Saturday, July 30, 2011

Daljit Nagra

I just read a brilliant poem in, of all unlikely places, the New Yorker. It's titled "A Black History of the English-Speaking Peoples." The poet is Daljit Nagra of whom I'm an instantaneous fan. I'm definitely going to get his most recent book, Tippoo Sultan's Incredible White-Man-Eating Tiger Toy Machine!!!. First, though, I'll reread the New Yorker poem once or twice. There's much meat to it. It's amazing in terms of craft and structure, but mostly its language and especially its broad, profound political sweep and scope blew me away. The poem begins with the poet in the audience at a Shakespeare play--King Lear, I think, though I'm not 100% sure I understood the allusions--at the modern reconstruction of the Globe Theatre, and it spins outward with his thoughts as they're spurred to range upon empire and history. I am, as I've confessed before here, spectacularly uneducated and ignorant in poetry, but as they say I know what I like and I like this very much.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Montecore: The Silence of the Tiger

Last week I read a fantastic novel. Montecore-The Silence of the Tiger by Jonas Hassen Khemiri. This one has everything I look for in fiction: an engaging story, original and multidimensional characters, deeply political themes, painful honesty, roaring humor. On top of that, the writing is incredibly—often uproariously—creative on several levels. And Khemiri plays with form in innovative ways that, for all the innovation, still allow full access for the ordinary reader and stay far removed from the usual apolitical antisocial ironical above-it-all airs so often assumed by metafiction.

Montecore tells the story of a North African (Algerian born, orphaned in the liberation war, raised in Tunisia) man who moves to Sweden after he and a Swedish woman fall in love. They marry and raise a family, and it's the firstborn, a son who grows up to become a writer, who's mostly, or may or may not be, the narrator of the father's story, along with someone who may be the father's oldest friend, may be the father himself, or both, or neither.

The story—of the father, Abbas, a photographer, and his son, Jonas—is in its essence the story of racism in Sweden, and of the hard lives of immigrant workers trying to survive in the face of this most unwelcoming society. How this racism, in the early years barely camouflaged behind the society's bland herring-and-snow exterior and later bursting out into organized mass murderous violence against African, Asian and Latin American immigrants, stymies Abbas's every attempt to pursue his artistic dreams. (What an artist he is! I'm crazy about his series of photographic depictions that capture the essence of Sweden: photo after photo of frozen stripped bicycles toppled over into ice heaps, frozen piles of vomit on snowy sidewalks, and the like.) And it's about how this racism creates in his son as he comes of age all the rage and will to rebel against oppression that the father spends nearly his whole adult life suppressing. And how it alienates, heartbreakingly, the two from each other.

It's also a story about language, first languages and adopted languages, about words and communication, and how deeply all this is tied up with identity, in particular national identity, and how language is a weapon in the hands of the smug racist majority forcing the immigrant minority always into outsider status. Khemiri is brilliant at weaving in, frequently with wild hilarity but also, increasingly as the story proceeds, with piercing poignancy, Abbas's endless and endlessly futile attempts to master Swedish, and of course we're also made to see that he could have become utterly fluent and it still would have made no dent in that racist walls that press in against him more and more.

In this regard, I must do something I too often forget: hail the translator. Rachel Willson-Broyles does some amazing work here. She somehow manages to take Khemiri's novel, written in Swedish and full of twisty-turny language, malapropisms, tricky turns of phrase, and both explicit and implicit commentary on the Swedish language, its racist uses, its relation to the anti-racist struggle, etc., and convey all that in English.

Two other points. One is that of late we're so inundated in this country with Swedish mysteries, suspense novels, detective novels, we're so overwhelmed with supposed evidence of that country's writers' excellence in this genre, that a deeply literary political novel that exposes some of the most important truths about the deeply racist horrors in that country is very very welcome. I'm grateful that this one was translated and published here, and I hope more of Khemiri's work soon will be. The other point, perhaps obvious but still needs to be said, I think, is that although Montecore is about a North African immigrant to Sweden and the racism he encounters there, it could just as easily be about the United States and immigrants here from any number of countries. Every word of it will ring true to anyone who has lived this experience, knows someone who has, or has the slightest awareness of the anti-immigrant racism that the U.S. ruling class has so assiduously whipped up over the last two decades or so. So Khemiri has, in my view, not only stripped away the lovely lies about lovely snowy Sweden, he has also provided an accurate assessment of commensurate horrors in the United States.

All in all, a powerful offering. It'll definitely be on my "best of" list for this year.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Against the Fourth of July with Eduardo Galeano

I've now read the magnificent Memory of Fire trilogy in its entirety, having finished Century of the Wind in time for this weekend's national celebration of jingoism, neocolonialism, militarism and mass murder. Thank you Eduardo Galeano, Uruguay's literary/historical gift to the world, for documenting the truth about U.S. imperialism and what it has done to the peoples of the Americas.

For U.S. imperialism, born two years before the turn of the 20th century, is necessarily the main focus of any honest treatment of the story of the Western Hemisphere in that century. Galeano is above all honest. So in this book he takes as his task, unpleasant to say the least though it must have been, to ferret out the hidden history and guide us step by step through what happened, when, where, to whom--by whom, at whose behest, funded by whom, these last questions leading always back to Washington and Wall Street.

As with the first two books in this series, Genesis and Faces and Masks, which I wrote about here and here, Century of the Wind consists of a series of vignettes ranging over all of Latin America and the Caribbean and occasionally touching down in the U.S. as well. Each is a small story about something that happened. Something that actually happened--at least one source for each is provided--yet about which something like 99 percent of the people in this country are unaware. Like the repeated U.S. invasions of Nicaragua. If you only count actual U.S. troops officially entering the country, that's happened eight times--yes, count 'em, U.S. soldiers have invaded the small Central American country of Nicaragua eight times. But of course the official admitted military incursions only tell half the story. If you also include "unofficial" U.S. invasion and occupation of Nicaragua--that is, by the National Guard, by paid U.S. mercenaries, by U.S.-paid Latin American mercenaries, by Latin Americans trained at the Pentagon-run School of the Americas a.k.a. School of the Assassins, and by private corporate-provided forces--the scope of the picture enlarges hugely.

Here's one example from the book. A vignette from 1909, headed with Galeano's typically mordant wit "Inter-American Relations at Work."
Philander Knox is a lawyer and a shareholder in the Rosario and Light Mines Company. He is also secretary of state of the United States. The president of Nicaragua, José Santos Zelaya, does not treat the company with due respect. He wants Rosario and Light to pay taxes. Nor does he respect the Church enough. The Holy Mother has judged him to be in sin ever since he expropriated her lands and suppressed tithes and first-fruits and profaned the sacrament of matrimony with a divorce law. So the Church applauds when the United States breaks relations with Nicaragua and Secretary of State Knox sends down some Marines who overthrow President Zelaya and put in his place the accountant of the Rosario and Light Mines Company.
Wow. Among the many striking things about just this single vignette are the fact that those profiting from the foreign companies robbing Nicaragua's resources were one and the same as those running the U.S. government. The fact that the Church was in complete cahoots with the imperialists. The fact that the U.S. intervention was brazen. The fact, which sort of blew my mind although I know it's mere coincidence, that exactly 100 years before the U.S. backed and engineered a coup that ousted a progressive president named Zelaya who was working to lessen the deep poverty of Honduras by redistributing agricultural land albeit on a modest scale, the U.S. had staged a coup against a president named Zelaya who was working toward similar reforms in the neighboring country of Nicaragua.

Another fact stands out. Along with the history of relentless exploitation, invasion, occupation, along with the mass graves and slaughtered Indigenous people and slave labor in mines and fields--there was also, always, resistance. There was always, as there today continues to be, organizing by the workers and poor. There were, as there are today, heroes. There were, as there will be again, revolutions. So in these pages we meet Sandino and Marti, Zapata and Villa, Torrijos and Bosch, Arbenz and Allende and Parra, and of course Che and Fidel and even Ethel and Julius, and many others whose names were less familiar to me who I'm grateful to Galeano for teaching me about.

On this July 4 weekend, reading Galeano spurs us to remember these additional facts:
  • The U.S. military has carried out over 144 "interventions" in Latin America and around the world.
  • The number of secret, hidden, unacknowledged interventions and those carried out by entities other than the official arms of the U.S. military reaches the thousands.
  • Today U.S. troops occupy Iraq and Afghanistan, and have killed over a million people in those countries. U.S. bombs rain down on Libya, Yemen and Somalia. The U.S. arms and funds the apartheid Israeli state's ongoing occupation of and war against Palestine. U.S. secret forces  kidnap, torture and murder unknown numbers of people via "extraordinary rendition" operations in an unknown number of countries. 
  • There are currently over 700 U.S. military bases around the world.
I love a backyard barbecue as much as the next gal. Ditto for the beach. Fireworks are pretty. Hooray for three-day weekends. But as you relax and enjoy, don't forget the truth and don't allow yourself to get swept up into this holiday's hypocritical celebrations. This country was founded and built on invasion and genocide against Indigenous people, kidnapping and chattel slavery of African people, wage slavery of workers, racism, union-busting, subjugation of women. Its riches derive to a great degree from all the invasions, interventions, occupations around the world a key part of whose history Galeano presents in Century of the Wind.

So no, don't support the troops. Fight to bring them home, all the hundreds of thousands of them. Don't fly or salute the flag: it is the symbol of U.S. imperialism, and regarded as such by our sisters and brothers around the world. Fly the red flag instead, the flag of solidarity, unity, class struggle and revolution.

And read the Memory of Fire trilogy. It'll help fire you up for the work that lies ahead.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The cultural crap heap

In a bad start to what I hope will be a relaxing three-day weekend, Teresa and I made the terrible mistake of renting the movie Burning Palms, written and directed by Christopher Landon. Stay away from this one! It's the most offensive piece of racist, misogynist and anti-gay--that's right, this pig managed a three-fer--cinematic trash I've seen since I don't know when. I don't want to spend much time and energy on it after losing almost two hours of my life to its utterly disgusting assault (and why did I, you might justifiably ask, to which I'd answer we kept looking at each other in disbelief, saying, oh come on, he's pulling our legs, he's building up to making some point, pitiful, right, but we were in denial, we just couldn't believe it could really be as horribly Nazi-ishly bad as it was), but I just have to make the record here. Burning Palms is a big bag  of cultural fascism.

Women who love to be raped, seek out their rapists and beg for more? Oh yeah, got it. Women who become deranged after a single instance of slightly kinky sexual acts and mutilate themselves? Sure, check it out. Women who upon being confronted by nasty affronts immediately crumble and commit suicide? Yeah, you like watching dead women, self-loathing women, women begging to be raped? Hey, this is the movie for you. While you're at it, take a quick trip to West Hollywood to gawk at the cartoonishly shallow simpering self-centered idiotic gay men to which stereotype Landon manages to attach an equally cartoonish racist depiction of an African child adoptee.

Hate women, gay people, people of color? Check out Burning Palms. Otherwise, stay the hell away from this stinking pile of shit.

If more evidence were needed for how desperately we need a ramped-up movement creating and promoting progressive people's art and stomping to its death the anti-people--especially the racist, anti-woman, anti-gay--so-called art beloved of the bourgeoisie, here it is.

Friday, July 1, 2011

I'm weak

Today was payday and in one week my vacation starts and well I'm a weak-willed human being unable to stick to my library-only resolution as I ever more frantically labor to amass a big old to-read pile from which to choose vacation books. To put it another way: I picked up some half-price titles at the Strand on my lunch hour today.

Now I'm admiring and caressing them:

Toxicology by Jessica Hagedorn 
The Major Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley
Ludlow by David Mason
The Radiant Way by Margaret Drabble
Riding the Trail of Tears by Blake M. Hausman
Leche by R. Zamora Linmark

Over the three-day weekend I'll probably finish (and possibly blog about) the novel I'm currently reading, Montecore-The Silence of the Tiger by Jonas Hassen Khemiri, a fantastic book. Then I've got piles upon piles to pick from next. How great is that?