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Mar
15
2024

Alex Kane (senior reporter): The central idea of Daniel Immerwahr’s book How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States is clearly drawn out on its front cover: the familiar map of the United States along with the extra-continental possessions protruding out from the main landmass. The Northwestern University historian argues that the “logo map” cartography, as he calls it, elides the forgotten history and present of US control over places like Guantánamo Bay and the US Virgin Islands, among others, that are critical to understanding US and global history.

The first half of the book looks at how the US became a traditional colonial power through war and conquest: Firstly, by destroying indigenous peoples and taking over their land, and then by extending past its own land borders, towards islands such as Hawai’i. Yet Immerwahr also reveals how American expansionism was laden with demographic anxieties over admitting too many non-white people into the union. Some territories such as Hawai’i and Alaska became states nonetheless after the civil rights movement broke down Washington’s resistance in the 1950s. Others—Puerto Rico, for instance—became a “commonwealth,” with the ability to elect its own governor, but still inextricably tied to and shaped by the US.

The second half of the book reveals a shift in how the US empire operated. After World War II, the United States ruled over tens of millions people in countries under its occupation, including in southern Korea, Japan, parts of Germany, and Austria. But instead of taking permanent control of any of those territories, the US did something unusual: it “won a war and gave up territory.” The worldwide revolt against colonialism only partially explains this withdrawal, according to Immerwahr; the US also understood that it did not need official colonies in order to project its power. Instead, new technologies—including radio, air travel, DDT, and more—”gave powerful countries ways to enjoy the benefits of empire without claiming populated territories,” Immerwahr writes.

I’ll confess that I knew embarrassingly little about how the US came to acquire its extra-territorial possessions—and why those possessions matter—but Immerwahr’s detailed and wry book is the perfect introduction to the US’s hidden empire.

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): For years now, there’s been a sense of mounting pressure on fiction writers not to tell the stories of people not of their own background or identity; if Flaubert lived today, surely Madame Bovary would have been excoriated. But in a recent column in The New York Times, Michelle Goldberg considers why, despite this climate, Adelle Waldman has not been pilloried for her new novel Help Wanted, which focuses on low-wage workers at a big-box store in Upstate New York. “Maybe the book’s early reception is a sign that authors have more latitude to explore all strata of society than many have feared,” Goldberg speculates. While I object to the notion that an author should be considered fortunate to escape condemnation simply for exercising her imagination, I hope Goldberg is right. Waldman, whose previous novel was set among a literary crowd in Brooklyn, has now produced a well-crafted and insightful journey into a world inhabited by struggling workers of diverse backgrounds, united by the rigors of laboring together in the early-morning hours before the store opens, unloading trucks and stocking shelves.

The book, informed by a period Waldman spent doing research by working this same job at a Target upstate, at times feels like an extension of Barbara Ehrenreich’s nonfiction classic Nickel and Dimed, which is not a bad thing. Help Wanted attentively portrays the arduous experiences of those at the bottom of the economic food chain, whose wages are less than $20 an hour and whose hours are intentionally kept low so they aren’t legally entitled to health insurance. Almost all of the characters need a second job to supplement their 4 am to 8 am shift, and exhaustion is endemic. The novel’s central drama unfolds as the workers see a chance to remove some stress from their lives: A hated boss is in line for a promotion that will get her out of their hair. So they unite and devise a plot to facilitate her exodus from their lives, which they carry out by leveraging the condescension of those above them in the corporate hierarchy, who see them as incapable of originality and initiative. I won’t spoil the engaging twists and turns the narrative takes from there.

Admirably, Waldman’s empathy extends not only to the workers at the story’s center, but also to middle and upper management, most of whom she grants the ability to see things clearly and fairly; after all, life in a big-box store is fun for no one. There is nothing facile in Help Wanted, which is both an astute documentary picture of Americans on the edge of a nervous breakdown and a sensitive study of morality as enacted in the workplace.

Aparna Gopalan (news editor): Over the past few months, I’ve found myself reading books about war—specifically, about armed freedom struggles and the genocidal responses they engender. Many of these stories have hit close to home in this moment, but none more so than V. V. Ganeshananthan’s new novel Brotherless Night, which follows teenage protagonist Sashi as she comes of age in a Sri Lanka riven by Sinhala-supremacist state violence and the Tamil insurrections that rise up to resist it.

The book begins in 1981, when Sashi is a 16-year-old high school student living with her parents and four brothers in the Tamil town of Jaffna. Sashi’s is a loving, happy family, always walking together to the local library, sharing dog-eared paperbacks, and playing cricket in the lane outside their house. These sepia-toned opening chapters only heighten the reader’s dread about what is to come when anti-Tamil pogroms inevitably move from the margins of the story to its center. It starts with small incidents, like Sri Lankan police beginning to detain Tamil boys as suspected militants simply for riding their bicycles. Then, the police begin rampaging, destroying Tamil businesses, killing citizens, and burning down Sashi’s beloved library: “Our past, but also—oh, the beautiful wooden tables where I had turned the pages of my textbooks, and my brothers’ textbooks!—the future. And it was gone.”

After the library burns, Sashi’s family decides she should move to her grandmother’s house in Colombo where, under the care of her eldest brother Niranjan, she might be able to let go of painful memories and better focus on her studies. But anti-Tamil riots follow Sashi to the capital, with Sinhalese mobs burning down her grandmother’s house and killing neighbors who are not quick enough to flee. Sashi and her grandmother are displaced to a Tamil refugee camp, where, shell-shocked, they wait for Niranjan—who left to try and find them another shelter. But he never returns, and after too many pages of awful anticipation, it is revealed that he was burned alive in his car by an anti-Tamil mob. The news devastates Sashi, as does the unwelcome return to normalcy that follows it as she moves back to Jaffna (“Ask the clock for mercy; I promise, there is none—only a day on which your loved one is dead, and another, and another, and another after that.”) Over the course of the book, Sashi loses all her brothers in different ways. Shattered by Niranjan’s death, two of them join the militant group the Tamil Tigers (with one of them later dying in the Tigers’ internecine feuds with other insurgents); the third is detained in the Sri Lankan army’s sweep of all Jaffna’s Tamil boys over the age of 12, and retreats into himself after he is released. Sashi also loses beloved teachers, friends, and countless community members in the violence of these years. It is a testament to Ganeshananthan’s skill as a storyteller that each blow wounds the reader anew: Even as the fact of loss becomes routine, the experience of it never does.

Yet for all its skill at portraying boundless grief, Brotherless Night is ultimately not a story of passive, suffering civilians. Instead, this is a book about the Tigers: their righteous beginnings, their increasingly corrupt trajectories, and their tragic ends. Like most others in Jaffna, Sashi supports the Tigers’ goal of ending Sinhala domination. But as the Tigers gain power—at one point, amassing enough fighters and weapons to liberate Jaffna from the Sri Lankan army altogether—she watches uneasily as they become more and more repressive, extorting supplies from Jaffna residents, silencing dissent, and even killing their own people: not just militants from other factions, but also Tamil civilians they deem insufficiently loyal to the liberation struggle.

As the story progresses, Sashi, now a doctor volunteering at a Tiger clinic, begins describing dynamics that are painfully resonant. She recounts how the Tigers rely on Jaffna’s civilians to provide cover for their operations; their gambit eventually fails as Sri Lankan soldiers (and self-appointed Indian “peacekeepers”) prove that they have no qualms about indiscriminately attacking Tamils, civilian or not. This deadly dance reaches one of its crescendos in a Jaffna hospital, where the reciprocal leveraging of doctors and patients culminates in an Indian massacre that kills 87 people. “You must understand: I hate this version of the story,” Sashi tells the reader. “To tell it I have to tell you how the Tigers abandoned the doctors who had helped them, and made them targets for the guns of others.” I, too, hate this version of the story, which leaves the reader nowhere to turn. And yet it is precisely this thankless, but urgent, task that Brotherless Night excels at, forcing readers to confront the cascading nature of colonial violence by training a critical eye on its freedom fighters even as it longs for the liberation they promise.