Friday, April 14, 2006

Memoirs like Hotcakes + Adidas's Racist Sneakers + Nigeria's Harsh Anti-Gay Law

Do you have an interesting personal story? Can you make up one? Publishers, fresh off the Frey, LeRoy and Nasdijj controversies, are pushing for and publishing more memoirs. Novels, critic Robert Hughes of the Wall Street Journal points out, aren't "hot" and aren't selling (as well), so publishers are upping the ante with this personal nonfiction genre. Says Hughes:

This spring sees memoirs by a transvestite art director (buttoned-down nerd by day, drag queen by night), a tell-all from the Beatles' publicist; a book about the year in the life of a Catholic seminarian; a cartoon memoir about surviving cancer; Helen "I Am Woman" Reddy on life as a feminist icon; and a memoir by "Maude" daughter and horror queen Adrienne Barbeau.
From left, new memoirs by horror queen Adrienne Barbeau, taboo-breaking novelist Erica Jong, and writer Augusten Burroughs.

Publishers say the controversy surrounding James Frey's memoir "A Million Little Pieces" -- which turned out to be filled with fiction about his purported life as a drug addict -- hasn't dimmed interest in the form. Mr. Frey's book, after all, sold more than four million copies and continued to sell even after Oprah Winfrey, who had earlier endorsed the book, denounced it on TV.

Hughes attributes the current memoir moment to related trends in American culture, including the fascination with reality TV and pop psychology. I would add that the American public's desire for authenticity and recognition right now, as well as our nationwide self-absorption, narcissicism and passivity also are playing a role.

Hughes historicizes his discussion by noting that memoirs have a distant provenance and were quite popular in the 19th century. Ulysses S. Grant's famous memoirs, which he completed just before he died, became a posthumous bestseller and helped to pull his survivors out of debt. I wonder how long this trend will go on, especially now that more and more institutions of higher learning, including the university where I teach, now offer courses and writing tracks, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels, in creative nonfiction.


SneakersAdidas, it seems, is hell-bent on shedding customers as quickly as it can. Customers, that is, who are unwilling to support a company that thinks it's okay to put racist depictions of Asians on its premium "Yellow Series" sneakers. (I'm not making that "yellow" bit up.) But wait, you're saying, the artist who created the graphic is half-Chinese, and the images originally appeared in his graffiti works, and it's all just a joke, so.... It's still racist.

Michael Tunison writes in today's Washington Post:

A new, limited-edition shoe from Adidas-Salomon AG, part of the "Yellow Series" and decorated with the face of a character who has buck teeth, a bowl haircut and slanted eyes, has provoked a heated debate about the lines dividing racism, art and commerce.

The character on the shoe is the creation of a San Francisco graffiti artist, Barry McGee, who is half Chinese. McGee, who calls the character Ray Fong after an uncle who died, said the image is based on how the artist looked as an 8-year-old.

"You have to look at it as a piece of artwork," said McGee, 40, who used Ray Fong as a graffiti tag in the late 1990s and later in art installations and catalogue covers. "The way we put it all together, it becomes a collectible as art."

The shoe was released April 1, with 1,000 pairs on sale at a dozen boutiques in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Paris, London, Tokyo, Hamburg and Denmark. It retails for $250 and comes with a graffiti art fanzine.

Since then, several blogs and message boards have been consumed with fervid debate over the shoe, and Asian American organizations have said it evokes damaging and long-standing stereotypes.

Tunison notes the hullabaloo that attended Abercrombie and Fitch's similar imagery and slogans on T-shirts back in 2002. That retailer, which has been involved in multiple controversies and lawsuits surrounding its racist practices and imagery, eventually withdrew the T-shirts from sale. But Tunison also addresses how McGee's mixed racial background, his career as a graffiti artist, and the imagery's original artistic context complicate the issue. When an image, sign or discourse that might be ironic or oppositional or that might contain ironic and oppositional potential in one context is transferred to another, can its original range of meanings possibly inhere and be understood, especially if there is a larger contextual field in which similar imagery has functioned and developed very problematic meanings? No sign operates in a void, as McGee and Adidas surely know, and racist and stereotypical depictions of Asians and Asian-Americans continue to circulate in this society, so the shoes' images function within this larger semiotic economy whether Adidas likes it or not.

But then perhaps this was all a cleverly cynical strategy anyways; at $250, if these sneakers are pulled off the market, they will surely go up in value, to the delight of collectors, McGee, Adidas, and whoever bought a pair and is hawking them on the web. "All day I dream about suckers..."


Obasanjo and BushNigeria is proposing a law that would make anti-gay fanatics in the US and elsewhere (like Jamaica, as Rod 2.0 points out today) jump for joy: in addition criminalizing gay marriage with a five-year prison term, the law, which president Olusegun Obasanjo proposed and which is expected to pass, would also anyone criminalize attendance at a gay wedding, public same-sexual affection or membership in any LGBT organization, and would apply not only to Nigerian citizens, but to foreigners living on Nigerian soil.'s article says

The legislation is regarded as the most repressive gay measure in the world.

Last month, before the additional prohibitions were included, and in advance of a state visit to the US by President Obasanjo human rights organizations called for the bill's withdrawal. (story)

In an open letter to Obasanjo the groups, including the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission and Human Rights Watch, said the proposed law contravenes international law, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and undermines Nigeria’s struggle to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS.

As in parts of the Caribbean and Asia, the legacy of Britain's harsh colonial-era anti-sodomy laws unfortunately lives on. I also imagine that the law is Obasanjo's sop to religious and political extremists (especially since homosexuality is proscribed by the Shari'a law that Obasanjo permitted in the country's Muslim north). Since he isn't really addressing the multiple and worsening divisions in the oil-rich but economically challenged country, why not offer up a diversion that will certainly stir up passions and identify an easy scapegoat? No wonder he and President Pretzelcoatl were grinning so fulsomely when he came to visit last month....


  1. when i first heard about the shoes and the designer being half chinese, i still thought that it didn't matter--it is still a racist charicature of chinese.

    even the fcat that adidas is calling it the "yellow series" is offensive in itself.

  2. It was good to read this. I'm so glad that someone is telling it how it is.

  3. As you know, I've been watching this Nigerian debacle develop for a while, and, as you might not know, have been engaged in drafting some versions of the letters circulating.

    Most African activists believe it will pass and we're trying to imagine the precedent it will set for many African theocracies, be they Muslim or Christian or Traditional.

    Closer to home, I wonder how it will be used in American politics, as a measure of African repression and American development: what I like to call, the politics of "at least we're not."

    We live in interesting times. Let's see whether the Smiling Texan and his Iranian compadres will start pressing ugly little red buttons.

  4. J

    Thanks for the information on the Sneakers. Adidas is a German company and you know how I luv Germany -- at least my life there. This red state living is getting on my nerves.

    The race, imagery, Sneakers and essentialist objectifications of your post follow the line of the Augsburg Zoo's African Village that was on display last summer in the city of Augsburg, Germany.

    The Max Planck Institute funded a study concerning Germans, "otherness", images and race centered around this Augsburg exhibition. Here is a link to the report. It is found in it totality in a pdf file on the bottom of the webpage. Maybe I told you about it last summer. I hope others do read it. It is not to late to respond to it in some critical and creative ways.

  5. Interesting on the memoir stuff...I just finished reading the memoir running w/ scissors by Burrough and am very interested in the concept of truth in memoirs.

    --RC of

  6. Nubian and John Baker, thanks for writing. These sneakers are indefensible, and Adidas surely knows this. My cynicism meter is off the chart on this.

    Keguro, you pose a great question of how it might be "used" by American politicians, though the truth is that in our midst there are quite a few people who want to enact laws that aren't dissimilar. I see another aspect of this law being "prophylactic"; as increasing numbers of sub-Saharan African people encounter and confront Western notions of homosexuality and gay cultural practices and structures, they have begun to adapt and adopt them, and this Obasanjo-sponsored law, in its extremity, aims to counter this (irreversible) trend. Ironically, part of the anti-gay rhetoric adopted by proponents of Obasanjo's law and similar legislation and political speech in sub-Saharan Africa derives directly from the very European, colonial sources which are identified or marked as "alien" and disruptive to local cultural traditions and societies. But then we both know this; your brilliant post on Africa and homosexuality laid the issues out quite well. Historical narratives and examples of culturally situated same-sexual practice, many of which precede the arrival of the Europeans (or Islam) conveniently get lost in the mix....

    Littlemilk, I remember you writing about that strange, troubling German exhibit. I'll check it out.

    RC, thanks for posting, and I'll visit your blog.