Category Archives: The Write Life and other Randomness

On writing, design and creative expression.

How to start over and create the future you want

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image by Tiago Gerken (unsplash.com)

In January of this year I did something drastic. I gave notice and left my job. This was a result of a long process of thinking about my life and where I’m headed. The job I was working at paid well, was well-respected and could guarantee me a financially comfortable existence. There was just one problem: I was deeply unhappy. There was no one thing that made it a bad fit. My co-workers were nice enough, though I resisted getting too close to anyone. I felt like I had little in common with them. They inhabited a privileged world that I had left behind when my struggles with mental illness and my battle with coming to terms with my transgender identity set in. In short, they did not feel like my tribe.

I believe that satisfaction in life comes from taking the experiences we have been through and making them part of our life story, having them inform our decisions moving forward, such as what we want to do with our life. My life has been shaped by my experiences as a transman, as a survivor of mental illness, and as a South African-born Canadian. For too long I think I have tried to pretend that I can ignore what has happened to me along the way to who I am. The truth is, I cannot. I feel it’s time that I live my life in accordance with the path I’ve walked.

I’m not sure what the future looks like exactly. I’m playing with a few ideas, one of which is to work with at-risk youth. I certainly have enough life experience to feel like I have something to offer. So I’m currently volunteering to gain experience in this domain. I am also working on starting my own writing business. My goal: to help non-profits and small businesses successfully promote their services.

It’s both scary and exhilarating to strike out on my own. But I’m excited to see what the future holds.

On Coming Out As Trans: The Early Days

On the few occasions that I have spoken openly about being trans, the rewards have been well worth it.

I don’t tell everyone I meet that I am trans. Why should I? For all intents and purposes I’m just another guy, slightly awkward, somewhat shy. Attention-grabbing isn’t my thing; I’d much rather work away in the background and let someone else claim the glory. But I also know that part of my healing process involves sharing who I am with the people who matter to me. And I’m learning, slowly, to be comfortable with who I am even if other people aren’t.

My First Post-Transition Employer

When I first transitioned I also happened to be unemployed. Having just finished a semester of university, and still in the early stages of hormone treatments, I hit the pavement in search of a job. Through a friend I landed an interview with a self-publishing company who was seeking the services of a prepress technician. That is, someone to receive manuscripts from would-be authors, lay out their book and design or assemble a cover. I had limited InDesign skills and even less graphic design skills (I had briefly volunteered at the university newspaper) but these were all things I could learn – and I did.

It so happened that I had interviewed with this particular employer 3 times before – as a woman. The fourth time was my lucky break – and it happened to coincide with my transition to manhood. I mentioned this in my interview – that if they called any of my references, they would refer to me by my female name and female pronouns. My interviewers seemed unphased by this piece of information. It helped that they had previously hired a trans person; they were not completely oblivious to the particular challenges I faced.

I worked there for a year and a half before I decided to move on. My father had died, my family had rejected me, and I was still wrestling with guilt over a close friend’s suicide. The work was no longer satisfying, the company was struggling financially, and I couldn’t function anymore. So I decided to go on EI. I asked my employer to lay me off and they obliged. I remain grateful for that.

The Government Funded Self-Employment Program

The thing about EI is that it doesn’t last forever. I was assigned a employment counsellor through one of the many government-sponsored employment agencies. My case worker was an eccentric man with a baritone voice who liked to cradle his junk with one hand as he explained to me the next steps of my process. I told him everything: about the years I’d struggled with depression, my mother’s reaction when I came out to her (she’d said it would’ve been better if I’d just died), my father’s passing and my feelings of unemployability.

He suggested that I might be eligible for government-funded re-training and we started the paperwork. Interestingly, he thought my trans status would cause less problems than my diagnosis of clinical depression. We would have to prove that I was too sick to work in a regular employment environment but healthy enough to attend school and work for myself. Not so easy.

All I’d ever wanted to be was a writer, but I had no faith in my abilities and didn’t see how I could make it work financially. I figured, if I was going to study something, I wanted to study something I’d actually enjoy. So I settled on attending the Vancouver Film School. They had a 12-month screenwriting program that also included learning how to write journalism, TV specs, children’s shows, documentaries and other types of creative writing.

As part of my application process I needed to speak with people in the industry and get them to say that they would hire me on their projects once I graduated. I looked up everyone and anyone I could find. I volunteered with an organization that screened documentaries in a restaurant setting. I befriended two documentary filmmakers who’d been in the filmmaking biz for more than 30 years. They said that if I got everything together for a project they’d consider coming on as a producer. I was elated. The way I saw it, even if I didn’t learn a thing from film school, I’d get a chance to network. And everybody knows that networking makes the world go round.

I completed the paperwork, put in the application to the school, including a writing sample about my life as a trans person. It worked; the school said yes. Now all I had to do was make sure that the government was on board. With my case worker’s support, I completed form after form, outlining my career plan and arguing that because of my challenging life experiences, I had plenty of material to draw on to succeed in the film business. I was approved; I was given a living allowance of $12,000 for the year and my tuition and text books were covered. A good thing, too, as the tuition wasn’t cheap: $20,000 for the entire program. There was no way I could’ve gone without the government support. I packed my bags and got ready to move to Vancouver.

I was eager for the next chapter of my life to begin.

A Children’s Story

Still feeling vulnerable today. One way to counteract that is to be gentle with myself. And the only way I know how to feel better is to write. Write without thinking too much about it. So here goes, a children’s story, absurd and non-sensical. Because my brain needs a rest. Because life is absurd, and my life lacks sense at the moment. So here it is, just for fun…

Moon Baby 

The man stands 6 storeys tall on his knees. His hands are the size of small motorboats. His nose is large and noisy. He is breathing heavily. And with each breath in, trees topple over, benches break loose and skid toward us. When he exhales, the clouds disperse and the tide pulls away.

The man is my father. His legs are made of iron, his feet of steel. His arms have a golden sheen. “White gold,” he says. And he picks me up like I’m a toothpick and perches me on his shoulder. I am nothing like him.

With every step through the town, the earth rumbles. People stare at us, their eyes wide with fear. “Good morning, Arthur,” a crackly voice calls. It’s Bob, the butcher, who always has a kind word for everyone. He waves at my father, at me with a shaking hand and scampers inside his store before my father can reply.

My father’s mouth is a gaping hole of rotting teeth. He never brushes his teeth because, he says, he can’t find a toothbrush large enough. His halitosis clears the streets and we wander on, through the town and towards the Rocky Mountains in the distance.

“Good morning,” his voice bellows to the townspeople, drowning out the church gong. It’s 9 am.

Nobody follows us, nobody dares.

We wander towards the mountain range, and my father carefully lowers me down to the ground, right next to a pond blue like ice cream. I run towards it, clamber down onto my belly and lap up the freshwater like a dog. My father stands in the distance, wiping the sweat from his brow.

“Aren’t you thirsty?” I ask. He shakes his head, and sweat rains down on the forest, the pond, me. The water is salty now. I stop drinking.

“Ugh, dad. Look what you’ve done!”

But he’s not looking at me anymore. Up in the sky, the sun is burning hot. He reaches up and picks it out of the sky like fruit from a tree. He squeezes it and liquid sunshine streams into his mouth, drips down his chin.

The planet is dark now. Black like the night.

“Dad! Put it back!”

He swallows down the light and opens his hand to reveal the sun, squeezed dry and dimly lit. He smoothes it out with his other hand and puffs it up like a pillow. Then he throws it up into the sky again, where it lands on a cloud. It’s still not as bright as it used to be.

On the other hand, my father now beams like a torchlight. The light streaming out of his pores, his eyes is so blinding I can barely stand to look at him.

He reaches down to gather me up again, but his skin burns into mine and I yell out in pain, “Ow! Stop!”. My father pauses and twists his head sideways the way a dog does when it’s curious.

I tell him we should rest and he chuckles so loud, the leaves tumble down from all the trees around us.

“You’re tired already?” he teases. His grin is large and scary and bright.

The dim sun on high cries out that he is tired, even if we’re not. And slowly the sun lowers himself in the distance until he’s out of sight. In his place the moon floats up and glimmers coldly down at us. It looks like a fingernail clipping in the sky.

My father loves the moon. He rides it like a skateboard through the darkness. He heaves himself up into the sky and steps gingerly onto the sliver of moon. It teeters this way and that, creaking under my father’s weight.

“Don’t break it dad,” I cry. But my father’s not listening. He is absorbed in balancing his large frame on the moon. They skid towards the milky way. My father says it is slippery like coconut oil. I watch him slip and slide along it like a child, screaming: “Weeee!” It sounds like thunder.

I am jealous because my father never takes me up with him when he plays. He says it’s too dangerous, that I need to wait until I’m big like him. But I don’t think I’ll ever be. My size resembles my mother’s. She is no bigger than a Christmas tree.

Bus stop blues

On my way home from work today, I stopped at a downtown bus stop and waited in line for the bus to arrive. A drunk man approached us, his gait uncertain, his sense of direction clearly not the only thing that was impaired. He spotted a blond-haired young woman and stood close to her, informing her, no doubt, of her many admirable physical qualities. I couldn’t hear what he was saying until she had moved away and he raised his voice to the rest of us. To the drunk man with the grey moustache, this is for you:

 

Because the city grips my throat and squeezes

the life out of me. I am waiting at a bus stop

next to a woman with long curls like waves down her back. And

a drunk man staggers to where she stands and proclaims

that she is a sunflower seed. When he is met with silence he

raises his voice like only a drunk man can. He asks if we

would prefer he built an atom bomb instead. As if

those were his only options: harassing a young woman

and bombing the world to smithereens. I’d find it funny

if it weren’t for the ache I feel, like fingernails scratching

at the inside of my skin. The ugliness and desperation

in his voice, the plaintiff call of pain. Eventually the woman wanders away,

iPhone in hand. So does the man with the dirty moustache

and baggy jeans. We’re all relieved to see him go.

The No. 16 bus to 29th Station pulls up, and I amble on board,

flash my monthly bus pass to the surly driver,

and weave a path to the back of the bus, eager to pull out

the book I’m reading called why be happy when you can be normal?

by Jeanette Winterson. And I don’t have an answer.

But I can contemplate: this is why the middle class will never

ride public transit. It’s why I wrap myself in a plastic

blue raincoat before I climb on board. An indestructible

layer to keep the grime of reality at bay.

i am an artist

I had a teacher who used to say he was an artist – a conceptual artist. I didn’t really know what he meant by that. He was a businessman and an entrepreneur. He invested in new businesses and went bankrupt doing it. Then he started all over again. You win some you lose some, he said – that’s how you learn. I admired his tenacity, his drive and his commitment to the capitalist system, a system that seemed rigged against me and that I poorly understood.

When I told him I wanted to be a writer he told me: great! He was teaching a class on how to start your own business and my idea was to start a desktop publishing business. I’d worked for an on-demand publishing company for two years and a community newspaper before that. At university I’d written one or two articles for the campus paper and my undergraduate degree was in literature. But really, I didn’t feel much confidence in my ability to make it alone as a writer or a publisher. A million and one businesses already exist, all of them claiming to be desktop publishers. What would make me any better?

I was really into podcasts at the time too. Back when most people didn’t really know what they were. I’ve always trusted audio recordings more than visual media. Maybe because my own body betrayed me at birth. Here I was, a boy but to the outside world a girl. Why trust your eyes when appearances lie? Radio, or podcasts, create an intimate space, a space all your own. Where your imagination comes alive, fills in the blanks, creates pictures more vivid and real than the finest, most colourful paintings. If you let it.

So I presented my business idea and I was voted most likely to succeed. Granted we were a small group of students. But still it felt good to be recognized for an idea. I wanted to succeed but I knew it was a stretch. I had very little money in the bank and I was struggling still with the repercussions of my father’s death the year before. Ultimately I decided it wasn’t time yet to go it alone. I needed to develop my sales skills and save some money. And before that I needed to get myself together emotionally, psychologically. I had work to do, so I found a job.

It’s almost seven years later now. And I realize that the spark I felt in that class I took is still with me; I would love to work for myself now more than ever before. But not as a desktop publisher. I don’t want to publish other people’s ideas, not yet. First, I want to develop my own ideas, and explore their value. I want to feel comfortable expressing them and have them inspire others to action. Because without the force of character to do that, I am in no position to help others express themselves.

Sometimes I’m scared of expressing what I think because I fear I am a bad person and that everyone will know that if I say what I think out loud. Thoughts have power. Words can hurt. I have judgments and criticisms I carry with me like a heavy load. My shoulders are tired, my back arched and in pain. I want to learn to stand tall again. Without judgement and with fierce hope. Only hope can spark the imagination.

So this is where I’ll start, with a blog. I will stand tall. I will create myself online. I believe we can all be artists if we let ourselves. I think we owe it to ourselves.

Creating wealth versus making money

I will say this: learning how to use time wisely, is an art. Learning to respect other people’s time, is a skill. Knowing when to commit to a task and when to back off, understanding what truly matters to a client (or a friend) and what doesn’t, learning how to prioritize, these are key to living a meaningful life – at work and at home.

As I’ve written before, I work for a project management company that specializes in construction projects. Most of our clients are public sector but a significant number are private sector as well. We’re talking law firms, technology companies, financial institutions…

At work today I met with the CEO of a large private sector real estate company. My boss presented our service offering to him and asked him for an honest assessment of our pitch. The CEO listened politely and then proceeded to dissect the entire exchange from start to finish. Did our message resonate with him? No, he said. At least he was honest.

His message was clear: leave behind the scripts you’ve used in the past and really listen to what your client is saying. Find your unique selling proposition – the one thing that makes you different from your competition. And by competition he wasn’t just talking about direct competition. He was also talking about companies that may specialize in something else but offer what we do on the side. For instance, why should a client pick you over an interior designer that also offers project management? Knowing when to step away is also a skill. It’s respecting your clients enough to trust that they know how to solve their own problems – even if it means hiring someone else to do it for them.

And never admit that you’re expensive. Say that you are not expensive at all for what you offer – significant cost savings overall. The kind of help we offer is priceless when it’s effectively executed.

He talked a lot about having a client focus. Client-centricity is about recognizing that your goal is to get beyond the superficial stuff, to connect with the decision-makers on an emotional, personal level. What they really want to know is: are you easy to work with? Do you make them feel good?

That last thought really stuck with me. Because it’s not just about business. Every relationship we build, every connection we try to make, is really about how we add value to the other person’s life. It’s not about being useful in some tangible way but in how you make that other person feel when they are around you.

When you hang out with your friends, do they feel good about themselves? Do they feel respected? Do they seek you out to have adventures? Either of the physical variety or through stimulating conversation? I know that I have struggled to make meaningful connections with people I truly respect because I feel that I am not worthy or useful or do not have anything to offer. Not surprisingly, the result has been that I have a very small circle of friends (a circle of friends, however, that I trust deeply).

What I would like to learn is be someone that people want to be around. Because I challenge them, ask tough questions, hold them accountable, but most of all, because I  inspire people to be better than they think they are. I have had the privilege of having people in my life that have made me feel all of these things. And that has meant so much more to me than all the money in the world. Or so I feel.

Oh the world owes me a living

The job I do is stressful for many reasons, not the least of which is my reliance on input from other people. I can, at the best of times, control my own output, but it’s very difficult to know for certain what other people will or will not do. And so, working in a team environment becomes challenging — especially when you are a perfectionist and you are responsible for making sure the task at hand gets done. Results matter. And if you have no results, it doesn’t matter how hard you worked. If you have nothing to show for it, you’ve failed.

I work as a proposal writer at a construction project management company. As a proposal writer, my job is to make sure I get the information I need to put together a document that effectively sells our company and our people. I enjoy the challenge of coming up with what essentially amounts to a book in a few short weeks. I like the parts I actually get to write from scratch, like cover letters, project understanding, a project profile or two.

But when it comes to herding technical staff into providing me with their input or lining up the regional VP for a senior review, well, stress levels tend to go up. Because no matter how hard I try to be clear, no matter how many deadlines I outline, inevitably the information I get is late, and the quality is sometimes pretty darn shoddy. And unlike regular project work, proposals show very little mercy: deadlines can make or break a company’s success on a bid. You couldn’t get your document in on time? Tough sh*t. There are no second chances. Somebody else will get the job.

This past week was particularly stressful. I attempted to flag the particularly short turnaround on a proposal that was due to a municipality not so close by (i.e. requiring us to courier the document early, further limiting the time available to write the darn thing).

As a proposal writer, my job is to create a storyline. To take the disjointed bits of information given me and weave them together into a whole that flows and, hopefully, persuades the client that we are the best team for the job. But when my time is spent chasing after other team members for the input they promised two days earlier, I have less time to devote to putting in the strategic thinking required to formulate a convincing argument in an effective way.

Too often I feel myself becoming a dumping ground for such an array of tasks that it’s hard to stay on top of it all: I help develop a strategy for the document in collusion with the senior technical staff, I clearly communicate who is responsible for what, set up the template for the document, populate the portions of the document that do not require technical information (e.g. the cover letter and project understanding and parts of the methodology section), format the document, source images to enliven the pages of the document (which is challenging, as more often than not no project photos exist or technical staff have them stashed somewhere on their desktop or camera where I don’t have access), I print/bind and package the document, arrange for courier or deliver the document myself. Oh and to top it all off I have to make sure I incorporate the steady stream of edits that keep on coming while the document is in mid production.

I get that maybe I try too hard to incorporate everything and that maybe I need to learn to be more assertive about what is and what is not possible. Thing is, though, it is all possible. It’s just that I might have a nervous breakdown in the process. So how do I address that?

Arg.

The Travel Itch

Why did I think it would be easy?

Sometimes an idea grabs hold of you and won’t let go. My partner and I have been kicking around the idea of changing our life trajectories and trying something different. And by different I mean bicycling across Canada for three months and seeing where that takes us. It’s an idea alright. But what then?

While discussing the idea of bicycling across the country, I think we both felt a certain amount of excitement bubbling up. Then the thief struck in the night and stole our bicycles. It’s hard not to take it personally. I mean, Universe, is that you telling us we’re crazy or something?

At least we have extras. I have a Masi Randonneur and my partner a Cannondale she rebuilt. It’s got a flat tire and the wheels aren’t true but it’s better than nothing. Whether it would get her across the country is another story. And whether my knee will get me there is, well, uncertain too. I’ve been getting these sharp pains shooting up from behind my kneecap. When it strikes, it’s a quick flash of pain and then it dissipates again.

I thought maybe it was because my seat was too low but I lifted it and the pain still happens. It even occurs when I’m walking, sometimes. Maybe it’s just one of those mysterious things that happens when you get older.

Truth is, my job is stressful. So much so that sometimes I wake up at night and can feel my heart beating way too fast to be healthy. I’m lucky, in that I get paid to write and edit but it’s hard when you’re working towards crazy deadlines and you’re dependent on the input of other people and what you’re writing isn’t something that’s yours but is a sales document for a corporation. I imagine it’s a little like what it feels like to be a reporter. You constantly need to pump out the stories to feed the machine. Except that I also have to design the documents and print and bind them. Oh and arrange the courier. Sometimes it gets to be too much.

And when it comes right down to it, there’s not much room for me to grow. I mean, I can get better at what I do, but I can’t see myself moving into sales or marketing in any other capacity. I’m too much of an anti-consumer. I hate having too much stuff and am almost religious about my disinterest in sales. And my people skills are not exactly stellar.

The fact is, it will take many a year for me to make enough money to buy a house. I just don’t have the savings and, with my partner in school, we’re not working with a lot. So, what are my options — keep pressing on, stressed out of my mind? Or change something.

The idea is this – become a travel writer, give up our apartment, become nomads wandering different countries. A fun, romantic idea maybe but not so very practical. You can’t build a life on a move like that, surely. How would we save up for retirement? How could we ever have children?

Then again, the typical path hasn’t done either of us much good. We are both disillusioned with our respective work places. We both have needs that aren’t getting met. And I’m getting that itch I get – a restlessness that means that it’s time for a change.

Plagiarism, Jane Goodall, and The Truth

The Washington Post recently exposed passages in Jane Goodall’s latest book about plants, Seeds of Hope, as plagiarized. To academia’s horror the world over, no doubt, Goodall’s source material includes such pedestrian sources as Wikipedia and the Choice Organic Tea website. Jane Goodall, renowned primatologist and chimpanzee activist, quickly responded to the plagiarism critiques, claiming that duplicated passages were an honest mistake and that she would properly cite them in future editions. Goodall’s actions are – or are they? – a far cry from the more serious offences of New Yorker writer Jonah Lehrer, who, among other infractions, invented Bob Dylan quotes for his examination of the neuroscience behind creativity in his book Imagine, or the New York Times writer Jayson Blair who, back in 2003, tarred the reputation of one of the most highly esteemed newspapers in the world with fabricated interview quotes and unattributed sources.

This reminds me of an episode of the radio show This American Life that truly moved me – and a large number of other listeners – when I first heard it late last year. Raconteur Mike Daisey performed excerpts from his monologue The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs in which he reported on the working conditions at the Foxconn electronics factory in Shenzen, China. Initially labelling his work nonfiction, Mike Daisey later clarified that he had taken certain factual liberties for the sake of his art, but that the overall story was true. Ira Glass, host of This American Life, ended up retracting the piece, grilling Mike Daisey in a follow-up interview for misrepresenting the facts, and apologizing to listeners for failing to catch the errors before the show was aired.

I remember, at the time, feeling torn about the whole thing: one the one hand, I felt betrayed and misled and as outraged as Ira was during his subsequent cross-examination of Daisey, and on the other, I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for Mike Daisey’s situation. As a writer myself, and a lover of fiction and nonfiction alike, as someone who has taken a journalism class or two in my student days, I can understand the drive to be true to one’s story, even if the facts aren’t quite all there. Nonfiction, I like to tell my friends, is about facts; fiction is about truth. If your story has integrity, holds together, and touches an underlying emotional truth, it can be every bit as meaningful, if not more so, than a dry piece of journalism spouting facts alone.

But where Mike Daisey erred, was in the labelling of his piece. He called it nonfiction, and so, when he reported on conversations as if they were first-person testimonies, he had an obligation to the truth – and to the facts. It’s a fine line to walk: attracting an audience who is interested in the facts about working conditions in a Foxconn factory, and yet doing so in a way that is as emotionally evocative and spell-binding as the very best works of fiction. Mike Daisey tried – and failed – to walk it successfully. But did he lie with malicious intent? I don’t think so.

Jane Goodall is no Mike Daisey. No one is arguing that the facts she borrowed from other sources are outrageously incorrect. Having not read her book I rely on other sources, but it appears the plagiarized sentences are mainly exposition, the backdrop upon which her main narrative rests. If that’s the case, hers were errors in rigour, attention and scrutiny in filling in those expository gaps. The misquotes, too, are more the result of sloppy memory and lazy writing than of wilfully misleading her readers. And for that, I’m sure, she’ll eventually be forgiven.

The larger question, about the line between fact and fiction and what to do when it blurs, is more interesting. In a tech-riddled world where crowd-sourcing, mashups and cutting and pasting are as easy as pressing a button or searching a browser in the comfort of one’s home, perhaps we are seeing the inklings of the next literary frontier: books that no longer seek to be original in terms of word choice, sentences or even paragraphs, but that proudly straddle the line between original and recycled content, where the author is less a writer than a collage artist of facts and truths.

Or maybe, our technologically-addicted digits just need to learn to pause a few beats longer before we press send to our publishers and our audiences. Jane Goodall, I’m looking at you.

When Things Fall Apart

Chinua Achebe, writer of the book Things Fall Apart is dead at 82, according to the latest news reports. He was – and is – one of the most celebrated authors to come out of Nigeria, and Africa.

I remember the first time I read his debut novel, Things Fall Apart, I was studying English literature at university and was grappling with my own white history as an Afrikaner from South Africa. The book is a powerful illustration of the effects of colonialism on African traditional life. It follows the story of a proud Igbo leader who seeks to uphold the traditions of his tribe, only to see them slip away once the white men arrive. Rather than ascribe to the new rules of a new and unwelcome people, Okonkwo (the main character) chooses to hang himself instead. But in the very act of evading the white man’s rules, he breaks the traditions of his own people — suicide is seen as a deeply shameful act and not worthy of a warrior.

This story truly moved me on so many levels. Not only does it portray, in devastating detail, the truly terrible cultural decimation that occurred at the white man’s arrival in Africa, but it also refuses to idealize the pre-colonized way of life. Okonkwo’s actions, inspired by the advice of an oracle, are truly horrific when he takes part in the killing of his own adopted son. He also shows little sympathy for his father, Unoka, a man at the opposite end of the masculinity spectrum. Unlike his son, Unoka is no warrior – he is a gentle soul with seemingly little ambition – and as a result he has little social standing in his village.

The characters feel like real, flesh and blood, human beings, who make mistakes, but try to live honest lives as best they can. Despite his violent, warrior-like temperament, Okonkwo is heroic. Here is a man who seeks to live according to the rules of a bygone age: as a proud, hard-working, stoic warrior. His raw humanity enhances the tragic quality of the book. It isn’t as simple as saying that pre-colonized life was a kind of garden of Eden and that the white man was the snake in the grass. Life is more complicated than that, and the social inequalities and class/gender divides are highlighted within a society that is as complex as any colonized society.

Struggling with my own gender identity, I remember reading this book and wanting to know more about Unoka, Okonkwo’s father. To my queer sensibilities, he felt like part of my gender variant tribe. Of course, he exists in a context so different, where terms like queer, gay/lesbian, bi and trans mean nothing — applying modern sensibilities to this world has limited use.

Ultimately, the book is a tragedy, an evocative illustration of the trauma the African people are still struggling to recover from. As a white man from Africa, I confess, the book makes me feel uncomfortable about the legacy of my people. But while the book is clearly of and about Africa, it is, at its core, a book about being human in an ever-changing world and the complex moral landscape that each of us must navigate as we find our place in it.