Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Your Daddy's Rich and Your Mama's Good-looking

I’ve been avoiding writing this blog for weeks because it’s complicated and so, so long (sorry).

Again with the stories:

I think I read somewhere (was it in Venus Zine? online?) that M.I.A. has been admired for her badass fashion sense. If I remember correctly, her take on this is that she often mimics and reappropriates the sorts of clothing she wore as a kid—clothing that would have been castigated and belittled. Why, after all, would we expect acceptance from the racist, classist, anti-immigrant majority that surrounded her once her family moved to Britain? But funny (and typical) how the moment M.I.A. became “someone” her strategic clothing choices got characterized as style rather than trash.

I walked into a public library last week and had the strangest, most unexpected experience. It’s a small modern library with lots of windows, full sunlight, and mid-height shelves. Walking inside brought me right back to my childhood, to all the times my dad used to take me to the newly built library a mile or so from our house.

He spent hours at that library, perusing books on astronomy, nature, and travel. I used to find him standing between shelves with boring-looking hard cover books (the kind with the crinkly, transparent, protective covers). He would be wearing his giant brownish-grey parka—unzipped, wide-legged polyester pants belted far above his belly—the bottoms tucked haphazardly into bulky black snow boots. He had owned this parka, the pants, and snow boots for decades. They were, I thought, so markedly unfashionable and I wished he’d get rid of them.

I was embarrassed by him. I thought everyone saw him as THE eccentric, badly dressed brown guy with a thick, inappropriate accent and no social graces, pulling a tiny black comb out of his pants pocket to fix his hat hair the second he entered any building. I often felt mortified by the way he looked and talked but more so for the fact that our kinship implicated and crucified me as Other in our racist, classist, anti-immigrant surroundings.

I can’t really describe the overwhelming feeling I got walking into that public library last week. I was wearing a giant parka and bulky black snow boots. And I couldn’t decide if I felt like the child-me again, or if I felt like my dad. I felt a weird, consuming, and sad energy for the ten minutes I was in the library, and I’ve been thinking about it everyday since. I woke up the next day in tears just replaying it in my mind, but not really understanding why.

To my dad, the public library was an amazing place. It was kind of like magic. It’s such a small privilege that I’ve often taken for granted, but just thinking about his library-less childhood makes me so grateful and appreciative. How is it possible that such a place exists where you can borrow (free of charge!) books, music, movies and more, and request items to add to their collections? How has this system that seems so antithetical to capitalist consumerism been established and sustained? Maybe it IS the last bit of magic I have access to and maybe that’s the energy I was picking up on last week. Since that day, I’ve been thinking about my dad every time I put on my snow boots.

I grew up learning that when you grew out of clothes or simply didn’t want to wear them anymore they could be donated to refugees. So when the Bosnian refugees for whom my parents signed up to be the host family came over for dinner, I was surprised and charitably delighted to see the daughter wearing a “beautiful” sweater. It often crossed my child-mind to question why refugees would want to wear clothes that I had rejected, but this question collided with and dissipated amid the troubling rhetoric and assumptions of the “just grateful” refugee narratives as told by their hosts. What the fuck is up with charitable delight and gratefulness? I want to complicate and unpack these notions, which is probably going to be gross and painful.

The Cupcake shared an essay with me where he writes: “‘the very definition of ‘refugee’ is contested,’ even within the field of ‘Refugee Studies’ ([Lewellen] 172). While the question of ‘definition’ might seem a purely academic one, in the case of refugees, the ways in which refugees are defined ‘can have enormous consequences in the way refugees are treated by aid organizations and immigration authorities’ (173). In the case of refugees of settlement, resettlement, determining policy, providing aid, and repatriation, the definition of ‘refugee’ becomes a key factor in how refugees are or are not able to move, and how they are affected by the processes of globalization.”

What does it mean to seek “refuge” and to “host?” And how do these terms get caught up, tossed around, and dispersed amid the larger racist, classist, anti-foreigner contexts in which we live? Who wears the clothing we discard from our wardrobes…what makes clothing discardable in the first place?

To be continued...

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