On vengeance and Ahmed Saadawi’s ‘Frankenstein in Baghdad.’

On vengeance and Ahmed Saadawi’s ‘Frankenstein in Baghdad.’

We are composite creatures, the edifice of our minds perched atop accumulated strata of a lifetime of memories.  Most people, I imagine, have done wrong; remembrance of our lapses is part of who we are.  And most of us have been hurt; those grievances also shape our identities.

We struggle to be good, despite having been born into an amoral universe and then subjected to innumerable slights or traumas as we aged.

Goodness is a nebulous concept, however.  There’s no external metric that indicates what we should do.  For instance: if we are subject to an injustice, is it better to forgive or to punish the transgressor?

There are compelling arguments for both sides, and for each position you could base your reasoning on philosophy, psychology, physiology, evolutionary biology …

Intellect and reasoning can’t identify what we should do.

A wide variety of cooperative species will swiftly and severely punish transgressions in order to maintain social order.  Misbehavior among naked mole rats is generally resolved through bullying and violence, which ensures the colony does not lapse into decadence.  (As with humans, shared adversity like hunger generally compels threat-free cooperation.)

Archaeologists suggest that the belief in vengeful gods was coupled to the development of complex human societies.  The Code of Hammurabi prescribed immediate, brutal retribution for almost any misdeed.

The compulsion to punish people who have hurt us arises from deep within our brains.

But punishment invites further punishment.  Every act of revenge can lead to yet another act of revenge – the Hatfield and McCoy families carried on their feud for nearly thirty years.

Punishment is fueled by anger, and anger poisons our bodies.  On a purely physiological level, forgiving others allows us to heal.  The psychological benefits seem to be even more pronounced.

But forgiveness is hard.  Sometimes people do terrible things.  After her mother was killed, my spouse had to spend her entire afternoon prep period on the phone with a family member and the prosecutor, convincing them not to seek the death penalty.

The attack had been recorded by security cameras.  Apparently it was horrifying to watch.  The assailant’s defense lawyer stated publicly that it was “the most provable murder case I have ever seen.

And incidents in which dark-skinned men hurt white women are precisely those for which prosecutors typically seek the death penalty; after my mother-in-law’s death, the only national news sites that wrote about the case were run by far-right white supremacists trying to incite more hatred and violence toward innocent black people.  (I’m including no links to these, obviously.)

At the time, I was working on a series of poems about teaching in jail. 

Correction (pt. ii)

My wife’s mother was murdered Saturday –

outside at four a.m., scattering birdseed,

smoking a cigarette, shucking schizophrenic

nothings into the unlistening air.

Then a passing man tossed off a punch,

knocking her to the ground.

He stomped upon her skull

till there was no more her

within that battered brain.

Doctors intubated the corpse &

kept it oxygenated by machine,

monitoring each blip of needless heart

for days

until my wife convinced

a charitable neurologist

to let the mindless body rest.

That same afternoon

I taught another class in jail

for men who hurt someone else’s mother,

daughter, or son.

The man who murdered,

privacy-less New York inmate #14A4438

with black hair & brown eyes,

had been to prison twice,

in 2002 & 2014,

caught each time

with paltry grams of crack cocaine.

Our man received a massive dose

of state-sponsored therapy:

nine years of penitence.

Nearly a decade of correction.

Does Victor Frankenstein share the blame

for the murders of his creation,

the man he quicked but did not love?

Or can we walk into a maternity ward

and point:

that one, nursing now, will be a beast.

Are monsters born or made?

My mother-in-law is dead, & our man is inside again,

apprehended after “spontaneous utterances,”

covered in blood, photographed with

a bandage between his eyes.

And we, in our mercy,

will choose whether

our creation

deserves

to die.

#

Victor Frankenstein becoming disgusted at his creation. Fronts-piece to the 1831 edition.

I have always stood firmly on the side of Frankenstein’s creation.  Yes, he began to kill, but misanthropy was thrust upon him.  The creature was ethical and kind at first, but the rest of the world ruthlessly mistreated him.  Victor Frankenstein abandoned him in the laboratory; he befriended a blind man, but then the man’s children chased him away.

Victor Frankenstein’s fiancée did not deserve to be strangled – except insofar as we share blame for the crimes of those we love – but I understand the wellspring of the creature’s rage.

In Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, a junk dealer’s attempt to honor the anonymous victims of Iraq’s many bombings gives rise to a spirit of vengeance.  The junk dealer acts upon a grisly idea – most victims could not receive proper funerals because their bodies were scattered or incinerated by the blasts.  But what if many stray pieces were collected?  An charred arm from Tuesday’s explosion; a ribcage and lower jawbone from Wednesday’s; two different victims’ legs from Thursday’s.  The city is so wracked by violence that there are plenty of body parts to choose from.  And then the junk dealer could take his creation to the police and say, Look!  Here is a body, victim of the attacks.  Here is a dead man we can honor properly.

In truth, the junk dealer’s plan was never terribly well thought out.  Once he completes the corpse, he realizes that using his creation as a locus for lamentation would be no better than all the empty coffins.

And then the corpse springs to life, seeking vengeance on any and all who wronged its component parts.  In the creature’s words (as translated by Jonathan Wright):

“My list of people to seek revenge on grew longer as my old body parts fell off and my assistants added parts from my new victims, until one night I realized that under these circumstances I would face an open-ended list of targets that would never end.

“Time was my enemy, because there was never enough of it to accomplish my mission, and I started hoping that the killing in the streets would stop, cutting off my supply of victims and allowing me to melt away.

“But the killing had only begun.  At least that’s how it seemed from the balconies in the building I was living in, as dead bodies littered the streets like rubbish.”

Soon, the creature realizes that the people he attacks are no different from the dead victims that he is composed of.  He can chase after the terrorist organizations that orchestrate suicide bombings, but the people in those organizations are also seeking revenge for their dead allies.  The chain of causality is so tangled that no one is clearly responsible.

Car bombing in Baghdad. Image from Wikimedia.

United States forces have been inadvertently killing innocent civilians ever since invading Iraq … an attack that was launched in retribution for the actions of a small group of Afghani terrorists.

Some people thought that this sounded reasonable at the time.

To seek vengeance, we need someone to blame.  But who should I blame for my mother-in-law’s death?  The man who assaulted her?  That’s certainly the conclusion that the white supremacist news sites want me to reach.  But I sincerely doubt that this poor man would have hurt her if a prosecutor hadn’t ripped him from his friends and family, condemning him to ten years within the nightmarish violence of America’s prisons, all for participating in a small-scale version of the exact same economic transaction that allowed Merck to become a $160-billion-dollar valued company.

Do I blame the racist white legislators who imposed such draconian punishments on the possession of the pure amine form of cocaine, all while celebrating their pale-skinned buddies who snerked up the hydrochloride salt form?

Do I blame myself?  As a citizen of this country – a wealthy citizen, no less, showered with un-earned privilege – I am complicit in the misfortunes that my nation imposes on others.  Even when I loathe the way this nation acts, by benefiting from its sins, I too share responsibility.

I have inherited privilege … which means that I also deserve to inherit blame, even for horrors perpetrated well before I was born.

Forgiveness is hard, but revenge would send us chasing an endless cycle of complicity.  The creature in Frankenstein in Baghdad is flummoxed:

In his mind he still had a long list of the people he was supposed to kill, and as fast as the list shrank it was replenished with new names, making avenging these lives an endless task.  Or maybe he would wake up one day to discover that there was no one left to kill, because the criminals and the victims were entangled in a way that was more complicated than ever before.

“There are no innocents who are completely innocent or criminals who are completely criminal.”  This sentence drilled its way into his head like a bullet out of the blue.  He stood in the middle of the street and looked up at the sky, waiting for the final moment when he would disintegrate into his original components.  This was the realization that would undermine his mission – because every criminal he had killed was also a victim.  The victim proportion in some of them might even be higher than the criminal proportion, so he might inadvertently be made up of the most innocent parts of the criminals’ bodies.

“There are no innocents who are completely innocent or criminals who are completely criminal.”

Header image: an illustration of Frankenstein at work in his laboratory.

On Brett Wagner’s “Apocalypse Blaze.”

On Brett Wagner’s “Apocalypse Blaze.”

A friend of mine, whom I first met when he was a student in my poetry class, was writing a post-apocalyptic novel.  There’s nuclear fallout; civilization crumbled.  A few people who haven’t yet caught the sickness are traveling together, fantasizing that they could restart the world.

When the bombs fell, governments collapsed.  Not immediately, but within the year.  The idea of government is predicated on people getting things done: fire fighters who might rescue you, police officers who might protect you, agencies who maintain the roads and ensure the water is safe to drink.  All of which requires money, which the government can print, but those slips of paper don’t mean much if no one will accept them in exchange for food or a safe place to sleep.

“Hangrith,” that’s a beautiful word.  It’s archaic, means a realm in which you can expect security and peace.  Literally, “within the grasp of the king’s hand.”  While you are here, the government will protect you.

Within the grasp. Image by Enrico Strocchi on Flickr.

My friend was skeptical of the concept.  The king’s hand wasn’t cradling him, nor wielding a protective sword to keep orcs at bay; instead, my friend felt the gauntlet at his throat.  We’d met in jail, where he’d landed for addiction.  We volleyed emails after he left, while he was working on his novel.  And then he was in my class again.  Failed check-in.  Once you’re on probation, you’re given numerous extra laws to follow – people on probation don’t have the rights of other citizens, and minor transgressions, like missing a meeting or late payment for a fine, can land you back in jail.

And so it wasn’t difficult for my friend to imagine a world in which there was no government to rely upon.  To reach their destination, his heroes have to barter.  Which meant that, suddenly, my friend’s skills might be treated with respect.

After all, what would people be most willing to trade their food for in a world where waking life was a ravaged nightmare?

I took a patch with me underground when shit hit the fan.  Grew it hydroponically.  Cared for that shit like a baby.  Gave me something to do while I was in that shelter.  Weed is my money.”

Rampant economic inequality, fractured communities, and the spread of attention-grabbing toys that prevent us from making eye contact with one another – these have all contributed to the increase in drug use and addiction in contemporary America.  But the world could be worse.  After the blast, everyone would share the stress and trauma that people in poverty currently weather.

Methamphetamine lets people keep going despite crushing hopelessness and despair.  Meth use is widespread in many hollowed-out towns of the Midwest.  It’s a problematic drug.  At first, people feel good enough to get out of bed again.  But methamphetamine is metabolized so slowly that users don’t sleep.  Amphetamines themselves are not so toxic, but lack of sleep will kill you.  After five, ten, or twenty days awake, vicious hallucinations set in.  The drug is no longer keeping you alert and chipper enough to work – static crackles through your mind, crustacea skitter beneath your skin, shadows flit through the air.

They walked on, their path lit by the moon, among the wreckage of cars and piles of trash and useless electronics that were heaped up until they came to a concrete slab with a manhole in it.

This is my crib, where I sat out that day.”

Image by Joe Shlabotnik on Flickr.

After the fall, experience in the drug trade lets people carve out a living.  And experience on the streets lets them survive.  All the ornate mansions, people’s fine wood and brick homes, have fallen into disarray.  Their inhabitants caught the sickness, or else died in the initial blast.

The survivors were people who slept outdoors, protected by thick concrete.  Not in bunkers; the blast came too suddenly for that.  Beneath bridges, tucked into safe alcoves, or down on dry ledges of the sewers.

My friend understood what it meant to make shelter where you could find it.

After Pops gave me the boot, I had to find a way to support myself; that’s when I learned my hustle.  And Penny here was one of my biggest customers.”

You used to be her dealer?”

Damn, dude, you make it sound dirty.  Weed ain’t no drug, it’s medicine.”

The heroes plan to go west, aiming for San Francisco.  When I was growing up, I had that dream too – I’d read a little about the Merry Pranksters and failed to realize how much the world might have changed.  People living around the Bay Area are still interested in polyamory and psychedelic drugs, but that doesn’t mean they’re nice.  It was heartbreaking to see how racist and ruthless the people there were, especially since I’d expected to find a hippie paradise.

And so my spouse and I moved back to the Midwest. 

But I understand the dream – we’re surrounded by a lot of retrograde cudgleheads, here.  The only problem is that people are pretty similar everywhere else. 

An agrarian based society.  Where everyone works to grow what they eat.  The soil might be okay.  We won’t know all the affects of the radiation until later.”

Well, I know for sure it’s mutated animals near the hit zone.  I’ve seen all kindsa freaky shit.  People too.  It’s like the wild west again, where we’re going.”

The actual “wild west,” in U.S. history, was horrible.  Racism, genocide, misogyny.  But the ideal – a lawless land beyond the hangrith where a person’s ingenuity reaps fortune instead of jail time – might be enough to keep someone going.

And it worked, for a while.  My friend carved out months of sobriety.  He was volunteering at the community food kitchen.  In the late afternoons, he’d type using a computer at the public library.  He was always a very hopeful person; while he was in jail, he asked me to bring physics textbooks so he could use the time productively.  You can get a sense of his enthusiasm from his poetry:

“BIRD TOWN, TN”

by Brett Wagner

Picture this young boy

whose favorite color was the blank white

of a fresh page.  We went running once

on the spring green grass.

As I’ve heard it said,

“There’s nowhere to go but everywhere”

so we ran anywhere in this

jungle gym world.

Somewhere the clouds didn’t smother us

and the hills didn’t exhaust us,

where robins, blue jays, and cardinals sing

like boddhisattvas that have taken wing.

But then he slipped.  A first drink led to more.  He’d been in sober housing; he was kicked out, back onto the streets.  A friend, another New Leaf volunteer, gave him enough money for a few days in a hotel.

We had several cold snaps this winter.  Two nights after his hotel money ran out, temperatures dropped. 

We’d made plans for my friend to join us for a panel with Dave Eggers, where we’d discuss storytelling and incarceration. 

Instead, at 29 years old, Brett Wagner froze to death.  His novel is unfinished; his heroes will not build a new agrarian society.

They had grim odds.  Nuclear fallout is a killer.  But my friend was felled by the apocalypse that’s already upon us.

Header image for this post by akahawkeyefan on Flickr.

On empathy.

On empathy.

Mark Salzman wrote a beautiful memoir about growing up as a nerdy, well-off, suburban white kid.  Lost in Place is charming, and I’d recommend it highly to anyone who likes memoirs and to parents raising children in the suburbs.

Salzman loves to write, and he was lucky enough to make a career out of it.  But, as a well-off white male, he does not have the lived experience to know intimately every sort of character who might populate his books.  Even while writing Lost in Place, he was forced to imagine the experiences of an other – Salzman the adult was writing the book, but he was attempting to recreate the world of Salzman the child.  He was forced to empathize with the (occasionally foolish) thoughts and experiences of the youth he once was; I’d argue, based on the emotional impact of the book, that he succeeded.

The experiential distance between Salzman the adult author and Salzman the youthful protagonist is probably much smaller than the distance between, say, Salzman and an epileptic female nun, or the distance between Salzman and a troubled Latino teen.

Salzman’s Lying Awake, a book about faith and the sacrifices we’re willing to make to maintain it, includes both such characters.  But when he sent a first draft to his editor, she was less than thrilled.  In Salzman’s words (from his memoir True Notebooks):

Carlos was a minor character in the story, a juvenile delinquent with a terminal illness.  Although I had given Carlos tattoos and a bald head, he failed to impress my editor.  She thought he needed a personality.  And “please please please,” she urged in one of her notes, “give him a different name.”

Los Angeles is the youth gang capital of the world, so I figured [my friend] Duane, [who writes for the Los Angeles Times,] must have had to write about them at some point.  I asked if he could recommend any good books about juvenile delinquents that I could use for research.  He thought about it, then answered, “Not really.”

I figured that was the end of that, but then he said, “But I volunteer down at juvenile hall twice a week.  I teach a writing class there.  If you’d like to come down and visit sometime, the guys could tell you more than any book.”

Salzman knew that he was too ignorant to properly empathize with the perceptions of his character, and so he opened himself to the world in order to learn more.  He visited the juvenile detention center.  Soon, he began to teach his own writing class there.  He became friends with several students; hoping to provide moral support, he attended every court date of a young black male who’d shot and killed another kid during a violent altercation in a movie theater.

All writing draws upon empathy.  Even to create nonfiction, a writer must empathize with the reader, puzzling out which words will best allow others to understand whatever it is that the writer hopes to convey.  And with fiction, unless we expect authors to populate each and every novel with clones of themselves, a writer must ponder the ways that a character – and people similar to that character – would perceive the world.

And then, after learning to empathize with characters, a writer must find ways to share that growth.  When it’s done well, understanding spills from the page, which is presumably why reading literary fiction has been experimentally shown to increase empathy.

The world benefits, for example, when the neurodiverse among us write about their lives, giving us firsthand insight into their experience of the world.  But we as a people also benefit when people without autism are allowed, or even encouraged, to consider what the world feels like for others

Imagining what it would be like to inhabit the hearts and minds of others compels us to fight injustice; without these experiences of empathy, we might be complacent to focus only on our own circumstances.

Obviously, there are times when a apparent attempts at empathy fall short.

But there’s a difference between recognizing that some artists don’t empathize enough, and the idea that artists shouldn’t attempt to empathize with others at all.  In the New York Times editorial “In Defense of Cultural Appropriation,” author Kenan Malik writes that:

In 1955, Emmett Till’s mother urged the publication of photographs of her son’s mutilated body as it lay in its coffin.  Till’s murder, and the photographs, played a major role in shaping the civil rights movement and have acquired an almost sacred quality.  It was from those photos that Ms. Schutz began her painting.

To suggest that she, as a white painter, should not depict images of black suffering is as troubling as the demand by some Muslims that Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses should be censored because of supposed blasphemies in its depiction of Islam.  In fact, it’s more troubling because, as the critic Adam Shatz has observed, the campaign against Ms. Schutz’s work contains an “implicit disavowal that acts of radical sympathy, and imaginative identification, are possible across racial lines.”

Image by LA2 on Wikimedia Commons.

In order to convincingly include a troubled youth in his novel, Mark Salzman immersed himself in several young people’s lives.  He allowed his heart to grow.  And he, as a person, was changed.  When he first began teaching, he saw those kids as the sort of bullies who’d harassed him when he was growing up.  After a few years, he saw them as friends, many (if not all) of whom had been forced to endure more trauma as children than other people weather in a lifetime.

They weren’t monsters, they were people.  And he found a way to write about them such that readers, too, would recognize their shared humanity.

And perhaps, perhaps, feel outraged enough by his characters’ circumstances that readers, too, would work toward changing the world.  Because the world is clearly in need of change.  And empathy is the only force powerful enough to compel us to do it.

Header image from a letter sent to me by a former student, as featured in the essay “Asymmetry and the Hatred of Poetry.

On consent.

On consent.

When we were growing up, my sister accidentally signed up for a “record of the month” club.

It began with an innocent mistake. She saw an advertisement asking if she’d like a free copy of an album that she really wanted. So she sent in the little card and checked the box to say that, yes, she would like a free copy of that album!

But then the company kept sending more records … bad records … music that she didn’t want, and quite possibly that nobody wanted … and she had to return them or else get billed … but she had to pay shipping to return them … and, after agreeing to receive that first free album, it was excruciatingly difficult to take her name off their mailing list.

She did say “yes” … but the thing that my sister thought she was saying “yes” to, and the thing that the sleazy record company thought she was saying “yes” to, were very different.

#

In a recent New York Times editorial, Peggy Orenstein cited data from a study that asked college students what they’d “expect to happen next” if they went home with someone they’d just met and danced with at a party. In this scenario, someone is saying “yes” … in response to the question “Do you want to go back to my place.”

But many college students assume that the “yes” suggests impending consent to something other than a late-night stroll. Almost half the men surveyed thought that vaginal sex was likely in that scenario; only a third of women thought so. This disparity suggests that there are a whole lot of pairings out there where somebody thinks that a woman’s “yes” is consenting to a lot more physical intimacy than she desires.

Indeed, a third of the women surveyed had previously been pressured into unwanted sex because they’d wanted to do some fooling around – touching, groping, kissing – but a partner persistently tried to do more even after being told “no.”

Why keep going? Perhaps somebody thought that his partner was simply mercurial – having said “yes,” at first, then “no,” perhaps he figured that she’d soon say “yes” again. Without stopping to think that her original “yes” was consenting to less than he assumed.

And without stopping to think that, even if she had said “yes” to activities that they’d collaboratively, explicitly described, she’s still allowed to say “no” later. Refusing to respect her right to maintain bodily autonomy – even after previous consent – makes for assault.

#

One flaw in Kate Harding’s otherwise lovely Asking For It is her repeated assertion that “you cannot prearrange consent.

This statement is obviously false, because all consent is prearranged. Asking precedes doing. Otherwise, there wasn’t consent when the doing began.

The phrasing from Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert’s More than Two is preferable: that all people “should have the right, without shame, blame, or guilt, to revoke consent to any form of intimacy at any time.

In Asking for It, Harding elaborates with the idea that:

A sleeping person cannot consent to sex. This should be the most obvious thing in the world, and yet it seems to be the place where a lot of folks get hung up.

In some cases, it’s because people don’t want to think of themselves or their lovers as rapists. Every time I’ve made this point online, commenters have rushed to tell me that they enjoy waking up their partners with penetration or vice versa, or even that they have a standing agreement that it’s okay to do so.

Personally, I would feel weird about fooling around with someone who was asleep. Active participation from all parties makes things more fun, and someone who was asleep would be passive to the extreme.

But “a standing agreement that it’s okay to do so” means that the parties involved did arrange consent. “Do you want to have sex with me right now?”, “Do you want to have sex with me in an hour?”, and “Do you want to have sex with me while you’re asleep?” are all valid questions. Strange, but valid. Someone might be interested in responding “yes” to any or all of those.

And of course, per Veaux and Rickert, that “yes” can be retracted. At any time, for any reason.

Although I enjoyed most of Harding’s book, this distinction is important. We are causing real harm when we equate strange but valid practices with assault – in doing so, we give people more opportunity to rationalize assault. If we incorrectly narrow the definition of consent, we empower others to incorrectly expand the definition.

And that – the ability to explain away crimes – is one reason why these assaults are so prevalent.

From Orenstein’s editorial:

When Nicole Bedera, a doctoral candidate in sociology, interviewed male college students, most endorsed the current “yes means yes” standard, which requires active, conscious, continuous, and freely given agreement by all parties engaging in sexual activity. Yet when asked to describe their own most recent encounters, even men who claimed to practice affirmative consent often had not.

When they realized that their actions conflicted with that benchmark, though, they expanded their definition of consent rather than question their conduct. Their ideas of “yes” were so elastic that for some they encompassed behavior that met the legal criteria for assault.

#

In jail last week, we read Fatimah Asghar’s “When Tip Drill Comes on at the Frat Party,” alternately titled “When Refusing to Twerk Is a Radical Form of Self Love.” I’m a sucker for narrative poems that talk about consent, precisely because so many men end up in jail for violating consent.

And Asghar’s poem is excellent:

Sometimes it’s as simple as the boys, howling
under bright lights, who only see the dissected
parts of you –
nose, wrist, nape of neck, nipple –

that which can be held down, pinned back, cut open

Photo of Fatimah Asghar by S L O W K I N G.

Asghar writes about the way young women at collegiate parties must learn to enforce the boundaries of their “yes.” Although a woman has said that “yes,” she wants to dance, or to drink, she did not consent to the “sweaty nails pushing / gritty into your stomach, the weight of claws ripping / at the button on your jeans.

People in jail experience a dramatic loss of personal autonomy. Whenever the men walk to or from my class, they must stop, spread their legs, place their hands upon the wall, and wait for a guard to grope with gloved hands over every contour of their bodies.

Perhaps this sense of violation helped them to understand Asghar’s perspective:

Sometimes it’s as simple
as standing still amid all the moving & heat & card

& plastic & science & sway & say:
No.
Today, this body
is mine.

On ‘The Ravanayan’ and women traveling alone.

On ‘The Ravanayan’ and women traveling alone.

Most ancient stories, including several considered sacred by contemporary societies, are riddled with sex, violence, and gore.  In the Old Testament, Samson goes berserk and murders a thousand men with the jawbone of a donkey.  In the Iliad, Achilles goes berserk and drags a corpse across the battlefield, hoping to defile the body of his foe.  In the Edda, Thor goes berserk and starts smashing skulls with his hammer. 

In the Ramayana, an army of monkeys and an army of demons meet murderously on the battlefield.  From Robert Goldman, Sally Sutherland Goldman, and Barend van Nooten’s translation of the Ramayana:

In that terrible darkness they slaughtered one another in battle: the monkeys crying, “Are you a demon?” and the demons crying, “Are you a monkey?”

Kill!”  “Rend!”  “Come on!”  “What, running away?”  Such were the tumultuous cries that were heard in that darkness.

A tremendous din could be heard as they roared and raced about in that tumultuous battle, though nothing at all could be seen.

In their towering fury, monkeys killed monkeys, while demons slaughtered demons in the darkness.

And as the monkeys and demons killed friend and foe alike, they drenched the earth with blood, making it slick with mud.

#

The weapons described in the Ramayana are so fantastical that some Hindu nationalists cite these passages as evidence that ancient Indians had access to advanced military technology, like atomic bombs.  Which, um, they didn’t.  These claims are equivalent to the Christian archaeologists who scour rocks for evidence of Yahweh’s genocidal flood in the Old Testament.

Ancient myths tend not to be literally true.

But, even to a generation raised on Mortal Kombat and action flicks, mythological battle scenes are pretty intense.  Especially in the Ramayana, what with those magical weapons, flying monkeys, and angry demons.  Luckily for us, Vijayendra Mohanty and Vivek Goel have collaborated to produce The Ravanayan, a gorgeous series of comic books depicting this story.

Divine arrows that explode on impact?  Yup.

#

The Ramayana is an intricate, expansive myth.  Whenever I attempt to summarize it to someone, I begin tentatively – the story includes deep meditations on fate, and its chains of causality often seem involuted and intertwined.  One action causes another, but the second action also caused the first. 

For instance, Rama kills Ravana because Ravana kidnapped Rama’s spouse.  But also, Rama was born for the express purpose of killing Ravana.  Their collision was pre-ordained.

In some tellings, Ravana is a demon.  A monstrous figure who, like Lucifer, initiates an assault on the gods and must be stopped.  Because Ravana is immune to harm from deities, though, Vishnu must be incarnated as a human to slay him.  During Vishnu’s tenure as a human, other characters intentionally waste his time because they are waiting for Rama / Vishnu’s divinity to fade sufficiently for him to be able to fight Ravana.

In other tellings, Ravana is an enlightened figure.  Ravana is vegetarian, whereas Rama’s vice-like passion for hunting is so strong that he abandons his spouse in order to pursue (and kill) a particularly beautiful deer.  By way of contrast, Ravana exemplifies asceticism, forebearance, and learning … but is doomed by love.  In the essay “Three Hundred Ramayanas,” A.K. Ramanujan writes that:

In the Jain texts … Ravana is a noble hero fated by his karma to fall for Sita and bring death upon himself.

And, in some Shaivite interpretations of the Ramayana, the supposed villain has orchestrated the entire affair for the good of the world.  In these tellings, Ravana is like Jesus, intentionally sacrificing himself to potentiate salvation for others.

Mohanty and Goel’s Ravanayan follows this tradition.  In addition to stunning illustrations (seriously, check out Goel’s pictures of Brahma, a creator who contains galaxies), their books offer deep psychological insight, especially in their explanations for Ravana’s seemingly irrational behavior.  In their telling, Ravana is perfectly aware of the pain that he is causing, but he believes that the only way to save the world is by sacrificing himself and those he loves.

Goel’s Brahma.

Goel often depicts Ravana alone, repulsed by the suffering that he himself must cause in pursuit of greater good.

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Precisely because Mohanty and Goel do such an excellent job depicting other portions of the Ramayana, I was disappointed that their series skips the Shoorpanakha episode.  In this scene, an adventurous woman is traveling alone when she meets Rama and his brother.  The two are so gorgeous and charming that she feels smitten and begins to flirt.  The brothers tease her briefly … then mutilate her face by hacking off her nose and ears, a standard punishment for sexual impropriety.

As it happens, the woman whom Rama and his brother have abused is Ravana’s sister.  Shoorpanakha returns to her brother’s kingdom to show Ravana what was done to her.  Only then does Ravana decide to kidnap Rama’s spouse, hoping to punish the brothers for assaulting his sister.

In ancient India, it was unacceptable for a woman to travel alone.  Much worse, Shoorpanakha felt infatuated and attempted to act upon her desires.  Female desire was seen as inherently dangerous; Rama and his brother could been seen as exemplary men despite this assault because Shoorpanakha deserved to have her face sliced open.

Although Mohanty and Goel don’t show Rama and his brother disfiguring Shoorpanakha, her depiction in the first volume of their series is decidedly unsympathetic.  She is described as “wildness itself, chasing after anything that moved.”  When she and her siblings find an injured jungle cat, her younger brother says they should nurse it back to health; she wants to eat it. 

And then, as part of his plan to sacrifice himself for the sake of the story, Ravana murders Shoorpanakha’s husband in order to send her mad with grief. Because no sane woman would be so bold, possessed of such unnatural appetites, as to want to seduce the beautiful, charming, divine men she meets while traveling.

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The Ramayana is thousands of years old.  It’s unreasonable to expect ancient stories to mirror contemporary sensibilities.  We know now, obviously, that many people whose cells contain two x chromosomes enjoy travel, adventure, and sex.  They shouldn’t be judged for their desire.  And certainly not assaulted in retribution for it, as Shoorpanakha was.

Except that … they are.  The New York Times recently ran an article on some of the women who have been attacked while (and quite possibly for) traveling alone.

Women are still punished for their appetites.  For perfectly acceptable behavior, things that would seem strange for men to fear.

If the world were different, I probably wouldn’t fault Mohanty and Goel for their depiction of Shoorpanakha.  After all, they’re working with ancient source material.  The original audience for the Ramayana would have shared a prejudice against adventuresome women.

But, until our world gets better, I feel wary of art that promotes those same prejudices.

A beautiful comic book could change the way kids think about the world.  In The Ravanayan, Mohanty and Goel push readers to feel empathy even for a story’s traditional villain.  I just wish they’d done more.  Our world still isn’t safe for women.  Shoorpanakha, too, has a story that deserves to be heard.

On the value of religious misinterpretation.

On the value of religious misinterpretation.

David Kishik begins his lovely theological meditation The Book of Shem by pondering the inverted grammar that opens Genesis.  Instead of a typical subject verb direct object construction, the first sentence of the original Hebrew text is arranged adverb verb subject direct object.

Wrote Kishik, “This is an odd grammatical construction, not only in English (compare ‘Yesterday walked Joseph’) but also in Hebrew.”  Odd, although not totally outlandish.

Kishik questions whether the grammar was actually strange, however.  What if the book of Genesis opens with a perfectly normal sentence that is intended to convey a bizarre idea, instead.  The first word, which everyone presumes to be an adverb, might instead refer to a power above even Yahweh himself (“Bereshit” in Hebrew, commonly rendered as “In the beginning” in English). 

We would have something like:

InTheBeginning created (a) god, the heavens and the earth.

It seems implausible that Kishik, or anyone, would consider this translation to be what the original authors of Genesis intended.  Even if the translation itself were more plausible, this interpretation is divorced from the actual religious practices that treat Genesis as a foundational text.  Religions use the book, but no religion is defined by a text alone.

It might seem bizarre for InTheBeginning, the mysterious pre-civilized force, to be mentioned only once, at the moment when he creates our Lord.  But Kishik pursues this idea through an entire arc of environmentally-conscious speculation.  If InTheBeginning created Yahweh, then Yahweh’s formidable jealousy becomes comprehensible.  We can understand why Yahweh might compulsively, almost tic-ishly, appraise the quality of his own creations: … and God saw that it was good.

Kishik begins by misinterpreting Genesis, but this allows him to make interesting discoveries along the way.  He concludes that, just as InTheBeginning was a pre-human, pre-lingual force able to create God, there must be a symmetrical post-human, post-textual void for the world to return to.  Although God made a covenant (Genesis 9:11) promising not to destroy the planet, He does not possess total control.

God will not kill us.  But he may not be able to save us.  We humans might destroy this world ourselves.

Indeed, we’re well on our way.

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I was raised in a mostly secular household, and I’m still wary of mysticism (despite my own belief in free will).  I’m quite obviously an outsider to every religious tradition.  But religions shape the way most humans approach the world, so it behooves all people, myself included, to learn and think deeply about them.

Even outsiders must occasionally appropriate the right to critique these texts.

It’s important to understand their standard interpretations.  But, even from the perspective of an outsider, a lot of nuance can be revealed through assiduous misinterpretation.

Kishik’s The Book of Shem, although obviously nonstandard, is an enlightening, pleasurable read.

Or consider John-Michael Bloomquist’s “The Prodigal’s Return,” a poem about teaching in jail, which includes the line:

                  I think Christ died for us

to forgive his father, who until he became a man

and dwelt among us had no way of knowing

what it was like to be Job


In the standard interpretation, Jesus was sacrificed so that God would forgive us humans.  This is a very traditional myth, with variants told by many human cultures across the globe.  Wrathful deities must be appeased through the intentional, unwarranted sacrifice of something good. 

In The Iliad, the Acheans praise Zeus by slitting the throats of a whole row of young men kneeling in the sand.  Abraham bound his son on the mountaintop; the boy survived that day, but a lot of the story’s power comes from the original audience knowing that this sort of sacrifice was common.  They would have realized how close Abraham came to plunging down the knife.  There are numerous stories about the need to murder beautiful virgins to appease volcanoes, or to ensure good harvests, or to bring back rain.

Even though Jesus’s sacrifice makes sense within the framework of traditional mythology, it seems jarring within the context of Christianity, which purports to worship a kind, merciful god.

Within Christianity, it actually makes more sense for God to incarnate himself and suffer greatly so that we humans would forgive Him.  He created this world, and this world causes us to hurt.  Until He feels some of the hurt that He has subjected us to, his apologies would seem insincere.

Loneliness, hopelessness – God subjected Job to these in order to win a bet.  He subjects nearly all humans to these travails as a matter of universal design.  He needs to know the cost that we pay.

After hanging from the cross, He could look to Job and say, I understand how you might have felt.

This is not what the original authors wanted the Bible to convey.  But we’d have a better world if it were.

John-Michael soon learned that being inside a jail – even as a visitor, there to read poetry for ninety minutes and then leave – was miserable.  But he kept going for an entire year.  The people in jail are suffering on behalf of all U.S. citizens – which meant, on his behalf – so he needed to suffer too.

Psychiatry students were once encouraged to ingest many different medications, so that they would understand what the compounds they’d prescribe felt like.

Shared experience – especially painful experience – can bring us together.

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The author(s) of the Ramayana intended for Rama to be the greatest possible man.  Within their philosophical framework, Rama is unambiguously good.  The story is a triumph of the hero.

But it’s helpful to look at the myth with modern eyes and willfully misinterpret it.  When we read the story now, Rama seems flawed because his world was flawed.

Near the end of Rama’s saga his path is blocked by the ocean.  His wife is held captive on an island kingdom; Rama feels helpless, trapped on the shore.  And so he threatens violence against the very waters:

Now, launching a powerful assault, I shall with my arrows dry up the ocean together with its fish and sea monsters and its masses of conch and oyster shells.

This lord of the ocean, abode of sea monsters, thinks that, because I am endowed with forbearance, I am weak.  To hell with forbearance for people like this!

Fetch my bow and my arrows, which are like venomous serpents, for now in my fury I shall convulse the imperturbable ocean.

This passage was translated collaboratively by Robert Goldman, Sally Sutherland Goldman, & Barend Nooten.  And it is troubling to see Rama, the ideal man, threaten physical violence to ensure that the world conforms to his desires.  Goldman and Goldman include the following footnote:

This episode, in its rendition by Tulsi Das, is the setting for his famous verse about how certain things and creatures, including sudras and women, only perform when beaten.  This verse has been the subject of critique and controversy among members of the women’s movement and Dalit advocacy groups in contemporary India.

If we castigate Rama for his words, we are clearly misinterpreting the text.  Rama is good within the text, because this behavior was good within his world.  A man, head of the household, was allowed to beat his wife or servants if they did not meet his expectations.  

Most people would find it difficult to read Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” with a straight face now.  But, in another revealing misinterpretation, proponents of the Dravidar Kazhagam movement have found parallels between the Ramayana itself and a Kipling-esque tale of colonial conquest and oppression.  In the Ramayana, light-skinned north Indians execute a south Indian king, subjugate the local populace, and install their own ruler.  (I’ve written about this interpretation previously, here.)

Hinduism itself, along with the oppressions of the caste system, seems to have reached south India in this way.  The original conquest probably occurred around the time that the Ramayana was composed, although the spread of Hinduism was not yet complete even many centuries of years later, when Kipling’s British white men arrived to make matters even worse.

In Ants Among Elephants, Sujatha Gidla writes that:

When I asked my mother and my uncle about our ancestors, they started with their grandparents’ generation, the earliest one they’d known.

Their grandfather and grandmother were born in the late 1800s in the Khammam district, within what later became the state of Andhra Pradesh, where they lived as part of a nomadic clan.  Their clan did not practice agriculture.  They subsisted on fruits, on roots, on honey, on whatever they could catch or snare.  They were not Hindus.  They worshiped their own tribal goddesses and had little to do with society outside the forest where they lived.

When the British cleared the forests for teak plantations, my great-grandparents’ clan was driven out onto the plains, where the civilized people, the settled ones, the ones who owned land and knew how to cultivate it – in a word, the Hindus – lived.  The little clan, wandering outside the forest, found a great lake and settled around it.  There was no sign of human life for miles and miles.  They took up farming.  The land around the lake was fertile and gave them more than they needed.  They called their new settlement Sankarapadu, after one of their gods.

But soon the civilized people took notice of them.  They were discovered by an agent of the local zamindar – the great landlord appointed by the British to collect revenue in that area – who saw the rice growing in their fields and levied taxes, keeping the bulk of what he extracted for himself.

But that was not enough for this agent.  He and his family and his caste people moved nearby and set about stealing the land by force and by cunning.  They loaned the clansmen trivial sums at usurious rates to buy small necessities such as salt, seeds, or new clothes for a wedding.  Unable to pay off these debts, the villagers gave up their land acre by acre.  My ancestors, who had cleared and settled the area, were reduced to working on their old fields as laborers.

This is what has happened to tribal peoples in India who try to settle down and cultivate land since time immemorial.  It still happens to this day.  What set Sankarapadu apart was that the Hindus who usurped all the fields around it did not settle there themselves.  That’s because the village is surrounded by fetid swamps filled with poisonous snakes, scorpions, and thick swarms of mosquitoes.  The landlords settled on safe and elevated ground several miles away in a village called Polukonda.

In the forest, my great-grandfather’s clan had had no caste.  But in Hindu society everyone is assigned a place in the caste system.  Certain castes traditionally own land, and others have to work for those who do.  For those who must work, the caste you are born into determines the kind of work you do.  There are priestly castes, carpenter castes, potter castes, barber castes.  The more impure a caste’s traditional occupation in terms of ritual law, the lower its status.

When the people of Sankarapadu entered Hindu society with no caste of their own and the most impure occupation of all, that of landless laborers, there was no question where their place would be: at the bottom, as despised outcastes.  Outcastes are also called untouchables because they are supposed to be so ritually unclean that the slightest contact with them will defile even low-caste Hindus.  Untouchables cannot share meals with others, much less intermarry with them, and are made to live apart from the rest of the village in a segregated colony on its outskirts.  Sankarapadu became the untouchable colony of Polukonda, albeit an unusually remote on.

The Ramayana was not meant to be a story of oppression.  But this misinterpretation has value, because it helps us understand the widespread biases of the author’s world — biases that persist to this day and still cause horrific suffering and violence.

Anachronistic critique will invariably lead us to misinterpret religious texts.  That shouldn’t stop us.  I’m curious to know what the old stories would mean if the world were as good as it could be.

On kind, environmentalist, and vegan books for kids.

On kind, environmentalist, and vegan books for kids.

Our children love books.  We visit the public library every Friday and typically exit with one or two full tote bags (the only exception being days when our kids are so upset at the thought of leaving the library that they start yelling, at which point we might fail to check out any of the books we’d set aside).

At home, our children spend an hour or two each day reading.  Our preschooler actually knows how; our two-year-old flips through the pages of his favorites and recites aloud as much of the text as he remembers.  With his current favorites, like The Itchy Book, Potato Pants, or I Will Take a Nap, his versions are quite close to the printed edition.

Before our four year old learned to read, I never would have expected how sad her growth would make me feel.  She still curls up in my arm to hear bedtime stories, and she likes to read comic strips together for the chance to have jokes explained to her, but she’s been devouring The Magic Treehouse series and early chapter books by Beverly Cleary on her own.

Our family is fairly liberal.  We devote a lot of our free time to advocacy for environmental causes, veganism, justice, gender equality … and, when I read books to our children, I often change the words. 

In Owl at Home, our readings have Owl telling winter, “Do not come back,” as the text reads, but we also add “until you have changed your ways.”  Because, the kids agree, everyone should have a chance to grow; we all make mistakes and could use second chances.

In The Snowy Day, Peter tries to join “the big kids” in their snowball fight before realizing that he isn’t quite old enough yet.

And in many books, we change the foods that characters are eating.  Our kids love animals, and it’s easier for them to enjoy a story if the characters have tofu or vegetables on their plates instead of an animal.

But sometimes it’s nice to have a beautiful book that needs no substitutions.  I trawled through a few lists of vegan kids’ books, but many of these, like Dave Loves Chickens, are blatantly ideological texts that don’t quite work as stories.  And so, in case you were looking for recommendations, here are a few of our family’s favorites.

The Great Pig Escape by Eileen Christelow tells the story of a group of pigs who escape from a truck when a pair of farmers are taking them to market.  When the piglets first arrive, one of the farmers remarks that they’re cute, but the other reminds her, “Eight months from now they’ll be pork chops, so don’t go falling in love with them!”

But the pigs are lovable, and quite clever too.  They sabotage the farmers’ truck in a way that will abet their escape, then later steal clothes to disguise themselves as regular civilians.  (Lest you worry that the book encourages thievery, you should know that the pigs later mail a package full of clothing, returning everything they took.  Everyone is overjoyed to receive their belongings back – except the farmers, who receive a cheerful postcard instead of their lost pigs.)

We also purchased a copy to give to our local farmed animal sanctuary … after using watercolors and packing tape to modify the art so that the pigs were escaping to that sanctuary instead of to Florida.

The Dog House by Jan Thomas features a quartet of animal friends who accidentally toss their ball into a spooky doghouse.  One by one the animals go inside, attempting to retrieve the ball, but they don’t come out again.  Eventually only the mouse is left and he whimpers, “Won’t you come back out, duck?”  But a big, scary-looking dog stomps outside to say, “No, because I’m having duck for dinner!”

The mouse is horrified – someone is eating his friend!

Except that the dog is having duck stay as a guest – the animals all share a tasty vegan meal with parsnips and other vegetables.

Our family lives with a big, scary-looking pit bull, as well as a rather wolf-like hound dog … both of whom are vegan.

Me, Jane by Patrick McDonnell tells the story of Jane Goodall learning how to quietly observe nature, the skill that enabled her scientific discoveries.  There are several charming children’s books about Jane Goodall (we also like The Watcher by Jeanette Winter, which describes her research in more detail), but we love McDonnell’s art. 

When our preschooler first learned to read, she favored comic strips.  She had recently turned four and loved Calvin and Hobbes.  Heck, I love Calvin and Hobbes too.  But I’m a wee bit older than four.  I’d like to think that I have a good grasp on the concepts like irony and antiheroes.  Our child did not.  She asked, “Mama, what’s a poopy head?” because Hobbes had slung that insult at Calvin.  Well, that’s not ideal, but, fine.  Kids are eventually going to learn salty language.

Worse, our kid’s behavior tanked.  She started raging, battling her sibling, kicking dust at the playground … when we pulled her aside to talk about that last activity, she explained, “Calvin says it’s the best part of playing baseball!”

Well, yes, there is a comic strip where Calvin says that.  I had to explain that grown-ups think it’s funny because Calvin is doing the wrong thing.  Our kid nodded, but the expression on her face made me think that she was dubious.

So I wound up hiding all our Calvin and Hobbes.  Soon after, I hid all our Peanuts, which also feature kids acting less kindly than we would like.

But McDonnell’s Mutts?  Mutts can stay.  The characters are mostly gentle and kind, and we feel confident that McDonnell shares our passion for treating both our neighbors and our planet with respect.

So Me, Jane is a book about a prominent vegan activist that is written and drawn by a prominent vegan cartoonist.  But it’s not sanctimonious in the least – it’s values are like deep currents, coursing beneath the text.  I would feel comfortable sharing that book with any child, even if I knew nothing about the parents’ political beliefs, because the only explicit statements stress the value of patience and hard work.

Gus’s Garage by Leo Timmers features a asiduous mechanic who lets nothing go to waste.  The book begins with a large mound of what appears to be useless junk next to Gus’s small shop, but as various animals arrive and describe their travails, Gus is able to engineer solutions to their problems with the materials he has on hand.

Again, there is no explanation given in the text for why Gus lives the way he does.  And I like that – because the message is so subtle, a wide range of people could enjoy this book.  Gus is both resourceful and ingenious, in a way that might evoke the survival skills that many Americans of my grandmother’s generation developed during the Great Depression, and which exemplifies the “reduce, re-use, recycle” mantra taught to elementary schoolchildren of my own generation.

Plus, the art is excellent and the sing-song rhymes are a pleasure to read aloud.

Julia’s House for Lost Creatures by Ben Hatke beautifully conveys why a family needs rules: a fair set of rules can allow a group of very different individuals to live together peacefully.  Interested in talking to a two- or three-year-old about the refugee crisis?  There is a troll who arrives at Julia’s door after fleeing political turmoil at home (the city has torn down his bridge).  Trying to introduce your children to the concept of chores?  Julia eventually crafts a “chore chart,” giving everyone a manageable task that relies upon the guests’ unique talents.

(Perhaps I should mention, since I’m including Julia’s House for Lost Creatures in a list of vegan children’s books, that one picture depicts the imp-like folletti roasting something that looks very much like a chicken in the oven.  Since our kids have never seen this food, I’m not sure they ever realized.  And, besides, we’ve talked to them about veganism as a way of being kind – and this book is exceptionally kind.)

For slightly older children, you could try the early reader chapter book Ellie and the Good Luck Pig by Callie Barkley.  This is part of The Critter Club series, about a group of friends (when we read this aloud, we always change “the girls” into “the friends” or “the kids” … our preschooler will actually make substitutions like this on her own when she reads aloud to her sibling) who form something like an animal shelter in a neighbor’s barn. 

I had originally assumed that the kids in The Critter Club, who bonded over their love of animals, would all be vegetarian, but no such luck.  And perhaps it’s worth mentioning that I personally find the entire series to be like the literary equivalent of cotton candy.  There are some kids’ books, like Nate the Great, that I enjoy as much or more than my kids do … but not these.  Still, I’m not the target audience.  Our preschooler loves these.  The characters typically undergo some form of mild conflict that is just complicated enough for her to understand.  And a perfectly happy resolution will come after a few dozen pages.

In Ellie and the Good Luck Pig, the piglet is adopted by someone who runs a sanctuary for famed animals. 

Our family doesn’t manage to volunteer at our local farmed animal sanctuary as often as we did before having kids, but we’ve still gone several times in the last few years for me to pitch in some work.  Our kids like visiting – they especially like getting to see the pigs – but the drive is hard.

I’ve heard it gets easier, though.  Eventually they’ll grow up.  They’ll be able to sit quietly – reading, no doubt – in the car for a few hours at a time.

And I’ll feel sad.  Their intellectual journeys will leave me behind.

But I hope that we will have set them off in the right direction.