Archive for April, 2007

Wild Child

Monday, April 30th, 2007

Wild: An Elemental Journey, Jay Griffiths, 2006

Wild Jay Griffiths

Unlike the movie Wild Child where a child raised in the wild is introduced to modern civilization, Jay Griffiths, an educated young English woman, returns to the wild, spending seven years rediscovering the feral call of her blood. In this journey she risks her health and her sanity. Unlike the Nineteenth Century transcendentalists (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, etc. See American Blooms bury), who largely ignore the native American guides, she devours the works of anthropologists and then seeks out native guides in the Amazon, New Guinea, Australia, the Arctic, Mongolia etc. to help her relearn the music of the wild.

The transcendentalists were in large part a reaction to the repressive spirit of the Puritans. Salem Massachusetts, site of the witch trials and where transcendentalist Nathaniel Hawthorne was born and wrote some of his best work, after all is very near to Concord Massachusetts.

Nathaniel Hawthorne in Salem Hawthorne

Griffiths’ work is a cry against the murderous work of the racist, incurious, ignorant, culture destroying, white missionaries and their greedy corporate followers both supported by corrupt thuggish governments. Her ability to capture the wild in words is extraordinary. Sample:

The Peruvian Amazon was called a Tower of Babel by early Spanish missionaries. Intended as an insult, it was actually a compliment, testimony to the luminous and tumultuous diversity of jungle languages, not just one tree of knowledge but millions, a forest of knowing. But the Church, the state, and the education system together have deforested the human mind, forcing people to speak Spanish and aiding logging companies and others in a corporate land theft. If you take people out of their land, you take them out of their meaning, out of their language’s roots. When wild lands are lost, so is metaphor, allusion and the poetry that arises in the interplay of mind and nature. To lose your land is to lose your language, and to lose your language is to lose your mind…

Jay Griffiths in the wild from the book jacket Jay Griffiths

The theft of land is only the tip of the melting iceberg. There is today a gold rush to patent and thus privatize (steal) native plants, treatments, and remedies known for centuries by native peoples throughout the wilderness world.

The Roma Poetess

Monday, April 23rd, 2007

Zoli, Colum McCann, 2007

The Roma are among the most widely persecuted peoples in the world. Going by many different names including the derogatory Gypsy (The British believed they originated in Egypt), Roma seems to be slowly gaining as the accepted name. Linguistic and genetic evidence puts their origin in the Punjab India which they seem to have left about 1000 – 1050 AD. By the 14th Century they arrived in the Balkans and by the 16th Century they had spread though out Europe. They do not have a written language but their oral traditions kept the culture surprisingly strong and intact until recently. The Nazis in WWII exterminated an estimated 800,000 in an attempt to eliminate the Roma along with the Jews. But the persecution of the Roma exists throughout Europe to this day where even supposedly liberal Norway force ably sterilized the Roma until 1977.

Roma German Interrogation

The novel is about a Slovak Roma poet, Zoli born in the early 1930s who survived the Hlinka (Slovak fascist thugs) massacre of her entire family in the 1930’s. Her surviving grandfather taught her to read and write (secretly) and she gained a reputation among her people as a poet and singer. A communist Slovak poet tracked her down after the war to collect her poems and songs. He hired a Slovak-Irish young man to assist him and the result was a series of recordings often played on the radio as far away as Prague and a book of poems. Zoli was invited to give concerts in halls.

Roma Caravan

The initially benign communist government soon turned to attempts to “assimilate” the Roma by moving them into government apartment blocks and reeducate them. When the Roma resisted, their horses were taken away and the wheels of their caravans burnt. The Roma elders blamed Zoli for their woes and banished her from their tribe. She wanders to Austria via Hungary and is eventually smuggled into Italy in the early 60’s where she marries the Italian aristocrat smugger and has a daughter. The daughter moves to Paris and by 2000 is an organizer of Roma studies and academic conferences.

Today assimilated Roma have their own political party in the Czech Republic and they have elected a number of members of Parliament. There are Roma professors throughout Europe researching and attempting to preserve and record Roma culture.

McCann is Irish but limits the Irish influence to the character of the Slovak-Irish song catcher Stephen Swan. McCann was influenced by A False Dawn: My Life as a Gypsy Woman in Slovakia by Ilona Lackova. His poetess is inspired by the Polish Roma poetess Papusza; 1910-1987.

A Culinary Childhood of Privilege

Tuesday, April 17th, 2007

Climbing the Mango Trees; A Memoir of a Childhood in India, Madhur Jaffrey, 2006

Madhur Jaffrey Madhur Jaffrey

Madhur Jaffrey is an author of Indian cookbooks and an actress who is said to have been responsible for introducing James Ivory and Ismail Merchant. Jaffrey appeared in a number of their earlier films: “Shakespeare Wallah” (1965, won Berlin Film Festival’s Best Actress), “The Guru” (1969), Autobiography of a Princess, (1976) and Heat and Dust (1983) directed by Ivory. And also “The Perfect Murder” (1988) and Merchant’s “Cotton Mary” (1999, title role).

She also appeared in “Six Degrees of Separation” (1993) with Stockard Channing (“Le Divorce”), Mary Beth Hurt (“Slaves of New York”) and “Vanya on 42nd Street” (1994) with Julianne Moore (“Surviving Picasso”), Larry Pine (“Hullabaloo Over Georgie and Bonnie’s Pictures”), Wallace Shawn (“The Bostonians”).

Madhur Jaffrey

Here, Jaffrey writes about her family of the Hindu subcaste Mathur Kayasthas, administrators of justice and recorders of events. Her family worked in Delhi as administrators for the Mogul rulers until the British brought the capital to Delhi when they went to work for the British. As a reward for their loyalty to the British in a time of Indian uprisings they were given a large parcel of land on the Yamuna River. The patriarch turned down a choice of land in New Delhi saying “Who wants to live in that jungle”. Jaffrey ruefully notes that property in New Delhi today is worth as much as property in London. Her family was so extensive that a picnic or celebration might be attended by 300 or more relatives. Her father headed a number of companies during her childhood.

To escape the heat of summer the family spent summers in the “hill stations” Dalhousie. After partition they often went to Simla. This was a custom started by the British.

Born is 1933 Jaffrey was 12 at the end of WWII and 14 at the time of India’s independence and partition (into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan). She notes that many Indians were killed in WWII (but seemingly no one known to her or her family). Millions were killed during partition and tens of millions were displaced from their homes. She notes that a number of her privileged Muslim classmates left for England or Pakistan. Delhi swelled from a million inhabitants to over ten million, mostly impoverished refugees. Jaffrey notes that all the taxis were now driven by Sikhs and restaurants started offering tandoori oven meats and breads, kabobs, lassie (a yogurt drink) and other Punjabi culinary delights. She left India to study acting a few years after partition and has lived in England and the United States since.

This book gives a good picture of what it is like to grow up privileged and insular. The India she describes is a picture book India of good times and good food taking place during the key years of the Congress party struggle for independence with Gandhi and Nehru risking imprisonment; of the British forcibly enlisting Indians to fight in Burma and Europe for the British in WWII; of the rise of the Muslim League and the tragic British partition of India as the British left India behind. Like privileged classes everywhere, her childhood memories contain very little of this life and death struggle, the poverty, the displacement, the terror of this time. Money and privilege buys an insulation from these larger realities. What did she really think of the tumultuous times of her childhood? We don’t know from this book.

The Botanica

Monday, April 2nd, 2007

Still Water Saints, Alex Espinoza, 2007

Still Water Saints Map of Aqua Mansa Women of Aqua Mansa

This first novel is a collection of vignettes of characters who patronize the local botánica and of its owner in a small community of Agua Mansa (Still Water), 50 miles east of Los Angeles. Most chapters are named after major saints; their protective domains and their holidays. The botánica is a shop with an eclectic collection of books, artifacts, and natural medicines from Catholic, African-Caribbean and Mexican origins and even includes influences from the East (Buddhism and Zen). Its owner is a childless older woman, a respected, even by the local priest, member of the community . The author Alex Espinoza is the eleventh child born to a family in Tijuana Mexico and raised in LA. He has a masters from U.C. Irvine. Espinoza takes us into a largely unknown American world where we get to meet normally invisible characters, mainly women, and learn about some strange but very human traditions.