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.
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.
On a particularly chilly/sunny day, my friend, Karla, and I decided to hit up a place in the city for dinner. Karla, who works with lists as much as I do, keeps an ever-growing list of food spots in town she wants to try — and lucky for us, Fika was one of them. Located in a section of the city that my brain hasn’t particularly grown acquainted to, I was a bit apprehensive, so we both decided to look it up on Google Maps and let the app guide us. The restaurant/cafe is located towards the end of its street, right across a cute looking bakery (which could be the star of the next blog post).
I ordered the Gerookte Noorse Zalm (herbed cream cheese, cucumber, and smoked salmon) and Buffelmozzarella (cherry tomatoes, pesto, mozzarella, and greens). I highly recommend both of them. I also ordered a slice of Red Velvet cake to share with Karla, but compared to Union’s Red Velvet cheesecakes (if you’re Indonesian, then you’ll know), Fika’s cake was mediocre at best.
So, overall impression: Fika is incredibly cozy and it's a cute little spot if you're looking for a (cold) dinner. I'd recommend Fika as more of a lunch joint, and it would be a cute little nook to have a reunion with your fashionable friends at. Unfortunately I'd have to have known way more people than I actually do, so that's not possible. For now I will settle for revisiting Fika with Karla and possibly other friends for a chill day out.
Pro tip: if you're in Jakarta, and you'd like to try this delicacy from "The Kingdom of Denmark" (according to Google), I recommend the Smorrebrod at Gandaria City. It's a little nook near the movie theatre on the top floor. It's super cheesy and probably bad for you if you're lactose intolerant (which I'm 80% sure I am), but it's worth torturing your stomach over. Highly recommend.
Did you like my review of Fika? Will you be adding it to your version of Karla and I's extensive list? Do you have any other cafe/restaurant/food joint you'd like me to review? What is the purpose of human existence? Cool thanks for reading bye!
The second I saw that Luce Besson's Fantasy/Sci Fi, Valerian and The City of A Thousand Planets, was playing in theatres, I immediately convinced my entire family to watch it with me out of pure excitement. Prior to watching the movie, I had only seen the trailer and hadn't read any reviews. I vaguely remember the plot of the movie from the trailer—something about a human named Valerian who lives in outer space and needs to save the galaxy, or something. I thought it was just my horrible memory. After watching the movie, I realize that the plot was just weak in general
Before 99 Days, it had been a while since I picked up a book and read more than a few pages. Prior to this 366-paged read, I was buried in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and The Catcher in The Rye, which was 6 months ago. Cotugno’s straightforward read eased me right into that world of living another life through words on bound paper. Don’t be fooled, although it is an easy read, it’s no where near simple. Without spoiling anything, the story is about Molly Barlow, who comes home for her pre-college summer after finishing senior year at a boarding school. She sent herself away after her town finds out about her affair with her ex boyfriend’s brother all because her mother wrote a book and explicitly said in People’s magazine that it was inspired by her daughter, Molly. The people of Molly’s small town found out and hasn’t stopped hating her ever since.
As a professional moody lady and cookie lover, I think it's a must for me to blog about these delicious home-made Moody Cookies. If you're in the look out for a little snack that will cure your sweet tooth and fill you up at the same time, or perhaps a lovely edible gift for your Valentine, Google no further. I'm willing to bet that no Moody Cookie will disappoint.
Beauty Priced Right. Beauty for a Cause. Beauty by & for Locals.
Ever since I dipped my toes in the world of local Indonesian products, I sat in anticipation with one wide-opened eye, on the look out for a new local brand I could try. Mad For Makeup caught my eye during a giveaway they were holding for inspiring women so that they could get their new Better Oval Brushes reviewed. Unfortunately, I did not win the giveaway. Although, they were kind enough to reach out and told me that they would still value my honest opinion, if/when I post them. So, here's what I've got to say about these brushes:
While on my mini yogi-vegan retreat that I had with my dad (read about it here!), I visited the most talked about vegan/organic/vegetarian restaurants and cafes near my hotel. Out of all coconut-based, vegetables, and shoeless restaurants and cafes I visited, I curated a yummy and healthy 3-meal vegan plan for you if you're ever visiting Ubud:
The retreat of your yogi dreams.
On a supposedly peaceful Thursday (17th of November) morning, my dad woke me up and asked me to go to Ubud with him on a 3 day long yoga retreat. Naturally, I said no since I was on the last few days of my 10 day break before my two final IB papers for Business Management. He was persistent, though. He kept going in and out of my room, entering with a new angle of persuasion, but to no avail. That is until I went on Snapchat and saw Cosmopolitan's new horoscopes for the week. Now, I'm quite difficult to convince, and although I have quirky little rituals I do to convince myself of certain things, I'm always conscious that they're only superstitions that calm my anxiety. However, Cosmpolitan's horoscopes had been correct 3 weeks in a row prior to this one. So, when I saw Cosmpolitan suggest that I do some spiritual activities, actually stating "like yoga", I was game. I barged in to my dad's room explaining that my horoscope told me to go and my dad called my mom to get the tickets right after laughing at her somewhat ridiculous daughter.
Skin care is something that I feel very passionate about. I've had acne-prone skin since I hit puberty and I've been struggling with moisturising without going overboard ever since. Luckily, after a few years, I finally feel like I've curated a skin care routine that does the job for my skin aka fights it until it finally allows me to be happy. Sure, I still have bad days, but these products make them a little less horrendous.
© Selena Soemakno. All rights served unless stated otherwise.