Thursday, August 31, 2006

Books I read while I was writing Part 1.

“Mastery, Tyranny and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and his slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World,” by Trevor Burnard

Even with a shared legacy of slavery and a realization that it remains the crucial shaper of not just the African Diaspora but the political, economic and social foundation of the Caribbean, “Mastery Tyranny and Desire” still comes across as a revelatory, appalling shock. I was tempted to think that the black person’s awareness of slavery was much like the Jew’s knowledge of the holocaust. That even if one had not experienced it directly, the event was such a traumatic shaper of subsequent Jewish life that one absorbed all its facets as common knowledge. But in both cases I was wrong. There are still facets to the holocaust, still being uncovered and there are still aspects of slavery (the black holocaust) still being discovered anew.

In that sense, this book, an analysis of slave and property owner, Thomas Thistlewood’s diaries becomes essential. From 1750 when he sailed to Jamaica, to 1786 when he died at sixty-five, Thomas Thistlewood, middle class before his time, wrote in his diary every day. Most of it was preserved and are kept in museums worldwide, but put together they stand as a valuable, shocking and essential document, in many ways the most essential of all the slavery accounts from whites. Oddly enough it is the limitations that give the diaries their power.

Thistlewood was by nobody’s standards a remarkable man. He was a man of means who made wealth for himself in the new world by being an overseer; a man who eventually bought his own property that included a humble two storey house and several slaves. He was no great wit like Jefferson, nor did he sprinkle his words with moral contempt like historian Edward Long, nor was he gifted with self-analysis like many of his peers. But he did keep a diary for most of his life, which was in itself remarkable for a man.

Trevor Burnard, even when he is analyzing Thistlewood’s words and reminding the reader of the context, is wise enough to know when to get out of the way and let Thistlewood speak for himself. Thistlewood’s words are both artless and heartless. He would list his several sexual dalliances as if they were shopping lists; most times in abbreviations mixed with schoolboy Latin as if he feared discovery. Given that a large portion of his sexual conquests were married white women that was understandable. A typical episode would be written like this:

“Cum E.T.—cum illa in nocte quinque tempora. Sed non bene”
Translated: “Had sex with Lady Elizabeth Toyne (wife of his employer) last night. Not very good.”

The diaries are also bracing in their depiction of violence. Whatever perspective one uses while reading this book, whether the reader transports himself to the time or judges the time with a distance, the details are still horrendous precisely because they are so matter-of-fact. Perhaps what is most striking about that time, is how behaviour that would today be defined as sociopathic was given free reign:

“His sexual appetite appears less that of a Caribbean Casanova than the unnatural and bestial longings of a quintessential sexual predator and rapist. His willingness to subject his slaves to horrific punishments, which include savage whippings of up to 350 lashes and sadistic tortures of his own invention such as Derby’s dose, in which a slave defecated in the mouth of another slave’s mouth and was then wired shut, reveal Thistlewood as a brutal sociopath.”P31

One could explain Thistlewood’s actions as mere symptoms of his time and one would be right, but not as Burnard deftly explains, in the way one might think. The fact is, Jamaica, unlike the United states and the Latin American colonies was never properly settled. There were no magnificent buildings or strong social structures to force the rule of either law or “civilized” behaviour. That left many men to make their own laws without worrying about any moral authority beyond their own conscience. It also allowed for men to explore the darker sides of their sexual nature unencumbered by any fear of retribution. It asks the reader a pointed question. If you could get away with it as they could, would you do it? There’s a theory that Jack the Ripper escaped to the Caribbean, and if he did, he could not have picked a better place.

The Thistlewood diaries provide much rich information for the historical writer but even more for the writer interested in deciphering the European mind and its inherent contradictions and hypocrisies. I took both from this book, the shopping list of atrocities as well as the oxymoron of enlightened Europeans subjecting other people to slavery. The book forces readers to not only witness the thinking of the slave owner but to empathise with it. Here the diaries succeed in a way the very best fiction hopes to.

But the book also exposes the limitations of fiction and the line that every writer must draw for himself when dealing with facts. What does one do when fact is more shocking than fiction? What does one do when the absolute brutality of truth would stretch the boundaries of plausibility in fiction? It is hard for people today, in particular white people to believe that any civilized race could have been capable of such stunning brutality. It’s part of the collective denial that allowed for concentration camps half a century ago and ethnic cleansing today.

But it poses the great challenge; how much is too much? How does one deal with the hand grenade of slavery, a polarizing topic, even today? The first few pages of my novel raised consternation from some initial readers who simply refused to believe that an entire nation of people could be so complicit in atrocity with not one person realizing that this was wrong. How do I as a writer make that plausible? Do I serve history wrong by including a white character appalled by slavery? That type of European would not emerge until 35 years after my novel begins.

Perhaps what I took from this book, even more than the vital and vivid historical detail is the reminder (or is it warning?) that the duty of the novelist is not the same of the historian, or polemicist or philosopher. That I am at the service of the story and not the political position, or my desire for literary revenge.

I have to take myself to the point that Spielberg reached in Schindler’s list where he had to accept that even the villain deserves complexity and humanity even as he does the shockingly inhumane. Two friends asked why I am writing this book and my response then was that, it was my duty to not let “those motherf*****s ever forget what they did to us.” There is still a part of me that believes that, but I had to make it subordinate to my duty as a novelist. I have to remember every time I sit down to write that the blackest of evils is still pretty gray and that a simplistic depiction of cruelty serves nobody, not even the victims of it. This is a hard lesson for a novelist still furious at history and I would be a liar if I said that I have fully accepted it.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

White Martyrs and Black Savages

800,000 killed in 100 days. Would you risk your life to make a difference? That’s the question that informs Michael Caton Jones’ movie, Shooting Dogs. “I wanna make a difference, you know,” says a skinny british doctor in the new movie The Last King of Scotland. So here I am, negro all of 35 wondering why I’m not so stupidly happy, delirious even that all these white boys are in blackest Africa trying to save the blackies because they so want to make a difference. Not in Africa, mind you, but their own lives. Shooting Dogs is yet another movie about Rwanda and The Last King of Scotland is ostensibly about Idi Amin, but these movies are really not what they seem to be. The former is not about Rwanda at all, nor is the latter about Idi Amin; they’re the stories of a white man trapped in black (and sometimes yellow) hell where in the midst of all this inhumanity he discovers what it means to be human. He tries to make a difference.

Am I the only one sick of this bullshit? I see the trailer for The Last King of Scotland and it reminds me of Shooting Dogs, which reminds me of The Serpent and The Rainbow, which reminds me of Tears of the Sun, which reminds me of Zulu! Which reminds me of Shaka Zulu, which reminds me of King Solomon’s Mines, which reminds me of Tarzan, which reminds me of The African Queen, which reminds me of Patrick Swayze’s horrendous City of Joy, which reminds me of Dances With Wolves which reminds me of Apocalypse now which reminds me of Heart of Darkness, the novel that all but invented this formula. Take a white man, add savages noble and ignoble, stir and great god ‘a moighty, lookee there at the spanking new (though bruised and battered) white man that floats to the top. The black, brown and yellow people, they stay down in the mix.

I for one am tired of it. Oh but we have black characters, they say. It’s not like we’re DW Griffith. But at least I knew where I stood with Griffith. It’s these whiny, oh-so-conflicted characters that truly piss me off. Of course these stories have black characters; do you mean the under-qualified bureaucrat? How about the long suffering but essentially skill free doctor, or perhaps the oxford educated negro who comes back to Africa to find himself just another white man trying to make a difference? What about the malevolent villian who insists that he's merely misunderstood while he abuses the native girl, the one who works her charms, never her intelligence? The mama who doesn’t talk English? The cute kid who steals from him at first but comes to look at this strange white man with the weird music as the coolest older brother ever? Who comes up with this stuff? Who watches it? Why do people like this story? Is it because of the inevitable bloodshed that follows?

And there’s always bloodshed coming. People seem to be riveted by African atrocity these days. News from Rwanda, Darfur and the Congo stir reactions that are almost id-like, revelatory more for what is not being said than what is. So under the code word of blood-lust, reporters and pundits hint at something that nobody would dare say: that maybe this genocide is a particularly black or at least coloured thing, occasionally dormant but ready at any moment to spring fire. That at the core of genocide may be a savagery that resides in black flesh.

This perplexes me. I’ve never really understood why African atrocities should stun anybody. I thought the foundation behind Rwanda’s ethnic butchery, Congo’s kleptocracy, Uganda’s casual serial murder, and Angola’s civil conflict was plainly obvious. They were imitating Europeans. Belgians to be specific. 19th and early 20th century Belgians to be particular. King Leopold II to be exact.

Cousin of Queen Victoria, King Leopold was also the man behind the Congo Free State (which was anything but), a personal project of the King to plunder rubber and ivory, through the re-institution of slavery. Even by Europe’s stiff standards for butchery, King Leopold was a piece of work, a sociopath hated in his own country let loose on a continent he never went to, and unleashing barbarity that is still imitated to this day. Over half century before Stalin followed his lead in Russia, Leopold subjugated Africans to his will and was responsible for the death of millions.

But so far, so predictable. Europeans have been exterminating non-Europeans from the days of Cortez. But Leopold brought something extra to the mix, a level of cruelty and atrocity unforeseen in the continent. He had a particular thing for hand maiming, or maybe he had no idea of the cruelty he unleashed after he was given the Congo to play with. “Given” of course being relative since nobody African can remember handing anything to Europe, other than slaves of course. Nobody knows for sure but the body count is estimated from 5 to 15 million. But more than that, he taught Africans cruelty by example, to the point that most of his innovations, including hand chopping is still practiced today. And the Belgians in the Congo that came after were almost as bad. The Rwanda massacre was a shock only if you weren’t familiar with Belgian dominated Africa. Otherwise the only question would have been how come it didn’t happen before. One does not turn an ethnic group against another for almost a century, then step out of the way to expect peace talks. I’m not excusing the killers, but when one creates monsters one should expect the monstrous.

One junior white officer described a raid to punish a village that had protested. The white officer in command: "ordered us to cut off the heads of the men and hang them on the village palisades, also their sexual members, and to hang the women and the children on the palisade in the form of a cross." After seeing a native killed for the first time, a Danish missionary wrote: "The soldier said 'don’t take this to heart so much. They kill us if we don't bring the rubber. The Commissioner has promised us if we have plenty of hands he will shorten our service.'" In Forbath's words again:

The baskets of severed hands, set down at the feet of the European post commanders, became the symbol of the Congo Free State. ... The collection of hands became an end in itself. Force Publique soldiers brought them to the stations in place of rubber; they even went out to harvest them instead of rubber... They became a sort of currency. They came to be used to make up for shortfalls in rubber quotas, to replace... the people who were demanded for the forced labour gangs; and the Force Publique soldiers were paid their bonuses on the basis of how many hands they collected.

In theory, each right hand proved a judicial murder. In practice, soldiers sometimes "cheated" by simply cutting off the hand and leaving the victim to live or die. More than a few survivors later said that they had lived through a massacre by acting dead, not moving even when their hand was severed, and waiting till the soldiers left before seeking help. —Wikipedia

But enough about killing. What about political repression? That was taught by the colonial government. Jamaica’s police and military were/are no different, trained by the colonizers to kill their own people and creating a chasm between law and public that exists to this day. Congo’s Mobutu was a monster, but he was a European created monster given leeway by CIA station chief Larry Devlin. What about theft? Europeans have been pilfering African resources for centuries and continue to do so, so why not Africans? And who are buying these diamonds anyway? Other than rappers of course. I’m not saying that Africans were these idyllic peoples who spent the day banging drums and eating millet, but I’ve not come across any record of black on black atrocity that predates the European rape of Africa.

So you must understand my revulsion at the sight of these movies, the people who continue to make them and the black, asian, indian and arab actors who co-star in them. They stole the land, they enslaved millions, they gave the continent the worst aspects of European governance and social prejudice and now they’ve come back to save us. Well thanks, but no thanks. You’ve done so much already.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Geriatric 1927

Geriatric1927 thanks us for giving him entry into a whole new world. Silly man, it's you who have done that for us. You are the very best that this internet can be. And people wonder why I don't watch TV anymore.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Günter Grass's Ghosts

Jeanette Winterson has truth down cold. In her appearance on Bill Moyer's Faith and Reason (PBS; I saved that one to my hard drive) she had this to say about our crazy, one-dimensional take on heroes.

“Superman, Spiderman, Tom Cruise, you know, they are meant to be hero figures, but they're all woefully two-dimensional. And they give a false perception of what a hero should be like. So that, when we meet real hero figures in our own world, we're uncomfortable with the fact that they are flawed, that they do have weaknesses, and that they need forgiveness”

So it turns out that Günter Grass, one of our absolutely finest writers, and certainly the most important German writer of the second half of the twentieth century was a member of the Waffen SS. Grass, who has been one of the most outspoken advocates for absolute honesty about Germany’s war years turns out to have a secret of his own. This is heavy stuff. It’s one thing to have been a member of the army or Hitler Youth but the Waffen SS is another matter entirely. There is no getting away from the fact that this is surprising and profoundly upsetting news. And of course it will affect our perception of him, how could it not?

But no so fast. Lets go back to what Winterson said about heroes. The fact is, a real hero is not Superman or Tom Cruise (or Mel Gibson tsk tsk) but more times than not, flawed, sometimes tragically flawed men and women who do things of singular greatness in spite of that flaw. But we are obsessed with the God like hero and when we come across the flawed variety it sparks several things in us, all unpleasant.

This first is good old-fashioned schadenfreude. Or to put it as Shakespeare does: Tis a comfort to the miserable to find companions in misery.” We the tabloid generation love the fall from grace story. Grass, who made quite a few enemies in his almost dogged commitment to Germany not become “Germany” again now faces a storm of criticism from people who now say he is a hypocrite and a liar. Mind you most of these people are conservatives who have been dying to cut the man down a few inches for years. I haven’t seen so many vultures hovering since last year’s Hurricane Katrina footage.

Another thing that falls from grace bring out in us is our nasty desire for self-righteousness. Charlotte Knobloch, president of the Central Council of Jews, said Grass' admission negated the novelist's long-time criticisms of Germany's inability to come to terms with its Nazi past. Sure Charlotte, because not speaking about it at all would have been so much better. Lech Walesa, the founder of Poland’s Solidarity movement and a winner of the
Nobel Peace Prize has called on Grass to relinquish his honorary citizenship of Gdansk, despite the fact that Grass was born there. Make no mistake Germany did some despicable things to Poland during the war but something about Walesa’s, harangue sounds like canned outrage. The fact is, for every Nelson Mandela who survives a monstrous struggle there’s a Winnie Mandela who becomes a monster. I doubt Walesa is a monster, but he has perhaps been a victim in the struggle for so long that he cannot stop playing one, as the self justified often do, even after they become president. One result of that is that he assumes the moral right to speak above everybody else. As Adam Michnik, the editor of the daily Gazeta Wyborcza has pointed out, maybe Walesa wouldn’t have been so shocked! Shocked and outraged! Outraged I tell you! if he had actually read one of Grass’s books.

Far more sensible has been the reactions from the Mayor of Gdansk himself who said, “By his actions, he has already paid for the mistakes of his youth.” That’s the crucial thing to remember here. Grass was SIX when Hitler came to power. OF COURSE he would be a member of the SS, what greater ambition would a child growing up in the very shadow of Hitler have? Grass says he kept silent on his past because he was ashamed. I see nothing shocking in this. I’d be more horrified if he wasn’t so ashamed of his past that he tried to hide it. As for all the people who are calling for him to return his Nobel Prize and whatever honour he has gotten please, spare me. Knut Hamsun never regretted his Nazi sympathies and he still has his. I would think that a man who was in the elite SS going on to become the very conscience of his nation, would speak to the very best of humanity, not the worst. There’s no getting away from the contradiction of a man forcing a nation to confront truth when he could not confront his own. But that again brings us back to the ever-wise Winterson: the man needs forgiveness. Lord knows he has mine.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

On Fundamentalism Part 2

Sayyid Qutb who I mentioned in my prevous blog on Fundamentalism as the father of Islamism, formed most if not all of his beliefs during a late 1940's stay in America. First let's give the devil his due. To be a man of colour and an Arab in a horrendously racist country as the USA was in the 1940's was bound to warp any person's point of view. Make no mistake he would not have been given a red carpet and would have been made to know pretty early that his kind was not wanted there. And depended on where he was he could have easily been beaten or killed. One could even make a case for his reactionary views were they founded on America's political or racial stance, but nope, his thing was sex and for all his political and religious posturing homeboy could not get the dirty deed out of his mind. However he was too much in denial to take responsibility for his own obsession. So he did what rapists, molesters and cowards have done for centuries: blamed somebody else. I could go on and on about my personal opinion of him, but why not let the man speak for himself:

"The American girl is well acquainted with her body's seductive capacity. She knows it lies in the face, and in expressive eyes, and thirsty lips. She knows seductiveness lies in the round breasts, the full buttocks, and in the shapely thighs, sleek legs -- and she shows all this and does not hide it."

How about this little ditty about church?

"They danced to the tunes of the gramophone, and the dance floor was replete with tapping feet, enticing legs, arms wrapped around waists, lips pressed to lips, and chests pressed to chests. The atmosphere was full of desire...".

And not just the women, he couldn't put his finger on his messy feelings for the guys either:

“This primitiveness can be seen in the spectacle of the fans as they follow a game of football... or watch boxing matches or bloody, monstrous wrestling matches... This spectacle leaves no room for doubt as to the primitiveness of the feelings of those who are enamored with muscular strength and desire it.”

Hanged in 1966 for his attempt to overthrow the Egyptian government, Qutb managed to tranfer his sexual frustation into religious militance, something that men still do today. Maybe now would be a perfect time to release a DVD of Bertolucci's The Conformist to see just how sexual obsession can be tranformed quite easily into military ardour.

The truth is he was a pathetic, frustrated, little man who unfortunately was the perfect lightning rod for other frustrated little men and his influence continues to this day. By the way; note the moustache.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

My Second Novel

Thursday, August 10, 2006. 5:16 PM.
I just finished writing my second novel. I think this situation calls for some crack. Just kidding. I think.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Quiz for the day

Which notable, reasonably famous person said the following:

"The national government will maintain and defend the foundations on which the power of our nation rests. It will offer strong protection to Christianity as the very basis of our collective morality. Today Christians stand at the head of our country. We want to fill our culture again with the Christian spirit. We want to burn out all the recent immoral developments in literature, in the theatre, and in the press -- in short, we want to burn out the poison of immorality which has entered into our whole life and culture as a result of liberal excess during the past years."

(a) George W. Bush
(b) Anne Coulter
(c) Pat Robertson
(d) Ralph Reed
(e) The New "I Wasn't a Nazi" Pope

Answer: Even though they all said something of the sort at one time or the other it's none of the above . No, this progressive thinker is non other than RELTIH FLODA

Friday, August 04, 2006

R.I.P. Arthur Lee

I know that writers nowadays want to be rock stars but I've never wanted to be anybody but Arthur Lee. Given his bouts of suicidal depression, mental illness, imprisonment, and his best friends Hendrix and Jim Morrison dying on him, it sounds crazy to want to be someone like Lee, but there is one thing Arthur had more than anybody else: fearlessness.

Like all truly fearless people he never thought twice (or once) about it. He wasn't the first of the black rockers but he was the first truly self-styled genius. A man so beyond the easy definition of black or rocker that he had no precedent and no real successor either. Not Prince who tried too hard to be R&B, Lenny who tried too hard to be everybody and Living Colour who tried too hard to be funky rockers. Arthur didn't try be anything or anyone seen before. Love was his vehicle and that band left behind Forever Changes, one of the most staggeringly beautiful masterpieces ever made, a record whose commercial failure has not diminished its status one bit. Perhaps the only real American challenge to Sgt Pepper, the record's gorgeous psychedelic swirl provided stark contrast to some seriously foreboding lyrics: "they're locking them up today/they're throwing away the key/I wonder who it will be tomorrow/You or me." Forever Changes was one of those records that would make a classical music snob prick of his ears the way Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain made him dig jazz . The record even now manages to swing between unparalled sophistication and rock and roll chaos like no other record before it. Plus it's the best use of horns and strings in rock. Ever.

Arthur lee was a stubborn bastard. He held on to his right to be everything and nothing that was expected of him and paved the way for like-minded stubborn geniuses everywhere. He simply sung "we're all normal and we want our freedom" and that was his last word on the matter. There was a price to be paid for this. Nobody stood in the way of Love's success more than Lee himself, who refused to tour, hated interviews and always seemed to get himself in trouble. Trouble always followed him. Death as well. That dread permeated Forever Changes, a record made during a summer Lee was convinced he was going to die.

And now he's dead. Always plagued with health issues and just plain bad luck, Lee always seemed like a man not quite there in body, mind or spirit. Maybe it was a miracle that we had him for as long as we did.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

This Thing About Christopher Marlowe

I love Shakespeare. His plays are my reason for living if there is any and were it not for him I would have failed literature. I can recite some of Coriolanus, most of Julius Caesar and all of Hamlet. I think As You like It is the funniest thing ever written in English and Othello is the only good role ever written for a black man. But as solid a marriage as I have to Shakey, and even though I have no reason to, sometimes a reader has to cheat. Got to because he's being compelled by a dark, lusty, dangerous and totally wrong force. What good can come out of a The Massacre of Paris? Or being glutted by the conceit of Doctor Faustus? What satanic depths, what ridiculously ecstatic highs? Yup, it wasn’t long before I was cheating on Shakespeare big time with Christopher Marlowe.

Not hard to see why. It's like if you’re a Clash fan. Yeah they have all you need, but perhaps not all you want. Sometimes a guy needs a little Sex Pistols anarchy just to feel something dangerous. Sometimes one needs heretical poetry and dark drama. And drama doesn’t get more dark than Marlowe. And sure I need to know whether t’is nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but damn it sometimes I want to be a rude boy touched by unknown love who Let maids whom hot desire to husbands lead. It's wonderful to remember, to thine own self be true (gee, thanks Polonius) but sometimes, just sometimes I want to be the scourge of God and the terror of the world and plague such peasants as resists in me, the power of heavens eternal majesty.

Marlowe. Think of the most wrong person you could ever have in your life and transform her or him into a book and you’re close. And come on, when that person is a bastard, scholar, drunkard, braggart, thief, deviant, hedonist, catholic, poet, playwright and double agent could even Shakespeare blame me for cheating? Sure Marlowe was a rock star 400 years before the fact, Jim Morrison, Lou Reed and Mick Jagger rolled into one, but what mattered most was that Marlowe made drama sing. He liberated it from the morality play and found the human core of drama that would change the course of playwriting forever. More than Shakespeare, Marlowe was the true successor to Dante, except that he wasn’t burdened with Dante's need to moralize. Hell, there wasn’t a single moral bone in Marlowe’s body. His only real contemporary was Caravaggio the painter, in life and art. Both were condemned as blasphemers in their day, but to find the power, glory, ecstasy and horror that resided in mere human flesh was blasphemy back then.

Of course Marlowe was murdered. How else could a man like that die? He left behind a string of masterpieces, including Doctor Faustus, The Jew of Malta, Tamburlaine, and Dido Queen of Carthage and to read them is to read the Zola to Shakespeare’s Henry James, the 'infernal intelligence' (James' take on Zola) let loose. Of course the debate rages on as to who was better and I won’t dignify that bullshit argument with an answer. That’s like asking who was better, the Police or U2? But I will say this. Had Shakespeare died the same year as Marlowe all he would have had to show for it was Richard III.