Illustration by Ethan Rilly from Slate
Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between The World and Me is a bleak and earnest rewriting of the black literary narrative. It is somewhere between a novella and a novel that takes form in a three part letter to his fifteen year old son. In this letter, Coates reflects on his experiences as an African American man in the United States of America. In this relatively short journey, Coates explores what being black means to him, what it has meant to elder generations, and what it might mean for his son. Monumental events in black history, including slavery, Gettysburg, the projects, black universities, twenty-first century representation of black beauty and police brutality are told from the perspective of a worried father. According to Michelle Alexander in “Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between The World and Me”, Coates was inspired by James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, thus Between The World and Me is a modern rewriting of Baldwin’s work. In bold red letters, Toni Morrison’s words are printed on the cover of the book; “This is required reading.” I second Morrison, and in this essay I will argue why it should be required literature, especially in academic curricula.
Political bodies of works are often criticized for bias or brainwashing. Politically speaking (or, well, writing), Between The World and Me is supercharged. Yet, there is something about Coates’s voice as a father that is so heartbreakingly enlightening, readers will universally connect to the heart of the story - if not the black experience. For example, Coates breaks the Angry Black Man/Woman trope by speaking from a position of honesty and humane fear. This is evident in parts of the book such as in page 137, when Coates admits that “[he has] never asked how [his] son became personally aware of the distance [between black people and white people in America …]. [He] doesn’t think [he wants] to know.”
According to Brent Staples in “The Racist Trope That Won’t Die”, black people were associated with apes to justify slavery. However, the racist trope lives on through black characters, especially men, who are often depicted as a “savage”, “brute” or “beast” (Staples) to justify current racial issues in the USA such as mass incarceration. There is, of course, importance in telling all stories, including the abusive but traumatized Macon Deads of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. On the other hand, Coates’s gentleness as a black father is still rarely represented in the media. Coates writes that “[he has] no desire to make [his son] “tough” or “street”, perhaps because any “toughness” [he] garnered came reluctantly.” (Coates 24). Through reading a character with such motivations, readers are be invited to reflect on their own generational trauma and question their methods of raising the next generation. Therefore, Coates’s reflectivity encourages his readers to prevent the cycle from continuing.
Furthermore, instead of pointing fingers, Coates uses the telling of specific personal experiences as a jumping-off point. Coates does not attack the reader, no matter their sociopolitical standpoint. Instead, Coates allows the reader to measure their own experiences against his with no judgement. If anything, Between The World and Me is an indoctrinating guide for those trying to understand the black experience. “It is important that I tell you their names, that you know that I have never achieved anything.” (50) Coates writes after listing his favorite black artists. Coates uses this device numerous times throughout the book as a way of curating his own black canon. Moreover, he numerously repeats the names of the victims of police brutality, including Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Sean Bell. The reclamation of black names and thinkers are an effort to reclaim the erasure of black lives and art.
In conclusion, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between The World and Me is less propaganda and more a handbook to African American suffering. Coates retells black history, spoken and unspoken, with a passion. With anger and hatred? Yes, only to a well-deserved capacity instead of the radical Angry Black trope. Coates writes with a compassion, a sense of hope and openness that is seldom associated with black stories. Coates’s novel is not a call to war, it is merely a father’s heartbreaking love letter to his son. This is why Between The World and Me should be required reading, as Morrison stated; Coates comes from a point of gentle fear and a feeling of urgency to teach his son about the dangerous horrors that await him as a black man. Coates taps into black power with a sense of understanding that invites everyone to empathize with how it feels to live with the constant threat that your body is not yours, and that your country has failed you as a citizen with basic rights. Perhaps this is the new-age indoctrination of systematic racism; sharing the humanity of pain rather than the accusatory micro-aggressions.
Alexander, Michelle. “Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between The World and Me”. The New York Times.
17 August 2015.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between The World and Me. Spiegel & Grau, 2015, New York.
Staples, Brent. “The Racist Trope That Won’t Die.” The New York Times. 17 June 2018.
I am here to share my wisdom with all of you, namely my ability to like everything so much that I have to get it out on a platform before it drives me to madness. I am honestly too excited to write much so let's just get started, shall we?
Street Food - Since watching the trailer, I knew I wanted to have a look at this new Netflix series, especially since they had an episode dedicated to Yogyakarta. To be real, I was procrastinating while doing an essay so instead of watching from the very beginning, I opted to just go ahead and watch the Jogja episode. As it turns out, none of them are connected. Man, let's start off with; she's a beaut. My father's a big fan of watching street food shows on TV and we used to always make fun of the Westerners who come to Asia and try to describe our food with their odd and seemingly unfitting Western descriptions. Also, watching them eat sambel is a darkly funny thing.
Street Food, however, does not follow that format. Instead, we learn about the food through the eyes of the local. The Jogja episode follows Mbah Sentinem, a 100 year old grandmother who makes jajanan pasar (market snacks). But more than that, this episode is a love story between Mbah Sentinem, her mother, the family she provides for, and her food. After watching it, it left a gnawing feeling of adoration for my culture at the depth of my stomach and it definitely made me cry. The food, the process, and all the actors in what makes food in Jogja delicious were wonderfully shot without that Orientalist, othering view that many "street food" shows have on TV.
On top of that, there is a huge stigma around being an active elderly in the Javanese culture, I've noticed. Once you reach a certain age, society tends to fuss over you and tell you to stay home, watch over the kids and take it easy. To watch Mbah Sentinem and all her vigor, all her love for life and hilarious humor made me so happy. It made me want to go back home and revisit all the places I went to as a child. I highly recommend.
Always Be My Maybe - What does it take to be featured on Sel's Menjelang Favorites? A tear-jerker, of course! Here's another one for the representation books that just gets it right: Ali Wong and Randall Park's new Netflix original film; Always Be My Maybe. Firstly, this movie is just downright funny. I love American humor but when they're a bit more on the mainstream, slapstick side, I tend to find it a bit too aggressive. I'm here for the subtle, more sarcastic and ironic humor of TV shows like Parks and Rec, Modern Family, etc. and this film really did it.
First of all, the soundtrack is great. I love me some 90s Hip Hop/R&B. Second of all, Ali Wong's acting style is just so good. There's something extra hilarious about watching her small frame waddle in all her gigantic heeled boots.
Second of all, this has got serious feminist undertones, y'all!!! And not in the roll-your-eyes-we-get-it kind of way. Wong's character, Sasha, is a female power house who is supportive of and supported by her queer best friend. There are so many "woke" jokes that made me actually laugh instead of nod as though I'm listening to a preacher. Sometimes it's just so fun to laugh and completely get it without having to get into it, you know?
On top of that, a lot of mainstream rom-coms that try to feature strong female leads often get it wrong. They always have to sacrifice something, always have to dim their ambition. I always have a lot of hope riding on that final decision (usually it's the Work vs. Boyfriend/Fame vs. Boyfriend trope). And for a second those whack films had me guessing. I was like: wow, what is Sasha going to choose? Maybe she is selfish and a workaholic! Plot twist: she ain't. There was absolutely nothing wrong with her ambition all along! And loved ones who don't support what you want to do (and they, of course, must be good for you) are weak! End of story.
Oh, also, can we mention but not talk about Keanu Reeves? I read in an interview that Keanu Reeves basically helped develop the Keanu Reeves character. What a wild time that was. As a person who watched John Wick 3, I advise Keanu Reeves to quit martial arts and do comedy full time. Man.
Tuca and Bertie - Alright, since I wrote mini heartfelt essays for the other ones, I'll keep this one short and sweet. Tuca and Bertie stars two comedic geniuses: Ali Wong (she is killing it this month!) and Tiffany Haddish - with the addition of the beautiful Steven Yeun, Awkwafina, and Nicole Byer (also Tessa Thompson, Laverne Cox, and many more amazing people in Hollywood). The show is such a gorgeous thing conceptually (they live in an animal version of New York) and visually, it's a cross between Adventure Time and BoJack Horseman. It has 100% on Rotten Tomatoes for good reason.
The show explores sexual harassment, female friendships, addiction, confidence, anxiety, family, female ambition, female anatomy, and other general adulting things in the most absurdist way possible. I love it. It's hilarious. Also that scene where Bertie has a mental breakdown in the grocery store is exactly what I experience every single time I go grocery shopping.
Booksmart - This film is It. It's Olivia Wilde's directorial debut and the cast is filled with beautiful people who wanted a chick flick about a female friendship that smashed the patriarchy. It is so incredibly funny, and still in that typical american way. At the same time, there's so much Gen Z humor that make it feel super fresh and like something we've never seen on screen before. It's honestly just hilarious and so well done. I felt like I was watching some of the people I, myself, know - but on a screen. The cast are also so sweet, I've been obsessed with watching their interviews. Also Oliva Wilde is kind of a directing genius? Ok cool.
YouTube - Bon Appétit has got it made, baby! Last summer, I was obsessed with watching their It's Alive show that stars who's-better-than-us-vinny Brad Leone and anything that Claire Saffitz does because of her super Virgo precision. I've opened my eyes since then, and have dabbled in the world of Chris, Carla, Andy, and Molly. Priya is growing on me. It's just such a great cooking channel that makes me want to cook and also doesn't make me fear cooking (which is a hard thing to do when you've got someone like me as an audience member). I still truly love It's Alive and would recommend it to those who are new to the BA Test Kitchen.
Aute Cuture by Rosalía - Thank God for Rosalía, huh? If you haven't listened to her El Mal Querer album, I recommend you start there. But Aute Cuture is such a summer bop and has big early Beyoncé vibes that I can't explain. It makes me want to smile fiercely as though I'm in a music video and go for a run at the same time. Also, she makes me genuinely want to learn Spanish just so I can sing along. I love that pop artists are moving back towards the deep, more meaningful lyrical tunes and I have to say Rosalía is at the front lines.
Heroine by Col3trane - Col3trane released an albuuuum. How blessed are we this summer, y'all? So blessed. Too blessed. He just has such a distinct voice and all of his beats are always so good - yet so different. His entire Tsarina album was genius and I have to say Heroine is a great follow up. My favorite track from the record right now is The Fruits (I mean, a collab with RAYE? Come on.)
Sucker Punch by Sigrid - Now that we've established that Rosalía is the Spanish pop princess, let's establish that Sigrid is the Norwegian pop bad ass. I love girl power and Sigrid packs a massive punch (aha! Get it?) She is so talented and after watching a live video of her performing Strangers, I realized just how powerful her voice is - which you wouldn't otherwise guess considering how soft and melodic (and almost yodel-y her voice is on her tracks). Her music makes me feel like I'm Robyn in a neo-neon-horror film about a teen pop star. My favorites from the record are Don't Kill My Vibe, Strangers, and Sucker Punch.
I've been reading a lot. Like, a lot a lot. But that's just because I'm taking an American Literature class so I thought I'd share my top 3 favs with you:
My new Extra necklace - This thing does so much. So so so much. It is so Leo and so Extra and I paid 6 whoopin' Euros for it due to a bargaining done right while I was on my Madrid trip!
Golden Gal - Another one from the Madrid-ian books. Wearing light tank tops during backpacking trips is such a breeze and I've been in love with that golden ribbon scrunchy whenever the sun's out.
Allen kleuren van de regenboog - Yes to a K3 reference and yes to showing some queer love! #HappyPride, to you all!
I didn't buy this (but I should have) - I found this faux fur coat in Madrid and I can't believe I let it stay there. It is everything I've ever wanted; it's Aunt Selena in a coat.
Lestari, Arnhem - One of my Oma's friends owns the restaurant and it is amazing. There are some good Indonesian restaurants but this one actually tastes like Indonesian food made by an Indonesian person. Every time I eat there, I always try something new and each dish is so good! I highly recommend the Mpek-Mpek, Soto Ayam, Soto Betawi, Kare Ikan.
Amazing Oriental, Dukenburg, Nijmegen - Okay, so let's take a moment of silence for the fact that most Asian stores in the Netherlands are called Tokos (Indonesian for "store") and Oriental. Heavy stuff. Anyway, I do recommend their Pisang Goreng and their bubble tea actually tastes like what bubble tea should taste like. It tastes like Chatime, y'all.
On the importance of representation in stories about humans.
Warning: I cried while writing this. Oh, and spoilers ahead.
In a little town in Eastern Netherlands, I sat in a cinema next to my cousin on a particularly stuffy afternoon. The country’s hottest heat wave yet was coming to its end but I felt as though I had just began living. I don’t believe I’m being dramatic. As a person who lives and breathes pop culture and mainstream media, Crazy Rich Asians meant a lot to me. Reading the book a few months before the film’s release was enough to get me giggling on my parents’ couch. As an Indonesian who grew up visiting Malay family friends in Singapore, went to a Chinese-oriented school throughout junior and half of senior high, and has a family who now lives in Hong Kong, I understood the book. I felt like the book understood me. The large family feuds, the secret societies of rich and beautiful people, the unbelievable food.
Needless to say, I was bouncing in my seat with an excited grin, waiting impatiently for the opening credits to end so I could finally sink my teeth in what was going to be the film I’d been waiting for my whole life. I have a lot of things to say about beautiful directing, characters, and representation. Unfortunately, in this day and age, no one truly has the energy to read through all of my thoughts. So, I shall share my favourite parts from the film that touched me the most in the hopes that it will show how Crazy Rich Asians is more than just a film about Asians.
Towards the beginning of the film, Rachel’s mother says to her in Mandarin that although Rachel looks Chinese, in her head and in her heart, she is American. It made me sink in my chair as I recall the countless talks my parents have given me about being a fourth culture kid—about taking the best parts of the cultures I come from and amalgamate them to create the best version of myself. I was never just Indonesian nor Dutch nor American. I am all of it and yet none of it at all. As the movie progresses, it becomes clear (much to Eleanor’s dismay) that Rachel is neither American nor Chinese. She’s simply Rachel. Her passions and ambitions are what define her, not the blend of cultures that raised her to be the ‘ABC’ (American Born Chinese) she is. Furthermore, Eleanor blatantly tells Rachel that she will never be enough for her son. I felt it. When you’re multiracial, you never feel like you’re enough. When I was with my family, I was too Westernized. When I’m with my European classmates, I feel too Indonesian or American. It’s a constant battle of feeling like you’re jumping from one identity to the next. Yet, Rachel never lets Eleanor’s comment gets to her. She doesn’t question her race or the way her mother raised her as an Immigrant in the US. Rachel unapologetically calls herself both, without worrying whether she’s enough of each side. Her identity is unfaltering and she is self-assured. Had I an exemplary character such as Rachel to look up to whilst growing up, the inner strUggle would have been much easier for me.
The next thing that tUgged at my multiracial heart strings was Araminta’s appearance at the airport. When I was younger, I used to envy those who looked more Eurocentric than me, which, naturally, considering the beauty standards in society (Western or not). I remember looking at the girls who wore leggings and sweatpants and Ugg boots and tank tops with their blonde messy buns. Indonesia was always too hot for sweatpants and Ugg boots (they were all I wanted when I visited Australia at the age of thirteen). My parents were always too Indonesian for me to be able to just wear a tank top in public. My hair is too thick to be piled on the top of my head without causing headaches in the long term. It was clear that even if I did conform to the way they dressed, I would never see myself as I saw the white girls who swarmed the airport. Because no matter how much I tried, the clothes and the hairstyles were meant for them. Made by them, modelled by them, and worn by them. Seeing Araminta, who has the same Eurasian wide nose, tan skin, and jet black hair as I do—wearing glasses at that, made my heart swell. It was such a small scene and barely dwelled on in the film, but I didn’t just see a pyjama-clad Araminta greeting Nick and Rachel with her balloons on that screen. For the first time, I saw myself on a silver screen.
One thing that struck me, and one thing that I always pay attention to when it comes to movies, is the soundtrack. When Rachel arrives in Singapore, there is a vibrant montage of her taking in her new surroundings as classic Chinese tracks from the mid-twentieth century plays in the background. It’s reminiscent of the romanticism frequently featured in American film about Europe; the almost nostalgic blend of history, wonder, and romance. It’s what I felt when watching everything from Lizzie McGuire: The Movie to Call Me By Your Name. It made me realise that I had never viewed my own surroundings with the same awe while I was growing up. Crazy Rich Asians shows us that we should be in awe of cities, countries, and continent That our homes have just as much history. That we should be proud of it and the love it has to offer. The best part? the film does it beautifully without orientalising Singapore (or Asia) for one second.
The scene that really brought me to tears, however, was Araminta’s wedding. I had never been one to cry during a wedding scene. I always felt detached from the white churches, walks down aisles, and the iconic “I now pronounce you husband and wife, you may kiss the bride”. As a Moslem-raised Javanese, I grew up watching my aunts, uncles, and cousins kneeling next to their partners in a mosque. The wedding pictures embedded in my earliest memory was of my mother in a kebaya, with traditional Javanese makeup across her forehead, covered in heavy golden jewellery and fresh flowers. As a young child surrounded by images of the Western White Wedding, I refused to imagine myself having the traditional wedding the women who came before me had. Now that I’m older, I realise how horribly brainwashed I had been. And that’s not to say that Indonesian culture doesn’t have its own horrible brainwashing mechanics—particularly regarding women and marriages. However, seeing Araminta with her bare golden feet, walking down an aisle that looks like something straight out of my fondest memories of staying at my grandma’s home in Bali, with Kina Grannis’s acoustic rendition of one of my grandfather’s favourite love songs, simply took my breath away. When the guitar stops playing to welcome total silence as Araminta’s foot hits the water, I bit back a choked sob. I was more than surprised at my own emotional reaction. Wedding scenes never got to me, but I realised that it’s because they never truly connected with me.
There are many other heart-wrenching scenes that stuck with me. Nick speaking in Bahasa Indonesia to order saté from a street vendor. The view of the Marina Bay Sands hotel I used to walk around, admiring from afar. Seeing Mateo from Superstore play Oliver, a gay Asian who is not cast away or disowned by his very traditional family. The lines in Mandarin I can pick up from years of classes I received in school. Nick and his family fondly reminiscing as they made dumplings together. Astrid, who instead of begging her unhappy husband to stay with her as she did in the book, firmly states that it is not her “responsibility to make (him) feel like a man”. Fiona, who sassily rejects Eddie’s horrible attitude instead of receding to a timid demeanour as she did in the books. Rachel’s mother, who is a successful immigrant and single-mother after fleeing from her abusive husband. Her unwavering bond with Rachel.
As a conclusion, I’ll discuss the million dollar question: is the film better than the book? Well, it’s different. The book, I think, is as accurate as a representation of the Chinese diaspora can be. There are crude details left out of the film, most likely for rating reasons, that perfectly encapsulate both the drama and the vocabulary I’ve heard and encountered while growing up. The film, however, is what Love, Simon (which I highly recommend) is for gay people. It’s the ideal outcome. Rachel and Nick healthily communicates before the whole ordeal blows up, Rachel doesn’t attack her mother after she finds out about her father, the female characters are all strong and refuse to have their lives dictated by their husbands.
Either way, both stories consist of dramatic tales from a family so rich, logic says it should be an unreachable dream the middle class can fantasise about and buy into. Yet, I have never felt more connected to a story in my entire life. That’s because Crazy Rich Asians isn’t (just) an Asian Great Gatsby with unrealistic frivolity. It’s about family, identity, and love. That’s why I believe that despite it being an Asian story, Crazy Rich Asians will connect with everyone. Asian or not. Representation is very hard to explain to people who have been represented their whole lives (to the people who got to wear their blonde hair in top knots and stuff their pale feet into Ugg boots). When you have seen your identity defined time and time again through multidimensional, multifaceted characters, your identity would be just as unwavering as Rachel’s. Like every other story out there that features white leads, Crazy Rich Asians is a story about humans. But when you grow up watching human stories with humans that don’t look like you, you question your worth. Are you thin enough, tall enough, light-skinned enough, slender-nosed enough, big-eyed enough? Are you white enough to find the love and happiness the characters you grew up watching did? As an adult, I know now that I don’t have to be any of those things to find love and happiness, even though many of my insecurities still stem from that. But as a child, how I wish I had something like Crazy Rich Asians to show me that I was enough.
A few months ago, I woke up in the Netherlands to news that there was a bombing in Surabaya. During the rest of the day, I constantly checked online to see if there were any updates. I found out that it was a family of suicide bombers, and that they were indeed terrorists. It was the first time I wasn't home during a monumental event. No one else seemed to know what was happening, and I felt very frustrated. I spent that afternoon sitting alone on campus, soaking up the sun and writing this poem. I hope you find solace in my words.
Surabaya, 1743 (2018)
It's everywhere and no where at the same time
If we can’t see it, how are we supposed to fight?
My grandfather was born in Surabaya,
but he lives in a small town twenty minutes away.
My best friend from home went to Church of Santa Maria,
but she’s in school waiting for her diploma.
Went online because my news is filtered media;
they say the terrorists had been to Syria -
as if that could explain the hysteria.
A little girl at the young age of nine.
Hair as dark as mine.
Eyes as hopeful as mine.
The same potential as mine.
But tell me why
she has to die
with a bomb strapped to her torso,
while i sit in a class listening to my professors?
We talk about terrorism in class
as if its not here,
something Other to fear.
But terrorism is not here or there,
it is not anywhere but within ourselves.
How can we blame someone else
when we are the ones murdering our kids;
the one’s we raised, bathed, and kissed?
We taught them how to think.
So how can we blame them
When they are willing to kill without so much as a blink?
Fear is easy when you can blame it on terror.
But what’s it gonna take for us to look in the mirror?
Life is a lottery
I have undeservingly won.
Kamu tidak sendiri
(You are not alone)
Kami tidak takut
(we are not scared)
Teror di Surabaya
(Terror in Surabaya)
Teror di rumah kita
(Terror in our homes)
Teror di dalam jiwa
(Terror in our souls)
Crying is not an easy thing to put out there. A socially traditional feminine trait, we have been shamed into suppressing emotions that aren't positive or 'happy'. Well, I say screw it. Here's a gigantic screenshot of my splotchy, bloated, crying face. Why am I crying you may ask? Well, my new vlog pretty much explains it all.
Why the Women's March in Jakarta is an important step forward for the Indonesian society.
Perempuan bersatu? Tak bisa dikalahkan!
Perempuan bergerak? Tak bisa dihentikan!
Speaking up on the privilege to grow in our society.
Rupi Kaur has been a writer that I've constantly looked to during troubling times. Many of her poems that discuss growth as a result of pain truly resonate with me, "to the reader" in particular (read below). As an able bodied, heterosexual, cisgendered, and fortunate person in society, I must constantly check my privilege. Even when it comes to growth. How ridiculous is it that our society and its leaders turn growth, a human process of evolution, into a privilege?
A guide to loving your natural fuzz—or bush—or forest—or jungle. You get the picture.
I’m mostly Indonesian and Dutch, but I am part Arab from my maternal grandfather. In case you didn’t know what state Arab’s body hair is in: it’s “a lot”. I’ve got hair on my knuckles, my arms, the back of my neck, my back, my arm pit, my legs, my face (cheeks, moustache, between the brows, below the brows, temples, forehead, above the brows, chin, jaw), i’ve even got extended sideburns. Yeah, I get thick brows, hair, and long eyelashes, but I’ve got hair in every place society says I shouldn’t.
© Selena Soemakno. All rights served unless stated otherwise.