Sunday, February 16, 2020

Introducing Malcolm Gladwell

Review a black American author’s work that you think a white person would love.

Brenda Chapman here.

This week's question first proved a challenge for me. I can't say that I consider an author's ethnicity when I select a book and I don't slot the novels in my memory by the author's colour. However, in a happy confluence of events, I'm currently reading Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell, an author of some renown with Jamaican heritage. My neighbour and fellow book club member passed the book along to me at our last meeting.

First, about the author: Malcolm Gladwell was born in England but grew up in rural Ontario, graduating from the University of Toronto with a history degree. He now lives in New York. Currently a staff writer at The New Yorker, he was a reporter with The Washington Post, rising to its New York City bureau chief. Time magazine named him one of the top 100 influential people and Foreign Policy called him one of the 'top global thinkers'. In addition to writing several New York Times best-selling novels, he also hosts the podcast Revisionist History.

Talking to Strangers explores the way we size up strangers, the judgments we make based on initial interactions and our belief that we can judge a person's honesty and character by looking into their eyes and speaking with them. We also judge people by their appearance, bringing our own preconceptions and beliefs into the equation. The question is: why do these interactions with strangers often go so terribly wrong?

The book opens with the tragic police incident in 2015 in Texas, involving Sandra Bland, a black American woman who was pulled over for not using her turn signal. The encounter between these two strangers quickly escalated when Sandra refused to get out of the car. She was arrested and three days later took her own life in the jail cell. Was her arrest an act of racism or a police officer's incompetence? 

Gladwell goes on to show how various people have relied on their assumed ability to assess a stranger and how this has backfired. For example, the politicians such as British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain who met with Hitler just before WWII and came to believe that Hitler had no intention of invading other countries. Hitler convinced them that he was opposed to war even as he was plotting to invade Czechoslovakia ... for starters.

Fidel Castro also bamboozled the American CIA in a similar fashion in the 1990s. The CIA agents working covertly in Cuba had been secretly turned into double agents by the Cubans and they managed to convince their American handlers that they were loyal CIA agents despite failing regular polygraph tests. The handlers believed in their own instincts and ability to discern character over the scientific evidence. They were ultimately humiliated when the truth came to light.

Gladwell links moments and events in history to show "strangers are not easy". He wants us to rethink our interactions with people we don't know; to question why we believe what a stranger tells us while ignoring evidence that tells us the opposite. His writing is clear and concise, the historical narrative unfolds as a cohesive story that is entirely engaging and challenges one's thinking. His book is also well researched, the facts meticulously checked.

I've yet to read the finale of the story, but I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this book based on the opening chapters. As the New York Times Book Review says, "Gladwell is as close to a singular talent as exists today." He certainly has me looking at events in a different light -  perhaps this book should be mandatory reading given today's dangerous political climate with an American president whom one might argue has learned from other dictators' playbooks the art of hiding his true motivations. On the other hand, he's also capable of being fooled, as demonstrated by his friendship with North Korea's and Russia's dictators and his belief in their assurances that their intentions are benign.

Finally, I'd like to pass along this link to the Crime Writers of Color website, and to quote from their main page, this is "an association of authors seeking to present a strong and united voice for members who self-identify as crime/mystery writers from traditionally underrepresented racial, cultural and ethnic backgrounds."

Facebook: BrendaChapmanAuthor
Twitter: brendaAchapman


Susan C Shea said...

Sandra Bland's death and the events leading up to it are tragedies I can never forget. I call the cop's actions overtly racist, deliberate bullying and harassment, designed to give him the opportunity to punish a black woman for not caving in to him instantly. I think of her excitement to have gotten the new job, seeing a good future ahead of her, and having this happen immediately after. My heart aches for Sandra Bland. Thank you for naming her. It's important to remember. I haven't read what Malcolm Gladwell may be written about that event but I read so much else.

Brenda Chapman said...

Yes, her arrest and death were terrible tragedies. Sandra's exchange with the cop were recorded and Gladwell has written out their escalating conversation in the book. He was let go from the force afterward, but the damage was already done.

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