I will say it outright:Fear the Mirror, Cora Siré’s newly minted collection of linked short stories, is the most emotionally satisfying book that I have read in a long time. The author takes readers through the aftermath of wars in Europe, evoking places where history seems to be repeating itself and commiserating with people whose lives have been upended by the winds of change.
Cora Siré describes the travails of people, some of them her relatives, forced to flee to the Americas at short notice, but who somehow manage to make a rooted life for themselves in a new environment. She paints a nostalgic picture of a Montréal that was both innocent and deserving of its moniker of “sin city.” She takes us to the imposing Andean Cordilleras and gives us a hint as to why the word gaucho is a symbol of audacity and nobility. The author does all this with a deft pen, while dripping tidbits of local lore, history and humour. Along the way, she allows us a candid peek into her life and heart.
Readers will become acquainted with a grave-digger whose clients are buried under the cover of night; a gringa whose trysts with a Latin lover are really trysts with exotica; a mother who flirts with a young Russian sailor who had caught the eye of her Canadian teenage daughter; a German poet who highjacks a homage to another German poet’s work in order to showcase his own; the inhabitants of a bucolic Vermont village who are as much prisoners as the prisoners they guard in the nearby penitentiary; a female author who winds up tricking the two writers who are trying to trick her into bed. Long-lost relatives, old friends and new lovers are the protagonists of this complex narrative which is held together by an omniscient voice who turns out to belong to Corita, aka Cora.
Critics fond of using labels are at a loss as to which genre this collection belongs. They can call it a memoir distorted by time, an autobiography under the cloak of fiction, or just creative writing. I will simply call it life sublimated into art.
More about the author:
Cora Siré is an author, poet and essayist whose work has been published in Canada, Mexico and the United States. Her novel Behold Things Beautiful was a finalist for the Quebec Writers Federation (QWF) Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Fiction Prize for 2017.
Ann Eriksson’s Urgent Message from a Hot Planet is a heartfelt plea for all of us to do our bit, however little, to save the planet from global warming. In fact, author Eriksson contends that the term “climate heating” better depicts the crisis that the planet is currently facing. As a biologist and environmental consultant – in addition to her accomplishments as a nature-inspired novelist – she makes a cogent case for all of us to take radical steps to reverse this anthropogenic catastrophe that foreshadows the ultimate annihilation of all life on earth, including our own. She reminds readers that our species created the problem, so it is up to our species to correct it. However, her admonition is paired with strong words of hope and encouragement. It is never too late, she says, and little steps do make a significant difference.
This 216-page book consists of six chapters that outline the science behind climate change, the consequences of global heating, and the solutions to the crisis. It is beautifully illustrated with colour photographs of climate activists as well as testimonials and artwork by youth activists. There is also a glossary of terms and an impressive list of resources for people who want to make a difference. The last chapter provides suggestions for surviving in a changing and uncertain world.
Eriksson started writing her book before COVID-19 struck, but some of her recommendations also address the anxiety many people feel in the face of a world-wide crisis that can disrupt the chain of supply of goods and services. Her yearning to return to a state of self-sufficiency and a closer relationship with nature is shared by many of us.
While this primer is mainly aimed at young people, the inheritors of a planet manhandled by their parents’ generation, adults will also find it engaging. And although some of the notions outlined here may be familiar, it is useful to have them compiled in a single volume and in clear language that speaks to youth and adults alike.
Urgent Messagefrom a Hot Planet stands out from other books on the subject because it is not afraid to point a finger at the root cause of global warming and other instances of environmental degradation. Ann Eriksson voices her deeply felt conviction by quoting a poem by Teän Warren, a 13-year-old youth climate activist from Cornwall, UK:
“Global capitalism the religion of the individual smashing through the vision of a united society. THE CORRUPTION OF THE CURRENT SYSTEM HAS LED TO THE DESTRUCTION OF THE ECO SYSTEM. . . .”
Do read what Ann Eriksson and other activists have to say about the state of the world. At first you may be shocked, but then you will be energized by their successful activism and earnest hope for a healed planet.
Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda wrote a passionate ode to the humble onion, acknowledging its importance as a staple food both for poor and rich. Marie Antoinette showed up her (wilful?) ignorance when she urged her subjects to eat cake instead of the bread they were clamouring for. Sadly, she had to eat humble pie when they sent her to the guillotine for not being in touch with her subjects. No more pie for her, humble or otherwise!
My Belgian mother used to coo “mon chou” when holding me in her lap, perhaps because one of the myths sold to children in Europe was that babies came from cabbages. On rarer occasions she called me “pumpernickel,” which pleased me no end since I love that heavy but nutritious black bread. I have since learned one of the possible origins of its name, which unfortunately involves the word fart. I can only hope it is a spurious etymology.
Riffing on the subject of affectionate or cheeky monikers based on food, Nilambri, Claudia and I came up with some tasty morsels:
Pelos de elote (corn hair) was Claudia’s contribution, as her pale blond hair is the object of frequent comments in a sea of dark-haired Mexicans. Nilambri came up with a spicier version from Indian cuisine: “I am laung (cloves), you are elaichi (cardamom), presumably a man addressing his lover. Not to be left behind, I am reminded of the Mexican song where the man describes himself: “Soy como el chile verde, picante pero sabroso.” (I am like a green chilli, hot but tasty.)
English speakers need not despair. Many terms of endearment involve sweetness, perhaps because England became rich thanks to Caribbean sugar (based on slave labour). Words like “sweetie” and “sweetie pie,” mainly used for children and Barbie-like lovers, are a staple in the Deep South of the US of A. But you don’t have to be a doll to be so addressed. Just try and interact with a shop assistant, regardless of your appearance or age, and you will be called honey without a moment’s hesitation.
Pan (bread) is used to describe a kind man in Spanish-speaking countries, maybe because men were traditionally the breadwinners. Terrón de azúcar (sugar cube) is commonly heard in Spain. I’d better stop here before sounding schmaltzy. You might wonder how that Yiddish word for sentimental first emerged. It comes from the High German schmaltz – rendered chicken (or other animal) fat. By the way, that’s most probably the secret ingredient that cures a cold in mother’s chicken soup.
All this talk of food makes me think of one of my favourite comfort foods, el tamal, or tamale in English, borrowed from the Nahuatl word tamalli. A tamale is a rectangular patty of corn meal stuffed with meat, dried fruits, veggies or cheese and wrapped in a corn husk. In some parts of Mexico and Central America, this staple – which is a delicacy – is wrapped in banana leaves.
A tamalito, or mini tamale, is also the protagonist of a lovely little children’s book by illustrator and editor Isela Xospa. A popular version of the larger tamale – tiny and endearing in its snug swaddling, irresistible at parties, weddings, christenings and other special occasions – it is hardly surprising that tamalito is the nickname given to babies.
That immediate “kernel” of connection is exactly what Isela explores in her carefully designed and crafted book. Created with recycled cardboard and printed with vegetable ink, the book offers simple yet powerful insights into culinary traditions, illustrating the vital role of independent publishing endeavours and the rich possibilities of multilingualism.[i]
Take a close look at the images and follow the story in Nahuatl, Spanish and English. You will be delighted to learn how to swaddle a baby – or a tamale. You might also be inspired to search for associations between traditional foods and cozy feelings in your own language and culture.
[i] Conetamalli, Bebé tamal, Baby tamale, by Isela Xospa, Xospatronik, Mexico City, 2021. The book received the Mexican government’saward in 2021 for best book in anthropology and history.
[Reviewer’s note: This review adheres to the terminology used by the different authors in this anthology.]
The term Norton Anthology brings to mind something good to come: a literary collection chosen with clear intent and annotated with solid scholarship. When the Light of theWorld Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry does not disappoint. It is that and much more. It is a celebration of the oral and spiritual traditions of the first poets of what today is known as the United States of America, a nomenclature which leaves out the tribal nations whose communities cross current national borders into Canada and Mexico. For this, executive editor Joy Harjoy apologizes and points out that state borders within the United States do not adequately define tribal areas.
This first-of-its-kind anthology is divided into five sections representing major geographic areas, partially following a traditional counter-clockwise Native orientation: Northeast and Midwest; Plains and Mountains; Pacific Northwest, Alaska and Pacific Islands; Southwest and West; and finally, Southeast. The need to include Alaska, Hawaii and other Pacific Islands skewed the traditional round configuration – but then again, colonization tends to interrupt the natural order of things.
In her introduction to this hefty anthology, Joy Harjoy contends that the commonality shared by all tribal nations in North America is the knowledge that the earth is a living being and that “Poetry, in all its forms, including songs, oratory, and ceremony, both secular and sacred, is a useful tool for the community.”
NORTHEAST AND MIDWEST
Kimberly M. Blaser introduces the first section with a bilingual and multidimensional dream song of the Anishinaabeg, arising “from an intimacy with the water landscape of the region.” This and other poetic forms also address major historical events, such as the Oka standoff in Québec and the war in Vietnam.
Gegwejiwebinan, an Ojibwe poet whose name translates into English as “Trial Thrower,” allowed ethnologist Frances Densmore to record his song with the help of an interpreter, sometime between 1907 and 1909.
Upon the whole length of my form
The water birds will alight.
Jim Northrup (Chibinesi) (1943-2016), Anishinaabe, of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior, was sent to a residential school, and served as a marine in the Vietnam War. He helps veterans heal from their traumas by teaching them verbalizing skills. The following first and last lines of this poem carry the message that healing takes hard work:
Survived the war but
was having trouble
surviving the peace
That’s when I realized that
surviving the peace was up to me.
Colonialism and other dark subjects are tackled by Alex Jacobs (Karoniaktanke) (1953–), Akwesasne Mohawk, in his epic poem Indian Machismo or Skin to Skin. There is a short but powerful stanza that deplores colonization:
IT’S HAPPENED EVERY DAY FOR 500 YEARS!
But i bet you be there in your buckskins when politicos
celebrate Cristofo Mofo Colombo in 1992 & make him an
honorary Cherosiouxapapanavajibhawk too! Aaaiiiieeee-yahhhh!
PLAINS AND MOUNTAINS
Heid E. Erdrich lets us know that generations of Indigenous people lived on vast expanses of land under very harsh conditions and yet produced lyrical and often witty poetry. Many Indigenous communities suffered harsh repression, such as the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890. Some poems make historical references to conflict and resistance, and celebrate respected figures such as Sitting Bull while expressing rage towards despised figures like Custer. These poems help in understanding the history of the country.
Elsie Fuller (1870-unknown), Omaha, was educated in English at a boarding school, to the detriment of proficiency in her mother tongue. However, she did not lose her native wit:
A New Citizen
Now I am a citizen!
They’ve given us new laws,
Just as were made
By Senator Dawes.
Just give us a chance,
We will never pause.
Till we are good citizens…
N. Scott Momaday, Kiowa (1934–), author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel House Made of Dawn, and Oklahoma’s sixteenth poet laureate, writes life-affirming poetry:
The Delight Song of Tsoai-Talee
I am a feather on the bright sky.
I am the blue horse that runs in the plain.
I am the fish that rolls shining, in the water.
I am the shadow that follows a child.
You see, I am alive, I am alive.
Unfortunately, not all is light in this part of the world… there is darkness as well, and James Welch (1940-2003), Gros Ventre and Blackfeet, mourns it:
Just Off the Reservation
We need no runners, here. Booze is law
and all the Indians drink in the best tavern.
Money is free if you’re poor enough.
Women find time to assert themselves, even in difficult times. Suzan Shown Harjo (1945–) Southern Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, Congressional liaison for Indian Affairs under Jimmy Carter and winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, never forgets that she is, first and foremost, a woman:
The Song Called “White Antelope’s Chant”
…Clouding Woman had a song
it was a Tsistsistas song
it was her song
because she sang it
PACIFIC NORTHWEST, ALASKA, AND PACIFIC ISLANDS
Cedar Sigo introduces this chapter by stating categorically that “Native people of the Northwest had no choice but to live in relation to poetry from the very outset of creation.” As simple as that. Gloria Bird confirms this sentiment when she says:
We are like salmon swimming against the mutation of current to find our heartbroken way home again, weight of red eggs and need.
Diane L’xeis’ Benson makes it clear that for Native people, Alaska is not a land of gold, but rather “an eternal connection that runs through their veins cycling through the generations.” She also points out that “the reality of loss, cultural disruption, and the effort to reconcile cultural existence in a continually colonizing and commodifying world” is central to Alaskan poetry.
Brandy Nālani McDougall makes the astonishing statement (which should nonetheless not surprise us), that the United States currently controls one third of the Pacific Ocean through different colonial subterfuges, such as associated territories and so forth. Given the diversity of cultures, languages and histories, it is best to let the poets speak for themselves.
Chief Seattle (1786-1866), Suquamish and Duwamish, is remembered for his leadership skills and conciliatory language. In one of his speeches, he stands up to the White Man
Your religion was written on tablets of stone by the iron finger of an angry God, lest you forget.
He then talks about their differing world views:
Your dead cease to love you and the land of their nativity as soon as they pass the portals of the tomb; Our dead never forget this beautiful world that gave them their being.
John Dominis Holt (1919-1993), Kanaka Maoli, was recognized as a Living Treasure of Hawai’i in 1979. You can see why.
Ka ‘Ili Pau
Give me something from
The towering heights
Of blackened magma
Not a token thing
Something of spirit, mind or flesh, something of bone
The undulating form of Mauna Loa…
Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio (1991–), Kanaka Maoli, was invited to perform her spoken word at the Obama White House. She might have declaimed the following lines:
There is a culture
Somewhere beneath my skin that i’ve been searching for since i landed here
But it’s hard to feel sometimes
Because at Stanford we are innovative
The city of Macintosh breeds thinkers of tomorrow
and i have forgotten how to remember
SOUTHWEST AND WEST
Deborah A. Miranda introduces this section by saying it “feels like writing a love letter about a collection of love letters.” It is easy to understand why. The poems in this chapter are about endurance, reaffirmation of Indigenous knowledge, two-spirit Indigenous experiences and resistance. It is also about totems and the seasons.
Georgina Valoyce-Sanchez (1939–), Chumash, Tobono O’odham and Pima, describes a relationship between a human and a dolphin.
The Dolphin Walking Stick
sure you look for your Spirit
symbol — your totem
only it’s more a waiting
for its coming
Adrian C. Louis (1946-2018), Lovelock Paiute, doesn’t hesitate to tell it like it is:
I have known
some badass Skins.
Indians who were maybe
not bad but just broke,
& broken for sure.
Anita Endrezze (1952–), Yaqui, writes about a very current subject, but with a poignant slant:
Build a wall of saguaros,
butterflies, and bones
of those who perished
in the desert. A wall of worn shoes,
dry water bottles, poinsettias…”
My words are always
upon themselves, too tight
in my mouth. I want a new
language. One with at least
50 words for grief
and 50 words for love, so I can offer
them to the living…
Jennifer Elise Foerster starts off her introduction to this chapter by boldly stating that “Southeastern people have long been writers.” She is most probably right.
Ruth Margaret Muskrat Bronson (1897-1982), Cherokee, sums up the history of colonization:
They have come, they have come,
Out of the unknown they have come;
Out of the great sea they have come;
Dazzling and conquering the white man has come
To make this land his home.
We must die, we must die,
The white man has sentenced we must die,
Louis Little Coon Oliver (1904-1991), Mvskoke, pays homage to the resilience of the women in his community, particularly the older women.
Mind over Matter
My old grandmother, Tekapay’cha
stuck an ax into a stump
and diverted a tornado.
There was power in that twister.
There was power in my grandmother.
Those who doubt, let them doubt.
The pain caused by displacement runs through most of this poetry. LeAnne Howe (1951–), Choctaw, expresses it pithily.
Ishki, Mother, Upon Leaving the Choctaw Homelands, 1831
Right here there’s a hole of sorrow in the center of my chest
A chasm of muscle
Displacement might be territorial or cultural, but for Kim Shuck (1966–), Cherokee, a sense of place is fluid like water.
Water as a Sense of Place
The water I used to drink spent time
Inside a pitched basket
It adopted the internal shape
Took on the taste of pine
And changed me forever.
LeAnne Howe, in her outroduction to this inspiring anthology, reminds us that “This collection of poems, born of these lands, is not an end nor a beginning.” I’m convinced she is absolutely right. My only regret as a reviewer is that time and space constraints do not allow me to profile many other wonderful poets and their luminous words.
They named me after a crab, because even though my eyes appear to face forward, I walk sideways to surprise my prey. Or is it the other way around? They are after me, but I avoid them with great cunning. Some twin me with death, but they don’t realize I actually hold the secret to eternal life. Division and multiplication are all the same to me, because the more I split myself in half, the more clones I spread out there, thus extending the game. I’m also a voracious guest, eating what my host feeds me. But when the food runs out, I hungrily gobble her up until we both slump into a heap of ashes. I sometimes change my strategy and hide under the sand for a while—say, five years—and then make a comeback. I’m also a shape-shifter, changing my modus operandi and appearance, sending my enemies scurrying for new weapons to defeat me. I am, as christened in my biography by Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of All Maladies. But my real name is simply cancer, like the crab-shaped diamond constellation that holds the night sky together.
Cancer! That is the word I was trying to push to the back of my mind as I pushed my way forward on the crowded bus. That’s when I ran into him, looking slightly worn after a hard day’s work at the hospital, but always ready with a warm smile for an old friend or patient.
“How are you? How’s the family?”
“Fine, but I need your help. I’ve been waiting for the results of some tests, and from the way the radiologist looked at me, I’m sure it’s bad news. You’ve got access to all my files, haven’t you?”
“Not to worry. I’ll let you know,” he mumbled as he stepped off the bus.
His call came the following day.
“I’ve arranged for the head of the Breast Centre to give you an appointment as quickly as possible.”
“Spit it out! Don’t beat around the bush! What is it?”
“I’m not beating around the bush. You were supposed to say “Why the hurry?” and I was supposed to answer “Well, because… Yes, it’s cancer, but the more curable type.”
That was two summers ago. Today is a rainy, slushy, windy, still-winter grey day, and my mood matches the weather. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, my mood has been influenced by the weather more than by my illness. And of course, by the waiting, as well as the numerous appointments with numerous doctors, each with his/her agenda, his/her fake optimistic smile, his/her “don’t worry, my dear, everything will be fine.” And the worried calls from friends and family wanting to know the unknowable. As for the kindness of friends… well, that is the best and sometimes the worst part of it.
“You look much better today, my dear. Last time we met you looked ghastly.” (I didn’t know I had looked ghastly.)
A yoga buddy:
“There is this wonderful video on YouTube. Did you know that you can cure cancer with a vegan diet and a strict detox regime? (I know all about those quacks, thank you.)
“There is this clinic in Mexico, just south of the border… It’s good Trump hasn’t built his wall yet.” (Everybody has heard about these clinics.)
A book-club member:
“My dear, you must stop being angry at the world. You know that, don’t you, that cancer strikes people when they’re stressed out?” (Why blame the victim?)
“Are you going to be home this evening? I’ll bring you some frozen home-made soups for when you don’t feel like cooking. You must eat well, you know.” (I’ve been turned off soup for the rest of my life.)
OK, well, perhaps these are not all my friends, but they are certainly well meaning. My real friends have more practical offerings.
A former colleague:
“I’ll do whatever needs to be done, cook, clean, shop for groceries, drive you to the hospital, whatever.”
A voice from the past:
“Hello, sweetheart, just wanting to hear your voice. Love you!”
The young ones:
“Hello, grandma, when can we come visit?”
Heartwarming, but deep down I’m grateful for email and voicemail technology. You read or listen and you answer or not. Most importantly, you learn that your opinion is the only one that matters.
Yes, there is a silver lining to this black cloud that now hangs over the view from my window. There are the friends who hug you tighter than usual (mind the incision please). The acquaintances who turn out to be real friends. And the ex-lovers who might have stopped lusting after you but still love you. There are also the siblings who start phoning you every day from faraway continents, and the offspring who conquer their fear of flying to calm your own fears. The list is endless.
At the hospital you start recognizing faces and smiling at them diffidently, while trying to make sure the pale blue kimono (definitely not designed by Karl Lagerfeld) doesn’t open up from behind. You also stop caring whether you will be assisted by a male or a female radiation technician. People don’t really see your once cuddly and erogenous fountain of milk and honey. All they see is a tattooed radiation target that has to be positioned correctly before the big machine starts whirling its killer-rays.
You learn the real meaning of the words solidarity, complicity, empathy and even tenderness. Yes, cancer cells indeed multiply themselves with great abandon, but so do all the feelings that unite us and make us human. There is no place for anger in this web of shared misery.
On my first day at the clinic for a blood sample, the phlebotomist, who happened to come from a warm country like myself, wondered why I chose to retire in Canada where it is so cold. When I explained that Canada was a good country to live in if you were cursed with cancer, he looked up at me and nodded silently.
What is the final word on cancer? Is it a battle, a journey, an enemy to conquer? A cross to endure? Who knows! Forget I said “cursed with cancer.” I was wrong. It is certainly not a curse. It’s just a signpost, warning you not to step on the crabs that might cross your path.
TAKEWING a.m., written and Illustrated by Brenda J. Wilson. FriesenPress, 348 pages
TAKEWING a.m. is Brenda J. Wilson’s first novel, although she has a long track record as a media producer, librarian, photographer and educator. She also wears many hats, often times simultaneously, as she likes to tell anybody who is willing to listen to stories of her trips to the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Michoacán, Central Mexico, over the course of more than thirty years.
Butterflies are her passion, which is why the subject of this unique and original novel is the yearly migration of the monarch butterfly from Canada to Mexico and then back to Canada. It is a 3,000-mile trip that requires a lot of energy and determination for a creature that only weighs half a gram! Historically, these apparently fragile creatures have been making the journey with relatively few losses. Of late, however, climate change, extreme weather conditions, pesticides and other anthropogenic disasters have taken their toll.
The novel documents this incredible journey, which has been the subject of multilateral agreements between governments to study the butterfly’s migration patterns. It also peeps into the lives of a number of people who also migrate back and forth between Canada and Mexico, generally flying by plane and not on their own wings.
This amazing migration is also lovingly studied by a whole army of academic researchers, “citizen scientists,” students, children and other nature lovers. The yearly migration of the monarch butterfly is the thread that holds together a patchwork of human stories that document scientific research, love affairs, heinous crimes, Indigenous celebrations, culinary traditions and the beauty of natural landscapes in both countries. This book is billed as a novel, but it can also be read as a cautionary tale of how human depredation is contributing to climate change.
The fictional part of the book tells the story of a Mexican boy and a Mexican girl who fall in love with a Canadian girl and a Canadian boy, respectively. The Mexican protagonists are bound together by blood ties whereas the Canadian ones are bound together by their environmental concerns. There is also a subplot involving environmental crimes committed by a well-known transnational corporation, spousal abuse, secret government operations and the misuse of military tracking equipment for personal purposes.
At first, the reader wonders why the author has introduced these apparently extraneous elements into the storyline, but it then becomes clear that they are all connected to the way the monarch butterfly’s journey is tracked over Canadian, U.S. and Mexican territory. This subplot takes place in Canada. On the Mexican side, corruption is not so subtle and is apparent in illegal logging operations and the outright murder of environmentalists. Considering that this book is set in 2011 and was presumably researched several years before, the author is spot on in foreshadowing today’s level of violence pitting organized crime against conservationists.
Brenda J. Wilson writes in a clear and straightforward style, with few or no embellishments. But who needs flowery language when the serene beauty of the Canadian countryside in winter speaks for itself? Moreover, with the burst of colour and the explosion of vibrant music unleashed when tens of thousands of monarch butterflies warmed by the sun unfurl their wings and take off on their journey back to Canada, adjectives would pale in comparison.
When you read TAKEWING a.m., don’t allow yourself to be overcome by sadness and despair. If this dainty creature can undertake this perilous journey year after year, we can certainly make sure it reaches its destination safely. The monarch butterfly teaches us that hope and determination can get us to our destination.
The zeitgeist of our times is characterized by creativity and innovation, particularly in the fields of art and science. A question often pondered is where these two fields intersect. Do they touch each other at a tangent? Do they cross each other? Do they simply overlap? Or perhaps that is a moot point, and never the twain shall meet (to paraphrase Rudyard Kipling).
Kipling addressed the wrong question when he pontificated that East and West would never meet because they are merely two arbitrary points in an endless continuum. This is also true for art and science, since both disciplines are part of a never-ending human quest for knowledge and understanding. An eight-year old child once delighted grownups when she said that in science you discover something and in art you do what you like! Let’s recall what some well-known grownups have said on the subject.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca, a mathematician and a philosopher, believed that all art is merely an imitation of nature. This definition would have pleased artists like Michelangelo, who studied anatomy assiduously to produce sculptures more perfect than the bodies of mere mortals. But Leonardo da Vinci, a contemporary of Michelangelo, might disagree – he went on record publicly disparaging Michelangelo’s art. Perhaps this was because da Vinci, aside from being a consummate artist, was also a methodical man of science, an innovative inventor and the original Renaissance man. Or perhaps he would have disagreed with the notion that art is an imitation of nature simply because René Descartes (17th-century French philosopher and mathematician) hadn’t yet come along to predicate that perception is unreliable and reason is the only path to the natural sciences.
On the other hand, 20th-century Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein affirmed that what cannot be imagined cannot even be talked about. Picasso, the father of cubism, certainly wasn’t a rationalist. He firmly believed that anything you can imagine is real. The cubist portraits of the women in his life are living proof that he perceived their multifaceted personalities. René Magritte, Belgian surrealist, considered art to be a science – that is, a way of knowing – because it evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist. Salvador Dali, the Catalan surrealist whose iconic clocks bent like warped time/space, had been highly impressed by Einstein’s recent discoveries. Frida Kahlo, Mexican painter and feminist, did not have to study anatomy in order to depict the vulnerability of the human body. She had subjective knowledge of the anatomy of an impaled body, the pain of poorly-set broken bones and the anguish of never being able to bear a child. Her paintings are so excruciatingly realistic that many of us who admire them would be unable to hang them in our living rooms.
A popular definition of the difference between art and science is that art is subjective whereas science is objective. Yet mathematicians sound like artists when they rejoice that a solution or a theory is “simple” or “elegant.” For Arthur Koestler, Hungarian British author, originality trumped perfection by opening up new frontiers. He was right, as both science and art are characterized by novelty and discovery. In fact, Koestler thought that science and art were alike in that both try to understand and explain the world around us.
Science fiction, or SF, is a literary genre that relies on the plausibility of science to conjure new forms of human societies. SF is not to be confused with fantasy fiction. The latter has no room for science or logic and couldn’t care a fig. Science fiction authors generally construct utopian or dystopian societies to express future aspirations or to decry current societies. Sci-fi is considered to be the perfect intersection between art and science. Twentieth-century science fiction writer Ray Bradbury considered SF to be “the one field that reached out and embraced every sector of the human imagination, every endeavor, every idea, every technological development, and every dream.”
Should music be classified as science or art? It is certainly art to the extent that it touches us in the deepest recesses of our psyche. But it also alters our brain connections, makes our heart rate go haywire, and can even impinge on our digestion. Since infancy and perhaps even before birth, we all naturally relate to melody and rhythm. Dissonance or noise might make us cringe. John Cage, best known for his 1952 composition 4′33″ that is performed in the absence of deliberate sound, was a controversial composer and musicologist whose work challenged the aesthetics of art and performance. He introduced dissonance and even silence into mainstream musical vocabulary. Nowadays, soundscape artists who use technology to create spontaneous compositions out of ambient sounds are all the vogue in highly technological countries like Germany.
All these examples lead us to conclude that the starting point for art and science is imagining something that is not yet real. Both require curiosity and a sense of wonderment. Science and art raise questions that no one has asked before. Both rely on skills and knowledge. However, science requires proof, whereas art is more concerned with interpretation. Also, science looks for generalizations, whereas art prefers ad hoc solutions. Science begs to be predictable. Art is fickle and ever changing.
Goethe, an 18th-century botanist by profession but best remembered as a poet, has the last word: “One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.” In Goethe’s world, art and science meet and become one.
The 29th edition of the Montréal First Peoples Festival (Présence autochtone) unfolded from August 6 to August 14. On this occasion, it celebrated diversity and creativity through a combination of visual arts, film, music, song, poetry and gastronomy. It even featured an open-air workshop for women, of invigorating haka, or Maori ceremonial dance.
The regular film sessions at the renovated Cinéma du Parc opened up with Quentura (Mari Corrêa, Brazil, 2018), a documentary on the effects of global warming on the health of the Amazon jungle, rightly considered to be the earth’s lungs.
“Quentura” means heat or warmth in Brazilian Portuguese, but it also has connotations of temperatures that can burn. Sadly, the word is very appropriate for a scenario of hitherto lush tropical forests withering and dying. The culprits are global warming, industrialized farming practices, a trend towards single crops as opposed to traditional mixed crops, where biodiversity guarantees the health of the plants, and the sheer perversity of a greedy economic system.
Several Amazon women are depicted at their daily tasks, weaving baskets, harvesting edible roots, taking a break, clearing dead plants and generally sharing stories with each other about ancient planting and harvesting techniques. As they laugh and talk and enjoy each other’s company, they lament the accelerated death of mother earth and the loss of the traditional wisdom necessary to protect it. Their conclusion is that it is only by sustaining Indigenous communities and their traditional livelihood that mother earth has some hope of survival. The spectator is left with the conviction that this is an incontrovertible fact.
As a side note, the reviewer was struck by the fact that the Amazon women who participated in this documentary painted their faces and bodies in the traditional manner and wore jewellery made of natural products such as bamboo, wood, feathers and flowers, but instead of grass skirts, they wore short cloth skirts and instead of unashamed unfettered breasts, they covered them with nylon brassieres in garish colours. Was this a requirement of the filmmakers or just the insidious imposition of a society intent on alienating humans from their natural environment?
Quentura is a dire reminder of what human society claims to want to protect but is intent on destroying.
Me Artsy, compiled and edited by Drew Hayden Taylor
Douglas & McIntyre, 2015 (256 pages)
The best way to enter into the spirit of this luminous collection of essays is to quote what Drew Hayden Taylor, its compiler and editor, has to say about its intent:
“An EXPLORATION and DECONSTRUCTION of the Aboriginal ARTISTIC SPIRIT as seen and practiced through VARIOUS ART FORMS that demonstrate REFLECTIONS on society through an INDIGENOUS perspective, including TALENTS not just limited to those considered strictly TRADITIONAL in origin, but inclusive of more CONTEMPORARY forms of cultural expression.
What more is there to say? Plenty. Let’s start with Zacharias Kunuk, producer & director. You might remember him as the auteur of Atanarjuat, a film rendition of the true story of a naked man who ran over a frozen landscape … all the way to Cannes, where it won an award that made Canadians first take notice of their homegrown indigenous talent. (See Atanarjuat. The Fast Runner, reviewed by Maya Khankhoje, article 6A …)
Monique Mojica is an actor and playwright who faces the challenge of being “an Indigenous woman artist in a land where there are an irreconcilable 1,200 missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.” Her theatre work has allowed her to channel rage and sorrow into something uplifting for herself and her community. Indigenous cultures recognize the need for performance and repetition in the form of planting, making a fire, paddling canoes, gathering at sacred sites ‘to re-enact creation stories, emergence, migrations and our own interconnectedness to land and place in relation to the cosmos.” Monique was inspired by the words of Louis Riel, the Métis spiritual leader of the Resistance movement: “My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they wake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.” Picasso’s Guernica also inspired her as a child. Her artistic practice involves decolonizing her perceptions and belief system and avoiding romanticizing folklore or sensationalizing victimhood. For Monique, the word “art” is not a noun, it is a verb: “I art to make our knowledge speak.”
Marianne Nicolson, an installation artist and a graduate of Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver uses her art to tell Canada that her people reject the government’s notion that they are squatters in their own territory. Informed by rock paintings dating back to the nineteen-twenties, Marianne Nicolson decided to paint a mural on a cliff face. She describes the dangerous process involved and hopes that her art is remembered, not as a personal creation, but rather as “a testament to what can be achieved in reclaiming our place within the lands we inhabit.”
Maxine Noel is a visual artist whose day-job titles have included legal secretary, ski-patroller, Native Friendship Centre administrator, and many more, but whose core identity was fuelled by art. “…painting is how I speak, like a poet with a pen and paper, the actor or the dancer with a stage and the light.”
Kim Picard became an accomplished seamstress thanks to her late Kukum (grandmother) who taught her how to sew at a young age. Later her experience as a theatre student making costumes and working for Native Innovation Design led her to a career in fashion design. She decided to revive traditional garments by giving them a contemporary form. Her inspiration arrives to her in dreams and healing ceremonies.
Murray Porter is a bluesman and he will tell you that blues have become popular with his people because blues is all about storytelling. He also connected with Australian Aborigines whose stories might be different, but whose reverence for Mother Earth is the same.
Karyn Recollet, unlike many of the artists in this anthology, is a cultural theorist, not a practitioner. In her doctoral dissertation based on interviews of different hip hop artists on Turtle Island, Karyn explains that “the electric powwow can be interpreted as an Indigenous hub space as Indigenous peoples congregate in an ‘underground’ remixing of Indigeneity, affirming tribal and embodied sovereignties on the dance floor.” Quite a mouthful!
Choreographer, dancer and producer Santee Smith brings us down to earth. Like other Indigenous artists, she derives her inspiration from dreams and visions and firmly believes that dance makes us grounded. “Transform your life… let dance into your life. Join the celebration and ceremony of life; join the dance.”
Rose Stella, actor, singer and artistic director, applauds the fact that theatre students are no longer content to be cast as the “drunken Indian.” She helps them in the process of becoming the “Indian” that they want to be.
Playwright & writer Drew Hayden Taylor, like most Native people, has lots to tell, but he avoids “dark, depressing, bleak, sad and angry” stories. He attributes this state of affairs from long years of repression. “Being a storyteller is like being God, but in a non-sacrilegious manner. It’s the ability to create universes and people…”
Drumming is another type of performance for change. Steve Teekens makes his own drums and belongs to a drum group called Red Spirit Singers who have performed for the Pope. He believes that ‘the drum makes the Creator’s favourite music… without the drum there would be no powwow.”
Richard van Camp, storyteller & writer, likes to give people tips on storytelling. Some of them include honouring your audience, being present, not lecturing, letting go, finding mentors and apprentices, becoming the story, reading your audience and asking for feedback, but most importantly, getting involved with your local storytelling community.
David Wolfman is a chef who realized he was an artist as well when he saw the stunned reactions of customers to the taste and appearance of his dishes. Aboriginal cuisine is now the accepted term for the foods and flavours of foods indigenous to Turtle Island. ”I don’t see my job as work because I love what I do. And that’s how artists think. We will continue to create because that’s what we do.”
This delightful collection of stories about how to effect change through art concludes with a Haida Manga by visual artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas: “I ride the front bristles, the outer edge of this realized possibility. I am the brush.”
Do read this book about art in general and performance in particular. It will change you.
Kingdom of Olives and Ash, edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, 2017, HarperCollins Publishers, 448 pages
The “land of milk and honey” generally refers to the promised land of Jewish tradition. As a notion, it denotes a land of peace and plenty. In sharp contrast to this placid image is the reality of the “kingdom of olives and ash” where conflict has been raging for more than fifty years, causing untold suffering, penury and destruction. Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon, after more than a quarter of a century of hesitation, decided to go there to see for themselves and then report to the world at large.
“We didn’t want to write or even think, in any kind of sustained way, about Israel and Palestine, about the nature and meaning of occupation, about intifadas and settlements, about whose claims were more valid, whose suffering more bitter, whose crimes more egregious, whose outrage more justified.”Michael Chabon
When they finally did go, they took with them a motley crew. Ayelet was born in Jerusalem but was primarily raised in the United States and Canada, the daughter of immigrants from Montréal. She lived and studied in Israel on and off over the years. For Michael, it was his first time in Israel. They were accompanied by twenty-four writers covering all continents except Antartica, of different ages and with eight mother tongues. Some of the writers identified as Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Hindu, while others claimed no religious affiliation whatsoever. You might recognize many of them: Lorraine Adams, Geraldine Brooks, Michael Chabon, Lars Saabye Christensen, Maylis de Kerangal, Anita Desai, Dave Eggers, Assaf Gavron, Arnon Grunberg, Helon Habila, Ala Hlehel, Fida Jiryis, Prochista Khakpour, Hari Kunzru, Rachel Kushner, Eimear McBride, Colum McCann, Eva Menasse, Emily Raboteau, Taiye Selasi, Raja Shehadeh, Madeleine Thien, Colm Toibin, Mario Vargas Llosa, Ayelet Waldman and Jacqueline Woodson.
In Chabon’s words, they were able to have “a clear, visceral understanding of just what the occupation meant, of how it operated, and of the decades of Israeli strategic planning that had gone into creating the massive, often brutal, always dehumanizing military bureaucracy that oversees and controls it.” In his introduction to this collection of essays, Chabon categorically states that writers’ contributions were not edited or censored nor did anyone receive any payment for them. He also explains that “all royalties from the sales of Kingdom of Olives and Ash, after expenses, will be divided between two NGOs: Breaking the Silence and Youth Against Settlements.
It is impossible to sum up the impressions of different writers in one simple sentence, or for that matter, in a book review, but some of the comments made by writers selected at random will give readers a general idea:
♦ There is a quiet loveliness to the people of Palestine.Jacqueline Woodson in “One’s Own People”
♦ Administrative detention—imprisonment without charge or finite term—is among the most feared of the spectres stalking everyday Palestinian life. The Fourth Geneva Convention, the finest flower of the Nazi defeat, strictly and explicitly forbids it, except under the most extraordinary circumstances. Michael Chabon in “Giant in a Cage”
♦ In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, places are folded inside other places. Cities are not what they appear to be, but also what they are subjected to: memory, history, desire, forgetfulness, dream. […] In Israel and Palestine, I thought often of Calvino’s seen and unseen places, where the horizontal and vertical axes of history and place bend into the space-time of memory and desire.
The conceptual, legal, and physical infrastructure of occupation aims to entrench separation, disaffiliation, and, most profoundly, estrangement. Madeleine Thien in “The Land in Winter”
♦ Then: I don’t know how many articles I wrote, lectures I gave, and manifestos I signed in those years opposing this caricatured vision of Israel, and affirming that it was a pluralistic and democratic society.
And now: I am very critical of this policy not only because it seems to me right to be so, but also because I feel that the ever more colonialist bias of recent governments—I am referring to the governments of Sharon and Netanyahu—may be terribly prejudicial to Israeli democracy and the future of the country. Nothing degrades the political life of a nation more than sliding down a nationalist or colonialist path. Mario Vargas Llosa in “Journey to the West Bank”
♦ We have arrived, we are told, at the village of Susiya. The dust stirred by our vehicle settles. We look around—and see nothing. Where is the village Susiya? Here is only dust, stone, rubble, and the white heat of the sun.
Blink, and you will see the caves where people once lived but have been bulldozed, smashed, their entrances blocked with rocks. So now there is only a blue tarpaulin or two, held up by sticks. Anita Desai in “Visible, Invisible: Two Worlds”
♦ Silence in regard to the inherent immorality of the regime of occupation—which both oppresses Palestinian society and corrupts Israeli society—is rampant in Israeli society and, to a certain degree, in the international community.Michael Chabon in “Afterword”
Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead, 2018, Arsenal Pulp Press (Vancouver), 223 pages
Joshua Whitehead is an Oji-Cree/nehiyaw, Two-Spirit /Indigiqueer member of Peguis First Nation (Treaty). He is also the author of full metal-indigiqueer and winner of the Governor General’s History Award for the Indigenous Arts and Stories Challenges in 2016. He is currently doing a PhD in Indigenous Literatures and Cultures. With such impressive credentials, it might come as a surprise that his writing is anything but stuffy. In fact, it is as raw, poignant and poetic as the non-conformist sexual and outside-the-law survival escapades of Jonny, his literary alter ego.
The reader meets Jonny trying to scrape up enough money to make it back from the big city to the Rez for his stepfather’s funeral. As a cyber-sex and sometimes-in-the-flesh sex worker, he has to work very hard – and very fast – to make it back home in time for the burial, if not for the visitation. In fact, he has to pull an all-nighter to be able to afford the four-hour ride with a friend. In between gigs, there are flashbacks to his early childhood, his coming to terms with his unconventional sexuality as well as with the harassment he endured on the Reservation. He also has to process his grief over the loss of the dearest person in his life: his kokum, or maternal grandmother. He finally makes it back to the Rez and, hopefully, to closure.
Life on the reservation is hard. So is life outside it. Rez boys have it as tough as urban Nates. But family life, while not idyllic, is very much there. So is conviviality, which flourishes in good and bad times. Jonny’s kokum is the matriarch who holds the community together.
Jonny says it best:
We’re all here telling our stories in NDN time.
But the ironic thing I’ve learned about NDN time is that it’s an elixir of an excuse and a toxin of a measurement.
It’ll kill you, you know, if you love it too dearly.
The sun has long ago set on the concept of empire as an ethical project for the 21st century. However, the process of decolonization has not yet been completed, even though many countries have their own flag, head of state and constitution, and are full-fledged members of the United Nations. Territorial integrity is not the only marker of independence. This is particularly true in today’s globalized world economy.
The new frontier of decolonization is the freeing of the mind, a task that can only be achieved through struggle, education, art, literature and language. It is no coincidence that strong Indigenous movements throughout the world are claiming a return to indigenous languages, not as a means of shutting themselves off from the modern world, but rather as a key to reclaiming traditional knowledge and understanding of their history. Mukoma Wa Ngugi, Kenyan poet and author, firmly believes that “history moves on, theories of liberation march alongside it, but without our languages we will remain trapped within what literary critic Adam Beach calls the English metaphysical empire.” In recognition of this universal and very rightful longing, the United Nations declared 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages.
Edward Said, highly respected post-colonial theorist, stressed the importance of understanding history, not through the prism of the colonial power, but through the perspective of the hitherto colonized people. Literature plays a very important part in this endeavour. Unfortunately, many post-colonial writers became known only in the language of the former colonial masters. English, Spanish and French are three colonial languages that have produced many highly acclaimed writers. Moreover, many post-colonial writers like Salman Rushdie are claiming not an indigenous perspective, but a cosmopolitan one.
Montréal Serai will continue to provide a forum for marginalized voices, including not only those from former colonies and colonized lands and territories, but also those who defy convention: gender-normative conventions, received notions of what constitutes mental health, criteria for granting citizenship, aesthetic canons, and so forth. In sum, decolonizing voices reflect critical thinkers who happen to be outspoken. In the future we hope to receive and publish submissions from Indigenous-language writers as well as those writing in languages of the colonized, with parallel texts in translation.
Our current issue offers far-ranging interpretations and echoes of our theme.
In her music, films and photographs, Algonquin multidisciplinary artist Marie-Josée Tremblay shares her “heart of hearts” – her innermost experiences as a Métis woman living in the city, seeking solace in urban forests, dreaming her future self in flight.
Artist ekoh dubois explores the “space beyond words” in paintings and complementary poems akin to the Upanishads in India – as he puts it, “a space I created to play hide and seek with the unspeakable, the unknowable.”
Deanna Smith’s poem, “Opening Speech,” offers a searing take on post-slavery decolonization and the search for “what is lost between the soul and the page, the mind and the stage” after being stripped of her ancestors’ languages.
In her personal essay, “Madness Abroad,” Aparna Sanyal delves into what it means for women and men of colour seeking mental health care in the face of depression and the isolation triggered by the “interests of the colonizing West.”
Clayton Bailey comments on the devastating effects of agribusiness on the Manitoba grassland where he was born and reflects on the 2016 shooting death of Colten Boushie, a young unarmed Cree man, by a white farmer. He sees the dispossession of the Indigenous and Métis communities and the settlers’ occupation of this land of grass as “inextricably entwined,” and calls for “a new meeting of minds” in a spirit of respectful cooperation.
Maya Khamala’s poem “Upward Spiral” is a powerful reflection on decolonizing one’s mindset and envisioning the space beyond inherited fear.
Dinh Le Doan resorts to poetry to describe darkness in its various shades.
Ami Sands Brodoff’s short story “Tracks” explores the strains of youth, love and friendship outside traditional gender conventions.
In her poems, Ilona Martonfi empathizes with the “class of non-citizens” made up of migrants fleeing wars.
Louise Carson’s poems challenge what might be described as the patriarchal colonization of women’s bodies, minds and lives.
Scott Weinstein offers a hilarious look at an activist’s imagination as he and his fearless little dog, Liza Minnelli, take on The Man.
In his poem, “My Grandmother’s Recipe,” Greg Santos recounts moments in his Spanish grandmother’s life and her unfulfilled wish to write stories and film scripts – a gentle tribute.
My four book reviews span continents and literary genres: the novel Evening Primrose by Kopano Matlwa, set among patients and doctors in South Africa; Conversations on Writing, a collaborative work by Ursula K. Le Guin with David Naimon on the craft of writing and the importance of “unleashing the imagination to decolonize the mind;” Zebedee Nungak’s collection of essays, Wrestling with Colonialism on Steroids: Quebec Inuit Fight for Their Homeland, examining the history of the Inuit populations in Nunavik and James Bay; and Blackbird Song by Randy Lundy, poems steeped in the spirit of his traditional Cree ancestors.
Special thanks to H. Nigel Campbell and Deanna Radford for helping enlarge our circle of new contributors to Montréal Serai.
This issue is dedicated to the memory of Margaret Heap, a lifelong advocate for social justice and peace who died on December 31 in Montréal. Committed to fighting poverty, racism and discrimination in any form, Margaret worked tirelessly and quietly on the sidelines, away from the spotlight. She was trained in history and conscious of all those who, by their unsung labour, are the makers of history. She will be sorely missed.
Blackbird Song by Randy Lundy,
University of Regina Press (Oskana Poetry & Poetics*), 2018, 96 pages
Randy Lundy is a member of the Barren Lands (Cree) First Nation. He is the author of Under theNight Sun and the Gift of the Hawk as well as of numerous poems in different anthologies. His poetry is a plaintive song to the land of his ancestors, where the author has experienced love, communion, wonderment and sorrow. How do you condense sentiments that have been distilled to their very essence? You don’t. You just listen.
Randy Lundy, faithful to his Cree tradition, starts out by praising the Creator:
“O grandmother, O mother, O lover, / O woman who birthed the elliptical of the universe.”
In a poem dedicated to Jan, he muses on life:
“The walk is a journey of the spirit carried by the body like a good friend, and sitting is an important part of the walking.”
He laments that memory is “an uncomfortable skin” but recognizes that it “lives inside, too, not just in your mind, but in each cell, in the marrow of your bones.”
In “DOXOLOGIES,” Lundy expresses bewilderment:
“You are here, understanding or not understanding, not quite sure if it is dawn or dusk in this spider-spun heft and weft of light.”
In INSOMNIA, Lundy voices his insights inspired by Eastern philosophy:
“While you puzzle, nothing — neither a greater, nor a lesser god — is somewhere else, doing whatever it is that nothing does.”
Randy Lundy likes to question, but he also simply accepts.
“Sunlight, blackbird singing, / What more could you ask, friend?”
Breathe in Lundy’s poetry and enter an ineffable universe.
Wrestling with Colonialism on Steroids: Quebec Inuit Fight for Their Homeland by Zebedee Nungak, Véhicule Press, 2017, 132 pages
Zebedee Nungak is a writer, broadcaster and one of the chief negotiators in the James Bay Agreement (1971-1975). In this compilation of essays, Nungak delivers an often humorous, in-your-face account of the history of Nunavik, the hardball James Bay Agreement negotiations and the future prospects of Inuit identity in Québec.
The colonization of Inuit territory started with the British Crown through its surrogate, the Hudson Bay Company, which held a trading monopoly between 1670-1870 over the whole of the Hudson Bay drainage area also known as Rupert’s Land. In 1868, an Act of the British Parliament ratified the sale of this territory to Canada, without settling the issue of Aboriginal ownership of the land. The Ungava District, later known as Nunavik, was assigned to Québec in 1912. The author wryly notes that it was only fifty-two years later, in1964, when Québec government officials first arrived there, that Inuit identity and its modus vivendi felt really threatened.
This fascinating account of the intersections between the descendants of relatively recent French colonizers and longstanding Aboriginal populations will make you reconsider any preconceived notions you might have about the righteousness of Québec nationalism.
Evening Primrose by Kopano Matlwa Quercus Books, 2016, 160 pages
Kopano Matlwa has been billed as South Africa’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. But her uniqueness defies comparison. A physician by profession, Matlwa tackles patriarchy, xenophobia and race in post-apartheid South Africa, with a voice unlike any other. And she does so in a manner guaranteed to keep you awake the whole night until you finish the book. The protagonist, a doctor working for the public health system, barely gets a chance to look after her own debilitating endometriosis while taking care of patients who are doomed to die due to lack of resources. In her personal life, her friendship with a Zimbabwean fellow doctor earns her a brutal “correction” from her fellow countrymen. The protagonist tries to fight back, but her own people sabotage her efforts. Kopano Matlwa’s message is that South Africa might have gotten rid of apartheid, but the mentality of its citizens remains colonized. Yet the author lets us know through the actions of her heroine that there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon.
Conversations on Writing by Ursula K. Le Guin with David Naimon,
Tin House Books, 2018, 150 pages
Conversations on Writing was a collaborative effort between Ursula K. Le Guin and Oregon writer/radio host David Naimon. They discussed fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Le Guin’s take on her craft fits in with her Taoist/Buddhist beliefs and her Anarchist leanings. She gives herself the following advice: “If I can keep myself, my ego, my wishes and opinions, my mental junk, out of the way, and find the focus of the story, and follow the movement of the story, the story will tell itself…”
Le Guin thanked KBOO, Naimon’s radio station, “for being for fifty years the strongest consistent voice in Oregon of and for the arts and the freedom and generosity of thought.”
She also lamented that “While America is busy tearing itself apart into fractions with rant, lies, and mindless violence, it’s in voices like this that you can hear—if you listen—what may yet hold us together.”
And this is precisely what Le Guin’s oeuvre and philosophy of life stand for: an unleashing of the imagination to decolonize the mind and imagine a better world.
Ursula Le Guin reached the end of her long journey before the book went to print. Read it. Pay heed to the final words of a profound thinker.
A quick search of the term populism in cyberspace reveals its increasing popularity (no pun intended) in the last decade, in both traditional and social media. The term democracy, on the other hand, became de rigueur a long time ago when royal heads started rolling in Europe and elsewhere. Both terms share semantic roots. Populism is derived from the Latin populus, or people, and democracy is derived from the Greek demos, which means the same. There is a great overlap in meaning but not in praxis.
Populism does not always equate with democracy. However, politicians, especially those who wish to bypass cumbersome procedures such as checks and balances, public consultations, parliamentary procedures, the judiciary, fair electoral practices and all the trappings of democracy, resort to the use of a carefully calculated language. They do so by speaking to the people directly, by eschewing the traditional press, by manipulating Internet and social media, and most importantly, by doing so in the vernacular. We all have memories of Princess Diana crouching at eye level to speak to little children. She did it most probably because she understood and loved children. This is what good teachers and good parents do with their little charges so as not to intimidate them. This is also what skilled politicians metaphorically do while seeking the attention and trust of the citizens whom they view as their charges.
President Obama was very skilled with this technique. Notice how he always addressed the people as “folks” in spite of his Harvard education and sophisticated vocabulary. Also note that his accent would go mildly south as in Southside Chicago where there is a very large Black population. Did I say Black? Sorry, I meant African American. Unfortunately, a shift in political terminology to refer to a particular community does not necessarily change the degree of their disenfranchisement.
President Trump, on the other hand, doesn’t have to make his speaking style more colloquial. He is a natural with feel-good words like “great,” “huge,” “beautiful” and so forth. He also does not shy away from crude words. The late Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi used verbal symbolism to very good effect. “Indira is India and India is Indira” was her slogan. For the sake of her illiterate constituents, her party’s symbol was a cow with a calf, depicting her as Mother India nurturing the masses, particularly the cow-worshipping Hindu masses. Her Italian-born daughter-in-law, Sonia Gandhi, studied very hard to improve her Hindi vocabulary and accent. This facilitated her rise to power after the assassinations of her husband and her mother-in-law.
Canadian politicians are also adept speakers, at least the good ones. “Fellow Canadians” is a very Canadian term, not too folksy, not too snobbish. Québec politicians, when they have to address Anglo Canadians in English, make sure to sprinkle a few French words here and there so as not to offend their real political base.
Going back to the term “folk:” this, of course, is a Germanic word. Did you know that it was Hitler who named the iconic Volkswagen? He wanted Porsche to design a car that would appeal to the common people, so he called it “the people’s car.” I wonder whether many of the flower children who protested against the Vietnam War from the windows of their beat-up Volkswagens were aware of its origin. Probably not.
Latin American populist politicians are very charismatic speakers. Ciudadano Presidente is the official style of address for Mexican presidents, making people think that presidents are just plain citizens like them. Compañero is a stock word with left-wing politicians. Originally it meant somebody with whom you share a crust of bread, like a life partner or a comrade in arms. Nowadays it merely means that politicians want you to feel that you belong.
Back in India, Mahatma Gandhi renamed members of the so-called untouchable caste “Harijans,” or God’s children. Nowadays the correct terminology is Dalits, or oppressed people. Gandhi, as a shrewd lawyer turned politician, realized the importance of deconstructing the language of the caste system. Never mind that he did not want one of his sons to marry an “untouchable” woman. The rhetoric of politicians doesn’t always match their actions or beliefs.
Populists have been aware of the power of language since time immemorial, but now they have to deal with what the Italian press calls “il nuovo proletariadodigitale.” This new digital proletariat is fed-up with weak institutions, rigged elections, a never-ending technological revolution, a precarious labour market, and in general, an unsettled world. To address these frustrations and fears, populist politicians rely on a highly personalized style of leadership. Italy and Hungary have recently acquired such leaders. Victor Orban rose to power in Hungary with the promise of safeguarding the country’s security and Christian values. Here the word Christian has nothing to do with the love preached by the son of a carpenter, but rather with the hatred preached by extreme right-wing patriarchs against immigrants, refugees and Muslims. Italy, the land that used to sing Avanti il popolo (Forward, people!) with internationalist enthusiasm, now shouts in cyberspace Fuori i clandestini (Out with illegal immigrants!) in fits of xenophobic rage.
An egregious example of conflating one problem with another in order to appeal to the masses is Aung San Suu Kyi’s recent neo-populist statement: “conflicts around the world are giving rise to new threats and emergencies: illegal migration, spread of terrorism and violent extremism, social disharmony and even the threat of nuclear war.”
She also added that her country’s Buddhist majority was being swamped by Muslims. This appears to be her ahimsa way of turning a blind eye to the plight of 600,000 displaced Rohingya. She has shocked many of her admirers, but who knows what is really going on behind Myanmar’s bamboo wall?
William Shakespeare was an acute observer of people and a master spinner of words. He would have advised the “many great men that have flattered the people who ne’er loved them” to be more direct. He would have told them to simply say: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.” And the populace would have listened.
Lee Maracle was the first Turtle Island writer I read after coming to Canada forty years ago. Her writing struck a chord in me. My Conversations with Canadians, her most recent book, is my latest exposure to her work. And I am still reeling under the impact. Her book is directed at Canadians, and Maracle distances herself and all Indigenous communities from Canadians, whom she considers willing participants in the usurpation, exploitation and genocide that is still taking place in a country known for its “nice” and “courteous” citizens.
She also reminds Canadians that all of us here are guests who have disrespected the rules of hospitality, as delineated in original treaties and covenants that have been either distorted or simply ignored. She blames us individually, not the Canadian government, which she dismisses as illegitimate. That is why I am still in a state of shock. Because Lee Maracle tells it like it is, and she is absolutely right.
As a Mexican-born Canadian of Indian and Belgian origin, I have ties with a country that was colonized by the British (India); a country that was a brutal colonizer in the Congo (Belgium); and a country that was first colonized by the Aztecs (Mexico), then by the Spaniards, and finally by the United States when the latter annexed almost half of Mexico’s territory. I am sure my story is similar to that of many of my fellow Canadians. The fact that my feelings and beliefs are more closely aligned with those of the Indigenous people rather than with the colonizers doesn’t make me less complicit. So, I have come to understand that we can all be colonized and colonizers at the same time, which is why I find Maracle’s book so ground-breaking. In fact, it should be mandatory reading in schools and institutions of governance.
This slim volume contains thirteen conversations and a final text in which the author commemorates the past and outlines a possible future.
In Conversation 1, “Meeting the Public,” Lee Maracle wryly notes that Canadians tend to support far-away causes, but often neglect their own backyard. She also decries the fact that “Canadians talk about us rather than to us.” She also reminds us that in the early days of confederation, First Nations people were considered immigrants to Canada, then wards of the state and later citizens. In other words, they were infantilized and commodified.
In Conversation 2, “Who are we separately and together?” Maracle contends that it is Canadian identity that should be questioned rather than Indigenous identity. She also reminds readers that Canada was once Indigenous, and mocks the colonial expectation of love for the Queen. She does not touch on Québec.
“Marginalization and Reactionary Politics” is the subject of Conversation 3. She calls for greater unity between Indigenous communities and people of colour as well as the reinstatement of Indigenous gender-complementary systems of governance, which include men and women.
Conversation 4, “What can we do to help?” analyzes the paternalism of well-meaning Canadians who often ask this question. Here Maracle explains that by ending all forms of oppression, people are not just helping others, they are also helping themselves. She also argues that a critical study of world mythologies “might disturb our obedience to capitalism, imperialism and patriarchy.”
Conversation 5, “Hamilton” points a finger at the cultural apathy of Canadians. In this chapter, Lee Maracle takes a shot at Canadian lefties who are woefully ignorant of Indigenous history. It is also shocking to learn from her that Indigenous singing and dancing were once forbidden by the government, and higher education was limited to settlers.
Conversation 6 asks the big question: “What do I call you: First Nations, Indians,Aboriginals, Indigenous?” Maracle’s answer: “call us ‘Turtle Islanders.’” However, she quickly points out that people from different nations, cultures and languages are racialized when given a collective term. In this chapter, the author also touches on the subject of forgiveness. She points out that in her culture, forgiveness is all about learning from past mistakes, undoing any harm done, and growing. She expects Canadians to do just that in order to be forgiven.
Conversation 7, “Galloping toward Ottawa:” This chapter is short and to the point. Maracle strongly rejects the notion that her people have to rely on the Canadian government for a definition of who is an Indigenous person or national citizen.
Conversation 8, “Jack Scott and the left:” This conversation examines the role played by the left in Canada. In her opinion, Jack Scott (founder of the Progressive Workers Movement) was one of the few activists who “stayed true to himself till the end.”
Conversation 9, “Divisions, constraints and bindings:” This section clears up a lot of confusion surrounding the very current debate around gender. Maracle explains that Indigenous communities are not rigidly gendered and their languages contain no pronouns or gender divisions. She also believes that “it is the transgendered who help us to see ourselves.”
Conversation 10, “Appropriation:” Maracle explains the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural sharing. In the former there is a usurpation of knowledge for the benefit of the usurper, and in the latter, there is a give and take that is mutually beneficial for both parties. She explains how Europeans appropriated Indigenous communities’ knowledge, such as on the use of herbal remedies and other items the latter purchased. This appropriation extends all the way to ancestral knowledge appropriated by universities and then sold back to Indigenous students. European law does not recognize knowledge obtained through the oral tradition, but feels entitled to patent anything that’s put in writing. White men were entitled to purchase large tracts of land that were owned by Indigenous communities, whereas the latter were deprived of their use. The list is endless. In Indigenous communities, property did not exist for the sake of acquisition, but all friendly communities had access to it, particularly agricultural land. Personal property was used to give away to friends or family members, never for profit. This is a very complex chapter that cannot be condensed into a few words, but anyone who understands the meaning of capitalism will understand what it is all about.
Conversation 11, “How does colonialism work?” Maracle finds that this conversation is one of the most complicated ones she has ever had with Canadians. She says it all when she repeats the following: “Nowhere in these treaties or court decisions does it say we grant you permission to take over management and control of our territory and our lives.” Canadians often respond: “But you don’t own the land.” Maracle thinks, but doesn’t respond, “but you don’t own the land.
Conversation 12, “Response to empathy from settlers:” Lee Maracle does not accept the idea that Indigenous populations are marginalized, because that would imply that settlers are at the centre of a “wheel of relations.”
Conversation 13, “Reconciliation and residential school as an assimilation program:” The author cites Article 2 of the United Nations Genocide Convention, signed by Canada in December 1948. This article defines genocide as acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic or religious group. Such acts include killing, hurting, inflicting detrimental conditions of life on the group, imposing measures to prevent births within the group or transferring children from one group to another. Maracle contends that since these measures benefit Canadians, it makes them complicit in the plunder.
My Conversations with Canadians ends on a positive note. In the First Nations (Adivasi) Literature Conference held in India, Lee Maracle presented a paper describing how to affirm one’s rightful heritage. In it she makes a plea for a decolonization of the mind through language, literature and art. She rejects the definition of what constitutes proper language imposed by the colonizer, and calls for greater respect to be given to the oral tradition:
“Our orality is not simply about our stories. It is about our sociology, our science, our horticulture, aqua culture, our medicine, our law, our politics, and lastly, our story.”
She also claims for herself the right to speak English as she does, a right Indigenous people earned with their very lives. And lastly, Maracle encourages people to keep questioning:
“The creative mind does not know any stupid questions and often ferrets great answers.”
Qi or Ch’i is often defined as a spiritual force that emanates from, or animates, living beings. In Chinese, Qi literally means breath. So do the words psyche in Greek and atman in Sanskrit. It is perhaps no coincidence that the German verb atmen means to breathe, since Sanskrit and German are both Indo-European languages. Spirit, of course, from the Latin word spiritus, means breath, which is why when we sneeze, people wish us God’s blessings (at least in English) in case our soul escapes from our respiratory apparatus. “Inspire,” “inspiration” and other variants in Latin languages also relate to breathing in one form or another. By extension, these words and their many derivations are also synonymous with “soul” or “essence,” as is the Russian verb dyshat, to breathe, and its close child, dusha, which means soul. The antonyms “expire,” “expiration,” and so forth denote the loss of this vital force, after which death ensues. When people become “dispirited,” it means they have lost their passion, their courage, their very will to live.
The year 2017 has been a very agitated year in a global sense. Its Zeitgeist (there goes the word “spirit” again!) has been one of climatic disturbances, geopolitical upheavals, the heaving-up of telluric forces, and a rearrangement of power centres, some good, some devastating. But the law of causality has held steady. Actions have consequences. The human spirit has prevailed, ever ready to push back.
Puerto Rico is a case in point. The name of the island literally means “Rich Port,” yet its inhabitants are some of the poorest citizens of the US of A. Or perhaps they are not even citizens, but mere denizens of a colony, at the service of the metropolis. The loss of their electrical grid after the hurricane has prompted them to become creative and to seriously think of developing solar power from a source that nature has blessed them with abundantly. And there is talk of reviving a call for independence. Moreover, the mayor of San Juan has shown the world that she has plenty of spirit.
Mexico has endured the wrath of the earth many times in its history. When a powerful earthquake scarred its beloved eponymous capital yet again, its citizens showed their spirit of solidarity. While the authorities were ready to give up the search for survivors in order to demolish buildings and go back to business as usual, citizens took it upon themselves to resist them and continue searching. They were not being unrealistic. They wanted to at least be able to bury their dead with closure and dignity. In other parts of the country, the Zapatista movement has recently put forward an Indigenous female candidate for the 2018 presidential elections. Who knows whether her chances of winning are strong or not, but nobody can accuse her of not being spirited.
And talking about women candidates, there were many Montréalers with plenty of spirit. In recent municipal elections, Valerie Plante, affectionately called “the happy warrior,” got grassroots citizens to help her defeat the incumbent mayor Denis Coderre, known for his push to make Montréal “great again” (my words, not his). Her platform is not grandiose, but simply one of solidarity and esprit-de-corps. Other spirited women also became mayors in the municipal enclave of Westmount and the South Shore municipality of Longueuil. And of course at the federal level, there is cause for pride at Julie Payette, who was recently appointed Governor General of Canada. As an engineer and astronaut who has actually seen the earth from outer space a couple of times, she was able to authoritatively assure religious fundamentalists that the earth is not at all flat and climate change is very real. They were not amused.
The Americas are not the only region where human spirit reigns. Rima Khelaf, Executive Secretary of ESCWA (United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia), resigned from her post early this year to protest because the Secretary General had caved in to political pressure and retracted a report describing Israel as an “apartheid regime.” In Australia, news was encouraging: same-sex marriage was overwhelmingly legalized in mid-November, thanks to the spirited efforts of civil-rights activists.
Courage and determination are not enough to keep people’s spirits up, however. Creativity is essential. In Kendari, Indonesia, garbage was clogging the city, but its inhabitants managed to turn things around. Citizens are now model recyclers. The city collects garbage twice a day, and the local garbage dump has become a methane gas-producing plant. With the simple device of plastic pipes inserted into the garbage, natural methane is extracted, and then sold as cheap fuel for household use. Kendarians are now much healthier, slightly wealthier, and certainly happier.
We humans are a predator species. No doubt about that. But we are also endowed with a very powerful mind. According to strict Buddhist philosophy (which excludes ideas of reincarnation borrowed from Hinduism), the soul, spirit, mind or subtle body – call it what you will – dies with the physical body. And a scientific-minded Dalai Lama will try to reconcile the finiteness of the human spirit with the belief in reincarnation (upon which his job is predicated), by explaining that reincarnation is really the continuation of human knowledge through “lineages,” aka genes and tradition. Contradictions aside, one thing is very clear. Humanity might make many mistakes, but it can also learn valuable lessons. We realize that sometimes we have to return to the past in order to ensure our future. And this is precisely what thousands of people have been doing these last few years in Africa, starting from Senegal and going all the way to Eritrea and Somalia. Instead of building a great brick-and-mortar wall to keep people out, they have been planting a great green wall of trees to prevent desertification. This is the spirit of our times.
Undoctored: How You Can Seize Control of Your Health and Become Smarter than Your Doctor
by William Davis, MD, HarperCollins 2017
Undoctored is an exposé of the medical establishment, particularly as it operates in the United States. It is intended for the general public, although scientists will certainly find it well documented. The author, Dr. William Davis, a cardiologist by training and now a bestselling author, completely demolishes some very well-established medical practices (if not myths) that still permeate the industry. For, as Dr. Davis contends, medicine as practiced in industrialized countries is an industry, and a very profitable one at that. This statement includes Canada. The only difference, the author explains, is that the American system is privately managed (at least at the time of writing this review), whereas the Canadian system is publicly funded and centrally managed. Also, the American system can lead to personal bankruptcy, whereas the Canadian model offers protection against such catastrophes. Otherwise, the author categorically states that “Health care is a business built on increasing revenues, whether in Los Angeles or in Toronto.” In Canada, “reimbursement fees may be capped by policy, but nothing stops a doctor or other players in the system from churning more people for more procedures.” In his note to Canadian readers, Dr. Davis states:
“the same pharmaceutical and medical device companies that market aggressively and encourage overuse operate in both countries. The heavy-handed tactics that account for $6.3 billion annually in US statin cholesterol drug sales account for $2 billion annually in Canada.”
Also, gastric bypass operations are more profitable than taking time to discuss dietary methods for weight control. This explains why “Costs to fund Canadian health care have grown 53% over the last decade,” eclipsing the growth of Canadian income. Yet more statistics: Americans spend a total of $3 trillion nationally on health care ($9,523 per person) or 17.5% of GDP, compared to 10 to 12% in other developed countries with healthcare systems that match or exceed the United States in quality.
Undoctored, as the title suggests, is a call for greater individual control of one’s own health in partnership with doctors, laboratories and other professionals. It is also a rejection of the grain-based diet that came about with the development of agriculture. Grains are bad for you, Dr. Davis contends. This is particularly true today since genetically modified grains are difficult to digest, causing inflammation that in turn leads to a host of problems such as auto-immune diseases, certain types of cancer, and particularly diabetes and obesity. Dr. Davis also advocates a low-calorie diet as the secret for longevity and good health.
But enough of that. This review will concentrate on the unholy alliance between the health care establishment and the medical and pharmaceutical professions. Hence Chapter 3, “With Friends Like These…” will be the central focus of this article.
“A doubtful friend is worse than a certain enemy.” Aesop’s Fables
With this quote, William Davis warns readers that agencies that are supposed to help citizens with sound medical advice might actually be doing us greater harm than good. He then goes on to explain how many public service organizations such as the American Heart Association, the US Department of Health and Human Services, the Food and Drug Administration and the US Department of Agriculture (to cite a few), while doing plenty of good and starting off with good intentions, mutate “into something entirely different, all falling victim to the same disease of doing and saying things for money.” An egregious example of this is “the huge and almost entirely man-made problem called type 2 diabetes.” The statistics are sobering. Drugs to control blood sugar total nearly $9,000 per year for one person. The major oversight, in Davis’ opinion, is that Type 2 diabetes is a disease of lifestyle and poor food choices, and to a lesser degree, inactivity, nutritional deficiencies and other modern disruptions, made worse by the advice of agencies that pose as health advocates.
Where do unholy alliances come into this picture? Many advocacy and charitable organizations are funded by pharmaceutical and medical equipment companies. Government agencies are often staffed by former pharmaceutical company executives who can enact regulations that benefit private corporations and then, in a revolving-door process, implement such regulations by subsequently working for private enterprise, for their own benefit. And the list is endless.
The ADA (American Diabetes Association) advises patients with diabetes to “cut total and saturated fats, reduce cholesterol, and eat more grains and carbohydrates.” In other words, explains the author, they are advised to “follow a diet that everyone knows will raise blood sugar, and then adjust medications to bring blood sugar back down.”
In the author’s opinion, Big Food companies are equally culpable:
“The Hershey Company, Kraft, Post, PepsiCo, and Coca-Cola, were also among the ADA’s most generous supporters. But the ADA turned them away in 2006 because of increasing criticism, especially when it caught flack over a several-million-dollar contribution from Cadbury Schweppes, the world’s largest maker of candy and soft drinks.”
How’s that for an unholy alliance!
“Corporate sponsorship,” explains Davis, “has also managed to infect the educational process of dietitian and continuing education required to maintain certification.” And he continues: “The AND’s (Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics) love-fest for industry has created some even stranger bedfellows.” The organization received funds from Elenco, manufacturer of antibiotics for livestock, for dietitian education about their use to accelerate the growth of livestock. Past issues of their publications have included articles with the following titles: “Adult Beverage Consumption: Making Responsible Choices,” with the Distilled Spirits Council. The crassest example of such unholy alliances is a fact sheet titled “What’s a Mom to do: Healthy Eating Tips for Families,” sponsored by none other than Wendy’s.
The above examples of collusion between the health care industry and government with Big Pharma and Big Food are reason enough to keep reading what the author has to say.Undoctored is an honest, well-researched, clearly written indictment of an unholy alliance that affects each and every one of us.
No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need by Naomi Klein, Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2017
Naomi Klein’s No Is Not Enough is the logical continuation of the award-winning journalist’s No Logo (2000) and The Shock Doctrine (2007). In this well-researched and incisive book written at breakneck speed (to match the speed of Donald Trump’s sharp turns in the White House), Klein makes it very clear that Trump’s rise to power is not an aberration, but rather the inevitable culmination of neoliberal politics in recent decades. In fact, she goes on to state that the US government is not going through a transition towards corporatization, but that it has already suffered a corporate coup. She analyzes how Trump got elected as a “brand” – and an empty one at that – and how he is employing “shock tactics” to undermine the public sphere and enlarge the private one. Trump is imposing corporate hegemony, the author explains, by means of an unholy alliance between corporate interests and public office. As a case in point, she cites the example of senior appointments held by people who do not believe in the mission of the departments they head and are actually out to destroy them. Rex Tilleron, Secretary of State, former CEO of Exxon Mobil, the largest oil company in the world, and Steve Mnuchin, Treasury Secretary and former chairman in the “foreclosure machine,” are just a few examples. Klein cites other strange bedfellows, but warns her readers that by the time they read her book, the cast of characters might have changed.
Klein’s book is divided into an introduction, four expository parts, a conclusion and a postscript.
Part I explains how Donald Trump won the elections by presenting himself to an uneducated public as a brand with wide visibility. Here the author partly excoriates the press for having aided and abetted in the process by reporting his antics rather than discussing policy issues. This brand extends to his whole family including Ivanka, “whose products have notoriously been hawked by tax-payer funded public employees, including her father via Twitter, and his adviser Kellyanne Conway.” In “The Mar-a-Lago Hunger Games” chapter, Klein denounces the collusion of the press by treating Trump’s hosting of foreign leaders as “a reality show” or “infotainment.”
Part II touches upon a miscellany of subjects such as Trump’s denial of climate change and his collusion with polluting industries, his disrespect of women and the unholy alliance between Trump and US union leaders who publicly declared their allegiance to Donald Trump after he took them on a personal tour of the White House. Klein explains how economic populism was able to fill a political vacuum through the politics of division and separation.
Part III is a warning that things could certainly get worse. It is here that Naomi Klein recapitulates the shock doctrine. When the people don’t understand where a crisis is coming from and have no time to react, they turn to strong leaders. Klein explains: “shock-drunk leaders and their funders usually try to follow Machiavelli’s advice in The Prince: ‘For injuries ought to be done all at one time, so that, being tasted less, they offend less.’” Some examples cited by the author are wars, economic crises, terrorist attacks and incidents of xenophobia. In the case of New Orleans, it was a natural disaster that allowed corrupt government officials and contractors to disperse and take over the land of a vulnerable population that was allowed to die.
Part IV is visionary and inspirational. Naomi Klein is adamant when she says that rejection has to be followed by resistance. She laments that President Obama missed his chance during the financial crisis. He could have made the banking system and the automotive industry integral components of a unified vision for reviving the economy while fighting inequality and climate change at the same time. However, Klein views this not as an act of collusion but as a failure of vision and courage.
Naomi Klein concludes on an optimistic note. She believes that through solidarity, a change of attitudes (resisting our “inner Trump”) and greater political participation, we can resist the dystopian society in which we live. However, she is short on details regarding strategies for achieving radical change.
The postscript, which contains “The Leap Manifesto, A Call for a Canada Based on Caring for the Earth and One Another” [https://leapmanifesto.org/en/the-leap-manifesto/] could well be the inspiration for a new book by Klein, perhaps titled: “Political Action for Winning the World We Need.” That would be a welcome and most holy alliance.
The Precariat. The New Dangerous Class, Guy Standing, Bloomsbury Academic, 2015
Precariat is a neologism made up of the words ‘precarious’ and ‘proletariat.’ Guy Standing, the author of The Precariat. The New Dangerous Class, hailed by Noam Chomsky as “a very important book,” takes great pains to define its meaning. He explains that it is not the lumpenproletariat of Marxian theory nor is it a class as such. Rather, he elaborates, it is an emerging class that does not have a unified identity, and hence is often at odds with itself. Standing is quite clear when he says that the precariat is “the undertow of globalisation.” He also blames globalization for the fragmentation of class structures into the following: 1) elite, 2) salariat, 3) proficians (combining professionals and technicians, 4) shrinking core of manual employees and 5) a growing precariat, otherwise known as the unemployed or the dregs of society. He makes his point in great detail in the following seven chapters.
I –The precariat
The precariat is at the mercy of market forces and tensions that pit different groups of people against each other. Many of its members are attracted to populist and neofascist messages which “is why the precariat is the dangerous class and why a ‘politics of paradise’ is needed that responds to its fears, insecurities and aspirations.”
2 – Why the precariat is growing
The precariat is growing because “there was a crude social compact in the globalisation era.” Workers were required to accept flexible labour in return for job stability. Living standards were maintained through debt, which led to the crash of 2008. When people’s incomes fell below levels required to pay the mortgages they were encouraged to take, a new layer joined the precariat.
3- Who enters the precariat?
The author mentions several groups: women, youth, old-agers, early-retirees, migrants, ethnic minorities, the disabled and the criminalized. This complex chapter merits a careful reading.
4 – Migrants: victims, villains or heroes?
Standing does not hesitate to state that migrants have become the new denizens of society, as distinct from citizens. This category includes temporary and seasonal migrants as well as long-term migrants. He calls this group “the light infantry of global capitalism.”
5 – Labour, work and the time squeeze
In this chapter, the author defines the nature of work and the tension between work and leisure. He bemoans the fact that the precariat is under time-stress, and hence is practically unable to do creative work, or engage in political activity. “The workplace is every place, diffuse, unfamiliar, a zone of insecurity.”
6- Politics of inferno
Standing says it all in this scathing statement: “The neoliberal state is neo-Darwinist, in that it reverses competitiveness and celebrates unrestrained individual responsibility with an antipathy to anything collective that might impede market forces.”
7- Politics of paradise
Chapter 7 is perhaps the most important chapter in this book. The author calls for revisiting the trinity of liberty, equality and fraternity in developing a progressive agenda with the precariat in mind. In order to achieve the freedom and basic security that the precariat craves, Standing calls for making denizenship fair, recovering identities, rescuing education, commodifying labour fully, reinstating occupational freedom, re-establishing workers’ rights and combatting workfare and conditionality. He also asks for associational freedom, a basic income, redistribution of security as well as of financial capital, and the ability to control time. Above all, recovering the commons and leisure are important elements in a politics of paradise.
Guy Standing concludes his incisive and cogent book by stating categorically:
“The precariat is not victim, villain or hero – it is just a lot of us.”
American Candide or Neo-Optimism, by Mahendra Singh, Rosarium Publishing (2016), 200 pages.
American Candide is a 21st-century version of Voltaire’s 18th-century Candide, complete with black-and-white drawings by writer and illustrator Mahendra Singh. While Voltaire documented the effects of the Seven Year War and the Lisbon earthquake on Candide, Dr. Pangloss and Cunegonde, his main protagonists, Singh describes their misadventures in the face of all the ills that beset our century. These ills include suicide bombers, neoliberalism, illegal aliens, the American Dream, global warming, torture, the war on drugs and more. The main setting is Freedonia, although far-away Funkistan and south-of-the-border Costaguana figure prominently in the story line.
This slim novel is a welcome revival of the picaresque novel best represented by Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Voltaire’s Candide. If you’ve read the original Candide, you will be delighted with this modern-day version. If you haven’t, you might be inspired to return to the classics. Mahendra Singh is a highly original satirist with the sharp bite of an Ambrose Bierce. It would be futile to attempt to paraphrase his humour, so I will just go back to tending my little community garden. Although Mahendra Singh might not completely agree:
“War on drugs is hell,” announced Candide to his friend. “Someone’s always trying to rip off your grow-op. They better learn to cultivate their own garden if they know what’s good for them.”
Voltaire’s most famous literary creation, Candide, is now rebooted for 21st-century America.
… From the jungle slums of darkest Africa to the lily-white McMansions of American suburbia, the human condition wreaks havoc upon Candide and his friends as they search for an American Dream being held against its will in an undisclosed location. College-boy sissies will call it a Juvenalian satire upon America’s penchant for mindless optimism and casual racism but Candide says it’s really ‘rage against the rage, Voltaire-dude!’
Dheepan is a Tamil-language film directed by French director Jacques Audiard, featuring Jesuthasan Anthonythasan as Dheepan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan as his wife Yalini, and Claudine Vinasithamby as their daughter Illayaal.
However, things are not what they seem. Dheepan is in fact a Tamil Tiger leader who was taken for dead. In a refugee camp, he meets a woman who in turn picks up an orphaned girl so that together they can pose as a family to increase their chances of finding asylum in Europe. In actuality, Dheepan lost his wife and children during the Sri Lankan Civil War; Yalini lost her two brothers, and Illayaal, her parents. With the help of a dead family’s passport, they are lucky enough to be granted asylum and flown to France and freedom.
While they wait for their papers, Dheepan finds a job as a caretaker in a run-down building in some god-forsaken immigrant suburb. Yalini is hired as a maid to look after a disabled old man related to a gang leader. Illayaal learns to cope with bullying and racial discrimination at school; and with the French that she quickly picks up, she is able to act as an interpreter for the adults. All seems to be going well until a violent war breaks out between two rival drug gangs, shattering this make-believe family’s sense of security. It is here that Dheepan’s Tamil Tiger training kicks in to save the family that he hopes one day will become his very own.
Dheepan is a beautiful movie about a brutal reality. All’s well that ends well for our protagonists. But is all well in the land of liberty, equality and fraternity?