Thursday, April 05, 2007

chains of history

When I was in college, I often experienced a sometimes overwhelming awareness of links between subjects I was studying. Come to think of it, this may be a personality trait – I have a constant need to connect my friends, too, whether they want to be connected or not.

That awareness has returned. Might be because I’ve adopted the practice of reading several books at once.

Last week I finished the most recent book in Sara Donati’s Wilderness series, Queen of Swords. It takes place in New Orleans, and she does a fantastic job of weaving together history and legend. She also pulls in threads of racial relationships, which was complicated by the interactions of whites, black slaves, free people of color, and native Americans. Slavery had already been a key element of the series (as it was in early American history) so it was no surprise to find it illustrated here.

Titine’s story was the hardest to read. I won’t spoil it, but I will say that Donati has a talent for depicting heartbreaking brutality in vivid, unflinching language.

There were other fascinating female characters, as there always are in Donati’s world. The darkly powerful Maman Zuzu, the alpha in a cabal of voudou priestesses, is a woman you absolutely don’t want to piss off. Creepy. Tantalizing. An earthly divinity.

After Into the Wilderness, Queen of Swords might well be my favorite of the series, simply due to the main character, Hannah Bonner, and Donati’s cultivation of such a rich, satisfyingly juicy ethnic environment.

But it ended (my husband was grateful, as I was losing sleep) and I went on to the next fiction on my list, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

American Gods is grand in scope, so it shouldn’t have surprised me to meet Mama Zuzu there, but it did anyway. And again, the brutality and sickening reality of the slave trade. I’d forgotten. Really, I had. As a child I went through a “Roots” phase – I was seven when the mini-series showed, and at some point I think I read the book. Kinda dovetailed onto the Gone with the Wind obsession, which included at least twenty re-reads. I’ll have to add Roots to the ever-lengthening reading list.

A chapter of American Gods is dedicated to Mama Zuzu’s fictional history – how she was sold into slavery, her life as a slave in Lousiana. The prelude to it speaks to ghosts that haunt me almost daily – how do I live, knowing that people are suffering all over the planet? How do I even manage to eat one bite of a perfectly boiled egg when I can imagine a woman just like myself on the other side of the world, who might still dream about eggs the day before she dies of hunger? How do I celebrate life when I am constantly overwhelmed by visions of death?

“We draw our lines around these moments of pain, and remain upon our islands, and they cannot hurt us. They are covered with a smooth, safe, nacreous layer to let them slip, pearllike, from our souls without real pain.

Fiction allows us to slide into these other heads, these other places, and look out through other eyes. And then in the tale we stop before we die, or we die vicariously and unharmed, and in the world beyond the tale we turn the page or close the book, and we resume our lives.”

(American Gods, p. 323, Harper Perennial, 2003)

This is the part that bothered me yesterday when I read it. We die unharmed? I don’t buy it. The places I go when I read sometimes seem more real to me than “the world beyond the tale” and heartbreak is heartbreak. It is neither difficult nor unrealistic to acknowledge that while the person who dies in a book does not exist in that name, another soul has walked the earth and experienced a life and death so close to the fictional person that any differences are subsumed by the reality of their suffering.

For me, fiction is another layer of reality. Crazy, I know, but there it is. To assume that a reader can walk away from a tragic fictional story without leaving a bit of soul behind is absurd. And strangely, I find myself as heartbroken by fictional death and suffering as I am by real-world histories. Because it’s all happened before, somewhere else, to someone else, and, according to some Buddhist theories of reincarnation, most of it has happened to me, too.

I don’t know how I could exist, soaked forever in that awareness. No doubt I’d end up in a padded cell. Thank God I’m not alone in this borderline insanity, you know?

Drawing that boundary around human catastrophe is not a matter of preserving a sense of comfort; it’s a matter of maintaining basic functioning sanity. And I don’t think I’m the only one who sees it that way.

I say it a lot, don’t I? Especially here. It does not do anyone any good for me to scream and cry and beat my head bloody against a wall. It might, however, do some good to choose to look at things as they were, as they are, and as they might be. Not to look away. That’s a start, anyway.

So along comes the first three chapters of A People’s History of America, by Howard Zinn. (SB recommended it over a year ago and I’m finally diving in.) It’s the teaching version, which I’m really digging because it has questions at the end of each chapter. Said questions are enlightening me on just how much stuff I gloss over when I’m reading. It’s embarrassing. I’ll have to unearth the notebooks after all.

First chapter is Columbus and the beginnings of the exploitation of Native American populations. Second chapter, race and slavery. Third chapter, indentured servitude. Three slim chapters to establish the disgraceful building blocks of colonial economy.

The second chapter, again, was a tough read. The facts of the matter are starkly presented. My mind pulled images from Queen of Swords and American Gods effortlessly to illustrate. This time, the questions at the end were a wake-up call. How much of the facts do I really remember? How much of my potential for clear-sightedness is dimmed out by attachment to emotion? (This is an attachment thing. I’m not pretending that emotions are bad – they’re not. Attachment to them, though, can be dysfunctional.)

Late last night I was chatting with Brian and we got onto the subject of… well, I can’t remember how we got around to it. I said that I was irrationally surprised to find out that the Dutch had been leaders in the slave trade.

“They still are,” he said.

“No way,” I said, remembering him messing with my head at dinner over the question of whether a peanut was actually a nut or a bean. “Prove it. What are your sources?”

“Pick. Up. A. Newspaper,” he said.

“I don’t read newspapers, you know that. And anyway it all depends on who’s writing the story, who edits it, and who prints it. Give me a context.”

“OK,” he said. “Research ‘diamonds.’”

“Oh,” I said. “Blood diamonds.”


So I’m researching. I thought of James, who has always kept this issue in the spotlight on his blog, having lived in Africa for a while. And while it would not surprise me to discover that there are some unscrupulous members of the Dutch diamond bourses – which seem to be the most prestigious in the world – I can’t say that it points the finger at a slave trade per se.

Although it occurs to me that exploitation and slavery don’t have to include transporting the victims from one country to another.

Well, hell. Over a thousand words and not a damn bit of sense in the whole thing.

High winds and chilly temperatures are back.

I managed to run a bit on Tuesday afternoon. I felt better than I had in weeks. I focus on the lower body and abs to take my mind off the shoulder and my under-used upper body.

I read Tim’s Ashtanga blog and I miss yoga practice. I know, it serves me right. But I miss backbends, and forward bends, and twists and… well, pretty much all of it.

This is turning out to be a hell of a long week.


(un)relaxeddad said...

Plenty sense is the Emily Dickenson chain-of-images mode. I loved American Gods as well but I can't help feeling that Gaiman's real achievements remain in comics - I haven't read a novel of his yet that really resonates in the way that Sandman did once it got into its stride. Still, Anansi Boys (Tricksters and Spider Gods ahoy!) is waiting for me as a reward when I finish my current stack of course reading and I am looking forward to it...

James said...

Ah, Africa my Africa.

Africa is a very troubled region to be sure. Outside of the middle-east I'd say it's next. An argument, however, could easily be made that Africa is the most troubled region. There are wars and genocide being committed all over the continent and not many are aware of it.

We write Africa off because they are poor and don't have anything we value. And when the west DOES find something it values (i.e. diamonds and other precious metals) in Africa we exploit their need for money and take it.

One of the big problems in Africa right now is in Congo. There has been a brutal civil war that has been going on there largely unnoticed by the rest of the world for 5 years.

While most of the fighting has ended there are militias (both govt connected and otherwise) who enslave the men, women and children of the rich in resource eastern region. Much of what they are mining are metals used in our game consoles, cell phones, iPods, laptops and on and on.

It makes me sick to my stomach when I have to use my cell phone or even typing right now on this computer.

This kind of slavery has been going on in Africa for a long, long time as you know. And after the slave trade colonialism continues today in the form of Neo-Colonialism.

When the colonial powers left these African countries they lent them money to "get on their feet" (knowing they had no way to pay these loans back) and these same countries are still in debt to them today--gaining interest.

All of this exploitation, war, inter-fighting, civil wars, etc. is even more painful knowing how beautiful, loving, kind and befriending the Africans can be (and usually are). They will literally give you the shirt off of their backs or invite you to eat with them right as you're walking by their home.

I left a piece of myself in Africa and hope one day to revisit. I have such great love and hope for that beautiful, complex and enriching continent.

May peace prevail there and everywhere.

I could go on and on but I've already written a novel. But you know how passionate I am about Africa!! Thanks for letting me play history and geography professor and lecture for a bit.


SB Gypsy said...

Hey maybe you're lucky, MY hubby keeps telling me he liked me better before I became obsessive about politics. He doesn't like it when I watch the news and yell and throw socks at the TV. Heh heh...

DeBeers- surely a good dutch name, never connected that before.

I must apologize, I haven't been assembling posts for you. I'm so bad at keeping up with email. This weekend for sure!!

James said...

Hey girl--where ya been?? I've been thinking about ya. I hope all is well. Send me an email when you get a chance. I started a new blog that you might be interested in. ;)

Sending you smiles...