By David Sedaris
Reviewed by Jorge Antonio Vallejos
Two hours ago I saw a BBC interview with British writer Susan Hill. When asked about the importance of reading in a writer’s life Hill said, “It’s the only way to learn our trade!”
I’d use “craft” as opposed to “trade” but Hill is bang on.
“Read anything and everything” is what Chicano writer Jimmy Santiago Bacca said to me a while back. Simon Ortiz said the same thing to me when I studied with him at University of Toronto.
As a writer I don’t only read writers I agree with. Lee Maracle, another mentor of mine, has talked with me about reading people you completely disagree with if they are good writers.
Why? To learn the craft of writing.
Hence, David Sedaris’ Holidays On Ice.
I’ve read Sedaris’ essays in The New Yorker over the years. His memoir essay Journey Into The Night had me laughing out loud. I read it ten times when taking a memoir course in February.
Sedaris writes well. He’s funny. He’s someone I can learn craft from. And sadly, he writes racist things in his essays.
Before you protest my last line get out of your head the image of a skinhead wearing Doc Marten’s or a torch bearing Klansman. I said, “Sedaris writes racist things in his essays.” I didn’t say he’s a racist. I don’t know him well enough to say that. But I do know what I’ve read of Sedaris and he is problematic with a capital “P”. Also, racism comes in different forms: physical and verbal and emotional violence, policy, and law. In this case racism comes in the form of the written word.
Holidays on Ice is a collection of essays about the holidays. Many essays take a stab at Sedaris’ family. It’s his style. His New Yorker essay Journey Into the Night sees Sedaris make fun of his grandmother passing gas. Often Sedaris makes fun of peoples using racist language.
In Let It Snow Sedaris writes of his childhood and how he and his friends called mud left on their gloves “Snow Negroes”. I used many racist slurs as a kid. When I write about such things now I follow up with how they were racist, wrong, and how I don’t use such language today.
Sedaris doesn’t question, or correct, himself.
I wonder if he still uses his childhood racist term.
Let It Snow is actually a good story, most of Sedaris’ stories are. Sedaris explores the cruelty of children, he brings the reader into his family life, he talks honestly about his family’s problems, and he cleverly adds humour to it all. But you still have that image of mud and his racist description of it in your head as you continue reading; that’s if you have good politics and care about such things.
Sedaris not only writes good essays he comes up with great titles! Jesus Shaves is one example. You can read into that one real deep. In this essay Sedaris take you into the world of language learning—a French class he was part of years back. It’s fun to be taken back in time into people’s lives. Sedaris uses great description, tone, and dialogue.
Now to the problems: Sedaris gains popularity by making fun of people in mean ways. You’re not laughing with Sedaris as much as you are laughing at people he ridicules. As a mixed race person (Indigenous/Spanish/Chinese/Arab) who is the son of immigrants from Peru and Lebanon, I don’t appreciate Sedaris making fun of people’s accents. Sedaris feels that since he’s also the son of immigrants he can make fun of all immigrants. Other than critique his disrespect for his elders you really can’t say much when he makes fun of his grandmother because she’s his blood and it’s his life experience. But when he takes on other peoples I wouldn’t have a problem with someone from one of those communities socking him cold.
Sedaris’ classroom essay is as funny as much of his writing tends to be. He brings familiarity to the reader, hooking them in, and then hits them with a joke. When describing a student who hogged the floor readers remember such people whether from grade school, high school, or university:
“A question would be asked, and she’d race to give the answer, behaving as though this were a game show and, if quick enough, she might go home with a tropical vacation or a side-by-side refrigerator/freezer. A transfer student, by the end of her first day she’d raised her hand so many times that her shoulder had given out.”
I laughed out loud, again.
Sedaris follows by describing the annoying woman’s “bronze arms” and then imitating her accent as well as those accents of Italian’s and Pole’s in the class. He ends the essay with: “that’s fucked up.” Too bad he’s not referring to himself.
The problems continue, and get worse, in Front Row Center With Thaddeus Bristol: Trite Christmas: Scottsfield’s Young Hams Offer the Blandest of Holiday Fare.
I know that Christmas shows put on my kids can be boring, bad, and have you wanting to leave fast. When dating someone a few years back I watched a Christmas show at a local elementary school. Why? Because I was dating someone I liked who worked at the school; it’s called compromise. (Don’t ask how the show was.) Again, I could relate to Sedaris. Agreeing with his choice of descriptions is totally different. And I don’t.
Again, Sedaris starts by being funny in a good way: “Thrown into the mix were handful of inattentive shepherds and a trio of gift-bearing seven-year olds who could probably give the Three Stooges a run for their money.”
Further down the paragraph Sedaris writes:
“Pointing to the oversized crate that served as a manger, one particularly insufficient wise man proclaimed, “A child is bored.” Yes, well, so was this adult.”
I laughed again.
Then came the problematic Sedaris.
Sedaris stomps on Tiny Tim. Rather, the person who plays Tin Tim: a young Black boy named Lamar Williams. Sedaris critiques the role played by a Black kid calling the play “trendy, racially mixed casting” and later questions it by assuming thoughts of the crowd:
“…a Black Tiny Tim, leaving the audience to wonder, “What, is this kid supposed to be adopted?””
This time there was no laughing on my part.
It gets worse.
Williams is an amputee as a result of diabetes. If you know anything about the colonial land called the United States of America then you know that Native Americans, Latinos, and Blacks have the highest rates of diabetes. And illiteracy. And incarceration. And…
Sedaris says Williams manged to “sustain a decent limp” followed by “The program notes that he recently lost his right foot to diabetes, but was that enough reason to cast him?”
Sedaris’ racism transmutes into ableism. (They’re all connected in the wheel of oppression.)
David Sedaris is a good writer. He is also cruel. Some call him an asshole. I believe he’s an able-bodied white guy who doesn’t check his privileges, and doesn’t care too. He’s smart, funny, and writes great memoirs but the man needs to attend anti-oppression workshops instead of French class.
I don’t see that happening.
“Skating On Thin Ice and Falling In” is a more appropriate name for his collection of essays that make a farce of the holidays. I’ll be re-reading his essays because I can learn craft and how to write humour from Sedaris. I recommend other writers to read his work to not only learn craft but to also learn how not to write like a jerk. If you’re a casual reader who likes humour and who doesn’t care about racism, ableism, and insensitivity check out Holidays On Ice.
Black Coffee Poet is on HOLIDAYS until Monday January 2, 2011.
Thanks for this review, BCP.
I heard about Sedaris and when a (white) friend said she was getting tickets for a bunch of people to go see him when he was in Toronto last year, I went. I hadn’t read the essays he was reading from but my experience of him was similar to yours, BCP. There’s no question he’s a very good writer, and has humour and timing down very well. He knows how best to phrase jokes for the maximum impact. But he doesn’t get anti-oppression.
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