I’ve changed the title of this post because I don’t want to be spanked (actually, I do, but that’s besides the point)

I don’t like Jonatham Lethem’s writing, mostly because it smacks of ignorant and annoying generalizations that remind me of the one I used for the title of this post. This old article about his Egyptian cousin charmed me in spite of its 6th grade type realizations. Here’s a little somethin’ that displays his annoying capacity for both ignorance and charm:

Intermarriage, of any sort, was felt to be heroic, and Barbara, with her Egyptian family, seemed absolutely heroic. So did my fabled Aunt Molly, the dark horse of my mother’s family, who’d fled New York and married a Mexican, and then set up as a folk artist in Arizona. Even the Midwestern Lethems were obsessed with their purported trace of Native American blood – my legendary great-great-grandfather, named Brown, is said to have taken an Oglala Sioux bride.

Also, I grew up in a Brooklyn neighbourhood with more brown faces than white. So it was thrilling and consoling – not only righteous but intuitively right – that splashing around alongside us paler kids in the motel pool in Maryville, Missouri, during those 1970s family reunions, were my dark Egyptian cousins, Randa and Amir. And, by the poolside, arguing politics with my World War Two veteran uncles, and with my outspoken radical Jewish mother, was their growly, bearded, imperious and quite lovable father, Saad. In fact, though we might by some current standards seem conceptually ‘opposed’, we half-Jewish and half-Egyptian cousins were more like each other than we were like the many dozens of pure Midwestern cousins surrounding us. We’d brought a new flavour to the Lethem family, a scent of the wider world, of cosmopolitan cities and oceans, to a landlocked tribe.

17 thoughts on “I’ve changed the title of this post because I don’t want to be spanked (actually, I do, but that’s besides the point)

  1. Oh, you do not. Feel like a monkey in a zoo, I mean. It’s a perfectly straightforward descriptive passage about being half-Jewish and having Egyptian cousins. Not very inspired writing, but hardly colonialist, or imperialist, or whatever it is you’re complaining about. You’re just saying that it is in order to score cheap PC points, and really it’s disgraceful.

  2. Lethem talks about feeling like a monkey in a zoo in the actual essay, so he and Josie have a lot more in common than Josie may think. From the essay:

    “Though in New York City I made a very unconvincing Jew to other Jews – unobservant, un-Bar Mitzvah’d, attending Quaker Sunday school – in Kansas I was hot currency. One of my cousins once walked me down a suburban street in Overland Park, Kansas in order to show me off, though that was a mission of mercy: there was an adopted Jewish kid on the street, shy and ashamed at being the only Jew anyone in the neighbourhood knew.”

    It’s a shame about blogging, really: most people don’t read the entirety of the articles that bloggers quote.

  3. Whoa, venom from anonymous. I’ll cop to not reading the entire article, but that brief blurb did strike me as sort of condescending and patronizing. I didn’t see any complaints about colonialism or imperialism in my one-line response, maybe disdain for exoticism, though.

  4. I feel like Lethem is not a worthwhile target. He’s just a writer who does the best he can (which isn’t saying much), and while I don’t agree with how he writes about race– in F. of S. for example– I admire that he does. In this article, I found it charming, and I think, because I thought, “I should be offended!” I hated him for charming me. Which is bullshit. I mean, he could he have done a lot more research for this article. But the fact that he’s not a well-informed or imaginative writer does not make him a zookeeper, in my book.

  5. Honestly, Josie, you’ve missed the point, by about a thousand miles. What extraordnary narcissicism could bring you to believe that the important thing about a piece of literary writing is how it makes you feel. About yourself. Whether it makes you feel better about yourself. Or worse about yourself. What has that got to do with anything? I mean here’s a guy, like him or not (and I don’t, particularly) writing about his family, his cousins, his flesh and blood, people he grew up with, and you get to the end and ask yourself: Hm. Does this make me feel more like a monkey in a zoo? Or less like a monkey in a zoo? Or does it make me feel like a tiger in the jungle? Or like a blond man on a bicycle?

    What makes you think that’s an appropriate or relevant or even midly interesting way to react to any piece of literary writing? Honestly: what does this have to do with literature at all?

    I’m sorry to give such a spanking, in public, but this sort of thing just drives me nuts. It belongs in Oprah’s Book Club, if anywhere.

    Making Better Readers, One Child at a Time.

  6. Oh, and by the way, Randa, your headline was a little unfair. He’s not saying Look at the Cute Little Brown People: he’s talking about his own family, for God’s sake. You should hear me talk about mine…

  7. I’m glad you live in a universe where you can never take what you read personally. When Lethem wrote this article, he took a political occurence- the incarceration of Saad- and personalized it. For the essay’s reader to personalize its meaning comes as no surprise to me.

    And you’re absolutely correct; the important thing about literature is not how a literary work makes a person feel about herself. I would put it a little differently: the hallmark of a great work of literature should not be based on how it makes its reader feel.

    However, Josie was not making a statement about the “important thing about literature”. Also, if you think this charming but 6th grade level essay is a literary work, I feel sorry for you.

    And finally, your “one child at a time” comment stings, even if it was not directed at me. That condescending rhetoric will do nothing for the noble and worthy cause you are rallying for.

  8. The “child” remark was aimed at Josie, who is apparently very young, and it was meant to sting. Her reaction was that of a very young person who imagines, as young people will, that their own “feelings” are the most important thing in the world.

    I don’t believe that what’s important about literature is how it makes you feel, about yourself or anything else, but that’s another discussion, for another time.

    Lethem’s piece struck me as a model of empathy, and a touching and fierce call not to forget the fate of people like Saad. Insha’llah, there are more people like him in the US and elsewhere, and it’s incredible to me that Jolie, or anyone else, could use it as an example of ‘exoticism’, or anything like it. It’s the worst kind of sanctimoniousness — I mean, where does some 20-year-old get off criticizing a piece like that, on such flimsy grounds? — Because it doesn’t meet her exacting teen-aged standards of correctness. A piece which, by the way, she hadn’t even read, but we’ll pass over that for now. I mean, if this is your idea of an enemy, you’re setting yourself up to have very few friends.

    Granted, it’s a little silly to imagine that what Egyptians really want is to sit by a motel pool, but come on…

  9. yes, very young people can be narcisisstic (I am not talking about Josie here, but making a general remark), but they tend to grow out of it on their own. Comments like yours will not snap them into a state of maturity. You just have to hope time and experience will. but your frustration about it is warranted.

    i agree that lethem is not one’s idea for an enemy (see my previous comment on him not deserving to be a target).

    i think we agree on almost everything. we’re just communicating about it in different ways 🙂

    (and as just one half-egyptian, i will say, for myself, that what i really want today, with the rain and grossness outside, is to sit by a pool. any pool.)

  10. Could you (not Randa, great name by the way) be any more condescending? What is the purpose of literature, if not to make people emote? What she feels IS important, it’s what makes for interesting literary analysis. You sound like a frustrated 12th grade lit teacher, bemoaning somebody discussing anything other than literary devices. Her age has nothing to do with her criticism and, yeah, the fact that he thought intermarriage to be brave and heroic reeks of exoticism. Nobody is calling anybody the enemy but comments like those Josie made are out of frustration from being marginalized in writing – when do we stop being an anomaly and when can we just start BEING? Maybe she’s sick of white men writing about her and thinking they’re doing her and people like her a service (which was what the tone of the piece appeared to be)just because they’re stringing together a couple of thoughts that aren’t blatently offensive or racist.

    -randa #2

  11. What? She’s “sick of white men writing about her…”? Are you kidding? Honestly: are you kidding? Did you read the piece you’re attacking?

    Try and follow: He was writing about his uncle. The man his cousin married. And their kids, who he grew up with. He was writing tenderly, affectionately, and with great sympathy and outrage for the man’s political imprisonment. (And by the way, Lethem isn’t white, exactly: he’s half Jewish.)

    How does this become, in any way at all, ‘about’ a 20 year old Afro-Arab-Italian girl from wherever it is she’s from? How does it even pretend to be ‘doing her and people like her a service’? He’s asking people not to forget that his uncle is in jail. And for this, he’s being attacked.

    You’re just so completely ’round the bend about this that it takes my breath away. It’s an example of the most pathetic and childish kind of narcissim — the kind of mewling, passive-agressive self-pity that searches for any possible excuse, no matter how far-fetched, to accuse someone else of bad politics, simply because you think you can make people jump by crying ‘exoticism’, or whatever silly and dishonest disapprobation you can manufacture. Is it any wonder the world laughs at you?

    I really think you need to grow up and, as the kids say these days, “get over yourself”. There are atrocities being comitted all around the globe, by all sorts of people, for all sorts of reasons. The planet is quite a serious and savage place, these days. And you think the problem is Lethem?

  12. Whoa. Easy there with the name-calling, Ali. That’s just uncalled for.

    This is the kind of thing that makes me take the comments feature offline.

    Besides, the only person who needs to get a life around here is Anonymous. Are you aware, Anonymous, that I check my stats and have noticed you spend a large, nay, huge, part of your day on this blog, waiting to jump down someone’s throat? Please, I beg of you, go drink some herbal tea and read a book or something. Isn’t that what you’re so passionate about, anyway?

  13. And, BTW, Anonymous, if you’re who I think you are, I’d love to join you in that herbal tea drinking, and hear all about how you’ve been.

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