Rabbit: Ms. Pat on Hustling and Humor

Review of Patricia Williams’ Rabbit: A Memoir, with Jeannine Amber (Dey St, 2018)

Total Fan Now

I knew as soon as I heard Patricia Williams—aka, Ms. Pat—on The Joe Rogan Experience (episode no. 1312) that I had to get her book. Ms. Pat is devilishly funny. I was a fan by the end of the interview and wanted to support her content.

Listen to her on Rogan’s podcast below to see why I was immediately smitten with her brand of comedy:

Unnerving Childhood

What struck me most about Ms. Pat’s description of her childhood, growing up in Atlanta, was how much of it seemed very familiar to anyone who’s spent some time living abroad in poorer, underdeveloped countries—what academics smarter than I used to call the Third or Fourth World but now the “developing world.” Grueling poverty is simply a fact of life in many of these places. I’m reluctant to place poverty at the foot of all our social ills, but in the case of so much of the developing world it really can explain a lot. However, I’ve never deluded myself into thinking that there were not pockets of this type of misery in America. But for those who may have, Ms. Pat’s memoir is a wonderfully pointed reminder of how completely shitty one’s childhood can be in the United States.

The more unnerving side of Ms. Pat’s childhood for me was her family life. Her mother drank and smoked a lot and was involved in a zillion different petty crimes. As a preteen, Ms. Pat and her sister were molested by her mother’s boyfriend. They often had very little of anything nice to eat. A day-old hotdog bun laced with ketchup was a common dinner. At thirteen, Ms. Pat was pregnant. Her crap boyfriend beat her regularly whenever he wasn’t knocking up some other underaged girl. And throughout her teenage years, Ms. Pat sold crack to the black community of Atlanta to keep food on her own table.

Parts of Ms. Pat’s childhood made me think of many of the characters from Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. It’s as if magically they were transported to a metro Atlanta of the 1980s and 90s.

Funny as Hell

In spite of all the mishaps and misadventures, Ms. Pat’s retelling of it all is priceless. There are too many scenes from the book to recount here. But for a quick example, here is one about her mother cooking outdoors in downtown Atlanta:

Mama had a lot of ideas that made sense only to her. Like the time she decided to cook dinner out in the yard. I was ten years old and we’d moved to a run-down duplex at the bottom of a hill in a shitty part of town known as The Bluff. We didn’t have any gas in the house because it got cut off from Mama not paying the bill. So she went out and bought herself a charcoal barbecue grill, which she set up on the screened-in porch, right outside our front door.

The only problem was that grill wasn’t made for frying up a skillet full of catfish, like Mama used it for. One evening while she was cooking dinner, the whole porch filled up with thick black smoke. It was so bad that Mr. Willie, who lived in the other half of the duplex, came outside and started hollering.

“Mildred!” he yelled. “Bitch, you tryna kill me?”

“Mind your gotdamn business, you high-yella muthafucka!” Mama yelled back.

They kept up hollering at each other until Mr. Willie decided there was no reasoning with Mama, and called the fire department instead.

The fire truck pulled up to the house with sirens blaring. Mama stepped out of a cloud of black smoke with a fork in her hand, and asked, real casual, “What the hell going on out here?” like her stupid ass wasn’t the reason for all the commotion. When the fireman told her she had to move her grill off the porch before she burned the whole place down, Mama threw up her hands in exasperation:

“Where I’m supposed to cook then?”

“It’s up to you, ma’am,” said the fireman with a shrug. “As long as you keep the grill outside.” That’s when Mama moved her little cooking operation to the front yard. She’d be out there in her faded housedress and a plastic shower cap pulled over her Jheri curl, like she was in the privacy of her own kitchen, not out on full display. As hungry as I was, I would pray for the middle of the month when Mama would run out of food stamps and was low on food, and stop cooking in the yard. Eating ketchup sandwiches for dinner was better than getting teased all day long by kids in class who passed Mama on their way home from school.

Becoming a Comedian

Ms. Pat ends her memoir with the story of how she got up the courage to start standup comedy. A social worker encouraged her to get into comedy after hearing the way Ms. Pat would talk about how she grew up.

Ms. Pat starts to make the rounds of comedy clubs in the South. She eventually finds her way onto a few popular podcasts, where she ends up reaching a larger audience and getting attention of the journalist Jeannine Amber, who helps her put together this book for publication.

Toward the end of the book, Ms. Pat reflects on her experience and the way she uses her real-life experience for material:

But I don’t know if I want to be the poster child for growing up in the hood. Not everybody had it as bad as I did. Plenty of poor black girls don’t get knocked up by married-man predators, and not every kid has a mama who looks the other way. There are lots of poor folks who work hard and take care of their babies. There are teenage moms who make it out of the hood without ever selling drugs or dropping out of school. I just had the extra bad luck to be born into a family that had been beat down for so long, all that was left to our name was a bunch of hustlers and addicts. I had no one to show me the way.

I could have easily have turned out different, ending up like my sister…or all the other girls who I saw get lost to the streets. Instead, I feel like I was specially blessed.

People ask me all the time how I turned my life around… I wanted to turn my life around, and what got me there was love.

Highly Recommended

Ms. Pat’s book Rabbit: A Memoir makes for a wonderful read and I highly recommend it. Consider following her podcast entitled The Patdown with Ms. Pat, which is also a lot of fun! I’m looking forward to her doing a special sometime soon.

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*Rabbit: A Memoir Reviewed by T. F. Rhoden. The image-photo credit for the top of this post goes to the talented Seattle artist Iosefatu Sua. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons license.

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Liberalism Disavowed: Communitarianism and State Capitalism in Singapore

Review of Chua Beng Huat’s Liberalism Disavowed: Communitarianism and State Capitalism in Singapore (NUS Press, 2018)

Liberalism Lite: Is Singapore a Liberal Democracy or a Social Democracy?

Amos Yee, a nineteen-year-old Singaporean citizen, was granted political asylum in the United States at the end of September 2017. A video blogger and occasional provocateur, Yee found himself jailed in the city-state for two months in 2015 and two weeks in 2016. Yee has produced video segments in which, by his own admission, he has “bash[ed] the Singapore government” on one ideological point or another. The videos that have caused, not merely condemnation, but arrest have been diatribes against religion. An avowed non-believer, Yee has poked fun at the most popular faiths in Singapore, including Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam. One memorable video shows the young Yee “humping the Koran” in protest against some of the text’s more violent strictures.

Arguing that Yee had a “well-founded fear” of political persecution if returned to Singapore, his attorneys successfully made the case to the US Board of Immigration Appeals that he be granted political asylum. For the US, a precocious rant on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram is blasé stuff these days—not to mention squarely protected under the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Any modern liberal democratic regime worth its name would have shrugged off the teenager’s online activity.

Though some of us tetchier adults might murmur that Yee’s commentary was in poor taste, those acts all fit squarely within the freedoms outlined within political liberalism. Yet, what might have been passed over for another teenager exploring and commenting on his understanding of the world about him ended up being considered an affront to the political harmony of Singapore. For the regime, the youth’s commentary on religion, society and politics was enough to place him under state detention.

Amos Yee’s recent turmoil may be a useful test case for deciphering Singaporean political society beyond the usual liberal, and somewhat lazy, critique that the city-state is “authoritarian.” To say that Singapore is not a liberal democracy—that Singapore is patently illiberal on some axiomatic elements of modernity—is easy enough. What is more challenging is to describe clearly the Singaporean regime, whilst not ignoring or belittling the fact that an absolute majority of Singaporeans over the last half century have continued to approve of a government that nakedly “disavows” classical liberalism.

Singapore has not always been against liberalism. Indeed, those liberal components that do survive within Singapore, particularly in how the island trades and communicates with the rest of the world, can be traced backed to its colonial history since 1819 as an important trading depot under the British. After independence in 1963, the island merged with Malaya to form Malaysia, only to opt out of the newly formed country a couple of years later to go it alone. The 1950s–60s brought unemployment between 10 and 12 per cent, along with threats of civil unrest, an attack by the Indonesian military and forced reintegration into Malaysia ever looming.

During these coeval exigencies, the People’s Action Party (PAP) was formed in 1954 with Lee Kuan Yew in a leadership role. The PAP consolidated earlier wins at the ballot box in the 1950s by gaining over 80 per cent of the vote in 1968. With varying, though continued, PAP success, Lee Kuan Yew held the prime minister’s office until 1990, embarking on a modernisation that propelled the city-state into becoming one of the highest GDP per capita nations in the twenty-first century. Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP were always practical in their modernisation plans, never fearing to be openly dismissive of political liberalism whenever it went against policy. Fifty years later, the PAP still reigns. For many liberal commenters today, Singapore is a “de facto one party-state” with the PAP as continued steward of illiberal governance.

Chua Beng Huat’s Liberalism Disavowed: Communitarianism and State Capitalism in Singapore is an informative and nuanced publication on this question of liberalism’s place in contemporary Singapore. The publication serves as a useful text on both the city-state’s peculiar politics and the nature of liberalism itself as it is actualised—or rejected—in the modern world.

Most fascinatingly, Chua’s exposition of what he terms the Singaporean regime’s commitment to “communitarianism” may lead one to reconsider the meaning of “social” in “social democracy.” After reading this book, one may even be tempted to argue that Singapore is—because of its rejection of many liberal tenets—not just a wayward example, but rather the best and purest example, of social democracy in the contemporary era… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Review of Chua Beng Huat’s (蔡明發) Liberalism Disavowed: Communitarianism and State Capitalism in Singapore originally published in Mekong Review by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit at top of this re-post is a screenshot from Episode 6 of 宇宙よりも遠い場所 via reviewer Guan Zhen Tan at Mothership.sg. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons license.

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Too Much Democracy

Despite appearances, something is missing at the heart of Thai democracy.

This rainy season marks eighty-five years since Thailand had its first experiment in democracy. Before 24 June 1932, the country had been ruled by royal absolutism. Many wonder, since the nation experienced a democratic revolution so long ago, why it is under the control of a military-imposed government in 2017. After a total of nineteen coups over the last century, what is holding back Thailand’s embrace of liberal democracy?

An important piece of the puzzle, which is almost always overlooked, goes back to the very nature of that first democratic revolution. Though the revolution may have been “democratic”, it most definitely wasn’t “liberal”.

The real challenge for Thailand is that, despite its repeated attempts at an expansion of democratic processes and inclusion, the nation has sorely fallen behind in its commitment to the natural liberties of its citizenry. Thais, when they do experiment with democracy, almost always place democratic processes over liberal institutions in their understanding of the liberal democratic regime.

Recent events in Thailand have illustrated this problem. The accession and fall of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, with his palpably democratic pedigree after multiple wins at the ballot box in 2001, 2005, 2006 and by proxy in 2007, 2011 and 2014, proved to be as exciting for some voters as it was horrifying for others. The military coups in 2006 and 2014, and the months of public demonstrations in downtown Bangkok that always preceded them, were downstream from a fundamental disagreement between those who emphasise liberal principles of government and those who emphasise democratic principles.

The contention here is that by embracing democracy without first securing liberal rights and institutions, Thailand has had to swing widely from the excessive, utopian-like embraces of democratic elections to even more pathetic retreats into the faux security proffered by the men in olive green.

Revisiting the People’s Party founding document of the 1932 revolution is instructive. One can argue that the seeds of the current calamity were already sown in the six principles of the revolutionary vanguard at that time:

1. Maintain securely the independence of the country in all forms including political, judicial, and economic etc.;

2. Maintain public safety within the country and greatly reduce crime;

3. Improve the economic well-being of the people by the new government finding employment for all, and drawing up a national economic plan, not leaving the people to go hungry;

4. Provide the people with equal rights (so that those of royal blood do not have more rights than the people as at present);

5. Provide the people with liberty and freedom, as far as this does not conflict with the above four principles;

6. Provide the people with full education.

Not until the fifth principle in the People’s Party demands did liberty and freedom make an appearance. Furthermore, those natural liberties were allowed only as long as “this does not conflict with the above four principles”. Basic components of liberalism like natural liberties, balancing institutions, freedom of expression, religious liberties and the right to one’s own property were an afterthought at best—some not mentioned at all.

The reason we can refer to this event in 1932 as a “democratic” revolution, despite its brevity, is that it carried with it a commitment to equal voting rights in general democratic elections. The democratic element of the new regime worked fine. So why did this first attempt at democracy in Thailand fail? Perhaps more importantly, why do nearly all unadorned democracies in the world since the time when Plato and Aristotle theorised about them eventually crumble?

One of the more frustrating blind spots in the study of Thai politics today—and comparative politics more broadly—is the tendency to… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Originally published in Mekong Review by T. F. Rhoden (also here at Academia); photo image credit of the plaque image from Thailand for this re-post goes to The Isaan Record. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

 

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When The Future Comes Too Soon

A review by T. F. Rhoden of Selina Siak Chin Yoke’s When The Future Comes Too Soon.

For those who had been living under Western imperialism in Asia, the sudden loss of presumed superiority in almost all things political, social, and cultural of the European colonial powers after Japan’s sudden attack in late 1941 was a seminal event. Japan’s own, often violent, experiment in colonial administration that immediately took its place, lasting through to the summer of 1945, and its attempts at pan-Asianism reinforced for the many that the “civilizing” project need not demand colonial masters from abroad.

As many historical studies have argued, this changed the course of colonialism in Asia. In fiction, however, this perspective of former colonial subjects (as opposed to the colonials themselves) living through the daily trials brought about by the tumultuous events of the Second World War, particularly in mainland Southeast Asia, has been less well explored.

Selina Siak Chin Yoke’s novel When the Future Comes Too Soon is an important corrective—as well as an exciting read—on the subject. The story follows Mei Foong, a Malaysian-Chinese wife and mother, as her family attempt survival during the Japanese occupation of British Malaya.

A picturesque scene of colonial Malaya is developed throughout the novel. Its richness brings the reader closer to the baju styled garb, the sleeping barlay raised platforms of Malayan homes, the Hokkien, Hakka, and Cantonese dialects of Malayan Chinese, the Kempeitai secret police of Japan, the betel nut chewing of commoners, the local parang machetes of workers, the official British Resident, the hardwood chengai of the tropics, and an innumerable number of traditional honorifics and kinship terms of multilingual Malaya. The protagonist Mei Foong’s interactions in this world are colorful.

The struggle of multiethnic Malaya is paralleled in the… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit of Malaysian jungle for this re-post goes to this Leo from FWallpapers. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Notes of a Crocodile

A review by T. F. Rhoden of Qiu Miaojin’s Notes of a Crocodile, translated by Bonnie Huie.

Taiwan’s top court just recently ruled in favour of gay marriage, culminating in what could be Asia’s first jurisdiction to allow members of the same sex to marry. Despite many challenges that still persist politically with the ruling, it indicates a more liberal attitude toward non-heterosexual relationships than when Qiu Miaojin published the novel Notes of a Crocodile in the early 1990s.

Qiu’s frank exploration of lesbianism was a breakthrough for the island’s literature and for modern Chinese fiction as a whole. More than twenty years on, the English-speaking world can now also enjoy this daring, youthful and insightful book in a translation by Bonnie Huie.

Half journal and half epistolary, the story follows the troubled protagonist Lazi as she tries to understand her place in society during her years at university. Something of a misfit, Lazi explores the counterculture of Taipei as she struggles to embrace an identity that is labelled “queer”. The plot is driven by her relationships – some romantic, others more platonic – and the numerous failed attempts at lasting love for individuals who don’t fit the traditional, Taiwanese notion of heterosexuality.

In “Notebook #1” of the book, Lazi starts with an explicit admission. Her tone is straightforward and continues throughout the novel:

In the past I believed that every man had his own innate prototype of a woman, and that he would fall in love with the woman who most resembled his type. Although I’m a woman, I have a female prototype too.

However, regardless of the exploration of gender, the detailed self-inquiry of Lazi’s listless move from high school to college to her first post-university job constitutes a universal and empathetic coming-of-age story. Indeed, lesbianism is incidental to the power of the story.

Woven in between the chapters on Lazi’s story of young love is… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden with this edition of review published in South China Morning Post; photo image credit of Taipei for this re-post goes to this link. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Trivialities About Me and Myself

A review by T. F. Rhoden of Yeng Pway Ngon’s Trivialities About Me and Myself, translated by Howard Goldblatt.

Outsider views of Singapore suffer from numerous preconceptions and generalizations, many the result of sometimes humorous foreign venting in online forums about the city-state’s overweening legal apparatus and legal codes. Yet Singapore is affluent and materially developed by any measure.

Nor is Singapore widely known as a place of literature, but that is at least in part because much of the city’s life lies behind language barriers. This perception is exacerbated by a national campaign, promoted by the city to advertise its strength as a destination for foreign investment rather than a cultural hub.

The novel Trivialities About Me and Myself by Yeng Pway Ngon does two things splendidly to disabuse these notions. First, the novel is a much-needed corrective to the usual stereotypes. The author, a winner of the Singapore Literature Prize and the Southeast Asian Writers Award as well as a prolific poetic, utilizes his work to critique the technocratic veneer of the island nation.

Second, the book employs a theme of the human condition as it intersects with modernity. Big words often used to describe Singapore’s experience of modernity—industrialization, modernization, legalization, and now financialization—do not tell us much about the personal level. Rather, this novel is about one man’s struggle with a breakneck world of change. Though the color is local, the story is global.

The author’s interpretation of the Singaporean dilemma is funneled through the protagonist Ah-hui and his struggle with the ‘Self’. This Self is a voice in Ah-hui’s head that represents one aspect of his ego. Ah-hui speaks to the Self, as if the Self were a separate being. Ah-hui and the Self argue and disagree. Sometimes Ah-hui is the victor. In these instances, an ethic of material profit and consumption wins. Sometimes the Self is the champion. This is meant to represent traditional values. In Ah-hui’s case, the Self will often prefer the exegesis of classical Chinese literature or the righteousness found in the defense of those who have been left behind in Singapore’s expanding economy.

The confrontation between Ah-hui and the Self is reflected on two levels. In as much as the Singaporean city-state moves away from Confucianism, so too does Ah-hui move away from the Self. The plot is driven by both the struggle inside Ah-hui’s mind and by the stress of Singaporean society to embrace fast-paced development.

When young, Ah-hui and the Self share the same mind. Their values coincide:

When I started working, Myself was still in student mode and placed righteousness above profits in everything we did. He seemed unaware that we live in a society where money counts more than anything.

Later Ah-hui—and Singaporean society—decide that they must break with the traditional values advocated by the Self:

Poverty is not merely a shame, but is the greatest evil, the origin of all sins. One needs to be obsessed with money in order to be free of penury.

Ah-hui struggles at his newspaper job. His Self wishes Ah-hui to pursue journalistic integrity, while Ah-hui wants only to please the newspaper’s board for career advancement. This disagreement comes to a head one day at work. The separation between Ah-hui and the Self becomes a medical issue. When Ah-hui feels overwhelmed with the burden of his ethically-stricken Self, he visits the newspaper’s in-house doctor. He dismisses Ah-hui’s concerns and reassures him that this is the normal plight of the contemporary Singaporean:

In these modern times, the self disappears after one grows up, but yours is still around, and that is the source of your problems. The doctor looked soberly at me. The only solution is to get rid of the self… The average, normal person gets rid of the self when he is in his thirties, he went on. If you still need your self in your forties, that means you are refusing to grow up.

Alongside this strife between Ah-hui and the Self, the story also recounts the boom times of the late 1980s and early 1990s as vividly as it does the race riots of the 1960s. A sense of place is evoked as much by these events in Singapore as it is by the kinship terms between Ah-hui and the other characters of the novel. The last part of the book ends with the events of the SARS epidemic and the protagonist’s failing prospects in business as well as in love. The old-age neurosis that besets Ah-hui toward the end is reflected in society’s moral descent as a whole.

Many of the scenes in the novel are picturesque, the imagery of which also reflects the skill of translator Howard Goldblatt. Of the nearly-fifty translations completed for writers from the mainland, Taiwan, and Hong Kong—including noteworthies like Mo Yan, Jiang Rong, and others—this is only Goldblatt’s third foray into Southeast Asia. This serves as a reminder that Chinese literature extends to the greater diaspora.

Trivialities About Me and Myself by Yeng Pway Ngon is as a memorable novel of one individual’s struggle to overcome the challenges of material society. Though it is set in Singapore—and debunks common stereotypes of the island nation—the story projects an inventive use of the travails found in a fast-changing world.

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*Originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; watercolor image credit for this re-post goes to Khor Seow Hooi at The Colours of Heritage. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Review of Texaners by Jessica Gregory

Review

Reviewed by Jessica Gregory at Sabatoge Reviews for T. F. Rhoden’s Texaners: Eight Short Stories.

‘…those perfectly imperfect souls of expansive, yet common diversity.’
Texaners

What comes to mind when thinking of Texas? What stands out from the jumble of imagery that us non-Texans have subconsciously absorbed from various transmitters? Some montage of the following, I would say: the lonely ranches in the desert with their clanking windmills; the Rio Grande; cowboys silhouetted by the red setting sun; Country and Western music; the Dallas theme-tune; gun-toting, shooting, Second Amendment espousing Republicans; George W Bush; oil fields; all wrapped up in the sweltering Texan heat. And in light of this, this reviewer can readily understand Rhoden’s compulsion to attempt to debunk these stereotypes. As Rhoden himself says:

These stories are about new Texans—new Texaners. These children of the new Texas have no idea, no connection aside from locale, of that Texas of yesteryear.

Instead of cowboys Rhoden is exploring suburban, city, Texan life, particularly from the perspective of those that don’t find themselves apart of the Texan stereotype – the students, the immigrants, the multiracial, the liberal, the artists, among others. Rhoden has cited James Joyce’s Dubliners as a source of inspiration for this collection, and so he has set the bar high when attempting to emulate Joyce’s exploration of place-based identity.

Texaners consists of eight short stories. From the outset we are cast into a world far… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Review originally published in Sabatoge Reviews by Jessica Gregory; image credit for this re-post via City-Data. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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