Gayle Madwin (queerbychoice) wrote,
Gayle Madwin

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More Shopping

It's almost an act of cruelty to give me a $25 gift card to a bookstore for Christmas, because I can't possibly ever go book shopping without spending five times that much. So I put off attempting to use it until I had money, and today I finally went book shopping. Here is what I bought:
  • Sherman Alexie: Reservation Blues
  • Isak Dinesen: Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass (combined in one volume)
  • Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: Sister of My Heart
  • John Irving: A Son of the Circus
  • Barbara Kingsolver: The Poisonwood Bible
You can sort of tell that I started looking through the shelves in alphabetical order and then panicked halfway through the alphabet because I had too many books already. ;-) I did look through the second half of the alphabet too, but in a much quicker, more I-really-hope-I-don't-find-anything-I-want-here kind of way. I also picked up and looked at, but eventually put back on the shelf, a collection of short stories by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni in which one of the stories was about a woman from India who lived in Sacramento and was visiting her brother in Vermont. I saw Sacramento mentioned on the back cover of the book, so I flipped to that story and read it in the store. The woman said she hated Vermont and desperately wanted to go back to Sacramento, because in Sacramento no one stared at her salwar kameez (Indian clothes) like they were doing in Vermont. This made me suddenly inordinately proud of my city. Actually, maybe it should just make me very afraid of Vermont instead.

I recently finished reading another Sherman Alexie book, a short story collection titled Ten Little Indians, that was also given to me for Christmas. I read it before the American media suddenly got all worked up about the essay "Some People Push Back": On the Justice of Roosting Chickens by Ward Churchill, professor and Native American activist (Keetoowah Band Cherokee), about September 11th, but Sherman Alexie (also a Native American activist, Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian) addressed September 11th in his short stories in a way that caught my attention similarly. Sherman Alexie's approach to September 11th is a little less directly confrontational than Ward Churchill's, and probably less likely to inspire nearly so many people to want to kill him or take away his income (perhaps mainly because it's written as fiction and the statements are attributed to fictional characters rather than directly to the author), but I think it is just as thought-provoking - possibly more so because sometimes people are more willing to think if what you're saying doesn't fit so easily into their pre-existing stereotypes of "America-haters"). Alexie's short story "Flight Patterns" (in the book Ten Little Indians), a Spokane Indian man is on his way to the airport a while after September 11th. Alexie writes:
These days, in the airports, he loved to watch white people enduring random security checks. It was a perverse thrill, to be sure, but William couldn't help himself. He knew those white folks wanted to scream and rage: Do I look like a terrorist? And he knew the security officers, most often low-paid brown folks, wanted to scream back: Define terror, you Anglo bastard! William figured he'd been pulled over for pat-down searches about 75 percent of the time. Random, my ass! But that was okay! William might have wanted to irritate other people, but he didn't want to scare them. He wanted his fellow travelers to know exactly who and what he was: I am a Native American and therefore have ten thousand more reasons to terrorize the U.S. than any of those Taliban jerk-offs, but I have chosen instead to become a civic American citizen, so all of you white folks should be celebrating my kindness and moral decency and awesome ability to forgive! Maybe William should have worn beaded vests when he traveled. Maybe he should have brought a hand drum and sang, "Way, ya, way, ya, hey." Maybe he should have thrown casino chips into the crowd.
In a different short story called "Can I Get a Witness?" from the same book, Sherman Alexie writes about a middle-aged Spokane Indian woman who gets caught in a (fictional) suicide bombing in a restaurant in Seattle a few years after September 11th. The suicide bomber is "a Syrian American born in Seattle and raised in upper-class comfort by his Muslim father and Catholic mother. . . . The FBI and the local police would investigate the suicide bomber for a year but would find no evidence that he'd engaged in or espoused terrorist activity or philosophy. They'd find no one who had ever heard the man express an anti-American sentiment. He was a registered and consistent voter who preferred moderate Democrats but whose best friend was a Republican fund-raiser. Over the last five years, the bomber had made equal monetary contributions to Israeli and Palestinian charities. Exactly equal, right down to the penny." The woman who is the main character survives the suicide bombing unhurt, but 42 people in and around the restaurant she's in are killed, and another 78 or more are injured. Badly shaken, she starts talking to a random recently divorced white man outside the restaurant and asks him to take her to his home, which he does. She's married and has two sons, but she hates them anyway and something about her fright from the bombing leads her to toy with the idea of having sex with this random guy. He acknowledges having felt a brief flicker of desire to have sex with her too, but it was fleeting, and all in all he's pretty clear about the fact that it would be a bad idea, so they don't have sex. Instead, they start talking, and the conversation soon turns to September 11th:
"You know," she said, "I don't think everybody who died in the towers was innocent."

"Who are you?" he asked. "Osama's press agent?"

"Those towers were filled with bankers and stockbrokers and lawyers. How honest do you think they were?"

"They didn't deserve to die."

"Think about it. Maybe they did deserve to die. Open your mind. . . . Let's say twelve hundred men died that day. How many of those guys were cheating on their wives? A few hundred, probably. How many of them were beating their kids? One hundred more, right? Don't you think one of those bastards was raping his kids? Don't you think, somewhere in the towers, there was an evil bastard who sneaked into his daughter's bedroom at night and raped her in the ass?"

He couldn't believe she was doing this math, this moral addition and subtraction, this terrible algebra. He wondered if God would kill thousands of good people in order to destroy one monster. He wondered if he was a monster, making the games he made [violent computer games involving shooting terrorists and/or being a terrorist] and earning the money he earned. . . . "I'm not some wimpy liberal or anything," he said. "I believe in capital punishment. I believe in the necessity of war. But I don't think anybody deserves to die."

"You're contradicting yourself."

. . .

He stood and walked around the room. He wondered if he was supposed to ignore this woman. Maybe that was the lesson he was supposed to learn. Words were dangerous. His nouns and verbs had destroyed his marriage and created a [computer] game that mocked the dead. Her story seemed more potentially destructive than any bomb or game he could create.

"Are you going to listen to me?" she asked.

"Talk," he said.

"All right, all right," she said. "Didn't you get sick of all the news about the World Trade Center? Didn't you get exhausted by all the stories and TV shows and sad faces and politicians and memorials and books? It was awful and obscene, all of it, it was grief porn."

"I got so tired of it, I picked up my TV, carried it down the stairs, and threw it in the Dumpster."

"That's exactly what you should have done. I wished I could do it. But my husband and sons - they're twins, they're both sixteen - watched that garbage every day. My husband put U.S. flags in every window of our house. What kind of Indians put twenty-two flags in their windows?"

Her husband had been a champion powwow fancydancer when she'd met him, a skinny, beautiful, feminine boy who moved in feathered circles, but he'd become a tired grunting old man. And a patriot! He'd already talked the twins into joining the marines when they graduated from high school.

"Hey, Ma," they'd said in their dual grating voices. "The marines will pay for college. Isn't that great?"

Jesus, she was raising two wanna-be marines. How could any Indian put on a U.S. military uniform and not die of toxic irony? Hell, she hadn't let her boys play with toy guns when they were little, and now her husband took them on three hunting trips a year. she lived in a house with deer antlers mounted on the walls. Antlers and flags! Antlers and flags! Men have walked on the moon and written Hamlet and painted the Sistine Chapel and played the piano like Glenn Gould, she thought, and other men still have the need to hang antlers and flags on their walls. She wondered why anybody was surprised when men crashed jets into buildings.

"Nobody is innocent, right?" she said. "Isn't that what all of the holy books say? We're all sinners? But after the Trade Center, it was all about the innocent victims, and I kept thinking - I knew one of those guys in the towers was raping his daughter. Raping her. Maybe he was raping his son, too. And beating his wife. I think about that morning, and I wonder if the bastard was smiling when he hopped on a train for work. I think about his daughter and son sitting in some generic and heartless suburban classroom, just sad and broken and dying inside. That bastard gets off the train and walks up to his office on the hundred and seventh floor or something, and everybody loves him there. He's a hero at work. And Mr. Hero is sitting at his desk, smiling and being heroic, when that airplane flies straight into his office. Flies right through the window and obliterates him, completely disappears him. And the news travels, right? The wife turns on the television and sees the towers burning, and the teachers wheel televisions into the classrooms, and the son and daughter watch the towers burning. The wife and kids count the floors, right? They count all the way up to the hundred and seventh floor, and they see it burning, and they're happy, right? They're hopeful, right? Aren't they hopeful? Then the first tower comes down. Both towers come down. and the wife is jumping up and down at home. She's celebrating. But the kids have to stay calm, because they're in public, you know, but inside they're jumping up and down like their mom. They run home, and all three of them sit in the living room together and watch the news, and they wait. Yeah, they wait for him to come home. The news is talking about survivors, right? About the people who made it out. And the wife and kids are praying to God he died. That he burned to death or jumped out a window or was running down the stairs when the tower fell. They sit in the living room for three days, waiting for him to come home, and then they wait for three more days, waiting for him to come home, and on the seventh day, they realize he isn't coming home. He's dead and they're happy. The monster is gone and they're celebrating. They dance around the living room and sing songs and dance dances and they're happy. Don't you think all of this is possible? Don't you think there was at least one man in the towers who deserved to die? Don't you think there's a wife and kids who are happy he died? Don't you think there's some daughter walking around who whispers Osama's name with tenderness and affection? Don't you think there's a wife out there who thanks God or Allah or the devil for Osama's rage?"
I know this could be explained better than I'm explaining it here - an entire essay could be written called something like "Native American Writings About September 11th: A Comparison of Ward Churchill's and Sherman Alexie's Approaches" - but I'm figuring that by reading these excerpts from Alexie's work and the essay by Churchill that I linked to, you can pretty much see the trends for yourself. CounterPunch tells me that even the Common Dreams website is eagerly condemning Ward Churchill's essay. It's an easy essay to condemn; it's not as clear as it could be, at least in the beginning, about the fact that saying that by the U.S. government's own logic of war, Al Qaeda's attack was only fair play does not mean that the U.S. government's own logic of war is a great or morally acceptable role model to follow. But I think the fact that Ward Churchill is specifically a Native American writer/activist/professor/human is being strategically glossed over and obscured in the media's outrage. Yes, most articles do mention that he's a professor of "Ethnic Studies," and some of them also mention - once, briefly, as though it were no more relevant to issue at hand than a brief description of his personal appearance as being, say, tall and broad-shouldered - that his specific personal ethnicity happens to be Native American. But to the extent that his ethnicity is recognized as possibly having anything vaguely to do with his opinions of September 11th at all, the concept of him seems to be as merely a generic brown-skinned person, some random nonwhite something-or-other who should be suspected of excessive sympathy to Al Qaeda because funny-colored people and especially ones who are professors of Ethnic Studies just have this random mental block that causes them to always take sides with anybody who isn't white against anybody who is (never mind that plenty of the people killed in the WTC were not white either; in the fictionalized image of them in the American mass media imagination, they've been transformed into uniformly white victims). There's absolutely zero public recognition of anything like what the character of William in Sherman Alexie's story said: that considering how much even huger of a genocide was committed by the U.S. government against Ward Churchill's ancestors/culture/ethnicity than even against Iraq (which is awfully huge in itself), and considering that whereas Al Qaeda sought revenge by mass murder, Ward Churchill has done nothing more violent than to write an angry essay that a lot of people don't like, why don't you try just shutting up and being grateful that he only expresses his anger in essay writing instead of with box cutters?
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