Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Jaguar's Children

I just read an extrarodinarily good book, and I had to head right over here to Read Red to offer a heads-up: read it!

The book is The Jaguar's Children, a novel by John Vaillant. It gripped me from the first sentence, and as is so rarely the case (you'd be amazed how many books I start and stop, deeply disappointed, initial pages' promise betrayed soon enough), it never let go. So yes, this is a page turner, a very fine one, and purely in terms of its writerly quality it deserves praise. But it is much more than a well-written, well crafted story.

It is in a sense a horror story, the most horrifying kind, rooted in reality. Most important, and the reason my reaction lands here on Read Red rather than meriting just a five-star rating in my Goodreads account, The Jaguar's Children is a political novel that takes on a very important issue, or really two important issues.
  •  The plight of undocumented Central American migrants trying to reach the United States
  • The conditions at home that drive them to the desperate decision to migrate
With the first, Vaillant makes a needed contribution. At this moment in the U.S. presidential election campaign season, the leading Republican has made anti-immigrant demagoguery, specifically anti-Mexican racist demagoguery, the centerpiece of his candidacy. The leading Democrat mouths soothing platitudes but her record as secretary of state bulges with crimes including support of the right-wing coup in Honduras and subsequent death-squad reign of terror, invasion and virtual destruction of Libya, endless drone-bomb murders in Pakistan and the region, and of course working hand in hand with the chief executive deporter-in-chief in vicious, cruel, racist mass deportations of adults and children to Central America in unprecedented numbers.

The way Vaillant depicts the situation is simple and devastating. He takes us inside a truck, a sealed water tanker, that has driven across the border from Mexico into the U.S. The truck blows a tire in the Arizona desert. The truck's driver and the coyote who has charged exorbitant fees to the dozens of people hidden and sealed in the empty water tank abandon the vehicle along with the human beings trapped within. We are inside with them via the voice of one of them: Hector, who uses his friend Cesar's phone to dial the only U.S. number on the phone and leaves a series of voicemail messages to seek help, to narrate the experience in the truck as hour by hour hope trickles away, and to tell how he and Cesar came to be there.

It's this last, the back story, that provides the novel's political heft. In fact it's a beautiful example of the way fiction can, by telling one or two characters' individual tales, explicate and illuminate large, broad swaths of history, of political developments, of the class struggle, of the national question, of imperialism. Vaillant does so here, with great skill and sensitivity, and with full depth of feeling, full dimension allotted to the characters. The reader learns much about Mexico over the last century and more, and about what has happened to the lives of the Indigenous peoples in that country. Finally, and this for me is the key to how beautifully this novel accomplishes what I always yearn for a novel to do, the story comes full circle as the flashbacks build to a climax and we learn why Cesar had to flee. The villains: NAFTA, U.S.-based agribusiness, and their Mexican comprador-bourgeois accomplices. There's a lot packed in here, and, miraculously, it works.

If you google the phrase "Mexican immigrants die in truck" you'll come up with roughly 16 million results. The heart breaks. As it will reading this book. Which is good, for the world's workers--especially the tens of millions on the move, forced to migrate by U.S.-imperialist bombs and invasions and wars and occupations, U.S.-imperialist trade and agricultural wars, and the worldwide U.S. and other imperialist exploitation of resources and labor--need and deserve the fellow feeling of those of us who live in the U.S. and other imperialist centers. But it's nowhere near good enough if you close a book like this, your heart broken, and that's that. The ultimate worth of this kind of novel is measured by the action it arouses. In this case, it's a call to stand in solidarity with migrant workers, to fight the fascist Trump movement, to act against the deportations.

How? It's a no-brainer. May Day is coming up, and May Day 2016 is the tenth anniversary of the great national uprising that was May Day 2006, a.k.a. A Day Without Immigrants, when much of this country was virtually shut down by an immigrant workers' general strike. Here's the poster for this year's action in New York City. New Yorkers, I'll see you there. Everyone else, check out your city's event.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Have they run out of insensitive racist idiocy yet? Well no

I'm a few days late noting this because I was out of town--in San Antonio, doing a novel reading--but now that I've seen it I have to take it up. You see, Calvin Trillin, longtime New Yorker food writer as well as novelist and doggerelist, wrote a poem. Of sorts. A two-stanza verse that he obviously thought was all in darned good fun, with which misjudgment the magazine's editors apparently concurred, for they published it in the April 4 issue.

The title: "Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?" The conceit, such as it is: a U.S. gourmand ruminates about Chinese food. The result, in the words of Paula Young Lee writing in Salon: "a racist nursery rhyme." 

I can do nothing better than point you to Lee's piece for a fine takedown of Trillin and his casually white-North-American-bourgie-foodie-centric "humor." And to suggest that you also follow some of her links, as I did, to a number of terrific takedowns of Trillin and his ilk, including these two brilliant ones:

You can also check out "The World Is Our Oyster Sauce--A Twitter Poem Inspired by Calvin Trillin."

And finally, this from the Asian American Writers' Workshop: "We're in the Room, Calvin Trillin."

Saturday, April 9, 2016

PEN's latest odious offense

I'm no fan of PEN America, an organization of the U.S. corporate publishing establishment that purports to champion literary liberty but actually operates for the most part as a  bourgeois-liberal mouthpiece of U.S. imperialism. Wielding its heartiest denunciations against socialist countries. Aligning itself with vile racist anti-Muslim journalism. Generally letting U.S. and allied political imprisonment off the hook. I've written about this several times in earlier years on this blog. Most recently here, and here, in 2013, when misogynist extraordinaire Philip Roth was awarded for his aid to counterrevolution in Czechoslovakia.

So count me as unsurprised, though nonetheless appalled, at PEN's latest offense. The organization lists the Embassy of Israel as one of the "champions"--a level of sponsorship, no doubt financial--of the upcoming 2016 incarnation of its annual World Voices Festival. The apartheid state's embassy appears on the festival program a second time as "sponsor" of one of the author panels.

This outrage--featuring as a sponsor, which is in effect a promotion or advertisement, the U.S. representative of a government whose hallmarks are racism, torture, political imprisonment, denial of all basic human rights to the indigenous Palestinian nation, an apartheid settler state, a government that is in its very essense everything this fake-pro-freedom organization claims to oppose--has been noted. A few days ago a letter headlined "Don't Partner with the Israeli Government: Israeli Government Is No 'Champion' of Freedom of Expression" was sent to the PEN American Center. The letter calls on PEN to "reject support from the Embassy of Israel," and goes on to list some of the Zionist state's offenses.
 Join Alice Walker and Sign This Letter
Besides Alice Walker, long a strong supporter of the Palestinian struggle, signers include acclaimed Palestinian author Susan Abulhawa, Junot Diaz, Angela Davis, Max Blumenthal, Hari Kunzru, Sarah Schulman, China Mieville, Kamila Shamsie, Randa Jarrar, Richard Ford, Marilyn Hacker and many other writers and poets. More names are being added daily. I signed. Writers: add your name as well. Here's the letter, with info about signing on.