How Cleopatra Became a Canvas for Society’s Anxieties

One more article for The Week ends 2019 for me, a year that has been something of a roller coaster ride. This year I decided to become more serious about freelance writing, and these articles that I have been writing for The Week is the result of that decision.

Please enjoy this investigation into how and why Cleopatra continues to intrigue us more than 2,000 years after she died.

Happy New Year!

How Cleopatra Became a Canvas for Society’s Anxieties.

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Two-thousand years after her death, Cleopatra continues to enthrall us. Earlier this year, the British tabloid The Daily Star reported that a new movie about this last Pharaoh of Egypt was in the works. According to an anonymous source, the movie will be “a dirty, bloody, political thriller told from a feminist perspective,” as opposed to the movie Cleopatra of 1963 starring Elizabeth Taylor, which had been a historical epic.

Our fascination with Cleopatra endures because we know surprisingly little about her. And what we do know is based purely on speculation. This lack of information makes Cleopatra the perfect canvas onto which…

Please click here if you wish to read the entire article.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Hanya Yanagihara’s A LITTLE LIFE and the Perpetual Present-Day

A Little LifeHanya Yanagihara’s second novel, A Little Life, is a wonderfully written, heart-wrenching novel about four friends—J.B., Malcolm, Willem, and Jude—who form a life-long friendship while being roommates in college. More than 700 pages long, I finished the novel in less than five days, on more than one occasion staying up reading until three in the morning. While reading A Little Life, I found myself wondering during what time period the story is supposed to take place. The story has the feeling of a tale of the twenty-first century, but it follows the lives of J.B., Malcolm, Willem, and Jude for approximately forty years. It is as if the story is suspended in some kind of perpetual present-day.

One of the reasons why I wanted to find out during what time period the novel takes place is because there are certain aspects of Willem’s Scandinavian heritage that puzzle me. To be able to understand what Yanagihara might have been thinking when creating his backstory I needed to know what year Willem was born. In trying to figure out his year of birth, I discovered that Yanagihara is a sophisticated manipulator of time, who has written a novel of speculative fiction in the guise of literary fiction.

Yanagihara creates the feeling of a perpetual present-day by not mentioning any years or dates. Moreover, she makes no mention of any political or cultural events that can help anchor the story in time. However, she does mention the birthdays of the four friends and what age they have reached at that particular time.

At first I assumed that the novel, like most novels of literary fiction that span several decades, ends at the point in time when Yanagihara stopped writing, presumably in 2013 or 2014. Towards the end of the book, we are told that J.B. is sixty-one years old. If the story ends in 2014, that would mean that J.B., Malcolm, and Willem were born in 1953 and Jude, who is two years younger, was born in 1955.

But that doesn’t make sense when reading the novel. The friendships formed and the relationships entered into could only happen in the twenty-first century. Moreover, throughout the story, there are references to e-mails, cell phones, text messages, and digital photos.

What is going on?

The clue can be found in a brief mention of an art exhibit at the very beginning of the novel. The art exhibit consists of dioramas depicting Asians in America during each decade from the 1890s until the present-day. Through J.B., Yanagihara tells us that the artist has already completed the diorama for the two-thousands, i.e. the decade that lasted between January 1, 2000 and December 31, 2009. From this brief mention, we can conclude that A Little Life does not end in 2014; it is more likely that it begins in 2014.

Through Malcolm, Yanagihara lets us know that at the time of the art exhibit, he is twenty-seven years old. Consequently, J.B. and Willem are also twenty-seven years old while Jude is twenty-five. If the novel indeed begins in 2014, this would mean that our friends were born in 1987 and 1989, respectively.

Therefore, if the four men were born in 1987 and 1989, and J.B. at the end of the novel is sixty-one years old, the story told in A Little Life in actual fact ends in the year 2048. The story of the friendship between J.B., Malcolm, Willem, and Jude takes place entirely in the future.

Stories about the future is considered to belong to the realm of science fiction, where technological advances has transformed the world into something very different from the one in which we live today.

Personally, I believe that Yanagihara’s vision of our future is a more accurate prediction of what is to come. Our little lives take place in a perpetual present-day which does not change much over the decades. Yes, forty years ago we didn’t have the internet and today, one single smart phone is a more powerful machine than all the computers that brought us to the moon combined. But forty years into the future we will still live in houses, drive cars, and speak on the phone. We will still find love and make friends. And we will still read fantastic novels like Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Fresh Off the Boat Put in Context. Asian American Representation on American Network Television, 1965–2015

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[This post was edited on March 1, 2015.]

As the first TV show with an Asian American main cast in over two decades, much is at stake for ABC’s sitcom Fresh Off the Boat. So much so that before the pilot had even aired, the show was described as “historic.” The reason for this description is the fact that because of the lack of Asian American characters, regardless of being in leading or supporting roles, the success of Fresh Off the Boat will potentially determine Asian American network representation for years to come.

As an historian I take an interest in the description of Fresh Off the Boat as “historic.” Whenever something is described as “historic,” my initial reaction is to object to the use of that word. Looking to the past to make predictions about the future goes against everything that historical research is about. The only way we can say anything about the significance of an event is by relating the event in question to other similar events that have already taken place. In other words, the way to determine the significance of Fresh Off the Boat from an historical perspective is to contextualize it within a discussion on how minorities in general, and Asian Americans in particular, have been represented on scripted network television shows over the years.

In the following discussion, I will focus on scripted TV shows with a diverse main cast broadcast by the three major networks of American television, i.e. NBC, CBS, and ABC. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, these three networks are the oldest of all the TV networks available to the American public today. Therefore, they provide a time span long enough for performing an historical analysis. Secondly, these three networks reach the most viewers on a daily basis. With the exception of AMC’s The Walking Dead, the most watched shows on American television are broadcast on these three networks.

Some of the TV shows mentioned below are problematic in how they portray the minorities they set out to represent. My discussing these TV shows does not mean I endorse these portrayals in any way.

NBC
NBC was founded in 1926 as a radio network. In 1939, NBC expanded into television. On February 18, 2015 I completed a survey of the shows stated as current on nbc.com. Of these shows, one had a diverse main cast—Saturday Night Live. In the past, NBC has been the home of several iconic diversely cast TV shows, e.g. I Spy (1965–1968), Star Trek (1966–1969), Sanford and Son (1972–1977), Diff’rent Strokes (1978–1986), The Cosby Show (1984–1992), A Different World (1987–1993), The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (1990–1996), and Community (2009–2014). Several of these shows had an African American main cast. As far as I have been able to determine within the scope of this investigation, NBC has never broadcast a TV show with an Asian American main cast.

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In 1927, CBS began as a radio network and branched off into television in 1941. In the survey I did on February 18, 2015, of the current shows listed on cbs.com, I identified twelve shows with a diverse main cast. However, of these twelve shows only three had a person of color as the lead actor. Two of them were African American (Halle Berry in Extant and LL Cool J in NCIS: Los Angeles) and one of them was Asian American (Lucy Liu in Elementary). For the past few decades, CBS has been the home of several TV shows with a diverse main cast, e.g. Hawaii 5-0 (1968–1980), Good Times (1974–1979), The Jeffersons (1975–85), and Martial Law (1998–2000). Good Times and The Jeffersons had an all African American main cast and Martial Law had an Asian American leading actor. Meanwhile, Hawaii 5-0, both in its original and its rebooted (2010– ) form, stars a diverse main cast that include Asian Americans.

ABC
Youngest of the three major networks, ABC launched as a radio network in 1943 and went into television in 1948. In the February 18, 2015 survey of abc.com, I identified thirteen shows listed as current and with a diverse cast. Of these thirteen, nine had one or more persons of color as lead actors (Blackish, Cristela, Fresh Off the Boat, Galavant, How to Get Away with Murder, Agents of SHIELD, Modern Family, Scandal, and Selfie). Moreover, three of these nine shows had a main cast consisting only of persons of color (Blackish, Cristela, Fresh Off the Boat). Over the years, ABC has had several TV shows with a diverse cast. Unlike NBC and CBS, these shows have predominantly been cast with Asian American actors, e.g. The Green Hornet (1966–1967), Barney Miller (1974–1982), Mr T. & Tina (1976), Gung Ho (1986–1987), All-American Girl (1994–1995), and Lost (2004–2010).

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Three conclusions can be drawn from the survey done on NBC, CBS, and ABC. First of all, NBC seems to have relinquished its role entirely as a network where diversely cast TV shows can find a home. Instead, ABC seems to be carrying the torch at present. Second, the diversely cast shows on NBC and CBS were predominantly African American. In the case of NBC, the number of African American shows does not seem to be because of a network policy, but rather because of the network’s collaboration with Norman Lear and Bill Cosby, respectively. After NBC and CBS stopped producing shows with all African American casts, the number of persons of color in supporting roles seems to have increased. The number of leading roles for persons of color has not. At present, the diversely cast shows on ABC represent several minorities, both as leading actors and as supporting actors. On the other hand, in the past, ABC seems not to have produced any African American TV shows of lasting significance. Third, the absolute majority of all known TV shows starring Asian Americans as leading actors have been produced by ABC.

Where does this leave Fresh Off the Boat? If you put Fresh Off the Boat into a network television context in general, the show is indeed something of a rarity. Asian Americans as a group are poorly represented on television. However, put Fresh Off the Boat into the context of ABC over the past fifty years and it becomes the network’s latest attempt in representing the Asian American community.

Several of these previous attempts by ABC to represent Asian Americans have been failures. The characters were played according to stereotypes and as a consequence the ratings suffered which resulted in early cancellations. However, with 6.1 million viewers and a 1.9 rating in its third week, Fresh Off the Boat could very well be the show that will survive.

Bearing in mind that the last TV show with an Asian American cast aired in the mid-1990s, Fresh Off the Boat being broadcast on one of the biggest networks in the United States is of great significance. However, only time will tell if the show will turn out to be historic.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

 

 

Happy First Anniversary, The Boomerang!

On June 5, 2013, I published the first post on my new and first-ever blog, The Boomerang. The post was a short but sweet thought-piece about Rihanna’s album Rated R, the songs of which have spawned several science fiction stories revolving around a recurring group of characters. Hopefully, you will soon be able to read these stories in some kind of publication near you.

The Boomerang got its name from a catch phrase used by a Swedish comedy team in the 1990s. Each episode ended with the host sitting in an armchair, holding a boomerang. He said, “In the words of my friend, the Australian, I will be back.” I have taken that catch phrase, changed it slightly to not sound like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, and made it my sign off phrase after each blog post I publish.

I chose the name and the catch phrase because I love these comedians and because my blog was intended to be a place to where I could return to express my thoughts.

So, how has The Boomerang been doing during its first year?
Here are some stats that might be of interest.

Number of views June 2013: 131.
Number of views May 2014: 708.

The Boomerang experienced a spike in views when Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula, separating the region from Ukraine, and information on the history of the region was scarce. I was happy to see that The Boomerang could fill a part of that void.

Over the course of this first year, these are the three most popular posts on The Boomerang.
Most popular post: HG Wells The Time Machine and the Issue of Race.
Second most popular post: Iron Maiden and the Crimean War.
Third most popular post: Five Reasons You Should Go to Mississippi.

I started The Boomerang as a place where I could find my voice as an historian and as a writer. I am grateful to all of you who have decided to give me and my posts a piece of your time and your thoughts.

I am looking forward to a second year with The Boomerang.
I hope you will join me.

In the word’s of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Five Reasons Why You Should Go To Mississippi

Richard Pryor once said in a stand-up performance that no one goes to Mississippi on vacation. “Who in their right mind would say, Let’s go to Biloxi!” Well, Mr. Pryor, I haven’t been to Biloxi, but I do go to Mississippi on vacation. So I guess I’m out of my mind.

I first went to Mississippi in 2005. What brought me there was the blues. I discovered the blues in my teen-age years through Janis Joplin and Led Zeppelin and I always wanted to know where that music came from.

Since my first visit in 2005, I have been back to Mississippi four times. Mississippi is a fascinating place in so many ways.

Here are five reasons why Mississippi is such a special place and why you should go there.

1 The American Spirit
During the first half of the 20th century, the State of Mississippi was one of the richest in the union. By the end of that same century, it was one of the poorest. King Cotton had passed away and his kingdom had crumbled.

When I first visited Clarksdale, MS, in 2005, the town was like a ghost town. There was little activity going on and if you wanted to have a meal after five o’clock in the afternoon you had to go somewhere else. There were a number of people working to get the town to come alive again – The Delta Blues Museum, Cat Head, Ground Zero – but overall it was slow.

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Cotton, Tunica, MS
Photo: EH Kern

On my visit last year, signs of revival could be seen all over Clarksdale. The early pioneers had been joined by others. Musicians, artists, writers, restaurants and cafés. Locals shaping their own destiny and people moving in from out of state. And tourists.

Clarksdale is not alone in this. Just north of Clarksdale is Tunica. Tunica was at one time the richest county in the United States, only to plummet to being the poorest. Today, Tunica is on the rise, too. Casinos have brought in money and Tunica is the third largest area for gambling after Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Median wages have risen and Hwy 61 is now a four-lane highway. And there are tourists.

The examples of Clarksdale and Tunica are examples of the American Spirit. No matter what hits you, you keep on fighting. It’s not a matter of how you fall. It’s how you get up.

2 The American History
Mississippi is what you could call a nexus. Here many of the threads and developments that shape the way America looks at itself and relates to itself come together. Mississippi was the scene of some of the most brutal fighting during the Civil War. Mississippi had some of the harshest Jim Crow-laws. Mississippi had some of the most violent Civil Rights-clashes.

If you want to know what makes the United States the United States, you will find the answer in Mississippi.

3 The American Storyteller
No one tells a story like a person from Mississippi. And they do it so well that you don’t mind having your whole day interrupted just so you can listen.

In Mississippi you will hear stories that involve William Faulkner, whiskey bottles and shotguns.

A blues musician and Vietnam veteran named Switch Blade will tell you the meaning of life.

A woman will preach love and compassion through Christ when you come looking for Pinetop Perkins.

And if you hang around long enough, you will be part of the story. That’s how I ended up participating in the recording of a blues album at a juke joint.

4 The American Music
To me one of the most important contributions of the United States to the world is music. It was music that originated in Mississippi that helped tear down the Iron Curtain.

There are a number of music genres that are indigenous to the United States. Of these genres the blues, country and rock and roll come from Mississippi. All of them stem from the musical expression of the African-American population.

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Po Monkey’s . In front of the building is a Blues Marker. Markers of this kind are placed by the State of Mississippi at locations important to the history and development of the blues.
Photo: EH Kern

Can you imagine a world without blues, country and rock and roll? I can’t.

If you go to Mississippi you will find their origins and you will find how people play them today. Sometimes by blowing three trumpets at one time. Sometimes by playing the harmonica through your nostril. Sometimes by just grabbing your snare drum and sit in with whatever band happens to be playing.

Furthermore, the State of Mississippi is the birth place of Oprah Winfrey, Elvis Presley, Jimmy Rodgers, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, William Faulkner, BB King, Robert Johnson, Tennessee Williams, Jim Henson (and consequently Kermit the Frog), and many many more.

5 Moving Forward
Mississippi is a fascinating place. It has a controversial history and many things are waiting to be corrected. There is still segregation in Mississippi. Not racial segregation, but economic segregation that often run along the same lines. There is poverty and limited opportunities for young people, most often African-American. However, since I went to Mississippi for the first time in 2005 much has changed. And for the better.

Just the fact that the state slogan now reads The Birthplace of America’s Music says a lot.

If you want ideas as to where to go when you visit Mississippi, Book Riot can tell you what to do in Oxford, MS.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Sources:
Mississippi Quick Facts