Between The World And Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

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I read this months ago! But I have not gotten around to reviewing it because it is so good (and you always want to do justice to something great). (I mean. Listen, Toni Morrison saying it’s required reading is enough incentive for you to run & read it.)

After the publication of this book people were calling Ta-Nehisi Coates the new James Baldwin. I have not read enough Baldwin but I can understand why people express that similarity. Both these writers express the pain of being Black in America with such tenderness and such pain. Their anger is not blind fury. The pain of their personal written excavations are not without incredible insight. This last part is important because a superficial, obvious rendering of systemic racism is pretty easy to learn and then regurgitate.

But what Coates does is to reveal how anti-Blackness is an inevitability in a country where its dominating systems have from the beginning been one that proceeded from the violent oppression of Others. And more importantly, he includes the violence of the state into the equation, which not enough people do in their current critiques. (Criticisms of the state is often something that is mostly done by people further left.. communists, socialists, anarchists, & is therefore for most liberal-centrists a little too ‘radical’). But it’s important if we want to understand the ‘systemic’ in ‘systemic racism’. Anti-blackness is not a failure or a glitch in the system, it is the system in operation.:

“It is not necessary that you believe that the officer who choked Eric Garner set out that day to destroy a body. All you need to understand is that the officer carries with him the power of the American state and the weight of an American legacy, and they necessitate that of the bodies destroyed every year, some wild and disproportionate number of them will be black.”

But to problematise the state is not to treat the state as a detached entity separated from its people. Coates also points out that the system is a product of democratic will. Which means it is a system that is continuously voted into continuation, a system that continuously propped up by an affirmation of its values by its citizens, etc.

You may have heard the talk of diversity, sensitivity training, and body cameras. These are all fine and applicable, but they understate the task and allow the citizens of this country to pretend that there is real distance between their own attitudes and those of the ones appointed to protect them. The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority. The abuses that have followed from these policies—the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects—are the product of democratic will. And so to challenge the police is to challenge the American people who send them into the ghettos armed with the same self-generated fears that compelled the people who think they are white to flee the cities and into the Dream.

Yes, and a further point, he refers to White people as ‘people who think they are White’. He doesn’t really explain this but I think it’s a short and amazing way to show how Whiteness is an identity that was something that one has to, in a way, claim, re-affirm, aspire to. To be ‘White’ is to believe in the ideal of this identity that the nation had fabricated. Of course there is a material basis/reality to this identity, where you will be conferred with privilege regardless of whether you choose to relinquish your allegiance to such an ideal. Still, the idea of Whites being superior, as if it is an a priori fact, is a fabrication, is a lie that has been sustained.

Another thing I wanted to mention was the stylistic choice. The book is essentially a letter that Ta-Nehisi Coates is writing to his young son who is realising the extent of anti-Blackness in America. The reality of racism, its intricacies, the question of responsibility, is one that is often subjected to fierce debate. It is often contended, in serious terms, with serious intellectual rigour (though the common invalidations that Black people face are often unintellectual). But the truths that were spoken in this book is not up for debate because it was not constructed within the paradigm of debate. It is a personal letter. Part of the power of this book was its uninhibitedness, its clear declaration of the fact without having to subject itself to the respectability politics that is often demanded of the marginalised in order to be taken seriously by their oppressors. And part of the power of this book is also its tenderness. Like I said earlier, it is not merely blind fury.

In talking to his son, the book others those who are not part of part of the intended audience, in a way. This book is primarily, for his son, and for other Black people who have had to deal with the trauma of being Black in America. He is talking to his son, and this mode allows him to be completely honest, completely open, and without a need to be defensive. It’s not up for debate.

To situate the conversation on anti-Blackness in the realm of the personal is to humanise suffering. A lot of times, the discourse around social issues that is grounded in the very real, material, tangible fact of human suffering, can get lost in abstraction. One of the biggest pains I have with the current mode of discourse is that it can get lost in abstraction. Yes, intellectual rigour is important, but often times I have seen how intellectualisation of suffering has utterly left behind its subjects, de-personalised them, and talked about them as a mass to be debated about. This review is running a little long but I’d like to end with my favourite part from the book, which is also an articulation of the kind of politics I always want to have (one that is grounded in lived, material reality):

“But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.


You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance—no matter how improved—as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children. Our triumphs can never compensate for this.”

Read this book please. 6/5.

And The Walls Come Crumbling Down, Tania De Rozario


[an edited version of this review was published in the latest issue of Quarterly Literary Review Singapore. The original intended title was “Written on The Body: The centrality of the material in Tania De Rozario’s latest title.]

Written on The Body:
The centrality of the material in Tania De Rozario’s latest title.

by Diana Rahim

Tania De Rozario’s “And The Walls Come Crumbling Down,” is an exploration on home, love, family and loss. These concepts are familiar to us, but often in parochial terms shaped by dominant narratives or conditioned by arbiters of power like the state or religious authorities. We are told what home is supposed to look like (a happy state-approved, heteronormative nuclear family) and what love and family is supposed to be like (heteronormative too, amongst other things), and many a wordsmith have given words that help tide us through our experiences of loss and grief.

But what if the dominant understanding and narratives around family, love, and home are ones that exclude you? What if the world has failed to write you into its history and stories? At the heart of “And The Walls Come Crumbling Down”, I believe, is the act of writing one’s self into a world that has failed to include you in its writing.

While all the aforementioned terms are conceptually and personally explored, we can look into detail perhaps into how De Rozario deals with the notion of history. De Rozario encapsulates the experience of exclusion when she says:

“You never realise how personal notions of history are until yours has been erased.” (p 57)

If the conceptual understanding of history, home, family and love are those that one can never identify with, then you have to create your own and insist against its disappearance. When the girl De Rozario loved banished their romantic history to non-existence when she re-wrote her first love to be her husband, De Rozario is the one left to remember and sustain the truth:

“I still keep her letters in a box, in the bottom drawer, much like the way I kept that tabloid article about convent school lesbians. I keep them to remind myself how important it is that I write my own history.” (p. 57-58)

As constructed narratives, notions like history are shaped by the institutions and people that hold the power to speak it on their terms. If they are ideologically motivated, then history is bent to the shape of their ideology, though it purports to be an objective re-telling. To tell her own history then is to insist against its exclusion in the dominant shaping of history. It is to insist that one’s personal history is as much a part of the larger history that is shaped to be told to all. The personal is political.

At this point allow me a moment of important digression. In the chapter “Blueprints”, we are introduced to the inner world of a South Asian migrant worker, Bhavan, and this section reads as somewhat out of place in a book that has largely focused on De Rozario’s personal history. One can’t help but feel this section introduces a break from the narrative up till then. But if this section seems out of place, it is not thematically so. In the chapter’s attempt to understand the effects of the state’s organisation of space, homes, and therefore its citizens, one cannot exclude the migrants who have directly built the very spaces we inhabit when we work, play and rest.

In including the personal history and experience of Bhavan, De Rozario is implicitly insisting that the personal histories of all are intertwined, even those that are relegated to the margins. Bhavan’s experience and history are as important to her history, even if indirectly, and as part of it as all that has directly happened to her. Bhavan, like so many migrant workers in Singapore, are excluded in the dominant narratives of the state, their history and experience sanitised while their material conditions speak a dismal reality.

Bhavan was someone who had believed in the state’s story of itself:

“When he first landed, Bhavan had been full of hope. He had heard many things about Singapore — clean streets, fair government, lots of opportunity.”

But this is quickly dispelled by the material reality that he is confronted with when he arrives, the small dorms that allows little to no private space and the reality of having to work in the conditions that have been given to him in order to be clear of debt being amongst them. The truth of the concept then cannot be divorced from the material reality.

Going back to the discussion of history, it is thus more than just a mere narrative or concept to De Rozario. To her, history is also physically and materially experienced and expressed:

“I don’t want the kind of history taught for the purpose of propaganda and patriotism; the kind of past created to secure a safe future.

I want history. The moss that grows on walls, words that scar the skin, wrong turns, cracks in the stone, archaeologies of desire dug up like dirty laundry and flapping like wings in every back yard.” (p.110)

There is a shift here from the conventional ‘great-men’ or essentially a ‘top-down’ understanding of history to one that moves the reader’s gaze to the banality and minutiae of everyday life. History is thus not just a detached, intellectual concept to be conceived of in the mind, but something that is materially created and sustained and personal. She keeps the letters. She wants the moss that grows on walls. Even words, immaterial as they seem, are things that scar the skin. Elsewhere, she writes:

“Who knew the act of speaking could hurt so much? Could hold in its mouth that one concrete thing which gives weight to questions you never thought to ask ..” (p. 58)

This attention to the material is something that is present not just throughout this book, but also throughout her writing. I had noted even from her first book “Tender Delirium,” that De Rozario’s words are raw, visceral, vulnerable and achingly rooted in lived, material reality.

Even in describing her lover’s lie, she gives it a material presence:

“The lie got bigger as the day passed, expanding like some strange balloon animal out of control. It mutated, grew limbs, sprouted strange appendages, got so large that it blocked your eyes out.” p (33)

In making her case for her mother to choose her, the living, breathing person that is her daughter, over immaterial religious dogma, she says:

“Choose me. I belong to you. I am more than the myth of some made-up story. I am flesh. I am blood. I am yours. Choose me” p. 87

“And The Walls Come Crumbling Down,” then, is a book of the flesh and blood. The body. The material. It is no surprise that in exploring the concept of home, we are brought to focus on the material aspects (the door, drawers, bed, etc). The body of her lover is often the site of rumination. The body — whether the physical human body or the body of the home — is where rumination begins.

De Rozario’s attention to the material is thus an understandable extension of writing that focuses on the body. Exclusion is something material. We have seen this through how she understands history, but we also see it through the way she understands the concept of home. De Rozario’s understanding of home cannot be divorced from her personal experience of having had to leave her family home and moving from place to place while struggling to make ends meet. The physical experience of home informs the conceptual, personal understanding of home for her. In the end, home is located in her lover.

Yes, there can be something political about loving another person. There is politics behind leaving home. Making love. Losing your family. And the body is often lies at the focus of these contestations. The body is often the site of visible difference, it experiences direct violence and trauma. For many, the first line of exclusion and oppression is premised on presentation of their body, or their refusal to regulate their body according to accepted (and often repressive) sexual and social norms, and the pain that they will feel for their disobedience is often felt with their bodies as they are felt by the mind.

During the panel ‘Politics of The Body’ in the recent Singapore Writers Festival with panellists Tania de Rozario, Cyril Wong and A Mangai and chaired by Ng Yi-Sheng the centrality of the physical body was discussed in relation to the writing produced by the artists. The body is not just an apolitical space, but one where meanings are ascribed with or without the consent of the bearer. This is especially true when we talk about gender and sexuality. De Rozario had brought up early during the session that if her work was read as political, it is not because she intended to be political, but because society has rendered her existence and therefore her work, as political. Hearing her say that circled back to a moment years back when in a heated moment I had said something similar. A professor had found a certain Malay writer to be ‘too political’ for his taste, and I had retorted that said Malay writer was often times only writing about his reality and the realities of others as he observed. If this was found political it is not his fault, nor the fault of those who hold identities that render them political just by virtue of their existence in society and/or the world. Such a castigation reveals more about the speaker’s naivety or ignorance of the way the individual is politicised by forces outside of themselves, by power dynamics they are born into, than it does about the subject.

Occupy, Noam Chomsky


This penguin edition of Occupy is actually a reprint of a pamphlet of the same name, which makes me feel quite hopeful because a pamphlet seems like quite a fringe, guerilla publication & then it is picked up by a major publisher. But then again, of course, this is Noam Chomsky.

This is not a book per se. It’s not a collection of essays but rather some collected transcripts from interviews and notably a speech given about the Occupy Movement in Boston. Despite it being transcripts Chomsky is able to answer questions in the interviews in such a substantial way that it almost doesn’t matter. It only seems to be an issue when parts of his answers are repeated at certain points and you end up reading the same passages again later on.

He praises the success of the the Occupy Wall Street movement in terms of its ability to organise the masses, organise themselves as a leaderless movement. The movement is an example of how mass-based organising and civil disobedience can be successful in enacting real change. The Occupy movement also caused major shifts in the public imagination and discourse around the topic of severe class inequality in the States, where most of the wealth in concentrated not just in the 1%, but the 0.1%. The richest of the rich, the 1% of the 1%.

“For the past generation, policies have been initiated that have led to an extremely sharp concentration of wealth in a tiny sector of the population. In fact, the wealth distribution is very heavily weighted by, literally, the top tenth of one percent of the population, a fraction so small that they’re not even picked up on the census. You have to do statistical analysis just to detect them. And they have benefited enormously. This is mostly from the financial sector—hedge fund managers, CEOs of financial corporations, and so on.”

He also outlines how and why the severe income inequality is sustained, showing how concentration of wealth is linked to a concentration of political power and how these two factors feed into corporate governance that prioritises the needs of the 1% through legislation, tax breaks for the rich, etc at the expense of majority of citizens.

“For the majority, real incomes have pretty much stagnated, sometimes declined. Benefits have also declined and work hours have gone up, and so on. It’s not Third World misery, but it’s not what it ought to be in a rich society, the richest in the world, in fact, with plenty of wealth around, which people can see, just not in their pockets.”

(Unrelated to the book, but I learned today that Goldman Sachs was bailed out by $80 billion worth of taxpayers money. That is downright vile [mix the words around and you get ‘evil’], that the government can oversee the bailing out of banks with the use of public monies, not prosecute guilty bankers, and then at the same time at this current moment refuse to provide affordable health care, housing and safe abortions for its people.)

Anyway a passage I found most telling in the book was the following:

“Over the following years, the concept of “person” was changed by the courts in two ways. One way was to broaden it to include corporations, legal fictions established and sustained by the state. In fact, these “persons” later became the management of corporations, according to the court decisions. So the management of corporations became “persons.” It was also narrowed to exclude undocumented immigrants. They had to be excluded from the category of “persons.” And that’s happening right now. So the legislations that you’re talking about, they go two ways. They broaden the category of persons to include corporate entities, which now have rights way beyond human beings, given by the trade agreements and others, and they exclude the people who flee from Central America where the U.S. devastated their homelands, and flee from Mexico because they can’t compete with the highly-subsidized U.S. agribusiness.”

This is significant because the concept of a ‘person’ is often a contested and loaded category. Just by being human, it is not enough to be considered a person, even. In the context of the US (and really, the history of every state), there has always been actual human beings who were dehumanised and not considered humans. Slaves were considered, in the US constitution as 3/5th humans, women were not considered fully human too. Now these things might have been changed on paper, but of course in reality, policy, and especially the enactment of violence by the state against the bodies of Blacks and the controlling of bodies with uteruses, these two groups of people are not treated or regarded as fully human.

The fact that corporations, entities that are actively responsible for the destruction of the environment, what little is left of social welfare and benefits of the state, the pilfering of public taxpayer monies — the fact that they are considered a ‘person’ is something that says everything about how and why severe income inequality can continue not just to persist, but severely worsen. In fact I would say that considering the trajectory, it is not surprising that you would get an exploitative businessman who profits from the current neoliberal, capitalist order as the current president of the states. While most people might have been shocked, I had thought that it was a matter of eventuality. He is truly representative of what the state is like, without any mask or political speak.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid.


The Reluctant Fundamentalist is written in that engaging monologue style that immediately reminded me of Albert Camus’s The Fall. Like in The Fall, Changez, the main protaganist in The Reluctant Fundamentalist strikes a conversation with a stranger in some kind of establishment. In this case, they are both in a restaurant and the stranger is an american man, presumably someone whose vocation deployed him to Pakistan (or at least that’s what it sounded like to me).

I picked up this book perhaps with my expectations already too high. I heard so much about it, most of it good. It had glowing reviews and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Proper scholarly work has been written on it. Admittedly I am late to the party, writing this review 10 years on. I learned that part of its popularity was due to a movie adaptation.

Of the people who criticised it or gave it low ratings I noticed that they tend to be white folks who were aghast at the audacity of the protagonist to be so ungrateful to the wonderful benefits that the wonderful country, The US, had given to him. How could he! One comment mentioned that this is a privileged guy who went to an Ivy League, making it harder to citizens to enter the school. Some even went so far as to insinuate that he should be grateful he got the opportunity to be in the US instead of the obviously inferior and less developed Pakistan. Someone mentioned that they didn’t understand why the protagonist hated the US since the only incidents of racism he faced were negligible. Because criticism of the book is dominantly in this vein (basically ad hominem attacks against the protagonist which largely accuse him of ingratitude) to criticise this book might risk being seen as someone who endorses the messages these ‘critics’ or to invalidate the pain of the character or the issues the book tries to raise.

But my issue with this book is that its criticisms are too superficial, and does not engage with the issues raised with the critical depth necessary. Liberals would love it, I am sure, because the message you get is basically the rather trite one that tells you not to be prejudicial and to question the first impression that you have of someone. This bearded guy is not a terrorist just because he’s brown, muslim, and has facial hair. The American is not necessarily a bigot who hates Muslims and people of colour.

“It seems an obvious thing to say, but you should not imagine that we Pakistanis are all potential terrorists, just as we should not imagine that you Americans are all undercover assassins.”

Of course, judging from the nature of comments that criticise the book, I guess this kind of basic message is sadly still necessary, in which case I will have to concede that the book is important and it does the job. And of course I expect there’s always that contention that the writer doesn’t have to write the book with the kind of critical depth that some readers might want, I guess (I’m not convinced with this reasoning when it’s dealing with a political topic as heavy as this though..).

The book is undisputedly engaging, due in part to its stylistic choice. But it falls short on other fronts. The characters are flat, and almost verge on caricature. It is as if these characters have to be a certain way in order to induce the stereotypical/prejudicial reaction from the reader. The word ‘fundamentalist’ being used is at least a little smart though, if only because it does not end up being a story about a guy becoming a Muslim fundamentalist nor does a hint of something concerning ‘political Islam’ or extremism really come up in relation to Changez. The fact that I sort of expected at least a mention of that at least reveals my own instinctive expectations just because of this word. The word in itself provokes reaction. But other than that the characters and their reactions were almost cheesy.

Perhaps Changez himself understands it too simplistically. Perhaps he was protected for the most part of it because he was privileged enough to study in Princeton and did not live in the US for most of his life. But prejudicial attitudes against Muslims, specifically Muslims who are people of colour, did not start from 9-11 though it did worsened after that.

The book does make an effort to point out American exceptionalism through engaging with the theme of nostalgia. In the one quote that I like from the whole book, it manages the critical depth that is at least necessary:

“As a society, you were unwilling to reflect upon the shared pain that united you with those who attacked you. You retreated into myths of your own difference, assumptions of your own superiority. And you acted out these beliefs on the stage of the world, so that the entire planet was rocked by the repercussions of your tantrums, not least my family, now facing war thousands of miles away.”

The fact is, however, that the reality of America’s (the state) treatment of those deemed Other and different and therefore suspicious is located not within the individual attitudes of prejudice. Neither is it located just within American exceptionalism which is presented in the book, like in the quote above, to be something that is perpetuated by an arrogant populace. The truth is that this arrogance has been manufactured and then perpetuated through sheer belief. American exceptionalism is only a vehicle/an instrument utilised by the state to continue its long drawn history of how it has always established itself in violent terms against Others, first through genocide of native Americans, then the slavery of black people, the violent annexation of a part of Mexico, placing Japanese people in internment camps, etc. The list goes on.

The issue that is being raised in this book is far more complex and nuanced than can be portrayed with the flat characters. I wish I could find better words to explain why I didn’t enjoy this book in the end & found it disappointing. But mainly it was due to the way it poorly handled the political discussion surrounding the book & how simplistically I felt it was done. It felt good to read if you wanted to virtue-signal & say hey, I read this, I agree that we shouldn’t be prejudicial. I felt that there were so many gaping voids, including the fact that Changez seems to be the only Muslim in the US we engage with in the book. All the others he engages with seem to be basically white America.

Of course maybe I am being demanding to expect the political sophistication 10 years ago when 9-11 was still fresh in the psyche & discussions were still fresh too about Muslims, islamophobia & American foreign policy. Perhaps I am even being too much to expect political sophistication in a literary work. But I don’t think it is unfair to demand that if a work wishes to invoke a political issue, then it has to be properly engaged with so that this issue, a material, violent reality that affects others, isn’t just treated like an empty fodder than ends up making a work of art more interesting. Of course I’m not saying that this is what he does. I am merely trying to explain why I had expected so much from this book. It did not deliver in my opinion, but I am willing to concede that most well-intentioned liberals would love it.