The Present is Female

The Present is Female

The Present Is Female 

A List of 12 Novels You Should Read


November 2019

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Never mind the adage that “the future is female”; the present is female, and we have Morrison to thank for it! Beloved speaks with such power and verve to the originary historical trauma of U.S. contemporary life that Morrison’s novel spurred the emergence of trauma studies as a major field of work in the U.S. academy and beyond it. I cherish this novel and do not want to imagine a contemporary Anglophone literary field without it. 

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Possibly the best novel of this millennium. (You can quote me on that.) Four friends from college make their way through turbulent comings-of-age often shaped and marred by the unspeakable traumas of late capitalism. Literary lore has it that Toni Morrison told her creative writing classes at Princeton that ”I don’t want to hear about your little life”; Yanagihara’s novel offers a wonderful example of how ostensibly personal stories can offer macronarratives about our cultural moment at the start of the 21st century.

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

A rival for the title as this young millennium’s best novel so far. Smith published White Teeth within three years of receiving her BA in English Literature from Cambridge University. In significant ways, the novel reads like a showdown with the English canon in which Smith’s studies had immersed her: Opening ”early in the morning, late in the century,” the novel treats us to a sweeping, Saturnalian panorama of the post-empire. Initially panned by conservative critic James Wood as ”hysterical realism,” the novel and its successors in Smith’s oeuvre embrace the disorderly, the messy, seeing in chaos and dynamism a new way to narrate contemporary life and its peculiarities.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

A story of addiction, the post-plantation, racialized income inequality, and police brutality, Ward’s novel speaks with clarity and indignation about the reality facing Black bodies in the U.S. today. Like Morrison, to whom she professes her literary matrimony, Ward physicalizes Black female suffering in the figure of a tree. Readers of Beloved will find Ward’s climactic last scene impossible not to juxtapose with the scars on Sethe’s back, though Ward goes even further than her predecessor in discussing the web of roots that nourish the tree that comes to represent fraught U.S. history post-1619.

Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat

Danticat contemplates migration (Haiti to New York), institutionalized misogyny, childhood sexual trauma, and the interconnections of language with race and gender. I will never forget the novel’s descriptions of “testing” rituals that intend to gauge a girl’s virginity but serve the de facto function of legitimating male physical overreach in the context of unquestionable patriachy. Read the novel for the horrors it exposes, yes, but also for its protagonist’s efforts to survive and overcome them.

Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid

Any reading of Kincaid’s novels must begin from a consideration of her relation to Antigua, the island she calls home and whose systematic exploitation by predatory tourism industries she documents in the non-fiction work A Small Place. Kincaid locates much of the social malaises plaguing Antigua(ns) in their role as perpetual servants to transient white visitors, bringing to mind what Tsitsi Dangaremba called the “nervous conditions” of postcolonial subjectivity. This novel’s explorations of depression and poverty thus gestures toward efforts to explain their occurence by the indignities that Antiguans experience as servants in their own nation. But perhaps the novel’s deftest move occurs in its discussions of female homosocial relations and lesbian desire in the private sphere—a rebuttal of Western queer studies discourses that see private queerness as deficient and premodern. Annie John challenges Western readers to check their/our assumptions of what modernity looks like, and to ask to what extent we caused the problems in Antigua that we now lament.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

After Morrison’s death earlier this year, Walker has become the custodian of U.S. moral consciousness. No less grandiose claim would do justice to Walker’s role in shaping contemporary U.S. awareness of the legacies of plantation slavery and the contemporary realities of the post-plantation and gender violence. Nor does it seem grandiose to elevate Walker to this position of cultural arbitrarion and record-keeping if we consider the shaping influence The Color Purple and its author had on younger novelists. Zadie Smith may have grown up in London, but speaking about her earliest literary exposure at Stanford University earlier this year, she said: “Toni Morrison [and] Alice Walker […] for those of us who grew up Black-British, our models were [U.S.] American.” With a legacy that crosses the Atlantic Ocean, Walker offers narratives that explain our contemporary moment and demand moral actions to undo our freighted legacies.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

As the most prominent women writer in the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston created the discursive space for African-American women to narrate their own realities—to give accounts of themselves. The line of inspiration from Hurston via Morrison to a plethora of (queer) women novelists (of color) working today makes Their Eyes Were Watching God required reading for anyone who reads contemporary novels. But what makes Hurston’s novel more than required reading is her capacity for world-making in African-American vernaculars. Their Eyes Were Watching God inserts itself in flood narratives from Gilgamesh and Noah/Nuh through Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale” George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, warranting that we read Hurston not just for her historical role in clearing discursive space, but as a poetic master in her own right.

Passing by Nella Larson

As a Danish citizen who crossed the Atlantic to study in the U.S., I have long wondered at Larson’s absence from mainstream Danish literary canons and at her relegation in the U.S. to niche/historicizing reading lists (“women writers in the Caribbean”; “interracial queer novels of migration,” etc.). Passing could well serve as the premier text through which to capture the African-American prose tradition of the 1920s. In its efforts to make “the great (U.S.) American novel” a story of racial passing and border-crossing, Passing might well rival Moby-Dick and Absalom, Absalom! as one example of that elusive national narrative.

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

No survey of contemporary U.S./Anglophone novels (as I am realizing that this list seems to offer) would be complete without reckoning not just with slavery, but also with the Native American genocide starting in 1492. Silko’s novel probes the limits of the novel as a cohesive form, while her narrative experiments with non-linearity to unsettle readers’ expectations of what Native American novels should represent. I think of the contemporary Native American poet Tommy Pico’s “Nature Poem” (“I can’t write a nature poem bc English is some Stockholm shit,/makes me complicit in my tribe’s erasure—why shld I give a fuck abt/‘poetry’? It’s a container”): Silko bends the novel’s form to her will, interrogating even the act of readership and suggesting its tacit extractivism.

Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha

The stories of at least seven women (Yu Guan Soon, Joan of Arc, Saint Thérèse, Cha, her mother, and the Greek goddesses Demeter and Persephone) weave together and form a thoughtful, rich meditation on womanhood, trauma, and martyrdom. Dictee and its author traverse oceans and literary borders and ask whether it makes sense to persist in grouping texts togetehr in national canons given the porous nature of contemporary cultural boundaries. In a gruesome echo of Cha’s misgivings about female martyrdom, Cha died from gendered sexual violence in a brutal murder shortly after Dictee’s release. Dictee thereby presents readers with the chance, if nothing else, to commemorate Cha’s life by engaging with her work, all the while recalling the acute insufficiency of our efforts to curb gendered sexual violence.

Crimson / HOMO Sapienne by Niviaq Korneliussen

Let me conclude this list with a recommendation that differs from the eleven novels above both because it comes from the ultraminor field of contemporary Greenlandic lesbian literature, but also because it approaches representations of trauma not through dramatizations of it, but through its elision. Crimson imagines a Greenlandic society all but sanitized of its Danish colonizers. It responds to the contemporary reality of rampant homophobia with a strident vision of queer acceptance and celebration. (I worked with Professor Ken Nielsen on a capstone project about Korneliussen’s counterimaginative moves for my capstone project in 2018 and recommend the novel almost as an antidote to the Arctic Orientalism that pervades representations of Greenland, not least in the wake of the 45th U.S. President’s suggestion that he wanted to “buy” the (autonomous) island.) Read it to feel renewed hope that no matter the catalogue of traumatized texts above, a decolonial and post-violent world might just be waiting to be born.

Nikolaj Ramsdal Nielsen graduated from NYU Abu Dhabi in 2018 with a degree in Liteature and Creative Writing. He is currently a doctoral student in comparative literature at Stanford University.

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Favorite Theorists: Pia Arke

Favorite Theorists: Pia Arke


Pia Arke

Nikolaj Ramsdal Nielsen

September 2018

Pia Arke (1958–2007) was a mixed-race Danish-Greenlandic artist and cultural theorist whose adult life was bookended by two momentous events in Danish-Greenlandic relations: the 1979 adoption of a home-rule system of governance in Greenland, which marked the first major push toward a Danish decolonization of Greenland, and the series of Greenlandic protests that culminated in the 2009 implementation of a self-rule system of governance, which saw Greenland win sovereignty from Denmark in most areas except foreign policy and criminal law.

I offer these details about Arke’s life upfront because Arke’s art and theory both insist that we consider the artist/theorist’s vantage points—positionalities, to use a phrase in vogue—to be central to and inextricable from her works. In Arke’s case, being split at the root lent her a complicated and complex perspective on the Danish-Greenlandic cultural dynamic.

Arke’s most noteworthy theoretical work is the manifesto Ethno-Aesthetics (1995, English translation 2010), which she submitted in place of a physical product to earn a degree from The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. Ethno-Aesthetics beams a flashlight into the psyches of Danes who travel to the North Atlantic to encounter their supposed Others, the “Eskimos” [sic], on whom they project fantasies of cultural purity and backwardness. She ascribes to Danes who romanticize Greenland and Greenlanders a Rousseau-like fetishization of the Noble Savage; an almost pitiable need to ignore signs of Danish-Greenlandic syncretism or of Greenlandic modernities to sustain their racial fantasies; and a pervasive obliviousness to the systematic construction and perpetuation of these reductive images of Greenland and Greenlanders.

Pia Arke

Source: Wikipedia

It seems tempting to frame Arke’s manifesto simply as a North Atlantic incarnation of Edward Saïd’s theories in Orientalism (1978) that the European construction of exotic others reveals less about those cultures than it does about the fragility of Europe’s self-perception and cultural coherence, but Arke goes further than Saïd. Not only does Arke equip critical observers with an intellectual apparatus for “watching them watching us,” i.e. for critiquing Denmark’s construction of Greenland as its other, but she also calls for direct and concerted action from Greenlandic persons to call out their Danish counterparts on their reductivism, and to double down on representing Greenlandic modernities instead of merely playing into essentialist Danish expectations of “what Greenlandic art is.” Arke implores her peers to reject the aesthetic paradigm that Danes tend to impose on Greenland and Greenlanders. Her underlying project, I suspect, is to rouse cognitive dissonance in Danish readers and consumers of Greenlandic culture, calling them out on their stereotyped and reductive visions of Greenland by presenting them with representations of Greenlandic life that diverge so brazenly from what they expect it to look like.

She ascribes to Danes who romanticize Greenland and Greenlanders a Rousseau-like fetishization of the Noble Savage.

Pia Arke ranks among my favorite theorists for numerous reasons: She lets her theory complement her artwork, evinced by the photography exhibit Arctic Hysteria’s dramatization of the violent European gaze on Inuit bodies. She flips the tables of ethnographic inquiry, returning the critical gaze that North Europeans have cast on Greenlanders for centuries. She admits to and even flaunts the anger that these repeated confrontations with Danish scientific racism rouse in her, viewing that frustration not as an unwelcome emotion that leaves her cognitively hamstrung but a feeling that emboldens and sharpens her acumen as a cultural critic. But most significantly, she owns up to and champions the political cause that underpins her theoretical and artistic works: to fight for better, rounder, more complex representations of Greenlanders by Greenlanders. Her dissection of the Danish ethno-aesthetic reduction of Greenlanders to a monolithic category of premodern Inuit sealers who live in igloos (a chimeric dwelling that no Greenlanders actually inhabit; the vast majority of Greenlanders live in apartments in cities and towns along the country’s—mostly ice-free—coastline) has a pointedness to it that lets it contribute directly to the avowedly political cause of decolonizing Greenlandic minds.

Shot while Arke was working on her book Scoresbysund historier, published by Borgens Forlag.

Source: YouTube.

Ethno-Aesthetics took the form of a dissertation in visual arts, yes, but the combination of Arke’s acerbic, satirical prose and her incisive dissection of Danish neocolonialism in Greenland slate it for wider circulation. Indeed, upon its trilingual republication in Greenlandic, Danish, and English in 2010, Ethno-Aesthetics has won scholarly attention even outside the Danish-Greenlandic context. The University of Chicago-based journal Afterall made Ethno-Aesthetics the centerpiece of its Autumn/Winter 2017 edition, using illustrations from Arke’s work on its cover page and devoting the three leading articles in the journal to Arke’s manifesto. Though popular interest in Arke’s theories of the European relation to its North Atlantic others has yet to swell, the freshness and daring of Arke’s work—theoretical and artistic—gives me hope that she may one day enjoy the posthumous recognition she merits.

Rereading Ethno-Aesthetics, I cannot help but ask myself: Am I complicit in similar reductivist practices to the Danish stereotyping of Inuit Greenlanders?

I have just started a five-year program at Stanford University. I find myself somehow at the edge of the Western world and near its nexus at the same time. Though I write from the perceived center of the Wallersteinian world-system that would place Arke squarely on a periphery, her words resound here.

Arke’s immediate theoretical contribution may have been a toolkit for better understanding and critiquing the Danish marginalization of Greenlanders, but the methodology of activist scholarship she perfects seems transferable to the context in which I find myself.

Rereading Ethno-Aesthetics, I cannot help but ask myself: Am I complicit in similar reductivist practices to the Danish stereotyping of Inuit Greenlanders?

Do I suffer from a similar ethnocentric myopia to the one that made a Danish missionary, whose poem Arke uses as an epigraph to her manifesto, feel somehow justified in lamenting the “too civilized” state of Greenlanders when he visited the country in the early twentieth century:

Sorrow and happiness wander together!’

We readily could appropriate these words

when we met the East Greenlanders.

We were happy to have reached them, yet,

undeniably, also saddened to see them;

for they did not appear as the unspoiled people

we had hoped to find! They were already ‘civilised’;

but what a civilisation! The year before, at Itivdlek,

we encountered a group of East Greenlanders

about whom we could say that, evidently,

these are ‘wild’ people. This year, at Angmagssalik,

we meet with East Greenlanders, one of which wears a top hat,

another knee breeches, stockings and shoes,

as if intent on going to a banquet at the emperor of Germany’s court.

One presents himself in a coat, another in a normal shirt! Etc. etc.!

I nearly burst into tears!


From the diary of C.P.F Rüttel, Missionary in East Greenland, 1894–1904

Arke’s manifesto seems apposite reading for scholars close to the center of the intellectual world-system who, like me, want to steer clear of ethnocentrism—of a reductive ethno-aesthetics—and show the requisite attunement to the experiences of persons whom we too easily fix in a position of subalternity and deny participation in contemporary cultural life.

Ethno-Aesthetics speaks with prophetic clarity and authority to protest and counter one of the most problematic intellectual tendencies of our moment.

It could, and should, be required reading for the burgeoning generation of thinkers striving for a more cogent, diverse, equal world.


Arke, Pia. Arctic Hysteria, 1996. Nuuk, Greenland. Film. 5:55 minutes, silent.

Arke, Pia. Ethno-Aesthetics. 1995. English and Greenlandic translation by Kuratorisk Aktion, 2010. Copenhagen, Denmark. Print.

Arke, Pia and Stefan Jonsson. Stories from Scoresbysund: Photographs, Colonisation and Mapping, 2003. English translation by Kuratorisk Aktion, 2010. Copenhagen, Denmark. Print.

Kuratorisk Aktio. Tupilakosaurus: An Incomplete(Able) Survey of Pia Arke’s Artistic Work and Research, 2012. Copenhagen, Denmark. Print.

Nikolaj Ramsdal Nielsen is a doctoral student in Comparative Literature at Stanford University. He graduated from NYU Abu Dhabi in 2018 with a B.A. in Literature and Creative Writing. His interests include contemporary culture, new conceptions of World Literature, and emerging strategies for literary studies. Contact him at nnielsen[at]




Looking for Nature (II)

Looking for Nature (II)

Looking for Nature (II)

Notes from the Bwindi
Impenetrable Forest


MARCH 2016


We awoke at six in the morning’s utter darkness and showered by torchlight in order to get to breakfast by seven. Our guides were already scouring the adjacent national park for a family of habituated apes we could visit that morning.

When we arrived at the Uganda Wildlife Authority outpost just inside the gates to Bwindi National Park, the head of the visitor’s center said that his advance team have found three families in the vicinity: the Mubare, Habinjanye, and Rushegura families, ordered in a crescendo according to how strenuous the trek to reach them would be.

I chose the most strenuous trek, not because I have any illusions about my abilities as a hiker but because the pictures of that gorilla family mesmerized me: they seemed just as cohesive a family as my human one, complete with a hierarchical family tree: one silverback patriarch, four junior “blackbacks” who would soon contest the silverback’s supremacy, two adolescent boys, two adolescent girls, and three mothers each with a male infant, ranging in age from two years to four weeks.

The Rushegura family tree.

Photograph by Manas Pant.

On our hike up to the Rusheguras, we measured our progress by the increasingly slight signs of human interference we saw: From our lodge near the entrance to the park via three SUVs to the sturdy but simple visitor’s center inside the park, we went into the rainforest along the ‘R’-trail that took us past the center’s backyard generator (diesel-fueled by the smell of it) and sewage facility. From the backyard, we walked through a short stretch of dense secondary forest, across three increasingly rickety, seemingly collapse-prone plywood bridges in quick succession, into a lush river gulch, up a slight slope, at which point we started our ascent along a dirt path which gradually narrowed as it grew ever steeper and took us higher up the mountainside. Halfway to the summit, the designated path had become indiscernible from the rest of the hillside, though it was not clear at which point during our ascent we had stopped following a well-demarcated trail.

Climbing the second half of the mountainside, we felt increasingly as if we were walking on the tattered fringes of the known world, at any moment prone to teeter over the side of the mountain and roll down the three-hundred altitude meters we had gained on our trek, or to come upon a flock of forest elephants or a spitting cobra (both of which animals are known as the most aggressive species in their respective families). We simultaneously wondered when we would finally cross that subtle barrier separating civilization from sheer wilderness – when would we reach the elusive, sacred grounds of the mountain gorillas?

As we paused to rehydrate after scaling the summit, our trekker reviewed the safety precautions he had issued at the foot of the mountain. While he told us to drop our walking sticks as soon as we saw the gorillas (before mountain gorillas were designated as a protected species, most gorilla hunters used spears to slay the apes, so the sight of a wooden stick might still scare or infuriate older, mentally scarred gorillas), our trekker got word from the advance team that the Rusheguras were within half a mile from us.


“When would we reach the elusive, sacred grounds of the mountain gorillas?”

The advance team made a series of what the guide called “human gorilla” calls, sounds which resemble monkey cries enough not to aggravate the gorillas but which still sound distinctly human. These calls inform the trekker about the location of the advance team, and thus of the gorillas. We heard the calls to our right and made our way to the gorillas by hacking a path through the underbrush, prepared to drop our sticks when a ten-year-old Rushegura blackback strayed from the family and wandered directly into our path. When he saw our twenty-one-person party, all of us wielding walking sticks, he grew understandably agitated, and arched his back. He prepared to charge and probably would have, if only he were not outnumbered twenty-one to one, had our two accompanying rangers not wielded AK-47s with live rounds, and had our porters not been so quick to relieve the tension by collecting our walking sticks and making us back up twenty meters. Now unarmed (save for two guns and three machetes, of course), we could approach the blackback and witness his retreat into a particularly dense patch of rainforest, inside which we came across the Rushegura’s three other blackbacks. Then, in a particularly blood-stiffening moment, we glimpsed a touch of silver flicker in the bush. Our trekker chopped his way in the general direction of the silverback and uncovered a meadow in which a mother lay holding her month-old cub.

At the edge of the meadow.

Photograph by Manas Pant.

To prepare for this hike, we read about “profound interspecies events” and asked in disbelief if our first-hand encounter with the gorillas would really make conservation activists out of us; while I cannot say I became a vehement gorilla activist in that very moment, I can think of few scenes more conducive to a profound interspecies event with mountain gorillas than watching a mother nurse her newborn while the silverback male looms ominously in the shrubs behind her.

As we circled around the mother and child at the prescribed twenty-foot distance, we came upon a juvenile gorilla in a tree. We stood in a crescent facing the mahogany tree from which the two-year-old juvenile dangled when someone pointed to a patch of fur on our right. Had we not had an unobstructed view of a two-year-old gorilla playing in a tree, we probably would have cleaved our way toward the patch of fur on the right, but at this point in time, we were so oversaturated with first-hand gorilla encounters that the prospect of seeing what was hiding to our right seemed less exciting than staying put. Only when our guide announced that the ape we had eyed to the right was one of three gorillas in the process of eating lunch did we break the crescent and follow our guide into another clearing.

The meadow we inhabited was an area about the size of a university dorm and currently had a population of seventeen: three gorillas (two mothers and a four-month-old) and fourteen humans (five students, one professor, one Global Academic Fellow, two rangers, one trekker, and four persons from the advance team that had located the Rusheguras), but that number would increase by two in the twenty minutes we spent there. First, the two-year-old we had seen in the tree climbed down to harass his younger brother/cousin (gorillas are notoriously incestuous) by pulling him down from a branch every time the poor toddler tried to climb it. Later, their father walked into the meadow, and we finally got a frontal view of the family’s most photogenic member, the seventeen-year-old silverback. He had not been in the meadow for five minutes before he started chewing on the branches one of the females had snapped in half for him to eat – an assertion of male dominance which seemed hard not to think about in anthropocentric terms. How astonishing that patterns of male subjugation of woman and blatant gender discrimination is a cross-species phenomenon!

Of course, what amazed us most as we stood in that meadow, no more than fifteen feet from our genetic cousins whom climate change and geopolitics have driven to the edge of survival, was not the behavior of the gorillas so much as the sheer improbability of what we were experiencing. We were deep inside a thicket, on top of a mountain ridge, in the middle of an aptly-named “impenetrable forest,” in a part of the world which remains inaccessible to the vast majority of travelers; how could we possibly abstract from the unlikelihood of what we were experiencing? Our expedition to find ‘uncontaminated’ nature or its closes substitute had taken us so far from home that most us knew we would likely never experience nature in this way again.

A mountain gorilla mother with cub hide in the thicket.

Photograph by Manas Pant.

We watched as the silverback ate the pre-snapped branches and noted with astonishment that a particularly big-stomached female who had already been eating before the silverback came onto the scene did not care to follow him when he walked out of the meadow to take a nap in the shade of a low-hanging tree; she chose instead to remain seated and stuff herself, the remains of snapped and chewed canes strewn over her protruding chest. We marveled at her appetite and only moved into the shaded area where the silverback was resting when she got up to join him. Our allotted hour with the gorillas elapsed while we were rudely intruding on their midday nap, and we sensed that we came close to having overstayed our welcome as we left the Rusheguras: When we made our way back to the porters who had stayed behind with our walking sticks, we came upon the remainder of the pack, a group of juveniles whom we had not yet seen, and noted a distinct change in their body language. Where the other gorillas had taken minimal note of our presence, the juveniles arched their backs in unison, as if to encourage us to make ourselves scarce. We did; our trekker had just told us that even a juvenile mountain gorilla has enough arm strength to tear a human limb off with a single, swift jerk.

We made our way down the mountain ridge along the same path we had used to reach the top, more tired and sweatier than before, but enriched by one of those vexing and perplexing experiences that leaves you with many memories and even more questions: Are gorillas still wild if they graze your leg as they pass you and think nothing of it? Will the gorillas be here when my parents see my photos and decide that they also have to visit? Is the Rushegura family to mountain gorillas what the giant pandas in China’s intensive panda breeding programs are to their species: a sacrificial population whose life quality we readily diminish in the name of saving the species? Are we making the gorillas’ problems worse by going on “last-chance” tourist trips? Are we alleviating the issue? Do we care? These and more questions raced through my head as we made the long trek down the mountainside and noticed how civilization gradually became more discernible around us.

Nikolaj Nielsen is a student at NYU Abu Dhabi.



Looking for Nature (I)


Images of a City: Qasr Al Hosn Festival II



Restaurant Review: IKEA Canteen, Yas Island, Abu Dhabi

Looking for Nature (I)

Looking for Nature (I)

In the streets of Buhoma. Photographer: Manas Pant.

In the streets of Buhoma. Photographer: Manas Pant.




He might not mean to, but our driver sends out a Morse code “S-O-S” as he honks: three short jolts, three protracted blasts, and another volley of three quick-fire honks, all meant to disperse the pedestrians who are walking in the middle of the red dirt street. A moment of sunlight breaks the rain long enough for us to glimpse a beautiful and unusually well-built, white-chalked house with a black-tiled roof and a spectacular view of an arrestingly green valley. Next to the beautiful house with the beautiful view, a clay hut outside of which we see two kids aged nine, maybe ten, carrying bricks on their heads. They are not child laborers; they are just helping their family build an expansion to their home. Except for the white-chalked one, houses here are built with unpainted, ochre bricks which are burnt elsewhere in the village. Most houses have the square footage of a standard college dorm, but they show no signs of destitution, just as most lots have a contraption for drying coffee beans somewhere in the backyard.

Uganda’s Central African climate makes the country an able coffee producer, and the mountainous terrain near its border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo grows ample amounts of the highly caffeinated red berry. We have not come for the high-quality coffee, however, but rather for the mountains which tower up on our right. Somewhere in those mountains, where geopolitical boundaries are infinitely more fluid for other animals than they are for humans, some four hundred mountain gorillas live within the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. The park is home to almost half the world’s extant population of mountain gorillas, and because fellow mountain gorilla hotspot Virunga National Park in D.R. Congo struggles with both extensive poaching and embittered political strife, Bwindi welcomes far more visitors than Virunga does. We might be so close to the Congo that the mountains towering up to our right sit well within the Democratic Republic’s borders, but while Bwindi’s proximity to the D.R. Congo will figure in the stories that tourists later tell their awestruck friends, tourists will not cross the border. Instead, they will stay in the luxury lodges just outside the gates into Bwindi. We are driving to one of those lodges, the rustic-yet-indulgent Mahogany Springs Lodge, a small jungle resort made entirely of wood (but not, as one might expect and fear, of mahogany) within walking distance of Buhoma, the last village before the entrance to the national park.

'Traditional' medicine man in Buhoma. Photographer: Manas Pant.

‘Traditional’ medicine man in Buhoma. Photographer: Manas Pant.

Our driver told us it would take ninety minutes to reach Buhoma from Kihihi airstrip, but a ninety-minute drive near the Ugandan-Congolese border seems to go by faster than a similar drive on an Emirati highway, and not just because the Ugandan highlands offer better views. With all its tosses and turns, the road to Buhoma becomes an attraction in itself. Since we share the unpaved, half-lane road with pedestrians, cattle, and the occasional oncoming car, our driver cannot go faster than sixty kilometers per hour if he expects to reach the lodge unscathed, so we resign ourselves to the long duration of this short drive. To busy ourselves, we gaze out the open windows.

Motorcycles are multiple-person vehicles here; they can seat anywhere from two to four persons. If someone sought a correlation between the number of additional passengers on a motorcycle and the speed at which it barrels down the road, he would not find it; drivers seem not to care that their dangerous flirt with speed jeopardizes up to three other lives as well as their own. Then again, they deftly swerve around our convoy of SUVs with an ease that suggests they have done so before, so perhaps they have become experts at racing down a too narrow dirt road with too many people on the bike.

Our cars’ license plates start with UAE, UAE, and UAF. At first I took this pattern to suggest either that the lodge has a set of license plate just for us or, more likely, that many visitors to Mahogany Springs Lodge either come from or transit through the UAE. I later realized that ‘UAE’ is the standard-issue tri-letter identifier for license plates from Kihihi. But even if the three cars’ license plates only match by coincidence, they make quite an awe-inspiring convoy. Throughout the ride, our driver maintains a furious speed. He does not slow down when we pass a man seated in the side of the road; our car covers his leg stumps with a film of red dust as we speed past. However, he does slow down when we drive through an unnamed village, because, as he tells us, “it is bad luck to drive past the Divine Mercy House (his parish church) without slowing down.”

As we leave the town, goats, cows, and kids continue to intermingle. The children cross the road when they feel like it, as if they have not learned to fear the lethal force of an SUV’s bumper. Our driver continues at the speed we expect from a car chase or a scene in which the Secret Service just told him that a terrorist faction will blow up our convoy if he slows down.

It does not help alleviate my concern about the driver’s speed that Ugandans drive on the right, especially when a massive Isuzu truck swerves close around us with ten or more waving men from the load. They are wielding machetes, but like the children who have not learned to fear oncoming cars, these men might not realize how the knives in their hands might perpetuate Western stereotypes about Central African men’s penchant for war. Moments later, we pass the only two-story private home between Kihihi and Buhoma and notice that the owner has protected his property with a ten-foot wall with razor-sharp broken glass shards on top. This particularly evil burglar repellent may deter property crime, but it sends an unfortunate signal to tourists. Seeing the lengths to which Ugandans go to protect their belongings, tourists are likely to suspect that crime rates here are much higher than they actually are, and that they need to be on guard at all times. Like our driver’s death-defying speed and the machete-wielding men in the Isuzu truck’, the glass shards on top of the wall seem to suggest that Uganda is inherently dangerous, something visitors need protection against.

Eager to look beyond the easy stereotype of Central Africa as a ‘dangerous’ place, I look out the window and deliberately search for a scene that can complicate my first impression of Uganda. Within a minute, a group of uniformed schoolchildren walking on the left side of the road provide that complication, as they wave and cheer at our convoy. More groups of children are making their way home from school up ahead, and it quickly becomes clear that the children of Buhoma can react to an oncoming convoy of SUVs in one of three ways: Some wave and run towards us as they scream “yes!” or “eyyy!” Others turn to face the cars, staring at us with a look that is neither welcoming nor overtly malicious; still others put out their hands to ask for candy in a manner which simultaneously suggests that they expect you to give them candy and shows how disappointed they will be if you do not. As we came unprepared for the children who want candy, we have to disappoint some of them, but the energy and joy painted on the faces of these uniformed cheerleaders surely must dispel any sense of danger in even the most paranoid and overwhelmed visitors. The schoolchildren’s enthusiasm tells us that, rather than isolate ourselves during our time in Buhoma, we should open up to the people we meet; perhaps we can learn to feel the children’s unbridled enthusiasm if we try?

Just before we turn onto the road to Mahogany Springs Lodge, our driver pulls over the car by what is obviously a tea field. No doubt not meaning to patronize, he says: “This is what we call ‘tea’. Do you know what tea is?” He continues, “Most Ugandans drink tea, but they do not take coffee. There’s a saying that coffee gives you heartburn.” In the spirit of learning from the people around us, our driver’s comment exemplifies the openness it takes to unlock Uganda. His comments strike us as obvious, until we see the profound point hidden within. Ugandans grow coffee, but they do not drink it; they see coffee for what it is: the world’s most ubiquitous drug. Might we all learn something from the Ugandan coffee producers and leave the vexed brew alone in order to live a bit longer?

The stop gives us a chance to savor our packed lunches, which come in sealed envelopes. Its contents, a cheese and tomato sandwich, a vegetable empanada, two hard-boiled eggs, a slice of cake, and a banana, are wrapped in Saran Wrap four times around to prevent contamination. When our drivers bring the envelopes out from the trunk in a big crate, I cannot help but wonder if our lunch traveled with us all the way from Abu Dhabi; the envelopes certainly give our lunch packs the clinical appearance of plane food. This suspicion lasts until I attempt to peel one of the two Saran-wrapped eggs in the envelope and struggle to break the brown shell. In Abu Dhabi, egg shells are paper thin, because industrial farming puts so much pressure on caged chickens to lay eggs that they do not have enough time or calcium to envelop each egg in a robust shell; this West Ugandan egg is so thick-shelled that I have to bash it against my kneecap to break it.

Upon reflection, perhaps the contrast between the UAE’s thin-shelled eggs and the near shatter-proof Ugandan ones captures the different spirits of the two countries: whereas life in the UAE can too easily become a prolonged lull of convenience, Uganda overwhelms its visitors and makes something as simple as breaking an egg a protracted task. In Abu Dhabi, one always hears the background murmur of construction work; that industrial soundscape does not exist in Buhoma, where the only sounds heard are the constant chirping of unseen birds in the canopy and the occasional riff of an SUV engine on the dirt road. Life in Buhoma lacks many of the comforts of the UAE, but the thrill of getting by without the comfort of driving on paved roads invigorates us and prepares us for our weekend goal: to reconnect with our genetic cousins dwelling in the Bwindi rainforest just beyond Buhoma’s city limits.

Members of the Batwa community, former inhabitants of Bwindi rainforest. Photographer: Manas Pant.

Members of the Batwa community, former inhabitants of Bwindi rainforest. Photographer: Manas Pant.

Electra Street Playlist No. 7

Electra Street Playlist No. 7


No. 7

November 2015

“I Danmark er jeg født,” written by H.C. Andersen, performed by Isam Bachiri

Many Danes will cite H.C. Andersen’s 1850 song as the quintessentially Danish song, but when Danish-Palestinian singer Isam Bachiri sang a cover of “I Danmark er jeg født” (I Was Born in Denmark) for a 2007 tourism campaign, the song took on another dimension: It became a statement about what it means to belong and an anthem of pluralism: It is possible to be Danish at heart whether or not you were born somewhere else, have foreign roots, or in my case live abroad.

“Jeg ved en lærkerede,” written by Carl Nielsen, performed by Kim Larsen

The soundtrack to my childhood, “Jeg ved en lærkerede” (I Know Where There is a Lark’s Nest) brings back memories from morning assembly at my primary and middle schools. Morgensang (morning song) is a tradition still practiced in many Danish schools, where the pupils assemble before the start of the their classes to sing in the day. I loathed it when I was younger, as did my peers (it was ‘uncool’ to sing along), but now, I realize how many of my primary and middle school memories are tied to those morning songs.

“Om Lidt,” written and performed by Kim Larsen

If ”Jeg ved en lærkerede” was the soundtrack to my middle school years, “Om Lidt” (In a Moment) was the anthem to the end of my middle school years. Appearing on Larsen’s aptly named albumForklædt som voksen (Disguised as an Adult), “Om Lidt” captures the angst of realising that an era is coming to an end. I remember listening to this song on my brick of a computer, tears in my eyes, when I got home after the last day of middle school and felt as if my world had ended that morning when I said goodbye to my friends, to my world as I knew it back then. I still listen to it at the end of every semester.

“Ik Neem Je Mee,” written and performed by Gers Pardoel

I arrived at a boarding school in Maastricht at the height of this song’s popularity; the local radio played “Ik Neem Je Mee” (I’ll Take You With Me) at least twice per day. I did not speak a word of Dutch, but like my peers, I could at least mouth along to the chorus. “Ik Neem Je Mee” is hardly a musical masterpiece, but the memories I associate with it – screaming “ik neem je me-e-e-e-eee!” as we rushed through breakfast at 7:30 AM before pedalling to school on a bicycle with two flat tires to take our mock exams – make it the soundtrack to two of the happiest years of my life.

“Barbie Girl,” written and performed by Aqua

I loathe “Barbie Girl” as strongly as I imagine Spanish people loathe the Macarena and Brazilians loathe “Ai Se Eu Te Pego”, but “Barbie Girl” is so closely associated with Danish music I have come to associate it with home, much to my chagrin. When I hear it now, I keep my feelings to myself and nod along when someone tells me with subdued laughter that I should be proud of this late-90s Technicolor kitsch masterpiece.

Danmark, nu blunder den lyse nat,” written by Oluf Ring, performed by Kammerkoret Musica

Since leaving Denmark for Maastricht four years ago, I have only been home over the winter and summer breaks. Therefore, the Sankt Hansaften (St. John’s Eve) celebration on summer solstice has taken on extra significance for me, to the point where I refuse to leave the country in late June. When my family and I sing “Danmark, nu blunder den lyse nat” (Denmark, the Light Night is Fading Now) around the Sankt Hansaften pyre, we may not sound as melodious as the choir in this recording, but the occasion is just as solemn and beautiful as this song.

“Under stjernerne på himlen,” written by Tommy Seebach, performed by Rasmus Seebach

You can find higher-quality recordings of “Under stjernerne på himlen” (Under the Stars in the Sky) on YouTube, but this live version was filmed in my hometown in 2012, when Seebach, then the biggest name on the Danish music scene, came to Kolding. “Under stjernerne på himlen” was the last song he sang that night and arguably the most moving one. A cover of his father’s original, Rasmus Seebach dedicated this song to his father’s memory – a beautiful gesture, since his Tommy Seebach’s original recording of the song never charted well, while his son’s cover peaked at number one on the Danish charts.

“En lærke letted,” written and performed by Mads Nielsen

Like “Jeg ved en lærkerede,” “En lærke letted” is a song about a lark, but Nielsen’s lark is a metaphorical one: Written after the Danish liberation on May 4th 1945, the song marked the end of five long years of German occupation. Beyond its political significance, “En lærke letted” is a beautiful song about communities and the moments and feelings that bind us together – aptly, because Nielsen intended for the song to be sung out loud. While nationalist groups have abused “En lærke letted” by claiming it as a statement on racial purity and radical difference, “En lærke letted” is about love of one’s community and peers more than it is about love of country. Most of all, it is a song of and about beauty.

“Bibo No Aozora/04,” written and performed by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Jaques Morelenbaum

Not a song about my home, but a song from a movie that makes me feel at home. “Bibo No Aozora/04” accompanies the final scene of Alejandro Iñárritu’s Babel, and whenever I hear the song, I see the Tokyo skyline and the beautiful scene that ends Iñárritu’s film. Beyond its function in the movie, I have embraced “Bibo No Aozora/04” and given it a function in my own life: Whenever I arrive in a new city or country for the first time, I listen to this song as I land and feel a unique sense of calm that prepares me for the experiences to come.

“Green Eyes,” written and performed by Coldplay

Though I now recognise it as the best song Coldplay has written, “Green Eyes” was not my favourite song when I first heard it. When I listened to A Rush of Blood to the Head, on which album “Green Eyes” appears, I would skip the song. It took falling in love with someone who considered “Green Eyes” not just the best song on that album, but also the best song of the millennium, before I gave it a second chance. As I listened closer to the lyrics, I heard how wrong I had been to skip the song and put it on repeat instead. We called it ‘our song’, and to this day, it retains that special place in my life.



Justin Stearns


No. 5
Ken Nielsen


No. 4
Grega Ulen