On translation.

On translation.

Before stumbling into a life of drug addiction and bank robbery, the protagonist of Nico Walker’s Cherry served in the Army.  He’s miserable overseas, but, to be fair, he was miserable in the United States, too.  He eventually blames all his problems – the drugs, the crime – on a lady friend’s promiscuous behavior while he was in the service.  He takes great pains to describe all the readily-available sexual encounters he forwent to stay true to her, even claiming that he would not think of anyone else while masturbating.

But he does a great job of describing the misery of military service: the trauma is understated, focusing instead on doldrums and drudgery.

Oo!  Ta-ah!  Here come the Warrior Medics!

The refrain was to go on indefinitely, till we were signaled to stop.  That’s how it went.  And from that day on, whenever the company was called to attention (something that happened no less than a million times on a given day), the company cheer was to be recited in its entirety.  No exceptions.  To make matters worse, after a while it got to be expected that the guidon bearer would do the robot throughout the refrain.

So don’t ever join the fucking Army.

Soon, he is in Iraq.  His patrol relies upon interpreters to communicate with anyone they meet.

The patrol leader asked the mustache haji questions about what he was doing out so late and where he was coming from and where he was going.  An interpreter translated.

The car was clean.

The radio said to let the hajis go on their way.

The patrol leader said to the interpreter, “Tell that that from now on they must respect the curfew.  It’s for their own safety.  They could’ve been hurt out here tonight and we don’t want that to happen.”

And the interpreter said something.  As far as what he said, we’d have to trust him.  So that was that.

American soldiers don’t trust the interpreters, feeling sure their sympathies are secretly with the other side.  As it happens, the Iraqis don’t trust interpreters, either.  By translating, the interpreters keep everyone safe because they allow the two sides to communicate – sometimes words can resolve disputes, instead of bullets. 

But the interpreters themselves were endangered.  In Sympathy for the Traitor, literary translator Mark Polizzotti writes:

As recently as 2011, the Armed Forces Journal reported that interpreters in Iraq were “10 times more likely to die in combat than deployed American or international forces,” because neither the troops they were interpreting for nor the enemy they were speaking to had complete confidence in the fidelity of what they were relating.

Both sides assumed that the translators had some hidden agenda or secret loyalty to the other.  There is always the danger, when we speak for someone else, that our own interests will distort whatever message we’d been expected to deliver.

This happens even with my kids.  Our two-year-old says something to me, then I tell my spouse, “She’s worried because you said that … “

“No,” she interjects.

“What?”

mumble mumble garble digger mumble

Well, great, kid.  I misrepresented your intent, but only because I have no idea what you’re trying to say!

When translating literature, there’s an additional difficulty.  Most languages have ways to communicate common human experiences – what can I eat?, how much will it cost me?, how do I get there?  But literature draws upon the whole set of meanings and associations that link words to concepts.  In general, there won’t be a direct equivalent between languages.

In an essay for the New York Review of Books, Perry Link writes that:

In teaching Chinese-language courses to American students, which I have done about thirty times, perhaps the most anguishing question I get is “Professor Link, what is the Chinese word for _______?”

I am always tempted to say the question makes no sense.  Anyone who knows two languages moderately well knows that it is rare for words to match up perfectly, and for languages as far apart as Chinese and English, in which even grammatical categories are conceived differently, strict equivalence is not possible.

Book is not shu, because shu, like all Chinese nouns, is conceived as an abstraction, more like “bookness,” and to say “a book” you have to say, “one volume of bookness.”  Moreover shu, but not book, can mean “writing,” “letter,” or “calligraphy.”  On the other hand you can “book a room” in English; you can’t shu one in Chinese.

And, beyond the fact that languages differ from each other, every reader is unique.  In “Does Talking About Books Make Us More Cosmopolitan?,” Tim Parks writes that:

To exist as a book, the pages with their letters and spaces need a reader.  We may think of books as unchanging material objects, but they only, as it were, happen when read; they have no absolute identity.  And the nature of that reading – an experience extended over many hours, then mulled over for many more, for the book does not cease to happen the moment we turn the last page – will depend, to a large degree, on who the reader is.

I grew up in the United States, speaking only English during the years when my brain would have absorbed new languages most easily, so I read a lot of literature in translation.  This is suboptimal, I know.  I would enjoy a richer experience of humanity if I could read more of our world’s literature in the original.  But my life would be dreadfully impoverished if not for the charitable exertions of many translators, because then I wouldn’t have a chance to read many stories at all.

I am personally unqualified to translate any piece of literature, or to judge how well a particular translation conveys the sense of the original, as a native speaker who lived contemporaneously to the author might have understood it.  But I am an experienced reader, and I am the reader’s premier expert on the way literature makes me feel.  Occasionally I find myself musing, despite not knowing how to speak the source language, whether I might rephrase certain passages.  Especially when primed with excellent notes, such as in Hayden Pelliccia’s review of two translations of the Iliad.

The Iliad opens with a word generally translated as “wrath,” yet this is the direct object of the first sentence.  In Greek, this makes sense, but in English we identify subjects and objects based upon their location in a sentence.  Pelliccia writes that

The very first line of the Iliad forces any English-language translator to decide immediately and to declare conspicuously whether he would rather be caught betraying his poet or his own language.

I couldn’t help but draft my own variant:

Wrath, hubric wrath of Achilles

As sung by the goddess

Wrought pain & devastation for the Achaians

Droves hurled to Hades, souls hewn from heroes

Their bodies leavings for dogs, a feast for vultures and crows –

So was His plan fulfilled

Set stirring in that moment

Agamemnon and Achilles

Parted in fury.

Obviously my second line fails to convey what Homer wanted – “sung” has a waft of fate to it, as though this story was preordained by the goddess, whereas Homer exhorts his muse to relate the tragedy after it occurred.  My failure is unsurprising, considering both my lack of Greek and Pelliccia’s assertion that every professional translation available to date has failed as well.  But the experience of translation was a success – another reader might well be dissatisfied with my lines, but creating them changed me for the better.

Although Ezra Pound could not read or speak Mandarin, his translation of classical poetry for Cathay had a huge influence on both his own writing and the subsequent work of other English-language poets.  Although Christopher Logue could not read or speak Greek, his adaptation of the Iliad is a fantastic work of poetry. 

Homer lavished attention on the myriad ways that humans might die upon a battlefield.  And in War Music, Logue interlaces Homeric myth with modern nightmare:

         Drop into it.

Noise so clamorous it sucks.

You rush your pressed-flower hackles out

To the perimeter.

         And here it comes:

That unpremeditated joy as you

The Uzi shuddering warm against your hip

Happy in danger in a dangerous place

Yourself another self you found at Troy –

Squeeze nickel through that rush of Greekoid skum!

Oh wonderful, most wonderful, and then again more wonderful

A bond no word or lack of words can break,

Love above love!

         And here they come again the noble Greeks,

Ido, a spear in one a banner in his other hand

Your life at every instant up for –

Gone.

         And, candidly, who gives a toss?

Dead: pointlessly, unmemorably dead.  By depicting the utter dehumanization of war – “who gives a toss?,” and female captives referred to with just the pronoun she, as in the opening scene when Achilles is enraged because Agamemnon announces that “I shall take his prize she” – he demonstrates just how precious life should be.

Logue knew no Greek, but his Iliad changed my life for the better.

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 silenced voices.

On silenced voices.

During high school, I read dozens of Agatha Christie novels.  But, recently, I rarely read mysteries.  Like everybody else, I plowed through The Da Vinci Code and the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books, but I’ve picked up few others in the past decade.

unnamed.jpgSo it was a rare treat to set aside a few hours over the weekend for Rudolph Fisher’s The Conjure-Man Dies (1932).  It’s a lovely book, wonderful even though Fisher was writing with one hand metaphorically tied behind his back.  His was the first mystery novel published by an African-American writer, so the writing style is reserved, even staid.  If the whole narrative were written with the linguistic inventiveness that Fisher was capable of, he might not have found a publisher.

Within dialogue, though, Fisher lets his writing crackle.  The following passage shows off this dichotomy:

          On he strolled past churches, drugstores, ice-cream parlors, cigar stores, restaurants, and speakeasies.  Acquaintances standing in entrances or passing him by offered the genial insults which were characteristic Harlem greetings:

          “What you say, blacker’n me?”

          “How you doin’, short-order?”

          “Ole Eight-Ball!  Where you rollin’, boy?”

          In each instance, Bubber returned some equivalent reply, grinned, waved, and passed on.  He breathed deeply of the keen sweet air, appraised casually the trim, dark-eyed girls, admired the swift humming motors that flashed down the Avenue.

Conjure-Man DiesThough the novel is nearly a hundred years old, its concerns are strikingly modern.  For instance, the narrative digresses into an investigation of free will, the relationship between quantum-mechanical uncertainty and human thought, the limitations of medical diagnosis —  all topics that still confound contemporary philosophers.  Fisher was remarkably up-to-date: the Heissenberg uncertainty principle was first proposed a mere five years before The Conjure-Man Dies was published, and yet the novel incorporates the central idea more accurately than many contemporary writers.  Some of this can be seen in a short dialogue between the characters Dr. Archer — Fisher’s simulacrum within the novel — and Frimbo, a brilliant, highly-educated man who makes his living as a fortune teller.

          Easily and quickly they began to talk with that quick intellectual recognition which characterizes similarly reflective minds.  Dr. Archer’s apprehensions faded away and shortly he and his host were eagerly embarked on discussions that at once made them old friends: the hopelessness of applying physico-chemical methods to psychological problems; the nature of matter and mind and the possible relations between them; the current researches of physics, in which matter apparently vanished into energy, and Frimbo’s own hypothesis that probably the mind did likewise.  Time sped.  At the end of an hour Frimbo was saying:

          “But as long as this mental energy remains mental, it cannot be demonstrated.  It is like potential energy — to be appreciated it must be transformed into heat, light, motion — some form that can be grasped and measured.  Still, by assuming its existence, just as we do that of potential energy, we harmonize psychology with mechanistic science.”

          “You astonish me,” said the doctor.  “I thought you were a mystic, not a mechanist.”

          “This,” returned Frimbo, “is mysticism — an undemonstrable belief.  Pure faith in anything is mysticism.  Our very faith in reason is a kind of mysticism.”

If you like mysteries, you’d be well-served reading this novel.

And so, when I reached the end of the book, I expected to find a few pages with a catalog of other mystery novels.  Instead, there was a list that began, “BLACK HISTORY: Other Books of Interest.  Individual titles in Series I, II, and III of the Amo Press collection THE AMERICAN NEGRO: HIS HISTORY AND LITERATURE are listed in the following pages.”  The selections were almost all academic history books, things like Modern Negro Art and Religion in Higher Education Among Negros (to choose only those two titles that bracket the page on which The Conjure-Man Dies is listed.)

Methinks this listing is not the way for The Conjure-Man Dies to find its audience.  Which I could elaborate upon, but, as it happens, I don’t need to.  Percival Everett, in his novel Erasure, explained this better than I could:

Erasure          While Lisa wandered off to the garden book section, I stood in the middle of Border’s thinking how much I hated the chain and chains like it.  I’d talked to too many owners of little, real bookstores who were being driven to the poorhouse by what they called the WalMart of books.  I decided to see if the store had any of my books, firm in my belief that even if they did, my opinion about them would be unchanged.  I went to Literature and did not see me.  I went to Contemporary Fiction and did not find me, but when I fell back a couple of steps I found a section called African American Studies and there, arranged alphabetically and neatly, read undisturbed, were four of my books including my Persians of which the only thing ostensibly African American was my jacket photograph.  I became quickly irate, my pulse speeding up, my brow furrowing.  Someone interested in African American Studies would have little interest in my books and would be confused by their presence in the section.  Someone looking for an obscure reworking of a Greek tragedy would not consider looking in that section any more than the gardening section.  The result in either case, no sale.  That fucking store was taking food from my table.

          Saying something to the poor clone of a manager was not going to fix anything, so I resigned to keep quiet.

I learned about Erasure from Parul Sehgal’s lovely essay in the New York Times MagazineErasure is a satirical novel about an ambitious black writer who struggles to have his work taken seriously — he’s losing his struggle, though, because, although his work is good, his writing does not match what people expect from someone with his skin tone.  From the opening pages:

percival everett.png          While in college I was a member of the Black Panther Party, defunct as it was, mainly because I felt I had to prove I was black enough.  Some people in the society in which I live, described as being black, tell me I am not black enough.  Some people whom the society calls white tell me the same thing.  I have heard this mainly about my novels, from editors who have rejected me and reviewers whom I have apparently confused and, on a couple of occasions, on a basketball court when upon missing a shot I muttered Egads.  From a reviewer:

          The novel is finely crafted, with fully developed characters, rich language and subtle play with the plot, but one is lost to understand what this reworking of Aeschylus’ The Persians has to do with the African American experience.

          One night at a party in New York, one of the tedious affairs where people who write mingle with people who want to write and with people who could help either group begin or continue to write, a tall, thin, rather ugly book agent told me I could sell many books if I’d forget about writing retellings of Euripides and parodies of French poststructuralists and settle down to write the true, gritty stories of black life.  I told him that I was living a black life, far blacker than he could ever know, that I had lived one, that I would be living one.  He left me to chat with an on-the-rise perfomance artist / novelist who had recently posed for seventeen straight hours in front of the governor’s mansion as a lawn jockey.  He familiarly flipped one of her braided extensions and tossed a thumb back in my direction.

          The hard, gritty truth of the matter is that I hardly ever think about race.  Those times when I did think about it a lot I did so because of my guilt for not thinking about it.  I don’t believe in race.  I believe there are people who will shoot me or hang me or cheat me and try to stop me because they do believe in race, because of my brown skin, curly hair, wide nose and slave ancestors.  But that’s just the way it is.

Sehgal has written several excellent essays about the phenomenon of erasure, or silenced voices, recently.  Two paragraphs from her essay on the student protests at elite universities cut deep.

In Tablet, James Kirchick wrote, “When I hear, in 2015, students complain about feeling ‘marginalized’ at Yale due to their racial, ethnic, religious, sexual, or any other identity … I can’t help but think of James Meredith.”  In 1962, flanked by federal marshals, Meredith became the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi. 

James_Meredith_OleMiss.jpg

“When I see photographs of Meredith and other black students of the civil rights era,” Kirchick wrote, “I don’t see people pleading for dean’s excuses so they can huddle in a ‘safe space’ to recover from ‘traumatic racial events.’  I see unbelievably courageous young men and women.”

Of course, it’s one thing to look at a photograph of James Meredith and concoct a fantasy of his bravery and resilience — a photograph is silent; it cannot clarify or correct.  To listen to James Meredith is a different thing entirely.  “Ole Miss kicked my butt, and they’re still celebrating,” he said in an interview with Esquire in 2012.  “Because every black that’s gone there since me has been insulted, humiliated, and they can’t even tell their story.  Everybody has to tell James Meredith’s story — which is a lie.  The powers that be in Mississippi understand this very clearly.”  He continued, “They’re gonna keep on doin’ it because it makes it impossible for blacks there now to say anything about what’s happened to them.”

What a masterful reversal of logic.

Passages like this hurt so much for me to read because I, too, tacitly assented to our systematic silencing of minority voices for many years.  During my twenty-some years of formal education, I hardly ever read the work of black authors, learned almost nothing about African-American history except than the usual narrative about how Martin Luther King, Jr. strove mightily and was sacrificed but everything is all better now.  Which is, it seems, not exactly correct.

Indeed, even when I began to learn more history and investigate silenced voices for my own work, I came at the problem through mythology.  Canonical texts typically related only one side of stories, and even then include only the voices of a privileged few; the lives of others are submerged by time.  Even in epic poetry like The Iliad, the cares and concerns of women disappear: Helen, for instance, is used as a mouthpiece for male sentiment.  After leaving her rampantly-unfaithful husband for a more charming lover, she says (in the Stephen Mitchell translation):

          “But come in, dear brother-in-law,

sit down on this chair and rest yourself for a while,

since the burden falls upon you more than the others,

through my fault, bitch that I am, and through Paris’s folly.

Zeus has brought us an evil fate, so that poets

can make songs about us for all future generations.”

6359291237_72c4bdafc1
Photo by Ricky Brigante on Flickr.

Really, Homer?  “Bitch that I am?”  I’m well aware that many women who leave violent, abusive husbands suffer self-recriminations for years, but this strikes me as a decidedly male sentiment, as though the “face that launch’d a thousand ships” were really the inanimate wood of a ventriloquist’s dummy.

Until Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, women seem similarly silenced in American history.  Until Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus, women & the low-caste seem to have been silenced from Hinduism.  To the best of my knowledge, there has been no similar corrective to Christianity, at least not one that has seeped into the popular consciousness.

This phenomenon is part of what drew me to the Ramayana.  This myth burbles with unheard stories at the periphery of the main narrative.  Through the years, numerous writers have attempted to bring these admurmerations to the fore, but their work has been similarly neglected.  From an essay by Nabaneeta Dev Sen,

Similarly, Candravati Ramayana [composed circa 1600] has been neglected and rejected for years by our male custodians of Bengali literature as an incomplete work.  This is what we call a silenced text.  The editors decided it was a poor literary work because it was a Ramayana that did not sing of Rama.  Its eccentricity confused not only the editors but also historians of Bengali literature to such an extent that they could not even see the complete epic narrative pattern clearly visible in it.  It got stamped as an incomplete text.  Today, a rereading of the narrative exposes an obvious failure of the male critics and historians: to recognize Candravati Ramayana as a personal interpretation of the Rama-tale, seen specifically from the wronged woman’s point of view.

And, linking the Ramayana with the issues described at the beginning of this post, the villainized dark-skinned king’s side of the story is never told.  I’ve been enamored with the peripheral stories in the Ramayana ever since learning of the Dravida Kazhagam interpretation, which recasts the dark-skinned villain as a hero and the entire narrative as a tragedy.

Street_Scene_with_Movie_Posters_-_Thanjavur_-_India.jpg
Image by Adam Jones on Wikipedia.

To put this into perspective for someone from the United States, this is akin to a retelling of the Bible in which God is a tyrannical oppressor and Satan the tragic hero (and, to differentiate this hypothetical work from Paradise Lost, Satan would have to think of himself & his efforts to enlighten humanity as fundamentally good).  To wit: a radical, and oft-denounced, retelling.

What with recasting the erudite, beleaguered dark-skinned man as a hero, you could reasonably draw parallels between the DK Ramayana and, say, the upcoming Nat Turner film.  The struggles of a man rebelling against the invention of “race” in the United States.

Why, after all, should the presence of more melanin in someone’s skin curtail opportunities?  Which is yet another idea presented beautifully in The Conjure-Man Dies.  Here, I’ll end this post with one last quotation, again drawn from the conversation between the sleuthing doctor and the fortune teller (who was presumed to have died, but somehow returned to life to investigate his own murder):

          “I had really intended to discuss the mystery of this assault,” the doctor declared.  “Perhaps we can do that tomorrow?”

          Frimbo smiled.

          “Mystery?  That is no mystery.  It is a problem in logic, and perfectly calculable.  I have one or two short-cuts which I shall apply tomorrow night, of course, merely to save time.  But genuine mystery is incalculable.  It is all around us — we look upon it every day and do not wonder at it at all.  We are fools, my friend.  We grow excited over a ripple, but exhibit no curiosity over the depth of the stream.  The profoundest mysteries are those things which we blandly accept without question.  See.  You are almost white.  I am almost black.  Find out why, and you will have solved a mystery.”

          “You don’t think the causes of a mere death a worthy problem?”

          “The causes of a death?  No.  The causes of death, yes.  The causes of life and death and variation, yes.  But what on earth does it matter who killed Frimbo — except to Frimbo?”

          They stood a moment in silence.  Presently Frimbo added in an almost bitter murmur:

          “The rest of the world would do better to concern itself with why Frimbo was black.”