Archives for category: from the word

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Image from Make Peace, Build Community

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I first discovered author Nnedi Okorafor as I was skimming the science fiction shelf at the Lakewood Public Library a couple of months ago. I saw her name printed in bold letters on the spine of a yellow hardcover and stopped in my tracks. Nigerian sci-fi? I thought, I’m totally reading that. I grabbed it off the shelf without even bothering to read the jacket. That novel, Who Fears Death, was somewhere between science fiction and fantasy, and altogether gorgeous. It’s rare to find a book that deals with such dark themes without being cynical. Who Fears Death blew it away.

Later, I found out that Okorafor had also written a few young adult novels. If you know me, you understand that this made me CRAZY excited. I’m such a sucker for YA lit!

So I went back to the library and picked up Akata Witch. Now, in addition to having a passion for good writing (which I knew Okorafor would deliver), I also spend a LOT of time volunteering with middle school students. So when I read young adult fiction, I’m not only hoping to get sucked in, I’m hunting for books I can recommend. I’m looking for lessons to ease my young friends’ transition into adulthood. As you might guess, Akata Witch definitely delivers. Here are four important messages I gleaned from this (really great) novel.

1. Sexism, racism, and prejudice are alive and well in the world, but individuals can make a difference.

Main character Sunny is called the derogatory term akata by her classmates at school because although she has two Nigerian parents, she was born in the United States. Once she discovers her magical nature and enters into Leopard society, prejudice doesn’t simply disappear. Some look down on her for being a free agent, one without Leopard parents. Others don’t want to play soccer with her because she’s a girl. Even her friends bicker about which tribe or nation has the strongest juju. Those with magic haven’t necessarily grown out of their outdated prejudices. But Sunny, and others in her world, are able to make small dents in assumptions and injustice, just as in the real world.

2. Knowledge is its own reward.

Currency in the Leopard world is chittim, metal rods that appear whenever one has learned something important. Sometimes, chittim fall when you have worked a new kind of magic for the first time. Other times, they might come when you use the knowledge you have to ask a wise question. While Lamb (non-magical) money can be earned by cheating or stealing, a Leopard person can only become rich through knowledge and understanding.

It’s important to note that Okorafor makes the distinction between intelligence and character. While some seek knowledge for the good of all, others seek it for their own ends. While you can’t fool chittim into raining down on you through dishonesty, the knowledge you have gained is still a tool, which some might choose to use in dishonest ways.

3. The world will go on without you … but your life is still important.

This is a tough lesson for Sunny to swallow. She and her friends are regularly sent out into serious danger by their teachers and elders. They are not the first Leopard people to attempt to stop an evil from occurring. Others have died in the attempt. And if Sunny and her friends die, others will be sent after them and the world will spin on. No one is so privileged that this is not so. And yet … each person has the chance. To make a difference. To learn. To teach. To contribute to the world. Your death is simply one of those contributions. It’s a strange balance, one that Sunny finally comes to grip with as she stands to face mortality on her own terms.

4. Your imperfections are your gifts.

This stood out to me as one of the most important lessons in Akata Witch, simply because it’s rarely articulated in novels at all, much less young adult books. In Leopard society, individuals all have a natural ability. This ability is often closely tied to a trait that makes the person unusual or unique, often viewed by Lamb society as an imperfection. Sunny, an albino, can become invisible. Sugar Cream, who can turn into a snake, has severe S-shaped scoliosis. Imagine having parents like Orlu’s, who became very excited when they learned their son was dyslexic, because they knew he would have a wonderful and unique ability. Wouldn’t that change how you thought of your own worst faults?

While fantasizing about what my natural ability would be (of course I did this, wouldn’t you?), it suddenly occured to me that this is true in our world as well. While my ligament disorder hasn’t allowed me to work magic, it has given me spiritual powers. Because of the pain I deal with, I am more compassionate. Because of my inability to run, I am more patient. My physical limitations as a teen drove me to books, which in turn gave me a gift for the written language. (And there’s always the great party trick of being able to turn my hand 360 degrees!) No, we don’t live in a world where people with skin rashes can control the weather and those who are abnormally tall can read the future in the stars, but each of our weaknesses has the possibility of growing into a strength, if we let it.

So, Baha’i Publishing found out I’m a blogger, and sent me a copy of Abdu’l-Baha in America, by Robert Stockman. Of course, I’m not obligated to say nice things about it, but it’s definitely pertinent to what’s going on in the Baha’i community at the moment, so I thought I’d share some of my thoughts.

I’m not in a big Baha’i history phase right now. When I was living in Malawi, I went through about a year when I read the biographies of as many of the Hands of the Cause as I could get my hands on, but lately not so much. I’m significantly more likely to pick up a timely analysis of what’s happening in the world now, or activities that I’m engaged in: community development, or the environment, or education, say. But with the centenary of Abdu’l-Baha’s visit on my mind, I sat down to read Abdu’l-Baha in America anyway. I’m glad I did.

I was given The Promulgation of Universal Peace (a collection of Abdu’l-Baha’s public talks in the United States and Canada) as a graduation gift when I was 18, and started reading it straight through. I stopped about halfway through, because I found the themes to be repetitive. Abdu’l-Baha in America gave me the context I needed to appreciate this work. Each talk was given to a specific group of people, with a specific purpose. Where an everyday reader sees similarities between talks, a historian notices the differences between them. I’d never go through the trouble of tracking the development of an idea over a series of months, but Stockman has done it for me. It brings these old talks to life.

And it also connects these talks to my current experience. Abdu’l-Baha is an example of how to manage things I struggle with on a regular basis, like how to balance outreach into the community with the consolidation of those efforts, or building a sense of unity in a diverse neighborhood. Justice and equality for all races, sexes, and classes are emphasized with a degree of love and tact that I can only dream of developing, without shying away from the truth. If Abdu’l-Baha could praise Muhammad in churches and Jesus in synagogues while still maintaining an atmosphere of union and love, I can certainly find a way to share those truths I hold dear in any social space!

As always, Abdu’l-Baha’s life is the embodiment of the Covenent, one of the most unique features of the Baha’i Faith. The lack of sectarian divisions and strife didn’t just magically occur; it took work, endless work on the part of Abdu’l-Baha. It’s amazing to read about his efforts to create this foundation of unity to bring us the community that we have today.

To those readers who are not involved in or familiar with the Baha’i community, this is a book for the history buffs among you. It is a fascinating insight into a brief moment in American history, when religious ideas of all sorts spread and flourished. It looks at this period through a unique lens: the travels of one individual from Persia through the cities of North America. It is not, however, a story book. Those in search of a narrative would best be served by other choices.

In the Baha’i community, I highly recommend it as a complement to the study of Ruhi Book 8, for those who are involved  in planning observances in honor of Abdu’l-Baha’s visit, and to anyone wishing to understand the development of the Baha’i Faith in America. Local Spiritual Assemblies and Auxiliary Board Members and their assistants would also be well-served by the example of unity in our midst.

All in all,Abdu’l-Baha in America was readable, well-referenced, and gave me insights into my own work. I couldn’t have asked for more.

First, a note: I quit updating rather abruptly about a week ago. I hurt my wrist, and things like giving massage, typing, and buttering toast all cause varying degrees of pain. Naturally, I decided to save my hands for the things that pay the bills and keep me fed, but I’m going crazy enough that updating this blog seems to have slipped into the Necessary For My Health category without my noticing. Funny how that happens, isn’t it?

During my time off, I read the Hunger Games trilogy. And saw the movie. And thought a lot about it. And discussed it with others.

Here are some of my thoughts:

As a trilogy, these books are an important piece of anti-war literature for young adults. They deal with very pertinent issues like PTSD, substance abuse, and mental illness in soldiers and others who have been directly affected by large-scale violence. They directly address some of the moral and motivational ambiguities of war. They also focus on the institutional nature of war, and the role that the media plays in its propagation. It’s good stuff.

But you won’t get any of that just reading the first book.

I’ll get some flak for this, but on it’s own, the first book is worthless.

Not that it’s a bad book. It’s a good read, significantly better than the third book in some respects. But if the first book were all there were, I’d still be where I was two years ago, determined not to read it because it seemed to be a babyish, watered-down version of Battle Royale. I believe the author when she says she’d never heard of the book before writing The Hunger Games, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t comparable. Where Battle Royale was one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever read in my life (up there with Lolita, which was disturbing in a totally different way), The Hunger Games was, at most, amusing.

It was an interesting thought-experiment on the dangerous and seductive nature of reality television.

It takes Mockingjay to bring the message home.

After I finished all three books, I couldn’t help comparing it to another set of novels that explored the intersections between youth, innocence, the search for truth, and war: Ender’s Game and the books that followed. Card’s vision is a more hopeful one than Collins’, putting much more faith in the ability of individual human beings to influence society for the better, make peace with one another, and (perhaps most importantly) to heal. Ender quickly recovers from the childhood nightmares, moving on to a relatively well-adjusted life as a peacemaker, truth-teller, and (eventually) family man. Peeta (who strongly resembles Ender in charisma and his inherent nobility, if not in brains) and Katniss don’t make it through their futures so easily, and neither does their world.

I feel like this is a pretty natural extension of the times in which these books were written. In the 1980s, the anti-war message aimed at young people in the US was primarily, “They are just as good as we are, and we can talk things out.” In 2010, the message had shifted tone: “Ugh, we’re only going to make things worse if we invade.” The public acknowledgement of the massive amount of PTSD and mental illness among returning soldiers has changed the way we think about the cost of war. And the impotence of the protests that emerged before the US even entered Afghanistan or Iraq served as an inoculation against the sort of hope that might lead a Valentine or Peter to truly believe the voices of young individuals might make a difference in the affairs of those wielding political power.

So the edge of cynicism that so disturbs people about The Hunger Games trilogy makes sense, in context. The message is both for and of our time.

Now, are there problems with the novels, particularly Mockingjay? Of course. Having your main character fall unconscious so often, only to have major advancements in plot explained by other characters is pretty annoying. And my sister, a military officer, couldn’t stand the author’s lack of understanding of tactics. Funky one-off booby traps in residential neighborhoods is okay for an arena, but useless defense in an actual war. And it is a bit heavy-handed, even if I think it was necessary in order to make its point to those young readers who aren’t that used to reading between the lines.

The ending, for all people hated it, was exactly right, the only way it could have ended. Not perfect, not happy, not “fixed,” but livable. Everything is changed, but there’s enough hope to continue on.

I’ll be interested in how Mockingjay will affect the rising generation of anti-war activists and writers. I hope they learn to think long and hard about the complexities of institutionalized violence, and the ways in which individual transformation can (and cannot) instigate meaningful change. I’d like them to learn to play “Real or Not Real” in their everyday lives. And I hope they show compassion to those who have difficulty unraveling the knotty bits of truth in the world around them.

I hope that the odds will be ever in their favor.

And I hope they come up with some great new books. I’m already looking for my next engrossing read …

 

Know thou of a certainty that Love is the secret of God’s holy Dispensation, the manifestation of the All-Merciful, the fountain of spiritual outpourings. Love is heaven’s kindly light, the Holy Spirit’s eternal breath that vivifieth the human soul. Love is the cause of God’s revelation unto man, the vital bond inherent, in accordance with the divine creation, in the realities of things. Love is the one means that ensureth true felicity both in this world and the next. Love is the light that guideth in darkness, the living link that uniteth God with man, that assureth the progress of every illumined soul. Love is the most great law that ruleth this mighty and heavenly cycle, the unique power that bindeth together the divers elements of this material world, the supreme magnetic force that directeth the movements of the spheres in the celestial realms. Love revealeth with unfailing and limitless power the mysteries latent in the universe. Love is the spirit of life unto the adorned body of mankind, the establisher of true civilization in this mortal world, and the shedder of imperishable glory upon every high-aiming race and nation.

(Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 27)