Last week something unexpectedly terrible happened. I was rifling though some links of things I’d written and discovered that every Nerve column had disappeared. The links, when sent out to the humming computer boxes housed in a high-rise office building somewhere in midtown Manhattan, found empty spaces where once had been mementos from my emotion-swollen brain. When I first started writing I was in the habit of reading my own work over and over again. There was no one who enjoyed it more than me. No one better appreciated the words whose etymologic thread had an especially lovely meaning, or which connected to some anecdote that hovered silently in between the lines. No one reveled more than I did in the circuitous conclusions I’d arrive at after wandering in the rhetorical murk for a thousand words. And no one, certainly, laughed louder at my jokes.
I wrote, as it’s said, for myself. In doing so I didn’t have to reckon with the inherent shame writers must confront. Inherent to the medium of making public and immortal (sort of) one’s thoughts is the immediate stress of wondering what makes one person’s musings inherently more valuable than anyone else’s. There are a lot of buffers set up between a writer and the way her writing is finally monetized today, but the process can still be reduced to one person charging a fee for the privilege of discovering their thoughts captured alphabetically.
There are two ways of dealing with this unpleasant truth. One can attempt to excise everything individual from their work, reducing the task of writing to one of objective information conveyance. This is the world of journalism where the voice of the human creating the tiny documents of history that pass across newspaper front pages becomes invisible. Compare these disparate stories from today’s New York Times, one about the capture of the man charged with fertilizer bombing Times Square, and the other about New York’s Sex Museum hoping to win tax deductions for its private donors. Each are written in the same rough formula of an impersonal style guide. One is written by three separate writers, all of whom seem to have identical fingerprints.
The alternative is to make one’s ego explicit; to write in an arrangement of personal bias, idiosyncrasy, and implicit fallibility. It’s a kind of cannibalism, offering a keyhole view of one’s self to whoever is interested in making a meal from it. I didn’t realize it when I began, but that was my project when I wrote for Nerve, and I took comfort in knowing those plated offerings were still out there for someone’s potential nourishment, supposing they have an interest in premature ejaculation, anal penetration, sperm donation, STD’s or any of the other romantic gyromatics I’ve wobbled through.
The two kinds of writing share a common ground in that they both ask one to characterize other people. It’s one thing to say I’m willing to throw myself totally open for public scrutiny and entertainment, but it’s another thing to speak on behalf of the people around me, dragging my impression of them into public view. Objective writing has the innate benefit of sacrificing the insertion of the ego for the benefit of giving an impartial view of the subject. Subjective writing demands everything be described through the warping lens of the writer’s ego—my ego. The more warped, the more entertaining.
I followed stories about the political crisis in Madagascar last year with mixed feelings. It was terrible to see the sunny squares and crowded avenues I’d passed through filled with rock-throwing protestors and soldiers. It was also a great comfort to see that otherwise ignored country, which had been so much to me, suddenly merit daily conversation with CNN, BBC, and the New York Times publishing the syllabic extravagancies of the language I once spoke. The stories all seemed urgent and confusing, a popular radio host and former nightclub DJ is elected Mayor of the capital, Antananarivo, in late 2007. A year later, the president closes down the radio station for planning to run an interview with the violently deposed former president, Didier Ratsiraka.
A few weeks later, on a wave of popular protest in the capital, the 34 year-old mayor declares himself the new head of the country and demands the president be tried for corruption for, among other things, offering to wave taxes for foreign corporations who built factories in a specific suburb. The intrepid mayor was fired by the president, but he persisted in leading protests, demanding power be handed over to him. As the protests became violent, soldiers firing on civilians while others looted downtown stores, the sitting president offered to hold a public referendum on the presidency. The young mayor refused, insisting he be given the presidency immediately. Finally the military stormed the presidential compound, turning on the president, who fled the country. In this way a radio DJ in his mid-thirties became the leader of a country.
The story was a perfect soap opera, conflating the undefined principles of righteousness with popular political reformation. What was perpetually absent was an understanding of how generally small and ineffective the Malagasy government really is, and how intensely localized the protests seemed to have been. Madagascar is among the poorest countries in the world, and aside from financing and maintaining a military its government footprint was quite small from what I saw when I lived there from 2003 to 2005.
The great majority of Malagasy people lived on sustenance farming. There was a significant middle class who made money sewing, fixing trucks, or selling Chinese imports in markets. Then there was a vulnerable upper class of college educated doctors, teachers, government workers, and bank officers who earned decent salaries for bureaucratic work. But by far the most prolific were the farmers who tended their rice paddies or cassava fields, ate their harvest, and sold what surpluses there might be for the only real money they would earn throughout a year.
These social layers were further fractalized by the country’s eighteen different tribes. The capital, in the central highlands, was predominated by the Merina tribe, a shorter and more light-skinned people of Malyasian descent. As you travel in any direction away from the highlands, the tribal lines form a patchwork that ends with the tall and muscular coastal dwellers. Outside of the highlands, the Merina are often resented in varying degrees. They’re referred to as Ambanyandro, a phrase which I never fully understood. It literally translates as underneath the day, or underneath the sun. My neighbors in the Southern village where I lived reminded me that this was not a polite thing to call a Merina person to their face.
I can’t say if it was a genuine epithet or a thoughtless colloquialism, but it encapsulated the idea of separateness that many seemed to feel towards the Merina. They were the well-dressed people from the highlands, brought up in the shadow of French tradition, employed by foreigners, who’d occasionally show up in the countryside in an NGO 4×4 speaking in the strange accents of formality attendant to their dialect. The greeting in the Mahafaly dialect of my village was an entreaty to common sharing. Talilio, or tell me a story. The Merina equivalent was a labored mouthful, Manaohoana tompoko. How are you, sir?
Both the deposed president and his overthrower were Merina, and their conflict was, by most accounts, limited to the back and forth of a few thousand people clashing in the capital, a place only a few people in my village had ever been to. The stakes would have been less clear outside the capital. The grand project of the former president had been to build a paved highway system to connect the country, which was only two-thirds complete when I left. In my village, the government paid the checks to the teachers in the local high school, paid the doctors a steady salary, and sent vaccines and antibiotics into town, most of which was subsidized by foreign aid. The revolution in the capital was not about school conditions or healthcare, but about accusations that the president was profiting by having created a tax-free industrial zone just outside the city.
To me, it appeared very much like a political infight between two people from a ruling tribe, arguing over principles that were only tangentially connected to what most people actually depended on the government for. The story made perfect sense in the Western lens, where national narratives are defined by representative groups vindicating themselves through the political levers of democracy. Our national identity is a political one, and our conflicts are determined in the obscure maw of parliamentary debate, which few of us are terribly interested in following.
It’s through this lens that we see the rest of the world. It was through that political filter that Madagascar came across to me in news stories, a strangely distant picture that didn’t much resemble the country I’d lived in. It was a story about us, ultimately, not them. It’s difficult now not to see this pattern of self-service at work in news stories. The story is about a tax deductions rather than the new exhibit at the sex museum. The story is about legion of government detectives who caught the bomber on a runway rather than the two immigrant street vendors who acted out before anyone else to prevent a massacre. We define our narrative in terms of policy and antagonism, rather than ecstatic openness and the transnational solidarity of human beings. It’s the least threatening way to encounter the idea that we might have a common emotional, sexual, and intellectual narrative in the first place.
My Nerve columns reappeared a week after they’d gone away. The site has been restructured since I wrote for it, I assume the disappearance was a product of the final changeover. The stories all lack headlines now, and only the first picture in each column has been preserved. It’s a comfort to know they’re there still, even if they’re a bit worse for wear. Those fleshy bits of prose will survive for a while longer, in a server room somewhere high up in the air, in a building I’ve never been in. Or at least a bit of me was there. I tried to take as much of you as I could understand with me.