Why I am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto- Jessa Crispin

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Making feminism a universal pursuit might look like a good thing—or at the very least a neutral thing—but in truth it progresses, and I think accelerates, a process that has been detrimental to the feminist movement: the shift of focus from society to the individual. What was once collective action and a shared vision for how women might work and live in the world has become identity politics, a focus on individual history and achievement, and an unwillingness to share space with people with different opinions, worldviews, and histories. It has separated us out into smaller and smaller groups until we are left all by ourselves, with our concern and our energy directed inward instead of outward.- Jessa Crispin, Why I am not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto

There’s something that Martin Luther King said that I read a few years ago that stuck with me, which is about the importance of reading widely, including reading views that you don’t agree with. I learned that is true and that we can learn a lot from people who think differently.  In the past this isn’t the sort of book I’d have picked up, I mean so many of my readings are feminist-focused; as a black woman I’m interested in feminism, and how to make my life, and the lives of the women in my life, better, so my defenses were slightly up when I read this one.

From my perspective, this book is a critique of feminism, and in my opinion every movement should be critiqued. As Crispin says, “Feminism is—should be—a movement, not an excuse to stand still.” She makes many good points and gave me food for thought. Overall she did make me think about labels and how important it is for us to understand what we are claiming when we take on any label. Basically, this requires self-reflection, and Crispin assumes that feminists do not self-reflect.

Being confronted almost daily with pinkwashing  capitalism, I was really glad that Crispin addressed how feminism is used in advertising.  Crispin says “ It is often supposed that acceptance of the feminist label will also result in the acceptance of the meaning behind it, but the meaning has been drained away by this psychotic marketing campaign. A woman can now take up the feminist label without any true political, personal, or relational adaptations whatsoever. It’s just another button on her jacket, another sticker on her bumper. The inner contents remain unchanged.”

I do agree with this, and additionally I agree with the importance of not celebrating someone just because they are a woman. See this article: https://www.buzzfeed.com/doree/feminist-hypocrisy-is-the-new-trend-in-startup-narratives?utm_term=.ouOegWxX4#.gsZo0K4xQ

Throughout the book I found myself disagreeing with plenty, and part of that reason was Crispin seems to be focusing on white middle-class feminism, which clearly I have little to no connection with at all. Crispin also uses examples from feminism online, and that makes me think that her data is skewered towards the West, as so much else is. I find that  it’s so easy to forget that there are worlds out there outside of the West, and the citizens of those places might not have the word “feminist” in their vocabulary, may not have access to the internet and other resources, but they are still fighting to improve the lot of women, and in very diverse ways, ways that are not mentioned in this book. Crispin also made several sweeping assumptions that surprised me, such as that feminists hate men.

But still, despite Crispin’s sometimes arrogance and blanket statements, I feel this is an important read. It’s a quick one too, and you can probably skip over a few of her essays as some of the stuff is repetitive.

 

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A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging- Dionne Brand

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I have not visited the Door of No Return, but by relying on random shards of history and unwritten memoir of descendants of those who passed through it, including me, I am constructing a map of the region, paying attention to faces, to the unknowable, to unintended acts of returning, to impressions of doorways. Any act of recollection is important, even looks of dismay and discomfort. Any wisp of a dream is evidence.- Dionne Brand, A Journey to the Door of No Return

There’s a short list of books that I’d say have recently changed my worldview and how I view things. This is one of them. From my research into the black diaspora through literature, art, and stories, etc, I always marvel at is what was saved and what was lost. This book goes a lot into what was lost and I read it from a personal place, identifying strongly with many of its themes.

The main premise of this book is the Door of No Return in the Black diaspora. The door in the book’s title is defined as “a place, real, imaginary and imagined…The door out of which Africans were captured, loaded onto ships heading for the New World. It was the door of a million exits multiplied. It is a door many of us wish never existed.”  I think I’m fortunate to know where my “door” is; but for others in the diaspora this relationship is much more fraught with confusion. Because The Door is not an imagining for me,  I initially felt that the book was more suited to North American and Caribbean Black people who might not know their origins, but the more I read the more I saw that oppression was universal and the Diaspora has a strong connection:

Having no name to call on was having no past; having no past pointed to the fissure between the past and the present. That fissure is represented in the Door of No Return: that place where our ancestors departed one world for another; the Old World for the New. The place where all names were forgotten and all beginnings recast.

It never occurred to me until a few years ago how the importance of maps goes further than just showing us where a place is situated. In a lot of literature I’ve read, it’s clear that maps are very political. In a lot of black literature in particular, there seems to be a focus on redrawing maps metaphorically, creating maps, changing frontier lines and so on. I thought about this poetry excerpt I wrote down a year or so ago by Jamaican poet Kei Miller:

“We speak to navigate ourselves

away from dark corners and we become,

each one of us, cartographers.”

(from: The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion)

I enjoyed how Brand used her life experiences to support the theories she came up with. Her life in the Caribbean, moving to Canada, and travelling to Africa, Asia, Europe, South America, and Oceania: all her observations and experiences tie in to discussions of belonging, blackness, identity, and diasporic connections. Colonialism and its violence is evident in a lot of the places that Brand travels to.

Brand is Canadian and as I live in Canada I can relate to her even further on that point. She discusses erasure of blackness, something Black Canadians know well. There was so much in her writing about Canada which I wish was discussed on a more national scale. About Canada she says:

“How do we read these complicated juxtapositions of belonging and not belonging , belonging and intrabelonging. In a place such as this, so full of immigrants, everyone is deeply interested in belonging.”

And:

“National identity is a dance of artificiality, since what it dances must essentially be unchanging. Some would say, well, no, Canadian identity has changed over the last thirty or fifty years. Not at all.  We are drawn constantly to the European shape in its definition. A shape, by the way, which obscures it own multiplicity. And when we read the hyphenated narratives we see the angst produced by this unchanging quality.”

It’s important to say that Brand is a poet because her metaphorical and intuitive language really illuminated a lot for me. This book is rich and extra-sensory, great depictions of history, the land, the people. Reading this was like going on a journey with Brand and learning a little something about myself and my place in society and history at every stop. It was a very enjoyable and thought-provoking process., and she leaves us to think about how true the following is: “To live in the Black Diaspora is I think to live as a fiction–a creation of empires, and also self-creation.”

Decolonising the Mind- Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

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“Education, far from giving people the confidence in their ability and capacities to overcome obstacles or to become masters of the laws governing external nature as human beings, tends to make them feel their inadequacies, their weaknesses and their incapacities in the face of reality; and their inability to do anything about the conditions governing their lives.”- Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Decolonising the Mind

I’ve never seen colonialism described as succinctly as in the following passage:

“The real aim of colonialism was to control the people’s wealth: what they produced, how they produced it, and how it was distributed; to control, in other words, the entire realm of the language of real life. Colonialism imposed its control of the social production of wealth through military conquest and subsequent political dictatorship. But its most important area of domination was the mental universe of the colonised, the control through culture, of how people perceived themselves and their relationship to the world.”

I read this book with my experiences in Africa, conversations with my relatives and friends, and my education at the back of my mind. Trying to make sense of history and my place in it made this book invaluable to me, and helped clarify and reiterate a lot of things. The more I  read books on Africa, be they about art, language, history, or politics, the more I’m amazed how the continent is seen, in many people’s minds, as a homogeneous  country. This passive thinking really masks the  complexity of issues in the continent. Even without colonialism Africa would have been quite intricate but  colonialism has truly caused mayhem in the entire continent. And in many ways, language is one of the biggest weapons the colonialists used to do so.

I like wa Thiong’o a lot. Not only is he a great writer, but it’s also clear he is a very passionate person with a lot of  love for his country, his continent and his language, and a great advocate for the traditional arts. He is very blunt and I admire that a lot. Nobody is safe from his criticism,  even a few of my personal favourites such as Achebe, Soyinka, Cesaire. In a sense he thinks they were brainwashed for putting the language of the colonizers on a pedestal. I think it’s an interesting argument to be had but it’s hard for me to pick a side because I’m admittedly colonized myself and English-dominant, although it’s not my first language. I found it useful to read wa Thiong’o’s perspective regardless.

And wa Thiongo’s perspective is important. He grew up during colonialism after all, so he, unlike me, had the opportunity to study in his native language and unfortunately had to endure being forced to assimilate into the English language.He details how the British tried to suppress local languages in Kenya, how they arrested those who tried to encourage cultural proliferation, and controlled the gathering of people in places.  He sees the differences in himself and his society before and after English language education was forced on him, and his explanations and insights are very precise and often personal.

wa Thiong’o is very thorough in how he discusses the role of language as a carrier and transmitter of culture, and what happens when that language is taken away from people. This is such a common story, not just in Africa but even here in Canada, and I think we’re beginning to understand just how damaging it is to suppress and devalue language. In what planet does it make sense that a Kenyan student in colonial Kenya would be punished for speaking Gikuyu or Swahili instead of English? Personally I remember how I was often treated better than my cousins just because I could speak English and they couldn’t; I learned early on how language can be elitist:

“I believe that my writing in Gikuyu language, a Kenyan language, an African language, is part and parcel of the anti-imperialist struggles of Kenyan and African peoples. In schools and universities our Kenyan languages– that is the languages of the many nationalities which make up Kenya– were associated with negative qualities of backwardness, underdevelopment, humiliation and punishment.”

Another great thing about wa Thing’o is how he respects the peasantry (his choice of word). The other day I was reading about the Third Estate in France during the 19th Century revolution and this reminded me of how in Africa the peasantry are the majority, and that’s where the culture comes from. Who makes the oral stories, who upholds the culture? It’s nice to see the peasantry being accredited with maintaining culture and tradition:

“These languages, these national heritages of Africa, were kept alive by the peasantry. The peasantry saw no contradiction between speaking their own mother tongues and belonging to a larger national or continental geography. They saw no necessary antagonistic contradiction between belonging to their immediate nationality, to their multinational state along the Berlin-drawn boundaries, and to Africa on the whole.”

I was struck  by the violence caused by colonialism. Colonialism was celebrated, and that’s the world I grew up in: gratitude to the colonialists for “rescuing” us. But what we know now is that it was very very violent and the wounds are still there. If, like wa Thiong’o said, in 1984 the president of the West German Federal Council visited Togo in order to celebrate the centennial of Germany establishing Togo as a German colony,”to commemorate not the resistance to colonisation but the glory of colonisation,” then clearly we haven’t learned much and dialogue still needs to be had.

The constant unlearning, the decolonizing, that needs to be done because we were lied to, is something that I thought of throughout this book. And it’s only now that I’m realizing in more detail just how horrific colonialism was, just how much we’ve lost. What I aim to do myself, how I aim to decolonize my own mind, is by reading more of my history. I’ve also been thinking about how I’ve been influenced by other cultures so I wonder how far I can be decolonized. This got me thinking about globalization and how that has affected us, I would be interested to hear Thiong’o’s thoughts on this. This is definitely a must-read for everyone, there is so much we don’t know or realize about the impact of the actions of those who came before us, and this is a great start.

A House of My Own: Stories from My Life- Sandra Cisneros

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“I have always been a daydreamer, and that’s a lucky thing for a writer. Because what is a daydreamer if not another word for thinker, visionary, intuitive–all wonderful words synonymous with ‘girl.'”

It’s official: I’m a Sandra Cisneros fan. This is the first book of hers that I’ve read and over the last few years I’ve found that reading a writer’s non-fiction before reading their fiction has helped me better get into the writer’s mind, understand their influences and what drives them. for a long time. This collection of essays and  book reviews span 30 years of Cisneros’s writing career and go into stories of her life, including her meeting Gwendolyn Brooks and others, her travels, and relationships with her family and friends.

I’m always looking for certain words to detail my experiences of being raised in different cultures and looking for a place to call “home.” I pick  up a lot from different writers and books, but through language and content, I got closest to my feelings through this book .All these essays are excellent, so warm, and relatable. Cisneros inspired me to write and to talk about my own experiences, she showed me these stories are important:

“For those of us living between two worlds, our job in the universe is to help others see with more than their eyes. . . . Our work as bicultural citizens is to help others to become visionary, to help us all to examine our dilemmas in multiple ways and arrive at creative solutions. Otherwise we all will perish.”

I loved Cisneros’ thoughts on writing, inspiration, and her need for her own space. I could relate to this and I often think of how, due to my introvertism, I desired lots of time alone. It that was impossible due to my culture, being an introvert created some suspicion it seems. So I’ve always loved the night time:

 ” When I was young and still living at home, my father would call me vampira for writing at night. I couldn’t tell him the night was my own private house.”

Very prevalent were the themes of a house/home, not only the importance of a home as a place where you live which contains memories, but also as your own place in which to organize and decorate as you wish, based on your wants, needs, etc. There was an interesting essay in this where Cisneros was talking about her love of bright colours and how her neighbours did not take too kindly to her periwinkle purple-coloured home in San Antonio:

“Colour is a story. An inheritance. Were the San Antonio missions rascuache because they imitated the elaborate Moorish tiles they could not afford? Nobody wants to live like they’re poor, not even  the poor. They prefer to live like kings. That’s why they paint their houses with the only wealth they have–spirit.

       Mango yellow, papaya orange, cobalt blue. When colours arrive from the ‘nobodies who don’t create art, but handicrafts, who don’t have culture, but folklore,’ as Eduardo Galeano sardonically says of the poor, they don’t count, they’re not available until a Rockefeller or a Luis Barragan borrows them and introduces them into the homes of the rich and gives them status.”

One essay in particular stood out to me,  one in which Sandra Cisneros talks about a graduate seminar she attended on memory and imagination. The books assigned in seminar were Speak, Memory (Nabokov) , Out of Africa (Dinesen), and The Poetics of Space (Bachelard). This is what she said about the seminar:

“I went home that night and realized my education has been a lie– had made presumptions about what was ‘normal.’ I wanted to quit school right then and there, but I didn’t. Instead, I got mad, and anger when it’s used to act, when used nonviolently has power. I asked myself what I could write about that my classmates couldn’t. I didn’t want to sound like my classmates; I didn’t want to keep imitating the writers I’d been reading. Their voices were right for them but not for me.”

And there, I believe, is the strength one eventually has when they realize that what makes them different makes them unique and is a good thing. And we can celebrate our culture and experiences through our writing, and that’s what Cisneros did without worrying about how her work would be perceived by those who didn’t know, or didn’t care to understand, her culture and experiences. This unapologetic writing is what I’ve come to associate with feminists of colour such as bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and Gloria Anzaldua, and it’s so refreshing to see.

 

I read a library copy of this book but I will definitely be buying myself a copy.

To end this review, a link to Astor Piazzolla’s Oblivion.

“I think Piazzolla’s music demands you dance alone, preferably under the stars.”-Sandra .Cisneros

Astor Piazzolla- Oblivion

 

 

The Gloria Anzaldúa Reader

“The world knows us by our faces, the most naked, most vulnerable, exposed, and significant topography of the body. When our caras do not live up to the “image” that the family or community wants us to wear and when we rebel against the engraving of our bodies, we experience ostracism, alienation, isolation, and shame.” Hacienda caras, una entrada

Anzaldúa tells the story of my life, my experiences, my thoughts. Although I’m not a Chicana like she was, so much of what she wrote could have applied to me, in fact to any woman who belongs to a marginalized or a minority group. Whether it was her lectures, her poetry, or interviews, her work was such a wealth of knowledge. She was a poet, an artist and more, and used poetic language from which she drew from Jungian psychology, and also intertwined her Spanish language.

I rarely come across theory in academia that is so interesting, refreshing and accessible.Anzaldúa puts herself into her work: her sensitivity, her empathy, her activism. She discusses the reading of this theory as a holistic experience which really resonated with me having read so much dry theory:

From: En Rapport, In Opposition Cobrando cuentas a las nuestras

“From where I stand, queridas carnalas-in a feminist position-I see, through critical lens with variable focus, that we must not drain our energy breaking down the male/white frame (the whole of western culture) but turn to our own kind and change our terms of reference. As long as we see the world and our experiences through white eyes -in a dominant/subordinate way-we’re trapped in the tar and pitch of the old manipulative and strive-for-power ways.”

Anzaldúa also discusses the problems with being the token woman of colour in academia or in similar space, how stressful it can be, and the ways in which those of us who find ourselves in that position can protect ourselves. It’s reminiscent of the Donna Kate Rushin poem ,The Bridge, which is included in the “This Bridge Called my Back” anthology.

From: Speaking in Tongues A Letter to Third World Women Writers

“We cannot allow ourselves to be tokenized. We must make our own writing and that of Third World women theorist priority…We are in danger of being reduced to purveyors of resource lists.”

Regarding feminism, Anzaldúa clearly shows how mainstream feminism is not enough for women of colour; she discusses how we have different issues and although we are not encouraged to write, we really should because through our writings we can create theories that will change policies, etc:

“Why am I compelled to write? Because the writing saves me from this complacency I fear. Because I have no choice. Because I must keep the spirit of my revolt and myself alive. Because the world I create in the writing compensates for what the real world does not give me. By writing I put order in the world, give it a handle so I can grasp it. I write because life does not appease my appetites and hunger. I write to record what others erase when I speak, to rewrite the stories others have miswritten about me, about you. To become more intimate with myself and you. To discover myself, to preserve myself, to make myself, to achieve self-autonomy. To dispel the myths that I am a mad prophet or a poor suffering soul. To convince myself that I am worthy and that what I have to say is not a pile of shit. To show that I can and that I will write, never mind their admonitions to the contrary. And I will write about the unmentionables, never mind the outraged gasp of the censor and the audience. Finally, I write because I’m scared of writing but I’m more scared of not writing. Why should I try to justify why I write?”

I liked how Anzaldúa injects so much of herself in her writing. She shows that her identity, which is complex, and her upbringing, are all part of who she is, and how she sees the world. She discussed her own personality and was very honest and transparent about several things:

“Being a mestiza queer person, una de las otras (“of the others”) is having and living in a lot of worlds, some of which overlap. One is immersed in all the worlds at the same time while also traversing from one to the other.”

In: Spirituality, Sexuality, and the Body: An Interview with Linda Smuckler

“At this time in my life, I need a lot of solitude. I live in my imagination, in my inner world. There has to be a balance: I need a community of people, I need to go out into the world, I need that connection. So it’s either extreme. When I find myself being too much out in the world I have to put shields around myself so that I can come home, recuperate, recharge, and reconnect. But if I’m in my little womb of a house (for me, the house is always a symbol of the self), if I’m too protective, too much of a hermit, I have to take those shields off and let people in.”

I am so glad I have a copy of this as I feel the knowledge I learned and the knowledge that was reaffirmed, will last with me for a long time.

A long quote, one of my favourites and the basis of my thesis, coming up:

“What is considered theory in the dominant academic community is not necessarily what counts as theory for women-of-color. Theory produces effects that change people and the way they perceive the world. Thus we need teorías that will enable us to interpret what happens in the world, that will explain how and why we relate to certain people in specific ways, that will reflect what goes on between inner, outer, and peripheral “I”s within a person and between the personal “I”s and the collective “we” of our ethnic communities. Necesitamos teorías that will rewrite history using race, class, gender, and ethnicity as categories of analysis, theories that cross borders, that blur boundaries-new kinds of theories with new theorizing methods. We need theories that will point out ways to maneuver between our particular experiences and the necessity of forming our own categories and theoretical models for the patterns we uncover. We need theories that examine the implications of situations and look at what’s behind them. And we need to find practical application for those theories.”

Hopes and Impediments- Chinua Achebe

This was a great collection of essays from one of my favourite authors. I’m quite in awe by how Achebe managed to almost singlehandedly put African literature on the map and it’s clear he cares a lot about his culture, his continent, and fiction in general.

If there’s anyone I would trust to succinctly point out what’s wrong with Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” it would be Achebe. Out of all the essays I read in this collection, his “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” was the most interesting, and had me saying “Yes!” more times than any other. “Heart of Darkness” had always bothered me, especially as so many people seem to like it. I admit I couldn’t even finish it. What Achebe wrote about it sums up my feelings about the book:

“And yet it is set in Africa and teems with Africans whose humanity is admitted in theory but promptly underminded by the mindlessness of its context and the pretty explicit animal imagery surrounding it.”

But so many people say books like this aren’t too be taken that seriously, they are just fiction. But the more I read the more I realize fiction isn’t just fiction; it shapes our beliefs in so many ways. And when race is added to the mix, well…

The other essays were just as thought-provoking and interesting. I got the sense that this is the sort of book that needs to be taught in school. Achebe is a fearless critic of colonialism, racism, and imperialism, and  rightly so. But the book also focuses on his advocacy of literature. In particular  I really enjoyed his look into African oral tradition, and his contrasts of African and European literature. He got me thinking about the fact that African oral stories do not belong to anyone once said out loud, it gives a different view of authorship for sure, especially contrasted with a book. Things like that I’d never really considered before, despite coming from that tradition,.

This book was published in 1990 so a lot of things have changed since then. For one, America is now a lot more powerful and influential in Africa than Europe is, but still, I felt so many of the points in this book were still valid:

 “Many Europeans have made enormous contributions towards the understanding of Africa in Europe. Some of them have even helped us to see ourselves anew in the freshness of an itinerant perspective. But what we are talking about here is dialogue which requires two people and cannot be replaced by even the most brilliant monologue.”

The last quote made me think about the present:   I see the dialogue happening, especially online, and it’s exciting to see these new voices entering the dialogue, unearthing stories that were hidden, ignored, or misunderstood. The empire is writing back, as they say, and it’s been powerful.

I always forget how funny Achebe is, and then I read something like this:

“How often do we hear people say, “Oh I don’t have the time to read novels,” implying that fiction is frivolous? They would generally add—lest you consider them illiterate—that they read histories or biographies, which they presume to be more appropriate to serious-minded adults. Such people are to be pitied; they are like a six-cylinder car which says: Oh, I can manage all right on three sparking-plugs, thank you very much. Well, it can manage somehow but it will sound like an asthmatic motorcycle!”

It would have been interesting to see how Achebe would have responded to Ben Okri’s Guardian piece.

Men Explain Things to Me- Rebecca Solnit

“Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about. Some men.”

Men explain things to me all the time, whether it be in person, online, in classroom, on dates, and at work. And my female friends tell me the same thing. Of course I have often been left wondering what it is about me that make these particular men believe I know nothing about the subject? It can’t just be my gender,surely? It often is but often their actions are often racialized. This book focuses on gendered assumptions of a woman being seen as “some sort of obscene impregnation metaphor, an empty vessel to be filled with their wisdom and knowledge.”

My thoughts for the majority of this review come from the titular essay, “Men Explain Things to Me.” Despite the fact that she’s an accomplished writer, Solnit experiences “mansplaining” though she doesn’t use that term herself. What was surprising to me was how the essay started off in a light and slightly humorous tone but soon got quite dark, clearly showing us the consequences of silencing women, and those consequences are dire.

There was a lot of depressing data on rape and domestic violence figures. Solnit acknowledges male feminists and men who actually listen to women’s experiences, and she also questions the image of masculinity in society. It reminded me a bit of Anais Nin’s thoughts in her essay “In Favour of the Sensitive Man”:

“What’s the matter with manhood? There’s something about how masculinity is imagined, about what’s praised and encouraged, about the way violence is passed on to boys that needs to be addressed.”

After reading all the depressing numbers I can’t help but wonder why there hasn’t been more to address the violence facing women. In fact, it’s quite shocking that this isn’t a priority (especially not for some politicians, as Solnit points out some awful examples of rape culture perpetuated by Republican politicians). But this is not only an American problem, it’s pretty much a global issue. As Solnit points out, why hasn’t there been a war declared on rape and domestic violence? It is a pandemic although the media prefers to call these incidences isolated incidents.

There are other essays in the collection that are just as good and as informative as the titular one, with Solnit’s poetic touch that didn’t come through as strongly in this collection as it did in one of my favourites, The Faraway Nearby. One I especially liked was “Worlds Collide in a Luxury Suite,” which was about the IMF and Dominique Strauss-Kahn. In this essay she showed the relationship between power and exploitation, and one can say domestic violence and sexual assault follows a similar pattern:

“Her name was Africa. His name was France. He colonized her, exploited her, silenced her, and even decades after it was supposed to have ended, still acted with a high hand in resolving her affairs in places like Côte d’Ivoire, a name she had been given because of her export products, not her own identity.”

I could go on and on about the above paragraph; it’s stated so succinctly but there are so many layers to it.

A quick read with plenty of food for thought.