Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

16 JULY, 2012

Green Card Stories: A Visual Catalog of Immigrants’ Triumphs and Tribulations

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Poignant portrait of a system caught between hope and despair.

Having spent a good portion of my adult life wrangling the nine circles of my very own immigration hell, I feel a profound personal investment in the immigration debates that have swelled to particularly prodigious proportions around this year’s election. Green Card Stories (public library) tells the heartening, and often dramatic, tales of fifty immigrants who recently attained their American residency or citizenship, accompanied by powerful profiles by journalist Saundra Amrhein and evocative portraits by documentary photographer Ariana Lindquist. Created in collaboration with acclaimed immigration lawyers and scholars Laura Danielson and Stephen Yale-Loehr, the project is in some ways a beautiful celebration of the triumph of hope embedded in the promise of the American Dream, and in others a poignant glimpse of a brutal system of struggle that can, if allowed to, eat away at one’s deepest sense of dignity.

At its heart, however, the project aims straight for the bigoted misconceptions that immigrants are somehow less hard-working and passionate and full of potential than “real Americans,” revealing instead the remarkable kaleidoscope of human life and purpose in those who have come to share their gifts with America. Humble yet proud, the voices in these stories — of artists, of scientists, of entrepreneurs, of dancers — bespeak a simple truth about place and personhood: Who you are and what you have to contribute to society cannot, nor should it, ever be reduced to or measured by a few legal checkboxes, a set of biometric data, and a passport.

Saah Quigee escaped Liberia with bodily and emotional scars from torture and beatings at the hands of rebel and government forces during his native country’s civil war. On a student visa, he moved to the United States and obtained a master’s degree at Cornell University. He and his family now live in New York, where Saah, a U.S. citizen, is a supervisor at Cornell’s Africana studies library.

Image courtesy Ariana Lindquist

When Rino Nakasone first saw Michael Jackson on TV at her home in Okinawa, Japan, she was transfixed. An avid dancer, she studied his moves until she could imitate him perfectly. In 1999, she moved to California to chase her dream of becoming a professional dancer. Rino has since performed with Gwen Stefani, Christina Aguilera and Janet Jackson.

Image courtesy Ariana Lindquist

Thupten Lama was a Tibetan teacher living for decades in exile in India. When mobs attacked his home there because of his religious beliefs, he moved to Minnesota, where he obtained political asylum. Today, Thupten Lama holds Buddhism classes for Americans as a newly naturalized U.S. citizen.

Image courtesy Ariana Lindquist

Nelly Boyette made an odd pair with husband, Jeff. She was an undocumented immigrant from Peru with a mind for business. He was a Florida native who worked hard and carried a radio with a bumper sticker advising foreigners to speak English. After the two met at a flea market where they both worked and fell in love, they didn’t realize the uphill battle they faced convincing immigration authorities that their relationship was real.

Image courtesy Ariana Lindquist

For years Charles Nyaga dreamed of moving to the United States from Kenya for graduate school. His dreams seemed to come true when he won the diversity lottery and appeared close to getting a green card while pursuing a divinity degree near Atlanta. But after immigration officials failed to process his application in time, his faith would be put to the test during a decade-long court battle that nearly ended in detention and deportation.

Image courtesy Ariana Lindquist

Farah Bala was raised by a single mother in India, where divorce was taboo. She immersed herself in the world of theater, began acting in school plays, and eventually won a scholarship to study theater at Sarah Lawrence College in New York in 2001. Farah has gone on to become a critically acclaimed actor and drama therapy instructor.

Image courtesy Ariana Lindquist

Randolph Sealey, brought up in a Brooklyn public housing high-rise apartment, felt just as American as his classmates when he learned he was an undocumented immigrant. His dreams of becoming a doctor seemed dashed. As he studied on private scholarships, his family took a risky gamble and turned him into immigration authorities. A judge cancelled his deportation and he was granted permanent residence; today he is an orthopedic surgeon in Connecticut.

Image courtesy Ariana Lindquist

Susan Delvalle was steeped in a business management career in Curaçao, a Caribbean island in the Dutch Antilles. But her love of the arts intersected with her business background. The two merged in New York, where she grew enamored with El Museo del Barrio and helped spearhead a major fundraising campaign that led to an overhaul of the museum near East Harlem, establishing her as a key player along New York’s Museum Mile.

Image courtesy Ariana Lindquist

Soumaya Khalifa, born in Egypt, longed to share the rich complexities of her Muslim religion and background with fellow Americans of different faiths. But she never imagined her first experience doing so would be after the horrific events of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Today her Islamic Speakers Bureau reaches thousands of people, focusing on education and debunking negative stereotypes about Islam and Muslims.

Image courtesy Ariana Lindquist

With its cross-section of magnificent diversity within a lump-sum “minority,” Green Card Stories is part Gay In America, part Created Equal, part something else entirely. Find out more about it on the project site.

NPR

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13 JULY, 2012

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar

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“The useless days will add up to something… These things are your becoming.”

When an anonymous advice columnist by the name of “Dear Sugar” introduced herself on The Rumpus on March 11, 2010, she made her proposition clear: a “by-the-book common sense of Dear Abby and the earnest spiritual cheesiness of Cary Tennis and the butt-pluggy irreverence of Dan Savage and the closeted Upper East Side nymphomania of Miss Manners.” But in the two-some years that followed, she proceeded to deliver something tenfold punchier, more honest, more existentially profound than even such an intelligently irreverent promise could foretell. This week, all of Sugar’s no-bullshit, wholehearted wisdom on life’s trickiest contexts — sometimes the simplest, sometimes the most complex, always the most deeply human — is released in Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar (public library), along with several never-before-published columns, under Sugar’s real name: Cheryl Strayed.

The book is titled after Dear Sugar #64, which remains my own favorite by a long stretch and is, evidently, many other people’s. (Or, at least, the editor’s.) It’s exquisite in full, but this particular bit makes the heart tremble with raw heartness:

Your assumptions about the lives of others are in direct relation to your naïve pomposity. Many people you believe to be rich are not rich. Many people you think have it easy worked hard for what they got. Many people who seem to be gliding right along have suffered and are suffering. Many people who appear to you to be old and stupidly saddled down with kids and cars and houses were once every bit as hip and pompous as you.

When you meet a man in the doorway of a Mexican restaurant who later kisses you while explaining that this kiss doesn’t ‘mean anything’ because, much as he likes you, he is not interested in having a relationship with you or anyone right now, just laugh and kiss him back. Your daughter will have his sense of humor. Your son will have his eyes.

The useless days will add up to something. The shitty waitressing jobs. The hours writing in your journal. The long meandering walks. The hours reading poetry and story collections and novels and dead people’s diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave under your arms or not. These things are your becoming.

One Christmas at the very beginning of your twenties when your mother gives you a warm coat that she saved for months to buy, don’t look at her skeptically after she tells you she thought the coat was perfect for you. Don’t hold it up and say it’s longer than you like your coats to be and too puffy and possibly even too warm. Your mother will be dead by spring. That coat will be the last gift she gave you. You will regret the small thing you didn’t say for the rest of your life.

Say thank you.

In the introduction, Steve Almond, who once attempted to be Sugar before there was Sugar, captures precisely what makes Sugar Sugar:

The column that launched Sugar as a phenomenon was written in response to what would have been, for anyone else, a throwaway letter. Dear Sugar, wrote a presumably young man. WTF? WTF? WTF? I’m asking this question as it applies to everything every day. Cheryl’s reply began as follows:

Dear WTF,

My father’s father made me jack him off when I was three and four and five. I wasn’t good at it. My hands were too small and I couldn’t get the rhythm right and I didn’t understand what I was doing. I only knew I didn’t want to do it. Knew it made me feel miserable and anxious in a way so sickeningly particular that I can feel the same particular sickness rising this very minute in my throat.

It was an absolutely unprecedented moment. Advice columnists, after all, adhere to an unspoken code: focus on the letter writer, dispense all necessary bromides, make it all seem bearable. Disclosing your own sexual assault is not part of the code.

But Cheryl wasn’t just trying to shock some callow kid into greater compassion. She was announcing the nature of her mission as Sugar. Inexplicable sorrows await all of us. That was her essential point. Life isn’t some narcissistic game you play online. It all matters — every sin, every regret, every affliction. As proof, she offered an account of her own struggle to reckon with a cruelty she’s absorbed before she was old enough to even understand it. Ask better questions, sweet pea, she concluded. The fuck is your life. Answer it.

The release of Tiny Beautiful Things was in large part the reason for Sugar’s recent “coming out party,” in which she revealed her real identity as Cheryl — an event made all the more exciting by the inimitable Wendy MacNaughton (), who live-illustrated it:

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13 JULY, 2012

Francis Bacon on Studies: “Reading Maketh a Full Man; Conference a Ready Man; Writing an Exact Man”

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“Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider.”

Francis Bacon might be best-known as a pioneer of the scientific method, but he was also a prolific and thoughtful philosopher, writer, and scholar of the arts and humanities. His Complete Essays (public library; public domain) explore everything from love (“Nuptial love maketh mankind; friendly love perfecteth it; but wanton love corrupteth, and embaseth it.”) to envy (“A man that hath no virtue in himself, ever envieth virtue in others.”) to delays (“There is surely no greater wisdom, than well to time the beginnings, and onsets, of things.”) to death (“Men fear death, as children fear to go in the dark; and as that natural fear in children, is increased with tales, so is the other.”), and just about everything in between. But among Bacon’s most timeless and prescient reflections is the essay Of Studies, which touches on a number of familiar and urgent contemporary issues — the brokenness of the education system, the osmosis of reading and non-reading, and the importance of finding your element.

Studies serve for delight, for ornament, and for ability. Their chief use for delight, is in privateness and retiring; for ornament, is in discourse; and for ability, is in the judgment, and disposition of business. For expert men can execute, and perhaps judge of particulars, one by one; but the general counsels, and the plots and marshalling of affairs, come best, from those that are learned. To spend too much time in studies is sloth; to use them too much for ornament, is affectation; to make judgment wholly by their rules, is the humor of a scholar. They perfect nature, and are perfected by experience: for natural abilities are like natural plants, that need proyning, by study; and studies themselves, do give forth directions too much at large, except they be bounded in by experience. Crafty men contemn studies, simple men admire them, and wise men use them; for they teach not their own use; but that is a wisdom without them, and above them, won by observation. Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. Some books also may be read by deputy, and extracts made of them by others; but that would be only in the less important arguments, and the meaner sort of books, else distilled books are like common distilled waters, flashy things. Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man. And therefore, if a man write little, he had need have a great memory; if he confer little, he had need have a present wit: and if he read little, he had need have much cunning, to seem to know, that he doth not. Histories make men wise; poets witty; the mathematics subtile; natural philosophy deep; moral grave; logic and rhetoric able to contend. Abeunt studia in mores. [Studies permeate and shape manners.] Nay, there is no stond or impediment in the wit, but may be wrought out by fit studies; like as diseases of the body, may have appropriate exercises. Bowling is good for the stone and reins; shooting for the lungs and breast; gentle walking for the stomach; riding for the head; and the like. So if a man’s wit be wandering, let him study the mathematics; for in demonstrations, if his wit be called away never so little, he must begin again. If his wit be not apt to distinguish or find differences, let him study the Schoolmen; for they are cymini sectores. If he be not apt to beat over matters, and to call up one thing to prove and illustrate another, let him study 197 the lawyers’ cases. So every defect of the mind, may have a special receipt.

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