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new internationalist
issue 255 - May 1994



Scent of Green Papaya
directed by Tran Anh Hung

Scent of Green Papaya For his striking debut Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung has deliberately avoided tackling the more epic questions about his country’s recent history. Instead, he’s unravelled an intricate part of the social fabric of traditional Vietnamese society. Set in Saigon in the 1950s, with the turmoil of the war just a decade away, Scent of Green Papaya tells the story of Mui, a young servant girl who has left her village home to work for a well-heeled family in the city. Befriended by a maternal older servant, she is inducted into the everyday rituals that keep the household together. The day’s routines take on a gentle rhythm, like the passing of waves, and all seems calm in this house nestled amongst the papaya trees. But soon Mui learns that all is not so serene for this family. It transpires that the father has walked out leaving next to nothing for the mother and three sons to live on. At first Hung’s film seems a simple enough fable about female servitude and survival, but it gains in complexity as it follows Mui 10 years on as she goes to work for one of the son’s friends, Khuyen, on whom she had had a crush. It is with this development in the story that Hung examines the link between love and servitude.

For economic reasons, Hung chose to recreate the small patch of Saigon that the characters inhabit in a Paris film studio. This brings to Scent of Green Papaya an intense sense of intimacy but also claustrophobia. The simplest of tasks – the slicing of vegetables for a stir-fry – becomes poetry.

Hung finds universality in the minutiae of domestic banality that rules the lives of those whose work is never done. Using an ensemble of French-Vietnamese actors, he has elicited a set of remarkable performances – particularly from the children. Profound and poignant Scent of Green Papaya heralds the arrival of a significant new film-making

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Johnny Damas and Me
by John Trudell
(Rykodisc RCD/RAC 10286)

Johnny Damas and Me Few singers these days can expect an FBI critique on their work but then John Trudell is not like other singers. Described in a – wait for it – 17,000-page FBI dossier as ‘extremely eloquent’, the native American poet has the dubious honour of having his career more closely watched than is customary.

It’s not only the FBI who are on Trudell’s case. For very different reasons, so is Bob Dylan, who described Trudell’s 1992 album, Aka Grafitti Man as the ‘best’ of its year. That album’s impassioned cry for justice must have made for uncomfortable listening down in the FBI’s subversive music department.

Johnny Damas and Me lacks none of its predecessor’s drive. Damas is a dispossessed, ghostly figure, living beneath the ‘coyote moon’ of ‘Nazi Babylon’. It is the world with which Trudell, a Santee Sioux from Nebraska, is familiar. Now in his mid-40s, he served four years as a sailor in Vietnam before becoming politicized by the Indians of All Tribes occupation of Alcatraz Island between 1969-71. Afterwards he became National Chairman of the American Indian Movement.

He began writing poetry after the death of his wife and children in a suspicious fire (which the FBI declined to investigate). Trudell chose modern America’s indigenous protest sound – rock ‘n’ roll – as the modus for furthering his message. The resulting swampy, bluesy sound possesses all rock’s vital energy and, by declaiming rather than singing, none of his themes is dissipated.

Trudell is multi-themed and multi-angled and his analyses are complex affairs which seek a world in harmony with itself. There is enough food for thought in the words alone; however Trudell is aided by a muscular band that glows in its own spirit. Slabs of electric guitar are counterpointed by drums and at times, traditional chanting from Quiltman and Madeline Sahme. This is not only an ‘extremely eloquent’ protest album – but one you can dance to.

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In Other Words – New Writing by Indian Women
Selected by Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon
(The Women’s Press ISBN 0 7043 4385)

In Other Words Surprise is a strong element running through this collection. The selectors – both from the Indian feminist publishing house, Kali for Women – clearly have a nose for a good story as well as a sensitive ear for the varied voices of contemporary Indian women.

Most of the stories are written in the first person – and make use of the intimacy this offers. Some – like No Letter from Mother by Vishwapriya L Iyengar – are truly memorable. Set in a girls’ boarding school in southern India during the 1960s, it describes the pupils receiving letters from home – except the girl from Vietnam who gets none and whose tearful reference to ‘napalm’ is, with brutal ignorance, interpreted as ‘a kind of Vicks or tiger balm’.

Ippiya, the story’s narrator is, via her charming and erudite letter-writing father, trying to get her mother to write to her. Her mother – so warm in the flesh – flatly refuses. In desperation Ippiya confesses she is being lazy and badly behaved at school and needs scolding. Her mother’s reply is short and to the point: ‘I cannot write in English... Your teachers will make fun of my English so I will not write again to you. Don’t be bad girl, don’t be lazy... Don’t ask me to write again.’

The narrator goes on: `I was too young to realise that colonisation had cut the bond twixt mother and child... I never forgave my mother, but, in time, I learnt to open my own midnight doors, searching for footprints of a forfeited language.’

This book is not short of such poignant vignettes – Thanks Anyway and Sara immediately spring to mind. But there is also humour. The sardonic send-up of both bureaucracy and spirituality in Manjula Padmanabhan’s A Government of India Undertaking is a treat, as is Githa Hariharan’s account of the last days of a formidable and hitherto strict Brahmin great-grandmother in The Remains of the Feast as she sets about breaking every Hindu eating taboo she can think of. ‘Ooohh’, she cries as she indulges in cola, cakes baked by Muslims from a Christian-owned bakery and sweets laced with brandy.

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The New Protectionism

by Tim Lang and Colin Hines
(Earthscan ISBN 1 85383 165 4)

The World Bank has estimated that world trade in merchandise alone will increase by up to $273 billion over the next decade – thanks to the latest free trade agreements, GATT and NAFTA.

But who will be the beneficiaries? According to the authors of this book, the three power blocs of North America, Japan and Western Europe stand to gain while there will be an actual loss for Africa.

Lang and Hines are not arguing for a return to old style protectionism, but a ‘new protectionism’ that would reduce external trade, promote local interests and protect the three E’s – the Economy, the Environment and Equity. This is a clear, thorough, timely and readable treatment of the subject.

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T H E[image, unknown] C L A S S I C
Moby Dick
... being the book so ahead of its time even its author advised against reading it.

Moby Dick Everyone knows about Captain Ahab and a whale called Moby Dick. Although daunting bulk and a subject unsettling to modern sensitivities have made it one of the great unread classics, many who have never opened the pages of this Leviathan of a book are nonetheless familiar with the story. Ahab’s obsessive hunt for the great white whale who took his leg – a mania that resulted in the destruction of captain, ship, and crew – has become one of the embedded tales of our folk-history. From the peremptory first line – ‘Call me Ishmael’ – to the cataclysmic finale, the drama is personalized and the reader becomes an honorary crew member.

Were there no more to it than that – a robust yarn interweaving whaling lore, seafaring, the excitement of the chase and individual compulsion – it would still go down as one of the great adventure stories of all time. But, like the ocean, Moby Dick conceals vast depths beneath a seemingly straightforward surface; it is a masterpiece that anticipates the anxieties of our time.

Melville spent his young manhood at sea, in the South Pacific. In his mid-twenties he began turning these experiences into fiction. Moby Dick was his sixth novel, written in 1850-51 and based on his service aboard a whaler a decade earlier.

Melville’s earlier books had been racy affairs, swiftly written. But Moby Dick seems to have been more of a literary struggle. He wrote to a friend: ‘It will be a strange sort of a book... I fear; blubber is blubber you know; tho’ you may get oil out of it, the poetry runs as hard as sap from a frozen maple tree; yet I mean to give the truth of the thing, in spite of this.’

And there is plenty of ‘truth’ in Moby Dick. Melville supplemented his first-hand knowledge with extensive reading on the subject and there are long digressions on sea-lore and the technicalities of hunting whales. But this apparent concern for accuracy and detail is merely the froth on the wave. The writing has swirling layers and submerged currents of meaning which make Melville the true precursor of such Modernists as Joyce, Borges and Beckett. There are constant references to other literature and contemporary events and a stream of parodies and puns, some obvious, many extremely obscure. A fairly visible layer of Biblical imagery adds historical and mythological depth to the themes of obsessive search and the nature of good and evil. But beyond this are deeper levels which hint at secret Masonic rituals and homosexual undertones in the relationship between Ishmael and the cannibal harpooner, Queequeg. It is possible to read the narrative as an examination of the class system, as it operated within the closed world of the ship, or as a plea for racial and cultural tolerance. You may think that all this is a rather pretentious reading of what is, after all, an adventure-story, and that symbolism and reference do little but provide work for academics. However, Melville’s London publishers thought his deeper meanings sufficiently clear and dangerous to heavily bowdlerise the first edition, removing any hint of sexual, social or political impropriety, such that the book was reduced to a yarn about chasing whales.

As with much of his work, Melville had mixed feelings about the finished book – even with the censored portions restored in later editions. He wrote to an acquaintance: ‘Don’t you buy it – don’t you read it, when it does come out. It is not a piece of fine Spitalfields silk – but it is of the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ship’s cables and hawsers. A Polar wind blows through it and birds hover over it.’

Moby Dick was not a success; the public did not buy it or read it and the cultural élite from whom Melville craved acceptance, was sniffily dismissive. His literary career was effectively finished after only a decade of creative life. He turned to employment in the Customs Office of New York and for the next 40 years published only anonymous magazine stories and little-noticed verse. Billy Budd, Sailor, his other great work, was unfinished among his papers at his death and not published until 1924.

Time can translate what, viewed from the perspective of the individual, seems like failure. Melville’s struggle to create enduring work, like Ahab’s quest, speaks to us in universal language. After his titanic endeavour in completing Moby Dick, he wrote to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne: ‘As long as we have more to do, we have done nothing. So, now, let us add Moby Dick to our blessings and step from that. Leviathan is not the biggest fish; I have heard of Krakens.’

Four decades later, at the end of his life, there is a tiny sign that he had never truly abandoned his personal search. Pinned to the desk at which he wrote Billy Budd was a small scrap of paper on which was written: ‘Keep true to the dreams of thy youth’.

Peter Whittaker

Moby Dick or The Whale by Herman Melville (various editions in print, including Penguin).

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New Internationalist issue 255 magazine cover This article is from the May 1994 issue of New Internationalist.
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