Friday, September 17, 2010

The Madonna/Mother Teresa Paradox

As some of you know, I spend a lot of time trying to figure out life, despite knowing that this is probably an exercise in futility. I think about things like fate and suffering and the difference between cultures while riding the bus or looking out on the water from the ferry. This makes me piss poor at small talk, a fact proven once again last Friday night when someone in a bar challenged me to make small talk for the duration of one beer. After 5 minutes, I lost interest in the conversation and wanted to go home.

Before my bar/bored experience, I was in Borders and flipping through an interesting book I spotted, Backwards in High Heels. It's basically a manual for any woman confused about life (which I assume a large majority of us are) but decidedly anti-self-help, which makes it actually useful. As the authors (whose names I forget) brazenly state, self-help is a lie. We don't all get what we deserve, and no matter how many affirmations, or how open you are to the Universe or Abundance or whatever, it's unlikely you'll win the Nobel Peace Prize or write a Pulitzer-Prize novel or whatever fantasy we all harbor about life. But we can cheer up a friend, be kind to our co-workers and strangers, and maybe help the PTA raise some money.

A few weeks before picking up said book, I saw Men Who Stare At Goats, and they also riff on this theme of dreams v. reality. George Clooney basically tells Ewan McGregor that we all have a destiny, but it may not be what we want. Little Anne Frank wants to go to prom? Too bad. But she can write a book that moves millions for generations to come.

Most "spiritual" people (and yes, in this instance, I am using that in a derogatory manner) like to preach that "all things are possible with God" or something like that. But it occurs to me that Mother Teresa could never have been a supermodel, no matter how tight she was with the Holy One.

The realists and cynics in the world say it's all about who you know and how many resources (i.e. how much money) you have at your disposal. But poor Madonna, Queen of Material Girls, sits in her castle with all the money, power, and influence at her disposal and will probably never get nominated for an Oscar.

Which brings me to my question: How does one tell the difference between fantasy and one's true calling?

These two women have irrevocably changed the face of our planet in their own unique ways, causing worldwide movements in charity and sexual attitudes. Yet they too are limited by something--is it fate? Circumstances? Talent? Purpose?

Most of us are not meant for either sacrificial poverty or decadent wealth; the large majority of us fall within a spectrum of middle-classedness. But what if the idea of owning a home and raising kids and fundraising through a bake sale makes you shudder and want to run screaming to a far off country just so you can feel somewhat alive? What if your biggest nightmare is that you're Pam from "The Office" and the biggest event at your place of work will be your wedding? What if you really want to help humanity without living in a hut in a war zone? What if you'd rather enter into a married partnership where your focus is each others' career goals and inner callings, not raising new people to be hurt and harmed by the world?

How does one have a dream that's outside the box but not outside reality?

Monday, September 6, 2010

Why Archie Panjabi's Emmy Win Makes My Heart Sing

The first chapter of Zadie Smith's most recent book "Changing My Mind" is an eloquent essay on Zora Neale Hurston's masterpiece Their Eyes Were Watching God. (The line that opens chapter three is probably one of the most memorable in literature -- "There are years that ask questions and years that answer." But I digress.)

Smith discusses how she was hesitant to read it when her mother presented her with a copy at fourteen:
"You'll like it," her mother said.
"Why? Because she's black?"
"No, because it's really good writing."

And it is, by Smith's account (and my own). But then Smith says something more profound:
"At fourteen, I couldn't find words (or words I liked) for the marvelous feeling of recognition that came with these characters who had my hair, my eyes, my skin, even the ancestors of the rhythm of my speech. These forms of identification are so natural to white readers -- (Of course Rabbit Angstrom is like me! Of course Madame Bovary is like me!) -- that they believe themselves above personal identification, or at least believe that they are identifying only at the highest, existential levels (His soul is like my soul. He is human; I am human). White readers often believe they are colorblind."

But in reality, as Smith points out, they are just more characters written in their image, allowing them to harbor the illusion that their "like" or "dislike" of a novel is based on more esoteric factors, such as writing style, theme, or plot. They also have the benefit of white privilege, where every ethnic story is made relate-able to them (i.e., the rampant use of the word vermilion in South Asian fiction, a word I did not even know until I read it in a "New Yorker-approved" South Asian American book).

Smith then goes on to explain how Hurston creates such a complex, layered character in Janie Crawford in Their Eyes that it leaves her speechless. The book "allows me to say things I wouldn't normally," Smith writes. "Things like 'She is my sister and I love her.'"

Which is exactly what my heart sang when Archie Panjabi won the Emmy for her role in The Good Wife.

It's probably not fair to draw any parallels between a television drama, no matter how good, and canonical American literature. I admit this is somewhat pretentious on my part. But Archie Panjabi speaks so eloquently backstage after her win about the true value of being able to play a character that is proud of her heritage without being defined by it.

When people say "you can do anything you put your mind to" or believe, or whatever New Age slogan is en vogue at the time, I often want to roll my eyes and say "if you're white." As Archie Panjabi and co-star in Bend It Like Beckham, Parminder Nagra, know, the brown girl doesn't get cast in Pirates of the Caribbean or Pride and Prejudice, like their co-star Keira Knightley did, no matter how good an actress you are. So it's refreshing to see a South Asian get to play a character that's as complex and layered as Elizabeth Bennett, albeit on the small screen. I am left without words to express the marvelous feeling of recognition that bubbles up inside me when a woman with my hair and eyes and skin plays it tough and guarded, but with wit and grace. All I can say is "She is my sister and I love her."