Catfish & Mandala
Memory and belonging are at the heart of Andrew Pham’s impressive memoir-cum- travelogue, Catfish & Mandala. In 1977, when Andrew was ten years old, his family fled Vietnam as part of the mass exodus of ‘boat people’. After a perilous journey they were granted refugee status in the United States, eventually making their home in Southern California.
Throwing himself into the American way of life through diligent study and an engineering job with United Airlines, Andrew came to regard himself as a Vietnamese-American. However, when his beloved but traumatized sister Chi committed suicide he began to doubt the values of both sides of his hyphenated identity.
In an attempt to rediscover his roots, Andrew decided to revisit his abandoned homeland, making a year-long trip by bicycle through Vietnam, returning to his home village and cycling from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi.
No warm homecoming awaited him; the mixture of envy and mistrust that he encountered as a returning Viet-kieu – overseas Vietnamese – was amplified by his own highly Americanized response to the impoverished people and scarred countryside: ‘In this Vietnamese muck I am too American. Too refined, too removed from my birth village. The sight of my roots repulses me. And this shames me deeply.’
Catfish & Mandala is an elegantly structured narrative, with Andrew’s Vietnamese journey movingly counterbalanced by his memories of an idyllic, pastoral childhood. In his search for identity Andrew Pham has given us a lyrical and painfully honest exploration of the hideous damage done to family ties and culture by exile and war.
To Resist is to Win
Xanana Gusmao wrote this prison journal-cum-autobiography in 1994 at the request of a Portuguese solidarity group. The East Timorese resistance leader wrote from memory in the few moments he could safely snatch. The manuscript was smuggled to Portugal and has now been published in English.
Indonesian soldiers captured Gusmao in 1992 after his 17-year struggle against their occupation of his country. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. In September 1999 he was released after the UN-supervised ballot showed overwhelming support for East Timorese independence.
Gusmao explains how the injustices and abuses of Indonesian occupation soon overshadowed the inequities of colonial rule. He traces the development of the Timorese resistance over its 24-year life; how it grew from guerrilla bands into a cohesive, internationally recognized organization. He also shows the frustration of not being heard and of having so-called supporters turn their backs.
Letters, speeches and interviews reveal the long road of struggle and the multifarious turns it must take. Readers get more than simply Gusmao’s 70-page autobiography. They see from the inside how the East Timorese people chose their own future through ukun rasik an – that is, self-determination. They also see the daily cost of this and the need for patience as well as flexibility and innovation.
Despite 24 years of brutal occupation and the horrendous aftermath of the vote for independence, the East Timorese people have an impressive commitment to rebuild their country from the bottom up. To Resist is to Win shows admirably how any group seeking change must prepare for the long haul.
Saving Private Power: The Hidden History of the ‘Good War’
It isn’t often that a Hollywood blockbuster inspires an impassioned polemic on global power, media distortion and the misappropriation of patriotism by big business. Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan so incensed Michael Zezima that he decided to evaluate its assumption that World War Two was a ‘just’ war.
The result is Saving Private Power which questions the view that the US entered the war to end the Holocaust, to make the world a safer place, or to stop fascism. In fact, Zezima argues, quite the contrary was the case: US businesses traded with Hitler and Mussolini before and during the war and Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh were only the best-known of many avowed admirers of Hitler in the business community. Isolationist sentiments in the population were fostered and pushed towards anti-Semitism and racism. The repressive governmental machinery wielded enthusiastically against the tiny Communist Party was not used against American Nazis or other fascist groups. Zezima also shows how, utilizing slick methods borrowed from marketing, the US Office of War Information fomented anti-Japanese hysteria.
Michael Zezima’s technique – of acerbic wit and dogged interrogation of accepted wisdom – is obviously modelled on that most eminent harrier of official duplicity, Noam Chomsky. While he is no Chomsky in logical rigour, Zezima matches him in breadth of source material and in the scalding heat of his moral outrage. You may not end Saving Private Power agreeing with all the author’s claims but the book will certainly provide you with plenty to ponder.
‘Free Love, Radical Politics and a Sexy Red Tomato!’ yells the blurb on this odd and quirky little novella from Nora Ruth Roberts. From what I can make out of the plot, which is deliberately and vexatiously opaque, the book is set on a utopian tomato-growing commune, an indeterminate number of revolutions in the future. Driven by its domineering leader, Du Wop, the commune teams up with the Canning Factory Workers Collective to produce and bottle the perfect, luscious tomato sauce with just the right amount of basil for flavouring.
With the small matter of voting over the decisions that affect them — such as ‘the perennial vegetarian question’ — taken out of their hands by the authoritarian Collective Central Committee, the members of the commune are free to tend their plants and indulge in their passions. Prime among these are softball, dialectical discussions on the understanding of the working class and, most of all, sex and whether it is improved by the application of the principles of geometry.
All of this is, of course, intended as a send-up and there are, amid the deadpan references to Saint-Simon and Frederick Engels, some barbed and funny digs at po-faced revolutionaries who take themselves far too seriously. I have a feeling, though, that amid the broad farce and smart one-liners Nora Ruth Roberts intended Ripe Tomatoes to be a cutting-edge satire rather than the fizzing, entertaining but lightweight sparkler it is.
The Road Home
The films of Zhang Yimou – of Raise the Red Lantern fame – tend to win international awards. And it’s easy to see why his latest offering – The Road Home – has picked up the Silver Bear at the 2000 Berlin Film Festival. Zhang made it, he says, as a reaction to the ‘really vulgar commercial films’ that are a dominant tendency in Chinese cinema today.
Set in a remote village in North China, The Road Home deals with the most universal and modest of things: a love story, simply told. A primary school teacher arrives in the village and partakes in the building of a school. A village girl falls in love with him. The film is the story of that courtship, told in flashback.
There are many exquisite moments. Her radiant face as he offers her a hair clip. The anguish as she runs across the hills, with a jar of dumplings, to try and intercept the wagon transporting him back to the city. Her devotion as she cleans the school blackboard after his sudden departure but never erases the last lesson he left on it. The grief as she waits in the winter snow by the side of the road for his return. Then, old and frail as she walks the road home with him one last time, leading a line of former pupils who arrive to carry the school teacher’s coffin, refusing to accept any payment for what they see as a moral obligation.
There are no plot twists, no trick endings and no feats of technology to marvel at here. The only special effect is left to the film’s poetic narrative which insinuates itself into the heart and mind of the viewer. The Road Home is simply a brilliant achievement.
The WTO and the Global War System
Neo-liberal rhetoric dictates that the State has no role to play in the economy. But even the neo-liberal dogma can tolerate an exception. In the case of culture perhaps? Or the endangered environment? Not so. The exception is: the military.
Shot during the turbulent Seattle Summit, The WTO and the Global War System gives space to prominent activists to air rarely mentioned but far-reaching aspects of the future of the war industry in a globalized economy. Minimally edited, it is unlikely to be widely viewed outside committed pacifist circles – which is a pity, given the originality of its message.
According to film-maker Steven Staples: ‘The war industry is protected through GATT’s security exception’. By exposing the collusion between governments and the immensely powerful ‘military-corporate complex’ the video helps to debunk the powerful myth that economic globalization is about a ‘free trade’.
The cynicism of the powers-that-be knows few bounds. Susan George quotes an ex-strategist from the Pentagon saying: ‘The de facto role of the US armed forces will be to keep the world safe for our economy and open to our cultural assaults. To those ends, we will do a fair amount of killing.’
The notion of opposition, especially to those of a youthful disposition, is an attractive enough idea to many rock bands. But – let’s face it – there are precious few who have anything interesting to say, let alone a vital way of saying it. And, once embraced by commercial success, how many go on saying it?
Primal Scream remains a beacon of hope. The group was formed in 1984 – a resonant date for a band which rails against inertia and the malignant globalization of everything from burgers to opinions. And this new release, Exterminator, is that rare thing: a thrilling, maximum volume CD; an assault of close-tempo guitars and samples; a record whose lyrics and groove are locked into a tight focus.
It’s apt that opening track ‘Kill All Hippies’ – don’t take this literally: it’s a hangover from the old punk days when hippies were synonymous with a stoned-out passivity – begins its tearing progress with an alarm going off.
For all the innovative approaches, Primal Scream’s influences are still easily discernible: 1960s Stonesy blues, raw power from Iggy and the Stooges. But in terms of attitude, the more immediate antecedent lies with British punk, a force in late 1970s Britain that had the effect of forging new alliances between rock and reggae – with all the political content that implies.
Primal Scream’s own alliances are harder to identify – take the ‘No civil disobedience’ sneer on the arresting track ‘Swastika Eyes’, for example. But the heart’s in the right place. Like Asian Dub Foundation, the band’s involved in various anti-racist campaigns and turns out protest songs that are never aimless nor anodyne.
Since Asian Dub Foundation’s first album, Rafi’s Revenge, was featured in these pages in 1998, it’s a pleasure to report that the east London group has gone from success to success. While Rafi was nominated for a host of prestigious prizes, the real coup was that these four second-generation Asians were finding an international audience who responded both to their political message and their acerbic dance music. If dancing to politics sounds paradoxical, try out Community Music’s ‘Real Life Britain’ or ‘Officer XX’, and you’ll see the point.
Originating in a London community education studio – hence this album’s name – ADF’s music reflects a powerful mix of tradition and tension. Guitarist Steve ‘Chandrasonic’ Savales wires his guitar to sitar tunings, but he rocks out in the best sense of the word; Deeder Zaman (aka Master D) may rap but at points he zigzags between English and Urdu in a blur.
The studio sound is filled out by Aniruddha ‘Dr’ Das and John Pandit’s technological and DJ-ing skills respectively. But the explosive edge comes in the combined thrust of beat-orientated music and lyrical content. Rupert Murdoch, small Britannia, outmoded definitions of identity are the targets of ‘Real Life Britain’; so, too, is the UK’s New Labour government.
This is capital-P political music with a righteous ire. But there’s a softer edge, too: ‘New Way, New Life’ shows a delicacy towards the isolation that Asian new arrivals must have felt in the 1960s. Elsewhere, a cover of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s ‘Taa Deem’ is given a four-square dance beat that augments the shimmering sitar-guitars and fragmented vocals. It may be a long way from the calm of qawaali, but the devotional spirit is still there.
on Patience Agbabi
Patience Agbabi is electric. You can almost feel the sparks coming off this performance poet. And her capacity to dazzle is only partly attributable to the canary-yellow low-backed PVC dress she wears, showcasing some remarkable tattoos. Agbabi’s spell as a London tattoo parlour’s poet-in-residence has left her with more than just happy memories.
She’s about to perform at Express Excess, a poetry venue in London’s Chalk Farm, when I meet her. It’s the last event of a punishing international tour to promote her new book Transformatrix. As the title suggests, the poems deal with transformation, but duality is also a dominant theme.
Born in London in 1965 of Nigerian parents, but fostered since birth with a white family in Sussex and Wales, Agbabi knows plenty about duality: ‘I had an unusual fostering in that it lasted 17 years during which I had regular and close contact with my Nigerian family. I’d see them every two weeks when I was young. It was a very strange, dual upbringing, having two sets of parents and families.’
She expresses the ‘two sides of things’ in many ways – in poetry and in conversation. The Nigerian, the British; the male the female; the right and the left side of the brain; repression, expression. Oh, and she identifies as bisexual.
The most autobiographical poem of Transformatrix is ‘Ufo Woman’ in which she explores themes of race and unbelonging. As a schoolchild in all-too-white Sussex it’s: my two-tone hand with its translucent palm/ life line, heart line, head line, children,/ prompting the: ‘Why’s it white on the inside of your hand? Do you wash? Does it wash off?’
On a first trip to Lagos, aged ten, it’s: They call me Ufo woman, oyinbo/from the old days which translates as weirdo,/ white, outsider, other, and I withdraw...’
Typically, Agbabi transforms painful experience into a poem that delights with its wit, skill and playfulness. Hers is politics delivered with humour and style. Even as a teenager, while writing about drugs and sex in four-letter words, she had a penchant for iambic pentametres. ‘I just liked doing them.’
In her first book, RAW (see review NI 283 ) published in 1995, Agbabi had discovered rap. ‘I was in love with it.’With its driving rap style and sprung rhythms, the collection won acclaim from the likes of Benjamin Zephaniah and did much to counter the notion that performance poetry is for the stage, not the page.
‘For me it’s got to be both,’ she says. ‘It has to work on the page too.’ Even poems that she has written with performance in mind are often technically quite precise and formal.
She’s been spreading her wings in this area. ‘ I still love rap but I feel “I can do that”. But when I began this book I thought: can I write a sonnet? Or a sestina? I like making myself jump through hoops. I like the challenge. And I’ve realized that I do have a real love for older literary forms.’
Indeed, she chose one of the most rare and difficult forms – the sestina – for seven of the poems collectively called ‘The Seven Sisters’. ‘They nearly killed me!’
Agbabi is now using a wide range of different voices. There’s the wonderful ‘Wife of Bafa’, for example, a contemporary Nigerian incarnation of Chaucer’s most memorable character. Or the hapless narrator of the hilariously bizarre ‘Bitch’, who has been persuaded by his girlfriend to go on the Jerry Springer Show. The punchline is... well, it would be a shame to give it away.
There’s been a five-year gap between Transformatrix and RAW. Not an easy time as Agbabi explains: ‘For two years I could not write at all, for fear. I believe it’s quite common after a first book.’ So Transformatrix is also a kind of personal transformation ‘from being a blocked person to being an expressive one’.
It’s hard to imagine this fast-talking, quick-witted, easy laughing poet being stuck for words, but maybe that’s just the flipside of her tremendous expressive energy. Agbabi is gearing up for a third book which she is certain will come more easily: ‘I’ve got a lot more confidence now.’
Transformatrix is published by Payback Press (ISBN 0-862-419-41-7)
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