The Five People Living or Dead I’d Invite to a Hypothetical Dinner Party
I love making lists.
This is not sarcasm. I genuinely love it. The process calms me, even if I’m only compiling purely hypothetical data. I think I spend more time in the what-ifs than in the here and now. I like the what-ifs more. It’s the only way I can stay a little sane. Reality can be oppressive.
My favorite kind of list is the kind that will never be practically applied. Desert-island necessities, your chosen weapon for the zombie apocalypse — I might actually need the latter one day — a Met Gala itinerary: what you’d wear, who you’d go with. These kinds of queries have gained popularity since lockdown. They’re a good way to get to know people, their tastes, their inner workings, and their influences. They’re also a good way to pass time.
I light up like a Christmas tree when I encounter one such question in a job interview. I’ve got the answer locked and loaded in my brain, and I’m ecstatic to find someone actually wants to know about all my freaky little trains of thought.
My favorite hypothetical list, right up there with the hall pass line-up I will never get to use, is the answer to the tried and true “Who are the people, living or dead, that you would invite to a dinner party?” It’s the one I think about the most, especially lately. I’ve been weirdly lonely, and weirdly keen on shifting my focus from real-life connections to the ones I maintain in my head.
I’ve compiled this list before, but I want to do it again, with the people that have had the biggest influence on me. The women in this list each are responsible for at least a fraction of my personality, my ambitions, or even my virtues. Getting coffee with them would be enough. But since this is in my head, technically, I get to pull out all the stops.
First: Eve. Yes, from the Bible. Though the rapper would be pretty fun to have around too.
I had never given much thought to Eve growing up. Like most kids raised religious, I was very familiar with the crash-course creation story where she succumbed to temptation, ate the apple, and doomed us all — and made God so angry he invented periods.
I would always think of her when my cramps were particularly earth-shattering, but she didn’t cross my mind very often beyond that. I was not very existential as a kid.
I never once doubted the truth of the creation story. I still don’t. I’m easy that way. I have a lot of issues with Christianity, questions and grudges I’m still working through — but the first few chapters of the book of Genesis is not one of them. The Bible’s like a fairy tale to me. I take more issue with its interpretation than with the text itself.
I do think the fruit might not have been an apple, but that’s minutiae. Who cares if it was a fig, or a pomegranate, or an orange? It was probably a fig, but again: I’m easy.
Two Januarys ago I was standing in the Met. There are a lot of Eves in the Met, and my then-crisis of faith had spiraled into a fascination with original sin, why anything matters; where we go if we’re bad, or if we’re good.
I was starting to develop a burgeoning interest in Eve. I was starting to understand her, empathize with her, even. I felt tempted all the time. I felt bad all the time. I felt like I was going to Hell.
It was a very terrifying year. I became a nihilist that year.
After staring at all the Eves and the Venuses and the Penitent Magdalenes, I visited the gift shop. I could honestly live in that gift shop. There are more books about art in there than I’d ever be able to finish. I wanted everything, so much so that I almost left with nothing.
I took one book, one token to commemorate my trip to the Met. It was a book about Eve. Well, Adam and Eve, but I wasn’t overly focused on the “Adam” of it all. It’s called The First Love Story, and it’s about this guy who journeys to the Middle East to the spot where people think the Garden of Eden might have been, and to Rome to look at the Sistine Chapel, and all these other places where Adam and Eve’s presence can be felt — and all the while he tries to rewrite their story, tries to extricate them from thousands of years of defamation.
I am holding this book in my hand right now. Well, not really. I took it off my shelf and started flipping through it, but I had to put it down to keep writing. Maybe what I mean to say is I am holding it in my heart. I don’t have to put it down there. I can think of what it means to me, and how it opened my eyes and pulled me through one of the worst years of my life.
Flipping through it, through the dog-eared pages and the passages I highlighted with inconsistently colored markers, just makes me feel warm inside. I feel tethered to Eve, and all she must have gone through. She experienced everything, every emotion we have a name for, almost every natural experience. Sex, childbirth, menopause probably. Death and loss. Getting in trouble. All of it. For the first time.
She was alone. The only woman. On Earth. So yeah, I want her at my dinner party.
Two: Carrie Fisher. Obviously.
She used to say that she and Princess Leia were one. Either she became her after all the years of hero-worship and fandom, or she always was her. She always had Princess Leia inside her somewhere, and George Lucas just saw it there first.
Whichever one is true, I like her logic — because ironically enough, they’re both my hero.
I think I was so upset about Carrie’s death because I always thought I might have the chance to speak to her one day, not as Leia — because that must have been pretty dehumanizing, to only be seen in relation to a character that changed a stranger’s life and not for all the other contributions you made to society. As much as I love Leia, I don’t necessarily need to talk to her. It was Carrie who changed my life. Who made me realize I could live with myself.
I have always wanted to thank her, and just... sit with her, and ask her about her life and her writing and addiction and the ups and downs of being so close to her mother. I’d find it very difficult to pay attention to my other guests if I could somehow miraculously resurrect her for an evening. I would absolutely monopolize her. She’d be the guest of honor (no shade to Eve).
Three: Dido Elizabeth Belle.
Dido was an heiress in 18th century England. Her great-uncle was Chief Lord Justice (which I assume is like a Supreme Court appointment but British) and ruled on some significant cases in his time in office. He publicly admonished the slave trade in England, and his work helped abolish slavery permanently in Western Europe. Mostly because of his relationship to Dido.
Who was black.
Well, I’ll say mixed, since her father was white and a descendant of an incredibly posh family. He (I hope) fell in love with Dido’s mother, a slave he encountered on a Spanish ship, and brought Dido back to England with him when her mother died. Since he was in the navy, he had to leave her with his uncle, the aforementioned Chief Lord Justice — but not before naming her his heir, which was pretty cool for the time.
There is an absolutely fantastic movie about Dido, and her life, and this portrait her great-uncle commissioned of her and her cousin (who he was also kind of forced to adopt). The portrait frames Dido and her cousin as equals — again, a very cool and incredibly uncommon thing to do in 18th century England — and it’s one of the greatest examples of black portraiture where the black in question is depicted as… an actual human being. I can’t stress how very very rare this was, and how seeing this painting for the first time absolutely rocked me to my core.
It is not easy being a brown girl infatuated with western culture. Obviously. You grow up thinking, at first, that all content is for all people — but as you grow up you realize there’s no room for you in the spaces you love most.
Then comes the unpacking, the sick way you have to force yourself to understand that action movies, sci-fi, rom coms, and period romance were not designed with you in mind. That Hollywood would rather pretend you don’t exist than put you or someone like you in a movie. That black people were just not around in the 1700s. Not in Europe, anyway. There is no Pride and Prejudice for black girls. No Ophelia for us. No gorgeously lush European portraiture. No happy ending.
Except for Belle (2013) — the fantastic movie I mentioned before completely losing the plot — laughs in the face of all that bullshit. It is a period romance directed by Amma Asante, the queen of swirl period romance, and it literally walked so Bridgerton could run. No, actually, it ran so Bridgerton could walk. Why lie?
This film completely opened my eyes to the fact that people of color can infiltrate the genres that have completely shut them out in the past, and the only reason Asante did not make this list — besides the cringe Nazi-sympathizer flick she recently directed — is because talking to Dido herself would just be so much cooler.
I might end up disappointed, in that way that Revolutionary buffs are when they realize George Washington owned slaves and probably smelled very very bad. But it might be fun to show her how far we as black women have come, how many hair-care options we have now.
I feel like she might like black romance films of the ’90s. I’d love to show her Love & Basketball.
Four: Mindy Kaling.
I first realized that I could put myself in a TV show when I saw Mindy Kaling for the first time.
I happened upon her by accident, actually. It was my dad who was watching The Mindy Project — a show she created, wrote for, and starred in. He was the one to introduce us, however indirectly, the way it is with so many other things I now cannot live without.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget the first time I saw her, how it felt seeing her self-assured face on the TV in my dimly-lit den that night. How it felt to see “Created by Mindy Kaling” scroll across the screen, and how long it took me to understand that she had created something, created that — and had managed to make room for herself inside of it.
And people were watching it. They were enjoying it.
She was the first woman of color to executive produce, write, and star in a major network show.
She is the blueprint. Or mine, anyway.
While Mindy Lahiri — Kaling’s shrewd, white-boy-loving alter ego — was absolutely life-affirming in so many ways, I am very jealous of the girls in high school now that get to watch Never Have I Ever and feel seen by that. I absolutely loathe the fact that it is not me. I’m happy for them too, don’t get me wrong. But I can’t express what I’d have given to have that when I was still struggling to unpack the unabashed whiteness of some of my favorite media.
Mindy’s invitation to this dinner party is purely strategic. I really just want to work for her, shadow her obsessively until I too am picking and choosing which hot actors I want to force to smooch me onscreen. But if I put on Love & Basketball for Dido, I know Mindy would be right there with us, laying out the absolute brilliance of Gina Prince-Bythewood’s directorial debut.
Five: Corinne Bailey Rae.
This final slot was tough. This slot (don’t cancel me) almost went to Rosalía. But, like always with me, nostalgia won in the end.
There are few things in this world that have absolutely shaped me like Corinne Bailey Rae’s self-titled debut album. That album — and I say this without a drop of irony, without a speck — was made specifically for me. For me. And me alone.
I was maybe 12 when I first heard “Like A Star,” and I am very sure I heard it in that Nancy Drew movie starring Emma Roberts. That song, and the self-titled album on the whole, is the kind of music that accelerates your coming of age exponentially. I was already a romantic, absolutely convinced that I would meet the love of my life every time I stepped out of my house. But Corinne Bailey Rae, with her honeyed, breathy voice, matured and romanticized my world all the more.
I saw everything in a moody, ethereal light after that first listen. I played this album every time I had a crush, every time said crush dated someone else instead of me, every time I felt alone as the only black girl I knew. Any time I felt misunderstood, unloved, suppressed — this album was on, reminding me of how much I deserved.
I am playing this album as I write this. This is a trip down memory lane I can take hands-free. I have not listened to Corinne in a long time, and it has everything to do with how often I played her in my teens. I absolutely wore her out. But enough time has passed, I think, to let her words, her honeyed, breathy voice, wash over me with the same potency.
When I was younger, I used to think I would be a singer. My dad still hopes this will happen. He’ll tell everyone we meet that I am a “world-class singer.” He’ll nudge me, urge me to sing “Put Your Records On” — arguably Corinne’s most popular song, and the one I used to pull out for my parlor trick. The only one of her songs I can really pull off, despite the years I spent trying to emulate her. If we’re being honest, Lianne La Havas is much more my speed.
I don’t sing anymore. Not like that, anyway. Just for myself. But I give a lot of thought to who I would hypothetically like to sing with one day.
For the record, Corinne is not one of them. I’d be far too scared to sing side by side with her. I just want her at the party. She seems really nice.
Maybe if my dad were coming to this hypothetical dinner party, he could force me. Sadly, it’s invite-only — and my party. So I will do what I want to. Sorry, dad.
This list has grown, shrunk, and shifted so much over the years, based on where I am in life, what I’m struggling with, what I’m happy about. But these are the people who had the most lasting effect on me.
I don’t want them at my dinner party to thank them so much as I’d like to just talk to them. I’m not the type to fawn or cry or blubber on about how obsessed with someone I actually am. In fact, I’m more likely to pretend I don’t know somebody famous when I encounter them. They’re people, aren’t they?
I’d rather chat casually over the food I probably will end up picking up from my favorite Asian fusion place. I would rather ask questions, ask for advice, and bond over similar experiences.
It’d be cool if I could control what age my guests would be. 25-year-old Carrie Fisher, fresh off the premiere of Empire Strikes Back — I’ve got goosebumps just thinking about that. At my age now, Corinne Bailey Rae would have been in the process of writing her first album. Dido would have been in the thick of the abolitionist movement. My amount of questions, then, would increase exponentially. I don’t think I’d be able to cram them all into one dinner party.
Maybe I would make it a sleepover. Maybe we would do each other’s hair, go for ice cream in the middle of the night. That train of thought kind of makes me sad, only because this can’t actually happen. These people, these women who shaped me, are not within arm’s reach.
But they are in my heart. I can pick up a Carrie Fisher book any time I want, or one by Mindy Kaling, for that matter. I can put on Corinne Bailey Rae whenever I like, and I can feel that same relief and kinship I felt when I was 12. It’s almost as good as a dinner party. Better, maybe. Because they will be with me for more than just a few hours. I can see them any time. It’s just a matter of not letting them go.
BTS. This counts as one invitation. I don’t make the rules.
Paul Walker. I love the Fast saga to pieces (again, not sarcasm) and I miss his presence in them very much.
Joan of Arc. No explanation needed.
Mary Magdalene, for the same reasons I would want to speak to Eve. She apparently wrote her own gospel. I have plans to read it and become more obsessed with her than I already am.
Riz Ahmed. He’s a genius. I’d like to pick his brain more than anyone. And maybe challenge him to a rap battle. It’s what I deserve.
Tony Leung Chiu-wai, circa 2005. This is turning into a thirst list fairly quickly, isn’t it…
Might as well go all in: Takeshi Kaneshiro, circa 1995. He’s hot even now, but looked particularly delicious in Fallen Angels, dir. Wong Kar Wai.
Maya Angelou? I’m all over the place.