Thursday, November 11, 2010

The floating worlds of the exile

Create Dangerously : The immigrant artist at work

by Edwidge Danticat

Princeton University Press

The poet turns the world to glass, and shows us all the things in their right series and procession,’ Edwidge Danticat writes, quoting Emerson. In these twelve eloquent essays, Danticat does just that as she examines the many dilemmas of being a creative person exiled from their homeland,. Through the prism of her personal experiences and tenuous associations with her homeland, and in her interpretations of its troubled history and that of individuals she has interacted with, Danticat paints us a portrait of her Haiti – her ‘floating world’ as it were, and its tortuous struggle for peace and stability.

Create dangerously, for people who read dangerously’. These words by Camus have defined Danticat’s development as a writer, and they are central to Danticat’s defence of what she deems the artist’s purpose – to bear witness. In essays like ‘Daughters of Memory’, ‘I Speak Out’ and ‘Acheiropoietos’ , she profiles Haitians who have done just that – borne witness to the atrocities committed on Haitians , displaying what she calls ‘guapa’ – a courageous beauty.

In the opening paragraphs of ‘Create Dangerously’, the first of these quiet yet powerful examinations of identity, Danticat walks us, with excruciating slowness through an execution. The two men at the centre of this gruesome tableau, Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin are members of a rebel group trying to bring down the Duvalier dictatorship, and the public spectacle of their deaths will haunt generations of Haitians. They certainly haunt Danticat, even though she wasn’t even born at the time of this incident. Quoting Camus again - “..a person’s creative work is nothing but a slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three images in whose presence his or her heart first opened.”- Danticat’s essays reveal how these, and other horrors have been akin to creation myths for creative Haitians like her, intrinsic to what Basquiat calls ‘cultural memory’ in ‘Welcoming Ghosts’, Danticat’s incisive exploration of the young artist’s work and influences.

Dangerous writing – and reading- had something of a rich past in Haiti under Duvalier, where even the suggestion of dissent was liable to get you killed. The title essay of the book examines how, in the claustrophobia that was life under the Duvaliers, people chose clandestine methods of voicing their anguish, through the secret staging of plays and the reading of classics by foreign, or long dead authors like Cesaire, Fanon and Camus. “The fact that death prevented one from being banished,” she wryly notes, “..made the ‘classic writers all the more appealing. “

Sadly, lesser mortals do not always enjoy this posthumous immunity. Does death reverse exile, Danticat wonders in ‘The Other Side of the Water’ , as she recalls her attempts to have her cousin Marius’s body flown home from Miami to Haiti for burial. For Marius, an illegal immigrant with AIDS, lacks the necessary documents needed for his final flight home and must wait in legal limbo until a solution -or his passport – is found.

Creative stifling, she observes, has effectively silenced whole generations of her countrymen; in turn, it has made the few, like her, who choose to speak out, seem like martyrs.. ”crazy Saints (who) stared out at the world, like lunatics – or quietly, like suicides..” This is not a sainthood Danticat wears lightly; for just under the surface of her words lurks her guilt at having ‘escaped’ (through migration to the United States) and becoming an ‘accident of literacy’ while thousands of Haitians remain uneducated and poverty ridden. She struggles with this notion of being privileged, and with her own identity, as she is repeatedly accused of being 'dyaspora' , and incapable of authenticity when writing about Haiti. Danticat faces this alienation even at home; an elderly relative mourning her dead son says, ‘‘I know it’s your work, but please don’t write what you think you know about Marius.”

Perhaps this is one of the crosses the immigrant writer must bear, regardless of their creative voice – this obligation to be ambassador of a culture and people she is rooted in through the accident of birth. It is a cross Danticat refuses , however; rather she asserts that , by virtue of her craft, she transcends her own geographical boundaries, taking on, with every reading of her work, the nationality of the individual reader. ’Are you free, my daughter?” asks a character at a crucial juncture in Danticat’s debut novel, ‘Breath, Eyes, Memory. Danticat seems to pose that very question to herself repeatedly. ‘Walk Straight’, for instance, describes her guilt and confusion over being accused of misrepresenting Haiti in her writing, particularly over the issue of ‘virginity testing’ that several characters in her debut novel endure. ‘I exploit no one more than myself’, she argues, emphasising her role as a fiction writer, who merely borrows from the truth around her. And yet, a hint of self deprecation creeps into her writing, as she describes, in ‘Flying Home’, how she was ‘at work’ during a national crisis, the inverted commas being her own.

As a writer, Danticat finds she must also battle a kind of collective amnesia. Recalling the sabliyes -the forgetting trees from Haitian lore, that slave ancestors stepped under to free themselves of their memories and dull the pain of leaving home, Danticat observes that the Haitian psyche seems unwilling to step away from their shade, choosing to forget their long and painful history of slavery. It is a history that repeats itself; for Haiti remains a lesser ‘other’ to more powerful neighbours like the United States, even during national crises like the earthquake that ravaged the island earlier this year. In the moving ‘Our Guernica’, the final essay in this collection, she reflects on this inequity, even as her family calmly deals with the loss of loved ones in the earthquake, and begin the process of rebuilding their lives.

It is these images of quiet resilience that are perhaps most telling of Danticat’s floating world, of a country picking up the pieces of its shattered identity yet again – a country and a people undeniably guapa. And it is in the unflinching portrayal of these people and this country, in Danticat’s graceful and passionate commitment to bearing witness to their anguish and their joys, that we glimpse the guapa in her writing as well.

Thanks to Princeton University Press for sending us a copy of the book to review.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Half-made World, by Felix Gilman

You have to stop and take notice of a book endorsed not just by Eric Van Lustbader, but the queen –Ursula Le Guinn- herself. You stop, notice and, if you are in any way like me, you worry – about overkill, disappointment, and,if the book is indeed a winner, about that interminably long wait, accompanied by much teeth-gnashing, for Part Two to reach your grasping little hands.

A few lags in pace – and a rather lackluster heroine - apart, here’s one for the gnashers amongst us.

Steampunk meets the supernatural in this sweeping tale of a wild, untamed world and the powers that battle for its control. Felix Gilman’s ‘The Half Made World’, part one of a duology, is an inventive rewrite of the settling of America, teeming with complex characters, fantastic devices and a dystopian landscape as compelling as it is unsettling.

To the East of this World are ancient lands that have long since been civilized by the calming hands of science and the arts; the West, however, is young and unbridled, and the object of a long standing war between two rival factions - the Line, a civilization marked by industrialization, a subdued population of slaves, and formidable weaponry; and the cult of the Gun, a loose mob of assassins – each more colourful than the next - dedicated to little beyond destroying the Line and keeping the flag of anarchy flying high. Marking the tenuous zone between the Line’s territory and the uncharted terrain beyond it is the House Dolorous, a sanatorium tending to the wounded of both sides.

This is a world at the mercy of unearthly powers. The servants of the Gun and the Line, with their incessant conflict seem human enough; yet they are controlled by strange forces, invisible God-like beings that a character calls .. ”..not so much political entities as religious enthusiasms, not so much religion as forms of shared mania”. Even the House thrives under the aegis of a mysterious subterranean Spirit that lives in a symbiosis of sorts with its patients, healing them and, in turn, feeding off of their energy. A third faction that had reared its head in a short-lived bid for democracy - the Red Republic – has been vanquished by the Line, and its leader now lies in the House, his mind scrambled by a noise bomb ( arguably the most inventive of the generous array of gadgets Gilman offers us in this book).

Into this unstable world strides Dr. Liv Alverhuysen, former denizen of the genteel East and practitioner of a radical new science called psychology, to try and heal the General. But the General’s mind holds other secrets, and Liv is caught in the crossfire as the Line and the Gun both battle to gain control of him. Kidnapped along with her near- catatonic patient by Creedmoor, a swashbuckling Agent of the Gun, she soon finds herself trekking across the great uncharted lands with her unlikely companions, and a regiment of the Line on her heels.

Gilman crafts great characters, and his World boasts a remarkable ensemble cast. Creedmoor, for instance, is a charismatic anti hero - flamboyant as they come, flawed in all the right places, alternating between glee and shame at his affiliations. . He gets all the best lines in this book, usually in his dialogues with his spirit mentor Marmion, and their relationship – rather like that of a rebellious teenager and a father at the end of his tether – is one of the highlights of this book for me. Chemistry crackles between him and Liv as well, something I expect the sequel to the World will gleefully explore. Then there is Lowry, recruited into the service of the Line as a ten year old, and seemingly well suited to his role as a dispensable cog in its great and terrible machinery. He is Javert to Creedmoor’s garrulous Valjean, doggedly following in the Agent’s trail for a master he fears and resents in equal measure. “Hardly the perfect model, “he thinks, disparagingly describing himself ”.., but effective and cheap enough for mass production. Incapable of disloyalty; he lacked the parts.” Here's a character, intriguing for all his supposed facelessness - heading either for a grand subversion, or utter annihilation, and I can't wait to find out which.

But the most mesmerizing character here is the uncharted world itself, teeming with powerful spirits that no one can really comprehend, save its indigenous people, the First Folk . This vast, yet claustrophobic world, where the lines between the vegetable and animal, the living and non living, real and hallucinatory, seem blurred, and where the very rocks seem malevolently alive, is truly a feat of world building.

By contrast, Liv is a disappointment; insubstantial when standing up besides robust characters like these. In many ways, she seems a half made world herself, spending a large part of the book meekly acquiescing to the experiences that claim her – a loveless marriage, a convenient widowhood, runaway/ kidnap victim- still unsure of what it is she wishes to become. It is only towards the end of the book that she steps out of Creedmoor’s considerable shadow, with a sudden vigour that promises much excitement in Part Two of the book.

Read ‘The Half -Made World’ to discover speculative fiction at its best – capturing the excitement and menace of a world at once threatened and empowered by technology, and examining issues as diverse as faith, national identity and individuality .

Thanks to Tolly Moseley for sending me a copy of the book to review.

And, dear reader, to pique your interest, here’s a short story by the author, set in the same world as this book.