Category Archives: American literature

Americans in post-communist Prague

In addition to reading positive notices of Hamburger’s collection of stories set in late-1990s Prague (mostly involving American expatriates or tourists interacting with the natives), and being curious about how post-communist Prague strikes younger (than me) Americans, I was intrigued by the title The View from Stalin’s Head. The title story is the third in the volume, but unsure how independent of each other the stories were, I read the ten of them in order. (I don’t think anything was gained thereby, though a character in the last story (“Exile”) has some background from an earlier one (the second, “Jerusalem,” which is not set in the city of Jerusalem).)

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There are two gargantuan-sized Stalin heads in “The View from Stalin’s Head,” so I didn’t feel cheated by the title. It would be unfair to potential readers to explain how the head(s) are invoked/involved in the stories. I was not disappointed by the teaser title, nor, indeed, by any of the stories. This is not to say that I liked them all. I rather disliked “Control,” though the characterization in it of a transit policeman is convincingly done.

I’m not completely convinced by the Czech giant in the first story, “A Man of the Country,” but the voice and the happenings in it are entertaining and fairly poignant. The first story features a male Jewish-American expat somewhat perplexed by a Czech man. The second features a female Jewish-American expat at least as puzzled by a Judaeophile Czech man.

“The View from Stalin’s Head” has an all-Czech cast (Stalin’s head not being part of the dictator who was dead before either one was made). “The Ground You Are Standing On” does not involve any young people (well, there is a youngish taxi tout). It involves a pair of Jewish American tourists who rent a room in an elderly Czech widow’s house. The confrontation is elegantly developed and brilliantly conceived. There are no villains and a lot of self-righteousness on display.

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(Hamburger in 2019; he was already bald in 1994 btw)

“Sympathetic Conversationalist” has an ensemble of Czech students of (you guessed it) a Jewish-American expat in Prague “You Say You Want a Revolution” has a self-righteous Jewish-American woman who identifies with resistance of Coca-Cola colonialism. She connects with a group opposed to globalization, but rather than being socialist, it is royalist (wanting to restore the Hapsburg Empire). This is the story with the broadest humor and the only one that derides any of the characters (though those in the other stories do not lack for foibles). “Garage Sale” charts an offbeat relationship between a young Czech woman, Katka, and a Jewish-Canadian expat teacher of English who changes his stripes (or thinks he has).

I’ve already mentioned not liking what happens in “Control,” though respecting its artistry. It is the second story in the collection with no North American expat characters.

The most romantic story in the collection is the one set in Israel (though two of the characters are Americans working in Prague who go to visit the relatives in Israel of one of them). I’m not sure that I believe it, but I enjoy the characters and the departures from their expectations. Departures from expectations are rife throughout the volume, especially in the inter-ethnic relationships. “Law of Return” is more like the movie “Cabaret” than the Christopher Isherwood novella “Sally Bowles” that was its original source. “The Ground You Are Standing On” is the closest to some of Isherwood’s other Berlin Stories in which a character named Christopher Isherwood lived in a Weimar Berlin boarding house and observed bittersweetly comic relationships, including his own, with Berliners, as he made some money giving English lessons.

The final story, “Exile,” brings back the Judaeophile Czech, Lubos, a synagogue with a closeted lesbian rabbi, a kitsched-over concentration camp. It has rich detail and characterization, but seems more a sketch for a multi-character novel than a story that stands on its own.

Insofar as I can tell from the advance descriptions of Hamburger’s forthcoming (in October) first novel, Faith for Beginners, will be closest to “Law of Return,” involving a young midwestern Jewish-American in Israel. I have no idea whether it has the same characters or expands on that story.

Hamburger is a very good story-teller. Most of his stories even have endings, although I tended to launch right into the next story as soon as I finished one. At the end, I felt that I knew more than when I started about postcommunist Prague and about some of the Americans who have gone there for the X-generation’s European seasoning (Paris, London, and Rome having become too expensive, along with Manhattan and San Francisco for would-be writers and other kinds of artists to hang out while finding themselves and amassing Experience.

(On Hamburger, ca. 2019, and his second novel, Nirvana Is Here, see here.)

©2005, 2019 Stephen O. Murray

 

Laila Lalami’s second novel, Secret Son

I think that Laila Lalami is a very good writer in her third or fourth language, English. It would be faint praise to bill her as “the best Moroccan-American novelist,” not a category in which there is much competition.

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Her second novel, Secret Son (2009) seems far more linear than Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits (2005), though some very crucial information is supplied out of sequence in Son. It also seems — not least in its title — to have a single protagonist. In the opening part of Hope, there was one, Murad, though his was only one of five backstories that followed (and the four stories of what happened to some of those who were together in the debacle of the opening venture). Most of Secret Son is from the perspective of Youssef, but there are chapters from the perspective of four other characters. Two important scenes are replayed from a second perspective (although I think doing this was a mistake).

The book opens with a flood ending a drought and Youssef El Mekki rescuing the portraits of the father he has never known. Youssef and his friends from the Casablanca slum neighborhood, Maati and Amin, are finishing high school. Maati fails the college entrance test and starts work for the mysterious Party that has opened an Islamist center with a tea shop and sermons. Amin begins law school and Youssef majors in English.

Second Son has been likened to African American classics Native Son and Invisible Man (Lalami’s editor suggested the latter, which drove her to read Ellison’s book, and “son” was not in the title until later still, so is not an homage or an echo). The one scene of a class discussion of a book, however, addresses The Great Gatsby. Youssef sees that Daisy is Jay Gatsby’s dream, an impossible ideal to which he aspires (and IMO an unworthy chimera). His own dreams are thwarted by the society, his station in it, and by such blood relatives as he has.

Youssef aspires to and even beds one of the “Marboro and Mercedes” set, that is, students from affluent backgrounds. He remains an outsider (this was the book’s working title) to the Islamists, the Marxists, and the “Marboro and Mercedes” set, longing to belong somewhere, envying those with fathers and family.

Gradually, he learns more about the background of both his mother and his father, is lifted up and thrown back down, and used in various ways by various people who claim to have his best interests at heart—not least his mother. The childhood friends are out of his life for a while, but become central, way-too central to the denouement.

Much of the pleasure of the book is in the complicated unfolding of relationships in two families, making discussion of what happens and even who are the other major characters spoilers. There is a female character with some of the author’s geographical experience (LA, albeit being an undergraduate math major at UCA, rather than a graduate student in linguistics at USC). Lalami has expressed frustration at assumptions that Amal is autobiographical.

Lalami does not write anything from the perspective of the Angeleño of Brazilian descent, Pedro, but writes convincingly (at least to me) from the perspective of Morrocan males, elite and unemployed. Blaming Mom is a venerable American angle, though smothering mothering seems even more rampant in lower-class Moroccan culture than in middle-class Anglo American culture. Still, I was startled that disaster is laid on the doorstep of a conclave of mothers determined to keep control of their men in a novel written by a woman.

As in Hope, the Islamist movement, the corrupt and brutal government, and the smug Moroccan elite are all shown to be not only disingenuous but dangerous, with the naïve youths of the slums at best pawns, but mostly nonentities. Lalami is interested in telling stories, not in being an analyst of the society in which she was born and grew up. At a book event Q&A, she said: “I am not pretendingt to know my native country, Morocco, any more than anyone else. I am just trying to write the best story that I can.” Nevertheless, the story is set in a place in which some of those in situations of chronic unemployment are aiming to overthrow the corrupt and highly stratified status quo through terrorist attacks, and her imagination is rooted in recognition of the appeals of hedonism and Islamism, often on the same individuals in sequence or simultaneously.

The characters Lalami has imagined in both her novels are interesting, but however indirect the social critique is, they are also inevitably read in part from interest in the milieu of poor Arabs that leads to desperate acts of immigration north to unwelcoming Europe and of terrorist attacks.

©2009, Stephen O.  Murray

Desperate Moroccan attempts to reach Europe

The 2005 novel Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits was ritten in English by Laila Lalami was born in Rabat in 1968, where she lived through earning a she became an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, and author of the popular blog Moorishgirl.

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The book has, rightfully, been widely acclaimed both for her literary skills and for insights into those risking their lives to relocate north, across the Strait of Gibraltar rather than the Rio Grande. Showing the hypocrisy of both Islamists and secularists in Morocco has also made the book of wide interest. (It has been translated into six languages, including the languages of her earlier education, Arabic and French.)

Lalami has said that the original stimulus for this fiction was an online Le Monde article about an accident in which fifteen Moroccans drowned trying to cross the Strait of Gibraltar on a fishing boat. The characters of her book— thirty passengers crammed into a Zodiac designed to hold eight — are mindful of the disaster and plenty scared when they set off.

The distance between Africa and Europe there is only fourteen and a quarter kilometers (8 miles). I can attest from personal experience that the waters can become turbulent quickly and are not warm. Currents are also treacherous (fortunately, I don’t have personal experience of that).

250 meters from the Spanish coast, the boatman forces the passengers (some of whom cannot swim) out. Some drown, a few make it and get away, while most of the others are captured by the Spanish Guardia Civil and deported back to Morocco.

The novel begins with the trip then backtracks to tell how four of the passengers got to the desperate gamble of paying substantial sums to be ferried (most of the way) across to Spain.

Murad, a multilingual guide, specializing in Paul Bowles tours for Anglophone visitors to Tangier lacks connections to get a job befitting his education (a degree in English like Lalami’s from Université Mohammed V). More direct interference occurred in the education of Faten at the same university. Faten joined an Islamist organization and influenced her friend Noura to don a headscarf, study the Koran, and decide not to go to NYU. Noura’s father is an official in the education bureaucracy and reaches out to have Faten failed. (Faten has received answers to a test from Noura, so her stern ethics are not invariable.)

Halima is fleeing with her children because her drunkard husband who has lost his job won’t grant her a divorce. (Men can divorce women by repeating “I divorce thee” four times, but women have to go to court and even if granted a divorce are rarely given custody of their children.

Aziz leaves his devoted and beautiful wife behind (with his mother) to try to make some money. (He also leaves behind a bosom buddy who also loves him, though Aziz does not seem to realize that they are more than friends, or that Lahcen would like them to be.)

 

The looking back at disparate characters who were together at disaster recalls Thornton Wilder’s 1927 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Bridge at San Luis Rey to me. His characters perished. Lalami’s survive. One escaped into Spain from the water. Three were deported. One made it into Spain on a later try. (I think it would be plot-spoiling to reveal who is where.)

The stories of the post-crossing-attempt characters fill in more backstory as well as showing them a few years later. Life in Spain is not a paradise for those who are there (one of them with legal status) and remains tough for those surviving in Tangier.

The book is not as grim as my account might suggest. It has a guarded optimism more like Abdellah Taïa’s Salvation Army than like Tahar Ben Jelloun’s nihilistic Leaving Tangier. There are more than a few ironies to make readers smile and some betterment of some lives recorded. The hope of undocumented migrants leads to dangerous attempts to reach a better life. And the lives of those left behind may be even harder, but hope does keep springing.

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In an informative online interview at http://www.wab.org/events/allofrochester/2008/interview.shtml

Lalami noted: “Most of the Moroccans who undertake these journeys are people who have no job opportunities and very few useful educational prospects, whereas I have been very fortunate in receiving a good education (first in Rabat, the capital, and then in London and Los Angeles) and in finding employment…. I think I feel closest to Murad, however, because the whole book grew out of a short story [El Dorado] about him…. In the process of revising this story, I realized I was adding flashbacks of his life before the trip, so I decided to take these flashbacks out and put them in a separate story featuring the same character, but set in a different period of his life. Then I became interested in each of the other people on the boat with Murad and pretty soon I had a collection of stories, each from a different point of view, with the only connecting thread being that these characters make the same decision about emigrating illegally. Still, I felt that something was missing. Then I realized that what I needed was to reach closure with each of these characters, to find out what happened to each of them after the captain abandons them.”

I started taking English in high school, at the age of 15, and majored in English in college. After I moved to the States, I continued writing in French, but it quickly became clear to me that French comes with an enormous colonial baggage when one is writing Moroccan characters. I switched to writing fiction in English in 1996.

I don’t know of any Moroccans who would look to Paul Bowles for a story about Morocco, but it’s certainly true that many American readers might look to Bowles for a story about the country. I think he is a fine prose stylist, but I am not a big fan of his writing because I find it devoid of any compassion for his characters.

 

©2009, Stephen O. Murray

 

Dorothy West’s The Living Is Easy

Dorothy West (1907-98) is often called the youngest writer of the Harlem Renaissance, particularly close to Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes. Her novels were few and far between (The Living Is Easy in 1948, The Wedding in 1995), though she published some short fiction, some of it collected in The Richer, the Poorer (also in 1995) and regular columns in the Martha Vineyard Gazette (some collected in a 2001 collection. Her work, in marked contrast to most Harlem Renaissance writings, deals with the very hue-conscious African American bourgeoisie (which included sleeping car porters as well as attorneys, physicians, and entrepreneurs—affluent only relative to the mass of blacks pouring north).

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As a child, West lived on Brookline Avenue in Boston. She was educated at the Girls’ Latin school in Boston, where she was born and where she died, though she lived in Martha’s Vineyard from 1943 on. I find her first novel, The Living Is Easy, offputtting. Its protagonist, Cleo, is a sneaky, power-hungry, greedy older sister, who dominated her three younger sisters growing up in the South. She latches onto “the black banana king,” Bart Judson, whose skin is much darker than hers.

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(cover of reprint edition with drawing of author by Richmond Barthé)

After producing dark-skinned daughter, Judy, she finagles a large house where she can sleep separately from him and gather her sisters, each of whom is married and has one child (including one boy, Tim, who is blond and whom Cleo wants not to see). What Cleo told Bart would be short visits turn into permanent residencies, so that none of the house can generate rental income, and so Cleo can boss around a large family without the unpleasantness of having sex with her dark-skinned husband.

Skin hue is very, very important to the characters in the novel, and to the “black bourgeoisie” throughout the US, not only in Boston). Cleo despises most of the immigrants from the South, loving and hating her own sisters and their shared rural, poor background. Bart provides for Cleo’s family, provides affection to Judy that Cleo does not, but eventually looses his business in the face of competition from supermarkets. Cleo robs him, lying about most everything, starting with the amount of rent she pays the white owner of the house, who is proud of the Boston abolitionist tradition, but appalled by the mass migration of Irish people to the neighborhood.

Bart is based on West’s father, Isaac Christopher West, though I have difficulty believing anyone could be so successful in business and so easily ripped off by a wife who provides him neither affection (often calling him “Mr. Nigger,” alternating with “Mr. Judson”; I don’t recall her ever first-naming him). The other male characters are also hard for me to believe. Adelaide Cromwell’s useful afterword to the 1982 Feminist Press edition establishes the basis of other male characters on real people, the best-known (if not very widely) being journalist Monroe Trotter, the model for Simenon, a self-righteous “race man” whom Cleo manipulates into marrying a former bordello-keeper with a Catholic vocation. There is a shooting by one of Cleo’s brothers-in-law, and the physician is caught doing abortions in addition to his cancer research.

I think I am making the novel sound livelier than I felt it was while reading it. A lot of the action is in the last fifth of the volume. Cleo’s contempt for males runs through the book, both in dialog and in indirect discourse, frequently labeling others “niggers” and “darkies.” Cleo is a racist, classist, lookist, man-hating liar and cheat, destroying her sisters’ marriages and arranging a loveless one between Simenon and “the Duchess” (who finances his paper that has neither a black nor a white audience.

 

BTW, the tittle is either ironic or misleading. The living was not easy for any of the characters, except Bart before Cleo got her hooks into him. West was an understudy in “Porgy and Bess,” and must have taken the title from “Summertime (and the living is easy…”)

 

©2019, Stephen O. Murray

 

Lorraine Hansberry’s (posthumous) third Broadway play

Lorrraine Hansberry  (1930-65) knew the South Side of Chicago (where she grew up, and where “Raisin in the Sun” is set) and New York’s Greenwich Village (where she lived as an adult, and where she set “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window”) better than she knew Africa. Nonetheless, I find her primary African character in her posthumously produced play “Les Blancs,” Tshembe, more credible than the American journalist, Charlie, who is its seeming protagonist. Charlie strikes me as a device to stimulate exposition by other characters, including Tshembe and “Madame,” the wife of a medical missionary who seems to be based on Albert Schweitzer but who is on the other side of the river and does not appear in the play.

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Tshembe has left Africa, and married a white woman, who has borne a child. He returns for the funeral of his father, a Kwi chief—who was also covertly the local head of the “terrorists” (based, I think, partly on Kenya’s Mau-Mau, partly on Algerians rebelling against their French masters). Tshembe’s brother, Abioseh, is also part of the resistance passing as a simple-minded servant of the European missionaries.

When the play premiered late in 1970 (which is to say after Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia had become known and led to furious protests, especially on college campuses, including Jackson State and Kent State, where protesters were shot), it divided the audience and critics, much as the plays of her idol, Sean O’Casey had in their day.

She was accused of supporting genocide of whites in Africa by some and of displaying (stereo)types rather than individuals (I would agree in regard to Charlie, but not Madame and not the Matoseh brothers).

 

The sanest response seems to have come from Harold Clurman in The Nation

“Les Blancs” is not propaganda, as has been inferred; it is a forceful and intelligent statement of the tragic impasse of black and white relations all over the world. It clarifies but does not seek to resolve, the historical and human problems involved. It does not provide an Answer. It is an honest play in which tought-provoking matter is given arrestingly theatrical body.

Despite a much-praised, powerful performance by James Earl Jones as Tshembe, the play did not run long on Broadway and seems largely forgotten. Whereas I thought that “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” read better than I can imagine it playing on stage, I think that “Les Blancs” is playable, as well as interesting to read, and is a worthy companion to, for instance, Yulisa Amadu “Pat” Maddy’s 1973 novel No Past, No Present, No Future.

(The title is a strike at Jean Genet’s (1959) Les Noirs, which she disliked, but the French title gives the unfortunate impression that it is set in a French rather than and English African colony. Genet’s play deals with black identity, anger at colonialism, and the murder of a white woman, btw. And James Earl Jones also appeared in the first American production of Genet’s play, off-Broadway.)

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

2-28: a libretto

ACT ONE

Scene One 2/28/1945

Sudin, an advanced high school student, and his girlfriend Siuhua are looking at leaflets dropped by US planes.

Siuhua: God’s country promises us freedom when they have driven out the Japanese.

Sudin: Driving out the Japanese will not be easy.

Siuhua: The American president Wilson supported self determination everywhere.

Sudin: Even in Taiwan? Do you think the Americans are not fighting Japan for our freedom? No! It’s because the Japanese attacked them. The Americans want us to rebel against the Japanese, but they don’t care what happens to us.

Siuhua: Rebellionwould be suicide. The Japanese have all the guns.

Sudin: The Japanese will lose the war. Then we shall see whether the Americans really support our freedom. We’ll see if they their presidents just produce fine phrases or will do anything to ensure our right of self-determination.

Scene Two (10/12/1945)

Madame Jiang in a slinky nightgown with her black pearl slippers, Generalismo Jiang in uniform.

Mme J: There is very much wealth on Taiwan. Why are you letting Tan Ge and his gang of jackals clean its bones? You should know better than to trust him. You must know that he is feeding his gang and not us.

Gen. J: Of course they are collecting bribes. I know they are seizing what was Japanese, and not sending along all they should to the central government. Still, he has sent a lot from Taiwan since I appointed him. You must know that there are even greedier and less dependable generals than Tan Ge, and he has experience with keeping unruly semi-barbaric southerners in line.

Mme. J: At least I hope you have someone watching him and reporting back.

Gen J: Of course, of course. Don’t think that I trust Tan Ge. I barely trust you!

 

Scene Three (10/12/45)

A Chinese businessman and Tan Ge’s mistress are meeting in private.

Businessman: If the governor general appoints me head of the Tobacco Monopoly Bureau, I shall pay you ten percent of the profits on the tenth of every month.

Mistress: Ten percent of revenues.

Businessman: That’s a lot!

Mistress: You’ll be making much more.

Businessman: But there are others taking their cuts, and I’ll have to do some real work, not just sit back and collect a cut.

Mistress: There are others quite willing to accept my terms

Businessman: Alright: ten percent of revenues.

 

Scene Four (2/28/47)

A Ha, a middle-aged Taiwanese woman with a small supply of loose cigarettes is hawking them from a folding table under a banyan tree in Round Park.

A Ha: Life is hard and getting harder. I had a husband, but the Japanese took him and sent him off to fight for them in Burma, never to return. He didn’t want to go, I wanted him to stay and earn money to support our two young sons. Without him, I must try to make a little money. What can I sell but my old body or contraband? I don’t want to sell my body, so I risk having my small stock seized by the Chinese demons. I know it is dangerous, I know it is illegal, but food is more expensive every day. Life is hard and getting harder, food is more expensive every day, but my sons must eat to grow, and I must eat to earn some money for their food. Life is hard and getting harder, food is more expensive every day— (startled) Oh, no, demons have seen me.

Two Monopoly Bureau agents converge from both sides on A Ha’s table. One sweeps her stock of cigarettes off the table, the other knocks it over, and then knocks her down.

A Ha (pleadingly): My husband is dead, and I have two young sons to feed. I must make money so they may live. Please don’t take my sons’ food.

Agent 1: You know it is illegal for you to have these?

A Ha: Food is more expensive every day. My sons must eat to grow and I must sell something so they may eat.

Agent 1: That does not overrule the law.

A Ha: My husband was killed in the war.

Agent 1: Fighting for Japan.

A Ha: He was drafted, he had no choice. He did not want to go far away from his sons who needed him.

Agent 2: You are a collaborator’s widow. Your sons are collaborator bastards. Who cares what happens to them or you? It is our job to enforce the law and prevent profiteering in contraband goods.

A Ha: Have you no pity for a poor, desperate widow?

Agent 2 (striking her): You are a whore and a thief from the Chinese people.

A Ha (from ground): I have never stolen—

Agent 2: You steal from the government by selling contraband.

A Ha (nearly moaning): Life is hard and getting harder, food is more expensive every day.

Agent 2 strikes her again, knocking her flat. He begins to pistol-whip her.

Agent 1: Taiwanese whore and thief, how dare you lie. Things are getting better since we defeated and expelled the Japanese. Now it is a Chinese government that rightfully receives revenues from tobacco grown here.

Agent 2: Life is too good for you. You are still an enemy, like the father of your bastards.

Several men passing by pull Agent 2 back.

Passer-by 1: What are you doing beating up this defenseless woman?

Agent 2 (turning, glowering, ready to strike those interfering with his beating the prostrate woman): She is a criminal, selling contraband. We are doing our duty and do not require your approval.

Passer-by 1: You are beating her to death for that?

Agent 1 (moving toward the passers-by who are restraining his colleague): And you, too, Taiwanese trash!

Another passerby grabs Agent 1, pulls his hand behind his back. The passersby gag the two agents and tie them to a trunk of the banyan tree. Passer-by 1 cradles A Ha’s head.

Passer-by 1: The Chinese pigs have made life impossible for us.

A Ha: Life is hard and getting harder. What will happen to my orphaned sons. (With more determination:) My sons must eat to live and grow.

Passer-by 2 (to A Ha): Madame Jiang is the protector of orphans, you need not worry about their care.

(aside to audience or other passersby:) With such a protector they are doomed. What have we done to be damned to such a fate?

A Ha: Life is ending for me. Woe my sons. A curse on those who have made life impossible— (her head sinks).

Passer-by 1: Her life is over. It will not get any harder.

Passer-by 2: Woe this poor woman, woe her orphaned sons, woe Taiwan, beset by Chinese locusts. Our life is getting harder, food is more expensive every day.

A spotlight picks up Sudin, who is a ways away, and cries muffled by gags come from the two agents bound to banyan trunks.

Sudin: What a time we live in! A simple woman beaten to death for trying to support her fatherless sons, selling a few cigarettes in the park. The Japanese would have provided her a pension; the Chinese give her an unjust, summary execution for the pettiest of offenses. Her sons lives were hard and now are much harder. They must have food to grow, but it is all shipped to China or gobbled up by the Chinese who enslave us, the same plagye of idlers who sat out the war beyond where the Japanese cared to push. During the war, they lived on welfare payments from the United States. Why does the champion of democracy support so unpopular and incompetent an autocrat as Jiang? Taiwanese are far better educated and ready for democracy, yet now they claim to have won the war, and these uneducated, unruly pigs claim they will educate us to be Chinese.

Siuhua enters and pulls at Sudin.

Siuhua: You must get away from here. If the Chinese kill a woman for trying to sell a few cigarettes, what are they going to do when two of their agents are overpowered and beaten? There will be much more trouble, and the Chinese have all the guns.

Sudin: We should disarm them, as these flunkies were disarmed here tonight!

Siuhua: Still they live and an innocent Taiwanese does not. I am sure there will be reprisals.

Sudin: There should be reprisals. We should be making reprisals for the thieving Tan Ge and his greedy entourage.

Siuhua (even more worried): You must be careful, or you, too, will be killed.

Sudin: There is no reason we should submit to Chinese rule. The Americans rebelled against unjust government and contemptuous colonial rule, why should we not? Why should we be a colony of the Chinese, going hungry to supply the incompetent ROC army and to fill the iron rice bowls of the Chinese officials? The Americans threw off British tyranny, they should understand our throwing off our heavier burden.

Siuhua: This is all very well in the abstract, but in the here and now, the should, the must, of the matter is that we must get away from here. Tell others what we saw, but there is no gain in staying here waiting for the slaughter to come.

Sudin: Alright! I’ll take you home. Then I will tell others of the officials murdering a defenseless old woman.

The two move across the stage. Light remains on Siuhua as Sudin exits.

Siuhua: Sudin is my love, my future, my life. I fear for his childish hot head. He is prone to get too involved in the dangerous turmoil of politics. He is too likely to endanger our future, to risk our happiness together. Yet, I know that it his passion that I love, so how can I expect a safe and easy life in endlessly turbulent times?

Scene Five (3/2/1947)

Sudin, now a Tai Da student, stops one of his professors, Lim.

Sudin: Professor, some of us are hoping you will guide us in disarming the Chinese butchers.

Lim: That is very dangerous and wholly unnecessary talk. The Chinese have had a hard time during the long war and do not find our climate easy to adjust to, but they are partners with the Americans who defeated the Japanese. The Americans will help guide us to democracy and prosperity.

Sudin: How can you possibly believe that? Before the war, China under the KMT was as badly governed as we are now. My father has told me that Taiwanese were much more prosperous during the early 1930s than the Chinese.

Lim: Are we not Chinese?

Sudin: No! What does China have to do with me? I’ve never been there. The world has been changed by the victories of democracy, and Taiwan must become a democracy.

Lim: I am sure that we are moving in that direction, but you must be patient.

Sudin: We are moving to more—and more blatant—Chinese corruption and away from any possibility of justice for our people.

Lim: You are engaging in very dangerous talk. There have been mistakes made by inexperienced, ignorant Chinese soldiers, but the government is eager to rectify the problems with our help. We do not want another civil war here.

Sudin: They don’t want another civil war, but their behavior provokes one. No wonder the Chinese people do not want to be ruled by these parasites!

Lim: We are working with Tan Ge to rectify the problems of the last few years.

Sudin: You believe Tan Ge wants to rectify the problems that he and his cronies have created?

Lim: Yes, I do. I am on my way to a Taipei Settlement Committee meeting, and then we will present reasonable proposals to the Governor General.

Sudin: Tan Ge is brutal and corrupt: that is why he was installed here, after looting Fujian.

Lim: I do not believe that Tan Ge has derived any personal profit from his position.

Sudin (rolls his eyes and turns to the audience): How can we learn from those so ignorant of the world? Taiwanese built prosperity here and these so-called leaders are content to watch it be dismantled and shipped to the mainland to make a few friends of Tan and Jiang rich.

(turning back to Lim) We have formed the Public Security Service Corp, but the Chinese soldiers still have their weapons in their barracks. They should be disarmed.

Lim: The Governor General has promised not to move troops from the south or from China, and we must not make demands that will make him look bad to his superiors in the national government.

Sudin: You should not believe such promises. We need the guns.

Lim: That is not going to happen. We seek reform, not to overthrow the ROC. There is no other desire except reformation of the governing. It is foolish to suppose that democracy can sprout over the course of one night.

Sudin (to the audience): If there is no other desire, there should be. Now is when we could take control of our destinies, but our elders do not see the chance. Meeting with the Governor General is enough to make them happy.

Scene Six (3.2.47)

Gen. and Mme. Jiang are seated. Lieutenant enters.

Lt.: Generalismo, I come from Tan Ge to report an insurrection on Taiwan and to request reinforcements to put down the rebellion.

Jiang: We need all the troops we have—and more—here to fight the communists and regain control of the fatherland.

Mme: Taiwan is too rich a plum to let drop and roll away,

Jiang: Are the rebels communists?

Lt.: Perhaps not, but many do not accept that they should be ruled by Chinese.

Mme. (sarcastically): They believe they can rule themselves after being Japanese slaves for two generations?

Lt.: It would seem so, Madame.

Jiang (mulling, more to himself, but aloud): We must preserve a safe place of exile, in case we some day need one.

Mme.: And the island’s rice and tea are needed by our troops here.

Pause

Jiang: Alright. I will order troops to deploy. Let them make an example of the rebels and ensure there will be no repetitions.

Lt.: General Tan is eager to punish the impudent rebels—

Mme.: — and to resume feathering his nest. (Turning to her husband:) I wish you would appoint me governor and sack that bloated idiot you have appointed!

Jiang: You can hardly be appointed governor of a province in which communists are challenging our rule! (Turning to the lieutenant:) Tell General Tan that troops are coming and I hope they will not need to remain there long. It is a difficult time for us, and we need them back here, as soon as possible. Indeed, we cannot afford to spare them at all, but he has made it necessary to spread our forces.

Lt.: The general is making promises to the Taiwanese vermin and keeping his troops temporarily in their barracks, waiting for reinforcements. But once reinforcements arrive, we are ready to round up everyone who challenged our rule. You can be assured that order will be swiftly and completely restored.

Mme: And the flow of food and goods from Taiwan will resume?

Lt.: Most assuredly, madame!

Jiang: Tell your commander that we understand the need to make promises. We have made a few in our day that we never intended to honor. We are sure he will use force as needed to regain control and tutor the treacherous barbarian to obedience.

Lt: Yes, my president, most certainly they will be put back in their place.

Jiang: It will take a few days to ferry troops to Taiwan, but you had best fly back at once.

Lt: Yes, sir. I will return at once. Thank you, sir (pause) and madame.

Scene Seven, 3/3/47

Taiwanese meeting with Tan Ge

Tan: It is most unfortunate that mistakes have been made and our troops have on occasion showed excess zeal and employed excessive force. I and the whole government regret such excesses and look forward to working together in ensuring an orderly province here, while combating communists. Please understand that our soldiers are fighting a war and may mistake protest and criticism as treason and aiding the enemy, that devil Mao Zhedong. I have ordered troops to remain in their barracks, both here and in Kaohsiung. I am willing to try letting the Public Security Service Corp maintain order among the people of Taipei. However, if violence against state officials and state enterprises persists, I shall have to proclaim martial law—

Professor 1 (aside): Haven’t we already had soldiers killing civilians in the streets?

Professor 2 (shushing him): Shhh! We must move ahead in a spirit of generous forgiveness for past mistakes that have been admitted and we must contribute all we can to the national struggle for survival.

Professor Lim (to Gen. Tan): We do not need martial law. We can police our own people and free soldiers to fight communists on the mainland.

Tan: I hope so. I hope you are right. We cannot tolerate attacks on officials, however.

Professor 1 (aside): What about attacks by locust officials.

Professor 2 (to 1): Shh! (To Tan:) Thank you, general. We are eager to work with you for the good of all.

Scene Eight

Sudin enters. Professor Lim is seated.

Lim: Tan Ge was eager to hear our suggestions and accepted your group policing the city. He seemed sincere about wanting our help and genuinely wants to rein-in greedy officials and insolent troops. He even promised to punish them. It is important that we help him save face with his superiors. He is reporting some officials’ misdeeds to President Jiang and assuring him that Taiwanese leaders support the government.

Sudin: I do not believe that old crook can be trusted. Can you really believe that what he tells you he is reporting to Jiang is what he actually is reporting to him?

Lim (smugly): I was there. I could observe his sincere concern and his genuine contrition, and his eagerness to improve the governance of Taiwan.

Sudin: You underestimate Chinese duplicity. Tan Ge is in a position of weakness right now, “making nice,” playing reformer to gain time. When he can strike back, he will do so. He wants to reassert his power, not provide better government. It is imperative to disarm the garrison troops now.

Lim: Come, come, that is far too extreme a measure. How could he explain his troops being disarmed to President Jiang?

Sudin: Jiang is losing the war in China and can ill afford to open a second front to conquer us, if we are armed and able to resist. Tan Ge’s “face” should not be our primary concern.

Lim: You are young and hot-headed.

Sudin: Tan Ge cannot be trusted, must not be trusted.

Lim: Your elders—not just me—have decided to trust him and to work with him and a reformed provincial government.

Sudin: It is a mistake we will all regret. The opportunity to control our future will be lost if you co-operate with him, believing the tiger has changed his stripes!

 

ACT TWO

Scene One, night of 3/8/47

Sudin is sitting down when Siuhua knocks softly and slips inside.

Sudin: What is wrong? You look like you’ve seen a ghost!

Siuhua: Ah— there will be many more ghosts. Many soldiers have landed at Keelung, their guns blazing as soon as they stepped ashore.

Sudin (not able to avoid the grim satisfaction of having been right): I knew Tan Ge was lying, playing for time, pretending a sudden commitment to reform, all the time planning to kill those who dared to criticize him.

Siuhua: There is no time to congratulate yourself for your foresight in the past. You must now foresee what is coming for you now, and get away from here at once.

Sudin: Away? Where? I live here.

Siuhua: And it is here they will come looking for you. You must leave at once!

Sudin (having quickly gone from grim self-satisfaction to confusion): Go into hiding? [pause] Where? In the mountains?

Siuhua: You must go away, away from Taiwan. My cousin will take you on his fishing boat.

Sudin: Are you kidding? To China? How can I hide among the enemy? How can I live among them, knowing no one?

Siuhua: Not to China! North, away from China and the Chinese.

Sudin: To Japan?

Siuhua: not that far. Only to the Ryukyus where the Americans are in control.

Sudin: Won’t they turn me over to their friend Jiang? I know no one there. No one knows me.

Siuhua: Well, then, no one there will have you on their list to round up or shoot down. Pack a few things you’ll need and can carry easily.

Sudin: Just like that?

Siuhua: Just like that.

Sudin hurriedly tosses some things into a small valise.

Siuhua: Hurry, will you? [He closes the clasp on the valise.] Follow me.

Sudin: It can’t be safe in the streets?

Siuhua: Not for long, but I know a back way.

Sudin: Could you warn Professor Lim. Although he was easily tricked and helped Tan Ge survive, he is probably in danger even for meekly advocating reforms.

Siuhua: I’ll try to warn him, but first I must get you to my cousin’s boat.

Sudin: He’s no afraid of the risk?

Siuhua: He is afraid of the risk, but he is willing to take it for our country’s future, and for me.

Sudin: Does our country have a future?

As soon as they have slipped out, soldiers appear from the other side, and beat on the door.

Soldier 1: Where is the rebel traitor?

Soldier 2: He lives here. We’ll take care of all of them and have no more traitors endangering this outpost.

Soldier 1: Should we hide and wait for him to return?

Soldier 2: Perhaps he is inside. Put on your bayonet.

Soldier 1: For the door?

Soldier 2: First the door, then the Taiwanese rebel. The government of General Tan will reward us if when we report his extinction.

Scene Two, later the same night.

Professor Lim is writing with a brush when two privates and a corporal burst in.

Lim: What is the meaning of this? How dare you burst in and disturb me—

Pvt 1(sarcastically): Oh, are we disturbing you? We did not mean to.

Lim (firmly, failing to realize his plight): Yes, you are. I am a member of the Settlement Committee that is governing Taipei. I am one of those meeting personally with the Governor General—

Pvt 2 slaps him. Lim looks more bewildered than hurt.

Lim: Are you communists?

Pvt 1 (laughing): Are we communists? No! We fight communists and Taiwanese rebels who help the communists.

Lim: I’m no rebel. I work with the government to promote smoother operations of the provincial government.

Corp: There is no provisional government, and your committee has been judged guilty of sedition for making outrageous, unreasonable demands.

Lim: What demands were unreasonable? Sedition? What sedition? We smooth the troubled waters.

Corp: You so-called leaders have stirred up the people here—

Lim (firmly, still a lecturer, annoyed but not understanding the lack of the deference with which he is usually addressed): Not at all! We calmed the people and prevented a rebellion.

Corp: There can be no rebellion—

Lim: There is none, General Tan agreed to self-policing.

Pvt 1: That’s all over.

Pvt 2: Yes. [short pause] I’m tired of this pretentious vermin. [Looking at corporal:} Permission to shut him up?

Corp: Yes, gag him.

Lim sputters as Private 2 gags him.

Corp: And make sure he can’t run away.

Private 1 hobbles Lim, tying his ankles so he can only take short steps. The corporal roughly jerks Lim’s hands behind him and binds them together.

Corp: OK, men, let’s take this rebel in and move on to pick off the next piece of Taiwanese scum.

The two privates prod Lim out with their rifle barrels. They pass Siuhua, dressed as an old lady.

Siuhua: If the moderate reformers are treated like this, what would they do with my hot-headed Sudin? He would struggle and they would surely kill him. Professor Lim went along and may be released. But Sudin clearly was right. The Chinese only say they are our brothers when they want to take things from us. They forget they ran awya from the Japanese until the Japanese tired of chasing them. Now they claim to have defeated Japan. What will become of Taiwan when there is nothing left to loot here? Thank heavens I got Sudin away in time. The Chinese would cut him down if they found him, but they will not find him. If only the whole island could float away from the Republic of the Chinese and the cruel louts besetting us. Woe is our future as a slave of the ROC? When will we be free? When can we seek our own happiness in safety? It was easier under Japanese guard dogs. Our freedom was limited and some of what we produced was taken away, but now we have no freedom and everything is shipped to China.

Scene Three, very early in the morning of 3/9/47

A prison cell with four Settlement Committee members. (Professor Lim is #4). They are disheveled from physical mistreatment, and shocked by being rounded up like violent criminals.

1: Why were we so naive? How could we have believed in good faith from Tan Ge?

2: Perhaps he does not know what the newly arrived troops have done.

3: More likely, he ordered it, begged for more troops, claimed communists were rising against him here.

4: Rebels against the kingdom of heaven—

1: — or hell.

2: Well, someone must have led President Jiang—

1: His only interest it Taiwan is in what can be extracted from us and shipped to enrich his circle.

2: I believe that if we could alert him about what is going on—

3: He would be pleased.

1: He must have ordered severe measures. Who do you think ordered troops to come here? You don’t think he knew how they would behave, how they behave?

2: But Tan Ge promised us a larger role. He promised not to bring in more troops.

1: Obviously, he lied. How can you believe anything he said when he felt cornered? He knew reinforcements were on their way here.

3: He must have requested them.

2: So his only concern was to buy time for them to arrive? But what of the Americans here. Won’t they report what’s happening?

1: Come on! It was the Americans who brought the locust here.

4: What of the four freedoms. Did not the United Nations proclaim a universal right to self-determination?

1: That was all wartime propaganda. Now they’ve won the war, and they let the Chinese treat Taiwan as spoils of victory for their allies—

3: Little as Jiang’s armies did to defeat the Japanese.

4: I hope to breathe open air again, to see our beautiful homeland, not through prison bars. My hope whispers we shall be free.

Chorus of all four: Will freedom rescue us? Will freedom ever come to Taiwan? Will foreigners forever suppress us? Will we be free, or is imprisonment for believing Chinese promises our just punishment? Will we be free?

Two privates and a corporal enter.

Soldier 1: What is this caterwauling? Form a line and march!

Still hobbled, the prisoners shuffle rather than march, followed by smirking soldiers. They pass out the cell door.

Soldier 2: Pick up a shovel.

Professor 2: We are not ditch-diggers, we are teachers.

Soldier 2: You were ignorant and bad teachers. Probably you are not good ditch-diggers, either, but at least you will not be misleading students any more.

P2: We have been removed from our jobs?

Corporal: You could say that.

P2: This is not fair. We must be allowed to speak to Tan Ge.

Corporal: You are even more foolish than I supposed. Whose orders do you think we are following?

P2: We are going to do hard labor?

Soldier 1: Only for a short time.

P4 (Lim): We have been sentenced without a trial?

Corporal: There is no need for a trial. It is obvious that you are enemies of the republic.

P4: We are supporters of the republic, trying to make it work.

P2: Yes! Working in harmony with Tan Ge to improve its workings.

P1 (aside): It works only for thieves

Soldier 2: Tan Ge does not need your help.

P4(despairingly transposes words of earlier question to the same notes): Freedom will not rescue us. Perhaps some day freedom will rescue our people, but freedom will not rescue us. Hope whispered falsely.

The four professors simulate digging.

P2: This is not proper use of our abilities.

S1: You are not worth a bullet.

P2: What do you mean?

Soldier 1 strangles him and the other soldiers strangle the others, then go through the pockets, taking whatever they find in them.

Corporal: Taiwanese vermin will learn from their example that they have Chinese masters now. There will be no more rebellion here for a very long time.

S2: Or even any complaints.

Scene Four, evening of 3/10/47

Tan Ge is seated. The Lieutenant enters and salutes. Tan returns the salute.

Lt. Our face has been restored. The impudent traitors have been rounded up and have disappeared from the face of the earth forever.

Tan: They made me look bad. They made our glorious republic look bad and must be eliminated. How can our great nation lose control of a small, insignificant island that the Japanese turned to a profit?

Lt: The rebel Taiwanese have disappeared from the earth forever, my commander. The Keelung River ran red with rebel Taiwanese blood and the harbor is full of their stinking corpses. The corpses of the communist traitors will never be found and buried. Their ghosts will wander, desolate for ever.

Tan: You have done well and are overdue for a promotion. It is regrettable that we had to ask Jiang for help. I do not like to be deeper in his debt. His bitch will make sure to collect by debt with thousandfold interest.

Lt: Better that than to lose control. There are riches still to be drained, and profits will revive.

Scene Five, later in the evening of 3/10/47

Siuhua enters. Sudin is hidden in shadows.

Siuhua: Sudin? Were are you?

Sudin (quietly): Over here. Are you sure no one followed you?

Siuhua: I was very careful and changed directions many times. It is a terrible time to be Taiwanese. Our people are being slaughtered—shot in the streets, dragged out of their homes, tortured, humiliated— Your professor was taken away by soldiers before I could warn him.

Sudin: Professor Lim! He was so sure the Chinese would respect his sincerity, that Tan Ge and Jiang Kaishek really wanted good government and the help of Taiwanese leaders.

Siuhua: You were right not to trust them, but that only increases your danger. You really must flee our homeland tonight.

Sudin: But what happened to Professor Lim?

Siuhua: The Chinese soldiers treated him like a violent criminal, bound his hands and feet and took him away at gunpoint.

Sudin: Professor Lim, violent! We should have taken all the weapons from the Chinese who were here before—

Siuhua: It would not have helped. Armed soldiers poured in, shooting as soon as they got off the boats. What could you have done about that?

Sudin: Shot each one who tried to disembark on our homeland!

Siuhua: Of, Sudin! Sometimes you are such a child! [pause] Yet now you are in such very real danger! Will I ever see you after tonight?

Sudin: Of course you’ll see me again. We will marry and roast the last mountain pig for the wedding guests. Then we will start manufacturing little Sudins and Siuhuas.

Siuhua: More childish bravado! Sometimes you are such a child—though Professor Lim was sillier still to trust the Chinese who must have killed him by now.

Sudin: Are you sure? Did you see them kill him?

Siuhua: No, but I saw him stumbling along, his arms twisted behind his back, his ankles hobbled, only able to take baby steps. I didn’t dare follow him, but I doubt he will ever come back.

Sudin: You believe they killed him?

Siuhua: Yes, as they’d murder you, if the could find you.

Sudin: They won’t find me!

Siuhua: Only a few hours and you’ll be out of their reach.

Sudin (sighing): Back under Japanese rule.

Siuhua: The Japanese treated us better and protected us more than the Chinese have.

Sudin: But the Japanese are ruled by Americans now.

Siuhua: It would be better if we were, too.

Sudin: If the Americans believed in the democracy their leaflets promised, they would have done something to aid us, they would have supported the reformers, at least, but they continue to supply Jiang and Tan. The Americans have forgotten what it is like, what they rebelled against when they were misruled colonies of the British.

Siuhua: That was very long ago. Now they carry locusts and put them in our rice bowls.

Sudin: Yes, despite what they said, they have supported restoring colonies in Asia to Europeans and connived in making Taiwan a colony of Jiang’s misrule. They have forgotten their foundation, the challenges to injustice they once made in their own behalf.

Siuhua: I hear something. We must hide and be quiet.

Sudin: Ah, the Taiwanese fate!

The move into shadow as a patrol passes, shining flashlights here and there. The patrol exits.

Siuhua: You must go to the boatmen now.

Sudin: I don’t want to leave you with these pigs rutting.

Siuhua: I don’t want them to kill you.

Sudin: I want to stay and resist.

Siuhua: You cannot resist here. To resist you must leave. If things don’t improve in a year, I’ll follow you.

Sudin: Promise?

Siuhua: I promise we’ll be rejoined, come what may.

Sudin: Tormented Taiwan, cursed to renewed Chinese tyranny.

Siuhua: Robbed, exploited, mistreated., still someday Taiwan will be free.

Sudin: You’re sure?

Siuhua: I’m sure. I only hope it will be sooner rather than later.

Scene Six, years later on Okinawa.

Sudin: We are still here. Our neighbors are able to decide their fate. Are we condemned to permanent exile? Is Taiwan condemned to eternal Chinese misrule? Are Taiwanese damned to eternal mistreatment?

Siuhua: Someday we shall return. Someday Taiwan will be free. Hope whispers we shall be free. Freedom will yet rescue Taiwan.

Sudin: What about us? Will we live to see a free Taiwan?

Siuhua: Defeated Japan has democracy now, why not Taiwan?

Sudin: Why never Taiwan? Why should we be after Japan? Japan was the enemy, not Taiwan, but the Americans helped Japan and gave Taiwan to the gangster pigs. Did not our ancestors flee China and the oppression of the Chinese? Why must Taiwan continue to swallow the bitterness of Chinese arrogance and incompetence?

Siuhua: You must keep on believing that freedom will come to our homeland.

Sudin: It is hard with the blood-sucking Jiangs and Soongs pretending to be emperors of the Middle Kingdom, but only able to extract tribute from Taiwan. America imposed them on us and now adds insult to injury by calling “Free China” part of a “free world.”

Siuhua: Taiwanese remain unfree, but not forever. Taiwanese persist. Taiwanese wait. Taiwanese persevere. Someday Taiwan will be free and our Taiwanese children will prosper.

Sudin: Only Taiwanese children born in exile. And what of those who murdered our brothers and sisters and teachers?

Siuhua: They will die badly, bleeding copiously from seven orifices.

Chorus: Freedom will yet rescue Taiwan. Someday we will be free.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

 

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New Park was rennamed 2-28 PeacePark

Also see American witness accounts here.

Black short fiction, 1899-1967

A book of 46 stories by as many authors is pretty certain to be uneven. Originally published in 1967 as The Best Short Stories by Negro Writers and retitled The Best Short Stories by Black Writers: The Classic Anthology from 1899-1967 includes some particularly good stories (some of them close to being parables) by more than a Who’s Who of African American writers active before the mid-1960s. It is easier to mention who is conspicuous by their absence than whose work editor Langston Hughes sampled: Claude McKay, Wallace Thurman, and Bruce Nugent — the latter two part of the Harlem Renaissance faction whose poet Hughes was. Not that any of those three produced many short stories, but Hughes detached stories from novels by some other writers (including “Fern” from Jean Toomer’s Cane, a highly regarded classic by which I am underwhelmed.

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I also would have chosen different stories by Harlem Renaissance writers Arna Bontemps, Rudolph Fisher, Zora Neale Hurston, and Eric Walrond. Nonetheless, the choice of a story by Hughes himself (“Thank you, ma’me”) is excellent, and there are good representative stories by the two authors of contenders for the title Great African American Novel Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison (“Almos’ a man” from Eight Men and “Flying Home,” respectively), one that much later became the title piece in the collection of short fiction and nonfiction pieces by the youngest Harlem Renaissance writer, Dorothy West (The Richer, the Poorer) and a pointedly ironic story about political machines and getting ahead by Paul Laurence Dunbar from around the turn of the 20th century (The scapegoat). The earliest one by Charles W. Chestnutt (The sheriff’s children) is at least pretty good.

I particularly liked two stories by authors of whom I had not previous heard: Ted Poston (Revolt of the evil fairies) and Cyrus Colter (The beach umbrella). About half the stories are by writers who must have appeared promising around 1965 but whose promise was not fulfilled.

I was underwhelmed by the two longest stories in the volume, both written by celebrated authors: James Baldwin (This morning, this evening, so soon) and Ernest J. Gaines (A long day in November) and one of the weakest of the many stories written by Chester Himes (Marihuana and a pistol).

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I was also disappointed by Hughes’s brief (5-page) and bland introduction, which does little more than say that black writing talent is abundant but support was and is not, particularly from Hollywood. My rating is brought down by the superficial introduction more than by the dubious choices of some now-forgotten authors and of the stories by some authors with whose work I am familiar. There are, nonetheless, a number of interesting stories (tastes will differ on which ones, I realize). The book has some interest as a historical artifact (not least as a survey of African American writers who were little-celebrated than and are forgotten now.)

The bio-blurbs at the back are helpful, but it is annoying that it is impossible to tell when most of the stories were first published (let alone written) and that there is no discernible order to the copyright notice listing of stories.

©2008, Stephen O. Murray

˙

 

Dorothy West’s belated The Wedding

Ralph Ellison’s attempt to “top” his much-heralded masterpiece Invisible Man was the most long-awaited African American novel, one that was never achieved, though some of the sprawling manuscript was posthumously published as Juneteenth.

The pressures on Dorothy West (1907-1998) were less intense. A few years before Invisible Man, she had published a well-reviewed novel (The Living Is Easy, 1948). She was, however, primarily a short-story writer, not a novelist, and not expected by anyone to grab for the brass ring of writing The Great American Novel.

Still, this woman who, having been the youngest of the Harlem Renaissance’s “niggerati” faction, had become the last survivor was known to have long been working on a multi-generation novel. The project was brought to fruition by a New York acquisition editor by the name of Jaqueline Kennedy Onnasis (to whose memory the book was dedicated when it was published in 1995). During the summers of 1992-94, “Jackie” worked with West on organizing the book on weekly visits to Martha’s Vineyard, where the novel is (mostly) set, and where West had moved in 1947.

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Confronted with a six-generation genealogical chart on the first page (a welcome one to which I turned many times in reading the novel!), I wondered how such a large cast of characters could be encompassed in a not particularly bulky volume. I mean, did the whole shelf of Faulkner novels encompass six generations?

Compared to Faulkner, West was short-winded. Her old-fashioned sentences sometimes bring Faulkner to mind, and I could imagine Faulkner expanding each of the chapters set in the 1855-1920 span in the South into full-length novels. He wrote great short stories, too, but wove his characters into a narrative far better than West.

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In The Wedding, the burdens of the past are being slogged around on the day before a wedding taking place in August 1953 in a black bourgeoisie enclave on Cape Cod called “the Oval.” The bride-to-be, Shelby Coles, is from the most prominent family within the black bourgeoisie able to summer on Martha’s Vineyard, and is wedding (of all things) a white jazz musician, instead of a light-skinned African American professional with proper family and income. She, “who could have had her pick of the best of breed in her own race,” is marrying “a nameless, faceless white man who wrote jazz.”

Skin shade is exceptionally prominent in the book and likely to strike many readers (and Shelby’s sister, Liz, who eloped and married a dark-skinned husband, producing children too dark for their grandmother to want to touch) as black self-hatred. “Black is beautiful” was a pronouncement still a decade and a half in the future, though I suspect that this obsession is more 1920s than 1950s—the era of Nella Larsen and Jean Toomer rather than that of Richard Wright (whose career West had helped launch) and James Baldwin.

Also, for those familiar with the 1920s battles between the “niggerati” writers who were West’s friends (Wallace Thurman, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes) and the political correct demands of W. E. B. DuBois to portray the “talented tenth,” there is considerable irony in West’s focus on the Negro establishment rather than the struggling, downtrodden folk about whom her Harlem Renaissance friends wrote. I don’t know that she changed sides, but the families she wrote about were definitely among the strivers rather than those who felt hopeless (the physician with a Harvard degree and a Harlem practice, even lived on what was popularly called “Striver’s Row”).

There is a present-day (that is, 1953) plot that is more than a little contrived, involving a confident would-be seducer of Shelby, and race and pigmentation positions of Liz and of their grandmother are exhaustively covered in the novel.

I found the soap opera attempts to dissuade Shelby from going through with the wedding less interesting than the chapters involving earlier generations (in the South, in Harlem, and on Martha’s Vineyard).

The male characters are not very well-developed, and I’d like to have learned what happened to several of the forebearers. The dialogue is often stilted and programmatic, too (the class and pigmentation programs of the characters). Moreover, the novel is difficult to get into and has a too-pat (double-barreled) ending. Still, there was much of interest about the upward path of Shelby’s ancestors and I was not sorry that I made the effort to stay with the book. (In contrast, I did not feel that Cane, my original choice for a Black History Month review, was worth the effort. My second choice, Claude McKay’s Banjo did not require much effort, but was also disappointing: Claude McKay all too aptly subtitled it “a story without a plot.” Portraying schemers and ne’re-do-wells, it was taken as an exemplar and validation for the “niggerati” writing about non-elite Negros.)

—-

There was a 1998 Oprah Winfrey-sponsored miniseries based on The Wedding, starring Hale Berry as Shelby and Lynn Whitfield as her mother (and Shirley Knight as her white grandmother, not exactly the frail ancient of the book!),. It was not critically or commercially successful.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray