Unbearable Being of Whiteness

10 Apr

So I did something recently that I’m not proud to say I haven’t done before: I actively researched the world of books. More specifically I read some reviews and poured over the thoughts of others. Inspired, I ordered in some of those good reads for myself – unknowing, anticipating their wonder, in they came.

Pym. Pym. Pym.

Such a pretty word don’t you think? I’d read a review of this indelibly strange new novel by author Mat Johnson in the New York Times Review of Books and it mentioned that the books protagonist, Chris Jaynes, wanted to research the pathology of how whiteness is constructed and in doing so perhaps learn how to dismantle it. I love the website Stuff White People Like because it so often painfully reflects the things I myself am reading, wearing, thinking, fearing – so I thought: this book might also show me myself.  That’s probably a really white thing to think.

Being from Aotearoa I’m not unaware of discrimination but ours comes in the form of a murky underbelly, of political correctness and attempted forgetfulness (we’re always wanting to ‘start fresh’ ignoring that it’s always easier to forget other peoples pain) where other countries are awash in blood – black blood to be specific.  The fact that slavery isn’t a dominant theme in New Zealand, at least not in its strident forms perfected elsewhere, means that we don’t often read books designed to open our minds about the still prevalent topic.
Pym is a satirical near science fiction type novel, Chris Jaynes is a professor who gets denied tenure (oh the pain) with a pervasive interest in slave narratives & first person accounts from that era who becomes obsessed with one in particular: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838) the only novel by Edgar Allen Poe. Now this book is real, it is in fact (from all accounts) a pretty terrible book, the only one Poe wrote, being himself more a magazinist (sic). It is about as racially ignorant and abhorrent as most white fiction of that era and suffers from some serious plot and technique issues (being the kindest way to put that).
What Chris is interested in however is Pym’s discovery, after being shipwrecked, mutinied and barely avoiding cannibalism, of the land of Tsala: an all black populated tropical island in the South Pole.
Sure it seems odd and yes, it is odd, but it’s also the perfect environment for a humorous look at the world’s obsession with whiteness. Set as it is largely in the South Pole, whiteness abounds, not only in the landscape but in the deepening psychosis of the plot that introduces farfetched characters with such low regard for the unordinary that it works. This isn’t magic realism it’s the grumbling acceptance of magical things in a logical way (whilst simultaneously acknowledging their total unlikelihood). Because of this we get to meet yeti’s at the same time as we’re treated to unique views on President Obama (just another black the people have enslaved to do their bidding), genealogical throw backs that make blacks more likely to keep jobs (for fear that leaving might result in a severe lashing), and a great and long running joke about Thomas Karvel (a pseudonym for the real life ‘mall artist’ Thomas Kinkade) who’s art is so white it seems to intimate (or wish) that black people don’t even exist.

Pym is as funny as it is engrossing, it’s as observant as it is irreverent and one of the books I’ve finished the quickest- mainly because, when I’d put it down, I kept thinking ‘oh hold on here, what on earth could possibly happen next? Just one more page’ after which the same refrain would come again. Further more it functions on so many levels that it’s only now beginning to slowly break open and trickle into my mind, posing as it does a series of questions I’d never normally think to ask myself.

The whole time I was reading Pym I had an anecdote floating around my head that a friend of mine had shared with me about her time touring Germany, Europe and America on the back of a very unlikely TV success (more successful overseas than here). She and her fellow actors had screaming hoards of fans that greeted them at every airport they visited; after landing and battling with crazed teens for a while they set up press conferences so that said teens could ask these young Kiwi actors (then aged around 16 years old) the various hysterical questions that came to mind. At one such convention in America my friend recalled being asked what the main difference was between America and New Zealand, my friend (an unforgivingly honest person of great intent but little tact) answered: “Well you’re a lot more racist in America.” The audience went silent. How dare she speak the truth and one so unbecoming? Read Pym people and look deeply into the psychosis and history of that crowd’s silence.

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