Copyright © 2001 by Deborah Wyrick, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.
Doris? She's the one who's always reading War and Peace. That's how I know it's the summer, when Doris is reading War and Peace.--Philip Roth, Goodbye, Columbus, 7
- A few weeks ago, I took my car to the repair shop to get a new tire. I'd come equipped for the wait with a book -- Jessica Hagedorn's Dogeaters. When I paid the bill, the clerk-mechanic noticed the book's rather garish cover and asked me what I was reading. After I told him, he shook his head. "You must teach up at State," he said. "Don't you all ever read anything fun, even in summer?"
- Well, it is summer, at least here in the Northern Hemisphere, and we academics are faced with the dilemma of summer reading. Do we emulate Roth's Doris and attempt to tackle 'should-read' (or 'should-have-read') books -- serious, profession-specific or otherwise 'important' texts? Or do we succumb to what we in North Carolina call 'beach books' -- big-print, mass-market paperbacks that usually involve romance or murder? Like many of my students, my mechanic believes that reading is either work or fun, and never the twain shall meet (unless perhaps in a book by Mark Twain). It's hard to avoid being infected by this culturally dominant false choice, and I feel guilty when I exceed a self-imposed limit of two best-selling thrillers per summer month. But working in postcolonial studies provides an easy solution. As Dogeaters itself suggests, there are many recent and relatively recent novels in our field that are both escapist and substantive, that mix dollops of crime, suspense, and love with innovative style, political critique, and historical-cultural information. In this essay, I recommend three such novels, plus some new non-fiction and, for good measure, a couple of films. To honor the relaxation regime controlling American summers, I refrain from mentioning any books of literary criticism and theory.
- Rajeev Balasubramanyam's novel, In Beautiful Disguises (2001), layers comedy, social satire, and myth upon a coming-of-age narrative. Its heroine is an unnamed South Indian teenager who escapes an unsavory arranged marriage by running away to The City (presumably Delhi) and working as a maid. There she joins a gaggle of obstreperous servants who manage the household of Mr. Aziz, his horrid French wife, and their dissolute son. (If you've ever wondered what would have happened if E. M. Forster's Aziz had hooked up with Adela and lived [un]happily ever after, In Beautiful Disguises is the book for you.) She also escapes mundane reality by believing she's a film-star-in-training -- specifically, an avatar of Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany's -- and by weaving her life with strands from the Ramayana -- for instance, Hanuman and his legions become performing orangutans at the municipal zoo. Balasubramanyam writes with an entrancingly light touch, but the novel moves toward darker sensibilities when the heroine returns to her home. If she is the Ramayana's female paragon Sita as well as Holly Golightly, is the demon-ruled land of Lanka the 'authentic' rural countryside rather than the corrupt urban environment? Or is it an interior topography contoured by identity-fantasy and gender confusion? In Beautiful Disguises does not resolve all the issues it raises, and the book somewhat strangely elides matters of class and caste (perhaps disclosing the diasporic position of its author), but it is nonetheless an accomplished and ambitious debut novel.
- Identity performances of a different kind structure Anchee Min's Becoming Madame Mao (2000). This astonishing historical novel, a product of careful research as well as of artistic vision, portrays the serial reformulations of the Great Helmsman's first (actually, third) mate from a poor concubine's daughter to a Shanghai actress to a revolutionary cadre to the 'white boned demon' directing the Cultural Revolution. Min sees Madame Mao's life as a sequence of roles drawn from Chinese opera, suggesting how fictional artifice can offer seductive templates for self-actualization in the real world. Another source for Min's Madame Mao is Taoist philosophy: the relationship between Mao Zedong and his wife becomes the dance of yang and yin, a dance of exquisite postures more than of passion, a dance that whirls out of balance due to Madame Mao's 'masculine' ambition and to Mao's 'longevity program,' which required frequent intercourse with virgin girls. Despite the potential for burlesque or for vilification, Min demonstrates a certain sympathy for, even attraction to Madame Mao. To young proletarians like Min, who worked for a time in Madame Mao's opera troupe, the Chairman's wife could be seen as a glamorous, strong-willed, modern woman whose vengeful excesses were not evident until later. Even though Min now lives in the U.S., and this book evenhandedly presents its protagonist's monstrosity as well as her vulnerability, it also recreates the spell Madame Mao cast over millions of Chinese young people. Part of its ability to do so stems from its narrative style. Min combines first-person, third-person, and free-indirect discourse in surprising and supple ways, keeping readers in suspension between empathy and objectivity. She also invests her prose with the texture of translation (although the book was written in English) through unusual turns of phrase and sentence rhythms, delicate allusions to Chinese classics, and references to folk beliefs and practices.
- An even more bravura linguistic performance is Ernesto Mestre's The Lazarus Rumba (1999). Writing contrapuntally between American English and Cuban Spanish languages, cultures, and histories, Mestre spins a magical narrative of a contemporary Cuba forever lost and longed for by its exiled citizens. The most War and Peace-like of the books I discuss here -- at least in length (486pp.) and scope -- The Lazarus Rumba is impossible to encapsulate in a paragraph. It contains multitudes: of characters (contortionists, santeros, revolutionary heroes, talking roosters); of plots (dealing with romance, with murder, with revenge, with enlightenment); of tones (sensual, realist, phantasmagoric, satiric). And of genders -- Mestre turns the gay-straight polarity into a spiral of fluid sexualities that wondrously replace the customary gendered metaphors underpinning the nation-state. Such replacement also intervenes in Cuban literary history. Mestre's hybrid creations (hybrid in ethnicity as well) challenge Rubén Darío's suffering female motherland, Fernando Ortíz's gendered and racialized binary of sugar and tobacco, Nicolás Guillén's two grandfathers. At the same time, Mestre's baroque style and linguistic parody affiliate with Cuban literary predecessors such as Alejo Carpentier and Guillermo Cabrera-Infante. Like the Afro-Cuban orisha San Lazaro/Babalu-Aye, the crippled leper whose wounds are licked by dogs and who represents the ambivalent force of disease and its remedies, The Lazarus Rumba lacerates conventional perceptions only to heal them with new and empowering knowledges.
- For pure escapism (one ostensible purpose of summer reading), I find non-fiction as serviceable as fiction. Michela Wrong's In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz (2001), for instance, presents a world as absorbing and surreal as any fictional locale -- the world of Mobutu Sese Seko's Zaire. The book depicts the Zairean kleptocracy as an opera bouffe that veers toward Kafkaesque nightmare, Mobutu presiding over the mix like a crazed and largely invisible Wizard of Oz. Wrong's reportage pays admirable attention to ethnic and economic politics, yet its bemused irony contains a whiff of gonzo journalism. In this, she joins the growing group of reporter-stylists who transform job assignments into compulsively readable, self-reflexive, highly mannered narratives (Bob Shacochis's over-the-top account of the second U.S. occupation of Haiti, The Immaculate Invasion , being a notable example). Wrong's book might have been titled "In the Footsteps of Mr. Conrad" or "In the Footsteps of Mr. Stanley," as it revisits the odd positionality of the 'foreign correspondent'; for centuries, Western writers have been crucial in producing knowledges of Central Africa, in speaking for its inhabitants, and in fashioning its histories. One therefore may wish to read Footsteps along with other contemporary Western accounts of the Congo and its neighbors (unfortunately, I've not been able to locate contemporary African accounts). Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost (1998) succeeds not only because of its meticulous, compelling historiography but also because it focuses on Western (mis)uses of the Congo. Philip Gourevitch avoids the 'speaking for' trap in a different way. His stunning account of the Rwandan holocaust (We Wish to Inform You . . . 1999) is composed largely of eye-witness narratives, and it resists molding that particular chaos into a shapely historical plot.
- Sometimes, even holding a book violates vacation relaxation protocols. On those occasions, renting a movie provides a pleasant alternative. For people introduced to the extravagant world of Asian martial arts films via Ang Lee's much heralded Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), I recommend the real deal: Tsui Hark's Once Upon A Time In China (1991). Starring Jet Li (the only living man who looks good in a queue), Once Upon A Time In China chronicles the exploits of Wong Fei Hung, an actual folk hero from the late Ching era. A traditional healer as well as a martial artist, Wong was associated with protests against foreign trade practices, dramatized in this film as U.S. attempts to hoodwink poor Chinese laborers into servitude and to kidnap Chinese women for overseas prostitution. The film's ideology is as subtle as an eye gouge (albeit appropriate cover for postcolonial scholars who might otherwise be reluctant to enjoy choreographed mayhem), but the humor characteristic of the genre redeems the plot from unbearability. Yet no one watches 'kung fu movies' for the plot -- it's the fighting that counts.
- The fight sequences in Once Upon A Time in China are fabulous, and frequent, and occasionally fearsome (as in the struggle between an imprisoned woman and her captor). Jet Li's combination of grace and strength is unparalleled; an elaborately inventive ladder-fighting scene eclipses the famous tree-fight in Crouching Tiger; the thematic conflict between Western and Chinese values takes satisfyingly bellicose form in fights between gun-wielders and martial artists. The film's ample supply of gore and its semi-salacious depiction of violence against women, however, may be unpalatable for some viewers. In that case, Once Upon A Time In China II (1993) would be a better rental. This sequel (also starring Jet Li as Wong Fei Hung) sanitizes its predecessor's violence while retaining its dazzling action. Unfortunately, the plot has lost its Manichean edge, as the villains in China II are fanatic White Lotus sect members and the maliciously meddlesome Westerners are relegated to the background. Loosely based on the Boxers, the White Lotus group -- headed by a crazed shaman who engages Wong Fei Hung in a marvelous fight waged on a teetering stack of tables -- is both anti-Western and anti-non-White Lotus Chinese. Dr. Sun Yat Sen makes cameo appearances, and one supposes that the film's political message has something to do with the lost promise of Sun's revolution. Nonetheless, like Once Upon A Time In China, China II is terrific entertainment, its masterful display of martial arts enhanced by sophisticated filming, beautiful sets, and award-winning music.
- An infinitely more serious work now out on video is Bahman Gohbadi's A Time For Drunken Horses (Zamani barayé masti asbha), the first Kurdish-language film to reach international markets. Using non-professional actors (many from the Ekhtiar-dini family) and a documentary film technique, Gohbadi tells a moving story of Iranian Kurdish orphans living on the border with Iraq. Young Ayoub (Ayoub Ahmadi) is responsible for his three sisters and his severely handicapped brother Madi (Madi Ekhtiar-dini), who circulates through the film as a sort of floating signifier of misery. The plot involves the children's sacrifices for each other and particularly for Madi, who needs an operation to prolong his life. The oldest sister acquiesces to an arranged marriage on the soon-to-be-broken promise of help for Madi, and Ayoub joins a band of adult smugglers in order to earn enough money for Madi's medical treatments. The bleak winter landscape underscores the film's restrained evocation of border politics, the unseen presences of trade embargoes and landmines and national ideologues and systemic poverty; locked into the documentary camera's dispassionate point-of-view, we are reminded of our own complicity in the harsh conditions assaulting these Kurdish children. Nonetheless, the film's crystalline ending rescues it (and us) from utter desolation. A Time For Drunken Horses has won a variety of awards, including the Camera d'Or at Cannes.
- Of course, I hope your summer (or winter) reading includes this issue of Jouvert. You can virtually vacation in Historic Waikîkî, courtesy of Andrea Feeser, or in a satirically envisioned Toronto, courtesy of Donald Blais. You can travel through a transnational Caribbean via Cynthia James's analysis of works by Paule Marshall and Erna Brodber. You can explore cultural controversy in India: Monika Mehta discusses Bollywood-related film and music censorship; Nandita Ghosh examines the three-languages policy and its impact on Indian journalism and English-language fiction writing; Sharada Nair re-contextualizes teaching canonical English poetry within present-day Indian history. You can journey south to Australia, from whence Carolyn D'Cruz looks at another cultural controversy, the question of who can speak for Aboriginal peoples. You can enjoy the powerful poetry of Mohammad Tavallaei, whose spiritually and politically charged work suggests the complexities of contemporary Iran. Finally, you can plan the rest of your vacation reading with the help of reviews by Charles William Miller (Rethinking Indigenous Education), Tabish Khair (Mapping Subaltern Studies and the Postcolonial), Benjamin Noys (Monsters and Revolutionaries), Mala Pandurang (Before I Am Hanged), and Robert Clarke (The Cultures of Globalization).
- Allow me this opportunity to thank Tom Lisk for his crucial and continuing support of Jouvert. As Head of NC State's English Department, Tom backed this project from the start, providing the resources necessary to launch and sustain the journal. Tom is stepping down as Head; he will devote his time to teaching and writing. The entire Jouvert community owes him a deep dept of gratitude. I'd also like to thank my colleague and good friend Jim Morrison for his important contributions to the journal. Not only has Jim written articles for Jouvert (on Hitchcock's Ireland and on Roland Barthes's "On Cinemascope"), as an in-house editorial board member he has reviewed many manuscripts and has been a key policy advisor. Jim has accepted a new position at Claremont McKenna College in California; I wish him every success, and remind him that he'll keep receiving manuscripts for review thanks to the wonders of e-mail attachments. Speaking of Jim, let me offer a final summer reading recommendation. Although Jim's recently published memoir, Broken Fever (2001), cannot be categorized as 'postcolonial' (unless one considers Detroit, Michigan, to be a far country), its lyrical, moving, frequently humorous evocations of otherness should find appreciative readers in all parts of the world.
- Ang Lee, director. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Distr. by Columbia Tri-Star, 2000. In Mandarin; subtitled.
- Balasubramanyam, Rajeev. In Beautiful Disguises. New York: Bloomsbury, 2001.
- Ghobadi, Bahman, director. A Time for Drunken Horses. Distr. by The Shooting Gallery, 2000. In Kurdish; subtitled.
- Gourevitch, Philip. We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda. New York: Picador, 1999.
- Hagedorn, Jessica. Dogeaters. New York: Penguin, 1991.
- Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold's Ghost. Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.
- Mestre, Ernesto. The Lazarus Rumba. New York: Picador, 1999.
- Min, Anchee. Becoming Madame Mao. Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
- Morrison, James. Broken Fever: Reflections of Gay Boyhood. New York: St. Martin's, 2001.
- Roth, Philip. Goodbye, Columbus. 1959; New York: Vintage, 1987.
- Shacochis, Bob. The Immaculate Invasion. New York: Viking, 1999.
- Tsui Hark, director. Once Upon A Time In China. Distr. by Media Asia, 1991. In Cantonese; dubbed.
- Tsui Hark, director. Once Upon A Time In China II. Distr. by Media Asia, 1993. In Cantonese; dubbed.
- Wrong, Michela. In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu's Congo. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.