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November 11, 2012

Spending, Earning and Compulsory Consumerism

SHORTS collaborated with Planet Money to bring you two stories about spending and earning, and one about compulsory consumerism.

First, Kevin Canty’s “Where the Money Went” profiles a failed marriage in terms of goods consumed. What, in the end, do all these expensive schools, holidays, and big-ticket toys mean in terms of love, security, and family? Kevin Canty is the author of seven books, including his most recent, a novel entitled Everything. He lives and writes in Missoula, Montana, where he teaches at the MFA program at the University of Montana. The reader is Jack Davidson—and—full disclosure here—he is the father of Planet Money originating producer Adam Davidson.

From a shallow suburbia to a complex Africa. Our next story is an excerpt from Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainana’s memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place. In the portion we’ll hear, he describes his sense of displacement and regret when, after getting his university degree, he can’t seem to find meaningful employment. But in the course of doing an agricultural survey—a stopgap job that he has taken—he discovers the magic of his own community, and realizes that he has been preparing for his real job, as a writer, all along.

Binyavanga feels strongly about the meager depictions of Africa that plague much of contemporary fiction. In 2005 he wrote a provocative and ironic essay called “How to Write About Africa,” for the literary magazine Granta. In it, he satirized the way foreign authors tend to portray the region.

“In your text,” he wrote, “treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates…Broad brushstrokes throughout are good. Avoid having the African characters laugh, or struggle to educate their kids, or just make do in mundane circumstances…African characters should be colorful, exotic, larger than life—but empty inside, with no dialogue, no conflicts or resolutions in their stories, no depth or quirks to confuse the cause.” In his memoir, Wainaina does the opposite of this—captures the true and complex Africa he knows so well. Binyavanga Wainana is also the director of the Chinua Achebe Center for African Writers and Artists at Bard College.

The excerpt from “One Day I Will Write About This Place” is performed by Teagle Bougere, who has been featured on Broadway in A Raisin in the Sun and The Tempest, and has developed his own one-man show based on Ralph Ellison’s “The Invisible Man.”

The final story on this program was not part of our Planet Money evening at Symphony Space, but seems to partner well with its themes. George Saunders’ “My Flamboyant Grandson” takes place in a futuristic New York in which consumerism has reached Orwellian heights—with billboards calling out to individuals, and a Big Brother-like system designed to remind people of what they should be buying every minute of the day. In the face of all that, Saunders has still created two vibrant, unquenchable individuals—a sage grandfather and his unconventional grandson.

George Saunders is the recipient of a MacArthur genius grant and the author of the short story collections In Persuasion Nation, Pastoralia, and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. A new novel, Tenth of December, will be released early next year. He teaches at Syracuse University’s MFA program.

“My Flamboyant Grandson” is performed by the distinguished character actor Harris Yulin. LISTEN TO THE SHOW

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