Imitation of Life

Imitation of Life by Fanny Hurst was published to great success in 1933, made into a film in 1934, and then again in 1959. All three are a fascinating window on race in the USA. Fascinating and deeply depressing.

The movies are kind of an obsession of mine. Particularly the contrast between them. So much changed in those intervening 25 years, and so very little. David Kehr in today’s New York Times describes the films thus:

Douglas Sirk’s 1959 “Imitation of Life” is among the most closely analyzed films in the Hollywood canon, a Lana Turner soap opera turned into an exercise in metaphysical formalism by Sirk’s finely textured and densely layered images. Less well known is John M. Stahl’s first film version (1934) of this Fannie Hurst novel about the complex bond between an enterprising white businesswoman (Claudette Colbert) and the black woman (Louise Beavers) who becomes her housekeeper and supplies the secret formula for pancakes that becomes the basis of Colbert’s character’s empire.

That was the year that Hollywood began seriously to enforce what had been the largely toothless Production Code, which, among its many nefarious effects, would result in the near disappearance of socially engaged films for the next two decades. But Stahl’s “Imitation of Life” still benefits from the frankness and skepticism of the early Depression years. Though hardly free from stereotyping, it stands today as perhaps the most powerful Hollywood film about race until the civil rights movement of the 1950s.

Hardly free from stereotyping is right. The black characters are happy with their place in the world. All but the housekeeper’s daughter, Peola, who is so light-skinned she can pass for white. Yet in both films her decision to do so seems inexplicable. The black people are all happy. Why would you want to pretend to be one of the tormented white people? Look how hard the white man’s burden is!

If you were an alien watching the movies you’d be scratching your head trying to figure out what was so very terrible about being black. In neither film are there any cafes with signs saying “Whites Only.” The black characters never have to sit at the back of the bus. There’s no mention of slavery, lynchings, or the civil rights movement.

There is one horrible scene of racism in the 1959 version, but it plays out as though racism is just that particular person’s problem, not anything systemic. The most you get in the 1934 version is the kids at school looking shocked when they discover that Peola is passing. Their reaction shot lasts less than five seconds.

One of the things that puzzles me most is that in 1934 a black actress was cast in the role of the daughter who passes as white, but in 1959 she was played by a white actress. What’s up with that? Were there truly no light-skinned actresses of Fredi Washington’s (pictured above) calibre around in the 1950s? Colour me doubtful.1

I find the 1934 version more powerful because it doesn’t lose its focus on racism; the 1959 movie winds up being largely about Lana Turner’s scandal-ridden life, specifically her daughter killing her mobster boyfriend. David Kehr is spot on about the final scene of both movies:

Like the Douglas Sirk version, Stahl”s “Imitation of Life” climaxes with a lavish funeral procession. But what Sirk turns into a triumph of coolly expressive visual style becomes, in Stahl”s version, a sustained march of silent protest against a system as unjust as it is deeply ingrained. The film seems unable to put a name to the monumental grief it depicts with such devastating force.

That’s a large part of the problem with boths films: they are about systemic racism and injustice, but they cannot name them. Both films are exercises in avoidance, shame, and lame liberal justifications. What fascinates me is their inability to articulate the bleeding obvious: It is unjust that the black woman who makes the white woman’s life of money and privilege gets so little for it. It is unjust that the black woman’s daughter cannot get what she wants unless she pretends to be white and then when she does that she is punished.

Both films are clear that the problem lies with Peola for trying to be something she is not. Her passing is what is at fault, not the system of racial inequality that makes passing as white an attractive path.

But most of all neither of these films are about Peola or her mother: They’re about the white woman. Claudette Colbert in the first film and Lana Turner in the second. I’ve always longed for it to be remade with the focus squarely on the black woman with the miracle pancake mix.2

Happy Super Tuesday to all you USians living in those states. Vote well! I bet Peola would be happy to see a black man in the running, but sad to see how much racial and sexual inequality still exists. But we can change that, right?

  1. Well, okay, Fredi Washington was AMAZING; finding any actress as good as her would have been tricky. But Susan Kohner was definitely not up to the job. []
  2. The second film takes away the pancake empire and makes the housekeeper character just a housekeeper. Another reason I prefer the first film. []

Compulsory voting

In Australia voting is compulsory. Everyone is expected to do it. Basically that’s because everything back home is geared towards making voting as easy as possible. Over here in the US of A it often seems to me like everything is organised to make voting as difficult as possible. What’s up with that?

In Australia if you don’t vote you pay a fine. Some people routinely pay the fine. Others who don’t want to vote register their dissatisfaction by filling out their ballot wrong or donkey voting. Often by scrawling a message across the ballot. Usually their message is a bit on the rude side. That’s fine. They’ve done their democratic duty. They showed up. The percentage of people who donkey vote is pretty small.

Some people object that many people are too stupid or ill-informed to vote.

Sure, I respond. But who’s going to make that determination? I kind of think what you just said is stupid and ill-informed. Should you be banned from voting? I think liking certain books by certain unnamed writers is stupid and ill-informed. Should they be banned as well?

Others say that voting should only be for the people who care passionately about the issues. When voting isn’t compulsory then only those who really care vote.

The problem with that is many of the people who really care are kind of crazy. Fanatics even. Who wants to live in a country where it’s mainly the fanatics voting?

Non-compulsory voting also leads to campaigns to stop the people you think will vote against you from voting. See: Florida and Ohio. It also leads to doing everything you can to get people you might be able to persuade to vote for you to the polls. Sometimes this is done in less than honest ways.

So you USians can give us limited terms and we’ll give you compulsory voting. You might also want a spot of preferential voting1 and weekend voting. Or at least have a national holiday. Also you could probably lose the Diebold voting machines. Other than that you’re good.

  1. that way protest votes—a la Ralph Nader in 2000—are not such a big deal. []

No more than two terms

There’s a lot I don’t like about the US political system, but there’s one thing they have absoluately right: No head of state should be in power for more than eight years.

I think John Howard has demonstrated this truth as did Robert Menzies before him and Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair in the UK.

I agree with George Washington that any one person staying in power for too long starts to stink of monarchy.1 It leads to corruption and to the one person believing that they are more important than party or country. This is not a good thing.

I would love Australia to adopt four-year terms and also a provision that says no one can be elected to the office of Prime Minister for more than two terms.2

  1. I am with Winston Churchill who said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. And monarchy is amongst the worst. []
  2. And while we’re at could we get rid of the Queen? I want her off our money and no longer our head of state. No more Queens and Kings, no more governors-general of the country or governors of each state. And we do not need to replace them with a naff president or whatever. Isn’t the Senate a good enough check on Prime Ministerial power? []

Giving thanks

So today is a big ole USian holiday where at some point you’re all supposed to give thanks for all the stuff that’s making you thankful. It’s called—wait for it—Thanksgiving. We have no equivalent in Australia. Though we do have, Australia Day, where we commemorate the successful invasion of Australia by white people. As you can imagine the indigenous population consider it to be a day of mourning.1 The USian Thanksgiving has an equally complicated history.

But all that aside, I love the idea of a day given over to thankfulness. Here’s what I’m thankful for:2

  • That paper cuts heal quickly.
  • My iphone. I kisses it!
  • That the cold of this evil Northern hemisphere winter won’t actually kill me if I stick to my cunning plan of staying indoors.
  • That cricket exists and is being played right now even if I don’t get to see it.
  • The fingerless mittens with hoods that Cassie gave me. Another tiny defense in the face of this rampaging malign Winter. Yay!
  • The talking Elvis pen that Libba gave me because, hey, it’s ELVIS! and also because it’s so much cooler than Maureen’s lame High School Musical toothbrush. I win!
  • That there are two Australians in the house (yay, Lili and Sarah!) to lessen my homesickness and so we can all follow the election back home together.

What silly little things are you all grateful for?

  1. I’m one of those weird people who thinks there are things to mourn and celebrate about that day. As in, yes, Australia was invaded and taken over from the people who were already living there. And, yes, the early settlers of Australia were also brave and resilient making new lives for themselves a billion miles from home in a very inhospitable place. And, yes, the indigenous population were astoundingly brave resisting them against such overwhelming odds. My country bares the scars to this day. []
  2. Settle!—I’m not going to get too wet about this. []


I’ve been cooking with pumpkin a lot of late.1 Mostly butternut because I loves it. But also spaghetti cause, well, weird! And I’m starting to experiment with pumpkins I’d never seen before. The US is the land of gourds. But I’m running out of ideas.

Here’s the thing though: I do not have a working oven or grill. All I have is gas burners on top of the stove. I can boil, I can steam, I can fry. I cannot bake or grill.

Thus far I’ve made pumpkin stir fry, pumpkin curry, lots of different pumpkin salads,2 steamed pumpkin with herb3 garlic butter, pumpkin mash, pumpkin soup, and pumpkin fritters. I’ve discovered that pumpkin and maple syrup are a match made in heaven.4

Anyone got any other ideas? But PLEASE no recipes requiring an oven or a grill. Pumpkin pie and scones are not a possibility in this particular New York kitchen.

Thank you!

  1. Note for USian readers, Australians do not use the word “squash” to refer to anything pumpkin-like. Squash is a soft vegetable that bears no relationship to any gourd. []
  2. Thai, Moroccan, and out-of-Justine’s brain []
  3. marjoram, chives, parsley []
  4. I’m sure you North Americans already knew that. Australia is not really the land of either pumpkin or maple syrup. []

The unteasable

There are many Australian writers in town at the moment and there has been much socialising to celebrate.1 I can’t tell you how much fun it is to be in NYC and not be the only Aussie in the room.2 Especially when the other Aussies are fabulous folks like Deb Biancotti, Rob Hood, Margo Lanagan, Garth Nix, Cat Sparks, Trevor Stafford, and Jonathan Strahan. Much fun has been had.3

And much teasing has been teased. Aussies are a much more teasing people than most of my USian friends. It’s been such a relief to have several sessions of full-bore teasification. The Aussies were excellently mean to me. Such bliss.

In the course of this teasefest I realised that I have a friend who is unteasable.

Now I have friends I don’t tease cause I know they’ll get upset. Making people cry is not fun. Many USians fall into this category. But I have a dear friend I have never teased simply because it has never occurred to me to do so. I know she would not cry. She is not an easily offended person. I mentioned her unteasability to her. She says no one has ever teased her, or mocked, or been mean to her. Not at school, not at university, not ever.

Isn’t that bizarre?

I have been trying to figure out why this is so and if I’ve ever met anyone else who was so unteasable.

I can’t think of a single person.

My first theory is that it’s because she’s so unflappable. But I have other unflappable friends I tease and mock. So I’m not sure that’s why. Then I thought maybe it was because she does not tease. But that’s not true she teases her husband all the time.

I am at a loss and must study the problem further.

How about you lot? Are you unteasable? Have you ever known anyone who could not be teased?

  1. And, yes, that plus deadlines plus the blah blah blahs being out of control has put a crimp in my bloggery. Sorry! []
  2. Also for once it’s all of them who are jetlagged while me and Scott are perfectly fine. It’s usually the other way around. []
  3. Though it’s making me really homesick . . . []

Fans rule

Day 11 of the tour:

Tonight’s appearance at Books Inc (Opera Plaza) was fabulous. Lots of rabid, smart, enthusiastic Scott fans and passionate arguments about David/Zane. For the record I like Zane better than David but prefer Shay to either one of them.

The most wonderful part of the evening for me was meeting London, who’s a guy from Sacramento, who drove all the way to San Francisco (which is at least two hours!) to tell me how much he loves my books. Isn’t that awesome? Also turns out he’s a Sacramento Monarchs fan and has even met their big star Yolanda Griffiths. I was deeply impressed and we got to talk women’s hoops which always makes me happy.

Equally happy making was the lovely Liset who gave me a beautiful piece of fan art:

Liset’s fan art

What a wonderful day. Thanks to Jennifer and Shannon for all your hard work. You guys are deeply splendiferous!

There’s lots more to say. And a tonne of your comments I want to respond to, but I’m completely knackered.

Tomorrow there are more events. Also we fly to Seattle.

Sleep now!

Cassandra Clare, Maureen Johnson and other famous persons

One of the fabulous things about this tour is seeing how popular so many of my friends are.

At a book shop on the outskirts of Chicago I saw this:

City of Bones

I pointed it out to Scott. “Look! Someone here loves Cassie’s book. And they have a tonne of copies!” (There were more in piles above and below this book shelf.)

The bookseller who wrote that shelf talker overheard me:

“You know Cassie Clare?! Oh. My. God. I LOVED that book so much!!! She is a genius! I have loved her ever since I read her Secret Diaries!”

At a school in Walnut Creek, California lots of the kids had painted posters of their favourite books. The room was full of them:


I checked each one, looking for a book by one of my friends, and lo and behold what did I find?

Maureen Johnson’s Thirteen Little Blue Envelopes.

During tonight’s fabulous event at Copperfield books in Petaluma praise was heaped on Holly Black, Libba Bray, Cecil Castellucci, Cassie, Maureen, and Garth Nix. It was joyous to hear. And, yes, I was bad, I boasted about knowing them all!

Book tours are fun!

On book tour time

Everything on the book tour has very short margins. The driver taking you places in traffic-laden cities has to calculate the odds of getting you to your next gig on time and allow for potential disasters so you often arrive with tonnes of dead time or with barely seconds to get up and start charming.

You have a one-day turn around on getting your clothes laundered. If you drop it off in the morning it has to be ready in the evening or you’re wearing dirties to a gig. One hotel forgot to return the dry cleaning. And we stupidly didn’t check till it was too late leaving Scott struggling to put a clean ensemble together. Aaargh!! (Fortunately the dry cleaning was returned before we left that hotel.)

There’s such a narrow margin of error for clothes because we’re travelling with only carry-ons to eliminate the risk of checked luggage going missing. (It’s happened to us three times in the last two years.) Two carry-on bags and two computer bags cannot fit all the clothes you need for three weeks.

Or enough books either. (Our huge swag of books from the trade show has long been posted home.) So the horror of running out of reading before you get to the next book shop is always around the corner. I have many podcasts and vid on standby should it come to that.

Scott and his iphone

Not that there’s much time for reading or catching up with people’s blogs or the news or anything. Scott’s usually on the road to his next gig by 7AM and back in time for a short nap before the evening book signing. Nights off are a blessing spent catching up on everything that has piled up. We have no idea what’s going on in the real world. But we know TONNES of publishing gossip.

We keep meeting the most wonderful people. The escorts have been charming and fun, the booksellers and fans ditto. Yet, we’re meeting so many people that the names of all these folks we’ve just bonded with have left our heads by the next gig. I hear there are new drugs on the market that help with memory. I am SO. VERY. TEMPTED.

Meeting the fans is the very best part. I knew there were a lot of people who were enthusiastic about Scott’s books but I had no idea there were this many. And they’re all so smart and funny and keep giving him the most fabulous home-made pressies. It makes me all teary and so very happy.

Thanks for coming out and saying hi!

Toes, passports, and other misadventures

If this is Sunday it must be Oakland. What do you mean it isn’t Sunday?! But this is Oakland, right?

Scott is silly

Today has not been one of my better efforts. Let’s see:

    I almost broke one of Scott’s toes,

    Put the “signed by” sticker on several of his books upside down (worst jacket monkey ever),

    Left my bag with our passports in it behind at a restaurant and then managed not to hear the poor waiter sprinting after me and shouting with said bag in hands (but we got the bag back! yay most excellent waiter!),

    Fell asleep in the middle of Scott reading me this thingie he’s working on. (He is a most excellent reader. I have never fallen asleep while he was reading before. I plead exhaustion.)

Where is the rewind button? I would like to start over please.

Here’s hoping the actual Sunday goes much better especially as there’s a chance I might get to meet Alice Walker. I loved The Color Purple so much when I first read it that I immediately read it a second time. I can’t remember how many times I’ve read it since then. She is a genius. I love her essays every bit as much as her fiction.

Oh, and if you’re in the San Francisco area Scott is doing a whole bunch of appearances. I’ll be at all of them, most especially the one we’re doing together:

Tuesday, Oct 9
Books Inc.
Opera Plaza
601 Van Ness Ave.
San Francisco, CA 94102
In-store reading & signing with Scott.
A Not Your Mother’s Book Club event

I’m very happy to sign my books for you even at one of Scott’s events. I promise that I will try my best not to break any of your toes.


The tomatoes right now are unspeakably good. I went to the Tompkins Square farmers’ market this morning and bought eight different kinds. Yum. They’re so sweet and flavouresome they don’t need dressing. Just salt and pepper and a squeeze of lime and you have the best tomato salad ever.

They also had the first cape goosberries (husk cherries) of the season. Heaven! And the fresh garlic keeps on. I think I’ll do a stir fry tonight of kale, lebanese cukes, garlic and onion. (All bought at the market.)

Even though I’m locked in working my arse off on the UFB and can’t remember the last time I talked to a real human being (other than Scott) I’m still eating well! Sometimes I think cooking is the only thing that keeps me sane.