Review: Weird by Olga Khazan
“Khazan…is that? What nationality is that?”
My interviewee and I were sitting on a stage, about to get microphoned for a live interview I was conducting as part of an event at work. We had run out of prep material, so the conversation turned to where I’m from — I told him Midland, Texas — and eventually, to my heritage.
“I’m Russian,” I responded.
“The last name is Hebrew.”
I learned this in a grade school genealogy project, when we had to look up the origin of our last name and then draw it. Mine was Hebrew, and as if that wasn’t weird enough, the genealogy book said it meant “cantor.” I didn’t know what that was and had to look it up separately, only to learn that it was some sort of singer in a synagogue. I didn’t know what a synagogue was either. I was jealous of the girl whose last name was Welsh for “stone.” Back onstage, my interviewee pressed me further.
“So you’re Jewish?” he asked.
“My dad is,” I answered truthfully, hoping we would run out of bullshitting time soon.
“So,” he said, smiling slightly. I can only imagine what he was thinking: There are so few ways to make a genuine connection in this cruel world! Let’s try to make one now. “Did you have enough Jews in Midland for a minyan?”
For a solid three seconds I thought he was asking me if my West Texas hometown was populated by yellow animated creatures, the Minions. “I’m sorry,” I said weakly. “I don’t know what that is.”
“What?” he said. “Minyan? Minyan!” (Surely she’ll get it, daughter of a Jew after all!) “I…I don’t.” “Minyan! Minyan!”
“MOST RUSSIAN JEWS ARE ATHEISTS!” I cried, a millisecond before our mics went live. I turned to the audience and smiled.
“Thank you all for joining us!”
The long quote is from Olga Khazan’s Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider World. Born into a Russian-Jewish immigrant family in the town of Midland in West Texas, the home of George W Bush, Khazan, well-known staff writer at The Atlantic, writes of her personal experience of being weird: “For me, the peculiar nature of my family’s immigration journey was what lodged me between identities and caused me, until very recently, to feel deeply uncomfortable in my own skin.”
Her father, an electrical engineer, worked as a black-market TV repairman in Russia before switching to a job as a translator at a petroleum engineering company for oil deals in Siberia. Her mother worked in the accounts department at a company and sometimes pitched in with the translating. They had limited options for survival.
About America, Khazan observes: “We are a nation of accidental outsiders. A lot of us, in essence, feel weird. But at the same time, one in eight Americans is afflicted with ‘social anxiety, defined as a persistent fear of talking to or being scrutinized by strangers. And most Americans report feeling lonely and misunderstood”. A 2018 survey of 20,000 American adults found many felt “left out” and considered themselves lonely.
Broken up into 14 chapters that include interviews with over three dozen “weirdos” and comments from academics including sociologists and social psychologists, the book presents a semi theoretical construct of weirdness. The captions and sub captions are journalistic but the treatment is on the fringe of academia. This is evident in interviews like the one with Michael Ain, a professor of orthopedic surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, who specializes in children with dwarfism and has developed techniques to help people with spinal deformities. He encountered insurmountable obstacles because he is “just 4 feet, 3 inches tall”. Khazan has interviewed a range of people including transgender individuals, a girl facing hazards of repeated divorce by her mother, and working women like truck drivers, who survive amid uncertainty and neglect. Every interview has been scanned by a sociologist, a social psychiatrist or a neuroscientist.
Author Olga Khazan
The etymology of “weird” is also examined. “Before the 1800s, weird was more likely to mean supernatural, or fantastical. Shakespeare, for instance, called the witches in Macbeth the weyard sisters,” Khazan notes. Wyrd is an Old English word for ‘fate’. In the eighth century, wyrde, was used for three Roman goddesses: Nona, who spun the thread of life; Decima, who measured it; and Morta, who cut it as she saw fit. Wyrde, the author, asserts “could be considered a kind of prediction, a destiny… your weirdness is also a hint at what you might live to see and do, at what hidden powers you possess. ‘Weird’, then, is your potential”.
The 320-page book, which also looks at the complications of consistently being an outsider, and includes multiple types of outsider narratives, is an absorbing read.
Sankar Ray is a writer and commentator on Left politics and history, and environmental issues. He lives in Kolkata.
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