This part is actually what I have been mulling over for a week, but then the Part 1 thoughts wanted to come out first. So here we are. My mind has been duly uncluttered, and I am ready to tackle the idea that has been pursuing me and wanting me to find words for it. I’m still cranky, though.
It started forming when I read “The Sweet Life in Paris” by David Lebovitz, who is an American food writer based in Paris. This book is the second one I’ve read by him; the first was “L’appart: The Delights and Disasters of Making My Paris Home.” Both are recipe laden narratives of Lebovitz’s experiences of deciding to live in Paris. “The Sweet Life in Paris” is about his decision to stay permanently, and his observations of Parisian life and norms; and “L’appart” documents the ups and downs of buying an apartment in Paris.
Somehow, Lebovitz manages to make us smile but also feel the pangs of adjustment to immigrant life. I suppose it’s “expat” if a white man moves to another country? This fine balance he achieves is partly because he is a great writer, but also partly because he has a genuine interest in his new home city, and a desire to learn how to function in it.
Like most Americans who write about living in Europe, though, he shows a deference to the process of adapting and assimilating that the same type of American memoir writing rarely displays when it is about Asia or the Middle East.
By this, I mean that we usually see some version of “Oh, look how stubbornly Parisians adhere to cultural and food norms, and, well, I guess I must learn what they expect! Swoon. Giggle. Sob. Rage.” There is pretty much zero hope of Parisians adjusting and shifting for foreigners, so in the face of such aggressively normative public life, Americans who choose to live there must yield, and it’s all worth it because cheese and wine and poodles and cafes. Eventually, all bow to the hidden subtleties that make Paris so worth surrendering to. And etc.
These narratives always contain their opposite: how the American memoirist perceives American norms. As with other writers, Lebovitz writes with his assumptions presented as universal reality. He comments on how Americans are programmed to be “nice,” which is why Parisians can seem so brusque and indifferent; on how he took customer service for granted in the US, and misses it when he has to confront truly awful service in Paris.
I am sure everything Lebovitz says is true. For him. But he has only to ask and observe how minorities experience Americans to gather a different viewpoint. I think many of us have lived experience of the US that often differs very starkly from his, and I shan’t go into detail because I’m not in the mood for argumentative DMs. I’ll just say that for me, it takes a certain amount of preparation to head out into American public life so that I can be ready for all the ways that it is also aggressively normative. And yes, I do know that you experience it too, because you might be a woman, or have a facial piercing, or are LGBTQ. Remember: cranky.
In the past week, a couple of podcasts also lent examples to my idea formation. One was the awesome Amateur Gourmet podcast by food writer Adam Roberts. He interviews his guests about their approaches to food and cooking, and their foundational memories around both, and he does it with gentleness and acceptance. In one episode, he and his guest talked about a chef who had had to step away from his career because of sexual harassment of female employees, and they wondered out loud whether it was now taboo to say you liked the body of work of someone who has done something so heinous.
I am rarely shocked anymore when marginalized people (Roberts is gay) pick the side of injustice. Seeking carveouts is the norm; breaking that pattern is harder to do, and takes more inner struggle. So yeah, Roberts did defend the idea that it is okay to still cook from the famous chef’s recipes, and continue to recommend his books and techniques. He also said it’s possible to go too far with cancel culture. (CRANKY)
In a later episode, Roberts was talking to another guest about the Alison Roman debacle (she is a food writer who said some racist things—for brevity, I can’t get into the details), and pretty much said that since Roman is clearly amazing, the pile on HAD to be because she is blonde and blue eyed, and it happened in the time of George Floyd’s murder. I unfollowed Roberts on every platform after hearing that.
The other podcast that pinged for me was The Feminist Present. In the latest episode, they interviewed Nell McShane Wulfhart, who wrote a book called “The Great Stewardess Rebellion,” about how flight attendants in the 70s fought for labor rights in their profession.
At the end of the interview, the host and guest were reflecting on how second wave American feminism was rarely intersectional, BUT (there is always a justifying but) the fact is that these flight attendants won a lot of feminist victories which benefit everyone today. So we mustn’t castigate them, apparently, for that lack of intersectionality.
I refuse to attribute my response to crankiness. I think this is precisely the sort of pressure we face as minorities, to lend support to narratives that de-center us, and erase important voices. The very fact of constantly writing books about people in the majority, and how much more easily those books find publishers, creates a false perception that the subjects of these narratives were the ones who did the lion’s share of the transformative work.
I am frankly bored and enraged by how egregiously people will ignore the organizing work of Black and Brown women in other industries, so they can state their case that flight attendants won these victories in some labor vacuum as they traversed the skies. Why talk about seamstresses and canners when you can glam up the feminist narrative? And let’s talk about why most of those flight attendants were not women of color. Again, cherry picking and then telling us to ignore the erasures. Similarly, the urge to cherish and defend a chef who probably drove women out of professional kitchens; the default focus on majority culture chefs–we need to stop this level of engagement with bad faith actors at every level.
The clamor for change is coming from inside the house. It’s me. I am finally ready to stop engaging. I think you have already arrived at the connection to autism. How we should not be rushing off to the metaphorical Paris that is pre-Covid social norms which were appalling in their lack of interest in autistic people; how we should publish and buy and read and discuss the works of disabled people; how we should stop defending eugenicist theories about disability, and organizations that uphold them; and work on our own understanding of why none of these shifts are remotely cancel culture.
There are already people doing amazing work, and we should be sidestepping the limelight hoggers to get to that real work. NOT seeking carveouts and exceptions for why the people we are used to seeing in the spotlight are not intersectional, or justice oriented at all. Or worse, how we allow them to get away with stealing the ideas of people who don’t have equal access to a public platform, and profiting from that theft, receiving credit and financial reward for ideas and strategies for victory that are not their own.
When this insistent, faux naivety comes from many directions, it is way past time to reassess.