Category Archives: social justice

The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse

In a system of free trade and free markets poor countries – and poor people – are not poor because others are rich. Indeed, if others become less rich the poor would in all probability become still poorer. 

First we have the epigraphs: the first (quoted above) is by Margaret Thatcher; the second is by Bernold Brecht and refers to cities, disorder, hunger, uprising, and revolution, among other things.

‘It looks impossible to get out,’ he says. And also: ‘But we’ll get out.’

Then it’s the above opening sentences. And with that, we are ushered into this novel’s strange, allegorical world–an utterly haunting fairytale that I am unlikely to forget anytime soon. This is a short, intense, incredibly creepy read that deserves all of the attention and acclaim it can get and more.

What is this book about? Two brothers, named Big and Small, are trapped at the bottom of the well. They have a bag full of food for their Mother that they refuse to touch (dates, bread). They try to escape but fail. The older brother makes a plan. Days pass, as denoted by the numbers at the beginning of each chapter. They eat grubs, roots, and worms, and drink from puddles of rainwater. Big develops an exercise routine to develop his muscles and helps himself to more of the food, while Small wastes away (both mentally and physically). Sometimes they have to chase away wolves crowding around the edge of the well by throwing stones at them. At one point there is a drought. At another point they catch a bird. There is a peculiar balance between the straightforward language of everyday survival that reminded me of An Evil Cradling (the memoir about the Lebanon hostage crisis), and between hallucinatory, dream-like visions straight out of Can Xue.

But what is this book really about? Certain passages point towards certain readings:

In his dream the well is big like a city. Some say the citizens are all starving because the land exhausted itself. Small can’t recall life outside of the well, but Big is older than him and remembers.

‘They needed space up there,’ he answers whenever Small asks why they live in such a rotten place.

‘Are there many of them up there?’

‘No, very few of them.’

‘So above is small?’

‘No. It’s very big.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Up there is where they hold the power.’ (22)

Is this about terrorism? Revolution? Violence? War? Refugees? Poverty? The 99%? The fact that I can ask so many questions is a testament to this book’s power. What does it mean that the chapters are prime numbers, denoting the number of days spent by the boys in their prison? What about the fact that at one point the well is compared to ‘an empty pyramid with no tip’? And what on earth are we to make of the fable Small tells about the titular boy who stole Attilla’s horse, who made shoes out of the hooves and killed the grass wherever he set foot? And how when he took the shoes off his feet were ‘clean, unmarked; they even smelled good’? (53) Is the title a metaphor for those who live in comfort, destroying everything for their benefit and happiness? A ‘those’ in which we are all implicitly implicated, like it or not? To use a Titanic metaphor–it’s not that some of us are in lifeboats and we ought to help those who are struggling. It’s that we are all on the Titanic together, and for all of the desire of some of us located on the top deck to “help” those in the lower decks, the reality is that we need them to do the work they’re doing in order for us to maintain what we have. I’m reminded of George Orwell, writing about coal mining in The Road to Wigan Pier:

Watching coal-miners at work, you realise momentarily what different universes different people inhabit. Down there where coal is dug it is a sort of world apart which one can quite easily go through life without ever hearing about. Probably a majority of people would even prefer not to hear about it. Yet it is the absolutely necessary counterpoint of our world above. Practically everything we do, from eating an ice to crossing the Atlantic, and from baking a loaf to writing a novel, involves the use of coal, directly or indirectly. For all the arts of peace coal is needed; if war breaks out it is needed all the more… Whatever may be happening on the surface, the hacking and shoveling have got to continue without a pause.

…And even now, if coal could not be produced without pregnant women dragging it to and fro, I fancy we should let them do it rather than deprive ourselves of coal. But most of the time, of course, we should prefer to forget that they were doing it. It is so with all types of manual work; it keeps us alive, and we are oblivious of its existence. More than anyone else, perhaps, the miner can stand as the type of the manual worker, not only because his work is so exaggeratedly awful, but also because it is so vitally necessary and yet so remote from our experience, so invisible, as it were, that we are capable of forgetting it as we forget the blood in our veins. In a way it is even humiliating to watch coal-miners working. It raises in you a momentary doubt about your own status as an “intellectual” and a superior person generally. For it is brought home to you, at least while you are watching, that it is only because miners sweat their guts out that superior persons can remain superior.”

So yeah, a lot of thoughts and ideas and themes came up for me when reading this. Narrating the story like a fairy tale (ambiguous time and place) and keeping it short, simple and readable was a wise aesthetic choice by the author. The focus on the boys’ youth, and the grooming of Small by Big, reminded me a lot of The Buried Giant. The focus on physical suffering and mental deterioration made me think of A Little LifeBy the end of the book we’re not sure whether to feel empowered or doomed, and it’s the ambiguity of that situation that ends up resonating strongest.

Small asks unnecesarry questions:

‘Why are we here?’

‘Is this the real world?’

‘Are we really children?’

Big never answers. (50)

Again–I’m not going to forget this book anytime soon. It’s the kind of thing that lingers. Especially the scene where the brothers come to a decision about what to do with the dead bird. Or the part where the mother’s bag full of food reappears. Or when Small invents hole-appropriate forms of art and culture (what a hallucinatory scene!). Or the final words that Big speaks to Small–his last instructions.

This is Iván Repila’s second novel, and first to be translated into English (by Sophie Hughes, who does an excellent job–I’d love to read the original Spanish for the aphasia sequence). I can’t wait to see what either of them does next. You can read an excerpt from the opening here, in the forever excellent Quarterly Conversation. Thank god for literature like this in the world–concise, untraditional and uncompromising.

‘Once we are up there, we’ll throw a party.’

‘A party?’


‘The kind with balloons and lights and cakes?’

‘No. The kind with rocks, torches and gallows.’ (23)

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Filed under books, poverty, review, social justice

More names

Faces and names from Woodburn that I want to write about, but haven’t figured out how to yet (the names have all been changed):

– Rosita, the main lady who cooked for us. So cuddly and huge and welcoming. Reminded me of my nanny from Colombia, in the way she frowned at and ordered the kids of the local community around. “Jonathan, no seas tan cocino!” (Jonathan, don’t be such a piggy!) she would scold Gemma’s youngest son, after he threw yet another enormous palm-full of barkchips at me. “Julie you forgot to lock the door!” she would constantly cry out at me, after I came close to leaving yet again without properly closing the community center. She cried after every single group of volunteers left and insisted on hugging each teen one by one. “She’s kind of like everyone’s mom,” one of the teens said, and I had to agree, and not just because of her fabulous cooking. In the little first day introductory ritual, in which the group of brand new volunteers would go around in a circle and say their names and what their dreams were (so reminiscent for me of working for Kiva and asking that unavoidable end of the interview question: “so what are your hopes and dreams?”), Rosita said that her dream was to take ESL and computer classes and get her GED.

— Nine-month pregnant Gemma from Oaxaca. She was still going out into the field to pick up until a week ago. “Gemma es una brava para pescar los blueberries,” Rosita told me; Gemma is a real kick-ass at blueberry picking. In the four hours they worked, Rosita made $10, Gemma picked a whole pint (I can’t remember how much she made). Blueberries are apparently some of the hardest fruits to pick, with strawberries and cucumbers being the worst. She’d lived in Oregon for about three years, two and a half of those in a crowded house with fourteen other people (most of whom used drugs) with an alcoholic husband who beat her. She eventually left with her three kids after hearing an add on the radio about local farmworker housing services. One of her eyes was half-closed all the time–a problem with the lid? “Es una cosa muy linda, lo que estas haciendo,” she told me at the end of one week, and it meant more to me than anything written on the end of the week review sheets. Gemma’s dream was for her kids to have office jobs and “not work in the fields like me, since I want them to have a better life and not suffered like I have, since the work es duro… muy duro.”

— Jonathan, Gemma’s two year old son. Supposedly very shy and a total momma’s boy, followed Gemma EVERYWHERE. Once he got in awful trouble for getting into her bathroom and messing up all her soaps and shampoos and creams and things, pouring them all over the mirror. Whenever Gemma would ask him “Quieres un bebe, Jonathan?”, pointing at her belly, he would shake his head emphatically and bellow “NO!” No was his favorite word. “Jonathan, don’t you want to come live with me in Portland?” I would say. “You can live with me in my house and we can go to the zoo and ride on the Max! Wouldn’t that be fun, Jonathan?” His eyes would gradually growing more confused, then fearful, then finally angry, and then it would come: “NO!”

–Magdalena with her long braid from Oaxaca and her huge family: husband, daughter, daughter’s husband, daughter’s son, teenage son, teenage daughter (who was gorgeous!). They mostly spoke Mixteca with each other. Crazy to imagine having to learn to speak Spanish as a 2nd language, on top of English!! They all used to live in one of the labor camps we visited but finally moved to the affordable housing unit three months ago, as their squalid, cramped living conditions was considered to be the state of an emergency. “Oh, esta bueno,” she would say to anything I ever asked her or commented upon. “Is it okay if we send some volunteers to take showers in your place?” “Man, I really messed up my foot day.” “I ate so much… I’m sooo full!” (the most common). Magdalena’s dream was to get papers for her and her family. They used to be corn farmers but immigrated to the U.S. when they were unable to make enough money to feed themselves there. I asked the husband of her daughter what was the trick to good blueberry picking. After laughing for a bit at the absurdity of the question, he opened and closed his hand like a claw. “Es en los manos,” he said, it’s in the hands.

–Maria, whose job was (in her own words) to “arrange grapes so that they look pretty.” She always dressed real tough, in rubber black boots and dirty pants, maybe because every time I saw her she had just returned from the field. She had three sons, Jesus, one whose name I can’t remember and baby Bryan, who was ALWAYS crying for some reason or the other. Mostly when she took her cellphone away from him, so that he couldn’t watch streaming youtube videos of “Freddy vs. Jason” on the Internet, or when his popsicles would fall on the ground.

— Ernesto and Chui, Rosita’s sons. Chui was chubby and into break-dancing, teaching afternoon classes at the local education center. The kids performed for us several times and were pretty damn bendy–I’m approaching two years of taking yoga classes now and am still nowhere CLOSE to being as flexible as these eight-year-olds (a bit discouraging, to say the least!). Ernesto was stoic and withdrawn but still smiled and make jokes with us every once in a while. He was always helping his mom out in the kitchen, most notably barbecuing the meat for the Saturday night despedida lunch of tacos de carne asada. He was almost deported yesterday when he got stopped by a cop on a motorcyle (Woodburn has increased its police presence this weekend, thanks to the three-day Mexican cultural fiesta it’s hosting) for talking on his cellphone. The car got towed since he was found to owe over $1,200 in ticket fees (from two tickets with accumulated late fees he could never afford to pay) and driving on a suspended licence. The car is basically gone since they obviously don’t have the $640 necesarry to pay to get it back (not to mention the ticket fees). Now he and Rosita can’t go to Astoria to see about a potential job in a cannery on Monday, since they no longer own a car. When Rosita told me this story, I felt upset enough to the point of feeling deeply depressed about the fucked up, ruthless cycle of poverty, but then when I saw how not-as-upset she was, I slowly started to see things from her perspective: all she lost was her car, as opposed to her son, you know?

There’s a couple more. To be continued, maybe, just so that I won’t forget.

In book-reading news, I’ve been reading Ricardo Piglia (finished the short story collection Assumed Name and started the novel The Absent City) and am really enjoying him… especially the Roberto Arlt/Borges fanboy homages!


Filed under Dear Diary, Mexico, perspective, social justice, update

when and where words fail

Reading this book (Stephen Dudley’s Walking Ghosts: Murder and Guerilla Politics in Colombia) was both depressing and exhilarating, which I guess is a good a phrase as any for encapsulating the Colombian experience.

The other week I was sitting with some co-workers by a pool and they began clamoring for me to tell them a story. “Una his-to-ria! Una his-to-ria!” they chanted, banging the white plastic table with their hands and almost knocking over the empty beer cans. I desperately tried to think of something, but unsurprisingly it was mildly difficult, being put on the spot like that. I replied (much to their chagrin) that I would get back to them once I had thought of something. For the rest of the evening, I kept trying to think of what story I could tell. Something about my childhood, about what it was like to grow up in Colombia? About what it was now like being back, in a vaguely “adult”-like role? What stories did I have about Colombia? Words seemed to fail me.

The one classic anecdote I keep referring to, again and again, as it’s the one that seemed to induce the most raised eyebrows and exclamations of surprise among my fellow college freshmen or CTY classmates, is that of the mafiosos that lived across the street from our house, behind the giant stoned walls. They had a collection of exotic pets, including a peacock, a spider monkey (it once attacked some guests that were arriving for a dinner party at my parents’ house, and (at one point) a lion that roared. All of these animals seem paltry compared to Pablo Escobar’s collection of exotic animals, especially the tragic anecdote of Pepe the “narco” hippo. (Fortunately, his companion Orion seems to be alive and well.) To me, the story of Pepe captures the fundamental spirit of Colombia, the weird mixture of absurdity and violence that’s difficult to summarize.

This is a very well-written, excellently researched book, albeit with a devastating conclusion. To put it simply, this book is about the creation of the Union Patriotica, a political party that was meant to intergrate the FARC into the mainstream political process, thus enabling the guerrilla forces to lay down their arms. However, due to a systematic extermination of party members (by government, paramilitary and narco forces alike, sometimes all three working together at the same time), the FARC ended up retreating further into the jungle and the mountains and there’s the situation as we know it today. The FARC now exists solely as a military endeavor with no political aspirations to speak of. The conclusion is depressing because we’re left with the feeling that there really is no end in sight to Colombian violence. The FARC can now use the UP as justification as to why they could never reform into a political party, and thus the armed struggle (financed by kidnapping and narco trafficking) is the only one that will work (even at the time of the UP extermination, it seemed to be in the interest of some FARC leaders for UP members to be murdered, because it would further justify the need for a guerrilla army). What’s worse is that Colombia is left without a genuine third party alternative, and instead it’s just an endless recycling of Liberal vs. Conservative candidates, the established oligarcy (though I guess I don’t see how this is all that different from the U.S.).

The current political situation in Colombia is one I’m still trying to understand, after years of ignoring it more than I should have. I first heard the word “guerrilla” on the kindergarten playground, when one of my childhood playmates commented matter-of-factly that she could hear the “guerrilla fighting” around her finca (or rural farm that most rich/middle-class Colombians own). My head was filled with images of gorrillas beating their chests and baring their teeth, like I’d seen in images on the Betamax tapes my grandma mailed use from the States.

Dudley does a good job at filling me in. Throughout the book he has a mouth-watering access to sources that range from revered Communist party members, high-ranking FARC generals and paramilitary leaders. The main thing I kept thinking while reading of this book was “why the heck didn’t we learn any of this in Colmundo?” (our senior year Colombian history class) The main thing I remember about that class is desperately memorizing timelines and years in which presidents were elected. There’s a part near the end of this book in which the intrepid author/reporter speaks with some younger-generation Colombianos about the Union Patriotica (the political party started by FARC members; the “political genocide” of party members is the book’s primary subject matter), only to be greeted with blank faces. “To them, the UP was little more than an asterisk in a book, a brief mention in a newspaper article, a segue in a lecture.” (180) And this attitude only ten years after the UP presidential candidate was murdered by a “suizo” (suicide) assasin in the Bogota airport! Those blank faces could have easily been mine before reading this, and possibly any of my high school classmates. That… that’s sad. Dudley astutely points that that “in most countries, a politically motivated assasination would have been front-page news.” (180) Here he seems to be approaching the core of Colombia’s culture or attitude towards violence: there’s just so much of it, at a certain you just go numb and start blotting it out.

Dudley also gives excellent historical context to Colombia’s violent, politically troubled history. It left me wanting to read a straightfoward history book about Colombia; strangely enough there’s not a lot of them out there. It’s especially interesting to think about the “dirty war” of the paramilitaries in Colombia in the context of the other “dirty wars” going on at the time in Central American countries such as El Salvador and Guatemala. Sometimes it feels like my generation (or maybe it’s just me) keeps forgetting how strong and prevalent the “fear of Communism” was in the 50’s and 60’s. It seems utterly surreal and bizarre to me, but it was a very, very present fear and preocupation in those days, the communists vs. the capitalists. There’s interesting discussions throughout the book of Marxism vs. Stalinism. “The principle of Marxism is that there is incessant change; everything is in movement… Marx said don’t try to accomodate reality to the theory; do the opposite. But Stalin, he decided to make Marx a religion.” (229) Thus everything becomes very dogmatic with Stalinism. One of the problems with the FARC seems to be is that the y chose Stalinism over Marxism, leading to very rigid policies and little room for adaptability to current situations (i.e., taking into account that they’re murdering the campesinos they’re supposedly fighting for).

Much is made in this book of Colombia’s long and troubled history of violence. Dudley consistenly muses on how “what’s amazing is that the majority of UP militants seemed to accept these initial fatalities as part of the business of doing politics in Colombia.” (93) It made me think of The Hurt Locker, a movie that I haven’t really thought about since seeing it last year, and its troubling depicton of war and violence as addictive. That war-as-drug theme feels a lot more real to me after reading this book.

Colombia’s history of violence also made me think about 10th-grade AP Politics class, doing research about the UK, and learning that they didn’t actually have a written constitution (I hope I’m remembering this correctly). As in, the only basis for government decision is not based on anything officially written down, but simply what’s always been down in the historical precedent. There are weird echoes of the power of historical tradition in Colombia. Apparently the Colombian constitution is considered one of the most liberal in Latin America, guaranteeing equal and sovereign rights for indigenous groups, but what actually happens vs. what is written is dramatically differently when you have nearly two centuries worth of politically-based murder (the UP was guaranteed protection by the government in the Constitution, but look how well that turned out).

Another reason to treasure this book is the trove of surreal anecdotes, so completely and utterly and indescribably Colombian. There’s the FARC commander who carries a pendulum around and uses it to make all his decisions, as well as to if his food is poisoned. There’s the surreal detail about the FARC buying its weapons from the “neighborhood store” in Bogota, during its lean early years. There’s the mega concert that takes place in FARC territory, in which the rebels provide concert security Hells Angel-style (some of them carrying cameras instead of rifles), and the controlers of the “legendary water cannons” take “special care not to wet the guerrillas” while drenching the attendees. (174) Or there’s the visit Dudley pays to a Communist party member who’s on an extreme diet with his wife and they both ogle Dudley’s huevos pericos, before relating an anecdote about finding an old buried cementery with his father in the middle of a parking lot. (185)

My favorite character in this book was Sebastian, maybe because he reminded me of myself, or of a boy I could have easily had a crush on in high school: skinny, idealist, intellectual. He talks about his years as a FARC and UP militant the same way most people talk about their college experiences. calling it the best five yars of his life: “It was like I entered the real world, you know… It was like I’d gotten a graduate degree in defending the people who were getting ***ed by the establishment.”  The early days of the FARC in the 1980’s, back when it still held romantic appeal for many, is paralleled with Sebastian’s own youth, who was in “the prime of his life” during the years in which he organized theatre performances and taught FARC soldiers math and birth control methods (just for the record, telling a girl to swallow an uncooked lentil is not a viable form of birth control). His decline is paralleled with that of the FARC’s political idealism: by the book’s end, he’s selling “miniature replicas of famous Colombian churches that his neighbor made from clay,” living in a tiny apartment and struggling with alcoholism, much in the manner of a traumatized Vietnam vet. There’s a Bildingsroman novel in the style of El juguete rabioso lurking in here somewhere…

The most heartbreaking sections in this book (among many) are those that detail the slaughter the ordinary people of who made up the UP party: at a certain point the typical members became “young, energetic, idealistic… most of all, anti-war,” (134), people who could just as easily be you or me. Young university students, mayors of rural towns who wanted to pave their roads, people who didn’t like the way things were going. Imagine if you could get shot/raped/tortured for voting for Nader, and you might have a rough approximation of what it’s like to be a supporter of third-party politics in Colombia.
The sections about the paramilitaries are especially eerie and fascinating to read. There’s strong echoes of Blackwater (which I’m going to have to read more about) in the U.S. dealings with the paramilitary groups in Colombia. There’s a terrifying passage in which paramilitaries discuss how they’ve been hired to protect “business interests” in Colombia, particulary those of international companies (some of those listed include Texaco, whose name pops up again and again in this book in relation to narco and p.m. groups, Coca Cola, and Chiquita. This is the part that really freaked me out, drawn from Dudley’s interview with a famed p.m. leader:
“By working closely with U.S.-trained troops and protecting U.S. business interests, Castano seemed to be sending a message to what he liked to call ‘our neighbors to the north.’ He loved the United States. After Colombia, it was his favorite country. He dreamt of living there and studying sociology. He also admired the way the U.S. took charge of its own security… it was a feeling that many Colombians shared.” (201)
This is a guy that led close to ten thousand soliders, was heavily involved in narco trafficking and helped eliminate an entire political party, including a presidential candidate. There’s another paramilitary who’s particulary Bolano-esque, getting involved in the rare art trade, forging relationships with the world’s cultural and economic elite, and traveling frequently to galleries in New York and Paris. The relationship between dirty politics/wars and arts left me with a strong icky feeling, like I needed to take a shower.

Dudley frequently touches upon the bizarre Colombian tendency to forgive the paramilitaries for their actions and exonerate them for their crimes. As one judge puts it (re: the,) “At least they have some ideals. They’re fighting the guerrillas. Yeah, sometimes they do things they shouldn’t. But whatever.” (204) Dudley goes into more depth with his analysis of Colombian political culture in one particulary striking passage:

“Colombia’s politics has been called ‘the politics of anesthesia.’ There is so much death that people simply turn it off; they stop feeling. You see it in politicians that disreguard death threats. You see it in wealthy city dwellers who ignore the increasing poverty and murder in the countryside. You see it in the newspapers who bury the constant reports of massacres, bombings, and combat. The anesthesia only wears off when they’re directly affected by the war or when someone prods them with a stick. I would get berated by Colombians who thought international journalists were “only showing the bad side.” What other side was there? I would ask. But then, after a while, I understood why they had gotten angry with me. What choice do they have? This is their country, and the easiest way to deal with the everyday violence is to ignore it.” (180)

Yeah. This sounds like my childhood in a nutshell. There’s a certain point where art, where words, where reporting seems to just plain fail. While interviewing UP party members with family members that had been assasinated, Dudely succintly wraps up the section with a simple observation: “Others told similarly horrifying stories. There’s not enough room in one book to write them down.” (190) I guess at a certain point, words just fail you.

Mostly, the feeling I’m left with after reading this book is overwhelming sadness, at how violence begets violence. As one of the Communist party members who were integral to the formation of the UP  puts it, “Violence has its own dynamic, its own engine that can lead to the destruction of its very promoters. Violence escapes from the grasp of those who use it. It’s like a snowball that ends up finishing off everything. That’s why I’m decidedly against taking justice into your own hands.” (229)

And then in face of all the turmoil and havoc this book depicts, there’s my family. I kept turning to Corey while reading this and saying “I can’t believe that my parents stayed in Colombia for so long!!” Talk about putting a fresh perspective on things. I guess they managed to do so by living the way they did: a quiet, low-key lifestyle. I remember what I LOVED about CTY nerd camp sessions in the U.S. was those group trips where you walk through downtown Baltimore or wherever to the record store or to get an ice cream. Yeah, it sounds overdramatic, but it felt like a huge deal to me just to be able to walk through a city. There was an incredible sense of FREEDOM and LIBERATION when I went to college in the U.S. that I haven’t really thought about in a while, mainly because I’ve come to take it for granted. But I can’t blame my parents for that isolation, you know? There’s children in this book who spend their lives living behind giant walls, politicians that have seventy bodyguards. Maybe someday I’ll figure out how to put these stories together in a coherent form, to make them make sense.

Other books this book made me want to read:

Blackwater: the Rise of the World’s most Powerful Mercenary Army by Jeremy Scahill
Killing Pablo by Mark Bowden
The Making of Modern Colombia: A Nation in Spite of Itself by David Bushnell (what a title, huh?)
More Terrible Than Death: Massacre, Drugs and America’s War in Colombia by Robin Kirk (Dudley cites this one especially)
Colombia: Inside the Labyrinth by Jenny Pearce (published in 1990, might be dated)


Filed under books, colombia, non-fiction, social justice

quotes from “the omnivore’s dilemma”

I’m in Colombia and have been for exactly one week today. It went by awfully fast–if my experience of time lately is to be judged, then I’m sure the next 12 will disappear just as rapidly as well. There’s a lot of things to say, but for now I’ll just write that the most recent book I’ve read is Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I wasn’t going to bring it with me, but then I got really into it in Portland after my sister left it behind. I didn’t have time to finish it, so it ended up getting tossed into my plastic Fred Meyer cat bag, good for toting all things. To put it simply, I liked this book a lot. In my paper journal I wrote, “Reading this book has been like swallowing a white healing ball of light.” Jejeje. I’m surprised it took me this long to read it. Here’s some quotes I really liked (along with my notes from the margins when relevant):

On eating a McDonalds meal: “Perhaps the reason you eat this food quickly is because it doesn’t bear savoring. The more you concentrate on how it tastes, the less like anything it takes.” He goes on the call McDonalds the ultimate “signifier of comfort food. So you eat more and more quickly, hoping to somehow catch up with the original idea of a cheeseburger or a French fry as it retreats over the horizon. And so it goes, bite after bite, until you feel not satisfied exactly, but simply, regrettably, full.”

discussion of a premodern conception of organic agriculture (this made me think of microfinance, of all things!): (150) We don’t need to understand how humus works or what compost does in order to make good use of it. Our ignorance of the teeming wilderness that is the soil (even the act of regarding it as a wilderness is no impediment to nurturing it. To the contrary, a healthy sense of all we don’t know—even a sense of mystery—keeps us from reaching for oversimplifications and technological silver bullets.

(173) role of ritual in food: the organic free range chicken is similar to the front lawn in the sense that it’s a “ritual space, intended not so much for the use of the local residents as a symbolic offering to the larger community… to honor an ideal nobody wants to admit has by now become something of a joke, an empty pastoral conceit.”

(181) Quoted by the intern coordinator at training, all the way back in September: All carrots are not created equal, they believed; how we grow it, the soil we grow it in, what we feed that soil all contribute qualities to a carrot, qualities that may yet escape the explanatory net of our chemistry. We must begin treating the whole problem of health in soil, plant animal and man as one great subject.

(183) Definition of “unsustainable” that everyone keeps forgetting: Sooner or later it must collapse.

(184) Relationship between food and petroleum industry: the logic of capitalism, in which cheap petroleum has always been a given.

(198) proposes solutions of how to fight global warming: In the sixteen million acres now being used to feed cows in the United States became well-managed pasture, that would remove fourteen billions pounds of carbon from the atmosphere each year, the equivalent of taking four million cars off the road.

(201) Main reason why things are this way: the temptations of cheap energy and Our civilization and, increasingly, our food system are strictly organized on industrial lines. They prize consistency, mechanization, predictability, interchangeability, and economics of scale… Since it can be accumulated and traded, grain is a form of wealth. It is a weapon too, the nations with the biggest surpluses of grain have always exerted power over the ones in short supply… The real beneficiary of his crop is not America’s eaters but its military-industrial complex.

(214) Permaculture-themed section. How you choose to measure efficiency makes all the difference.

(254) Point of book: A new conception of what it means to be a consumer.

(256) Similarity between capitalism and communism: The premise of global capitalism, much like the promise of communism before it, ultimately demands an act of faith: that if we permit the destruction of certain things we value here and now we will achieve a greater happiness and prosperity at some unspecified future time.

(259) Wendell Berry quote: eating is an agricultural act. Food as a political message. We can choose what we want to put into our bodies every day.

(279) Ishmael reminiscent theme of agriculture as a Biblical curse, in the Adam-and-Eve sense.

Argument against vegetarianism is interesting: (328) What’s wrong with eating animals is the practice, not the principle.

(303) the genius of capitalism, to create something akin to a state of nature in the modern supermarket

(318) Another critique against capitalism: another example of the cultural contradiction of capitalism: the tendency over time for the economic impulse to erode the moral underpinnings of society

(343) role of tourist in nature very interesting

(353) Ultimate message seems to be emphasizing important need for gratitude, for feeling grateful where food comes from. Makes me think of the scene of Avatar where he says this blessing after successfully killing this crazy looking deer alien. I think this is the main lesson I want to take away from this book… the need to express more gratitude. So on that note, I’d like to make a list of things I’m grateful right now (my “grace”, if you will):
– the fact that my computer didn’t fry Corey’s charger, despite the thick smell of burning plastic that recently filled the air
– the bats that dart around at dusk eating bugs
– the giant park right by our apartment
– the fact that we HAVE an apartment. we are extraordinarily lucky and blessed in this sense.
– my co-workers who are really cool, young and friendly.
– Corey who made me rice, pepper and pineapple stir fry for dinner
– the wireless signal on the balcony (the fact that we HAVE a balcony!)
– the mysterious fireworks going off in the distance–makes me feel intrigued, that there’s something out there somewhere that someone thinks is worth celebrating on such a scale!
– the fact that I arrived home safe and sound after a 2-day trip to branch offices and that the first thing I was able to do was 1) pee and 2) take a shower
– cold guayabas from the fridge

Here are some books he cited repeatedly in his bibliography that i’d like to check out:
Rodale’s Organic Gardening and Farming
Wendell Berry, The Last Whole Earth Catalog, Citizenship Papers: “The Whole Horse” essay (254), “The Total Economy” essay, (256) The Gift of Good Land. Home Economics. The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture.
Paul Shepard
Leon Kass, The Hungry Soul
The Eternal Frontier (Tim Flannery)
Fast Food Nation (Eric Schlosser)
Collapse (Jared Diamond)
Terence McKenna Food of the Gods


Filed under non-fiction, quotes, social justice

Reading Murakami and Steinbeck in Nuevo LaredoReading

This novel begins with such a normal scene: the narrator in the kitchen, boiling spaghetti and listening to an opera, “which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta.”(5) There’s absolutely no indication in the first 100+ pages that the story is going to end as weirdly as it does.

This was absolutely the most perfect book in the world for me to read at this particular point in my life. The friend who gave it to me told me he’d read it during a time in which his “flow was obstructed,” and I guess the same goes for me. There was just something so warm and reassuring about reading this book. I would be in the office or in the field all day in Nuevo Laredo, learning all these new concepts and absorbing all these incredibly draining, intense experiences, and yet, at the end of the day it would all be okay, because I knew I could come home to my little apartment, sit on my beat-up couch, eat my cornflakes and yogurt and read another 100 pages of Wind-Up Bird. It was like coming home to cuddle a stuffed animal, albeit one that talked a lot about the Japanese military efforts in Manchukuo.

I loved reading this book. *Loved* it. I wanted to hug it to the chest and clap my hands gleefully with happiness, like a happy seal. I love all the different Joycean techniques Murakami employs to tell his tale: computer chats, letters, newspapers, hallucinatory dream sequences. It feels important that the story begins with a very straightforward, realistic narrative that is almost boring in its simplicity: a man begins searching for his wife’s missing cat. In the last couple of chapters, you’re no longer sure if what’s going on is happenning in this world, a parallel universe, inside somebody’s head, or inside several people’s heads (that’s about as spoiler free as I can be). Also, as a history geek, I loved reading the parts about the Japanese army in Mongolia or the Japanese occupation of Manchuria and the prison camps in Siberia. There’s so many parts of the world and of history that I have yet to learn about…

My absolutely favorite thing in the world about Murakami is all his descriptions of what the characters eat. A ham, tomato and cheese sandwich. Stir fried green peppers. Coffee, constantly. These little details sounds so simple, and yet they add so much to the story: it grounds it in something that’s so real and very much every day. The literary cliche gods help me, but I have to call it Kafkaesque: we believe all the crazy things that happen later, because everything that happens early on is so credible, to the point of being monotonous almost. It really is clever technique.

This is a very postmodern novel in the sense that it deals a lot with the question of the self. As in, do we actually have one? Can you ever actually “know” yourself, let alone another person? More than anything else, I think this is the central question of the novel. It reminded me a lot of Tori Amos’ concept album, American Doll Posse, in which she assumes the persona of five different female archetypes, each representing a different side to the female personality. This idea of having several different selves, as opposed to one that is already neatly, conveniently formed, is a theme I believe I’ve already brought up in this blog. I really like the idea of having this “wise self” inside of me, this very pure, intuitive wisdom that I can turn to, time and time again, in order to reassure myself and calm myself down, make myself feel like everything is going to be all right. What about all my other selves? Is complete integration an illusion? Is being mildly fragmented the best that any of us can ever hope for? The question feels even more relevant if you consider victims of trauma like war (as in Wind-Up Bird) or rape (as in American Doll Posse). Trauma can shatter you, splinter you apart. How do you go about rebuilding yourself, making yourself whole again?

This idea of rebuilding and coming together appears in a very different form of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the other book I looked forward to coming home and reading these past few weeks. Steinbeck is about as straightforward as narrative realism gets, not much I can call postmodern here (though please feel free to correct me!). I liked how this book made me want to listen to Bruce Springsteen (which makes sense, since Bruce Springsteen has obviously read Steinbeck. I was surprised by how easily you could update The Grapes of Wrath to a 21st-century tale of immigration to the U.S., if you just substituted the Joads for a Mexican family, changed Okies to mojados, throw in a scene of crossing the Rio Grande.

Oh, it just makes me sad, it makes me angry, it makes me want to—I don’t know, I was going to write “run into the street, burn something, write to a Congressman,” but to be completely honest, what it makes me want to do is read more. I want to read more about the history of labor movements in the early 20th century, I want to read more about the development of 21st-century immigration policy, I want to read more about socialism. I want to sit up late reading drinking my carrot juice, underlining passages in pencil and maybe even scrawling a note to myself in the side margins (yes, I am thus revealing myself to be a book vandal!). I want to read and think and write my thoughts down and them talk about them, late into the night with other people. And then I want them to give me more books to read and tell me, “I think that you would like these ones.” More than anything else it makes me feel hopeful and happy to think that there are other people like this in the world, other people who can relate to the feeling of your heart beating as you hand a book over to another person, the words in your throat bursting with eagerness as you say “oh! This one—you really need to read this one!” What would the world be like, after all, without all these people who want to read great books and think silly thoughts about them and then go out and do completely random-seeming things like intern for a microfinance institution in a border city?

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Filed under bruce springsteen, comfort food, Nuevo Laredo, social justice

"poor" people

Poor People is not a pleasant read. Indeed, it is a very difficult and challenging read, and I don’t doubt that its author intended it that way. There is nothing I can say in critique (or in praise) of this book that hasn’t already been said by writers more articulate and with more experience and clout than me. For me, it’s enough to read the title and listen to myself as I say it aloud and hear everything implicit and subtly lurking behind that phrase: “poor people. Poor, poor people. Poor! People!” In those words I hear pity, fear and inevitable relief, that the speaker by default cannot be considered as one of the “poor,” since she/he can speak of them as something seperate and apart, something radically other and different from themselves. Disconnected. If you can view others as poor and thus by default radically separate from yourself, are you automatically saying that you by definition must be considered rich?

I read this book in between all the microfinance-related reading I’ve been doing over the past two weeks or so in preparation for my rapidly impending internship with Kiva (I’m getting on a bus to head to San Francisco for training tomorrow). I’ve read some pretty interesting stuff (especially the discussions about the commercialization of microfinance and the tension in MF about being focused on economic development or the marketplace, poverty vs. profit). Depressingly enough, I don’t think microfinance would offer much in the way of a solution to the “poor people” profiled in this book. To be given a loan to start a business or purchase supplies or improve your house, it’s already implied that you have already have started with something, as opposed to absolutely nothing. The people in these book really have nothing: they’re the the sickly old beggar women, the smelly drunk and indigent, the crippled, the beggars in subway stations holding out palms or rattling plastic cups full of coins, the refugees, the fevered mothers holding their babies and staring down at the ground before them. God, this book is depressing.

I did not particularly enjoy reading this book, which makes it hard for me to recommend it to people. I first stumbled upon it several years ago, in my stacks-shelving job at the college library. I flipped through the black and white portraits at the end and was intrigued by the number of photos that were of people from Colombia, and it’s never really left my mind since. The images of beggar women in burqas in Afghanistan during Taliban rule are definitely remain the most affecting (Vollmann’s discussion of poverty-as-invisibility ties in nicely to these images). The strongest bits of this book involve Vollmann-as-reporter, during which he simply profiles the folks he’s interviewing. I liked the portrayal of the Russian family in which the husband was too sick from Chernobyl to work, and his foray into an off-limits oil refinery in Kazakhstan has the elements of a really angry documentary. He veers away from this simple reporting in the middle part of the book, instead going off on long tangents from his personal list of what defines poverty, such as “accident prone-ness” and “unwantedness.”

At one point in one of my flights and bus rides (it’s hard to keep track of them lately!), I started doodling in my journal a list of WHY SHOULD WE FIGHT AGAINST POVERTY? The main reasons I came up with weren’t so much academic as they were from my emotional gut. reason #1: Empathy: we’re all born in this crazy ass world without really asking for it, and being that we’re all in this sick mess together, we might as well help each other out… be a giver rather than a taker. Reason #2: Karma (in its most simplified definition): by helping others, you’re helping yourself, and more importantly you’re putting out a little positive energy out there into the black toilet hole of a universe for future use. Not exactly award-winning reasons, but for what it’s worth that’s what I succeeded in skimming off the top of my curdled-by-Greyhound brain.

I’m sure I’ll have a lot more interesting things to say about poverty after I start Kiva internship, which I plan to blog about in more detail than I have so far in this space. In the meantime, one thing that really stood out for me in the wiki biography of Vollmann’s life is how he dropped out of a Comparative Literature program at Berkeley “after one year with the intention of engaging life instead of just studying.” What an interesting phrase, “engaging life.” How does one go about doing that, pray? Is life something you just walk around and eventually find if you keep your mind open enough, or do you have to adopt a more proactive, aggressively-seeking approach?

For me at least, life as I’ve engaged it in the past week has been pretty pleasant, visiting my various girlfriends in Los Angeles and staying with my grandma in San Luis Obispo county. This evening my grandma and I looked at old photographs and I learned about Cosmo and Al, the guys my grandma “went with” before she met my grandfather. Poor Cosmo (a Navy fellow) was rejected on the account of insulting my great-grandfather’s lawn, and Al (whom she “went with” for three years—long-term relationship, grandma!) went so far as to get her a ring, a fur coat and some kind of fancy box thing, all of which she rejected because “I didn’t have feelings for him that way.” Poor Al.

(You can check out the non-profit(s) I’ll be interning for until Christmas here and here.)

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Filed under experience, Kiva, non-fiction, poverty, social justice

Oh, Ernesto

The person who wrote these notes died upon stepping once again onto Argentine soil; he who edits and polishes them, ‘I’ am not I; at least I am not the same I was before. That vagabonding through our ‘America’ has changed me more than I thought.

The whole month of May has been swallowed by the 750-page behemoth that is Jon Lee Anderson’s biography of Che Guevara. I’ve been keeping Corey fully updated on the different stages of Che’s life for the past three weeks: “Che’s bumming around in Guatemala with not much idea of what to do with himself. God, it makes me feel so much better about my life!” “Che just arrived in the Congo. Things are not looking good.”

This whole month of May feels like it just got swallowed. I could write something about how it’s been a year since I’ve graduated and so now I have this great manifesto… but I don’t, so I won’t.

My favorite part of the book was the first part, entitled “Unquiet Youth,” mainly because it dealt with what I was most interested in: what Ernesto was like as a young man and what drove him to pick his particular life path. This was my favorite part because it was what felt most relevant to me personally, as a young person still trying to figure out the best way to manage my freedom, my privilege and my choices. It was almost with a sense of relief that I read about Ernesto’s lack of direction and pervasive sense of uncertainty following his graduation from medical school. I thought it was really interesting that even though Ernesto was surrounded by all these radical Communists, Socialists and Marxists in Mexico and Guatemela, it wasn’t until after (as opposed to before, or during) the American intervention/CIA overthrow that he made the decision that he wanted to be more involved. As he wrote in a letter to his mother, “The bad thing is that at the same time I haven’t taken the decisive attitude that I should have taken a long time ago, because deep down (and on the surface) I am a complete bum and I don’t feel like having my career interrupted by an iron discipline.” (162-163) I almost felt like cheering when I read this: Ernesto gives a big stamp of approval on bumming around for a couple of years!

I thought it was fascinating to read about the gradual formation and changes of Ernesto’s sense of self. It was really interesting to me reading about how your childhood can have such a monumental effect on you throughout your life: as a little kid, Ernesto was so constantly sick with asthma, he was babied a lot by his mother, but also developed this incredibly fierce iron will to compete (like in rugby) and be considered as “good” as the other kids. As the biographer describes it, his asthma also led to his sense of isolation and resulting craving for camaraderie, which the author sees as the main reason for Ernesto’s fierce adoption of the Cuban cause and intense loyalty to Fidel Castro. Being a guerrilla made him feel like he was a part of a group, that he had friends, he had comrades. God, it makes me wonder how my childhood is affecting my current life. It also makes me wonder if life can really be seen as a narrative this convenient, that this straight lines can be drawn from our childhood right up to the present day. I guess it’s helpful to think so.

When Ernesto adopts ‘Che’ as his name, I couldn’t help but think of Into the Wild and Alexander Supertramp. “Call each thing by it’s proper name,” he writes in his journal near the end of the movie, signing his death note with his birth name, Christopher. Man, how hard is that, trying to figure out what your proper name is! Talk about easy say, hard do. It’s something that might take a lifetime to do.

At one point, one of Che’s comrades says, “In spite of everything, you can’t help admiring him. He knows what he wants better than we do. And he lives entirely for it.” I think this is an accurate reflection of my own feelings. I could never, ever live like Che Guevara—hell, very few of us could! It takes an incredible iron will to do so. At times, he was a hardcore maniac to the point of insanity, justifying the executions in Cuba as “justice at the service of future justice.” (458) I thought it was funny how he was particularly enraged by “individualistic” university students with “middle-class’ mentalities: “perhaps in the students he saw his self-absorbed former self, and it rankled him. He had given up his self, his ‘vocation’ for the revolution; why couldn’t they?” The answer, Che, is we’re all different. We are all different people with different paths in life, and it’s not helpful to say that one path is better than others or is the “right” path or whatever. Some of us are constantly seeking happiness and contentment, others find it pretty quickly and effortlessly. That’s just the way it is. That’s what makes us so valuable as human beings, right? Our individual, crazy, unique messed-up selves, these ridiculous consciousness we’re carrying around in the mushy gray matter enveloped behind our thick skulls?

In the biography there are some parts that indicate that Che felt isolated at times, like he was living this double life, due to his commitment to the “revolutionary cause.” At one point he says to Alberto (his old travel companion from The Motorcyle Diaries) “I live like someone torn in two, twenty-four hours a day, completely torn in two, and I haven’t got anybody to tell it to. Even if I did, they would never believe me.” (608) As he writes to his mother, “I am still the loner I used to be, looking for my path without personal help, but now I possess the sense of my historic duty. I have no home, no woman, no children [I’m sure his wife and daughter were a bit bummed to read this], nor parents, nor brothers nor sisters, my friends are my friends as long as they think politically like I do and yet I am content, I feel something in life, not just a powerful internal strength, which I always felt, but also the power to inject others, and an absolutely fatalistic sense of my mission which strips me of all fear.” (433-434) I don’t know if I could throw my life in a similarly all-in fashion in pursuit of one single goal.

It makes me feel so young saying this, but I remember watching The Motorcycle Diaries with my freshman year boyfriend in theaters on our very first date together and being extraordinarily moved. I was particularly struck by the montage of black and white photos at the end of the different people that Alberto and Ernesto. Here’s an excerpt from my personal journal that I wrote on March 19th, 2005, (Gaaaah!) shortly after I came back from the spring break service trip to Juarez:

These are some things that I cannot quite get my head around yet:

1) The difficulty between making a connection between what you think and what you do. This is something I was discussing with Ian the other day in the rhodadendron (god help me, I can never spell that word) gardens. It’s very easy to think that “I”m liberal” or “I’m creative” or “I’m a good person”, but if you don’t acutally DO anything physical in this world that serves as a concrete, physical testament to that belief, well then it just doesn’t sound very realistic to say it anymore, innit? This is something that I admire very greatly about Che Guevara upon reading “The Motorcycle Diaries”: say whatever you might like about him, but he was extremely effective at forming a connection between his ideas and his actions. The equal images of a clenched fist and a mouth streaming ideas, resting side by side… I think I’m going to have to check out some books from the library in order to learn more about him and Cuba from a more academic, scholarly point of view, because all I’m going on here is the adoring worship of the people that I’ve been surrounded by throughout my life. I think it’s creepy that “The Motorcycle Diaries” affected me much more than I ever thought it would. At the time I just thought it was a big deal because it was my first American date or whatever, but look at me, I don’t know how many months later and still thinking about it. I guess it must have resonated very deeply within me, and I have this picture of my soul being struck like a guitar string and still quivering back and forth, months later.

I went on to rant a little about how I was changing my major to General Literature or Spanish as opposed to English and Creative Writing, because I felt it would be more useful. I used an interesting phrase, about “learning to balance the Howard Roark and the mother in me.” A struggle that still continues to this day. God, I’d forgotten how excruciating reading old journal entries can be. If nothing else, they serve as a reaffirming validation that yes, it is possible for people to change, and yes, I *have* changed since I was a freshman. Thank god. Anyway, I just thought it was funny, reading what I wrote all the way back then, in context of me in the process of finishing this enormous biography.

It was fun reading about Ernesto’s early life because his writings were equally melodramatic. I think he brought a very good definition to being a traveler rather than a tourist: roughing it, being dirty (his lifelong nickname was “El Chancho” (the pig) from how infrequently he changed his clothes and how nasty he consequently smelled), being as open and receptive as possible. I’ve been thinking lately that I want to try to be more like a “tourist” in my everyday life; that is, to adopt the same mind frame that I aspire to have while I’m traveling here in what I consider my “static” period: working, living in Portland. My definition of being a good traveler is to be as open as possible to new experiences, to try to stay away from judgment. When you’re having an experience, to not so much worry about quickly judging it or summarizing it as “good” or “bad,” but instead try to reflect that “oh, this is an experience that I’m having,” and just kind of try to be in the moment, and then reflect upon it in full later. I think this is a good way to avoid the kind of stress you inevitably run into while traveling: late buses, mean people, bad food. I mean, I run into that kind of stuff here in Portland as well, but to some degree it feels less heightened, less intense than it does when I’m in a different country… maybe because I’ve been living here for a while now.

Here’s to being a good tourist in everyday life.

Lying introspectively like Jorge Malabia on his back: a common motif among young brooding men of the Rio Plata region.

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Filed under books, experience, non-fiction, social justice, travel

Deep Rivers Run Still

Before moving on to different topics of interest, I want to discuss one last book that takes the political versus the personal as one of its themes. I read Jose Maria Arguedas’ Los Rios Profundos (Deep Rivers) in Spanish because I really missed reading in Spanish, and I wanted to make sure I could keep it up to par. At first I was worried I was going to have trouble getting into the book because it reminded me a lot of something we would read in Ms. Aguirre’s tenth-grade Spanish class (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I thought it was just going to be another coming-of-age novel, which it is, very much so. Now that some time has passed for me to reflect on it a little more, I’ll go out on a limb and say that it’s worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist.

The first half of the book is mostly episodic in nature. It’s with the last few chapters (the ones dealing with the indigenous women’s strike and the plague that afflicts the community) that the book really comes together, and all the seemingly disparate elements (the mad women, the various school friends and their dramas, the interactions with the indigenous community) suddenly click together into a cohesively, thematically-related whole. This makes sense, since it’s these two events (the strike and the plague) where Ernesto the narrator really comes together as a person. Beforehand, he’s very much a watcher, an observer. When the strike happens, he gets much more involved, and once the plague hits he’s a drastically more active character.

You can read more about Arguedas in his biography, but basically Los rios profundos is an fictionalized version of Arguedas’ childhood. Like the main character Ernesto, Arguedas’ father was a country lawyer who traveled a lot, and apparently whenever he was away from home Arguedas’ stepmother would lock him up in the kitchen and ignore him, so essentially he was raised by indigenous servants. Like Ernesto, until he went to Catholic boarding school at age 14, he spoke better Quechua than he did Spanish. He went on to study anthropology after writing Los rios profundos and wrote a lot of poetry in Quechua, but he never went on to write another work that reflected on or referred to his childhood. He ended up committing suicide, a fact that inevitably casts its shadow over Los rios profundos, which deals so much with Ernesto’s feeling of not belonging, of being trapped in between two worlds.

It’s tough, that whole between world things. I don’t think about it in relation to my own situation as much as I should, maybe. How did growing up in Colombia, in freaking South America, for goodness’ sake, affect me and form me as a person? How has it set me apart or made me different than if I’d grown up in a suburb in Virginia? I won’t go into it too much in this forum, but one thing I think tends to be overlooked in these discussions about origins is class. To put it bluntly, I grew up in a well-off family, and that’s what has made more of a difference than anything else. I have little things from Colombia: Shakira songs on my ipod, Spanish that vacillates between good, great and exceptional, depending on where I’m living. I went through a phase of reading Peace Corps blogs and a lot of people wrote about the discomfrot they felt at being stared at from being the foreigner, the stranger, the one who stood out in a crowd. And all I could think was “man, that feeling is old-school for me!” In Unicentro, man, in high school, every time I opened my mouth—I’d always be the gringa, la mona, you know? I was pretty excited to go to college in the U.S. because I really looked forward to the idea of blending in, of not standing out, of melting away into the crowd. I thought maybe that would make a difference in relationships with people, if there wasn’t this big white foreigner thing in between us all the time. Turns out I still felt pretty different, but it was a gift rather than a burden.

On with the book review. It’s the presence and the treatment of the indigenous community in this novel that sets it above and apart other typical coming-of-age novels. It’s not written in a vacuum (mainly I think of Jane Eyre, Mr. Rochester’s far away wealth coming from the distant islands). The Indians are not treated in a patronized or racist fashion, as they were in books like Aves sin nido, which purported to reveal the injustice of Peru’s treatment of Indians, but just ended up depicting them as these pitiful, helpless beings. There is nothing about indianismo on wikipedia, which makes me sad that I can’t make a happy-go-clicky link, but basically it was an early 20th-century literary movement in Latin America that was a combination of regionalism, realism and the picturesque, which a focus on indigenous presence. As Wililam Rowe puts it in the introduction, writers of the indigenismo movement more often than not “sever the Indian from his own culture and then attribute to him an outlook that will appear to explain his behavior. As the reipient of alien values which are projected into him, the Indian is merely a static character who reflects the view of outsiders. Any active interrelation with the world, in which culture and consciousness consist, is denied him.” (vii)

The fact that Arguedas avoids this is enough to make LRP a worthy read. How does he do it? Interestingly enough, it’s not through inserting a bunch of self-righteous, teary social justice speeches, with characters shaking their fists and bellowing about how unfair it all is. Unlike the other inidianismo books I’ve read According to both introductions in the two different versions I ended up having to check out (trying to avoid late fees, y’know), Arguedas adopts an “indigenous perspective” of the world not only through the language of the novel, but through Ernesto himself. As John V. Murra puts it in one introduction, Arguedas’ intention was “how to transmit to the reader of Spanish not only a compassion for the oppresed, but a sense that the latter also had a perception, a world view of their own, in which people, mountains, animals, the rain, truth, all had dimensions of their own, powerful, revealing, and utterly unlike the Iberian ones.” (pg. xi from the U of Texas Press 1978 edition—apologies for incorrect MLA notation due to my own laziness.) Which is all very well and good, but again—how does he do it? (I can’t help but think INDIGENOUS PERSPECTIVE OF THE WORLD M-F—DO YOU SPEAK IT?) I think Arguedas’ transcendental, almost ecstatic descriptions of nature and the Peruvian scenery throughout the book has a lot to do with it. The descriptions aren’t boring nature porn that become an absolute slog to get through (I’m looking at you, Thirteen Moons); instead, they’re charged with an intense, passionate language. I wish I hadn’t return my copy so that I could type up some examples. It’s pretty interesting. Again, I couldn’t help but relate it back to my own personal experiences, working this summer in Ecuador, with the Huaorani and the Siona, reading books like “Savages”… I’m not an anthropologist, but there really is a different worldview of things out there in the jungle, and nature is a huge part of it.

What really gets me more than anything else, though, is the language. Damn, I enjoy speaking Spanish, and man, how I miss it when I’m not. That’s what I miss about Colombia, more than anything else: speaking Spanish. I’m grateful for the ability to get that much closer to the language in books like this one….

Laguna Cuyabeno

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Here an Intellectual, There an Intellectual, Where to Put the Intellectual?

The concern of the intellectual is by definition the conscience. An intellectual who fails to understand what is happening in his time and in his country is a walking contradiction, and those who understand but do nothing will have a place reserved in the anthology of tears but not in the living history of their land.–Rodolfo Walsh, Seminario CGT, May 1st 1968

I’ve been reading a biography of Rodolfo Walsh (True Crimes: Rodolfo Walsh and the Role of the Intellectual in Latin American Politics by Michael McCaughan, Latin American Bureau 2000) which is also an anthology of his fiction and journalism translated into English. Not only has it been an interesting read, but it also has some eerily appropriate parallel themes with my current ponderings. Walsh was an Argentine writer and journalist, born of Irish ancestry and raised in a Catholic boarding school, wrote a In Cold Blood-like non-fiction work called Operacion Masacre, went to Cuba shortly after the Castro revolution in order to work in the news industry there and weirdly enough ended up intercepting a code from the CIA that gave away the location for the Bay of Pigs invasion, abandoned fiction to devote himself full-time to journalism and underground resistance work in the 70’s once the political situation in Argentina really went down the drain, and was shot and killed in a shoot-out by the military in the middle of the street (his body was never recovered). He is counted as one of Argentina’s 30,000 “disappeared” of that period. Isn’t that weird, how you can sum someone’s life up like that, in a couple of greatest-hits sentences? (I inevitably wonder what my own sentences will consist of…)

I haven’t finished the book yet (I’m at the part where he gets really intensely involved in underground resistance), but there have definitely been some moments in the book that have given me pause and thus merit some reflection here. The short stories are excellent, particularly “Footnote” and “Esa mujer” (check them out). There’s a lot of discussion in the book (as indicated by the subtitle) about Walsh’s struggle with the role of the intellectual in society, which I found personally quite relevant… I feel uncomfortable about calling myself an “intellectual,” but I definitely read a lot, and like thinking about things that probably a lot of people would consider quite silly, such as “what is the role of the intellectual in society?” (After Barry-O’s election and Georgie’s reign, this question has been given a bit more attention.) I went to an expensive college, my parents are well-educated. I like reading fiction, writing fiction (goes without saying I need to do this one more), writing and talking about fiction. Yeah… I am pretty much a bourgeois intellectual.

I guess I struggle a lot with how relevant all of this is (the reading and writing and talking about fiction). I like doing a lot of other stuff to, outside of this—I like working with people, I like being with people, I like doing things that feel like they make more of a difference in a day-to-day sense. My job isn’t super prestigious or super high paying or anything like that, but someone’s got to hang out with these kids and give them something positive in their lives, you know? I dunno, I’ll just say that I find it relevant and then leave it at that. My struggle (which I was reminded of again and again in this book) is finding a balance between these two things: the whole isolated hermetic ivory tower writer and intellectual tradition versus the nitty-gritty, down and dirty, involved in the world role. Is there a way to combine the two? Does it really come down to choosing one or the other? Is the role of books in my life destined to be restricted to a hobby, a sideline entertainment, or will it become a career? (The latter’s up to me to decide, I guess.) Interestingly enough, in some of the interviews with family members and friends, a lot of them express frustration about Walsh’s choice of journalism over politics… there’s a certain attitude in their words of “oh, he could have been one of the greatest Argentinean fiction writers, he had so much potential, but then he went ahead and got involved in politics and justice.” I don’t think there’s really a right or wrong choice; it’s just a matter of the type of person you are… some of us are content, others of us are a little more scattered and need to explore different roles and careers in order to find that kind of satisfied fulfillment…

I folded over the upper-right corner on the page where Walsh is having a conversation with another young aspiring author, in his early 20’s (this really hits home in terms of the theme of this blog):

“These are different times, Nicolas, and this is a time for a bigger undertaking. When you’re trying to change important things, then you realize that a short story, a novel, aren’t worth it and won’t satisfy you. Beautiful bourgeois art! They taught us that it was the supreme spiritual value. But when you have people who gave their lives, and continue to, literature is no longer your loyal and sweet lover—it’s a cheap whore. There are times when … every spectator is a coward or a traitor. This might be a pain for the more intimate questions of the soul but that’s the time we’re living in.” (218)

You see this same question in a lot of Roberto Bolaño works. I just read La estrella distante (Distant Star), a 140-page novella that makes for a quick and thought-provoking one-day read. This book talks more about writers and poets than anything else, specifically one poet, Alberto Ruiz-Tagle, who gets involved with the Pinochet Regine by writing state-approved poetry in the sky. If you like Bolaño, you should definitely read this work. I never realized how influenced by Borges he was, either. I’m starting to see this as a common denominator in a lot of the stuff I’ve been reading or re-reading lately (Lolita, The Island of the Day Before). I don’t want to give too much away about the book (part of its impact is being shocked by its unexpected development), but the novel deals with the same question discussed in the Walsh biography: what is the relationship between literature and real events? Is turning to literature when unimaginably violent events are taking place in your immediate world brave or just blind and stupid? The insightful New York Times book review of Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives makes an important point:

What can it mean, he asks us and himself, in his dark, extraordinary, stinging novella “By Night in Chile,” that the intellectual elite can write poetry, paint and discuss the finer points of avant-garde theater as the junta tortures people in basements? The word has no national loyalty, no fundamental political bent; it’s a genie that can be summoned by any would-be master. Part of Bolaño’s genius is to ask, via ironies so sharp you can cut your hands on his pages, if we perhaps find a too-easy comfort in art, if we use it as anesthetic, excuse and hide-out in a world that is very busy doing very real things to very real human beings. Is it courageous to read Plato during a military coup or is it something else?

Yeah… I’m just trying to figure stuff out, I guess. I am in a certain position of power and privilege, in the sense that I have choices of what to do with my life. And just like in Spiderman, “with great power comes great responsibility.” So I am trying to figure what I want to do with my brain, and how I can find something to do with my brain that feels both worthwhile and valuable. So it goes.

Maybe getting glasses is the common denominator behind figuring everything out.


Filed under Bolaño, books, future, non-fiction, Rio Plata, social justice