Surprised Stranger in a Strange Land

One of my favorite movie scenes is from the 1939 Alfred Hitchcock thriller, The 39 Steps. Our hero, Richard Hannay (ably played by a dashing Robert Donat), is fleeing from police and spies. He darts into an auditorium, where he is mistaken for the featured speaker and led to the dais. Hundreds of eyes are upon him and the crowd grows restless. Without knowing the topic or the audience, Hannay launches into an impassioned speech, stringing together platitudes and general observations. He senses what the crowd wants and they are charmed. Hannay wins their support, just as he is whisked away by the police.

I thought of Hannay-Donat often while reading Rachel Dewoskin’s memoir, Foreign Babes in Beijing. It is a very entertaining book, well-told, with a most improbable story line. Dewoskin plays a role – American woman in Beijing – in her daily life and on television. She is committed to the role, but at the same time she knows that she is living a performance.


Dewoskin is the daughter of a well-known American sinologist. She spent much of her childhood traveling in China, and after graduating from college, decided to take a job in Beijing working for an American public relations firm. She knew little about PR, but at age twenty-one, she wanted to see something new. China in the early 1990s, just as it was opening up new economic opportunities to the west, was an ideal opportunity for an American with Chinese language skills. Dewoskin started work, found a place to live, and began to explore and keep a journal.

She describes her day-to-day work existence with engaged bemusement and humor, particularly as she worked diligently in trying to figure things out. China can be a terrifically difficult culture to navigate, and at that period, she was a pioneer. Very little made sense. Every interaction, especially with friends and colleagues, was influenced by culture and protocol. Only through the benefit of time did she realize her errors and false assumptions. The language posed constant challenges. She notes often that she was never quite sure she understood what others were saying. Adding to it, just about everyone can be a bit of a fool in their early 20s.

Propelling an interesting journey into the absurd, a man she met at a party encouraged Dewoskin to audition for a role on Chinese television. Dewoskin had acted in college so thought of it as a bit of lark. Much to her surprise, she was cast as a lead in the soap opera “Foreign Babes in Beijing.” Playing the role of Jiexi, a sexy American who is able to snare a Chinese man, Dewoskin became a star and an unwitting vehicle by which Chinese culture worked through issues of western women. The soap was a multi-year smash. Overall viewership was more than 600 million.

After several years of acting, making friends and growing up, her adventures invariable come to an end. Dewoskin made her way back to the United States. Several years later, her notebooks became the source of this book. She is now a writer.

Dewoskin does not make grand sweeping arguments in Foreign Babes. Nor does she try to prove points about Chinese culture. Instead, she describes and recounts with a keen appreciation of people and detail. She is smart and thoughtful.  The result is a very interesting account of an intelligent and resourceful woman doing something unexpected in a foreign world that she struggles to understand. It’s an apt description of many immigrant stories – only this one is told from a different perspective.

David Potash

Detroit’s History

On a recent road trip I had the opportunity to drive through Detroit. It had been almost twenty years since I last visited the city. I found it impossible to explore the city without engaging critically. The poverty and depopulation were striking. What happened? Was it culture or policy? How much did deindustrialization play? Poor leadership? Where were the buildings, houses and people? My imagination couldn’t stop wondering about what used to inhabit the open spaces.

origins-urban-crisisThere are more than a few books and websites capturing images of Detroit’s ruins. Poverty tourism, though, is not the same thing as historical analysis. To understand Detroit, I strongly recommend Thomas Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. It is an outstanding work, thought-provoking and comprehensive, well-deserving of its many prizes.

More traditional accounts of Detroit’s decline focus on the 1960s, the city’s riots, and white flight. Sugrue persuasively argues that the origins of the city’s troubles were present much earlier. He makes clear that the cause was not an inevitable result of market forces or the result of the breakdown of urban families. Sugrue has no truck with blaming the poor for being poor. Instead, he outlines how urban inequality is facilitated by mapping racial inequality on the city’s geography. It is played out in housing, in education, in healthcare, in employment, in crime, and in opportunity. “To a great extent in postwar America, geography is destiny,” Sugrue writes.

The book is organized into three large sections. In “Arsenal,” the economics and politics of the immediate post-war years in described. Sugrue focuses on the battles over segregation and integration. The city is large and featured many single family homes. White citizens of Detroit fought in the courts and in the streets to protect all-white neighborhoods. Blacks were forced into smaller areas with inferior and expensive housing stocks. Federal redlining through the FHA exacerbated segregation and pressure. Local electoral politics made things even worse, as white conservative politicians ran on race. Middle-class and working-class support for New Deal democratic liberalism collapsed in an onslaught of racism.

“Rust,” the second section, examines the difference between black and white Americans sometimes working in the same factories but always living differently in very different parts of the city. The last section, “Fire,” tracks the neighborhood associations and organizations that actively worked against integration and the civil rights of blacks. When Detroit erupted in riots and flames in 1967, we have a clear sense of the causes.

Collectively, Sugrue spells out how race and racism ate away at the possibility of integration and shared class interests, as well as the development of a healthy city. These sped Detroit’s economic collapse, which added to white flight. Things went from bad to worse in the ensuing years, as the tax base for the city shrank and the needs of its poor inhabitants increased. It is an extremely depressing story.

Detroit declared bankruptcy in 2013. The city has seen economic development in its downtown, but vast parts of the city are economic, educational, and socially depressed. Michigan’s unemployment rate in February, 2016 was 4.8% – in Detroit it is 11%. While there is money and hope in Detroit’s suburbs and the state as a whole, and a small movement in downtown, it is difficult to be optimistic about the city’s future. Racism casts a very long shadow.

David Potash

Countering Reading Reluctance

I have a confession. When told that I must read a book or see a movie, my instinct is often to go in the other direction. “Yes, yes,” I will probably say while inwardly compiling a list of all the other books and movies I simply have to get to first. It is irrational, I know, and is likely a reflection of stubbornness and a deeper character flaw – obstreperousness.

I do, however, I seek and savor the recommendations of others. I want to know what you have read and seen. What brings out my mule-like tendencies is special combination of  hype, popularity, and an unwelcome moral imperative. Are we bound to all see the same cultural production? The problem is worse with book-movie combinations, the full cultural tsunami.

Consequently, there are significant gaps in my familiarity with popular culture. I have never seen more than 6 minutes of the Game of Thrones. I don’t know why the Gone Girl isn’t there anymore. For a while it seemed if everyone was talking about Shades of Gray. I noticed many copies at the bookstore and the title on cable TV, but that’s about it. From reviews I know that it is about sex and bondage and is poorly written – and that is about it. Reading reviews usually gives me enough information to follow conversation and to make appropriate noises. Be warned, though – I have no real direct experience with any reality television.

Bearing all this in mind, I picked up Colm Toibin‘s Brooklyn with trepidation. It gathered prestigious literary awards and Toibin is a superb writer. Then the movie came out to critical acclaim. It seemed inescapable for a brief stretch of time. I have very fond memories of living in Brooklyn. Not in the 1950s, but still – more than a few folks mentioned the book in passing. I have yet to view the movie. So bearing full ownership of my irrational reluctance, I settled down to read the novel.Brooklyn

It is really, really good. Toibin writes sparingly and with care. The characters are well-developed. The plot is carefully paced. There are no tricks, no overt drama, no presumption of being more that it is. Its strength is within its focus. In many ways it is a novel with an older, more simpler style – but in no way is it old-fashioned or mannered. All in all, I was greatly impressed.

Who knows, I may enjoy the movie, too.

Perhaps it is not too late for me to learn a few new tricks.

David Potash

The Invisible Man Speaks

Making assumptions about gender, race and ethnicity is easy. The markers are visible and familiar. Citizenship and immigration status are different. There is no way to tell if the man next to you on the sidewalk has an expired or active tourist visa, whether the woman ahead you in line has a real or fraudulent social security card, or whether the child at the playground has dual citizenship or not. There are no tell-tale signs of documentation. Immigrants come in all shapes, sizes and ages. Each has a unique story.

Experts estimate about 11 million people live in the United States without proper documentation. What are their lives like? What does being undocumented feel like? Regardless of your politics on the issue of immigration, these are important questions. They are also are not easy questions to address. Providing an answer would bring attention, and with it, possible deportation. Out of caution, the undocumented are usually silent.

IllegalJose Angel N. lacks citizenship and legal status, but he has courage. His memoir, Illegal: Reflections of an Undocumented Immigrant, is a haunting first-person account of his life in two worlds. It not a book about policy, politics, or immigration reform. Nor is it grounded in the particulars of day-to-day living without status. Instead, it is a passionate and lyrical account, drawing heavily upon literature and philosophy, of the being of undocumented. Jose wants to share, to let us know what it is like to be illegal (he is frank about the term), and to for us to consider his status from different perspectives.

Jose entered America illegally in 1993, fleeing grinding poverty in Mexico. He was caught and deported. He regrouped and returned again, this time with more resolve, luck and purpose. Jose made his way to Chicago where he worked menial jobs, gathered the strength to take ESL classes (at a suburban community college), and then on to more college and better paying jobs. He has accomplished much. Were he to have entered the country legally, many would consider him to be an American success story. He did not, though, and is instead judged very differently.

Education resonated with Jose. He originally thought about going to school in terms of employment, but his status, surprisingly, forced him to explore what interested him intellectually. He was surprised to find a home in the humanities. Jose was drawn to philosophy. He wrestled with the ancient Greeks, and he writes about the power of Plato’s cave to explain his situation. He worked hard to gain fluency in English. Words matter in any language and Jose’s ear was closely attuned to shifts in meaning. His prose shows great skill. He is a smart man who has become an educated man. The book is an account of that journey, played out in an environment that cannot fully accept or validate who he is.

Challenges and threats are woven throughout Jose’s life, contrasting with his many triumphs. He describes the fear of talking with the police or anyone in a position of authority, from shop clerk to bartender. In fact, the structures that represent and reinforce an ordered society are themselves a threat to Jose’s existence in the United States. He cannot accept a promotion at work, apply to law school, or visit relatives in Mexico. Jose is acutely aware of his non-legal status. He lives with shame. Yet at the same time, Jose explains his desire to do learn, to make something of himself, to do good. He wants to leave a meaningful life. He cares about his friends and community. He works. He meets a woman, falls in love, and has a family.

An illegal alien, Jose is here and not here, engaged and disengaged, real and not real, visible and invisible. He lives in constant awareness and in perpetual conflict. Well read in W.E.B. DuBois, Jose’s conception of a “double consciousness” hovers throughout the book. Society and the law will not allow him to claim a unified self.

I think that Ralph Ellison’s classic, The Invisible Man offers an even better literary model for Jose’s memoir. The novel, which chronicles life of an African American man whose identity and status is rendered invisible by his race, explores a deep form of  alienation. This is, in many ways, what Jose is living.

Jose completed his associate’s degree at Moraine Valley Community College, a baccalaureate at UIC, and is now in a graduate program working on a PhD. His memoir has given him a public profile. In 2015, MVCC chose Illegal as the institution’s shared reading. He hopes for a change in his status but knows that there are no guarantees.

Jose Angel’s writing has a meditative quality. He poses hard questions that linger. If you are curious what it means to live in the United States as an undocumented alien, give his memoir your time.

David Potash

Brown in Chicago: A Different History

Popular culture can reduce race to a black-white issue. It is not. A thoughtful look makes clear that race in the US is complex with a complicated history. When I taught history and immigration, issues of race and racism were always part of the conversation. Students worked to identify similarities of experience across times and groups, but we tried to be vigilant noting importance of looking at the unique challenges and opportunities facing each grouping of people.

The history of Latinos/as calls out for special attention. Neither “black” nor “white,” the emerging Hispanic population in the United States has a unique history or, more properly, histories. For example, Mexican Americans were categorized as “white” through a nineteenth century treaty and only formally first identified through the Census bureau in 1980 with a question asking for “Spanish origin.” Inhabitants of Puerto Rico are citizens. The role of Latinos/as has not been stable and it has shifted through time and across areas.

Brown in the Windy CityLilia Fernandez, a professor at the Ohio State University, teaches this lesson very effectively in Brown in the Windy City: Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in Postwar Chicago. It is closely researched, well-written, and an essential work to understanding the city and its racial dynamics. It sits at the intersection of many vibrant areas of research: immigration, labor history, identity politics, neighborhood activism, race studies, gender history, and urban history. Every library on Chicago history should contain this book.

Windy City opens by explaining Latino/a immigration to Chicago from an economic perspective. Fernandez sketches out the reasons that people from Mexico and Puerto Rico made the journey, emphasizing that the issue of citizenship and status made for different opportunities and different challenges. Depending upon their skin color, connections, and local environment, these immigrants to the city faced a range of responses and racial attitudes. Jobs with state sponsorship and support made immigration attractive. Mexican immigrants were often in the US through the bracero program, which was developed to help address labor shortages. Similarly, the government of Puerto Rico worked to sponsor labor leaving the island for jobs on the mainland. Opportunities were plentiful in the years after World War II, but by the 1960s jobs were starting to leave Chicago. The drop was 13% from 1960 t0 1970 and continued in further decades. Massive numbers of jobs were instead created in Chicago’s suburbs. The most noticeable shift was in the steady decline of Chicago manufacturing. Many of the Latino/a immigrants worked, or tried to work, in these sectors.

The book, though, is less about economics than about place considered broadly. Fernandez wants to understand what physical places the immigrants moved to and why. She examines how they established individual and group identity through building community. She also cleverly pivots the concept to study what place in the social and political order of the city that the Latino/a immigrants took. The hub of Latino/a immigration in the 1940s and 1950s was the Near West Side. Hull House, Jane Addams’ famous Progressive Era settlement house, was at the center of this rapidly changing community.

Demographic changes did not take place without human influence and intervention. The Latino/a communities were part of a larger racial redistribution of the city. City leaders were very conscious of who lived where. The Near West Side was in play in a larger game of power. Despite local neighborhood activism, the area was destroyed and redeveloped through highway construction, the siting of the University of Illinois Chicago, and local incentives for business and housing. Residents had to move. The impact of those decisions is evident today.

The Puerto Rican community resettled mostly to the Near North Side, then to West Town and Humboldt Park. From that context and history, it is easier to understand the evolution of the Young Lords Organization. Fernandez covers this well-known history of non-violent street gang to neighborhood activism very well. She also details the Mexican community movement to Pilsen, the area around 18th Street and then beyond. From these two intercity migrations the Puerto Rican community learned grassroots activism and gained political power, particularly through decades of strife with abusive police. In Pilsen, the Mexican community grew in tandem with a larger Chicano movement.

Fernandez provides some very interesting information on pan-Latino/a organization, with special attention to gender. Her work on women’s activism and the founding of Mujeres Latinas en Accion (Latina women in action) is fascinating.

Fernandez observes that some Latinos/as tried to address their role in the city through the lens of ethnicity, not race. It was a strategy that ultimately was not successful and did not have political clout. Latino/a neighborhoods were situated in buffer spaces between blacks and whites. This was an open secret in Chicago politics. Groups needed to organize in order to compete for resources. Once group identity was asserted – through voting, marches, and activism, the established power structure took notice. It is a pattern seen again and again in Chicago.

A political theorist might argue that in a pluralistic power structure, survival depends upon effective mobilization. The larger question, and one that Fernandez does not raise, is why Chicago’s default organizational pattern is pluralistic. Missing from her narrative as well as much of Chicago’s history is a sense of the shared or common good. I hope that greater understanding of the challenges that different groups face may help with that more idealistic goal.

David Potash

Shining a Light on Ghettoside

America’s criminal justice system is most challenged – and most ineffective – in African-American communities in high-crime, high-poverty areas. Once a culture of violence begetting violence takes hold in these neighborhoods, crimes go unpunished and justice become an abstraction. The costs for those who live and die in these areas is horrific. Sadly, broader society often turns a blind eye – and often has for centuries.Ghettoside

Jill Leovy, a Los Angeles Times reporter, investigates this and more in Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America. Its focus is one murder, the shooting of Bryant Tennelle, a sweet 18 year old African-American male with a future ahead of him. From that crime, though, a window opens on another world – a world that needs our collective attention. The victim’s father is Wallace Tennelle, an African-American detective with LAPD who lived with his family in South Central LA. A well-respected cop and father, Tennelle brought up his children in a way that we can all connect with: good children, good values, and high hopes. You want these people to succeed. You root for them, even though we know that the odds are not positive.

Leovy maps the neighborhood, its history, its residents, and the police who try to bring some sense of order and justice to what is, in essence a war zone. She writes with patience, understanding and compassion. She is deeply interested in understanding why the cycle of crime is happening and what it means to those around it. The killing is senseless, like almost all murders. In a culture of honor, poverty, no real order and easy violence, however, it becomes easier to understand why it happened.

We hear the voices of the community: the people who live in city and the police who patrol it. It is an unforgiving environment. Leovy does not romanticize. However, Ghettoside has a protagonist detective, John Skaggs, who is outstanding at his job. He represents order, or the possibility of an ordered society. Skaggs is tireless and very much believes in the pursuit of justice. Brilliant at what he does – and Leovy shows us how he thinks and operates – Skaggs unearths the killers and what led to the crime. There is justice, in the sense that the murderers were convicted, but the lessons learned are neither cathartic nor transformational.

The argument Leovy makes is that areas like South Central need a criminal justice system that stops the crime and provides reliable and prompt justice. She is aware that our current system is racist and that far too many people of color are caught up in it. She references The New Jim Crow and related works. That said, Leovy believes that what the community is hungry for is real justice and stability. People have to be able to believe that a successful life untouched by violence is possible. For the residents in her study, it is not.

Leovy thinks that a robust effort aimed at preventing violence, rooting out the causes of violence, and providing economic opportunity could break the dysfunctional cycle of crime. It is not glamorous and it does not demonize. Her argument is compelling – and one that few political leaders seem willing to take up.

David Potash

Colonial Horrors

King Leopold's GhostKing Leopold’s Ghost is a work of popular history about the horrors of Belgian colonization in the Congo. Written by Adam Hochschild,  it was a surprise best seller when first published in 1999. It has it since been reprinted many times, made into a movie, and reached a broad audience across the world. It has legs, traction, and intellectual and moral heft. But it was not a book on my shelf. I recently addressed its absence.

Reading it was well worth the time. It recounts a humbling history of greed, intrigue, and the evils of colonial imperialism, tempered with real courage in African and from a growing human rights movement. I should have read it earlier. Ignorance is no excuse for continued ignorance.

Hochschild’s book is based mostly on the work of other historians. What makes his account special is that he weaves them together into a compelling narrative. It is well-paced, historically accurate (Hochschild is professional and generous in acknowledging others’ efforts), and deeply distressing. While the latter part of the nineteenth century in Europe can be romanticized as a period of growing urbanization and sophistication, much of the economy was driven by forced labor and wanton cruelty. Tens of millions of African people were caught in an exploitative system that killed at least ten million and tortured more. It was, in many ways, a training ground for the wide scale horrors of the twentieth century.

Textbooks often describe the rush of economically developed countries in Europe and North America to find natural resources around the world as a rational expression of market demand. If a growing industry needs rubber, then rubber must be found, harvested and transported. Missing is an understanding of the impact on people and cultures. King Leopold’s Ghost makes clear that Belgium’s exploitation of the Congo region was not about market forces. It was driven by the machinations of an evil and rapacious leader, King Leopold, who bribed, lied, and politicked to gain personal wealth and power. He built an hypocritical propaganda machine, selling the world a story of development and protection while actually doing the exact opposite.

A few recognized what was happening and tried to stop it. Hochschild puts Edmund Morel, who led the global human rights campaign to end Leopold’s rule, in a place of prominence. Roger Casement, later embroiled in the Irish independence movement, was his partner. An African-American historian, soldier, lawyer and activist, George Washington Williams, was in the Congo earlier and tried to warn the world. William Henry Sheppard, a missionary, documented the atrocities and was one of the few to record the testimony of the indigenous people. Joseph Conrad, of course, is also part of the story. He traveled the Congo River and as it turns out, A Heart of Darkness was not as much a work of imagination than a reflection or a terribly reality. Many others are part of the broader narrative, from the famous explorer Henry Morton Stanley, to Mark Twain. Twain wrote a scathing satirical pamphlet, King Leopold’s Soliloquy, which helped bring global attention to the evils of Belgium’s King and colony.

King Leopold’s Ghost is a sobering book. It is and will remain a vital reminder to engage, question, and work for human rights.

David Potash

Naturalization and the Global Citizen

Immigrate into a country, have your papers approved, and you are “naturalized.” If you lack a passport or the right documents, you are considered “stateless” and your state of being is “unnatural.” Words often underscore complicated truths. We live in a world that demands allegiance to a nation-state. Those that lack it – refugees, undocumented, trans-nationals – live at the mercy of bureaucracies, courts, and an increasingly xenophobic public. Cosmopolites

Atossa Araxia Abrahamian examines the stateless from an unusual perspective – the selling of citizenship – in The Comsopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen. A journalist, opinion editor at Al Jazeera America (recently shuttered), and current resident of Brooklyn (where else?), Abrahamian’s primary focus is on the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Comora, and the rearranging of citizenship and passports for a price. At issue, though, are much broader questions. A more ambitious book lies beyond this work, and Abrahamian wrestles with keeping it in check. She is smart, curious, and as much interested in stories and histories as she is in policy.

The bedoon (not the Bedouin) are the stateless people living in the UAE and Kuwait. Legal status and the accompanying paperwork did not matter much thirty or forty years ago in the Arabian peninsula. The Gulf War, changing economics and global politics, shifted the government’s priorities as Kuwait’s independence became a bureaucratic reality. Those who resided in Kuwait and UAE but originally hailed from Iraq, Iran, or Saudi Arabia were caught in a legal and geographic limbo. Their families were enshared, too. Unwilling to grant these people citizenship, governments had no clear way to deal with them. The state wanted security, ways to take advantage of the stateless’s labor and resources, but without a long-term commitment. A significant percentage of the Kuwaiti army is bidoon. What sort of rights should they have?

One of the poorest countries in the world, Comoro are a series of islands in the Indian Ocean between Mozambique and Madagascar. Comoro’s political leadership was enticed into trading citizenship for money, first with the Emirates and then Kuwait. Abrahamian uses her journalistic skills to tell a story of wheeling-and-dealing figures, scrambling to make deals and profits. It reads like an espionage movie with a thread of farce: undercover deals, private jets, and all-expense covered shopping trips.

The story of the bidoon introduces the larger issue of purchased citizenship. It is not a theoretical question. Many countries have provisions for it. The very wealthy, or “ultra high net worth individuals” as they are called in the trade, often possess multiple citizenships for convenience and tax purposes. The Caribbean island of St. Kitts, for example, was well-known for offering citizenship for a significant investment in the local economy. Abrahamian talks with some of the citizenship/passport brokers about their business and the competitive market.

Stepping back, then, the two groups that are representatives of a new global citizenship are the very wealthy and the dispossessed. The size of the latter group has swelled tremendously as wars like the conflict in Syria have driven millions from their homes. Recent estimates put the number of refugees around the world at more than 60 million. If the world’s refugees were to claim a country of their own, it would be ranked in the top 25 in the world in terms of population, holding about as many people as France. The Cosmopolites does not look at the refugee crisis but it lurks at the narrative’s door.

Driving Abrahamian’s book is a sense of justice. She emphasizes that we live in a globally interconnected world that enables the freely flow of capital but prohibits the same freedom of movement to people. It is a good argument. She explores alternatives: a few of history’s characters who have challenged the idea of belonging to one nation and early policy attempts to help the dispossessed. She sees the issue of statelessness as something that could be resolved with the right bureaucratic commitment. The Nansen passport, a brilliant product of international agreement following the Russian Civil War, gave the stateless a means to travel safely. It helped thousands and thousands of refugees. We have evidence that when there is political will, reforms are possible.

It is a tall order. If we look at the questions Abrahamian raises through different lenses: immigration patterns, refugee histories, border-free zones such as in the European Union, and the persistence of nationalism, it is difficult to be optimistic in the near future. The past few centuries have not been kind to people who have lacked the political organization of the state. The power of nationalism to strengthen shared identity and to shape policy and practice cannot be underestimated. Even the universal citizens of the cosmos need passports.

David Potash

A Radical Interior

Some books are enjoyed, some savored, and those that we cannot finish are rejected out of hand. It is a rare novel that gets under your skin, challenges, frustrates and enlightens. Eimear McBride‘s debut novel, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, is just such a work of art. It is a difficult, at times painful read. The story is at times, unremittingly sad. It is also lyrical, lovely and enlightening. Girl is a Half formed thing

The novel is written as a stream of consciousness. McBride plays with spelling, grammar and syntax, creating an interior dialogue that reflects the subjective and objective world of our narrator. Never fully her own agent yet not without power or influence, the “girl” is a unreliably reliable narrator. We are inside her head, fully awash in her experiences.

Authoring a first person stream of consciousness narration is no easy task. It can feel gimmicky and cheap, a trick from a creative writing program. On the other hand, when successful -and I am thinking of James Joyce (who must have influenced McBride), Faulkner, or Irvine Welsh (Trainspotting), it can be very powerful. Central to the work’s effectiveness is an integrity of voice. It has to ring true. While there is no objective truth in McBride’s novel, it carries with it great authenticity, an aura of truth.

It can also be damn difficult to follow. Many times in the book I had to read sentences aloud to understand – and even then, I am not sure that I fully understood. No matter. In McBride’s handling, I had the sense that my confusion was mirroring the narrator’s own lack of clarity. And that is how life is often experienced.

A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing has won numerous awards and received critical acclaim. It is the sort of novel that is studied in literature courses. I hope that many readers overcome its challenges and give it their time.

David Potash

Second City Hometown Associations

Making sense of Chicago is no easy task. The city is an amazing jumble of neighborhoods and histories that are easy to misunderstand or miss. Chicago has the second largest population of Mexican immigrants in the US. However, the structure and social fabric of this community is not well-studied or well-known. Mexican Hometown Associations in Chicagoacan

Xochitl Bada, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, opens an important window into this world in her book, Mexican Hometown Associations in Chicagoacan: From Local to Transnational Civic Engagement. The title may be imposing but the read is informative. Grounded in scholarship and the product of Bada’s graduate studies, it is a thoughtful and carefully crafted work. It is also a correction on assumptions one might make about civic engagement and the Mexican immigrant community.

Drawn to the topic because of her interest immigrant rights and activism, Bada volunteered with the Federation of Michoacan Clubs in Illinois (FEDECMI). The Federation’s scope and history gave her a unique view to examine the HTAs and the people they affected. She saw the growing organizational prowess of the HTAs, in Mexico and across the Caribbean, and also the impact of a change in Mexican law that gave those living abroad the right to vote in state elections. All of this occurred against a backdrop of anti-immigrant and pro-immigrant laws and action in the United States.

Bada sketches out the broad conditions and history of Mexican immigration to Chicago. She focuses on the experiences of those who hailed from Michoacan, a state in western Mexico. Mostly driven be labor opportunities in the earlier parts of the twentieth century, Michoacan immigrants journeyed to the US and were supported by mutual aid societies. In 1964, the bracero program ended, meaning that laborers to the US were no longer “guests.” Consequently, the mutual aid societies became less relevant. For Mexican immigrants to Chicago, that spelled an increase in the importance and relevance of hometowns and hometown associations for the immigrant community. The HTAs range from social clubs to sporting groups to active political groups.

Using history, journalism, and first person interviews, Bada explores the Chicago – Michoacan HTAs. She maps their internal networks, the connections with church and state, and examines how they both recreate and challenge traditional social structures. Undergirding their importance to Mexico over the years are the consistent flow of remittances from Chicago. The HTAs are more than local Chicago organizations – they also have a powerful impact in their home towns and region.

By the 2000s, Mexican politicians would regularly visit Chicago HTAs to connect with the community and drum up support. Many members of the HTAs held dual citizenship and the organizations fostered a special kind of dual civic engagement. Bada digs deep into theory and practice to explain how. The HTA’s clout led to joint funding opportunities for economic development in Michoacan. While the projects did not meet financial expectations, the HTAs have maintained an active voice in local Mexican politics. When those living away from Mexico were granted voting rights in 2007, the importance of the HTAs increased significantly. They consistently press a democratic counter narrative to the plans of large-scale development as pushed by international organizations and states.

Pulling the pieces of these organizations and their history together, Bada explores what they mean in terms of identity, geography, and community. Organizations whose membership and focus spans countries face particular challenges just in terms of basic logistics, which also mean difficulties in terms of communication, trust and agency. Technology has been a powerful enabler. Bada does not write about this, but it clearly has an impact.

Bada does explore the consequences of transnational organization and advocacy. She rightly identifies the city as a key context for communication and interaction. Cities facilitate collaboration much more than nations. The democratic tendencies of the HTAs, which emerged in rural Mexico, have found support and meaning in Chicago’s urban environment. What happens in one area can resonate in the other, and the exchange is often mediated by the HTA.

The very nature of the book raises provocative questions. In an era of global travel, multiple identifies and instant communication, what does citizenship look like? How does one understand community? It is interesting work, indeed.

David Potash