I’ve just posted the latest oral history to the Second Chances LA website. http://secondchancesla.weebly.com/angel.html
It’s an honor to know people like Angel.
I’ve just posted the latest oral history to the Second Chances LA website. http://secondchancesla.weebly.com/angel.html
It’s an honor to know people like Angel.
Another story of courage as posted by me originally at http://secondchancesla.weebly.com/ Some details are graphic.
I am Matadi Mayo and I want to tell my story because it’s not only about what happened to me but to many women in my country. Congo. Democratic Republic of Congo. DRC.
Being a doctor was always my dream. When I was little, every single individual in my street was calling me when they have a problem or some injury. They were calling me “doctor” when I was the age of six or seven or eight. I was even writing on all my books Doctor Doctor and people are telling me I’m débile–weak in the head. Crazy. They did not know that the dream can come true. End of story: I became a doctor.
So I always talked to the patient. I was always interested in their history. One lady came, she was about 20. She came with a fracture of humerus left upper arm. She had a fracture and she had a lot of abrasions, wounds and injuries, bruises, on her body and I ask why does she have this. She said she was raped. The soldiers they came–four or five government soldiers–and they rape and also introduce bottles in the vagina.
She was one I remember but many times we received women from the east part of the country where the war was in Goma, Kivu, next to Rwanda, and they were raped. The soldiers think they are above the law and also they were using things like certain instruments, wood, iron to rape. Sometimes I see fistula so bad urine and stools mix together and they can go out through the vagina. From germs and bacteria this brings a lot of complications like infections and if we don’t act quickly the patient will die.
Some of the patients they are rejected by their family. Go far from here! because they think she has been raped so she has AIDS. The oldest woman I saw who was raped, she was 75 years old and her family rejected her. I gave her the HIV test and it was negative.
It was really sad, really really sad. The women lose heart. They need psychological help to gain some confidence again. They feel they are useless. They are not important now to society. And for the soldiers, no punishment, nothing. These are soldiers and people in high-up position and so they do it and know nobody is going to follow up the situation. It’s not a secret. You can go today and Google and find all the things that I’m saying.
But I have responsibility for my patients. I was putting myself in their shoes and so I have to do something good for them. I’m just a little person. Maybe my voice can’t be listened to but if not me, who is going to do it? So I spoke out.
That was when the secret police sent me a summons.
The secret police, they know all about you even though you do not know them. They have the people they give money so they could tell about you. They have the communications. They are watching you. They follow you, knowing your life, how everything is going, they know your family.
They ask me, Why you want to spoil the image of the country? I could not contain myself. I tell them This is not how you want for your mother, your sister. How would you feel? One of them beat me so bad, my face was all swollen, and they put me in the jail. I’m telling you: Do not go to jail in Africa! In the place was too dark and they have feces all over and they make me pick them up with my hands, can you imagine that?
When they release me, I go to my parents and I have to tell them what is going on. They say, Your presence here is the risk for us so I went to hide. Also I went to work at a different hospital and change my appearance so they could not recognize me.
Communication with my parents was difficult and careful because the secret police might listen. They can tell where calls come from and who calls. So I was taking SIM card and changing it and changing my voice so people cannot understand this is me.
But I wanted to see my family. One day I started to go there and a group of people come to me. With knives in their hand and they say, You are destroying the image of the country. They took me and they told me to put off my clothes. They have a hammer and they beat me and they say, When we beat you, you will say ‘I will not spoil the image of my country.’ So I have to say the same thing, over and over while they was beating me. I will not spoil the image of my country. I will not spoil the image of my country.
Look, you can see on my legs. These ones. And here more scars. And on back. And they beat me with chains. They was beating me all the time and then I wasn’t able to repeat what they want because I was crying. The last thing was they tortured me with electricity. After that, I don’t know what happened. I found myself in the hospital.
How I get away, it’s a long story, but I have a family member, someone I didn’t know well. He lives here, Los Angeles, and he accepted me to live with him. But I’m telling you it’s not easy. Everything I have to buy I have to ask like a baby from him. I can’t contribute and we are four people in the room so it’s hard.
I want to reach out my hand to give, not to take. But it is so sad to not practice my profession. I feel very sad that I can’t help people with the knowledge that I have.
In my country I work with international health organizations and I had all the credentials, but how to be licensed to practice in the United States, this I don’t know. Everybody tell me it’s a long process. At Kaplan University in Pasadena they told me I have to pay $18,000 to be in the training and if I pass the test, that is Step One only. I don’t know how to get this money. I am looking for other people who have this experience so they can share with me what they have done. Is there some other way, without $18,000? So where to go? Where to knock? Who will help me to open the doors? If only somebody would know the good way, who could say Knock here.
A lot of people, even friends, they discourage you. They say you can forget about what you did before. Here you become somebody else.
But I will do it. I know I can.
What keep me focused–two things. The speech of our president, where he spoke “Hope is what led me here today.” Yes, I call Obama my president because I am living here and I am included. He said, “There is hope in ordinary people to do extraordinary things.” And I know I’m ordinary people.
Second thing, the Bible. So, Hope and Faith.
But sometimes, I feel useless.
I think about my family and it’s hard. When I was there, with the money I was making, I was helping my mother. I was providing. Now not very often I am able to talk to her. International calling cost some money, so it’s hard. She says, We need to see you. That’s the heart of a mother and I miss her too much. She’s crying while she talks to me.
Now she is selling firewood. Imagine that. Mother of a doctor selling firewood.
My piece in today’s LA Progressive.
The writer and activist KJ Noh recently sent me a link to a new program launched by DARPA, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Narrative Networks, in the words of our Defense warriors, purports to discover “how narratives influence human cognition and behavior and apply those findings in international security contexts.”
As a writer of fiction as well as a sometime journalist, I don’t need a research project to validate my belief that a well-told story engages both heart and mind, affects attitudes, and embeds itself in memory the way, I regret, journalism too often does not. As for advocacy journalism, we’re often addressing people who already agree with us, but a good novel can reach and influence readers who have never before stopped to think about the issues we try so hard to bring to public awareness.
Consider this Amazon review of Don Winslow’s 2005 bestseller, The Power of the Dog. “This is not a subject of much interest to me, but… [h]is characters are fully believable and spring off the page with great force and achieve a totally convincing documentary-like reality that grips you from start to finish. Believe me it’s tough to put down for a moment the characters are so mesmerizing.”
Winslow’s subject is our misbegotten War on Drugs and the damage it’s done in Mexico and Colombia (where aerial spraying to get rid of coca instead kills food crops and poisons people and livestock), about corruption and deception on both sides of the border, about CIA (and Reagan and the first Bush president) complicity in drug trafficking and the rise of the brutally violent cartels.
I’ve written articles on the subject year after year and I can yak your head off about US policy–and all my well-intentioned talk will bore you half to death. Winslow offers the same disturbing information but in a form that makes your pulse race.
So rather than write one more article about Mexico or Colombia, I want to talk about three works of fiction, The Power of the Dog; Winslow’s new follow-up novel, The Cartel; and Vanessa Blakeslee’s debut novel, Juventud, (available for preorder now; officially published on Oct 13), in which a privileged young woman comes of age during Colombia’s seemingly endless civil war.
At the center of both exhaustively researched Winslow novels is DEA agent Art Keller, trying to make amends for inadvertently facilitating the rise of the ruthless Barrera family, causing a massacre, and bringing about the abduction, horrific torture and murder of Ernie Hidalgo, a fellow DEA agent. Keller has had blood on his hands before. Serving in Vietnam, in Operation Phoenix, he put names on lists knowing that the people he named would be assassinated. In Mexico, he will have to decide if he’s willing to become, himself, an assassin.
In The Power of the Dog, I was particularly gripped by Ernie Hidalgo’s fate at the hands of traffickers (with the complicity of representatives of the Mexican and, apparently, US governments), a fictionalized version of the killing of DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena in 1985.
Years ago, I briefly crossed paths with Camarena’s widow. She wanted his true story told, outraged by the Mexican government cover up. The whole story has yet to be revealed but in the last few years former agents and at least one cocaine pilot have come forward to claim that the US government and CIA were complicit in Camarena’s horrific death. Why? To discover a leak in the trafficking organization and to find out how much Camarena knew about the Reagan White House scheme by which the CIA trafficked drugs to finance the provision of arms to the rightwing Contras in Nicaragua.
The Cartel picks up where The Power of the Dog left off but offers no further revelations about “Hidalgo’s” death. Winslow goes off in another direction. He stopped my heart starting with the two dedication pages, name after name in small print. I counted them. 131 in all. Followed by this note:
Journalists murdered or “disappeared” in Mexico during the period
covered in this novel. There were others.
Journalists are among the most vivid characters of the book.
The Cartel isn’t as fast-paced and easy to follow as The Power of the Dog, and it certainly is not for the squeamish, but it may do better than any news report to explain what fueled the bloodshed and what this meant to cities, towns, and the vast majority of Mexican people. From Juárez to Tamaulipas to Veracruz and Michoacán, rival crime organizations battle for control of territory, border crossings and shipping routes while making and breaking alliances with each other and with police, military, and two government agencies at the highest levels in both Mexico and the US including the White House and Los Pinos, its Mexican counterpart.
In both novels, Winslow underscores US responsibility: Mexican and Colombian drug trafficking wouldn’t have developed without the insatiable demand in the US for the product; NAFTA eased the passage of cocaine; weapons and training provided by the US under the Mérida Initiative are easily transferred from corrupt institutions to the cartels. Winslow writes about the Zetas, psychopathic cartel killers and the Kaibiles, perpetrators of Guatemala’s genocide against the Maya, both elite fighting forces originally trained and equipped by–you guessed it–the US.
The climactic event occurs with a US-sponsored (through a private contractor) attack on the traffickers’ drug stronghold in the Petén rainforest of Guatemala. In the novel, the traffickers have taken over the village of Dos Erres. But Dos Erres is where, in 1982, Guatemalan military forces carried out an infamous massacre of the indigenous population. At first I thought this was another of the novels’ regrettable errors–like referring to martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero as a Guatemalan rather than Salvadorean, or citing the old name of Ciudad Juárez as Paseo–when it should be Paso–del Norte. (Where was the copyeditor?!?!) Turns out Winslow knew all about Dos Erres and chose it for his fictional raid in order to work the history of the massacre into his novel.
Where this sprawling, often horribly brutal work of fiction stands out for me is in its portrayal of the people of Ciudad Juárez and the Juárez Valley. Even before the drug war massacres, beheadings, and mutilations, to North Americans the city across the river from El Paso was synonymous with debauchery and sin. When US states tried to limit divorce, Americans got “quickie divorces” across the border. When divorce laws in the US were liberalized, Juárez was still the place to go for bars and brothels. When the maquiladora factories set up on the Mexican side of the border with jobs attracting thousands of young women, “Juárez” became synonymous with the femicidio–the abduction and killing of young women.
But Winslow writes about the city and surrounding rural areas not just with respect, but with love. The war for the soul of Juárez is horrific not just because of the daily atrocities but because as seen through the eyes of Winslow’s characters, the city is worth living for and dying for: a place of beautiful plazas, a lively cultural and intellectual life, civilians of almost unfathomable courage. These women of Juárez may risk their lives and may die but they never die as the anonymous victims of the femicidio: 19-year-old Erika becomes the police chief (and sole cop) in Valverde after the men have been killed or have fled; Dr. Marisol, Art Keller’s lover, continues to treat her patients and becomes Valverde’s mayor when there’s no one else willing to fill the seat. There’s Jimena, the baker and community leader, and Ana, the journalist whose unshakeable integrity shames her colleague Pablo Mora. He broods over his moral exhaustion:
You start by being idealistic, morally strong if you will, but then the rock of your moral strength is eroded,
bit by bit, until you’re well, exhausted, and you do things that you never thought you would. Or you do things
that you always feared you would…
The novels excel not only in twists and turns and betrayals and corruption, but also in moral ambiguity. In The Power of the Dog, the elite hooker Nora becomes Adán Barrera’s mistress but truly loves (platonically) a cartel-compromised priest, and I found myself rooting for the Irish American hit man from New York’s Hells Kitchen. In The Cartel, Chuy is a depraved killer, but we also get to know him as a victimized child who was taken in by the Zetas and forced to commit unimaginable acts from the age of eleven. Crazy Eddie Ruiz (who prefers to be known as Narco Polo) thinks of himself as the good trafficker as he alone refuses to kill women and children.
If the spine of The Cartel is the enmity between Keller and his former close friend Adán Barrera–Keller comes out of retirement to hunt Barrera down while at the same time Barrera has put a multimillion-dollar bounty on Keller’s head–it’s the portrayals of dozens of characters in the supporting cast that make the novel so memorable.
There’s plenty of moral ambiguity in Juventud (Youth) as well, but Vanessa Blakeslee’s focus is on the experiences of her narrator, Mercedes Martínez, rather than in exposing and criticizing policy. From the opening pages, rich in detail and suspense, her novel is vivid and full of life.
Mercedes, mysteriously abandoned by her North American Jewish mother, grows up with her adored father, Diego, amid thousands of acres of sugar cane, coffee on the steep hillsides, alpacas and horses on the warm valley slopes and hacienda workers who call her princesa. She expects this life to go on forever and takes for granted the armed bodyguard/driver who escorts her every day from the countryside to school in the city of Cali.
At age 15, Mercedes is exposed to bus hijackings and the desperation of men, women and children driven from their land by violence, but her main preoccupation is finding a boyfriend. She has the perspective you’d expect of someone of her social class who would also get her views from the conservative mainstream media. Realistically, she assumes that all the atrocities she hears about are the work of the guerrillas from the FARC and the ELN. (Similarly, later, when she tries to connect with her mother in Israel, her perspective is again partial, informed by her fear of terrorism and her affair with a special operations officer in the IDF.)
The retrospective narration allows Blakeslee to acknowledge the violence wreaked by the government and the Army’s allies in the rightwing paramilitaries forces. And the man Mercedes thinks of as Uncle Charlie, her father’s associate, is none other than the real life Carlos Castaño, founder of the AUC, the rightwing paramilitary organization which was financed in part by drug trafficking and notorious for brutal murders and the massacres of thousands of civilians.
A more conventional author would have had Mercedes fall in love with a charismatic guerrilla. Instead, she becomes involved with a Catholic youth group that advocates and demonstrates in favor of peace and negotiations. Her friend Ana, a youth group member, prays for everyone. “Even the drug traffickers, the paras, the guerrillas?” Mercedes asks. Ana answers, “God lives in everyone, even the worst.” (Or, one might suggest, even the best make deals with the Devil.)
Through Ana and the youth group, Mercedes meets and falls for Manuel, a guitar-playing carpenter, six years her senior. The lovers meet secretly. But is Manuel interested in her only to uncover the dirt about her father’s past as a drug trafficker and his links to rightwing violence? Does her father’s disapproval put Manuel in danger?
As the novel goes on, with revelation following questionable revelation, nothing and no one can be trusted.
If Juventud does have an agenda it must be this: As Colombia seeks peace–as in any other conflict zone on this earth–Blakeslee’s novel makes us ask how a person forgives and moves on when the truth remains veiled, when you can’t even be sure who or what is to blame and therefore who you must choose or refuse to forgive.
So what is the agenda of Narrative Networks? According to the DARPA website,
The program aims to address the factors that contribute to radicalization, violent social mobilization, insurgency, and
terrorism among foreign populations, and to support conflict prevention and resolution, effective communication and innovative
Conflict resolution? Treatment for PTSD? Sounds good, but only, I guess, if you still believe Defense means defense. That bit about “effective communication”? Surely the Pentagon isn’t interested the way the novelists are in complexity and ambiguity. The Pentagon wants narratives that get results. The project, Noh believes, is aimed at learning how to weaponize stories.
But fiction writers were there first. The fictional world can reflect our own experiences back to us but most important, it encourages us to identify and empathize with characters different from ourselves, living through circumstances we ourselves have not had to face. What we read can change us.
Stories as weapons. My thanks go to Don Winslow and Vanessa Blakeslee for taking up arms.
And to poets like Ruth Goring. An American who grew up in Colombia, Goring has returned again and again to stand with villagers threatened by paramilitary forces. Her new collection, Soap Is Political, explores the experience of adjusting to a new environment, a new language, but also makes us see the displaced, the disappeared, the dead as individuals.
In one poem, women circle a jail, calling out names, planting them like seeds.
In another we meet Deiner, age eleven, his father and his stepmother as they clear brush around the cacao trees. Armed men emerge from the trees and Goring warns the reader:
Now you may need to turn the page.
For if you stay, and travel with the search party,
at the river you will find three
entangled bodies, boy’s head tossed
to one side, flesh gouged by vultures.
On the days when, even as activists, we find ourselves tuning out the news, novels and poems can still compel our attention and hold it and stop us from turning away.
The essay is inspired in part by a conversation I had many years ago. As I say in the essay: “Another African woman in LA told me that to her, much worse than having been cut, was what happened when she gave birth in a Canadian hospital. Residents and nurses were called over to her bed where they gathered round, gaping at her vagina and expressing outrage, horror and disgust.”
Here’s the rest:
A lot of people think I’m so very very serious that the only books I would deign to read are the most high-minded works of literature and nonfiction but when I was sick in bed with pneumonia, I must have read every one of Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder mystery and crime novels.
I can blame my low tastes on bad company. Friends like Domenic Stansberry whose Edgar-Award-winning novel, The Confession, had a gratifying and disturbing reception when some readers mistook this first-person narrative of a psychopathic killer as Domenic’s autobiography.
I love visiting Mona Linstromberg at home in the Siuslaw National Forest, distant from bookstores, libraries and, in fact, anything resembling so-called civilization, but a place well stocked with shelf after shelf of crime novels. François Camoin writes of the mystery of existence, not books of detectives and bad guys, but he turned me on to John Burdett’s Bangkok novels featuring detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep.
Besides citing peer pressure, I can justify my love of well written crime fiction this way: The thing about genre fiction–especially of the noir/crime variety–is the way there’s so often a political sensibility behind the dramatic action. Police and judges turn out to be corrupt; the rich and powerful are usually guilty (if not of murder, at least of something), and neighborhoods are gentrified to the detriment of most of the human beings who live there. So today I thought I’d write some short notes about the crime fiction I’ve been reading lately, including a couple of thrillers that actually confront politics and policy head-on.
Like Don Winslow‘s remarkable novel, The Power of the Dog, published in 2005 and covering events from the early 1970’s to 2004. See, I can yak your head off about the misbegotten War on Drugs and what it’s done in Mexico and Colombia (where aerial spraying to get rid of coca instead kills food crops and poisons people and livestock), about corruption and deception on both sides of the border, about CIA (and Reagan and the Bush president #1) complicity in drug trafficking and the rise of the brutally violent cartels–and all my well intentioned talk will bore you half to death. Or you can get the same disturbing information from Winslow in a form that makes your pulse race. I am so grateful that people who never thought about any of this before but do read bestsellers are now exposed to this history.
I’m looking forward to reading his new novel, The Cartel, that picks up the story of DEA agent Art Keller who risked everything as he tried to make amends for inadvertently facilitating the rise of a ruthless cartel.
My only complaint about the novel: Winslow obviously did much research and has so much expertise, how could so many errors slip through, all of which detract from his credibility? Martyred Archbishop Romero wasn’t Guatemalan. The whole world knows he was Salvadoran. Mexico’s telecommunications industry wasn’t nationalized, it was privatized, and more. Where was the copy editor? Is there so little respect for Latin America that errors like this and more slip right by? But Winslow is so precise, it made me wonder if it wasn’t, after all, the copy editor who was at fault. Someone who doesn’t know as much as s/he thinks s/he knows adding “clarification” and getting it wrong.
Apparently I love books that validate what I already believe. The Interrogator’s Notebook, for example, a novel by Martin Ott, former Army interrogator and critic of the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, a/k/a torture. (I came across Ott through his website, but as it turns out, his next book will soon be published by one of my own publishers, Fomite Press.)
His protagonist, Norman Cross, has lost his center. Poor Norman, who used to be unparalleled in recognizing the lay of the land, now blunders through his life. He used to do things (most of the time) the right way–learning all he could about a terrorism suspect, building rapport, getting the subject to trust and open up. But when he fails to control the team around him, he also fails to stop an imminent attack. Now, he makes notes to himself about what it means to be an interrogator–which means being someone who, as it turns out, again and again crosses the line he felt he’d never cross, and who at times shares the torment he inflicts. It means “I turned away from acts of torture and instead ended up turning myself into a deity of sorts….the more I reveled in my power, the more my humanity slipped away.” Cross is progressively more estranged from his family. He earns a living teaching workshops to private security operatives. He never wants to sit down face-to-face with a subject again–until he is pressured into learning the truth about George Stark, a deliciously malevolent character actor who’s been acquitted of homicide. Stark agrees to be interviewed but sets up conditions that put him in control of the bizarre and unsettling interrogation.
This is a fast, sometimes comic, read which does validate my own convictions: “The greatness or smallness of a country is defined in windowless rooms with no witnesses…”
But I also read hoping to be changed. Robert Crais, author of many crime novels set in Los Angeles has a very different take on the power of dogs in Suspect in which a former military dog and an LAPD officer–both in mourning and both suffering from PTSD–partner up. The book is so imbued with dog-love, it should have been a stretch for me, a cat person who is actually pretty afraid of dogs, but I cared and rooted all the way for the cop and the German shepherd.
Of course Maggie, that wonderful K-9, is always ready to rip the throat out of anyone approaching her wounded partner, even if that someone is trying to save his life. So I guess it’s possible to love dogs and still fear them.
And speaking of cats, to celebrate Millie’s moving in (thank you, Amanda Foundation),
I’ve started reading the quite violent mystery novels of Norwegian author Jo Nesbo. When I first laid eyes on Millie three years ago, I’d never seen anything like her. I found out yesterday she is apparently a Norwegian Forest Cat, named by King Olaf as the official cat of Norway. Does the US deserve an official cat? (Maybe let’s not go there. We could face a government shutdown with Republicans refusing to pass a budget unless Congress honors the Fat Cat.)
What else have I found out that I didn’t already know?
Sakina Murdock, author of Autotherapy, and I also share a publisher (Rainstorm Press). I’ve met her only in cyberspace where, among other things, she offered advice on how to keep track of the close to 100 flamingos I was monitoring at the LA Zoo. Her own expertise gained through geese-farming didn’t translate, requiring the use of ten fingers, not easy when you’re holding a clipboard in one hand and taking notes with the other. But her novel, featuring dead bodies drained of blood and people with secrets, also taught me stuff I didn’t know (in addition to the resolution of the mystery).
Her writing about genetic engineering (something I know a little about) and the geography of Cumbria (of which, till reading her book, I knew nothing) as well as the way to go about exploring a cave (ditto) is rendered with the kind of authority that convinced me I was in good hands as the bizarre events unfolded.
As a writer, I was intrigued by the unusual structure Murdock chose for her novel. Most crime/mystery novels maintain forward momentum–this happened and then this and then this–with some flashbacks or backstory. The dramatic action of Autotherapy is told in short sections taking place from 10:00 AM, April 17 through 1:10 PM April 23. Interspersed among these sections, and not in chronological order, we find out what the main characters said and what they withheld when interviewed in sessions taking place between 9:00 AM on April 24 and 3:15 PM on May 1.
After Shelagh Connor Shapiro interviewed me for her radio show Write the Book, I wanted to read her own fiction. Her novel, Shape of the Sky, also has an atypical structure for a mystery but that’s because though it features a homicide, a missing person, and an assumed identity, it’s not really what you’d consider a mystery. I enjoyed it so much, however, I decided to stretch the category and include this vivid picture of life in a small Vermont town. The people of Resolute, Vermont take a big risk in agreeing to host a rock concert. Sure enough, the mini-Woodstock attracts hordes of outsiders who camp outside in the rain bringing some needed cash as well as excitement, music, and opportunity as well as the disaster some townsfolk predicted.
Shape of the Sky doesn’t progress chronologically because each section gives us chronologically overlapping points of view as lives intersect. Shapiro offers compassionate and nuanced portrayals: a farm wife, a groupie, a town constable, a rock star, the town’s most annoying gossip, and more. The town is a place where a decades-long resident can still be considered an outsider but where newcomer-drifters are quickly offered work and where people take care of each other. Becca, for example, who uses a wheelchair after a car accident, wants to be allowed to do for herself what she can do, but also recognizes how much she still can’t, and how “…the town had healed around her like the edges of a wound.”
What I wish I could learn from Shelagh Connor Shapiro is how to write with such beauty and tenderness without ever crossing the line into sentimentality.
As long as I’m straying from my mission, I can’t overlook Jen Grow’s new story collection, My Life as a Mermaid.
Though I know Jen Grow to be a very talented writer, I approached this book with some trepidation because of the back cover. Did I really want to read about the dark side of living “happily ever after”? Did I really need another book about housewives, mothers, and cheating husbands? Of course, if that’s your cuppa, yes, you’ll find fiction here about love gone wrong. I don’t mean to put any subject matter down. But really…When I first started leading writing workshops, I can’t tell you how many stories I read about unhappy wives who end up running on beaches only to throw themselves into the ocean and transform into mermaids. That is not at all what Grow’s fiction is like. Her remarkable title story instead vividly and dramatically explores the anxiety of privilege. It’s a story I’ll reread often. And if there’s a fairy tale being questioned in My Life as a Mermaid, it’s the American Dream as when Grow writes in the voice of the wife of a severely injured veteran, and spotlights the fragile communities of the down and out. It’s a moving and memorable collection.
* * * * *
Coming up soon: Cartels, politics, corruption and the US hand in Latin America. After I finally get around to reading Don Winslow’s The Cartel, I’ll write about it along with The Power of the Dog and Vanessa Blakeslee’s Juventud, a coming-of-age novel set in Colombia amid the violence of drug trafficking and civil war.
Thank you, Dick Price and Sharon Kyle of LA Progressive magazine for also hosting LA Progressive Live and inviting me yesterday to say whatever was on my mind.
You can watch the show on Youtube here.
The Second Chances LA website would hardly be complete without the story of Salvadoran torture survivor and activist Maria Guardado. But weakened by cancer in the last few years, Maria had no energy for interviews. We lost her on May 16.
What I’ve just now posted at the website is a very brief tribute, but with a link to the brief documentary about her by Randy Vasquez which includes–warning–a graphic account of what she endured.
Here’s the mural LA artist El Mac painted in Mexico City back in 2012 to honor Maria Guardado and her decades of service.
Maria Guardado – ¡presente!
Carmen and Kim the last night of the residency.
Ça va? Tu as bien dormi?
Every morning our Senegalese colleagues offered this courteous greeting along with handshakes or hugs. We internationals learned quickly to reciprocate though, if my memory serves me, we were not so consistently courteous with one another.
But the morning of my departure, the morning ritual was dampened down. Many Senegalese had already left the night before. Hector, Marianne, Carmen, Antonio, Tiel, and Kim–who all had several days before flying home–took off early in the company of Dame to visit the Saloum Delta National Park. Jamillah and I were headed to Dakar.
Angelo had told me how to catch a ride and transfer and transfer to get to Dakar and we enlisted Thierno (who was not in a hurry to say goodbye to Jamilah) to accompany us so we could figure it out.
But Diol said he would arrange transportation.
Arrangements got complicated. In the meantime, we were out of safe drinking water. The only CFA (Central African francs) I had were in large denominations and I knew the little corner stores would not be able to make change. (Which would also have been true of the public buses and vans.)
Maybe this is the time to talk about money for anyone planning to go to Senegal. The currency is pegged to the euro, so I knew to bring euros rather than dollars, and I was told I could use my ATM card to withdraw francs directly from ATMs which I would find in Dakar, but most likely not in the village. But in Dakar, when I arrived, the banks were closed and my attempts to use ATMs were failures. I only learned at the very end of the trip that ATMs and the few places that do accept credit cards only accept cards that meet the European standard with an embedded chip. Which my cards did not have. (A few days after my return to the US, what should come in the mail but a replacement card complete with chip.) I would have been entirely stuck if I hadn’t been able to borrow francs from Hector and change some euros with Angelo. But, what to do with 10,000 CFA bills?
Jamilah and I headed to one of the small restaurants on the beach. Chez Baby always did good business so I thought there would be change. The owners were used to us. Here’s Hector at Chez Baby with an imperialist Coca-Cola.
Be back in an hour, Diol warned. Well, there wasn’t any change but the employee in charge agreed to go look for some and let me have a soda. We waited and waited. She was unable to find change but agreed I could send money back to her via Thierno. At that point, I was afraid to ask for another drink.
J & I headed back for the house but by then I was dehydrated and disoriented and somehow we managed to walk right past the usual landmarks — the house up on the cliff with the white spiral stairs heading to the beach,
the kindergarten next door
and the house and continue north for at least a mile. Every now and then I commented on how interesting the rock formations were and how I’d never noticed them before.
By the time we turned around, I couldn’t believe we hadn’t seen how far we’d gone astray. Densely populated stretches of fishermen family homes, men out on the boats, (not like the lonely unused pirogue that outside our house)
children who–unlike the kids who were used to us who would run up to hold our hands and want kisses–glared at us and called out Toubab, the West African word for a European, or white person, or stranger who is presumed to be rich; kind of like Sahib in India. (I had asked at one point about the origin of Toubab Dialaw, the name of the village. Dialaw reminded me enough of diable that I wondered if we were staying in White Devil. Dialaw turned out to be the name of that particular geographic area and the Toubab part refers to the history when Europeans began frequenting the area to trade.)
I was dead on my feet when we got back to the house. It was another couple of hours before we had a car and I didn’t reach Angelo’s till 5:30. And I can’t thank him enough. On top of playing matchmaker between ImaginAction and Yaddu Karaax so that the residency could happen, I took full advantage of his hospitality–a couple of nights on his couch, his help navigating, plus conversation and insight, and another loan!
In the morning, Jamilah, Thierno, Adama (who’d gone on ahead to Dakar before us) and I met at the ferry dock for the boat to Gorée Island.
No drumming allowed.
The island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and largely known to Americans because of its role in the slave trade. US Presidents on African trips have to visit. But if Jamilah and I thought this would be a sort of pilgrimage, it’s not quite that at all. The UNESCO designation has more to do with the preservation of the colorful colonial buildings and streets that could easily have been lifted directly from France.
The island makes a pleasant excursion from the dust of Dakar for groups of schoolchildren and regular folks.
There’s an artists colony, people showing paintings and assemblage work, handcrafts. Little restaurants by the water.
Thierno and Adama led us first to the island’s museum housed in the old fort. (Thierno was annoyed that the Americans were charged extra to visit Gorée and argued that all people are equal regardless of color or nationality, but to me, it’s fair for foreigners to contribute in this way to the upkeep.)
Jamilah and I didn’t realize we were going to see exhibits about the neolithic and paleolithic eras and about Europeans in the region. The exhibits got interesting to me once we moved into the era of resistance, in large part because Adama now had a lot to say.
There were two forms of resistance, armed and cultural with the cultural resistance based on Koranic teachings. He pointed out the picture of a young woman who is a Senegalese hero. She organized exploited Senegalese to go on strike instead of serving European masters. She was arrested and exiled. Adama said violent resisters when caught were executed; nonviolent were sent away, I think usually to Gabon, to break their power and influence without martyring them or causing retaliatory unrest.
There were photographs showing the lineage and genealogy of prominent marabouts. In Senegal, overwhelmingly Muslim, Sufi Islam predominates and that means fervent worship combined with respect and tolerance for other traditions. There seems to be no sectarian tension. People usually belong to what I guess we would call a brotherhood or sodality or–Adama used the word family–led by a particular holy guide, or marabout, whose role is passed down father to son. Adama belongs to the family of Khalifa Ababacar Sy whose portrait hangs in his room. (Also note mosquito net tied up when not in use.)
He was also happy to point out the picture of the Khalifa when we saw it that afternoon in a taxi cab.
Adama is also working on a play about another marabout from a different family tradition who is respected throughout the country. The marabouts have a lot of influence in the community and therefore also with the government.
I remember reading a Sufi book many years ago that talked about fountains springing up at different places all over the world and people drinking from these fountains and recognizing them as Truth but also having to know that all these fountains came up from the same deep river under the earth. The way people talked about belief seemed to go very much with this idea.
We went to the top of the fort and there and elsewhere on the island visited the centuries-old cannons.
Finally, to the Maison des Esclaves. The dungeon cells where people were kept. The even more cramped spaces for the “Recalcitrants” which made me think of solitary confinement in California prisons. The so-called Door of No Return which at this location most likely was not actually the space through which people were forced onto the slave ships.
I understand this house hasn’t the scale or intensity of horror of the massive slave-trade fortresses in Ghana, but in a way it was particularly horrifying to see the small-scale normalization of keeping human beings like livestock and selling them–if they survived the conditions–to potential buyers an ocean away. Here was a lovely little French village, comfortable little homes, and underneath most likely every pleasant house, people held in brutal captivity.
(Which makes me think of the eastern seaboard of the US where so many fortunes were made through the crime but most traces of the past have been erased.)
Nearby, this statue represents Liberation.
we boarded the ferry to return to Dakar.
Waited nearby the docks
for a bus like this one
and grabbed a cab when we were tired of waiting and headed for the northern suburb where Adama lives with his grandmother.
It was truly an honor that he invited us home to meet her.
We had accompanied him in order to watch a rehearsal of new work-in-progress by his theater company. (Sorry, no photos.) First we visited the room he rents near his grandmother’s house, a place to go for privacy and solitude when he is working on a script.
Then the home of his friend, a member of the company.
On the way to rehearsal, some kids on a rooftop found us very amusing.
And I saw my name painted on a wall.
Well, no. Turns out everyone thought my name was spelled Dayanne. The word Diane, pronounced Djan in Wolof, means Serpent. Yay!
We also had the honor of meeting M. Gueye Ndiaye, percussionist and griot who has performed with Youssou N’dour and taken his music and workshops, especially for at-risk youth, to many cities in Europe. He invited us into his home in the neighborhood where he has created and supported community education and culture programs and is the great benefactor of Adama’s theater company.
I think I mentioned in a previous installment that Adama’s company is called SantiYAllah, or Thanks be to Allah. They began and ended their rehearsal with prayer. So it was particularly interesting that Adama explained that while he is respectful of his religion and culture, these don’t belong onstage. There’s no place for God onstage in theater. Maybe, at most, God can be in the audience, but theater is about the feelings and thoughts of human beings, freely expressed.
(I hope I’m expressing this accurately. By this time, I was exhausted and my shaky French even shakier!)
I had seen a video of a play of his, one that he was invited to take to Ravenna, Italy by a Senegalese theater artist who was an immigrant there, Mandiaye Ndiaye, who became his mentor. (Ndiaye died several months ago and Adama would now like to continue studying with Hector.) The production was gorgeous. Much of the dialogue was spoken in chorus by the men on one side, women on the other, in perfect synchrony. Individuals would stop forward to play out particular scenes. The production incorporated music and dance. (At the risk of sounding like an idiot, let me say the work is original and African but I want to describe it as a powerful mix of ancient Greek drama and Bollywood.)
Anyway, I loved the rehearsal. The company warmed up in a circle with very vigorous running and fast, sure ensemble movement to the beat of a drum. They are all dancers so in great shape. The new piece stunned me. Our last day together Hector had facilitated an exercise of men against women. One group would advance on the other with violent or insulting gestures, up to a dividing line, where that group would be driven back. Advance and retreat, advance and retreat, until Hector told us to change to seductive, welcoming or loving gestures. In this way, we transformed vigorous action from hostility to affectionate connection. That was just a couple of days ago, and Adama had already used some of that action, some of the visual imagery, for a piece about marriage.
Then came a new piece he said I had inspired with an exercise I led. But this one was almost all dialogue, and in Wolof, so when Adama put me on the spot and asked for a critique I was entirely at a loss. I was moved that something I’d offered had inspired him and very sorry to let him down by being unable to comment. Jamillah stepped into the breach and asked a question. (Thank you.)
It was hard to say goodbye, and with Adama worried as in the middle of all this he received a call that his beloved mother was in the hospital. I write this now hoping she is recovered and well.
Jërejëff to everyone who made this trip so inspiring. To Hector (of course) and to Diol and Angelo, seen here conferring.
And it’s hard to come to the end of these posts, knowing how much I’ve left out, how much I gained, how much I failed to understand. I hope Moustapha Seck will further enlighten me!
Here we are (most of us) when the residency was at its height.
Now the house is empty.
So what were we doing there anyway?
My colleague Hector Aristizábal (seen here with the gift Anta made for him using pebbles and sand)
Here’s a quick oversimplification: Forum Theater is one of the most important components of Theater of the Oppressed, a set of techniques created by the late Brazilian theater artist and activist Augusto Boal. The idea is that a community–in particular a marginalized or oppressed community–can use theater to explore and make visible negative conditions in their lives, seek alternatives, and explore possible consequences of different courses of action. The Joker functions as the facilitator, the director, playwright during the development of the play which emerges from the community itself through improvisations. The play always ends badly. The Joker then invites audience members to leave off being spectators and to become, instead, “spect-actors”–that is, anyone in the audience can come up onstage, replace an actor, and intervene in the action by trying out different words or behavior to see if a better outcome can be achieved. While remaining neutral and not imposing his/her own point of view, the Joker leads the audience in analyzing the interventions that are presented.
who invited us to Senegal and therefore gets my most sincere thank you, is the Joker for the Dakar-based company Kaddu Yaraax.
Kim works with people with disabilities in the Netherlands and wants to bring theater techniques to her work. Here, Dior is turning her into a Senegalese woman with braids.)
(I was sorry to hear from Kim that deep cutbacks are threatening the social programs that have provided such a strong safety net in her country for decades.)
Tiel is a friend and supporter of Sekou Odinga, imprisoned for 33 years for his role in the Black Liberation Army and the prison escape of Assata Shakur. He was freed in November and Tiel carried his story (and many T-shirts showing his face) with her. Children always flocked to her. Tiel made friends with everyone and taped shouts of support for Sekou that she would bring back to the US to share with him.
I was very happy to meet Jamilah, from Oakland, who it turned out was instrumental in some of the programs I’ve learned about and so admire to reform school discipline practices in California. Jamilah and Thierno (who stayed with us but is from the village and was our connection to the community) connected right away
as she did, as well, with the kids.
Carmen left LA last year to return to Spain, where she committed herself to grassroots activism in her hometown of Palencia.
She held the portfolio for arts and culture for the progressive association she helped get off the ground. While we were in Africa, she learned she’d been elected to one of 25 seats on the Palencia City Council.
Babacar has 30 years experience as a theater director in Senegal. He said he always told actors where to stand, where to move, what to say. In the workshops, he said he learned to trust the actors to use their own creativity to live their roles.
Babacar says to him the most precious thing in life is freedom.
Marie Ngom was an invaluable addition to the group and much admired by me. If there’s a better example of a strong and independent woman, a Senegalese feminist, show her to me because she’d have to be Marie’s twin.
A visual artist, I don’t think Marie had a lot of theater experience, but she has vision and intelligence. She did a great job advancing the creation of our play the day she served as Joker. And we, especially the women, relied on her for Wolof-French translations. Merci, Marie, et jërejëff.
When I did a (non-theater) exercise asking people to invent a magical product that could solve a social problem, Marie invented this microphone that speaks the words of people who’ve been silenced.
Fax drew a torch that would bring peace and forgiveness to our world in conflict. It sells for the price of will and courage.
Antonio, a superb photographer so that I wish you were looking at his photos rather than mine, came to us from Italy. He also lived for years in Uruguay so I sometimes lapsed into Spanish with him making the language situation more complicated still. (Thanks for this photo, Kim Potter.)
He also liked to bargain with vendors.
You met Marianne in the first installment. Dare I mention she is a psychiatrist!?!?! And one with years of experience as a circus performer. She’s been with activist projects around the world, recently with the Freedom Bus in Palestine.
There seem to be a lot of photos of people writing. We also had time for relaxation. Dior in the hammock.
Adama, charismatic actor, musician, theater director, was the only one in the group without previous experience with Theater of the Oppressed.
In addition to working with his company, SantiyAllah (probably misspelled, the name means Thanks to Allah), he travels the country to work with children and youth and he thought TO techniques would be valuable. We spent a lot of time together. His intellectual curiosity meant he wanted to learn everything, and then some.
The language barrier kept me from getting to know Ndoumbè well till the very end when I learned more and was deeply moved by her story and her courage.
Dame (pronounced Dahm). He attended a Koranic school so his education was in Arabic. He learned his excellent French and his growing knowledge of English by looking words up in the dictionary and practicing. He has a great sense of humor and the most provocative dance moves. (Senegalese youth have copied crotch-grabbing from US music videos. It’s considered as vulgar there as it is here and as impossible to stop!)
Of course, many more people: Pape Sidy (whose name, until I saw it spelled, I heard as Vassily). Here he is as Joker, preparing to direct a scene.
So many more new friends including Anta, Aminata, Adi, Cheik, Leity, and more. Here’s just a few.
But I was supposed to be writing about the play. For about a week we talked about issues and the community and did multiple improvisations about the issues that emerged.
Lots of gender issues: sexual double standards, rejection and stigmatization of women who don’t get pregnant, polygamy. In Toubab Dialaw, a fishing village, there are also issues about the economic exploitation of the fishermen by the boat owners.
Finally, this is what we came up with. A young woman loves a poor fisherman who works alongside her uncle. The boat owner is cheating the workers but slips extra money to the uncle because he wants to marry the girl. The arranged marriage takes place, everyone happy except the bride.
The new husband is cold and angry when he discovers his wife is not a virgin. On top of that, she doesn’t get pregnant. The marriage is unhappy but the uncle and mother want her to remain with her husband and the mother prepares a potion and steps to take so her daughter can conceive a child and create a better marriage.
In the meantime, the boat owner is looking for a second wife for a legal polygamous marriage.
The union organizer has been talking to the fishermen. The real life organizer for the fishermen’s union attended a rehearsal to make comments and make sure the actors understood the actual issues and content. Here:
Here he observes and comments on the improvisation.
The fisherman who loved the girl joins the union and tries to convince others. Another is uncertain. The uncle, who is deriving benefit from the boat owner, is completely against the union. But the boat owner is angry at the union drive and at the girl’s whole family and fires all three fishermen.
He then takes the young woman he wants for a second wife to his home. There he is discovered by his first wife and her mother. The first wife pours the potion over his head in disgust. Her mother is torn between berating her son-in-law and placating him.
We ended it there with the actors freezing. The audience could then intervene in the action at any point — in the relationship, in the issues involving the fishermen.
Development and rehearsals took play in three languages with us internationals playing some roles. Performances were in Wolof only and performed only by Senegalese.
We walked north through the village to the first performance.
I am so fond of goats.
Interventions were in Wolof. Here’s the first brave spect-actor to come up from the audience, but I don’t know what she proposed.
We could have used more adults in the audience! We really needed to have spoken ahead of time with the local chief and local imam or marabout.
For the second performance, the next evening, in the south village, we should have taken the inland route. Instead we climbed over rocks and waded through tide pools in the Atlantic. My camera was tucked safely away so I didn’t not record our somewhat frantic scramble.
Again, the children danced and rushed onto the stage before the show began.
Hector likes a performance to move quickly, get right into the action, but the Senegalese like to introduce characters and address the audience before getting started. It really makes sense that way when it’s not as though people have tickets and take their seats when the lights go down.
Here comes an intervention:
Not only did she intervene in the action, she tried to move the kids back from the stage area.
I understood from the translation that this woman intervened to tell the husband it might be his fault that his wife could not get pregnant. When a man mistreats his wife, the stress may make it impossible for her to conceive.
Four young women consulted together before one came onstage and proceeded to beat the actress playing the second wife. She had to be restrained. As Diol put it later, they were sending a message to the men of the village, making their opposition to polygamy very clear. Though we didn’t have many adults in the audience, Diol thought this intervention would be the main topic of conversation in town the next day.
Our last full day in Toubab Dialaw a drowned child washed up just steps from our house. Later that day, one of the wonderful women who cooked for us was possessed by a spirit and went into a trance. I will write about these events more seriously and in (I hope) more depth when I collaborate with Moustapha on our intercultural essay.
The next day, we prepared to leave. Some people departed early, needing to be back at their jobs. It felt so sudden and so very sad, breaking up the creative village we had made together.
Next installment. Thierno and Adama accompany me and Jamillah in Dakar.
First, I’ll include some more photos here. This little girl, related to Anta–oh, that face. She was so dramatic, so compelling, I could have taken pictures of her all day. But to be fair, I’ll close today’s installment with pictures of some other beautiful children.