Lately I’ve been talking to myself a lot. OK, so in my head, but you know, still talking. This is what I say: I say, you know Os’ you should really write a short story about that.
Every day, a new short story idea. I’ve been so busy writing down ideas for short stories that I’m much likelier to publish a glossary of short story ideas than an actual short story.
Today’s short story would, hypothetically, go like this. A little-known tribe of hunter-gatherers from the Central African Republic who call themselves Ba-Banjalle are discovered, thanks to a New Jerseyite, by a former country singer who has lately taken to traveling the world over and helping local musicians enter the big-bucks genre of world music. Like the country singer’s former productions, the album he produces with the Ba-Banjalle gets picked up by a big label and is heard frequently in houses of wealthy leftists in the Bay Area.
But then craziness happens. The album is selected as the best album of the year by Pitchfork, a popular website for indie music aficionados. (If you think this part of the short story is unrealistic, look at Pitchfork’s review of Tinariwen.) One week later Kanye West samples a hook from one of the Ba-Banjalle songs in what will become the first single of the highest grossing album of all time. The music video comes out. Kanye, wearing his patent sunglasses, is walking through the jungle of the Central African Republic until he finds a clearing where he is joined by 100 or so Ba-Banjalle tribesmen and women. All together they do an incredible choreographed dance which mixes the best of the Ba-Banjalle’s dance moves with Kanye’s Chi-town flair. Even modern dance critics pronounce it the best piece of pop choreography since MJ’s Thriller.
A 20-something White entrepreneur originally from the Southern Californian suburbs who introduces himself as ‘Taz’ and likes to speak in Ebonics has recently opened a trendy night club in Las Vegas. He’s tapped his wealthy family members for tens of millions of dollars to put the night club’s name on the map. They have all the sexiest dancers, the cleavagest bartenders, the biggest DJ’s. But they’re not yet bringing in enough money to cover their initial investments. So Taz comes up with the brilliant idea to pay for all of the Ba-Banjalle dancers featured in the Kanye West video to come to Las Vegas and work in his nightclub. They are put on pedestals where they dance, just like in the Kanye video. Taz’s nightclub becomes the hottest thing in the world. Even celebrities have to make reservations. And ordinary people wait in line for 12 hours only to pay the $150 cover and $20 for a beer.
The idea, like all ideas, came from elsewhere. In this case, David Weinberger’s monthly newsletter and Ethan Zuckerman’s blog. I rarely ever disagree with what either one says. So when I do, I figure I might as well speak up about it. Or, write a short story about it. Or, better yet, write a post about a short story.
Yes, Ninjas are cool. Duh. No question about it. But I have a very hard time believing that we know more about Japan than Nigeria because of ninjas. We (and by ‘we’ I mean Americans) know more about Japan than Nigeria because we went to war with Japan. And that, my friends, is how we Americans learn about other countries. So, if you’re really passionate about Americans getting to know more about Nigeria, well, plan an attack. (This, it turns out, isn’t difficult. Just say that have ‘weapons of mass destruction’. You don’t have to get any more detailed than that.)
Regardless if we decide to go to war with Nigeria or come up with a ninja equivalent (uh, hello, Nollywood? A Nollywood night at the local indie theater is every urban hipster’s dream), what good does that actually do for Nigeria? I assume the idea is that if people start paying attention to a particular aspect o Nigerian pop-culture, they will then want to learn more about the country itself. Its people. Its culture and customs and struggles.
I’m highly doubtful.
Take Medellín for example. Last year none of my friends new anything about Medellín except for one name, Pablo Escobar, the drug lord who commanded a fearsome control over city during the 1980’s. Half of my friends only new about Pablo Escobar thanks to a fake film from the popular TV Sitcom called
There is actually one other thing that Medellín is becoming famous for in the United States, I learned last month thanks to WNYC culture editor Allison Lichter. Apparently Chivas trucks are becoming all the rage in New York City. The brightly colored open-air trucks pass through the streets of Medellín on Friday and Saturday nights with ragingly drunk middle class 9-5ers leaning outside and blowing their whistles at smiling passerby.
A perfect weekend activity for New Yorkers. It’s also a perfect example of a ninja equivalent. Chivas are “cool”. But do those ragingly drunk New Yorkers then go home and look up Medellín on Wikipedia?
I’m highly doubtful.
I think there are better ways to promote Americans’ interest in foreign countries. The first step is to improve foreign language education at the high school and college level. Why are Americans so determined to be monolingual? Step two is simple word of mouth. Now almost all of my friends know about Medellín. They know that it is much more than Pablo Escobar and cocaine. They know that Medellín has a truly amazing metro system, very kickass libraries, an impressive art museum, and tasty late night chuzos.
Step three, recommend foreign writers. Last night I read a brilliant (and I really mean brilliant) short story by Akinwumi Isola, a Nigerian writer and film producer. Now, not only do I know more about Nigeria, but I want to learn much more.
It is easy for countries to brand themselves with smart marketing campaigns. Just look at what Estonia has done. When I go to Estonia (if Cyrus ever invites me) I expect to feel like I’m in SoHo or Silicon Valley. Surely that’s not how it is, but that is how they’ve marketed themselves.
But in networked age we should try even harder? We should be learning new languages, we should be introducing our friends in one country to our friends in another. And we should always drink at least three mojitos when we do.