Category Archives: Identity

A Gale of Two Cities

There’s a strong force, like a wind, that keeps trying to toss me back and forth between New York and Washington DC.

Anybody in New York who has known me for more than a couple of years knows one thing about me: Koli loves DC. New York was always “a great place to visit” and, after 9/11/01, it was also my great love (you know, the kind of tender, raw, protective intimacy that results from shared trauma, which you strongly suspect is growing dysfunctionally codependent, but you avoid facing it because, you know, what the hell?) and yet, there was a certain amount of pining I kept doing for DC.

I missed the clean, air-conditioned subway stations, the clean, wide sidewalks, the polite neighbors, and the reliable customer-service ethic of people doing business with you. I preferred the effortless multiculturalism of DC to the in-your-face, sometimes hostile “mosaic” of ethnicities in New York. I missed the occasional quiet. I missed being able to go someplace open and green in less than two hours.I guess – to torture the analogy some more – it was like constantly missing your sweet, strong, wholesome mother even as your life is consumed with a mindblowingly erotic and unhealthfully close attachment with someone you’ve fallen for really hard and really fast.

There was an obsessive quality to my early New York experience. I photographed her from every angle. I wrote poems. I basked in the attention of every new guy in my life on her streets, which are laced with an unnamable aphrodisiac. I luxuriated in my heartbreak in the aftermath of each of those guys on the same streets, where the same aphrodisiac had turned inexplicably into a salve – or, more accurately, it remained an aphrodisiac that somehow turned the heartbreak into a breathtaking romance in its own right.

I mourned my recently departed father on ferry boats and across the Brooklyn Bridge, reciting his beloved Walt Whitman poems in my head, especially “Song of Myself” and “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” newly mesmerized by their reaching-across-time-and-death themes. I ate in every New York restaurant I had time for. I went to the parks and the museums and the opera houses and the dinky little theaters and the seemingly never-ending readings and art openings that pop out of nowhere all over town (all the while complaining how dirty the subway was that took me there). I re-watched Ric Burns’s “New York” several times – sometimes with a box of tissues. I looked sharply away from “ground zero” as I passed, but sneaked a peek up at the sky where the towers had been, every time I zipped by in a ferry. As the waters of the Harbor carried me downtown, my eyes misted, looking at the Statue of Liberty as I almost involuntarily mouthed “The New Colossus.”

In those early years, I often felt that the long hours at the law firm left me with “no life,” but looking back, I must admit that I was developing a “life” in New York, however harried. And after I left the law firm? Well, as they say in New York: foggetaboutit! Everything seemed to turn unequivocally fabulous.

At some point, without either of us knowing it, we healed, New York and I. And I realized it wasn’t just an eros-like obsession. I really did fall in love with her.

I should explain why I, a heterosexual woman with an (unrelated) distaste for the conventional feminization of places (and vessels), keep saying “her” to refer to a geographical love object:

It’s all about the way she healed. The kind of resilience with which we bear our scar tissue, not denying or burying the pain we felt, not shunning any remnant of pleasure that may be proximate to that pain, refusing to calcify, being bigger and more graceful than our tragedies, well, it seems an overwhelmingly – though perhaps not uniquely – feminine strength. So I saw New York, still wounded, gritty as ever, yet tough and shining and full of possibilities. And, somewhere along the way, I got used to the dirty subways, and remembered how much I loved the places they took me to.

DC is a great town. It’s my birthplace. I have a lot of history here. The museums are free. The subway really is cleaner. But guess what? It stops running at midnight and only takes you to a handful of places. Um, yeah, Koli, while you were bitching about the transit system in New York, you forgot to notice how much you LOVED not having to drive.

Big City, Dim Lights

I was in India this January. I kept “in touch” as much as possible -we live in a small, virtually-wired world. But I completely missed a little regional story that is nothing short of momentous for me, but that went completely under my global-sweep radar on the other side of the world.

The Amato Opera in Manhattan’s East Village is closing. I am devastated.

I can’t claim to have grown up with Tony and Sally Amato’s “tenement opera” that’s been a community fixture for six decades.  I started going there in the late 1990s when I first moved to the area and immediately fell in love.  It’s a microscopic space with cheap champagne and a pre-performance dinner option (e.g. pasta and what tastes like grocery-store bought red sauce) and an absolutely spellbinding charm. It’s a place that has promoted young local talent and given newcomers like me an instant stake in our New Yorker-ness.

I remember my third time. They were performing Manon. Tony Amato spoke of his wife, who had recently died, and mentioned that he had considered retiring. I think he said his decision to continue was influenced by his niece taking over some of the functions. I breathed a sigh of relief. The Amato was one of those hooks that New York dug into me early. I needed to know it was there to feel all was right in the world.

Like Tony and Sally’s families, I was an immigrant to New York and, in some sense an immigrant to America, although I was born here, because the rest of my family had repatriated to their own home country; I have for years felt a strange sense of generalized rootlessness everywhere in the world. That rootlessness is not without its allure, but it sensitizes you to the savor of whatever semblance of a home you encounter in your hydroponic life.

I was in law school. I was poor.  I never paid more than $25 for family circle tickets to experience the grandeur of the Metropolitan Opera House (as awe-inspiring as that is), but I thought nothing of plopping down 120 bucks (a FORTUNE for me at the time) to spend my then-boyfriend’s birthday sitting in a cramped little auditorium with questionable acoustics, sated on Ragu and Brut, surrounded by people who all seemed to know each other and to welcome us into their world. People of all ages, mingling in a way that Americans my age and younger are generally unfamiliar with and the way we imagine came naturally in the time of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.

Speaking of Our Town, I’ve always thought a big city neighborhood was a lot like a small town. Amato is a great example. Perhaps it could not exist in an actual small town.  Only a bustling metropolis like New York generally has the money – I’m not talking “big money” but multitudes of people with small money – to keep alive this little self-supporting art vendor, entrepreneurial yet noncommercial, traditional yet upstart, unostentatious yet unerringly refined in the art it peddles. And yet, like the corner grocery store clerk who remembers to ask when your mother is coming back from India for her next visit and the bar where everybody knows your name, the Amato is a big-city-neighborhood establishment that makes you feel safely rooted in your surroundings in that way that small town folks always talk about.

Thornton Wilder wrote Our Town as if celebrating continuity, when it was really mourning its passing, grasping longingly at a vanishing way of life.  All the remaining shows at the Amato, of course, are sold out. Since I now live in Washington, I can’t very well camp out at their door before each remaining performance in the hope of a last minute cancellation. All I can do is look lovingly back and say goodbye.

[Cover photo, of Amato Opera building exterior, was released into the public domain by its creator, Jim Henderson]

The Fundamentals of Terror

During my month-long visit to India, I have noticed the disturbing trend of “Hindu Fundamentalism,” which mirrors the same sort of culture war incited by all reactionary movements.In fact, there is only one Religious Fundamentalism in the world, designed to cultivate a shared sense of righteous rage at some perceived “enemy” among a certain historically identified group. That group is encouraged to internalize a received set of values purportedly derived from some mythical “fundamental” source of the group’s identity.

Like Christian fundamentalists in the US and Islamic fundamentalists in the Middle East, the new Hindu incarnation (yes, the pun is intended) of Religious Fundamentalism lashes out at an inchoate “liberal” society, allegedly hell bent on destroying their most cherished traditional values.

But what are these values, really? I don’t know very much about Islam, but scholars say that peace and generosity are its cornerstones. You wouldn’t know it from the explosions. At the very heart of Christianity, is the edict that forbids the faithful to judge others (a power that God has reserved for himself alone) and commands them to “love their neighbor.” Yet Christian “fundamentalists” sit in judgment of anyone who violates their interpretation of God’s will and express nothing but scorn for their neighbors who hold a different view.

As far as I know, Hinduism is an organic, flexible, spiritual tradition with no canonical dictates and a rich heritage of strong female deities. Unlike the monotheistic Semitic faiths, Hinduism – the world’s last great pagan religion – has never cast aspersions on sexuality. Sexuality is a deep spiritual phenomenon in the Hindu scriptural tradition (although the practice of the past several centuries has been woefully anti-female and anti-sex). But if you’re going to make claims based on the “fundamentals” of Hinduism, the pro-female, sexually enlightened spiritual tradition is completely at odds with the stance of Hindu “fundamentalist” groups like Sri Ram Sena, whose (male) members recently raided a pub in Mangalore and violently harassed women who happened to be socializing there. They beat them up for socializing in public instead of staying demurely covered and at home, like the Sri Ram Sena thinks good little Hindu women ought to.

In all three of my examples, the “fundamentalists” have taken the most perverted and oppressive social behavior and forcibly endowed them with a religious justification that is the opposite of the truly fundamental tenets of the cited religion.

The real reason behind oppression – all oppression – is the fear of power dilution. Those who have power want to limit access for everyone else. There are a couple of historically tried and true methods of this. 1) intimidate the masses and 2) exploit whatever characteristics you share with a portion of the masses to develop a fear of difference, so that they will focus their energies on hating others, equally as powerless as themselves, and never even realize that the powerful elite egging them on shares with them only some arbitrary and manufactured “values” and some irrelevant demographic characteristics, but none of the power and privilege.

A big tip off that Religious Fundamentalists are really all the same, is that by far the biggest object of condemnation – across the board, for all fundamentalist movements – is cultural liberalism.

Seems odd on the surface. Secular liberalism is no enemy of religion. It may be indifferent to the supernatural beliefs of particular religions, but its “agenda” of tolerance actually helps religions thrive. But, Religious Fundamentalists are right to perceive liberalism as a grave and mortal threat. Because liberalism is the proposition that all individuals should be free to make peaceful choices about their own lives, it becomes a powerful alternative to the narrow ideologies promoted by those who seek to exclude others from gaining resources and influence through a divide and rule strategy.

To anyone who isn’t keyed into the power structure of the society he or she lives in, but has bought into the idea that enforced traditionalism and intimidation form a legitimate and tenable part of his or her religious or cultural “heritage” I say, remember this: your ability to live your own life in accordance with whatever tradition you identify with, without the threat of someone else taking that away once they ascend to power (and let’s be realistic, empires change hands, they have since the dawn of civilization) will be secured by liberalism and only liberalism.

[photo by Pixabay from Pexels]

Up With America!

It’s weird to be abroad this week. I must admit, I am missing the around the clock coverage American media must be giving to the transition in Washington. Of course, the whole world is watching – and I’m thankful for the unique perspective I’m getting (especially since I’m in a country where the Bush administration was not universally detested – more about that later). But the media here (including the regional BBC and CNN outlets) have many other priorities, naturally.

Incidentally, I am not currently able to get constant access to NPR and PBS online here as I’d planned to do when I came to India. My broadband connection has been spotty and is completely out this week. I’ve been going to an “internet café” to get online. It’s not the most convenient way to do things, but a great way to feel a part of local culture, which is a surprisingly different experience from being a part of a local family (which I am).

I met some twenty-somethings who are in a band called the “Hool” (it means something like a needle or pin prick) – they have an exciting sound too, and not free from the New-New Wave craze sweeping their generation (and making mine nostalgic).

These boys are (as creative youth everywhere tend to be) politically left leaning, but fond of America and Americans for our ideals of freedom and individual rights and respect for the rights of others – especially the equality of rights. These are the things people the world over tend naturally to ascribe to America’s essence, as strange as we ourselves may sometimes find it (either because we can’t separate it from the disapprobation we face from non-Americans when we abandon our own ideals and behave like tyrants or because we have bought into a craven view of American values as beginning and ending with the pursuit of material gain).

Members of Hool know an awful lot about American history – which impressed me. I know kids their age back home who know nothing about Indian history (or American history, for that matter). And these are ordinary middle class kids, going to public schools in what is still a relatively poor country, who don’t have internet access at home!

I could analyze the socio-political causes of this difference. I could lay out some policy direction for improving global and historical awareness among our youth. But you know what? I don’t feel like it. I just feel like savoring the feeling that there are people in the world, even among people far worse off than we are, who manage to know more than we do (if you’re comparing knowledge per unit of opportunity among similarly aged people) who nevertheless admire us. Openly admire us for all the right reasons.

My History or Yours?

My fiction project about a black girl growing up in antebellum Kansas and Philadelphia tends to generate a lot of curiosity. People want to know why I am not writing about Indian Americans. Or about historical indians. What could possibly resonate with me about a black girl in the 1850s? How could I possibly understand such a character well enough to write about her?

I’m always struck by that response. Can anyone living today claim to have some special insight, not as a scholarly expertise, but as a function of personal cultural engagement, about a black girl in the 1850s? Can I, born in Washington DC and much better versed in American history than Indian history, claim some authority on something like 19th Century Indian experience? Does being black, without more, make one better suited than me (with my enormous interest in the subject), to empathic invention about it?

As I like to say, history isn’t inherited piecemeal by genetic lineage. History, any part of history, belongs to those who choose to study it, be inspired by it, revel in it, or in some way engage it.

But I’m talking about ideas, knowledge, empathy — intangibles. What about objects?

Sharon Waxman’s Loot is a fascinating inquiry into competing claims of ownership of great objects of antiquity.

The answer is anything but easy. I think a common contemporary preference is for return to “origin” just as throughout earlier modern history the preference was for respecting the custody of the more “enlightened” (Waxman’s book has an extensive treatment of Lord Elgin’s acquisition of the vast collection of Greek marbles in the British Museum, which was largely driven by a desire to “improve” the English artistic taste and an obsession with possessing beauty).

There is definitely some truth to the argument that a lot of art, if left in their original locations, might have been destroyed, either by poverty-induced (or corruption-induced) neglect or pollution, or by intentional violence — remember the Taliban effort to eradicate Buddhist art in Afghanistan just a few years ago? There is also a difference between amateur looting, which tends to damage, and scholarly looting, which tends to preserve. And what about the “legacy” that grows from having taken care of an object for decades or perhaps centuries? I find this kind of legacy more compelling than the incidental heritage of geography.

On the other hand, as Waxman points out, the looting of beautiful objects has not typically been motivated by any desire to “rescue” the works from any foreseeable harm, but from a desire to possess them. That many objects have been preserved from future disaster is often a matter of historical accident.

So what do we do now?