All posts by Saminya N Bangura

Why Do We Love Disaster Stories?

As a few of us highlighted in class yesterday, disaster films, novels and television shows hold a certain fascination for the American public. From the cult following of The Walking Dead to the massive box-office success of the earthquake disaster film San Andreas, there is something about mass devastation that draws us in each and every time. Someone in class expressed a belief that it could be the interaction with our own mortality that makes us so enamored with these films; but I believe that something decidedly more positive plays a role in this mass consumption. When it comes down to it, disaster films, novels and shows play into tropes that are highly valued in our culture and by doing so, they become media that can reflect what we believe is the optimum society, the society we should be.

Disaster stories are rarely about the disaster itself. Rather, the event is just a vehicle for a much broader topic, namely people and their interactions with each other under duress. Thus, the stories are always centered on individual characters, fleshing out their relationships (or lack thereof) before throwing the catastrophe into the mix. This formula (used one way or another in all disaster media) allows for us to see humans just like ourselves engaging in a situation of extreme stress and terror and, as it often is, we empathize with them. We get invested in their decisions (and at times, even make the decisions with them), we cry when they cry and triumph when they triumph. And when the same values of heroism, love and finally redemption appear consistently in these films and novels, that empathy translates into a sort of understanding. Even if the characters who uphold those values die, we understand them to be the example to look up to. We understand the message that not even disaster should unravel our humanity; if anything, it’s meant to make it stronger.

Reading World War Z brought this topic to mind because I read the novel having already seen the film. Thus, I could see that though there was general inspiration taken from the novel,  as a whole, the film adaptation of World War Z didn’t touch on the intricate political and social considerations that the novel did. Instead, the directors went with that classic disaster film trope: the hero going above and beyond to save his family and managing to save the world too along the way. It is interesting to think about, then, how even criticisms can be turned around to focus on redemption.

All in all, disaster media shows humanity as unwaveringly good, even under the strain of absolute chaos, and I wonder if we hope that seeing it play out on screen enough times will make us replicate these heroes’ actions, should disasters like this ever come true.

Cultures of Paranoia in Ender’s Game and the War on Terror

In class yesterday , the question arose as to whether or not our present situation with ISIS is in any way comparable to the war between humanity and buggers in Ender’s Game. While I agree with the rest of the class that there are very concrete differences in the kind of warfare, there is no denying the shared culture of paranoia.

One of the scariest aspects of terrorism is not the fact that it is impossible to pinpoint the enemy on sight (though that is definitely a cause for discomfort), but the fact that, by default, it relies on the element of surprise. In other words, whereas a traditional war involves maneuvers, strategy and more or less expected movements of the enemy, terrorist attacks are random; and nine times out of ten, they target civilians more than soldiers. This translates easily into its primary function of creating mass panic, because not only do people react to the initial random attack but also the threat of future ones that are equally unpredictable.

This looming threat — and the inability to substantially combat it — has resulted in what I would consider a culture of paranoia, a culture in which we become obsessed with and act according to what-if’s which are at times the most extreme worst case scenario. We’re seeing it right here and now, as America in particular reacts to the attacks in Paris. From over twenty governors proclaiming they will no longer accept Syrian refugees to Donald Trump citing a need to keep tabs on all Muslims living in our country, the shock of what happened in Paris paired with the belief that something similar could happen here has lead to bigotry bred in paranoia, pre-emptive action that makes enemies out of innocent people to help these lawmakers — and those that think like them — cope with a difficult threat.

Even the rhetoric we use to talk about the terrorism issue plays into this culture. In calling the conflict “The War on Terror”, we make terror our enemy and, given the explicitly ambitious nature of ‘terror’ and ‘terrorism’, fear and paranoia an inevitable bedfellow. After all, the only way we’ve ever related with terror as a concept is through fear and when the war is presented as us versus terror and terrorism, it is difficult to pull away from that visceral and at times destructive reaction.

This same culture of paranoia exists even more clearly in Ender’s Game. Pre-emptive attacks are, in general, an understandable tactical move; but that isn’t to say that it is always justifiable and, furthermore, logical. It is mentioned multiple times in the novel that the buggers haven’t been an actual threat to humanity for decades and yet, all discussion about them whether it be culturally (‘buggers and astronauts’) or in the military context assigns them an air of absolute urgency. The clearest indication of this extreme culture is the very existence of Ender himself — his parents had received permission from the government to have him only because their other two children were lacking and couldn’t contribute to the “war” efforts. In other words, Ender is outright bred to be a weapon against an enemy that might attack and might be plotting even after decades of no activity.

For me, that was easily the most fascinating but also unsettling aspects of the novel: the way that paranoia not only guides those in authority but also allows the citizenry to be guided. The circumstances of Ender’s birth reveal a dystopian-esque relationship between the government and its people; yet it’s painted as logical — and sometimes even justified — because of the bugger threat or, more specifically, the military’s obsession with it.

Indeed, by the end of the novel, we learn that any threat the buggers posed at that point was imagined and amplified by the paranoia that had come to define the culture. And while that isn’t to say that ISIS and other terrorist groups are only as bad as our paranoia is making them, it does call into question the way that we relate to the War on Terror and the collateral damage our paranoia-based pre-emptive attacks can cause.

Identity and Validation in Americanah

While I’ll be the first to admit that Americanah is a well-written book that captivates readers through its narrative and language, I know that my association to and affinity for the book rests primarily in my identity. As a first-generation American born to Sierra Leonean immigrants, I see pieces of myself in Ifemelu, in Dike, in Obinze. I see pieces of my friends and family in the people they interact with, the people they love, the people they stand at odds with. And this is easily the first time that I’ve ever read a book with which I identify so strongly.

So it seems only fitting that I might write my blog post about identity in the novel and specifically a couple moments of validation that I was particularly fascinated by. In class yesterday, Jarred asked us to consider moments of gendered identity (as opposed to racial/ethnic identity) in the novel and immediately, my mind turned to a moment that seemed to use one to validate the other. It comes on pages 14-18 (in my version of the book) when the hairdresser Mariama is talking to Ifemelu about ethnicity and eventually, the Igbo men she wants to marry. From the get-go, the way heritage and ethnicity are dealt with in the scene is interesting as Mariama takes ownership of sorts over Ifemelu’s identity, stating that Ifemelu is Yoruba instead of asking. Then she goes on to outright deny Ifemelu the right to her Igbo heritage because of her looks and, when the topic of Igbo men comes up, would prefer to trust her sister’s word over that of Ifemelu, the actual Igbo person. That is, until Ifemelu mentions a boyfriend wanting on her in Nigeria. Then, all at once, Mariama seems to not only trust Ifemelu’s identity but validate it altogether: she only considers Ifemelu’s opinion on Igbo men marrying not-Igbo women to be valid once Ifemelu has established herself as a good woman by her standards — and in this case, that’s a woman with a man to marry and a future as a wife ahead of her.

This was an incredibly fascinating scene because it seems to speak to so many issues at once. Not only does it unpack the notions of gender and gender roles in this cultural context but it also nuanced the way that ethnicity can be validated by concepts that should really have no bearing on its authenticity in the first place.

This wasn’t the only moment of identity validation (or lack thereof) that stuck out to me. Another came on page 219 when Aunty Uju was criticizing Dike for writing a paper in which he says he isn’t sure about his identity and “does not know what he is”. Rather than engage this admission (which is a fair one for a child in his cultural position, I think), Aunty Uju dismisses it as America’s bad influence, and in doing so, decides for him how he should feel about his identity. She essentially becomes the authority on his identity turmoil, declaring that it doesn’t exist and that he is what she says he is.

I think I found this trend of external validation to be so interesting because it surrounds a form of identity that, by definition, should be unquestionable. Your ethnicity, race and heritage is yours and yours alone and yet the novel seems to undo this notion by having external forces be the judge and jury about the main characters’ ethnicity and heritage. Sadly enough, this is hardly just a fictional phenomenon. I have cousins whose membership to our culture is challenged off of the mere fact that their skin color is “too light” for them to be African and even after telling those people once, twice, three times where they’re from and who they are, it remains the butt of jokes, a source of playful contest: “Man, you’ll never guess where this girl is from!”

It’s a fascinating thought that other people can, at times, feel more qualified than us to define who we are.