Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Telling Young Lives: A book review

I've been appallingly lazy when it comes to blogging, so while I'm still not quite upto writing an actual blog entry, I'll copy-paste something I had written earlier. This is a book review that was published by the Economic and Political Weekly in September, 2009.

Telling Young Lives: Portraits of Global Youth edited by Craig Jeffrey and Jane Dyson, Temple University Press, 2008, pp 220, Rs.1426

Images of youth as social consumers apathetic to politics abound in economic and political systems where the majority of youth are unable to participate as fully as adults, but as the success of the Obama campaign demonstrated in part, if addressed directly and mobilized, youth can make a significant difference in the formal politics of a nation. This is in addition to the many ways in which young people from a variety of backgrounds find ways to contest their marginalisation within power relations in the household, in the community as well as in wider society, as they negotiate hostile environments and aim to attain adult status- a theme that runs through the lives of youth regardless of differences in class, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexual orientation and level of education. In Telling Young Lives: Portraits of Global Youth, Craig Jeffrey and Jane Dyson produce a volume that is global in scope but understandably not comprehensive in its approach, as researchers and youth collaborate to create thirteen vignettes based on the lived experiences of young people from a wide range of backgrounds. The editors consciously attempt to be mindful of the politics of representation and use the vignettes to explore the level of political engagement and social activism of youth without using the portraits to support a single agenda.

Jeffrey and Dyson aim to breach the confines of the academy to produce a volume that is global in scope, academic in its approach and accessible to a wide audience ranging from parents, educators and politicians to anyone else interested in the physical and material circumstances as well as the hopes and aspirations of youth today, including, not least, youth themselves. The focus is on individual vignettes, not with the assumption that each person is a microcosm, but because these portraits exemplify how larger processes may work together to produce a human outcome while reflecting the attitudes and experiences of the key figures as well as wider society. They allow the reader to see how youth find surprisingly similar as well as strikingly different ways to maintain the balancing act between the need to take on adult responsibilities and the lack of a comparable degree of rights and freedoms as adults, as they go about their daily lives.

Caught in Between

The discrepancy between rights and responsibilities that youth often experience is evident in 16-year-old Saka’s portrait. Despite the researcher’s explanation that she wants to work with young people, the head of the village forest committee and other men in Bemni Village, Uttarakhand, India discuss the proposed schedule while Saka quietly cooks dinner. Saka has contributed to forest and fieldwork since the age of five and by now she is the household’s main labourer- cooking and cleaning, sowing seeds, feeding livestock and gathering basketfuls of leaves and lichen while her brothers aspire to wage labour in the city. She dropped out of school early and has established herself as a diligent and skilful worker, conforming to local notions of acceptable femininity. Disproportional to her responsibilities and household contribution, her sphere of relative freedom is limited to the forest, where she used to herd cattle when she was young enough that socializing with boys was not strongly discouraged, and where she is now able to speak her mind and socialize with other girls her age, as she collects lichen. She understands that this is a stage that will be short-lived, where she has relative freedom reminiscent of childhood, giving way to adulthood as a married woman answerable to a husband and in-laws.

Directing and Being Directed
The process of moving onto adulthood seems to progressively reduce Saka’s freedom, but, considering her mother’s position and hopes surrounding gaining a daughter-in-law, there is an expected shift when a woman changes her own position within the socio-cultural paradigm by becoming a mother and mother-in-law and gaining control over other young people. This definition of adulthood as the shift from having to follow the directives of others to being able to direct other people is underscored in Mohammed’s portrait. In Freetown, Sierra Leone, Mohammed is considered a youth precisely because he does not yet have young people to "patronize," and serves as a "client" to a "patron" himself. He is a squatter who breaks rocks for the right to remain on the property as he works for different patrons, smuggling marijuana across the Liberian border, fighting for the pro-government Kamajor militia and doing political canvassing because he owes debts of respect and labour. He cannot afford to formally marry and one of the only ways for him to escape the obligations of youth and to reach adulthood is to move up along the chain by recruiting young people that he himself can protect and demand labour and allegiance from.

When the requirements of gaining full adult status are significant and the opportunities are few, there is a prolonged period of youth marked by the responsibilities of adulthood and the limited agency associated with youth. Vusi from South Africa is in his late-20s but is considered a youth in this volume: adult demands such as the exposure to political brutality and the need to provide for his girlfriend and child coexist with youthful traits such as economic dependency and a hedonistic lifestyle.

Surviving on Friendship
The importance of cohort in providing a level of relief and security, as a young person tries to follow multiple, incompatible approaches is emphasized in Blacc’s portrait. Homeless in New York City, he initially chooses to sleep on the train rather than stay at a shelter so as to not be separated from his friends. This is a critical survival strategy- friends can look out for each other, raise the alarm if there are policemen nearby, provide information about available food and shelter and even form tight-knit "street families". However, independence is also crucial for survival and shelters are designed to serve individuals. This need to negotiate contradictory strategies is a constant in Blacc’s life, as he has to fight for survival on the streets while also trying to lay low so as to not attract attention to himself or get kicked out of the shelter.

One of the ways in which youth cope with the challenges they face is by shifting strategies and even identity, to find the niche that suits them most. 17-year-old Norwegian Helena living in England exemplifies how racial identity can be bent. She is Caucasian but has a passion for hip-hop, rap and R&B swing, frequently tans her skin to look as dark as possible and attends dances where she is sometimes ridiculed for being the only white person in the group. She rejects “moneyed whiteness", asserting the authenticity of her interest in Black culture as opposed to that of more affluent "snobs" who follow trends but are not committed to be different as the definition of what is "cool" changes. In an effort to cope with her working class and foreigner status, Helena chooses to identify with a very different but also marginalized group to find a place where she can "fit in".

Reconciling Contested Identities

Kabir, an 18-year-old Scottish Muslim, refuses having to choose between possibly incompatible identities, straddling both his Muslim and Scottish identity in order to negotiate his environment, describing himself using metaphors such as that of a blue square, where neither characteristic compromises the other. In a global climate of fear and distrust of the Islamic faith and a society where he faces racism and intolerance, Kabir asserts his national identity at the same time as calling himself an activist for his right to practice religion and for the rights of his religious community. Through a description of his daily routines and long-term community activism goals, he consciously contradicts stereotypes of young people as apathetic and disengaged.

Like Kabir, Nala, a 36-year old Maasai woman from Tanzania, considers activism central to her role in society. Nala was a vocal activist for her community even in primary school, opposing discrimination against the Maasai, and has effectively organized youth and women’s groups since she was 16, negotiating a rigidly hierarchical and patriarchal society to attend secondary school and set up a non-governmental organization (NGO) focused on women’s empowerment.

This volume provides a nuanced introduction to the lives of youth around the world through vignettes that illustrate youth negotiating the difficulties of life in their respective societies with awareness and consciously developed tactics. While material circumstances differ according to local context, the experience of marginalization and the effort to gain agency are central themes in the lives of youth worldwide. The experience of being a woman in patriarchal Maasai society is undoubtedly different from that of a working class caucasian woman in England, a Muslim man in Scotland, a homeless man in New York or a man coerced into the militia in Sierra Leone. Thus their tactics for negotiating contested space and attempts to gain agency differ too. This book does a good job of exhibiting different personalities of the youth, which also impact how they react to their various circumstances. However, within difference there is one great commonality; youth worldwide are trying to overcome marginalization, whether by attempting to change their own position in the system (Mohammed), changing the system that they choose to identify with (Helena) or changing how their own system functions (Nala).

I have pulled out some of the themes as they are unraveled in the lives of some of the youth considered in the volume, but it is certainly not exhaustive. As Nala’s profile illustrates, when personal biographies are used to forward a global agenda, facets of the person’s life can be compromised and misrepresented. A partner organization of the NGO that Nala manages used pictures of a Maasai coming of age ceremony for fund-raising, a measure that they considered extremely effective to show their commitment to and understanding of the people they are working with, but to Nala this was a betrayal of the trust of the community through public use of photographs without permission. The authors and editors of this volume are mindful of the politics of representation and attempt to use the voices of the youth as much as possible as they go about describing their lives. Nonetheless, key themes can be followed through and the introduction and afterword function as bookends for a volume that manages to form a coherent whole despite its ambitious scope.

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