March 20, 2011
The Mantle: essential programming for all America. Fabulous! (complete interview here)
Washington Correspondent, The Nation
July 7, 2010
To the Editors,
Your coverage of the [PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature 2010] was just perfect. We circulated it roundly through the office and it was a big part of our press report. Thank you!
Manager, PEN World Voices Festival/Public Programs
PEN American Center
November 11, 2009
To the Editors,
I've had more time to read The Mantle and am now a confirmed fan. Really. A great place to read, a great job on your part. Thank you.
English and Literary Studies, Fordham University
Unconfessed (2006); Imprendehora (2009)
Blomkamp Knows What He’s Doing
In response to District 6 in District 9: The Metaphoric Menagerie (November 5, 2009)
November 11, 2009
To the Editors,
While I do agree with portions of JK Fowler’s piece, I would argue that Neill Blomkamp does an excellent job of using metaphor to create a unique narrative that effectively problematizes race relations. Mr. Fowler identifies two “conflictual” narratives: in one, humans are pitted against non-humans and in the second, Blompkamp makes use of metaphor to illuminate the white/non-white conflict in South African apartheid. For Mr. Fowler, these two narratives conflict. For me, however, these dual narratives play off of each other quite nicely to construct a single narrative: the way in which particular parties are racialized and dehumanized in order to justify and drive a particular political agenda. Seen in this light, it is not important to distinguish between whether we are to see the aliens as non-human or as references to the way in which non-whites were treated in South Africa, for in either case the point is clear: these victims are made the “other” in order to pursue a particular political agenda. Blomkamp is asking the audience to grapple with the means by which othering is done (through effective propaganda, e.g., viral marketing campaigns), and then is showing just how effectively political constructs work as a divisive tactic. The moments where we see black Africans hating what Mr. Fowler refers to as their “metaphorical self” are genius. I do not believe that Blomkamp means for the aliens to be representations of black Africans. Rather, Blomkamp is using these moments to express the frightening notion that those who have been historically oppressed can too, one day, become oppressors; or as Mahmood Mamdani, Director of Columbia University’s Institute of African Studies, says “victims become killers.” These black Africans are not hating themselves—rather, they are hating the politicized and racialized other that rests at the bottom rung of society.
While I acknowledge that I may not represent the typical American that Mr. Fowler asserts is “uneducated on Africa,” I do not believe that the film reinforces racism, aligns black Africans with aliens or reifies the notion that Africa is the land of the “foreign, violent, dangerous, and adventurous;” at least not with respect to this aspect of the storyline. Quite to the contrary in fact, I believe that Blomkamp is turning this idea on its head. Africans, like the rest of us, are capable of falling prey to the politicized constructions of the Other; they are no different. This is a tendency of the human condition.
Concerning the issue of “bastardized Chinese characters” and the use of subtitles, I would argue that Blomkamp here again is playing with racialized and politicized social constructions. The white man is king- and we all understand him; all others we understand to lesser and varying degrees and therefore we need subtitles. The Chinese characters make use of our pre-existing notions of otherness; for all intents and purposes, Blomkamp could have chosen Greek, however it would not have resonated the same way. China is globally relevant to us these days and yet Chinese characters remain “foreign” to us, as we make little attempts to understand them. We may recognize that they look familiar, but we do not concern ourselves to really dig deeply. It seems only appropriate to draw on this idea of foreignness in such a film.
A point that is not given enough attention in Mr. Fowler’s piece is one that would deal with the way in which Nigerians are depicted in District 9. (Admittedly, Mr. Fowler wrote his piece based on other factors than District 9 the film, per se). Nigeria recently banned the movie, taking offense to the barbaric depiction of Nigerians as gang leaders that trade illegal alien technology, have sex with the aliens, and eat their body parts as a means to gain their power. I wonder: why is it that Blomkamp chose to use Nigerians this way? While Malawian actor Eugene Khumbanyiwa, who plays a gang leader whose nickname is Obasanjo, also the surname of former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, suggested that the film not be taken too literally (BBC News: September 19, 2009), Blomkamp made far too many strategic choices in this film to brush this one off so flippantly. So I am forced to ask, why Nigerians? Many, like Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, have made the case that it is because of pre-existing prejudices and hatred between Nigerians and South Africans (Guardian: October 5, 2009).This explanation is too narrow. It does not make sense to me that Blompkamp would revert to such a local, internecine feud between Nigerians and South Africans when he does such a fine job of making the aforementioned metaphor resonate on a universal level. On the one hand, Blomkamp is grappling with tendencies of general human relations and then on the other hand, he seems to be focusing on a very specific conflict.
I would also argue that if in fact Blompkamp is pointing to the existing conflict between Nigerians and South Africans, then it may not be immediately obvious to all audiences. An American may see the choice of Nigerians as one that rests in the email fraud and corruption currently associated with Nigeria in the United States. Whether an American has knowledge of the conflict between Nigerians and South Africans or not, an American might think Blompkamp uses Nigerians because the stereotype resonates with the audience in the same way that the recent Sony Play Station 3 advertisement (which made light of the inordinate number of Nigerian email scams) made use of a well known stereotype of Nigerians. Blompkamp here has lost the universal appeal of the film, as different audiences are left to interpret the role of Nigerians according to their local context. I am not confident that Blompkamp would make such a misstep given how bold his metaphor is. So I still must ask, why Nigerians? Is it really just because audiences, even in their own particular, localized ways, would understand that Nigerians are, as Adichie put it, “fraudsters, drug dealers, and cheats”? Or is there another explanation for this choice?
For me, District 9 does a great job of holding a mirror up to society and reflecting the tendency we have to accept and perpetuate politicized constructions of race. However, I am at a loss in understanding some of Blomkamp’s other creative choices, and I too believe that there are questions that remain that cannot be answered by any one other than Blomkamp himself and those that put the project together. All in all, it is quite a thought provoking piece for an alien sci-fi movie.
Alison M. Désir
Graduate Program for International Affairs, The New School
New York City, USA