THE HOUSE OF DISCARDED DREAMS – Ekaterina Sedia

Standard

Trying to escape her embarrassing immigrant mother, Vimbai moves into a dilapidated house in the dunes… and discovers that one of her new roommates has a pocket universe instead of hair, there’s a psychic energy baby living in the telephone wires, and her dead Zimbabwean grandmother is doing dishes in the kitchen. When the house gets lost at sea and creatures of African urban legends all but take it over, Vimbai turns to horseshoe crabs in the ocean to ask for their help in getting home to New Jersey.

This isn’t a book, I suspect, that too many typical genre fans would like since it shades into magic realism. It’s orders of magnitude better than any other novel I’ve read by Sedia, and much superior to Heart of Iron. But it’s also a book where the author writes of a non-dominant culture and experience not her own, so standard precautions apply. See Tricia Sullivan’s post about writing Double Vision and her many, many, many fails with regards to writing black women and Japanese people.

Having said that, we can’t ignore the context of Sedia being from a non-dominant culture and Sullivan being very much so: there’s a vast gulf of experiences between a Russian immigrant to the US and a white American born and bred in the UK who never needs to apply for a visa to travel much of anywhere, and whose passport will never make her a subject of scrutiny.

House centers the generational conflict between an African-American daughter with her Zimbabwean immigrant parents. It is home to this:

Vimbai’s mother still complained about the new [white] head of Africana Studies. “And he also said just the other day that Mugabe is the worst thing that ever happened to Zimbabwe. I told him that colonialism was really up there among the shitty things.”

“But you hate Mugabe,” Vimbai’s father said mildly. “Why are you defending him?”

“I’m not,” mother said. “I’m just sick and tired of hearing about African corruption. Sick and tired.”

[...]

One of the things she had learned from her mother was that one did not disparage one’s people or culture in front of the outsiders. It’s different for them, her mother said. They don’t know what it’s like, they have no sympathy, no kinship. They look and they criticize, they look for cracks, they look for proof of something they are already thinking in their hearts – that we are worse than them, that we should not be allowed to govern ourselves. So you argue and you don’t show weakness. And you don’t ever, ever agree with them if they speak poorly of your people. What if they are right, Vimbai had asked then. They are never right, her mother answered. They may appear to be right because of the words they use, but their hearts are wrong. To be right, you need to know, to understand, to have a kinship of spirit.

Which is something I doubt a dominant-culture writer could comprehend. Westerners have this deep defect: to have an opinion about everything, and to have them as loudly and obnoxiously as possible. Usually when it comes to having opinions about thirdworldia, westerners will behave like this and reveal themselves for the subhuman scum that they truly are. And I say–as this passage says–that westerners’ opinions are irrelevant; that they not having lived in it, being outsiders, are not to speak; that they should sew their mouths and be forever silent. Because when they open their mouths all that comes out is noise. Westerners don’t talk about our problems because they care those problems. They do it simply to confirm (to themselves) that they’re superior and live in wonderful fairylands where nothing bad ever, ever happens. And that we need them to save us–not that they’ll ever do anything, mind you; all they’ll do is make a face and turn up their noses and talk about the importance of freedom, civilization, and democracy. Projectile word vomit from the cushy position of armchair smugness.

(No, doing missionary work doesn’t count as “doing anything” except reenacting colonialism.)

Invertebrates, she said, the word that wondrously summed up all the fascinating transparent things that the tide left behind thrashing in tiny pools. I want to study invertebrates. Anything, she wanted to add, but your Africana Studies, anything but that continent you—both of you—carry inside; what was the point in ever leaving if you were going to bring it with you?

[...]

Vimbai felt embarrassed of her ignorant indifference toward these battles, of her dismissal of things that had anything at all to do with Africana Studies or African politics or Africa anything. She was an American, she used to tell herself, and it had nothing to do with her, the only person in her family who spoke English without an accent. It was her parents that carried Africa within them, who could not let it go and kept obsessing over it years and years after it became irrelevant to them—and after they became irrelevant to it, immigrants, deserters, people who left their country and were in turn left behind, as it moved on without them.

House engages closely with the matter of being an outsider–of belonging, not belonging; of how Vimbai doesn’t feel quite all the way American, of how she observes her housemate Maya (also African-American) and how “there was simply no polite way of asking Maya about the way she spoke, about her carefully cultivated non-regional accent, without sounding offensive.” Vimbai feels acute embarrassment that her mother wants to make everything about politics, but there are moments where she can’t help but share in her mother’s impatience, in not wanting to explain African literature to white kids who are only remotely and superficially interested, how after the umpteenth time the act of explaining becomes unbelievably tiring.

Then Vimbai finds a house in the dunes, and strange things–like her grandmother’s ghost showing up in her car–start happening. Oh, and then the house unmoors and drifts off to sea.

Her grandmother’s sight entered her own like a hand enters an empty glove. Vimbai had been hollow and now she had a center, a depth, a density—she felt three-dimensional and alive and aware. She focused her eyes and she could see every grain of sand in the bottom, every rock, every shrimp hiding in the crevices. She saw kelp forests and the silvering of a school of anchovies, the rapid quirk of a shad. On the bottom, hagfishes braided themselves into an incestuous, slithering nest of Gorgon’s hair in the empty cavity of a dead shark’s head, its gill arches protecting them like the barred windows of a jailhouse.

It’s beautifully written, wonderfully surreal, and readers who ask just why Vimbai and her housemates don’t react in gibbering shock miss the point (see: magic realism)–there’s a lot of inferior reading done to this book, not least of them complaints about how it’s too much “pretense at ‘serious real literature’”, which I suppose makes a certain kind of readers break into hives.

The titular discarded dreams concern a great many things, from Vimbai’s adolescent love (of which, sweet and sad), her uneasy acknowledgment of the “Africa within” and colonialism, the last of which is a central preoccupation: the horseshoe crabs and the soulless, insatiable medical vampires who drain them are a persistent metaphor for, then a literalization of colonialism. All of this is mediated through exquisite imagery and a textual heart that doesn’t care about conforming to expectations of plot and conflict–the pacing can be slow and introspective, but given the subject matter it would have to be. 

What I can’t speak for or about is whether the novel does a fair job of capturing the experience of being African-American, or whether it handles well African urban legends and folklore. But House is written with great compassion, empathy and never relents in its political confrontation. The one stumbling point is that African magic plays a significant part, in the form of Vimbai’s inadvertent “witch” spell and two undead grandmothers, and there’s a wilderness association with Maya’s canine creatures which may or may not express some part of her–but at the same time, Vimbai’s dream of Africa is not the savannah or the jungle but the city Harare, to which she and more strongly her mother has a complicated relationship. It rejects the (frequently bandied about and racist) vision of the entire continent as animalistic, corrupt, uncivilized. Not for nothing does Vimbai’s mother get angrier about colonialism than she does about Mugabe; not for nothing are the creeping horror in the dreams vampires that represent white colonial greed.

Very much recommended.

79 thoughts on “THE HOUSE OF DISCARDED DREAMS – Ekaterina Sedia

  1. The definition of “western” is elastic, which creates problems with general statements. Russia and Hellas are sometimes included in “western”, sometimes not, depending on how they fit a particular argument/agenda. In this era, Anglophone nations and cultures are dominant. As with all dominant cultures, regardless of time and place, they see little need to know anything beyond their borders in depth. They don’t have to — the rest of the world has to adjust to them until the next dominant nation/culture displaces them.

  2. I read this book. I loved this book. I passed it on to lesbian friends.

    A couple of points. Yeah, it’s magical realism, but I think it needs to be emphasized all the more, that it’s *good* magical realism. It’s very accessible (ignore the idiots on good reads), in large part because it’s so clearly written with the reader’s needs in mind. The writing is not too many steps below Murakami or Vonnegut–in a way, this is, like Heart of Iron, a YA novel, and represents what an ultra-high end YA could be like.

    Another, more minor point: I think your classical missionary work (i.e., not that horrid Tim Tebow in the Philippines, or Mormon missionary work) from way back when, did not reenact or reinforce colonialism. Missionaries of all faiths did good work, when the sole power granted of a stranger in strange lands lay in their conduct (and no co-religionists armies at their beck and call). In general, I think the true nature of the destructiveness of historical missionary work lie in the fact that they *enable* colonialism to follow. Missionaries used to pacify natives to their fates, etc, etc. Today, I suppose most of it is, exactly as you describe, a reenactment and demonstration of control and need.

    The odd thing about Westerner narratives is that there are tons of foreign policy books, you’d think aimed at professionals, which comes straight down to the natives can’t maintain their infrastructure, so they should allow us Westerners to do it for them, in exchange for some natural resources, of course. And these books, like, oh “Dragon in the Tropics” (about Chavez in Venezuela), essentially ignores the standard and thought out political economy of oil/energy industry, make awful comparisons, like Chavez’s Venezuela is comparable to Russia or the trans-Caucasus state of Georgia, and the undertone of it all, is that the Venezuelan oil industry is so neglected, because of such unsophisticated latin talent, that they should seek to privatize it and let foreign expertise fix it. There are tons of books like this, in a myriad of different fashions, and it’s a miracle Westerners don’t get hit with a club every time they open their mouths in thirdworldlandia.

    Book recc:
    G Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen. It’s a combination of Neville’s The Eight, and Stephenson’s Reamde, under a superstructure of Islamic!C.S. Lewis. Some overt literary/real recursiveness. A dash of light homophobia. Says alot of stuff, and there’s plenty chew, good and bad.

    • in a way, this is, like Heart of Iron, a YA novel, and represents what an ultra-high end YA could be like.

      Hmm, what makes you classify it that way?

  3. They’re both stories of personal growths, a fumbling first love, with true adulthood in sight, but not there. Thematically, are they really that different from novels like The Power of One? I think that, given the nature of what the nature of voracious teenage readers are like, that prose and stylistic techniques are not a real barrier to such people seeking out books like these and devouring them. Where once, they’d be reading Jean M Auel or Michener, or whatever came to hand in high school libraries that could be rather limited in what they offered in terms of fiction, today, they have vastly easier access to a wide selection of topic, styles, and nationalities. What they are going to go for, beyond that pathetic YA shelf full of books for idiots, are the books on the big boys and girls shelves, which still speaks to their lives and potential choices looming in their futures. So I tend to think of YA, real YA books as a broader characterization, as books that speak to their experiences. That would separate out certain power fantasy-type novels sheltering under the YA expectations of low quality writing. Trix are for kids, and all that. The reality is that most books that fall under the rubric of paranormal romance, but dumbed down, in a teenaged setting, are not necessarily quite for kids. There is a world of difference between the paranormal romance I read as a kid, like Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s The Silent Strength of Stones, as opposed to Meyer’s Twilight. Twilight is so Mormon, so dramatic in its self-centeredness, that what is it there that is part of a teenager’s emotional world? These people are so special that they aren’t a part of any world that isn’t their own–and that speaks to the needs of people who are already (or falsely think that they are) grown, woman. That isn’t so incredibly true of the paranormal novels by Jennifer Lynn Barnes today, let alone Hoffman, yesterday!

    • Unfortunately, YA is also a marketing term–and what it entails right now is “watered down not very good writing with mass market appeal,” which this book isn’t really. YA’s also now not always read by teenagers, but by thirty-plus readers who are looking for watered down writing with simplistic characterization.

      I don’t think classifying something as YA by subject matter/protagonist age is necessarily helpful.

  4. I confess I am a little dubious about excluding Greeks and Russians from “the West” – how narrowly are we defining Westerner now? Certainly there is some lingering WASPishness and specifically Western European bias, but in the U.S., at least, if you’re Greek or Russian, you’re still white.

      • It actually runs way deeper than just the attitudes of firstworlders. For us it’s one of the major self-identification questions. Have been for centuries. So you may encounter both answers well supported by consideration. Not sure if outsiders are ever aware of this.

      • I understand that fine, but you could make the same argument for pretty much any European country that’s poor and hasn’t been a colonial power in the past few centuries. And Russia (well, the USSR) was most certainly a colonial power and a dominant culture until recently. Actually, still is.

        I am not really arguing with your review; I’m sure Ekaterina Sedia is a fine writer and I’m tempted to read this book based on your review. I’m just not convinced that if you hadn’t been pleased by the book that you’d be so quick to give a pass to a white woman writing a black woman main character and using African culture and legends because she’s Russian and therefore not really from a “dominant culture” appropriating a POC culture.

        • Hmm, are you saying that I’ve put myself forward as an authority on who can write a black character/African culture and who can’t? Strange; I thought I said quite the opposite. It would be very worrying otherwise, and not something I get to decide.

          And, also, would you consider the average Eastern European country a “dominant culture” then? What’s your definition of dominant culture? If it is “has been imperialist,” then what’s Japan and China–are those also “dominant cultures” (and one of them even considered first-world while the other is very, very powerful)?

  5. From my POV, claiming that Russia is not a dominant culture whle the UK is seems surreal. Yes, at the moment they’re not on the level of the US in the pecking order, but not too long ago they were, and they’re still definitely a cut above the european powers (France, UK, Germany) in power and reach.

    Russia was (and arguably still is) a colonial power: It has joined in just as much as all the others in the carving up of the world. Yes, it has it’s own narratives of alienation, and a complicated relationship with Europe/The Others… Just like every other european country.

    But that’s just the thing isn’t it? Unless you’re at the very top, or the very bottom, you’re almost inevitbly going to end up as both the oppressor and the oppressed in some fashion.

      • Depends where you are. Definitely not in the publishing industry, where the dominant culture is Anglophone American/British.

        To put it VERY GENERICALLY: most writers from a dominant culture will write a main character from a nondominant culture as a catalyst for another, dominant-culture main character. So you will get novels where, say, an African character speaks in first person for most or all of the plot but the main point of the novel is the effect that this African character has on a white American/Briton’s life. If the African character has internal struggles of their own, they are either unknown to the reader or caused by other Africans, not by white Americans or Britons. At the end of the novel, the white American or British character usually will have undergone some sort of character change or moved on to another, better stage of life. The African character will be left in limbo, because his or her emotions and aspirations don’t matter to the plot once the white American/Brit has found a happy ending.

        Books where an African character is truly a protagonist are rare!

  6. “They are never right, her mother answered. They may appear to be right because of the words they use, but their hearts are wrong. To be right, you need to know, to understand, to have a kinship of spirit.”

    Wow. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it put so clearly before. I’m always worried about being accused of supporting behavior I detest just because I also detest smug prejudice from outsiders looking to prove themselves superior. I’ll definitely read this book based on that passage alone.

  7. I think the term should be reclaimed, or at least I would suggest to young readers that they should reclaim that label. Or create another one. Or create a subcategory of Easy Reading, or something. This is a book that I think many intelligent teenagers aged 15 or so would vastly appreciate, for a number of reasons. It deserves to be visibly identified as friendly to their interests, because the neither the title, nor the synopsis, really indicates that the book could be for them. So unless that person knew of Ekaterina Sedia from earlier books already read and enjoyed, they might miss out.

    As literature becomes ever more electronic, labels become ever more loose–and you see that big wave of self-published unmitigably terrible paranormal trash out there on Amazon for 99cts, don’t you? Publishers are doing less and less sorting of their own. There will be a time when books will all be crowdsourced hashtagged–as soon as there are some kind of moderators to stop the usual nonsense.

    • When I was a teen I read whatever, regardless of whether it had been deliberately aimed at my age group or not. So I read Judy Blume and Ursula K. LeGuin (whose Earthsea books were in the YA section), and Alexander Dumas, and Agatha Christie, and so on, who were in the “adult” section. And for the most part I preferred the “adult” stuff, mostly because there was a fad in the 70s for teen stories to be all about trouble with drugs and gangs, or “first love,” and I wasn’t interested in any of those things in real life (by which I mean they were slightly too close to real life for comfort — not that I took drugs or joined a gang or was interested in “love” but because I was bombarded by this stuff via the infotainment media 24/7 and my fiction reading was always aimed at finding something “better” than the grubby, sordid version of “reality” the media sold then and now).

      Anyway, I have always been suspicious of and ambivalent about the YA category. It’s all too often been used to manipulate and exploit its audience, like right now what is popular seems to be stories about special Mary Sue-ish characters who get the “exotic” beautiful guy after running a gauntlet of traditional female tests aimed at suppressing her instincts and altering her personality so she’ll be more dependent on a man.

  8. Heh, so I took the initiative of looking for other reviews of this book, given all the GoodRead prods. It was pretty interesting to me that in the first three Google pages, there was only one other long form review (The Erudite Ogre) that wasn’t completely inadequate. This book is under-read. ?:~(

    And I reread this one. It’s no London Review of Books, but, you know, you’re kinda good at this reviewing game. It’s not that long, and there’s a lot of non-book talk–but you get there, deliver the hits of prose, and write up really tight summaries of why this book is good in different ways. Kudos

  9. @next_friday
    >For us it’s one of the major self-identification questions. Have been for centuries. So you may >encounter both answers well supported by consideration. Not sure if outsiders are aware of this.
    FYI I’m aware of it, but I know Russians, which helps…

    • The East-vs.-West question in the Russian psyche used to be a well-known discussion in literary circles but I doubt the average YA reader has so much as looked at the spine of a Dostoyevsky novel in the bookstore.

  10. And, also, would you consider the average Eastern European country a “dominant culture” then? What’s your definition of dominant culture? If it is “has been imperialist,” then what’s Japan and China–are those also “dominant cultures” (and one of them even considered first-world)?

    What’s your definition? It seems awfully binary, pretty much limited to whoever is the ,most dominant global culture right now, i.e., the Anglo world. If only the US/UK/Canada/Australia is dominant, basically, and everyone else is not – or maybe adding the better-off Western European countries – well.

    Whereas yes, I think China is a dominant culture in its part of the world. Its neighbors and resident ethnic minorities would certainly agree, and China is definitely trying to join the First Worlders We-Can-Squash-Everyone-Else club.

    And Russia may have an ambiguous relationship with the West, but still. I squint hard at claims of Russians being “unprivileged” as a group.

    This is obviously a larger topic and not particularly relevant to this book review. I guess what I am arguing is that I think privilege and cultural dominance is relative — I can see how Anglo-Americans writing about Russians, say (or Greeks, or Italians, or Japanese) is problematic. But I don’t see why a Russian writing about African-Americans is less so. Being a Russian immigrant certainly grants a perspective that someone born and raised in the US won’t have (I have a number of close friends who are Russian immigrants, and no, that doesn’t mean I “get” what it’s like to be an immigrant), but those same immigrant friends of mine, who have gone through experiences I have not, still enjoy a lot of privilege here in the U.S. that a black person born and raised here doesn’t.

    Sedia may indeed be an empathic and nuanced writer, and her immigration experience probably informed that. But I suspect it has more to do with who she is as a person and a writer than her coming from a “non-dominant culture.”

    Incidentally, a rather different but related, non-genre book you might find interesting is Petropolis. Written by another Russian immigrant, and the main character is a mixed-race Russian immigrant.

    • Whereas yes, I think China is a dominant culture in its part of the world. Its neighbors and resident ethnic minorities would certainly agree, and China is definitely trying to join the First Worlders We-Can-Squash-Everyone-Else club.

      Hey, news: China wields political influence over my country. For yours, China exists only as a red scare/yellow peril entity. Oh, and a source of easy exotification, women to exploit, cheap labor and whatever else. You do not get to decry that China is bad and dominant and scary too. You really fucking don’t. What’s happening is that, I’m guessing, you don’t like that I’m prioritizing global dominance and putting criticism on the west, a paradigm of which you are a part and whose power–and ability to exploit the rest of the world (yes, including the super-scary China and Russia)–you benefit from; you forget that it’s not your place to say much of anything about China or Russia, in which case I’ll remind you: it’s not.

      You also don’t seem to want to distinguish dominance in a given country’s region versus global dominance–a perspective that must be incredibly convenient for a westerner. Keep going at it, and at some point you’ll also arrive at “Thailand is a dominant culture because it can exert dominance in certain specific ways over some of its neighbors.” Go the fuck on. How about Egypt and India, are those dominant cultures too?

      • But M., don’t you know that letting a white man from the U.S. define everything for you (and the whole world!) is how it’s done? Sigh~~~~~~

  11. Will have to give this a read. I think it’s interesting when you have a book like this or Alif Unseen -> I know people who felt they just couldn’t get into Alif Unseen knowing the author was a white convert to Islam from the West.

    I can understand the view, though I’d say it from what I read Alif seems like a good read.

    I do think politically China and Russia are at least powers that have interfered with other countries. They aren’t as dominant as the West, but I can’t see how they wouldn’t be, by at least some definition, colonialist?

    I’m also curious about rejection of Western intervention. I’ve seen people in various parts of the world rejecting Western assistance/influence, but I’ve also seen people who do seem to desire this intervention. I don’t have a definitive opinion on this, as I’ve seen the ignorant and arrogant who sneer as well as people who seem to genuinely want to help.

    Of course, one can always help with the many issues in their own Western borders, so there’s that issue as well.

    • I do think politically China and Russia are at least powers that have interfered with other countries. They aren’t as dominant as the West, but I can’t see how they wouldn’t be, by at least some definition, colonialist?

      Then by the power of magic, Japan and… er… pretty much any country ever that’s ever tried to invade another must be “dominant”? Including India and Thailand. This seems like a lot of “well–the west aren’t the only bad guys here!” deflection (not you specifically, but the couple of white western dudes who have been arguing that strongly).

      • Yeah, my point isn’t to make the illogical argument that someone also engaging in immoral activities makes someone else less immoral.

        I’m just thinking its better if all sins are brought into the light, not to excuse/evade, but to examine and ideally offer some change. Overly idealistic, but without some idea of a goal I find most concern is about reputation rather than any real political action. (In the US you see this with people deriding their privilege but not doing anything to change the game. If anything it nets them even more profit/exposure/etc.)

        • Bringing up China or whatever when the west is criticized is a typical derailing tactic, though, similar to how class is constantly thrown in to derail discussions about racism.

          Oh, and it’s especially ironic this discussion is happening in a post where I criticized the armchair smugness of westerners. Kind of proves the point, really.

  12. @acrackedmoon

    I love your site and since I came to know about you I visit you here and on twitter more and more often. You have a friggin’ sackful of good and intelligent (intellectual?) arguments on your side.

    (There’s a “but” hidden in all of that and knowing you, you are impatient for me to “voice” it, so you can skin me alive.)

    BUT (:))) You obviously don’t work in an area that deals with Chinese partners (I’m talking business partners) all the time. You are trying to drag the discussion onto the -exotic, racism, feminism- level and you would be perfectly correct, if all the day-to-day interaction with Asia (or, more precisely: China) was about … … … fantasy. It’s not.

    You try to draw a line from US imperialism to Chinese dominating “the west” (why is the west in quotation marks? I’m getting to that, if you can spare some more patience). The relation just isn’t right: there’s no longer such a thing as “the west”. There’s several different countries. They don’t compare. You mix up nationalism with ethnicity and racism and that just doesn’t work any longer. The only country to have extreme difficulty understanding this is the US – being the last truly imperial country and having missed out on world development for about 250 years.

    To many other countries, “west” in your vocabulary, China is a real political (=economical) power. Threatening, too – do you want to know the details? How they adapt law every now and then to lure investors into places like Shanghai by negating any tax demands only to withdraw such treaties as soon as some other occasion shows up? Not even the almighty US, global cops that they are, can get around this. And they don’t even try. Like the rest of the world, why should they, as long as $$$ is secure.

    None of all this has to do with fantasy. Or this book in particular. Or “exotic” or something. It’s pure economical survival and it’s fought with a completely different set of weapons that you think it is.

    • You are trying to drag the discussion onto the -exotic, racism, feminism- level and you would be perfectly correct, if all the day-to-day interaction with Asia (or, more precisely: China) was about … … … fantasy. It’s not.

      I am from Asia, and even a country that must shape some of its significant policies around “don’t piss off China” (the other ones, pointedly, around “don’t piss off the west”). In case that wasn’t clear, my country does business with china. This is my reality. Western oppression of Asia is also a reality. Western exploitation of Asia, even China specifically, is a reality. “The west” is still a hegemonic power.

      The relation just isn’t right: there’s no longer such a thing as “the west”. There’s several different countries.

      Tell the UN that, please. And, uh, the western media.

      To many other countries, “west” in your vocabulary, China is a real political (=economical) power. Threatening, too – do you want to know the details?

      Are you saying China has power over and is threatening western countries.

      Because uh.

      • Haaaaaa, I love how there’s the assumption that you ~*~*~*~obviously~*~*~*~ don’t work in an area with Chinese business partners, as if that were an important way to be knowledgeable about this issue. There’s also the implication that you’re naive, that your assertions regarding China’s global power relations are only valid when speaking about fiction, specifically the fantasy genre, and these silly little ideas about “race” and “exoticism” and “yellow peril” can only be taken seriously when you “drag” the conversation down to the level of books. They are fiction-specific things only. Apparently. Or something.

        But blobviously, in the REAL WORLD, economic survival is PURE! It thrusts forward, free from any of those silly little things called systems of oppression. I see how it is now. Yes, yes, I see it: CHINA IS UNIQUELY, SINGULARLY BAD. Oh NO! SAVE US. (◕ д ◕)

      • “I am from Asia, and even a country that must shape some of its significant policies around “don’t piss off China” (the other ones, pointedly, around “don’t piss off the west”).”

        Don’t most have to do both?

        • Which country has military bases all over the world, treating all (generally non-western, non-first world) countries as its colonies? Which country has been bombing the shit out of others, and sending drone strikes?

          Hint: not China.

        • “Which country has military bases all over the world, treating all (generally non-western, non-first world) countries as its colonies? Which country has been bombing the shit out of others, and sending drone strikes?

          Hint: not China.”

          By “most” I was refering to most of east/south-east Asian countries, not the world. As you said, China excercises influence over your country. Doesn’t the US too? (Which, uh, of course isn’t a good thing, either of them). Difference between being global and a regional power. Every country has to, in som way, form its policies around the US (and a to a somewhat lesser extent Europe & Russia). But it’s mainly China’s neighbours who also has to take China into account.

        • That’s my fucking point–that China doesn’t have global dominance (and is subjected to huge exploitation from the west, economic and political, before we even get into that niggling little thing called racism). Far more foreign policies worldwide, I suspect, are shaped around “don’t piss off the US” than “don’t piss off China.”

          Say what, I’ll accept the idea that China is scary when it establishes military bases all over the west.

        • “Say what, I’ll accept the idea that China is scary when it establishes military bases all over the west.”

          Sorry, never meant to imply that China is scary (at least not to the west, and definitly not on a global scale). Just thought it curious you made it an either/or, saying that Asian countries either had to suck up to China or the west.

        • Uh, that’s what I said: that some of our policies are based around “don’t piss off China” and the rest around “don’t piss off the west.”

        • “Uh, that’s what I said: that some of our policies are based around “don’t piss off China” and the rest around “don’t piss off the west.””

          I misread what you originally said.

  13. “By your definition, is China magically a dominant culture as well?”

    Compared to west africa? Hell yes.

    The way I view it, there is one hegemonic power (the United States of America) there are a couple of second-tier powers (China, Russia, France, Germany, Great Britain, with Japan, India and Brazil being slightly behind that group)

    “Tell the UN that, please. And, uh, the western media.”

    The UN who has two of it’s permanent security council seats reserved for China and Russia? (don’t get me wrong, there are serious issues with how the UN is structured, but this seems to be a particularly bizarre tangent

    “hen by the power of magic, Japan and… er… pretty much any country ever that’s ever tried to invade another must be “dominant”? ”

    Yes, if you are in a position to invade another country, it’s a good indication that you are dominant over it. (especially if you can do so successfully)

    Russians are not a colonized people: They are, by and large, colonizers. There’s no russian experience of subjugation even indirectly. (There are lots of failed invasions, of course, my country being responsible for a couple of them) At least not unless you go back to the mongols. (which while it kinda has an impact on russian culture and identity is kinda sorta out of the discussion here)

    Russians have the same relationship to colonialism that brits do: IE: They can describe it because that’s what they’ve been doing.

    And it’s not just pure military conquest either: Various russian polities have attempted to stamp their own brand of culture on their various subject peoples, just like France did.

    And yes, russians have a complicated relationship with “The West”. Not to put too fine a point on it, so does all european countries. There’s always this tension between the common “western culture” and whatever interpretation of the national myth is in vogue at the moment.

    If you by “The West” mean “The US”, your argument makes some sort of sense. It might even be if you include the white anglosphere (IE: Australia, Canada, New Zeeland, UK, US) but trying to claim that russia does not exert more power globally than say, the Netherlands (another former colonial power) culturally, militarily, politicaly, economically) is absurd.

    Russia has long been a part of the dominant paradigm (at least since ol’ Peter kicked us out of it) they’ve been a consistent rival for the top spot within said paradigm since at least Catherine.

    • “Tell the UN that, please. And, uh, the western media.”

      The UN who has two of it’s permanent security council seats reserved for China and Russia? (don’t get me wrong, there are serious issues with how the UN is structured, but this seems to be a particularly bizarre tangent

      Did you read what I replied to or… unless you believe those seats really somehow support the assertion “there is no such thing as the west”?

      Yes, if you are in a position to invade another country, it’s a good indication that you are dominant over it. (especially if you can do so successfully)

      Goodness, then nearly all countries are dominant, just like how “everyone’s a little bit racist.” Discussion done! No need to criticize global dominance ever again (“you’re just as bad to each other as the west has been to you”)! See, the west aren’t the only bad guys! Derailing accomplished.

      Are you that fucking stupid?

      • “Goodness, then nearly all countries are dominant, just like how “everyone’s a little bit racist.””

        Oppression olympics on a global scale, though I’m not sure that’s what Emil was trying to do. He just doesn’t like the idea of “the west” being seen as homogeneous. In fact, I don’t either, really. Europe and the US are becoming too divided. Not to mention how divided Europe/EU is (France and Germany wanted the arms ermbargo on China lifted, UK and some others didn’t, the US, in effect, got the final say due to European infighting). I’d rather the west be seen as US and Europe separately, though in practice that’s not always the case, heh. And to the rest of the world it hardly matters, the US is #1, Europe #2 (probably). Doesn’t make a lot of difference for most of the rest of the world whether they’re seen as the same or not.

        • He just doesn’t like the idea of “the west” being seen as homogeneous. In fact, I don’t either, really.

          Certainly the west doesn’t categorize the rest of the world homogenuously, like hmm… “the East.”

          Oh wait.

        • “Certainly the west doesn’t categorize the rest of the world homogenuously, like hmm… “the East.””

          Sure, it does. I try and avoid that personally, but yeah.

      • Actually, AFAIK Russia is a colonizing power. I know someone from Afghanistan who endured their presence in her country, and her family barely got out alive to the US.

        The question of their position on the Security Council, and what it means to the rest of the world, is probably best decided by examining their votes?

        I think the argument Emil makes is sound, I’m not sure why you think it’s so bad his intelligence must be questioned. Surely this is a subject worth discussing, with all our varied views/knowledge, for the sake of historical grounding? If only to provide information of why the argument is flawed?

        For example, it seems to me an argument that has Russia as part of some minority bloc would possibly include Poland, Ireland, Scotland? (I don’t have a problem with this.)

  14. “Oppression olympics on a global scale, though I’m not sure that’s what Emil was trying to do. He just doesn’t like the idea of “the west” being seen as homogeneous. In fact, I don’t either, really. Europe and the US are becoming too divided. Not to mention how divided Europe/EU is (France and Germany wanted the arms ermbargo on China lifted, UK and some others didn’t, the US, in effect, got the final say due to European infighting). I’d rather the west be seen as US and Europe separately, though in practice that’s not always the case, heh. And to the rest of the world it hardly matters, the US is #1, Europe #2 (probably). Doesn’t make a lot of difference for most of the rest of the world whether they’re seen as the same or not.”

    I honestly don’t think even “Europe” as a unified blob makes sense. Or rather, it makes sense in some cases, and in others not. (San Marino and the United Kingdom occupy very different spaces in the global hierarchy of power)

    “Goodness, then nearly all countries are dominant, just like how “everyone’s a little bit racist.” Discussion done! No need to criticize global dominance ever again (“you’re just as bad to each other as the west has been to you”)! See, the west aren’t the only bad guys! Derailing accomplished.

    Are you that fucking stupid?”

    The issue started when you compared a person from one second-rate power with one from another second-rate power. (IE: A brit and a russian) neither of them are citiziens of the current hegemon. (well, Sedia might be a naturalized citizen, I don’t know)

    I pointed out that Russia is just as much a colonial power as Britain, and that neither is really the dominant power any more. (while they’re both still significant player and certainly dominant visavi, various other cultures)

    I *don’t* think China currently qualifies in the same way as Russia does, by the way. While China has had it’s own expansionistic phases (and arguably, been way more successful at keeping them than the european powers, the only major loss being Mongolia, although the ROC still hasn’t acknowledged that) But China has also been subject to imperialism: Indirect and direct, in a way that Russia has not. Not to mention that russian imperialism is (and certainly was only a couple of decades ago) very much a global phenomenon: It was considered the equal of the USA for roughly 45 years after all, and retains this influence to a significant degree.

    Most of the history that makes up “The west” is shared by Russia; It built up a centralized state with the other european powers, it had nationalist revivals in the 19th century. It was a continous colonial power, competing with Britain for influence in Central Asia and China, among other places, and with Austria in the Balkans. It had it’s spell of totalitarian government and then became a global rival of the USA, with hands at least as dirty as them in the global struggle for domination, and it’s *still* without a doubt one of the most powerful nations on earth, militarily, culturally, poltiically and even economically. Russia too has bases around the world, remember? (For instance, a russian naval base is playing a vital role in the syrian civil war)

    If Russia is a dominant power, than my own country (Sweden) must certainly be.God knows fewer people are learning swedish than russian.

    • Russia wasn’t a colonial power in Africa, though. If you have an Anglophone literary world, then you’re going to get a lot of writers of British background who are probably going to write from a colonialist position. (Americans never strictly had colonies in Africa–unless you count Liberia. But Americans did steal a hell of a lot of people from Africa, so there’s that, and the cultural British heritage, and also the missionary tradition.)

      Of course, instead of fighting over who gets to write an African character, we could read some African literature by African authors, too.

  15. Oh, jesus christ, this is stupidity.

    1) The extent that Russia was *ever* a colonizing power, was in the former Ottoman territories during Catherine’s era, and to a much more limited extent in Siberia, Alaska, and the NW US/Canada coast. Moreover, before the post-WWII order, Russia then was very much like China today, a place to cheap agricultural commodities and low end manufacture. It was never truly a power power on the scale of Britain or France before Stalin. Even after, the Soviet Union had very limited policy tools to coerce any state beyond its borders. China has had a long, slow process in convincing small states from recognizing Taiwan. The US, on the other hand, can throw Iran out of the international banking system by preventing their access to S.W.I.F.T. The French could intervene in W African politics at will, either through Atreva, Total, and other energy businesses, but also under UN auspices in, say Ivory Coast politics, same as the US in Korea in the 1950s. Can the Chinese do that, Brazil, or even Japan? They set up regional associations, for mostly commercial interests, but they cannot even control what happens on their borders–think China’s flailing reactions when Vietnam depose the Khmer Rouge.

    2) On that note, does China really even *pretend* to advise countries? Or anything much beyond carrot and stick diplomacy? Is there much of a publishing effort to convince other countries of its superior economic and social superiority, other than farcical Confucian Institutes? Does Russia do so, these days? Black Betha’s comment was beyond ludicrous, if you can even find a coherent thread. Hegemony is fundamentally different than any neighboring country diplomatic dynamics. Everyone will do well to read the wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hegemony. Does Thailand respond to threat of a threat from China? Does China even have influence on naturalized Han Thailand citizenry? Even to the extent it does on Singapore or Cambodia? Could China more or less tell a foreign citizenry, as like US visávis Nicaragua in 1990, which leader to choose? If they had that kind of power, don’t you think Taiwan would already be assimilated, and that HK integration would already be in the past? Or that Thailand wouldn’t be part of the US’ set of alliances meant to constrain China’s options?

    3) If you read the wiki, it well you that Hegemony is dependent on whether the dominant country has “cultural hegemony”. Dependent on whether it can influence the social norms of the dominated culture such that it accepts norms that views it as right and proper that the hegemon has leadership. Again, do you think China or (non-Soviet) Russia ever had that kind of sway such that people in foreign countries fell in line accordingly? Even as much as Japan, never mind the UK, Netherlands, France, or the US? Virtually the only media that ever opposed US narratives to any degree were communist media, and while Soviet Russia produced much of it, like Solaris, this was a fairly international product by varying groups of people that may or may not look to the USSR. So much of it was about reaction to American power more than it was ever pro USSR.

    4) So when people pull this oppression olympics crap, it diverts quite a bit from the narratives in the review book here–acrackedmoon didn’t mention or clip this part, but for me, the most powerful interaction between Vimbai and her mother had to do with shoes. Of the necessity of resisting even this little bit of immiseration! This sort of thing was important for Sedia to express, and this resistance to imposed norms was something that was important in a grotesquely organic way to acrackedmoon for some really obvious reasons that could grasp her very body and her options regarding what she does with it. Few people really want to deal with such loosely tangent argumentation, because of its imbued disinterest and disrespect of anything about acrackedmoon/what she said, beyond the immediate spotlight.

    • The argument may be wrong, or made in ignorance of facts, but it doesn’t seem “stupid” to me. Perhaps referring to Russia as a colonial power is erroneous, but given what I’ve heard of their actions in Afghanistan there must be some similar term that applies. Imperialist may work.

      This debate may qualify under “oppression olympics”, but I don’t think it’s derailing since its addressing claims made in the original post. Better we become more educated through discussion IMHO. I dislike the idea that people simply not debate contentious and/or provocative claims – I’d rather be shown the error of my ways than hold my mouth but not change my views.

      Some of my most educational experiences here have come from the comment section after all, even/especially when I’ve been taken to task for problematic ideas I’ve held.

    • <3!

      As a history major, I was getting progressively more irritated and was scrolling down to the bottom just to say what you said but much less succinctly. Thank you.

  16. Regarding Russians and whiteness… I’d like to bring up certain theories regarding Irish-Americans… here’s an interesting article to get my point started –

    http://www.racismreview.com/blog/2010/03/17/irish-americans-racism-and-the-pursuit-of-whiteness/

    Basically, in the 19th century, Irish-Americans were seen as being people of color in the United States, and were treated with all the same racism that African-Americans, etc. were treated with. It was only by embracing that racism and becoming racist themselves that they were allowed within the ‘white’ fraternity and given white privilege.

    In a sense, this reminds me of Russians and Eastern Europeans in general today. They are easily one of the most maligned and demonized ethnic groups in the American media, right up there with any people of color. At the same time, there are many Russian-Americans, Polish-Americans, Czech-Americans, etc., who are accepted at face value as being ‘white’… on the condition that they ‘act white’ (in other words, be racist, vote, and not involve themselves in any serious activism).

    So on the one hand, we have racist neocons Zbigniew Brzezinski… on the other we have the human traffickers and hitmen we always see in the movies. To say that Russian people and Russian culture enjoy the same dominance as ‘western’ people and cultures would be incredibly ignorant.

    Oh, and regarding little guys like the Netherlands… they ARE the west. They are part of the exact same machine as the US and the UK, and they do absolutely everything that their Anglophone overlords tell them to, because it all contributes to their ability to live in their perfect little white, social-democratic fairyland. Russia isn’t even given that much.

    • I’m from the US -> I’ve never seen anyone display prejudice against someone who is Russian, nor have I seen any negative media against them. I have seen people lament the “browning of America”, targeting of African Americans and Latino Americans, as well as suggestions that South Asians and Middle Easterners are actually not intelligent and will ruin the gene pool.

      So I’d appreciate an example of what you’re talking about.

      • Oh boy, really? Watch any movies? Sixteen Candles (overshadowed by the horror that is Long Duck Dong, but all the references to “oily bohunks” and the fiance’s whole family). Or more recently, Taken, full of unsavory Eastern European characters out to get pretty American girls?
        It’s less prevalent but its definitely present in US culture.

        • Yes, really. And yes, I watch movies. (You’ll find I’m not one to be shamed, please simply present an argument.)

          Nothing you describe makes me think this is “right up there with any people of color.” It’s more akin to prejudices faced by, say, Italians. And…Sixteen Candles is rather old, no?

          I agree it isn’t a good thing, but this seems to fall under prejudice/bigotry and not institutionalized racism.

          Note that I’m also not saying all people of color bear the same cross. In fact, IIRC, on this very blog I’ve said its a disservice to not recognize a very specific, ongoing institutionalized…well, IMO *attack* on African Americans that taints not only views in the US but the views of those who have had limited to no interaction with them.

  17. @saajanpatel: “Actually, AFAIK Russia is a colonizing power. I know someone from Afghanistan who endured their presence in her country, and her family barely got out alive to the US.”

    I would agree on that count. Afghan-American perspectives on the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan were the beginning of my education on the effects of Soviet political ambition in that region.

    But in regards to the discussion about hegemony, it’s probably important to note that at the time when the USSR was at its height of power, it still had to contend with the presence of the US. Global dominance was split between two countries. As the world now stands, the US is the sole remaining superpower. That means the US very likely possesses political and cultural influence on a much greater scale than the USSR did in its prime.

    That said, perspectives are bound to differ in terms of what particular political body poses the greater threat, based on regional specifics. In my grandparents’ day, the PRC was the greatest threat to national security, and the US made for a pragmatic ally. Someone mentioned US intervention here, and I do agree that there are times when people will actively seek US assistance out of dire need. And that said, I think that the impulse to turn to the US for help also speaks to the position of power that the US holds in the world.

  18. Sedia’s book sounds great, and I fully intend to read it, but some of the comments hit a nerve.

    I won’t pretend to have a deep understanding of colonialism. Perhaps the racial component is an integral part of it, in which case, yes, what Darius Wilkins said is true. (“The extent that Russia was *ever* a colonizing power, was in the former Ottoman territories during Catherine’s era, and to a much more limited extent in Siberia, Alaska, and the NW US/Canada coast. ” – although I find it interesting that apparently you can be only a little bit of a colonising power, and if it was long enough ago, it doesn’t count.) But I’d say that political subjugation, trying to stamp out cultures you don’t like, and economical profiteering come pretty damn close to colonialism, even if they’re done against people of your own race – and they were all done both by Tsarist Russia (in Catherine’s era, even!) and by the USSR not that long ago.

    Are Russians portrayed stereotypically and unfairly in US media? Well, yes, won’t argue against that. Does this mean that Russia is not a world power? Only in a world where US media count more than the fact that so much of Central/Eastern European politics is structured around not pissing off Russia too much, or looking for protection against Russia. Asking “would you consider the average Eastern European country a “dominant culture” then?” is at best ignorant in this context, since it equates Russia with the same Eastern European countries that were under Russian control within living memory.

    (And yes, I’m old enough to remember the day when the last Russian soldiers finally left my country. I won’t say that this hasn’t coloured the tone of my comment.)

    PS. “Even after [Stalin], the Soviet Union had very limited policy tools to coerce any state beyond its borders.” Bwahahah. I guess the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 either didn’t happen, or at least wasn’t brutally crushed by the Soviet forces.

  19. “e extent that Russia was *ever* a colonizing power, was in the former Ottoman territories during Catherine’s era, and to a much more limited extent in Siberia, Alaska, and the NW US/Canada coast.”

    No, Russia was a colonizing expansionist power from the start, just like the US. (people have been pointing out the similariits for a long time)

    The czarist sphere of expansion would be eastern Europe (Poland, the baltics, Finland, balkans) central asia (what is today the ‘stans and right on down to Afghanistan) east-asia (Vladivostok is built on used to be chinese territory) and of course Alaska.

    Siberia of course is a huge tract of land (and it’s colonization pretty much exactly mirrors that of the amerian west, minus diseases) including reservations, forced migrations, etc.

    Russia had delegates at the Berlin Conference.

    “Moreover, before the post-WWII order, Russia then was very much like China today, a place to cheap agricultural commodities and low end manufacture. It was never truly a power power on the scale of Britain or France before Stalin.”

    Not really. It was clearly one of the Great Powers: Certainly moreso than Austria. While Russia’s industriaization handicap was showing effects by the late 19th century it didn’t really matter until then: Russian trooops were instrumental in propping up other regimes in 1848.

    Russia was at least on par with France.

    “Even after, the Soviet Union had very limited policy tools to coerce any state beyond its borders.”

    Limited to pretty much the same as the US ones: Eg. supporting friendy political movements, economic support, outright invasion… The USSR had global reach. (now I’m not saying the USSR was equal to the USA, the USA, after all, won, but it wsa certainly on a whole different level than Britain or France)

    “China has had a long, slow process in convincing small states from recognizing Taiwan. The US, on the other hand, can throw Iran out of the international banking system by preventing their access to S.W.I.F.T. The French could intervene in W African politics at will, either through Atreva, Total, and other energy businesses, but also under UN auspices in, say Ivory Coast politics, same as the US in Korea in the 1950s.”

    France can interevene under UN auspices on the same principles as the US could in Korea, yes: Namely that the other great powers abstain from their veto. The Suez crisis kind of proved that France and Britain could not play these kinds of games without US approval, though. (While the USSR obviously still could)

    Now, just so we’re clear: I don’t think China has the kind of global reach or power that Russia did. It was someone else who lumped China with Russia, not I. Nor has China had the history of being included in European institutions/politics. China has it’s own issues with it’s surrounding populations, it’s not a part of the european/western hegemony. Russia is.

    “C”an the Chinese do that, Brazil, or even Japan? They set up regional associations, for mostly commercial interests, but they cannot even control what happens on their borders–think China’s flailing reactions when Vietnam depose the Khmer Rouge.”

    Which, considering that Vietnam was a russian client, just aids my point :p

    “gain, do you think China or (non-Soviet) Russia ever had that kind of sway such that people in foreign countries fell in line accordingly? ”

    Again, I specifically put China in a lower tier (if you will) than Russia, but yes, Russia clearly acted in that way, especially in eastern Europe.

    And again, that definition more or less restricts hegemony to the US and US alone: Which makes a certain amount of sense. But that makes the original contention nonsensical (since both Russia and the UK are, well not the US)

    If you restrict hegemony to a single political entity, the US, (and presumably before that, the UK; although I don’t really think UK hegemony was comparable to US dito, the UK always had rivals and competitors, the US only ever really had the USSR) then your works: If you want to ascribe hegemoy to a something broader, “The West” or something similar, then I don’t think there’s really any (maningful) crteria that would exclude Russia but include say, The Netherlands.

    I think either definition can work for different circumstances and issues. (these kind of stuff is after all lenses for understanding/analysis)

  20. Fantasy is usually less well-received critically and less not-shitty than magic realism. Do you think that is inherent, or just the result of historical forces?

  21. OK look. Western Colonialism isn’t just war and expanding boundaries and making all your neighbors into puppets subject to your will. It’s more than that — it’s gone beyond that. It’s the colonizing of minds and, if you will, souls. It’s making it so that advertising agencies in Japan think nothing of using blond, white Americans in their ads. It’s making the Standard American Movie Plot, with all its tropes (Individual Alone Against The World, Violence Solves Everything, Cooperation Is For Redshirts, Never Give In No Matter How Much It Hurts You And Everyone Around You, etc.) standard in the film industries of other countries. It’s the idea that Western Thought is the basic and true way of human thought and all other systems are aberrations or cute routines “real” people can play with for a while until they get bored (like all those hippies who went to India and had gurus and then “grew up” and became Presbyterian lawyers). It’s making people on the other side of the globe uncomfortable in their own skins because the West, currently led by the USA, is everywhere they look.

    Russia isn’t doing this. China isn’t doing this. Or if they are, it’s not in any way that affects the entire population of the earth, but only the people within their near vicinity. It’s a matter of degree, and of reach, and of what exactly is being colonized. Sure, we don’t go around “conquering” people in the old way, with swords and guns, any more. (Though we still indulge in that from time to time, like we are currently in the Middle East.) We don’t have to. We have their hearts and minds. The guns and bombs are just what we keep in reserve to remind the world to keep on buying what we’re selling. When Russia and China are able to get that kind of power, then you can talk about them being “colonizers.”

  22. (NOTE: Comment that follows is not about the relative powers of different countries, but something else entirely. Apologies for changing the subject.)

    Can I just comment on something in the original post – specifically, ACM’s use of the word ‘Westerner’ here:

    “They are never right, her mother answered. They may appear to be right because of the words they use, but their hearts are wrong. To be right, you need to know, to understand, to have a kinship of spirit.

    Which is something I doubt a dominant-culture writer could comprehend. Westerners have this deep defect: to have an opinion about everything, and to have them as loudly and obnoxiously as possible…”

    There’s a quick elision here from ‘dominant-culture writer’ into ‘Westerner’. But hang on a minute, they’re not the same thing! Vimbai in the book, an African-American, IS a Westerner. As a Russian-American, so is Ekaterina Sedia. ‘Westerner’ surely encompasses anyone living in ‘the West’, many of whom are not part of the dominant culture themselves.

    It’s obvious what you meant – people (like me) who’ve grown up in the dominant Anglo-American culture and never known anything different. I’m not sure what a suitable shorter term for that is, but it’s narrower than ‘Westerners’. Frankly (though it’s still imprecise), you probably should have just used ‘white people’.

    Anyway, the book sounds good, so thanks for the recommendation…

    • As a Russian-American, so is Ekaterina Sedia. ‘Westerner’ surely encompasses anyone living in ‘the West’, many of whom are not part of the dominant culture themselves.

      Sedia is not American. As in she explicitly does not identify as American (not to mention that she isn’t treated as one, anyway).

      Jesus.

    • Are you saying that if I, a white American, moved to, say, Japan, I wouldn’t be a Westerner any more? Do you know what people mean when they say “the West,” “Western Culture,” “Western Civilization”? It’s not just where you live, it’s not like changing your address. FFS.

  23. I was wondering how/why this book review thread had a comment explosion. I think this is a weird conversation that is lacking a bit of nuance. We have multiple levels of privilege and oppression and all of these things converge on various axis that can be defined by the various -isms and even further in regards to region and -isms.

    Which makes this quote: “They are never right, her mother answered. They may appear to be right because of the words they use, but their hearts are wrong. To be right, you need to know, to understand, to have a kinship of spirit.”, hilariously ironic given the situation. I think it is this sentiment that encapsulates this discussion

    So here is what I’m hearing from ACM: China is a global power and a regional power. Russia is a global power and a regional power. Both of these places work on an axis of oppression in various ways that I can’t really speak to since I don’t know cultural specifics. However, in comparison to the “West”, they are not. They are exploited entities when it comes to the US specifically.

    But we are currently having a definition issue with a side of derailing. The essential question is “What is the West/global power/oppression in relation to other things? And why does that encapsulate the full meaning of true global power in light of China and Russia?” To which I would respond, “Why aren’t we saying that Iran is equally just as much of a global power?” It is definitely true that each of these countries are regional powers. They shape the area around them in profound ways. That is true. However, as I see it, the definition of a true global power is when your things becomes the things that all other things are graded against and found lacking. By which I mean, generally the US. And generally western Europe which does not include the Eastern Bloc, but mainly the US.

    But then, on the other hand, you have to consider what these powers are doing internal to these respective nations. I am almost positive that sweatshops aren’t a huge deal in places like western Europe, but they would be an issue in places like Russia (and the Eastern Bloc) or China or India. In this regard, the delineation is clear. Another example would probably be the European Union and their continual rejection of Turkey as a member. Mostly, that’s for a variety of reasons, but generally, US media and other sources see this as a problem of the fact that Turkey is a Muslim country.

    What I’m hearing from other people in opposition of ACM’s stance is a sense of white = the West/global power. Or because at some point in their history the country was a colonizing entity, they are clearly on par with the West…or some such. Or that the commenter is conflating regional power with global power. With that being said, why wouldn’t countries that existed in the Ottoman Empire be considered a powerful global entity? Why isn’t Iran not amongst the number but we are counting Russia? Russia is oppressive and the party elites wield power and are generally wealthy, but the social and economic inequality would seem to discount them from being on par with what would be considered the West. Again, I am really not discounting the immense sway that Russia and China have over its neighbors, but each of these places thinks about the US way more than we think about them, disregarding the hysterics of Republican whackjobs.

    Or, why wouldn’t we count Japan over China if we are looking at “back in the day situation”? They ravaged China and Korea. Or is it just modern times? In which case, sure Russia. But they suffered a precipitous fall in economic fortunes. They are undoubtedly a global entity, but none of their stuff is a measuring stick for anyone else’s things. Mitt Romeny was literally laughed at by numerous observers when he called Russian our [US] “number one geopolitical foe”. because it just isn’t true.

    I think a good way of looking at the issue is: is that country’s media being translated or is that a one-way street? This is a powerful tool in that it shapes the social perceptions of entire cultures. Seriously, no one is setting a story in exotic current-day New York that details mail order brides or prostitutes or talking about the exotic scents of burgers and hot dogs, which is the same thing as writing a story about how the cooking duck and it’s spices were “exotic” as detailed by generic Asian in Asialand. You can’t even find that kind of writing in period books set in the US. Wait…the mail order bride thing does happen in period romances set in the US, but the descriptions of women are wildly more respectful relative to the horrific things written about Asian or Russian mail order brides (still bad though).

    So, I wouldn’t say that we should toss in China or Russia in this particular discussion, but it is in a discussion…just not this one.

    • Which makes this quote: “They are never right, her mother answered. They may appear to be right because of the words they use, but their hearts are wrong. To be right, you need to know, to understand, to have a kinship of spirit.”, hilariously ironic given the situation. I think it is this sentiment that encapsulates this discussion

      Yes. To have read that passage and my reaction to it, and still derail as a lot of people here have, takes an incredible degree of obliviousness.

    • Exactly. It’s not as if ACM was erasing every effort of Russia or China to dominate other countries, just by saying they aren’t dominant the way the US and Western Europe is.

  24. Yeah, that is a bit ironic, isn’t it… oops, sorry. I wasn’t trying to derail, I’m well aware of derailing as a problematic phenomenon; but I guess that shows that even when you know about it, it’s a hard habit to break.

  25. I’m getting really pissed here. People, what is all this derailing about? Ah, but it’s dominant, oh, but Russian colonial past. Eh, but China!!! What the fuck is this? Are you trying to say that Sedia cannot possibly know what she’s writing about? That her twenty or so years of immigration is somehow invalidated because Russia has been dominating its neighbors? That living through the collapse of the USSR is pretty much equivalent to living through the US elections (oh, the thrill of the political struggle)?

    Where are you going with this?

  26. @saajanpatel: Good to see you around too. My grandparents on one side are from Taiwan; the other side is from mainland China. But I am 100% American Idiot.

    On the topic of prejudice against Eastern Europeans and Irish in the US, I think you do see it in media and entertainment, and historically it was institutionalized. It also appears to be regional. In some places like New York, those divisions may be more obvious than on the west coast. But institutionalized forms of racism look different now than they did in the past.

    For example, if you get stopped by a police officer in my state and issued a speeding ticket, the paperwork has 4 categories for race/ethnicity: White, Black, Hispanic, Asian. Someone who is Ukrainian is going to be categorized as White and entered into the system as White.

    I guess some of the conflict here is about the difference between regional dominance and global dominance. As it’s already been stated, China’s neighbors have to deal with both Chinese and Western influence in their affairs. Russia’s neighbors have to deal with both Russia and the West. Either which way, everyone has to deal with the West, even while being under the pressure of localized political forces.

    • Is there a reason they’d need to categorize your ethnicity for that? Strikes me as pretty odd. And, I guess, Middle Eastern people would be categorized as “white” as well.

      • The ticket includes a basic physical description in case the accused doesn’t show up for court and the judge issues a warrant for failure to appear. This could be obsolete if every law enforcement agency everywhere photographed everyone the issued summons too, and if the warrant databases allowed for upload of same, but that hasn’t happened yet.

        Collaterally, ethnicity stats are used to track whether racial profiling is going on, although I think the small number of very broad categories is distorting when used for this purpose.

  27. ^The reason for categorising the ethnicity of people stopped by police is to record the statistics. It might seem sinister, but when race/ethnicity can make a great difference, it’s worth knowing: e.g. in this country, we know from the statistics that black people are considerably more likely to be stopped and searched than those of other ethnic groups. (You might argue that recording ethnicity makes police officers more likely to be influenced by racial prejudices; but if they’re going to exhibit those prejudices *anyway*, I think it’s better to know about it.)

  28. @ACM: Like everyone else said, it’s for the physical description. And, yeah, ironically, Middle Eastern is categorized as “white.” Hispanic/Latino is also technically a subcategory of white according to other agencies. US Census has Middle Eastern is “Caucasian–other.”

    The US is a mess of law enforcement agencies, each with their own rules. TSA and Homeland Security are probably going to separately categorize people of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent, while local police may just mark them down as White and Asian, respectively.

  29. After reading this, I wonder how many westerners are really qualified to speak about privilege, race, and sex.

    Look, can we accept that yes, there is a notable amount of privilege in the West, that people of western countries have a habit of interfering with non-western countries.. That China is not the pinnacle of evil, is not largely worse (if at all) then the USA when it comes immoral behavior, scheming against other countries, as well as interfering with other regions, and has been interfered with by people from the West. And that no part of the world exceeds the West when it comes to racism, sexism, and interfering with other regions. Including China.

    Can any who argued against ACM westerners admit all that? And possibly admit your privilege? And possible racism and sexism?

    • Correction: Can any westerners (especially the one who brought up the Chinese in a post that what was blatantly yellow peril filled) who argued against ACM admit all that? And possibly admit your privilege? And possible racism and sexism?

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