The Royals' Problematic Obsession with Africa

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By Eve Fairbanks, InStyle, May 18, 2018

Soon after they marry on May 19, Prince Harry and his Hollywood bride, Meghan Markle, will jet off to the African country of Namibia—a desert nation of scarlet sand dunes and ice-white beaches—for their honeymoon.

They follow Harry’s older brother, William, who in 2011 whisked his new bride, Kate, to the coconut-strewn African island republic of the Seychelles for their honeymoon, after he surprised her six months earlier with a sapphire engagement ring in a log hut beneath Mount Kenya. And both men embrace the tradition of their grandmother, Queen Elizabeth, who in 1952 found out that she would become Great Britain’s ruler while vacationing in another hut built into the forest around Mount Kenya. Her private safari warden scribbled the amazing tale in the lodge’s guestbook, memorializing it as the day the globe finally learned that fairytales really do come true: “For the first time in the history of the world,” he wrote, “a young girl climbed into a tree one day a princess [and] climbed down from the tree next day a Queen.”

The royals—normally known for curtsies, palace guards in stiff bearskin hats, and banquets whose china takes eight men three weeks to polish—have another, somewhat less-discussed tradition: a long, unusual relationship with what the explorer Henry Stanley called the “Dark Continent.” Read more ...

The Hollow Rage of Tom Brokaw

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By Eve Fairbanks, The New Republic, May 3, 2018

I wonder if we’re tiring of #MeToo. I wonder if we’ll just reach a limit to how many of our idols we can bear to see lose their crowns. And I wonder if we’re still clinging to the hope that those who perpetrated abuse are somehow fundamentally bad people, instead of facing the more deeply disorienting possibility that our very ideals about what constitutes accomplishment—our reverence for power and confidence and, yes, aggression and entitlement—might promote or inculcate abusive behavior in nearly anybody. We still want to believe in the possibility of a “golden boy,” a man who still has it all: infinite power and infinite goodness.

I wonder all this because of the sexual harassment controversy surrounding Tom Brokaw, the former anchor at NBC who has since become the network’s eminence grise. Read more ...

Dry, the Beloved Country

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By Eve Fairbanks, The Huffington Post Highline, April 18, 2018

When I moved to South Africa nine years ago, one of the first things some locals told me was to be careful using GPS. The country had rules of navigation, they told me, but ones more complicated and intuitive than a computer could manage. You could drive through this neighborhood, but not at night. You could drive through that one, but roll up your windows, especially if you are white. It was often white South Africans who talked about the GPS, but many black South Africans agreed. It was sad, everybody would say; sad that the once-segregated country seemed not to have fully gotten over its past. But that was the way it was. Those were the rules. Some had come to think of them, painfully, as a fact of nature, of the human race.

I thought of these rules when I flew into Cape Town, South Africa’s second-largest city, in March. Over the last three years, Cape Town has been suffering an extraordinary, once-in-300-years drought—helped along, most analysts surmise, by climate change. The shift in the city’s physical appearance is astonishing. Read more ...

The Scapegoating of Winnie Mandela

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By Eve Fairbanks, The New Republic, April 5, 2018

A few months after I moved to South Africa in 2009, I expressed the wish to meet Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s ex-wife, to a friend of mine. This friend was a political activist who’d been present at many epochal moments of the struggle against apartheid in the 1980s and the remaking of the nation in the 1990s. Eager to get me acquainted with the country’s history, he normally answered nearly every message I wrote to him within the hour. Except for my request about Winnie. Several notes and text messages about Winnie got no reply, until finally he called me back. In a pained voice, he asked, “Aren’t you sure you wouldn’t rather meet Graca”—Nelson Mandela’s third, less controversial wife? 

When Winnie died this week, one South African friend of mine wrote of her “tremendous love and admiration” for Madikizela-Mandela on Facebook. “Thank you Winnie Mandela for what you sacrificed for all of us,” the country’s leading educator, a university professor, wrote. South Africa’s most famous radio host declared her “the gold standard of rage as moral uprightness.” “Rest as you lived, fiercely in power,” a fourth friend, an academic, said. The plaudits were as loving overseas. The Women’s March released a statement, and Jennifer Hudson and Forest Whitaker tweeted praise.

The outpouring of emotion at Madikizela-Mandela’s death startled me, because it ran in contrast to the mix of emotions expressed towards her while she was alive. Read more ...

Passover Reminds Us That Time Is Not the Enemy

By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, March 30, 2018

As a Jew, I always found something funny about Passover. Why, for a holiday about celebrating freedom, are there so many restrictions? We have to eat unpleasant things; we have to drink this many glasses of wine and no more; we have to eat a horrible crackerbread all week, no pasta, no peanut butter, no bread.

But it occurs to me that Passover is all about time. It’s about the way we have to have faith in time, and live time, and trust the way it turns things over: It turns water to blood, and then back again; it turns darkness to light, restriction to freedom, suffering to joy. Time is a chemist. Time is, perhaps, even an alchemist, with powers we human beings have never been able to harness for ourselves.

In our modern world, it seems we don’t really believe in time. Read more ...

The Flirting Trap

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By Eve Fairbanks, The New Republic, February 8, 2018

In 2007, when I was 24, two years after I moved to Washington, D.C., to cover politics for The New Republic, I joined an email listserv for journalists and policy wonks. One day, a stranger replied to a note I had posted on private equity tax reform. In my response to him, I quoted a line from the Beach Boys’ song “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.”

“To understand ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice,’ you have to read Jameson’s Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” he emailed, with a tongue-in-cheek nerdiness that was common on the listserv. “It will change your life.”

Rebecca Solnit has written that the men she met in the 1980s “seemed to feel that they had to be more successful than whoever they were attracted to,” and that “a lot of girls learn to hide their intelligence.” By the time I grew up in the 1990s, though, my ambitions and intelligence went unhidden. At school, I was encouraged to study physics, math, and politics; I was cast as Abraham Lincoln and King Lear in school plays, and nobody blinked an eye.

Over the course of the next day, I exchanged nearly a dozen messages with the—married, I would learn—man on the listserv. Let’s call him “T.” Read more ...

How to Be More Human? Try Less

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By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, January 1, 2018

Over Christmas, a couple of friends and I took a trip to a farm called Riverstill. The farm is near the South Africa-Botswana border, a 500-mile dust trail patrolled by scorpions, a few cattle and giant ants the size of a person’s pinkie fingernail. On Christmas morning, I sat on the riverbank to think. After a few minutes, I noticed the patch of dust to the right of my thigh, which had been bare, had suddenly sprouted an anthill.

I’ve always been fascinated by ants: not by their discipline but by their product. Ants are artists. They could just throw the dirt they evacuate from their nests out of the hole, like gophers do, but they don’t. Some are potters: Harvester ants make beautiful, near-symmetrical concentric circles from the mud, like the ribbed vases sold in high-end ceramic studios. Others are sculptors, wrapping moist dirt particles around the tiniest of sticks to create oblong pellets. And still others are architects, molding bits of detritus into convex shapes so rainwater can run off. Ants remind me of a few people I know who are unwilling to see anything in their worlds go unused or unloved. They make elaborate statues out of restaurant straws or fold every piece of junk mail into origami before throwing it away. At the Riverstill farm, the giant ants by the river made a heap of arresting little balls, perfectly round as tapioca pearls.

Humans tend to think our bragging point, as a species, is that we create. We solve problems, we make art. Read more ...

We'll Be Paying for Mark Halperin's Sins for Years to Come

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By Eve Fairbanks, BuzzFeed, November 22, 2017

In mid-2005 I packed two duffel bags and took a train to Washington, where I hoped, as a young reporter, to better understand the city, and our politics and our country. As much as it was anyone’s, Washington was my city. I grew up there.

But when I arrived, I became aware there was a new don of Washington, one whose rules I would have to master. His name was Mark Halperin. He ran a chummy daily political newsletter, The Note, from his perch as political director of ABC News.

Three weeks ago, numerous women stepped forward to accuse him of extraordinary acts of assault: One said he masturbated in front of them at work; another said he slammed her against a restaurant window before attempting to kiss her (“I bear responsibility for my outrageous conduct,” Halperin said in an apology posted soon after). He lost his job, a book deal, and a movie contract. Case closed, it would seem: another predator, thankfully, out of a workplace.

But I’m not here to talk about that. I want to talk about the deeper, subtler, more insidious effect Mark Halperin had on our politics — one which we’ll be paying for for years to come.

The Note purported to reveal Washington’s secrets. In fact, its purpose was the exact opposite: to make the city, and US politics, appear impossible to understand. Read more ...

Can Your Best Friends Be Books?

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By Eve Fairbanks, Lithub, August 29, 2017

Recently, reading a Mary Oliver essay collection, I stumbled across a piece called “My Friend Walt Whitman.” In it, she admits she had merely a few friends as a child in 1950s Ohio, and they were all dead. They were her favorite books.

Defiantly, she insists that, while inanimate, they were true friends. “Powerful and amazing,” “avuncular,” “full of metaphysical curiosity,” and “oracular tenderness.” Like the comic strip Calvin’s stuffed animal Hobbes, they accompanied her on adventures into the wilderness, their heavy weight in her backpack the reassuring equivalent of a human child’s hand in her own, encouraging her to go a little bit further. She was not alone.

They were not only companions, but mirrors. Or more than mirrors—they were seer stones. Read more ...

Individual Racists Aren't the Reason Racism Persists

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By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, May 15, 2017

The other day, I had an experience that shook me. Out of my own stupidity, I broke a panel of my partner’s garage door. I called the company that had installed the door: The whole door had to be replaced, they declared, to the tune of $1,000.

But South Africa, where I live, has an extensive network of informal handymen. These handymen differ from America’s; they’re often not even legal businessmen but get jobs by word of mouth; lone operators who know things and travel around with a backpack of tools, building bedframes, installing plumbing, repairing drywall.

My landlord suggested a garage-door handyman named Barry. I called: He could come the next day. The garage-door company is run by Israelis, so when I heard Barry I somehow registered his accent as Israeli, concluding Israelis have a lock on the garage-door business in South Africa.

I was late to meet Barry the morning he arrived, and he was waiting outside the door when I pulled the car up. I’d been anxious that this repair go well, and before I could think, my heart registered a dip, a feeling of slight worry and disappointment: Barry was not white but black. Read more ...

The Last White Africans

 Image: Jodi Bieber

Image: Jodi Bieber

By Eve Fairbanks, Foreign Policy, January 16, 2017

It was an image out of a bygone era: 150 young white people jammed onto a narrow pathway on the campus of the University of Pretoria (UP), one of South Africa’s premier universities, facing off angrily against hundreds of black students. Tensions had been broiling for months, since at least October 2015. A group of black student activists had organized a series of demonstrations — first against the university’s fee structure, then against its use of outsourced workers, and finally against curricula in Afrikaans, the language of Afrikaners, the white minority who ruled South Africa for four brutal decades in the second half of the 20th century.

That morning in February 2016, black students had entered classrooms to protest instruction in Afrikaans. As they moved across campus and sang anti-Afrikaans songs, white kids who opposed them formed a human chain in the bottleneck of the grassy walkway. According to Jaco Grobbelaar and Henrico Barnard, two white participants, they shouted at the demonstrators, vowing to run blacks off “their” campus.

As the South African summer sun beat down, tempers flared. At least two students exchanged punches. “There were fists flying,” Grobbelaar recalls. Eventually, security guards dispersed the crowd.

The white students had been rallied in part by a group called AfriForum, South Africa’s most established advocacy organization fighting on behalf of white people — specifically Afrikaners. Read more ... 

How Losing Can Bring an Emotional Windfall

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By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, August 24, 2016

When I was young, I especially loved the “consolation prize”: the small toy or piece of candy given to the loser in a game. At my sixth birthday party, my mother ran a freeze-dancing competition to old-school French pop spun on vinyl. The smooth movers got little dolls, but the bad dancers got whimsical lollipops we bought at the special confectioner’s all the way out in the next county, huge fruit-flavored saucers decorated with lions’ and tigers’ heads done in icing.

The consolation prize always felt more wondrous than the trophy from a real win. You had failed, and yet the world treated you with pleasure anyway. They say it is sweet to receive what we deserve, but it seemed sweeter to me to get what I hadn’t, apparently, deserved; I kept these lollipops in my nightstand for years, a sugary reminder of grace.

Are the greatest joys of our lives the prizes we seek or the consolations? Read more ...

Painful Moments Make the Sharpest Memories. Is That a Good Thing?

By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, July 26, 2016

In recent years, for work on a book, I’ve sat with two South African men, one black and one white, for dozens of hours as they pieced through memories of their earlier lives. One, C., had spent his young life never imagining white minority rule could ever collapse in the African country. The other, E., spent his childhood fantasizing about what would happen when it did.

Our memories of our lives are funny things. Ask people to remember their houses from childhood, their birthday parties, their happy recollections, and the details are vague. The moments we remember most powerfully are those of shock. Though E., the black man, spent his youth wondering what would happen if and when black people liberated themselves from their long oppression, he struggled to recall April 27, 1994, the day it did. He’d been 17, nearly old enough to vote. What had he done? What had his father and mother done that day?

But the morning his beloved elder brother, Sam, died? He remembered exactly how it had rained, the soft, soaking rain his people called medupi, also a beloved name for women. And then it had cleared, and the leaves of the giant fig tree from which Sam had fallen had dripped and lifted, and a certain type of bird had sung in the branches. Read more ...

Home -- the Idea of a Stable, Settled Existence -- Is a Fantasy

By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, July 22, 2016

Once, a therapist asked me what my “inner blocks” were against “becoming the person I really wanted to be”: settled, a homebody. The question was kindhearted, an observation of a yearning that, at the time, gave me pain.

I’d been on the road for months, my suitcase my most intimate companion, and I would cry when I thought of a house, the shelves for books, the dirt of many shoes on the doormat, the well-worn pans.

We buy so much into this philosophy of becoming — that, through effort, we can arrive in ourselves. We take Myers-Briggs tests to pin down our ephemeral natures. We read “The Purpose-Driven Life.” “How to find yourself” is the most-input Google search following the words “how to find …” Read more ...

Students of Art Can Find the Art Gets to Know Them, Too

By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, July 18, 2016

When I was 12, I read a poem by Robert Frost called “To Earthward.” “When I was young … The petal of the rose it was that stung,” he wrote. “Now no joy but lacks salt, that is not dashed with pain and weariness and fault.” Reading it felt like peeping through a keyhole into the dimmer, holier room that would be adult life, a room whose wood was distressed, whose shadows were deep and whose silvers were tarnished, yet glowed; a magical place where salt became sweetness and pain could turn, through alchemy, into love.

Coming into my 20s, I came across it again. Instead of mysterious, it seemed to me bright and beautiful, so sweet I could almost taste it: Its description of youthful happiness, “the swirl and ache from sprays of honeysuckle,” was perfect to that time. And then, 10 years later, again. The poem’s cadences seemed jerkier than I’d remembered them, grittier, defiant.

This is art: a supposedly dead thing, letters on a page or pigment on a canvas, that, miraculously, seems to change its shape as we do. Read more  ...

The Reason We're All Horrible at Taking Good Advice

By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, July 13, 2016

Seven years ago, a beloved friend gave me a copy of Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet.” The short book collects Rilke’s advice to an acquaintance, a 19-year-old would-be artist overwhelmed by self-doubt, artistic confusion and inchoate longings for greatness. Speaking from his own mistakes, Rilke counsels patience with yourself, solitude and listening to your own heart rather than the demands of the market.

I think my friend gave me the book as a gentle way of communicating the same messages to me. I was burdened by the same anxieties as the young poet: that I would never be satisfied with others, that I would never live up to a talent. But although the letters were aimed at me, I didn’t get them at all. There were some beautiful phrases in there, but they didn’t land. I left the book to gather dust at the bottom of that tucked-away bookshelf where you keep books you never intend to read again.

Seven years later, a few days ago, packing to move, I found it again. It was a completely different book; as if it had secretly rewritten itself in the dust and the quiet of the years. Read more ...

How Some of Your Ugliest Feelings Help You Experience Joy

By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, July 20, 2016

For the past six years I’ve traveled nearly incessantly: by car all over southern Africa; by plane to South America and the Middle East, through Wyoming by bicycle. Lately, though, every trip has felt harder. There’s the exhaustion of living out of a suitcase, developing rituals to keep track of my things that are so fastidious they’re almost religious, and which, like faith, inevitably fail. The fear of getting sick on the plane. The never knowing what I’m going to eat. The unpacking, which is worse than packing, and the never-fully-unpacking, which is easier but, like sweets on the physique, has a bad long-term effect on the spirit.

And yet, sometimes, the morning I get ready for travel, I feel all that lift. It’s as if the reluctance is a mist that miraculously dissolves, leaving pure eagerness. And I think: Doesn’t this happen so often? Read more ...

The Effect You Have on People Is Profound -- and Unseen

By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, July 11, 2016 

A few weeks ago, I saw a jazz bassist play. I’d seen him before in a different venue, with a different, smaller audience. That crowd sat stony-faced as he coaxed his beats out of the belly of the instrument; he tried laughing and howling and crooning as he played, but we remained unmoved.

This recent night, though, he had younger, looser fans, who screamed as he screamed, playfully batted back his smiles like tennis balls, swiveled and danced between tables. And they brought forth a completely different man.

In front of the dead crowd, the bassist had seemed old, low-energy. His eyes were visibly cloudy with cataracts, his brow sagged, his fingers slowed as the night wore on. Yesterday evening, though, he was 15 years younger, lithe, jumpy, radiating grins.

He seemed like another person entirely, and he was. How thoroughly we are made by the intercourse we have with the people around us! Read more ...

Why South African Students Have Turned On Their Parents' Generation

The Guardian Long Read, November 18, 2015

One of Chumani Maxwele’s stronger childhood memories is of an aeroplane. Not one he rode, but one he heard flying over his dusty village in the Eastern Cape, South Africa, not far from Nelson Mandela’s birthplace. Maxwele, the son of a poor miner, used to play football with his friends in a field behind his house. One morning in 1994, when he was not yet 10 years old, he was startled in the middle of a game by an unfamiliar noise from above – somewhere between a rumble and a drone. He let the ball dribble away and tilted his head to the sky. Maxwele had heard rumours that the African National Congress (ANC) was flying planes around the country: in a few months, South Africa would have its first elections in which black people could vote, and the planes were dropping campaign leaflets decorated in the ANC’s black, yellow and gold, urging people to vote for Mandela.

The sound of the plane transmitted an impression Maxwele never forgot – one of motion and power. Read more ...


My Favorite Writing Tool: The Facebook Status-Update Window

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The Los Angeles Times, August 23, 2015

When I started college in the early 2000s, late at night, as my will to finish another paragraph of Foucault evaporated, I signed onto LiveJournal, the blog host beloved by teenage girls. I trolled strangers' "journals." These weren't blogs like this paper's Company Town or Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish. They were, especially in the site's early days, simply a glimpse into somebody's real life, raw and vulnerable: fights with mothers, angst and awe at changing bodies, fantasies of R&B stardom, fears of moving through life unseen.

I could read those posts for hours, until the sun came up, the way some kids play video games. The writers just spoke — to friends, to strangers, and to the nebulous and thrilling sense of an audience somewhere out there. They were more transfixing than the Faulkner, T.S. Eliot and David Foster Wallace I had to read in my English courses.

But my habit embarrassed me. Read more ...