under investigation for fraud, has disappeared and there’s a $100,000 reward for information about his whereabouts. Aza’s best friend Daisy decides that they will be the ones to collect the bounty and sets the both of them on a quest to find Pickett. This leads them to the door of Davis Pickett, Russell’s son and Aza’s childhood friend, who develops a romantic interest in Aza. As Aza’s life is turned upside down, she needs to learn to balance her friendship with Daisy, her relationship with Davis, her high-school life, the search for the billionaire, and her anxiety.

The Portrayal of Teenage Mental Health in Books and Media

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), at least 16% of the global teenage population suffers from a mental illness, and one out of six people around the world are teenagers. Not only that but most cases of mental illness go undetected and remain untreated (this is particularly true for teenage girls), and the consequences of this go well into adulthood and prevent people from having a fulfilling life.[1]

Despite there being so many people who suffer from a mental illness and despite suicide being the third leading cause of death among teenagers, there is still a long way to go when it comes to discussing mental health issues openly and free of stigma. But this is a topic that is being discussed more and more in media and books, especially in Young Adult fiction. Among some books that deal with mental health and trauma are Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places (which I did not particularly like), Neal Shusterman’s Challenger Deep (which I found especially good), and the popularized by Netflix 13 Reasons Why, by Jay Asher (which I refuse to watch/see).

Here’s where the trouble starts. It is good that mental disorders and mental health are openly talked about, but there is always a risk in how we go about it. Back in 2017, when 13 Reasons Why debuted, many experts called out Netflix for being careless and irresponsible in their depiction of Hannah Baker’s suicide. They were accused of  doing exactly the opposite of what experts recommend when dealing with this topic (i.e. showing the suicide) sensationalizing and presenting it as a means of getting what you want, as well as of putting susceptible teens at risk. Two years later, the warnings proved to be true, as a study found out that there was “a suicide rate of 0.57 per 100,000 [teenagers]” following the release of the show.[2] Two years and two months later, Netflix deleted the infamous suicide scene.

Turtles All the Way Down does not romanticize mental illness. Aza’s anxiety is never portrayed as cute or endearing, it is something that she has to struggle with every day, it affects her relationships, her physical health, and it is taken seriously by those around her. At the same time, the book makes it clear that anxiety is not all there is to the protagonist. She is still a mostly nice person, she has her mom, her friends and Davis; she is not her anxiety, she is Aza, and she is loved and deserving of that love.

What makes this book feel so true and genuine is that, similarly to Neal Shusterman’s Challenger Deep, it comes from a personal place. In Shusterman’s case, it is his son’s experience; in John Green’s case, it’s his own:

“This is my first attempt to write directly about the kind of mental illness that has affected my life since childhood, so while the story is fictional, it is also quite personal.”

John Green

Mental disorders and illnesses are serious and need to be destigmatized and talked about freely and openly, and books and media are good ways to familiarize people with them, but they need to be approached with care. So, for anyone looking for a way to write about teenage mental issues, especially their own, this is one way to do it.

 My edition: Paperback, published in 2017 by Penguin.
My edition: Paperback, published in 2017 by Penguin.

References

Of Women and Literature: A Room of One’s Own

“But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction – what has that got to do with a room of one’s own? I will try to explain.”

Thus begins one of the most famous essays on women and literature, by the one and only Virginia Woolf.

 Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf

It always takes me a while to read Virginia. Her books are fairly short, but I am never capable of finishing them quickly. Sometimes it’s because if I don’t slow down I won’t get it, sometimes it’s because I need to pause for a few seconds and really think about what I’ve just read. With this book, it was mostly the latter. I read for a few minutes, and then I’d find something that made me pause and think. I marked some sections with post-its, I highlighted others with a bright yellow marker, and I thought what she was saying, I thought about her, and about the history of women and literature and of women in literature.

“Suppose, for instance, that men were only represented in literature as the lovers of women, and were never the friends of men, soldiers, thinkers, dreamers; how few parts in the plays of Shakespeare could be allotted to them; how literature would suffer! We might perhaps have most of Othello; and a good deal of Anthony; but no Caesar, no Brutus, no Hamlet, no Lear, no Jaques – literature would be incredibly impoverished, as indeed literature is impoverished beyond our counting by the doors that have been shut upon women.”

There is something oddly familiar about that quote. Women that are only represented in literature as the lovers of men. This phenomenon does not stay in the realm of literature. It extends to other forms of media as well. It is present in the big and small screens, it is present in radio dramas; despite the changing times, it is still there. I want you to think of different movies you’ve seen with only male protagonists. Chances are, there are women in them as well, but I want you to think about their role in the movie. Who are they? What do they want? What do their lives look like? What are their dreams and hopes and aspirations? What are their virtues? What are their flaws? Can you identify them? Or, is there a chance that you only remember those characters as the wife (or worse, the dead wife), the girlfriend, the romantic interest, the ex?

So, in A Room of One’s Own, Virginia sets out to explore at least some of the reasons why this happens.

Her thesis is simple: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write”. Virginia understood the limitations that were imposed on women by men, by societal norms, by gender roles, and she understood that, if there are more men in history who are known and celebrated for their creating and their thinking, it’s because they have had the freedom and the space to do so. And by freedom, she also means financial freedom.

Regarding this statement, however, there’s a point that need to be made. Yes, it is true that, throughout history, men have had more freedom to write than women, and women have been consciously and deliberately held back from such achievements. But one thing to keep in mind while reading this book is that, when Virginia advocates for the cause of genius women, she sees it only in women of a certain socioeconomic group. In the words of Mary Gordon:

“Woolf is concerned with the fate of women of genius, not with that of ordinary women; her plea is that we create a world in which Shakespeare’s sister might survive her gift, not one in which a miner’s wife can have her rights to property; her passion is for literature, not for universal justice.”

Mary Gordon (2013): Good Boys and Dead Girls: And Other Essays

Yes, Virginia was harsh towards those she deemed unworthy, uninteresting, or simply bad, and some of her written thoughts in this essay are no different. But she did have a point: a person who has the means to sustain themselves without having to work from dusk till dawn has more time to write as much as they please. They have more freedom to write.

I suppose it’s a good thing that our contemporary plea for social justice encompasses everyone: from all ages, genders, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds.

 My edition: Paperback, published in 2004 by Penguin Books.
My edition: Paperback, published in 2004 by Penguin Books.

But Virginia leaves us with words of encouragement and some advice that I’ve decided to put in a short numbered list:

  1. “…when I ask you to write more books I am urging you to do what will be for your good and for the good of the world at large.”
  2. “Do not dream of influencing people. Think of things in themselves.”
  3. Have “the courage to write exactly what [you] think”.
  4. “escape a little from the common sitting-room and see human beings not always in the relation to each other but in relation to reality; and the sky, too, and the trees or whatever it may be in themselves” for “our relation is to the world of reality”

Into the Twilight Zone, Chapter 1: On Twilight and YA Literature

The Twilight Saga is a four-book series that debuted in 2005. It was written by American author Stephenie Meyer and it is a young adult novel that chronicles the romance between a teenage girl and a mysterious and handsome vampire.

On Twilight

In case you have not read any of the four books, watched any of the five movies, and/or have not come into contact with any sort of review or summary in the 14 years since its publication, here’s a quick overview of what the first book is about.

After her mother remarries and moves to another state, Bella Swan, a clumsy and somewhat insecure teenage girl, moves to Forks, Washington, to live with her dad. She’s your everyday girl: she’s pale, has brown hair, likes to read old books, and is an introvert. You know, she is #relatable. But she is the new girl, which means that she is the new hot topic. Every girl wants to know her (some even hate her already) and every boy wants to go out with her. She, however, quickly turns her attention to the mystery that is Edward Cullen. He is everything she is not. He’s super handsome, has a rich, attractive family, has good grades, drives a nice car, he is an embodiment of “too cool for school”. But he hides a dark secret: he and his whole adopted supermodel family are vampires. They’re “vegetarian” vampires, which means that they don’t drink human blood. Despite their obvious differences and the general danger that he, being a vampire, poses to her, they start hanging out together and fall deeply and madly in love. Towards the end of the book, a group of nomad vampires who have been killing innocent people in the region, notice Bella and want to eat her. Now it is up to her and her new supernatural friends to come up with a plan to save her.

In the 14 years since the books and movies came out, especially in recent years, they have been torn apart by critics, readers, movie-goers, and other writers. In fact, the first film of the franchise was recently voted the worst movie of all time on Ranker (we will talk about this in another post). However, when the books were published, reception was widely different and the world’s attention turned to Young Adult literature.

But what is Young Adult Literature and where does Twilight fit in it?

Broadly speaking, Young Adult Literature is a category of books written for people who are between 12 and 19 years old. The themes and topics vary, depending on the gender and the age of YA protagonists, but the books usually address, among others, themes of love, friendship, family, identity, coming of age, money, school, popularity, race, and death.

Young Adult fiction is considered to have been born in the 1940s, when Maureen Daly published “Seventeenth Summer”, a book written for teenagers (mostly teenage girls) that talked about first love. However, the term “young adult” did not appear until the 1960s. Most books addressed to teenagers during that decade were realist novels. The 70s are considered the golden age of young adult fiction. They were about struggling with high-school, divorce, drugs, and being outsiders (As in The Outsiders, by S.E, Hinton). The 80s added genre fiction, horror, drama, and darker themes such as rape and death into the mixture, with authors such as R.L. Stine (Goosebumps) gaining popularity. But the lack of young people in the 1990s due to the low birth rates from the 1970s-1980s meant less YA readers.

And then came Harry Potter.

“But Harry Potter is not YA. It’s a children’s book.”

Well, yes. Harry Potter is a children’s book, but it was read by children, teenagers and adults. Many argue that it was Harry Potter what helped pave the way for the avalanche of books that have come out since, and while I agree that it did draw the eyes of the publishing houses towards young readers, it was a book for children.

Fast forward to 2005 and out comes Twilight. The reviews that followed praised Meyer’s portrayal of teenage angst and sexual tension. Sure, they admitted it was somewhat clumsy, but it was romantic and dramatic, and it portrayed high-school awkwardness very well. Amongst readers, the books exploded. Teenagers (especially teenage girls) were reading it everywhere, they talked about it, they wrote about it, they discussed their theories, and they voraciously read them. The Twilight Saga has won several awards, including the 2009 Kids’ Choice Awards, where the first book competed against Harry Potter. As of 2019, the four books have spent over 300 weeks in The New York Times Bestseller list. When the first movie came out, it made over 300 million USD worldwide. The complete saga made over 3.3 billion USD. One more thing that Twilight did: it introduced a lot of young people to the habit of reading.

The books’ success clearly turned everyone’s attention to Young Adult fiction. It was a book about a high-school girl who did not fit in but who fell in love with a hot boy and spent half of the book pining for him, and teenage girls couldn’t help but relate. We can frown at it all we like, but many of us did not fit in, or at least felt like we did not fit in, in high-school. And chances are, we had a crush on someone. But there was something new added into the mixture: the hot boy was a vampire, and there were a bunch of supernatural beings running around, having secret orders and secret vampire wars.

Everyone wanted in on the supernatural aspect. The following years we saw a surge in series, movies, and books, all dealing with teenagers, high-school, and, of course, supernatural romances: Vampire Diaries, The Mortal Instruments, Vampire Academy, Teen Wolf, and the list goes on.

The success of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games turned the tides towards dystopian literature and cemented YA lit’s place in every book store shelf and now we have lots of stories, themes, genres, and authors to choose from. Moreover, the success of YA has allowed authors to tell more diverse stories that are now making it to the big screen, and the world is richer for it.

I am not saying that Twilight is responsible for the diversity and richness that we see now in YA film and literature, nor am I saying that Meyers pulled a Tolkien and reinvented an entire genre. What I am trying to say is that, whether we like the book or not, whether we have issues with some of its messages (and there are lots of issues to be had), it played an important role in the evolution of YA literature. There is a tendency to overlook it or purposefully ignore it altogether because of its reputation, but that’s why we’re here in the Twilight zone.

Review: Miss Burma

“I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t both intrigued and frightened by the myth of my mother and her native country, by their secrets and contradictions.”

Charmaine Craig

Miss Burma is a novel written by American author Charmaine Craig. It is a fictionalized version of her own family story, following the lives of her grandparents, Khin and Benny, and her mother, Louisa, as they live through the many political changes in Burma.

The novel starts with Benny, a young Jewish officer who moves to Rangoon during the British occupation of Burma, when Burma was considered part of British India (you can read more about that in my review of Burmese Days), and falls in love at first sight with Khin, a member of the Karen ethnic group, which has been persecuted and oppressed for a long time. Their relationship is tried again and again by the turbulent political changes of the country. As the Japanese occupy Burma, Benny, Khin and their three children are forced to leave their home and go into hiding. Once the war is over and the British and the Japanese are out, the Karen people, who were aiming to become self-governing find themselves fighting against the country’s Burmese government. As the years go by, Louisa, Benny and Khin’s daughter, becomes the country’s first beauty queen and must learn to live with the burdens of her fame, the danger of her ethnic heritage, the heartache of her family, and her people’s fight for freedom.

What I liked about this book is that it is a historical novel but it is not a history book. It does tell the story of the author’s mother and grandparents, but it is a fictionalized version of it. Only Charmaine Craig knows what truly happened and what is an embellishment, but the most important parts of her family history are there.

“While it became increasingly important to me to set the historical record straight, to track the geopolitical movements that gave rise to Burma’s military dictatorship and its ongoing waves of genocide, I never wanted merely to restore the past with this book. I am a fiction writer, and so… I wanted to create a possible world distinct from the world of history and my family.”

Charmaine Craig

Yes, I liked the book, but it did take me a bit long to finish. It was interesting and I did want to know more, but the writing style can feel somewhat… heavy. Some parts of it dragged on for a while, and I was not always invested in all the characters. Nonetheless, it is a good story about strong-willed and flawed people, and about a country that somehow keeps showing up in my studies and in my free-time reading. In general, we don’t talk and hear enough about Myanmar, and there is a lot to talk about. So, I feel that, if you have not turned your attention towards it, this is a good place to start.

  My edition:  Paperback, published in 2017 by Grove Press.
My edition: Paperback, published in 2017 by Grove Press.

Review: To The Lighthouse

“It was love, she thought, love that never clutch its object; but, like the love which mathematicians bear their symbols, or poets their phrases, was meant to be spread over the world and become part of human gain.”

To the Lighthouse is a 1927 book written by modernist author, Virginia Woolf. Even though it is a work of fiction, it is her most autobiographical novel, as she based some characters and themes on her own childhood experiences. Similarly to her other novels, To The Lighthouse is not about plot and story, it is about thoughts and reflections that deal with themes such as loss, subjectivity, perception, and life itself.

Probably the best summary of the book is the one by John Green on his Crash Course video: “The Ramsay family and friends spend a day at their vacation home. They talk about going to the lighthouse but don’t. 10 years pass, and then they go to the lighthouse and the book is over.”

Yeah, Virginia wasn’t too big on plot.

The novel is divided in three parts: The Window, Time Passes, and The Lighthouse. Woolf described this as “two blocks joined by a corridor”, which is why Time Passes is the shortest section of the book. This section is also different from the rest of the book, as it doesn’t show the perspectives of any human character. Instead it tells everything from the perspective of the house.

Time Passes shows an empty house during the First World War and the house describes it as a storm, it tells us in its unique way what is happening, what has changed and who has died. It is interesting that we are informed of character deaths through parentheses.

Most of the novel is written in the form of thoughts and reflections, and almost no dialogue. It has a fairly complicated prose, especially for those who are not used to reading this kind of book. I haven’t read anything like it in a couple of years and so it took me a lot longer than back when I was more used to reading the genre. It has a lot of focalization, which means that the perspective shifts from character to character, sometimes even in the middle of a sentence. Virginia was also a fan of the stream of consciousness as a literary device.

Stream of consciousness is a big thing in modernist literature, and probably one of my favorite literary devices. It records thoughts as they go through the mind, which means that they don’t have a particular order or any real pauses. Our minds simply don’t work like that. We think about one thing, then something we see might remind us of something else and just like that we’re now thinking of that. We don’t end our thoughts with a conclusion and then open a new section, we just think. Other great examples of this device are found in Virginia’s Mrs Dalloway, which I reviewed back in 2015, when the blog looked a little different, and in James Joyce’s Ulysses, which I also reviewed in 2015.

2015 was the year I discovered modernism, you see.

 My edition: Paperback, published in 2002 by Wordsworth Classics
My edition: Paperback, published in 2002 by Wordsworth Classics.

I liked this book. Not as much as I liked Mrs Dalloway, but I liked it. It is not for everyone, though, especially because nothing really happens. But Virginia is not about that at all. To her, literature is not necessarily about plot and adventure. It is instead meant to question and reflect on life itself, it needs a deeper meaning. What is the meaning of life? How does change affect us? How do we perceive change? What makes an artist? Why do we make art? That’s To the Lighthouse. It is about feelings and emotions, about our perceptions and interpretations, about the things we struggle for, and about what it truly means to be human.

“What is the meaning of life? That was all- a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years, the great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.”

Writing with Purpose: Burmese Days

Myanmar (Burma) is a country located in Southeast Asia that shares borders with China, Thailand, Laos, India and Bangladesh. It is home to over 135 different ethnic groups and around a hundred different languages. It became independent of Great Britain in 1948 and was a military regime from 1962 to 2011. It has been called Myanmar since 1989.

Myanmar or Burma became part of the British colonies in 1862. During its colonial period, a lot of Indians were sent there to work for the British. They enjoyed a better status than the Burmese, who were notoriously disliked among British colonizers and, like in many other colonial territories, experienced physical and psychological abuse on a regular basis.

Burmese Days, by George Orwell

Burmese Days is a book by George Orwell, who was stationed as an imperial official in Burma, nowadays called Myanmar, from 1922 to 1925. It is a work of fiction, but it is very much based on Orwell’s own experiences.

The book starts with U Po Kyin, a Burmese magistrate, plotting to destroy the reputation of an Indian doctor, Dr. Veraswami, who wants to become a member of the European Club to guarantee he will always have prestige. He has not succeeded in doing so because Dr. Veraswami is friends with John Flory, a white English timber merchant with a big birth mark on his face and a small personality. Because of his views of Burmese culture, aka. because he is not an overly racist douche, Flory doesn’t have any European friends. He is well aware of the horrible things that the British are doing in Burma, and he is very critical of the Empire:

“We Anglo-Indians could be almost bearable if we’d only admit that we’re thieves and go on thieving without any humbug.”

But Flory’s dissatisfaction with the British way does not mean he doesn’t participate in it. He is, after all, a European merchant in Burma. He is a member of the European Club, he has hit his Burmese servants (everyone does it, after all. It’s not like he hits them every day.), he has a Burmese mistress that he considers inferior to -or rather not as worthy as- European women and whom he mistreats constantly. Still, he is constantly drunk, isolated, and miserable.

Flory’s life changes when Elizabeth Lackersteen arrives in Burma. She is young, beautiful, and unmarried. To Flory, she is the answer to his problems: a white woman with whom he can share his Burma. They start spending time together and both expect they will marry. Flory sees her as the woman to save him from loneliness and Elizabeth sees him as her only option to avoid being an old spinster without any money.

 My edition: Paperback, published in 2009 by Modern Classics
My edition: Paperback, published in 2009 by Modern Classics.

When it comes to social and political attitudes from the past, especially when discussing popular culture, it is common to hear people justify them by saying that people “simply didn’t know better”. The jokes, the characterizations, the racist depictions of minorities in films and series, are often justified by saying that back then, they didn’t know it was wrong. Even by today’s standards, it is not uncommon that modern film-makers make some… questionable decisions regarding race, gender, or anything like that in a period film, they justify it by saying that “that’s what it was like in those days. People didn’t know it was bad to be racist and violent. They had no concept of racism.”

It is whenever I hear that, that I think of George Orwell. I think of The Road to Wigan Pier and Burmese Days, and I can’t help but think that… maybe they did know. Maybe we always know, deep down, that what we’re doing is wrong. Even if we don’t agree with it, the fact that we are not doing anything about it, is us choosing to be part of the same system because, no matter how unjust it is, “that’s just how things are”. And if we really don’t know, maybe we can wake up to it, like Orwell did. He wrote Burmese Days to truly depict what he saw and what he did during his own Burmese days. He first started writing it around 1929, but was not able to publish it until 1934 and only in the United States. The main reason for this delay was the publishers’ fear of retaliation by members of the British Empire, due to the fact that the characters were a little too similar to actual people and the situations were a little too real. Several publishing houses rejected it and only one house agreed to publish it a year later, after extensive research to prove that the book was actual fiction and that no character was named after a real person in colonial Burma.

Orwell knew that all art is political. But more than that, he firmly believed that literature had to be used for that purpose.

Political purpose. — Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

George Orwell, Why I Write

Through his essays and books, he later wrote in favor of the working class, he defended “low brow” literature, he criticized the colonialist attitude of his contemporaries, and he spoke out against totalitarianism and fascism. His best´known books, Animal Farm and 1984, an allegory and a cautionary tale respectively, truly show the true purpose of his writing.

No big change comes overnight. Sometimes the system is too rigid, too big, or too familiar to be changed quickly, and we are not always in the best position to do so. The fact that we live within the system means that we probably reproduce it in one way or another. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do anything about it. We can use our words and our voices and our art; we do that on a daily basis, after all. It just needs purpose.

“For five years I had been part of an oppressive system, and it had left me with a bad conscience. Innumerable remembered faces – faces of prisoners on the dock, of men waiting in the condemned cells, of subordinates I had bullied and aged peasants I had snubbed, of servant and coolies I had hit with my first moments of rage (nearly everyone does these things in the East, at any rate occasionally: Orientals can be very provoking) haunted me intolerably. I was conscious of an immense weight of guilt that I had got to expiate. I suppose that sounds exaggerated; but if you do for five years a job that you thoroughly disapprove of, you will probably feel the same. … I felt that I had got to escape not merely from imperialism but from every form of man’s dominion over man.”

George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier

5 Reasons Why You Should Read Imagined Communities

Back at the beginning of January, I told you about a book I recently read called Imagined Communities, written by British-American political scientist Benedict Anderson. It is a thorough study of nationalism and its origins that includes religion, languages, history and cultures from all around the world, and it is definitely one of the best books I’ve read. I had originally planned on writing a normal review like I usually do but then thought I’d straight up tell you why you should read it, too.

“Who would have thought that the storm blows harder the farther it leaves Paradise behind?”

1. Because it is written in an eloquent, understandable and pleasant manner

Being a scientific publication, it is obviously harder to read than a novel (unless that novel was written by James Joyce in which case this will feel like a pamphlet), but Anderson has a very balanced writing style. Like all scientists, he touches on a lot of dry, difficult topics but the book never feels like it’s dragging. For me, there was never a moment when I stopped and thought, well I have no idea what I’ve been reading for the last three pages!

Also, he has a way with imagery that gives this book a sense of beauty. Jeet Heer wrote for the New Republic that Anderson is “as well-versed in novels and poetry as he was in scholarship”, which refers to his knowledge, but you can see that influence in his own writing.

“Through that language, encountered at a mother’s knee and parted with only at the grave, pasts are restored, fellowships are imagined, and futures dreamed.”

2. Because his whole theory is based on one idea: It is all imagined

“In an anthropological spirit, then, I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.”

A nation is not something that we can physically see or touch, nationalism isn’t a concrete ideology that we are taught, there’s nothing in our bodies that marks our nationality.

To Anderson, a nation is a community that is imagined because even though we can’t meet every single member, we somehow know that they are there, sharing our nation with us. We imagined it as limited because we have a clear idea of where its borders are and we know that beyond them there are other nations with their own people and their own borders. We imagine it as sovereign because the concept of nation was born when people decided that the legitimacy of a country wasn’t divine. We imagine it as a community because, despite all its problems and all the struggles and tragedies that we live within it, we still have some sense of belonging and of fraternity with other members.

Thus, we could say that everything that defines a nation and a society, the decisions we make, the way we treat people that live on the inside and on the outside, how we see those who are different from us, how we respond to foreign interventionism, it all depends on how we imagine them.

3. Because history isn’t watered down

The book has a detailed account of Imperialism and Colonialism. It deals with racism and prejudice, and it tries to give an explanation of how those things first manifested, but it does not try to water them or their consequences down. I know that at this point we shouldn’t be praising someone for telling something like it actually was but, sadly, academic writing (like any other form of writing) has a history of omitting and repackaging reality in favor of portraying itself as “the developed one”.

Anderson doesn’t shy away from the fact that lots of languages, cultures, peoples, and complete identities were lost in the Southeast Asian colonies because the colonial administrations didn’t bother to respect the people that lived there before them and continued to do so after them:

“These ‘identities’ [were] imagined by the (confusedly) classifying mind of the colonial state. […] One notices, in addition, the census-makers’ passion for completeness and unambiguity. Hence their intolerance of multiple, politically ‘transvestite’, blurred or changing identifications. Hence the weird subcategory, under each racial group, of ‘Others’ – who, nonetheless, are absolutely not to be confused with other ’Others.’”

When talking about Simon Bolivar’s fight for freedom from Spanish rule in South America, Anderson does not forget to mention that one of his main motivations for the independence movement was based on the fear of black people taking over:

“One key factor initially spurring the drive for independence from Madrid, in such important cases as Venezuela, Mexico and Peru, was the fear of ‘lower-class’ political mobilizations: to wit, Indian or Negro-slave uprisings. […] The Liberator Bolivar himself once opined that a Negro revolt was ‘a thousand times worse than a Spanish invasion’”

4. Because we get to examine some of the objects that shaped our views of a shared culture

To Anderson, what we now know as nationalism was born in the 18th century Western Europe for several reasons, one of them being print capitalism. This means that thanks to the printing and distribution of books and newspapers in specific languages other than Latin led to people to begin identifying with that language. This means that all the people who read newspapers and books in German at some point understood the language as something they all shared, it wasn’t a language anymore, it was their language. The same thing happened to those who started reading books in French and in English.

Our sense of identity not only as individuals but within a community and culture is also closely linked to the use of common objects and institutions. Anderson talks about the role of things such as maps and museums in shaping our understanding of who we are, where we come from, where we are, and where we’re going. These themes are particularly important in media, Disney’s Moana and Pixar’s Coco are all about that:

5. Because it is still as relevant (if not more) as it was in the 80s

Anderson published Imagined Communities in 1983. The book was reissued in 1991 with some alterations and new chapters. Another revised and updated edition came out in 2006.

If there’s anything the current political situation tells us is that nationalism is still alive and kicking. The biggest political decisions we’ve seen during the last few years are based, amongst other things, on the way we imagine our nation and who is and isn’t part of it.

In the U.S., Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency base on nationalist ideas: this is us, this is our nation, these are the people that belong to our nation, this is our language, these are our borders, and beyond them are the people who are not us.

The Mexican presidential elections are this July and one of the strongest candidates is populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Much of his popularity is thanks to the awakened sense of nationalism thanks to the situation north of the border.

The Rohingya humanitarian crisis in Myanmar is based on the Rohingya’s Muslim ethnicity. They have lived in Buddhist Myanmar for centuries but are being persecuted because they are seen as “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh. The reason for this paradox goes back to the time when Burma, India and Bangladesh were one British Colony. The British thought that Muslims were more reliable than Hindi and Buddhists and hence favored them for the relatively well-paid jobs in the colonial administration.

It is interesting that nationalism hasn’t changed all that much since it started. Yes, every country has a different form of nationalism and not everyone sees it as purely good or purely bad. It has been in its name that people have suffered rejection and discrimination even inside their own countries, wars have been waged and humans have been killed and borders have closed. But it also thanks to nationalism that people have risen against their oppressors, colonies became independent, sovereign nations, free to choose their leaders and free to celebrate their culture, their identity and their history. One thing is clear: Nationalism is always about defining one’s own identity by differentiating the self from the other, thus dividing people into different groups.

So however you may look at it, whatever you may feel about it, nationalism is something very present and deeply rooted in our culture, and we should all at least have a look at what it is, how it came to be, and what it could be.

  My edition:  Paperback, published (revised edition) by Verso in 2016.
My edition: Paperback, published (revised edition) by Verso in 2016.

Special thanks to René Muschter for his brilliant input, his thoughts, his comments, and his support!

Review: On Writing – A Memoir of the Craft

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King

Over 17 years ago, Stephen King was encouraged to write a book about writing. A book for those who aspire to be writers, and for those who enjoy writing his stories and want to know more about them. On Writing, however, is not the classic how-to-write-a-novel-book that we so often find in book stores. This is a book that consists mainly of three parts: memoirs of Stephen, rules and advice about writing, and a list of books that all aspiring writers should read. In the epilogue, Stephen talks about a horrendous accident that almost took his life and tells how writing helped him move on.

On the writer

I love memoirs and autobiographical texts. I love them because each author has his or her own way of writing about life, everyone sees the world in a different way, everyone has something different to share.

Stephen is clear and honest when it comes to sharing his experiences. He opens the book questioning his own ability to write such a book and admits that it is not easy to write about writing without falling into falsehoods, unnecessary reflections and exaggeration.

“This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit. Fiction writers, present company included, don’t understand very much about what they do – not why it works when it’s good, not why it doesn’t when it’s bad. I figured the shorter the book, the less the bullshit.”

What I loved the most about this book is that Stephen talks freely about both his good and his bad experiences. He doesn’t hold back when talking about his struggle with alcoholism and drug addiction, and he recognizes how they affected his life and his work. Spoilers: it was the worst time of his life. Stephen talks about how and when he wrote some of his most popular books, and he describes the circumstances that surrounded him while he wrote them.

On writing

The second part of the book is a series of rules and guidelines for those of us who want to be writers. These are the rules that he follows, and they go from basic stylistic choices such as never using the passive voice and avoiding adverbs at all costs, to knowing why and whom you write for.

Despite being the section that we would normally call “technical”, this part is as personal as the first one, since all his tips are grounded in his own experience.

“You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair – the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.

On reading

The third part has two lists with all the books that Stephen says one ought to read if one is to be a good writer. The original list, published in 2000, has 96 titles; the 2010 revised version has 86. Some of the books vary from one list to another, which is why it is worth it to take a look at both of them.

For those who, like me, enjoy Stephen King’s stories in general, whether they’re films, books or series, it is a joy to get to know him through the pages of these memoirs. The only bad reviews that this book had, were those of people who expected a manual on writing a novel. This book is not that. This book is like a chat with a friend who’s telling you his perspective on writing.

  My edition:  Paperback, 10th-anniversary edition, published by Simon and Schuster.
My edition: Paperback, 10th-anniversary edition, published by Simon and Schuster.

As you know, Mexico is living a time of crisis and it needs all the help it can get. Over 200 people died and dozens of buildings fell down completely. In the cities, people are working together, helping each other out, organizing donations in collection centres, transporting food and medicine, and making plans for the future. For those of us who don’t live in Mexico there are other ways to help out:

Thank you for support!