Monthly Archives: September 2012

Tendai Mwanaka’s “Keys in the River”; A Note on Obama and the Hope for Political Dialogue

Almanac of the Dead, by Leslie Marmon Silko One character from Almanac of the Dead whom I didn’t mention the other day is Clinton, the African American Vietnam veteran and homeless man whose researches into the history of slave revolts in the Americas and the intermingling of African American and Native American peoples prove quite intriguing. While his personal hold on sanity might be precarious, he is a compelling character who brings a lot to the table. He is, in effect, the novel’s principal liaison between the indigenous of the American and African continents. A common motif in Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel is the African peoples’ retaking of their lands in the 20th century and their standing, thus, as an inspiration and a model for indigenous America’s eventual reclaiming of its own – as prophesied.

But to what end this liberation of African nations from their European overlords? Isn’t Africa today wholly a tale of ecological and human degradation, of continuing and continual bloodletting and mass starvation, of the mere replacement of white rulers for black tyrants? What does liberation mean in this context? Is the future a hopeful place at all or a recipe for despair?

Keys of the River, by Tendai MwanakaWith these questions in mind it was with considerable interest that I picked up Zimbabwean writer Tendai Mwanaka’s Keys in the River: Notes from a Modern Chimurenga, which the Hawaiian publisher Savant Books brought out this year. In these stories Mwanaka does indeed wade through a territory rife with atrocity and yet also humor, love, and resilience. Answers to the questions posed above are not directly given in these stories, but a hope that the African peoples will eventually find their way is at least suggested. These matters are difficult and complicated, to be sure, and unique from nation to nation; and likewise nothing comes easy in the starkly realistic world of these stories, though their harsh realities are leavened now and then by a romantic tone – bringing the work, at last, to a high note of hope and dignity.

For “dignity” the author might say “nobility.” In his prologue, explaining the significance of the word “chimurenga” (which most approximately means “struggle”), he comments in this way on the book’s theme: “Even when a people are faced with a chaotic and turbulent world due to the machinations of despotic leaders, the terror of ongoing pandemics, the chronic poverty stemming from poorly designed economies, the human heart continues to pump with courage, with conviction. A chimurenga, then, is not just a struggle but also a noble stance in the face of the struggle” (p. 1).

Tendai Mwanaka, Zimbabwean writerOne of the most affecting stories to me – and stunning in its effect – is “Limpopo’s Bones.” The Limpopo is a crocodile-infested river and one of the hurdles in illegal crossings between Zimbabwe and South Africa, the latter in a sense being to the United States what Zimbabwe is to Mexico. The bones, as we eventually discover, belong to an infant who is abandoned beside the river when this particular crossing goes bad. The protagonist is a young man who relates the wrenching story of what happened (and of his responsibility in it) during the time he was a sort of Zimbabwean counterpart to the Mexican “coyote” – “a Malaitshas, a border gangtster, helping people cross over to South Africa illegally” (p. 50). The story itself becomes witness to the ordinariness of the perpetrators of crimes against humanity whom we call Monsters – the evil-doing Other – while in fact they are just human beings much like us, only pushed by various combinations of fear and hate, cynicism and circumstance to commit their cruel acts (though the presence among them of sociopathy might not hurt either). At the same time the story puts a face on the so-called “illegal alien” of a portion of our political discourse in the USA.

How does one read such a story and still manage to see the average illegal crossers as merely criminal – for no other act at all than the crossing of the border itself, an act that people have been doing for millenia in response to the moment’s needs? What I am pointing out here is simply an illustration of Kenneth Burke’s notion of literature as persuasion to attitude.

Another story that took my breath away is the short piece “Breaking the Silence,” which deals, within this African context, with the problem of disappearances and death squads that has been so prevalent in Latin America. “In those days,” Mwanaka’s narrator says, “people were disappearing even in broad daylight” (p. 81). The horror of what occurs here to one young couple, the wife who is pregnant with what was to be their first child, is chilling. The horror that the story names is well expressed in this narrator’s phrase: “this terror, this monstrosity of patriotism” (p. 83). How safe are we ever, even in our land, from the violence of our own monstrosities of patriotism?

These stories of barbarities are broken up, thankfully, with stories about other things including love and even containing humor. The two most successful love stories, in my view, are an early story called “And She Said ‘Yes’” and a late one called “Hearts Are Victors”; these are the happiest, in any case, and very sweet. Of the predominantly humorous, the funniest is “Thus Far; No Further” which involves a nighttime raid by haughty boys to rescue their unjustly impounded cattle from the local mission’s enclosure. Against the spiteful nun and her acquiescent priest – those are who stand to profit by the usurious fines on an impoverished people’s straying cattle – the mischievous boys are triumphant. The little tale is itself quite charming.

The collection’s first story, “Sunset,” deals rather dramatically with the AIDS crisis as it affects one young man in particular. This story is directly tied to the last, “Sunrise,” which explores the experience of the girlfriend who might also be infected. These two stories in their unity, starting in tragedy, become a paean to hope that is also implied by the boys’ outwitting of their oppressors. The book ends, then, with this simple declarative sentence: “It was time to let tears run dry” (p. 243). Coming right after the joyous “Hearts Are Victors” the effect of this last story is very strong, and lends to the whole collection a sense of redemption.

This isn’t a perfect book. There is some linguistic awkwardness here and there, perhaps stemming from the author’s writing in a second language – though, on the whole, he writes very well. Some of the stories seem too heavy on the explication, which merges into a sometimes annoying moralizing – which in turn speaks to an occasional confusion, I think, between author and narrator (a confusion helped along by the introducing of a younger Tendai himself into two or three of the tales). But overall these are mere quibbles. The book strongly deserves a wide readership.


Believe, Obama and Political DialogueThe visual image and text that introduce this last segment come courtesy of my son, Jonathan, who posted it last week to his Facebook page. In this context – and I hope that the association with a book about one corner of Africa won’t encourage another round of birther madness; the forever re-asserting, alongside other baseless and racially-tinged conspiracy theories, of the disproven allegation that President Obama was born not in the state of Hawaii but in another corner of Africa – in this context it seems to me that regardless of whatever else anyone might rationally say against Obama he cannot be accused of an unwillingness to negotiate with the Republicans in Congress.

Perhaps his primary fault was just to keep believing – despite the open declaration of contempt for his authority and of a determination to see him fail – that they would compromise back.

What a sad commentary on the present state of the Republican Party!

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Leslie Marmon Silko and the Gift of Perspective

Note (11/13/19): The allusion below to “the episode of a sacred eagle hunt,” I mistakenly attribute to Silko’s novel Ceremony; in fact, it occurs in N. Scott Momaday’s Pulitzer-Prize winning House Made of Dawn, which I read at approximately the same time. I regret the error, and even more the tardiness of this correction. Author Leslie Marmon Silko A blurb for Native American writer Leslie Marmon Silko’s 1991 epic Almanac of the Dead compares it favorably to Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Indeed, having recently read her earlier novel Ceremony, I had a similar thought as I encountered the richly told episode of a sacred eagle hunt – which at the time I compared favorably to the famous fox-hunting scene in Tolstoy’s epic. Certainly, unless there is a more recent work that I don’t know about, this more recent novel is her masterpiece. And perhaps its central virtue, at this strange and terrifying political season, is its stunning rhetorical power to show us the present world through the eyes of its most disaffected and marginalized people – indigenous peoples of all the Americas and an unlikely assortment of the similarly aggrieved: a single mom coming off of a cocaine addiction and searching for a lost child; homeless Vietnam veterans both black and white; cyber- and eco-terrorists; drug and arms smugglers; humanitarian Catholic smugglers of Latin American refugees from anti-indigenous wars to the sanctuary of El Norte; to name a few.

This ability to see the world through the eyes of the Other – even that Other we find most obnoxious and, perhaps more to the point, threatening – is surely a vital skill in this time of competing absolutes and escalating (even apocalyptic) conflict; when, whether or not at the end of the day we share some of their perceptions, it might at least be helpful to know where they are coming from, to catch a glimpse of their humanity. The problem, otherwise, is that we are each always looking at the world through different lenses, informed by different prejudices and assumptions – and yes, even experiences – into intransigent and often violent and destructive postures of last resort.

Consider in this context the Republican Presidential candidate’s suggestion that the whole Israeli-Palestinian problem (which I have discussed in earlier blogs) is essentially unresolvable, that instead of trying we may as well just take a spectator’s seat and see what happens. Likewise the tendency of the principals’ in that conflict – Israelis and Palestinians both – to in their opposed struggles, as Nietzsche aptly warns us, become the monsters that they wish to destroy. Even as we exceptionalist United-States Americans, in an effort to protect ourselves from terrorists, may indeed risk becoming – as in some eyes we already seem to be! – a terrorist nation ourselves. See it imaginatively from the eyes of the child maimed (all or most of his family killed) in a drone strike on a traditional Afghan wedding, as has happened. If it were any of our wedding, imagine the hell to pay! Yet I wonder in this respect if Governor Romney thinks it treasonous speech, a crime against our own exceptionalism, to apologize for even such an accident of war? Not that President Obama, given the astronomical increase during his Administration in the number of U.S. drone attacks, might not himself be culpable.

But I digress. The focus here is on Silko’s novel, which as I commented possesses the not-always-appreciated virtue of showing exceptionalist America our world as perceived – rightly or wrongly or (more probably) a combination of the two – by the Other even among us.

Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon SilkoThe brunt of the action in Almanac of the Dead takes place in our American Southwest, with Tucson at its center, and in northern and southern Mexico. At dead center are the characters of Lecha and her sister Zeta; in particular Lecha, who has been assigned (by their plain-spoken eccentric grandmother Yoeme) to the sorting out and electronic storage of the papers of an immense book – or “almanac” – of indigenous America, with its convoluted and partial layering of history of the dead and prophecy for the living, present and future. The Indian grandmother and these twins, who are now in their sixties, originate in the Mexican state of Sonora, and the sisters are ensconced on a heavily fortified ranch outside of Tucson – at the center of a smuggling ring that has recently, under the guidance of Zeta, tended away from the smuggling of cocaine toward the more reliable profit maker which is military arms and weaponry.

But Lecha, who has just come home after a decades’-long career as a television psychic, is focused primarily on the almanac. Which emerges over the course of Silko’s novel in fits and starts and fragments.

Interspersed with all of this, and with a multitude of intense action that makes the novel quite a page turner, is a great deal of authentic history which reflects the years of intensive research that she put into the work. Particularly enlightening to me is the less than flattering view of the founding of Tucson, was built on the ill-gotten fruits of the long Apache Wars – directed at the legendary and in fact almost mythic figure of Geronimo. I came to a rich new understanding of the recent episode of the banning – by Tucson school authorities – of books from the Mexican American Studies program, which I also spoke of in an earlier blog; certainly a fair number of books exist – this one undoubtedly among them – that might seem threatening to an elite society built on a notion of white superiority (not to say “supremacy”), and that they would thus want to remain hidden: especially given continuous border tensions – and the fear of a migration of brown hordes from the South – that this novel brilliantly evokes.

But to return to the problem of point of view, and our urgent need to perceive much more than our own perceptions: one of the most sympathetic characters in this novel, it might surprise some readers to know, is the reforming cocaine-addled mother who is jarred out of her self-destructive complacency by the kidnapping (not by anyone unknown to her, it might be added) of her little child. This character, named Seese (I am not sure how to properly pronounce it), is present in the novel from its first page to almost its last, where she is still alive but shattered by a series of violent events and the realization that she will never again see that child. The point I would make about her, though – and of other stereotyped “welfare” moms (though there is no indication that she ever received a dime from the State), the vital point, I think, is to know that she, as others like her, has a personal history that (while this might not excuse her choices) has led her to the place she is; and is not oblivious to the sordidness from which she now struggles (not at all un-heroically) to arise.

This is something that I wish Governor Romney, who would stigmatize and disparage all Americans who presently struggle in their various ways, would give some thought to. It doesn’t appear that he has an accurate notion of what it’s like for people who struggle from day to day just to keep or find jobs; to keep their houses from foreclosing; to keep or acquire medical insurance; to send their kids to college; to go to college without drowning in debt for the privilege; to live a meaningful life and find a little tranquility before dying. Nor does it appear that he has considered that a person who plays by all the rules and takes personal responsibility and only takes what he has earned might somehow end up falling through ever widening cracks. Certainly not the likes of someone like Seese who might still, despite all her failings, have a right – granted by our nation’s wealth and by our supposed state of civilization – to at least shelter over her head and medical care.

As for Leslie Marmon Silko’s wonderful book, it well deserves the designation of a Native American War and Peace and will likely resonate more powerfully to today’s readers. At 763 pages it is long (so are some extremely popular books by the likes of Stephen King and J.K. Rowling) but it reads well and for the most part swiftly. Not always a pleasant or consoling read, but almost always enlightening. And which does end – at least to those willing to take a long view and cry with the world’s multitude of fellow sufferers – on a hopeful note.

Above all, to me, it is a powerful example of what Kenneth Burke calls literature’s rhetorical power to persuade to attitude. It teaches us, it is true, how not to live, but also how to live with dignity and a higher purpose. Even through the perspective of people (as if we all weren’t!) so richly and variously flawed.