a romantic view of causal inference

In Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein; or, The modern Prometheus, the title character, scientist Victor Frankenstein, is trying to solve a mystery when an idea occurs to him, and we come across this fabulous line.

“I could not doubt it. The mere presence of the idea was an irresistible proof of the fact.”

My papers would be a lot shorter (and a lot of them are already short) if I could rely on “proof by idea.” In an authorial twist, Leslie Klinger’s annotated edition claims that these sentences were added by Percy Shelley to Mary Shelley’s draft, lest you feel tempted to hold Ms. Shelley responsible for these unidentified claims.

An ode to Congolese music

In writer Troy Onyango’s short story “A Song from a Forgotten Place,” a character reflects on Congolese music:

She has always preferred Congolese music; the way it springs from a place is warmth and tenderness like a beanstalk breaking through the soft earth. Then it rises and rises, growing and filling the whole room with the sweet melody that makes the body jelly and the bones rubbery and one finds oneself loving his waist, legs, and arms as if possessed by a gentle, cultured demon (but still a demon all the same), and one can dance and dance and not feel the sweat trickling down the ridge of his back or feel his legs stiffen at the knees because he’s tired. One ignores all that. Lingala flows and erupts within the body.

Put on some Congolese music, quick!

You can read Onyango’s story in the collection Nairobi Noir. You can find out more about him and his writing at his website.

“Who are we, if we do not put our feet into the waters?”

In Winfred Kiunga‘s beautifully observed, well-paced story “She Dug Two Graves,” Somali refugee Fawzia seeks revenge for the death of her brother at the hands of corrupt Kenyan police officials. At one point, she receives an email from her friend, Marian, also a refugee but now resettled in Toronto, encouraging her to leave her place:

“Who are we, if we do not put our feet into the waters? How will we discover new lands, new frontiers, if we grow afraid of the waves? I dare you to find joy in the unknown.”

Kiunga’s story — which Publishers Weekly calls “memorably grim” (which I’d say is reductive but also not false) — features in the collection Nairobi Noir, edited by Peter Kimani.

On working with noise

Many people are working from home these days, often with more (or different) distractions than usual, not least the other people in the house. About two thousand years ago, the Roman philosopher Seneca faced related problems. He discussed them in his essay “On quiet and study.” He sets the scene:

I have lodgings right over a bathing establishment. So picture to yourself the assortment of sounds, which are strong enough to make me hate my very powers of hearing! When your strenuous gentleman, for example, is exercising himself by flourishing leaden weights; when he is working hard, or else pretends to be working hard, I can hear him grunt; and whenever he releases his imprisoned breath, I can hear him panting in wheezy and high-pitched tones. Or perhaps I notice some lazy fellow, content with a cheap rubdown, and hear the crack of the pummeling hand on his shoulder, varying in sound according as the hand is laid on flat or hollow. Then, perhaps, a professional comes along, shouting out the score; that is the finishing touch. Add to this the arresting of an occasional roysterer or pickpocket, the racket of the man who always likes to hear his own voice in the bathroom, or the enthusiast who plunges into the swimming-tank with unconscionable noise and splashing. Besides all those whose voices, if nothing else, are good, imagine the hair-plucker with his penetrating, shrill voice, – for purposes of advertisement, – continually giving it vent and never holding his tongue except when he is plucking the armpits and making his victim yell instead. Then the cake-seller with his varied cries, the sausageman, the confectioner, and all the vendors of food hawking their wares, each with his own distinctive intonation.

But wait, he says, maybe the noise is actually on the inside.

By this time I have toughened my nerves against all that sort of thing, so that I can endure even a boatswain marking the time in high-pitched tones for his crew. For I force my mind to concentrate, and keep it from straying to things outside itself; all outdoors may be bedlam, provided that there is no disturbance within, provided that fear is not wrangling with desire in my breast, provided that meanness and lavishness are not at odds, one harassing the other. For of what benefit is a quiet neighbourhood, if our emotions are in an uproar? … You may therefore be sure that you are at peace with yourself, when no noise reaches you, when no word shakes you out of yourself, whether it be of flattery or of threat, or merely an empty sound buzzing about you with unmeaning din.

Then again, maybe it’s easier just to find a quieter room.

“What then?” you say, “is it not sometimes a simpler matter just to avoid the uproar?” I admit this. Accordingly, I shall change from my present quarters. I merely wished to test myself and to give myself practice. Why need I be tormented any longer, when Ulysses found so simple a cure for his comrades even against the songs of the Sirens? Farewell.

I recommend the whole short essay, which you can read here.

The top 10 graphic works of 2019

I compiled 11 “best of 2019” lists for graphic novels, graphic memoirs, comics, and the like, and one graphic novel was on seven of the lists: Clyde Fansby Seth.

Another was on six of the lists: Rusty Brown, by Chris Ware.

Rusty Brown by Chris Ware

Eight more graphic novels or memoirs were on three “best of” lists each.

You can see the full list of 89 graphic works that appear on any of the 11 “best of” lists, as well as my compilations from previous years, here.

I read 114 books in 2019. Here are the ones I loved and the ones I didn’t.

Over the course of 2019, I read or listened to 114 books. I adored some, loved many, liked many more, and there were only a few I was unexcited about. Here are the best and the rest.

Books I adored

Among my favorite books of the year are some novels (A General Theory of Oblivion, There There, Mockingbird), short stories (What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky), memoirs (The Lights of Pointe-Noire, The Girl who Smiled Beads, How Dare the Sun Rise), autobiography (Barracoon), poetry (The Sea-Migrations: Tahriib), and one graphic novel (Akissi: Tales of Mischief).

Books I loved

I loved a lot of books this year, so I’ll split these into categories.

Nonfiction I loved

Graphic novels and graphic memoirs that I loved

Fiction I loved

Books I really liked

Nonfiction I really liked

Graphic novels and graphic memoirs I really liked

Fiction I really liked

Poems and plays I really liked

Books that I liked (just, you know, not quite as much)

Books that often had a few ideas or images that really spoke to me but that otherwise I couldn’t really figure out. (No regrets!)

Which books did I get wrong? What were your favorites of the year?

Read African Writers: Beyond the Rice Fields, by Naivo

beyond the rice fieldsmadagascarUntil two weeks ago, Beyond the Rice Fields — by Naivo — was the only novel by a Malagasy writer to have been translated into English. The translator, Allison Charette, doubled that number this month with her newly released translation of Ravaloson’s Return to the Enchanted Island.

Beyond the Rice Fields visits Madagascar during the first half of the nineteenth century. A young boy, Tsito, and his family are captured in the forest and sold as slaves. Tsito ends up serving a family with a daughter, Fara, with whom he falls in love. Their story takes place against the backdrop of massive upheaval in Madagascar, with a queen heavily persecuting converts to Christianity and others judged disloyal. Naivo balances an intimate portrayal of Tsito’s and Fara’s lives — the book’s narration alternates between them — with the country’s political shifts. Other characters — Fara’s mother and grandmother, Tsito’s patron, an older slave who serves as a mentor — flesh out the picture. This glimpse into Malagasy history and Naivo’s imagination is well worth the read.

Here is how this ended up being the first Malagasy novel translated into English.

Here are a few lines I liked:
  • One character observes how Madagascar is changing: This is a sacred land, but it is adrift, at the mercy of outside interests, foreign dealings that go far beyond us. This land is rich, but we’re leaving it fit for pigs and stray dogs.”
  • On the subtle art of persuasion: “I just told him that the next time, I’d rip his head off with my own bare hands. Sometimes you need to make a convincing argument.”
  • And, an economist’s favorite euphemism for death: A man “has left for the market of no return.”
Here is what some others thought of the book:
  • Kate Prengel, Words without Borders: “Beyond the Rice Fields is a spiraling, dense, and prickly work, difficult to access until the foreign reader has agreed to put in some time and effort. But once the effort is put in, it is richly rewarding.”
  • Meg Nola, Foreword Reviews: “With quiet surety, the novel pairs an elegantly poetic narrative with an intensifying brutality of events as Madagascar finds itself beset by internal strife, French industrialism, and the zealous efforts of Christian missionaries.”
  • Publishers Weekly: “Naivo provides readers with an astonishing amount of information about Madagascar’s culture and past.”
  • Ann Morgan, A Year of Reading the World: “Vivid, thought-provoking narration; rich, mind-furnishing imagery; and an insight into a place and time that has hitherto been absent from the English-language literary landscape.”

This is book #50 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019. You can read reviews of all the books here.

Read African Writers: The Bleeding of the Stone, by Ibrahim al-Koni

bleeding of the stoneLibyaAsouf lives alone in the desert. He cares for massive, ancient rock paintings and guides the tourists who venture to see them. He alone knows where to find the sacred waddan, “a kind of wild mountain sheep … the oldest animal in the Sahara.” In The Bleeding of the Stone, the first novel of prolific Libyan novelist Ibrahim al-Koni to be translated into English (by May Jayyusi and Christopher Tingley), Asouf faces dangerous beasts and bloodthirsty hunters. The entire novel reads like a dream or an extended fable, with an unearthly quality to it. It’s strange and beautiful and magical and tragic.

Other reviews:
  • Kirkus Reviews: “A winning combination of ecological fable, political statement, and lyrical lament for the past… The story’s melodramatic apocalyptic finale seems slightly forced, but in no way dissipates the power of al-Koni’s subtle dramatization of irreconcilable cultural misunderstanding and enmity.”
  • Ann Morgan, A Year of Reading the World: “Al-Koni pushes the spiritual aspect of the natural world into the realm of magical realism, introducing a series of strange interludes in which gazelles speak and waddan (the ancient desert sheep that roam the mountain ranges) assume mystical powers… They all work to further the sense of wonder and wistfulness for a shrinking way of life that pervades the text.”
This is book #49 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019. You can read reviews of all the books here.

Read African Writers — A Spirit of Tolerance: The Inspiring Life of Tierno Bokar, by Amadou Hampaté Bâ

A Spirit of TolerancemaliAmadou Hampaté Bâ was a writer well-known in his native country of Mali and beyond. He lived 90 years and wrote both fiction and nonfiction. In 1957, he wrote a biography of and collection of teachings by his spiritual leader, Tierno Bokar. He rewrote the book in 1980, and it was published in English as A Spirit of Tolerance: The Inspiring Life of Tierno Bokar — translated by Fatima Jane Casewit — only in 2008.

Tierno Bokar was a Muslim spiritual teacher and Sufi mystic from what would become Mali. He lived from 1875 to 1939.

In the first half of this book, Bâ paints Bokar as a wonderfully wise, tolerant teacher. The tone is deeply loving, even hagiographic. Later in Bokar’s life, his reputation was destroyed as adversaries used a difference in religious interpretation against him. Some of this part of the book was challenging for me to follow given my complete lack of background.

The second half of the book recounts Bokar’s teachings. I’m not Muslim nor Sufi, but I found much to enjoy and to consider.

Here are some passages that struck me:
  • On memory: “In Africa, when an old person dies, it is as if a library has burned down.” (Amadou Hampaté Bâ)
  • On saying no: “If you ask a favor of the people of Segou and they want to refuse it, they will do so with so much intelligence and courtesy that you will find yourself obliged to thank them.” (Fily Dabo Sissoko)
  • On physical violence: “Material weapons can only destroy matter but not the principle of evil itself, which always rises from the ashes stronger than ever? Evil, he was to teach us, can only be destroyed by Goodness and Love.” (Bâ paraphrasing Bokar)
  • On being eighteen: “He was eighteen, the age of torment, the age of many dreams, of many pathways.” (Bâ)
  • On self-denial: “It is necessary to deprive the soul of some things that are permitted so that it does not aspire to things that are forbidden to it.” (alGhazali)
  • On using religion poorly: “Tierno Bokar was the victim of the ignorance and obscurantism of men who confused clan loyalty with religious commitment and who had forgotten that tolerance is a fundamental principle in Islam.” (Bâ)
  • On simplicity of expression: “He had an aversion to those who expressed themselves in anything other than ordinary language.” (Bâ on Bokar)
  • On clarity of language: “One of the characteristics of ‘sorcerers’ was to use impenetrable language.” (Bâ)
  • On teaching: “Speak to people according to the level of their understanding” (Bâ quoting the Prophet)
  • On learning about other religions: “You will gain enormously by knowing about the various forms of religion. Believe me, each one of these forms, however strange it may seem to you, contains that which can strengthen your own faith.” (Bokar)
  • On humor: “Always being overly serious is something that cannot be taken seriously!” (Bokar)
  • No one has a pure pedigree: “Do not dig too much around the roots of the illustrious trunk of your origins because beyond several layers of earth you risk discovering that the roots originate in a mass of refuse.” (Bokar)
  • In other words, “from every royal palace you will find an alleyway that leads to the thatched cottage of a poor person.” (Bokar)
  • On detachment: “It is for man to act, using all of his faculties, but then to keep his heart serene concerning the outcome of his actions.” (Bâ)
  • On spiritual knowledge: “There are three ways to know a river: First of all, there is the man who has heard the river spoken about and becomes capable by imitation and repetition to describe it without having seen it himself. This is the first degree of knowledge. Then there is the man who has undertaken the journey and who has arrived at the banks of the river. Seated on the banks of the river, he contemplates it with his own eyes and is a witness to its majesty. This is the second degree of knowledge. Finally, there is the man who throws himself into the river and becomes one with it. This is the supreme degree of Knowledge.” (Bokar)
  • On the sacred around us: “Islam is not an escape towards the sacred, but rather, a conscious integration of the sacred on all planes of existence.” (Bâ?)
This is book #48 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019. You can read reviews of all the books here.

Read African Writers: Basali! Stories by and about women in Lesotho, edited by K. Limakatso Kendall

basalilesothoFor a time, K. Limakatso Kendall taught at the National University of Lesotho. While there, she gathered stories by or about the women of Lesotho. (Three quarters are by women; the rest are by men, recounting stories told to them.) In the wonderfully idiosyncratic collection, Basali! Stories by and about women in Lesotho, Kendall presents 16 of these stories, plus a small collection of annotated photos of life in Lesotho.

Many of the writers are first-time authors. Some are recounting their own experiences, others are telling stories that happened to others. The fight for a good education comes up repeatedly (on the optimistic side), along with repeated incidents of domestic violence (on the pessimistic side). Several stories center on the search for work and the quest of women to help their children survive. What some of the stories lack in style, they compensate for in passion and insight.

Here are a few passages that stood out:
  • Vengeance as motivation for education: “I promised my aunt that I would live to retaliate. The old woman needs to see me going up the ladder while she is swimming in the mud of poverty.” (Monica Nthabeleng Ramarothole, “The African Goddess”)
  • Illegal immigration for education: “There was no place to hide. The alternative was to lie down flat in the veld and hope that our city clothes blended in well with the bush… We had heard that schools in the former protectorates were a lot better by comparison.” (Nomakhosi Mntuyedwa, “Escape to Manzini”)
  • The outward signs of communism: “Ntate Mokhehle is a Communist… When he speaks, poisonous flames come out of his mouth.” (Hilda ‘M’amapele Chakela, “How I Became an Activist”)
  • On not reading African writers in a Lesotho school: “We were not reading African writers; we were not even told that Africans were capable of writing novels or plays.” (Hilda ‘M’amapele Chakela, “How I Became an Activist”)
This is book #47 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019. You can read reviews of all the books here.