Thursday, 11 October 2018
The Voice of the Woman in South African Poetry by Walter Kefuoe Chakela - Re-Markings September 2018
Clutching the Knife on the Cutting Edge:
The Voice of the Woman in South African Poetry
Walter Kefuoe Chakela
South African literature comes from a history of a multiplicity of voices, reflecting the reality of our various human experiences. Some voices sang the praises of our landscape, sunny and aesthetically enchanting to those who beheld it. The Buffalo, antelope, springbok, and the crocodile were the main beings that populated the imagination of creators of this literature. Then there were other voices, no less appreciative of the beauty of our land but more concerned about the human tragedy playing out in this space, ugly and beastly. This demanded the urgent attention of the writer because, in the words of the Ghanain woman of letters, Ama Ata Aido, "there was no sweetness here." This concern elicited other voices, steeped in agony and pain and constrained to sing a more melancholy song bemoaning the country's vexatious human rights culture of racial abuse and apartheid brutality. Let us consider for a bit the poetry of Adelaide Charles Dube, relative of the founding president of the African National Congress:
How beautiful are thy hills and thy dales!
I love thy very atmosphere so sweet,
Thy trees adorn the landscape rough and steep
No other country in the whole world
could with thee compare.
It is here where our noble ancestors
Experienced the joys of dear ones and of home
Where great and glorious kingdoms rose and fell
Where blood was shed to save thee, thou
dearest land ever known.
But alas! Their efforts were all in vain
For today others claim thee as their own;
No longer can their offspring cherish thee
No land to call their own – outcasts
in their own country!
This poem was published in Ilanga lase Natal, a newspaper in Natal, on 31 October, 1913. This was a year after the formation of the African National Congress and the same year that saw the passage of the Land and Trust Act, dispossessing black people of their land. The type of English used clearly shows that the poet was influenced by a strong colonial education at the turn of the twentieth century. But despite this, the education did not tattoo her sensibility to quell her resistance to English hegemony.
We must also note that this was the period in which the land question, in this country, attracted the radical attention from writers, in particular from the most articulate of them all, Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje. Plaatje's seminal exposition in his book, Native Life in South Africa, blew the machinations of the colonial government sky high and mobilised the intellectual class, firmly behind the resistance to land dispossession. Women writers were also part of this movement, and wielded agitated pens in articulating their opposition to this evil Act. Plaatje's daughter, a few years after his death, wrote the poem:
His pen he wielded forcibly
His weapon always was the press
Speaking from public platforms too
The people to address
And though his earnings were but scant
Strife won him fame and reward
For here was one devoid of wealth
But buried like a lord.
We must note that this period in South African literary history was dominated by robust and colourfully descriptive prose. Poetry tended also to take its cue from this trend and produce epic pieces of descriptive verse, as in the case of A.C. Dube. Famous personalities such as Tiyo Soga, very easily the poet laureate of the country at this time, bestrode the literary space like the giants they were. Many younger scribes modelled themselves like them. The poet, Tiyo Soga, had such a profound impact on the young Nelson Mandela that he set the young man on a course to a life as a freedom fighter. Our woman poets were also to be swept off their aesthetic feet by this giant of a poet.
Many illustrious female poets emerged and populated the literary landscape to enchanting effect. Whilst they wrote from their own perspective, the overriding impulse was to add their voices to the struggle against colonialism and apartheid. They were critical of the posture the men folk adopted at times and argued that a stronger stand should be assumed. But, of course, patriarchy was very strong amongst the men. A view persisted that it was the responsibility of the men to protect the women. However, the traditional family ties were brutally dismantled by the colonial regime which left the women vulnerable to racism whilst the men were away, working in the mines and the cities. So, protecting the women was more out of mere sentiment than hard reality.
The next 20 years saw the South African government becoming very desperate to clamp down the opposition to its race policies and the notorious Land and Trust Act of 1913. Meanwhile, Sol Plaatje and his colleagues embarked on an international campain to promote awareness of the inequities of the Act. They spent inordinate amounts of time in England, addressing churches, civil society formations, academics, journalists, and political figures of all hues. This meant that they were away from their families for long periods of time. This absence was very hard on their families, especially their wives, who had to get by without the support of their men folk. This dynamic manifested in the literature of the woman writers of the time.
Gender politics and the female aesthetics took a dramatic turn in the 1950s. The women were gradually becoming impatient with their role of being supportive to the men and sought a more active and radical role for themselves. To add to their frustrations, the government introduced the hated pass system which hitherto only applied to men. Now the women had to carry passes and had to produce them on request by the police. This was the last straw for the women. Thus, a march to Pretoria, the capital city of South Africa, was quietly conceptualised by progressive women of this country. Women leaders such as Lillian Ngoyi, Winnie Mandela, Ruth Mompati, were some of the prominent leaders at the helm of the campaign. The march made a dramatic arrival at the office of Malan, the then Prime Minister of South Africa. They demanded to see Malan but, conveniently, he was not around to receive their petition. They left the document with an underling instead. They had made their point and Malan ran for cover like a coward. A song was composed, apparently by Winnie Mandela, which had the lines, "You strike a woman, you strike a rock!" Up to this day, gatherings of the women of South Africa use this as a rallying anthem.
Literature produced after this historic event is notably cognizant of its import and therefore reference it perennially. The movement, the African National Congress, is undergoing ideological re-considerations destined to affect its fortunes for several decades. The armed struggle was seriously debated. Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, radically reviewed the wisdom of pursuing a peaceful struggle in the face of a government that responded with unconscionable state violence. The beginning of the process leading to the birth of the military wing of the ANC, Umkhoto we Sizwe, the spear of the nation, was underway.
Their adoption of the armed struggle inspired militancy not only in the male members of the ANC but also among the female constituency of this liberation movement. After all, the historic march to Pretoria served as a dress rehearsal for women cadres of the movement to assume a more confrontational posture against apartheid. This attitude was also manifested in the arts. Poets constituted an important component of the anti-apartheid struggle. People felt a compulsive need to assert an identity as self-defined, not as defined by the advocates of apartheid.
This was an era of a different black person, not one subservient to white supremacy. Bessie Head epitomised this generation of writers with her poem, "I am black, OK?" This poem, appeared in Bessie Head's papers, kept in Rhodes University, in Grahamstown.
I Am Black
I am Black.
Hot sun and the geographical set-up
Made me Black;
And through my skin
A lot of things happen to me
THAT I DON'T LIKE
And I wake each morning
Red murder in my eyes
'Cause some crook's robbed me again,
Taken what little I had right out of my hands
With the whole world standing by
And doing nothing...
Today is my day.
Going to get back tit-for-tat,
All you stole.
Going to fight you till you or I
Lie smashed and bleeding dead
And don't care who dies, You or I,
But going to fight -
Bessie Head wrote this poem in the Pan Africanist and early black consciousness period. This was towards the end of the fifties and early sixties. By March 1960, the apartheid government became very desperate to clamp down on black resistance. There was a brutal massacre of black people who resisted the pass laws of the White government. 69 people were gunned down in Sharpville, about 70 kilometres from Johannesburg. The brutal repression also happened in Cape Town where large number of people were killed or maimed. This period also found expression in the literature of the country. One notable example, significant because it provoked the poetic reaction of a young Afrikaner writer, was Igrid Jonker. The poem regained traction when Nelson Mandela was inaugurated on the 10th of May, 1994. He quoted the poem, written in 1960, in reaction to the Sharpville massacre:
The child is present
At all assemblies and lawgiving
The child peers
Through the windows of houses
And into the hearts of mothers
Who only wanted to play in the sun at Nyanga
The child is not dead
Not at Langa
Nor at the police post at Philip
Where he lies with a bullet
Through his brain....
(President Nelson Mandela's inauguration speech, 10 May 1994).
This Ingrid Jonker poem bore significance to the Mandela strategy and philosophy of national reconciliation. The basic tenet of this philosophy was to demonstrate to the white population that, although, for decades, they returned an inhuman government to power, they were not basically inhuman. The Ingrid Honker poem clearly showed the potential for human compassion that is intrinsic to the Afrikaner. We are years after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and it is still debatable if we have advanced any further on inculcating Mandela's philosophy.
A generation of women freedom fighters were accepted by the high command of the liberation movement by the mid-sixties. In the beginning, these female cadres were confined to the administrative duties of the ANC in exile. But by the end of the sixties, a trickling of cadres was allowed to undergo full military training. Sankie Nkondo was one such poet-soldier to actively bear arms and operate in the military front as a trained soldier of Umkhoto we Sizwe. This poem serves to give a clear indication of her state of mind as a poet and a soldier:
The soldier poet shall sing songs
of praise and dire providence
for those who stand up to be counted
on the chart of honour and national pride
against the margins of mirth and morass
the poet is to groom the blooming flower
and trim the sprouting hedge and weeds
around the tomb the soldier patriots.
(Flames of Fury, Cosaw Publishers).
Sankie Nkondo testifies, in this poem, to the determination of the woman 'to clutch the knife on the cutting edge'. She could be waxing poetic about Winnie Mandela, Albertinah Sisulu, Lillian Ngoyi and many other brave women who bore the brunt of the apartheìd system.
1960s were very costly in terms of life and liberty to the liberation movements. The ANC, PAC, or the Black Consciousness Movement, all suffered from the brutal suppression unleashed by the apartheid system. The poetry written in this period is thematic of this.
Ruth First, a white intellectual and wife of Joe Slovo of the South African communist party, was one of the casualties of state assassination in exile. She was a Professor, teaching in neighboring Mozambique. She was sent a parcel bomb by the security police. She was dramatically blown to pieces! Sankie Nkondo wrote this poem in reaction:
Ruth's firm fingers held the spear in the middle of the
storm amid sinuous zones and obstinate quarters
her heels dug deep and rough and held on nonchalantly
with an adroitness and a foresight
Superior to that of the insipid enemy
fought for justice and equality
and who can deny that she becomes
the revolutions password and reality
and out there in Matola her spear
thrust and lies buried for someone
to pick it up and sharpen it to...
Koebergs foundations shall yet rumble
Ruth lives her name in struggle
since the arena dance beat is on
and the immortal communion is held
in the ceremony of grief for her.
(Flames of Fury, Cosaw Publishers).
Ruth First is celebrated as a heroine in South Africa by both black and white activists. In fact, there are many children in the country named Ruth First.
The present period, after the euphoria and honeymoon of Uhuru, is one of sober analysis of reality. Once the nation was quite prepared to grant the government the benefit of the doubt, where some mistakes were made, today people insist that this can no longer be the case. People take serious umbrage where issues of service delivery are concerned. Strikes are again a regular sight on the streets of the country. Politicians have a very hard time sustaining their credibility, especially now, three years after the death of President Nelson Mandela. The literature of the time once again bears testimony to this fact. Vangi Gantsho is a young poet whose work has woken all of us from our complacency. She uses language that is stripped of the trappings of political correctness, and plainly communicates her anger and disappointment with the Democratic government:
I Expect More From You
Because my father fought
Instead of spending time with us
he lay on cement floors
He forced my mother up and down
from prisons to hospitals to prisons
baby on back
searching for him
because of you
my mother nursed, sold, sewed
when he couldn’t work for us
because he worked for you
I expect more from you.
Poetry in South Africa, currently or back in history, has always been created from a range of social and political issues. in fact, South African literature is a good barometer of the social and political health of the nation. Poetry in particular, is more vibrant with social and political issues as compared to other genres. Thus, many young poets, choose poetry to express their views on contemporary South Africa.
· Walter Kefuoe Chakela is a practicing playwright, poet, theatre director and television producer. He is also President of the National Writers Association of South Africa. His footprint in literature and cultural exchanges extends continentally in Africa, Europe, America and Japan. He has over the years, contributed towards understanding the African aesthetics, and made every effort to draw attention to it, both on the continent and internationally. His poems were featured in the Re-Markings’ Special Number November 2017, A World Assembly of Poets.
Re-Markings Vol 17 No.3 September 2018 pp.15-21
Copyright: Nibir K. Ghosh 2018
Friday, 21 September 2018
‘Buddhism - Creative and Spiritual Gift’:
A Conversation with Charles Johnson
Nibir K. Ghosh
Dr. Charles Johnson, University of Washington (Seattle) professor emeritus and the author of 23 books, is a novelist, philosopher, essayist, literary scholar, short-story writer, cartoonist and illustrator, an author of children’s literature, and a screen-and-teleplay writer. A MacArthur fellow, Johnson has received a 2002 American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Literature, a 1990 National Book Award for his novel Middle Passage, a 1985 Writers Guild award for his PBS teleplay “Booker,” the 2016 W.E.B. Du Bois Award at the National Black Writers Conference, and many other awards. The Charles Johnson Society at the American Literature Association was founded in 2003. In November, 2016, Pegasus Theater in Chicago debuted its play adaptation of Middle Passage, titled “Rutherford’s Travels.” His most recent publications are The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling, and his fourth short story collection, Night Hawks. He has adorned the Editorial Advisory Board of Re-Markings since its inception in March 2002. The November 2017 Special Number of the journal – A World Assembly of Poets – that carried the following endorsement reflects his faith in the transformative potential of art: “For sixteen years Re-Markings has been an important journal of international literature and culture with an ever-expanding critical range and creative reach. This new, special issue devoted exclusively to the world's best poetry proves that it is a visionary publication crucial for understanding the complexity of our world, our humanity, and our lives at this watershed moment in the 21st century.” The current conversation emerged out of Dr. Johnson’s recent India visit wherein we spent quality time together, at both Nalanda and Agra, talking of issues seminal to his engagement with Buddhism as a writer, philosopher and practitioner.
Ghosh: Many years ago, during one of our conversations in Seattle, you had remarked, “I often dream, naturally, of India – its beauty, antiquity, breath-taking art and remarkable people, the peace I feel instantly when my mind drifts to the Buddhist Dharma or Hinduism, that great democracy of Being.” Please recount your most significant thoughts and emotions in visiting the land you dreamt of.
Johnson: I have so many thoughts and so much to say about the remarkable three weeks writer Sharyn Skeeter and I experienced as we moved across northern and southern India, lecturing, reading poetry and fiction, speaking with students at 9 universities, and visiting incredible Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh sights. You, Nibir, and your wonderful wife Sunita, provided us with highpoints for our time at Nalanda University and in Agra. My thoughts and feelings are too much for me to fully describe in this space – I’m still processing that India journey I dreamed of making since my teens – but perhaps at some point I’ll describe these thoughts and feelings in an essay.
Ghosh: Before your recent India visit, you were enamored by the precepts of Buddhism, its numerous sutras, its meditational practices. How did you feel being on the very spot (under the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya) where the Buddha found enlightenment?
Johnson: That experience is one that deeply and powerfully affected me. We meditated at Bodh Gaya, a kind of Mecca for Buddhists from all over the world, a place we Buddhists dream of visiting during our lifetimes. How do I feel after this experience? I feel that one of the truly important and transformative dreams of my life has been fulfilled.
Ghosh: What impressions would you like to share of your visit to the ruins of the ancient Buddhist University at Nalanda?
Johnson: I am still moved by the beauty and antiquity of those ruins, which I moved through with mindfulness, almost feeling as if I could imagine what a spiritually vibrant and vital place it was so very long ago. Our guide was superb, explaining everything we saw, and said he felt he was a student at the original Nalanda in a previous life. He was certainly someone who explains the Nalanda ruins eloquently in this life.
Ghosh: Lecturing and participating in a Buddhist conference at Nalanda must have been a unique experience for you. Could you please share some of the salient parts of that experience?
Johnson: Lecturing at Nalanda was for me a great honor. And what I remember most is the kindness and generosity of the Buddhist practitioners I met there. I feel both humbled and privileged to have been able to share that space and time with them.
Ghosh: You have been a student of philosophy. What initiated you to Buddhism as a philosophy and when?
Johnson: I first became interested in Buddhism and the practice of meditation when I was 14-years-old and was reading one of my mother’s books on yoga, which had a chapter on meditation. So I followed the chapter’s instructions, and what I experienced was the most incredible thirty minutes of my life. I realized I’d stumbled onto something powerful. But at that age I didn’t have a teacher. So rather than sit in meditation again I studied everything I could find related to Buddhism and Hinduism and Taoism during my undergraduate years. I took courses, then seminars in graduate school, approaching Buddhism through systematic, academic study until 1980 when I found the teachers I needed and began the regular practice of meditation. Ten years ago, I took my formal vows as a lay Buddhist or upasaka in the Soto Zen tradition with mendicant monk Claude AnShin Thomas and his assistant (now an ordained nun) KenShin.
Ghosh: What do you consider to be the most significant aspect of Buddha’s life?
Johnson: There are several important points in Shakyamuni’s biography – first when he sees the Four Signs of old age, sickness, death, and a wandering holy man who appears to have come to terms with the impermanence of all things. Another major point, of course, is when his quest leads him to an awakening in which he tracks down and overcomes ahamkara, the I-maker in all of us, i.e., the illusion of an enduring, substantive identity and the selfish ego that leads to so much suffering.
Ghosh: Did the life of the Buddha exert any influence on your personality and growth as a person?
Johnson: Yes, very much so from my teens. Back then, in the early ‘60s, whenever I encountered anything related to Buddhadharma – zenga or Zen paintings, poems, sutras, or stories about the Buddha – I felt as if somehow I’d once known this wisdom and somehow forgotten it. It seemed that right and perfect to me. When I experienced desire for material things, something in me – provided by an early exposure to Buddhism – would make me stop and ask myself, “Why do you desire that? Why do you think that will make you happy? Shouldn’t you be thinking instead of making someone else happy rather than chasing selfish desires conditioned in you by society? Instead of desiring things, wouldn’t non-attachment and helping others make you feel freer and happier?”
Ghosh: What led you to become a practicing Buddhist?
Johnson: An early in my life fatigue with American materialism, consumerism, and the emphasis this culture or society places on constantly having and getting, and chasing external things we’re told from childhood to desire – as if saying to us that we are incomplete (and not already whole, as we are) without these things. I was more interested in creating art, which is a form of giving – a way of giving creative and spiritual gift to others.
Ghosh: As a fiction writer, how would you respond to Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha?
Johnson: I’ve already responded to it, as a black American writer, in my 1982 novel Oxherding Tale.
Ghosh: You state in Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing that the greatest challenge before the African American writer is to create and sustain a “black culture that nurtures a passion for knowledge for its own sake.” In your own writings how have you dealt with the challenge you refer to?
Johnson: As I once told my students at the University of Washington, when I write or read a novel or story, I want three things: To laugh. To cry. And to learn something I didn’t know before.
Ghosh: You mention in the “Preface” to Turning the Wheel that you consider the Buddhist Dharma as the most revolutionary and civilized of possible human choices, as the logical extension of King's dream of the "beloved community" and Du Bois' "vision of what the world could be if it was really a beautiful world." Could you please elaborate how the visions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Du Bois reflect the way chosen by the Buddha?
Johnson: In his beautiful 1926 essay “Criteria of Negro Art,” Du Bois counsels us against chasing after the tawdry, materialistic baubles of the white American, against seeing those things as the goals black Americans should strive for when we win our freedom – fancy cars, expensive clothes and meals, owning large amounts of property (estates), and belonging to elite social clubs. King, of course, urged black Americans to understand the importance of non-violence as a way of life, integration (or inter-being, as Thich Nhat Hahn would say) as being the life’s blood of Being, and loving others in terms of agape. These themes are very consistent with Buddhist teachings, which are non-materialistic, non-violent, and non-dualistic. Teachings that encourage metta or loving-kindness toward others and toward ourselves.
Ghosh: In your essay “Why Buddhism for Black America Now?” you say, “The historical and present-day suffering experienced by black Americans creates a natural doorway into the Dharma.” Would it would be right to infer that to the black Americans, the Dharma came as a natural alternative to their disillusionment with Communism, Christianity and the Nation of Islam?
Johnson: Yes, I think you can say that about some black American Buddhists, though certainly not all of us. Jan Willis, for example, describes herself as a “Baptist-Buddhist,” and says that Buddhist practices make it easier for her to realize Christian ideals – for example, of loving others.
Ghosh: When one refers to “Black Buddhism” and “White Buddhism” in academic and social discourse, are we talking of racial segregation in America?
Johnson: No, I don’t think so. In the Dharma there is no north and south, as Hui-neng the sixth patriarch of Zen once said. There is no black and white. No east or west. We all have Buddha-nature.
Ghosh: How would you respond to the 2007 documentary film The Dhamma Brothers by Jenny Phillips?
Johnson: I would respond by saying it is an important film that makes clear the value of mindfulness training for everyone, even people who are incarcerated.
Ghosh: The Dhamma Brothers shows the efficacy of Vipassana meditation in helping prison inmates come to terms with the inner turmoil resulting out of their past actions. In what way can such spiritual and meditative exercise effect the lives of those African Americans who are born free but remain chained by poverty, inequality, disease and subtler forms of segregation?
Johnson: Spiritual and meditative practices in the Buddhadharma allow us to take control of our lives at their source – the mind. Everything we experience begins there, in the mind, in consciousness. And once the mind has become our servant, we are better prepared to deal with anything external that comes our way. And we do so in a spirit of freedom, with personal agency, with ahimsa, or harmlessness toward other sentient beings, and with metta or loving-kindness.
Ghosh: In one of your talks you stated that “despite its inherent unclarity, race is easily the most democratic of all possible subjects.” Could you please elaborate?
Johnson: What I meant is that we apply it to everything, as an explanation for everything in the social world. We really do ask more from the concept of “race” than it can meaningfully provide.
Ghosh: In your essay entitled “Every Twenty-Eight Hours: The Case of Trayvon Martin” from the collection Taming the Ox, you make a rather sad statement: “We rightly feel anger over all the Trayvons murdered billions of times every day by toxic perceptions and conceptions in the white mind, and then, tragically murdered every twenty-eight hours for real.” How, according to you, should black intellectuals, philosophers, writers and academics address such challenges to cleanse the “toxic perceptions and conceptions in the white mind”?
Johnson: We can begin by emphasizing the importance of epistemo-logical humility, by which I mean teaching others that our knowledge about most things, and especially other people, must by necessity be partial, incomplete, provisional, and subject to revision based on new evidence.
Ghosh: What method should be adopted to emphasize the significance of 'epistemological humility' to a community that is convinced of gross racial injustice as reflected in cases like Rodney King and Trayvon Martin?
Johnson: Epistemology is about theory of knowledge. If we know – have evidence – that a gross injustice was committed against Trayvon Martin, then we hold the person responsible for that accountable.
Ghosh: In your insightful essay, "Why Buddhism for Black America Now," you affirm that the "Dharma of Buddhism" could go a long way in addressing the issue of young black males caught up in "gangs, despair, fatherlessness, drugs, prison, anti-intellectualism, and anti-social behavior by the time they are eight years old." Who do you think would be willing to undertake the responsibility to transform such individuals or collectives in the manner shown by the Enlightened One?
Johnson: Let’s start with responsible black fathers being there, day in and day out, in the lives of the children we bring into the world.
Ghosh: Under the inspiring leadership of Dr. Ambedkar, millions of Dalits in India have converted themselves to the Buddhist faith. Do you foresee, in the near or distant future, any mass conversion to Buddhism by blacks in America?
Johnson: No, I do not foresee mass conversions, but instead a steady trickle of black Americans who find the Buddhist way of life perfect for themselves.
Ghosh: Your brilliant and lucid rendering of your friendship with August Wilson in the story “Night Hawks” reminded me of the quality time Sunita and I spent with you and August Wilson at the Broadway Grill way back in November 2003. I can’t thank you enough for arranging the said unforgettable meeting. Here I would like to refer to a statement made by August Wilson in the above story: “Nothing we’ve done changes or improves the situation of black people. We’re still powerless and disrespected every day—by everyone and ourselves. People still think black men are violent and lazy and stupid. They see you and me as the exceptions, not the rule.” If you were to respond to August’s view of the social impotence of art, what would you like to tell him from your own experience and learning?
Johnson: I think for both of us the love of beauty significantly changed our lives for the better, as did being completely immersed in the creative process for so much of our lives.
Ghosh: Going by Wilson's words, the commitment of a writer must go beyond personal gratification and include a sense of social responsibility. What is your take on this?
Johnson: Nibir, I think you should look very carefully at how you've presented this question. It's loaded with assumptions. For example, why do you reduce the love of beauty to "personal gratification," and then dismiss it as of less importance than "social responsibility"? The love and creation of artistic beauty (as well as goodness and truth) in art is a gift to others that enriches their lives. That is the artist's social responsibility. But let me ask YOU a question: Why is it that we never hear black American writers talking about beauty? Or the love of beauty? For example, Ishmael Reed titles one of his books of essays, "Writin' is Fightin'." Stanley Crouch's first essay collection is titled, "Notes From a Hanging Judge," i.e., notes from an executioner. And in a message to a poet friend of mine, John Edgar Wideman said to her, "Stay Strong in the Struggle." Is that how YOU see black literary art? As only a call to battle?
Ghosh: In a passage in your story, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," you speak about your anxiety regarding living up to the expectations of your parents. Can you kindly share what you had in mind?
Johnson: Oh – What I'm saying is that my great concern in my youth was that I never wanted to fail or let down my parents because of all the important sacrifices they made for me and their support throughout my young life.
Ghosh: I wonder why you never tried your hand at writing poetry. Your visit to the Taj must have inspired you to compose your first poem.
Johnson: When I was an undergraduate I experimented with all kinds of things. (I was willing to try almost anything once before the age of 20.) That included writing poems almost daily for a while. I wrote 80 very bad poems. They rhymed. They were full of the angst of someone in his late teens, too full of raging hormones and loneliness. They were "romantic" in the worst sense. Back then, I hadn't studied poetry and I just didn't know what I was doing or the possibilities for well-wrought poetic forms of expression. If I wrote a poem about the Taj, which seemed so supernatural and otherworldly to me, I doubt that I could do it justice. Poets think differently – have a different "cognitive style" – from prose writers. It's a way of thinking, seeing, feeling that I fear I've never cultivated or have much talent for.
But I love and appreciate great poetry – and I memorize the ones I truly love, from Western poets and lines from the Gita. But I surrendered long ago to the sad reality that when it comes to the arts based on language, I'm most likely fated to be a boring prose person and not a poet.
Ghosh: You have adorned the Advisory Board of Re-Markings and enriched it with your valuable contributions. What message would you like to share with its readers and contributors?
Johnson: The message I would share is: Read and support in any way you can this fine publication and the people who work so selflessly to bring out every issue.
Ghosh: Thank you so much, Dr. Johnson.
· Dr. Nibir K. Ghosh, former Head, Department of English Studies & Research, Agra College, Agra is UGC Professor Emeritus. He has been a Senior Fulbright Fellow at the University of Washington, Seattle, USA during 2003-04. An eminent scholar and critic of American, British and Postcolonial literatures, he is Author/Editor of 14 widely acclaimed books and has published over 170 articles and scholarly essays on various political, socio-cultural and feminist issues in prestigious national and international journals. His essay - “Spiritual Nationalism of Sri Aurobindo”- is prescribed in the Foundation Course of universities and colleges in Madhya Pradesh.
Published in Re-Markings, Vol 17 No.3 September 2018
Copyright: Nibir K. Ghosh 2018
A Master Storyteller and
His Inspired Nocturnes
It has been said that stories are the communal currency of humanity. National Book Award-winning author (Middle Passage) and renowned University of Washington professor Charles Johnson writes stories that touch the broad scope of human experience and deepen a sense of wonder and mystery.
Although Professor Johnson is also a critic, screenwriter, beloved teacher, and professional cartoonist, he may be best known for his novels and stories. His genre bending creative works are built on his deep knowledge of philosophy, spirituality, art, and history reinforced by a vivid and lyrical writing style, a sense of humor from whimsical to ironic, intellectual integrity, and a spirit that is generous, kind and hopeful.
Professor Johnson’s new collection of a dozen stories, Night Hawks, ranges widely and reflects his limitless creative and imaginative powers, delving into the struggles and desires of characters in various historical periods and cultural worlds. All but one of these stories was originally written for the Humanities Washington program Bedtime Stories—a program launched at Professor Johnson’s behest almost two decades ago to promote literacy and learning. These stories transport the reader from Professor Johnson’s home in contemporary Seattle to places as far-flung as ancient Athens and India, modern-day Japan and war-torn Afghanistan.
The title story “Night Hawks” invites readers in on the nighttime conversations of two great American writers, Professor Johnson and his dear friend, the revered Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson (1945-2005). The two met regularly at a Capitol Hill café in Seattle for 15 years, and the story gives readers a sense of their wide-ranging discussions on art, religion, politics, race, their families, their hometowns—Professor Johnson in Evanston, Illinois, and August Wilson in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They also pondered more than a century of shared history that bore down on them, from a time when the cruel segregation policies of the Jim Crow South were still legal, through the civil rights movement, and continuing through decades of persistent racial and economic inequality.
Professor Johnson’s dinners with August Wilson often lasted from seven at night until two in the morning—and at times later. In the story “Night Hawks,” the two renowned literary innovators consider the meaning of their lives as artists of color. They talk into the wee hours. When their usual café closes, they reconvene at an all-night pancake house. After they witness a bloody fight there between several young black men, the role of their acclaimed work and their shared love of beauty gains clarity.
As Professor Johnson described in his engaging book on storytelling art, The Way of the Writer, he urged his students to imagine beyond their own experience, to write about characters with backgrounds other than their own. His mentor, the legendary novelist and literary critic John Gardner advised: “Nothing can be more limiting to the imagination than only writing about what you know.”
The stories brought together in Night Hawks evidence Professor Johnson’s compassion and empathy for characters of many backgrounds who face human dilemmas from gravely serious to absurd or comical. Before teaching literature and writing at the University of Washington, Professor Johnson earned a doctorate in philosophy, and this core knowledge combined with his understanding of human nature and history, and his Buddhist practice undergird his tales of wonder.
Some stories in Night Hawks require the characters to make life or death decisions. In “Follow the Drinking Gourd” a freed black man in the antebellum North travels back south to free his wife’s cousin and her infant from slavery. He locates the woman and baby and, as they flee toward freedom, they are chased by brutal slave hunters, “soulcatchers.” The trio hides, but the baby’s cries threaten to betray their location and lead all of them back to slavery or worse. The man must decide whether to kill the baby to save himself and the woman. In “Idols of the Cave,” a Muslim-American soldier in the war in Afghanistan faces the crude racism of his commanding officer and a perplexing enemy. The story reaches its climax in the ruins of an ancient library, a sanctuary of learning.
The author’s sense of humor also comes to play in these stories. Take for example “The Cynic.” The Greek philosopher Plato, who Professor Johnson has studied rigorously since his teen years, tries to communicate obtuse abstractions to mocking students. Eventually, nature ambushes the great thinker with beauty. The English major protagonist of the whimsical “Guinea Pig” earns a meager living by selling bodily fluids and volunteering for medical experiments. He’s set up for an experiment that involves a stunning female scientist, a 130-pound Rottweiler, and a “personality transfer.” What could go wrong? In “The Prince of Ascetics,” an insanely jealous monk skeptically observes the struggles and eventual apotheosis of a man who has forsaken all for awakening.
Professor Johnson’s hometown Seattle provides a backdrop in several stories such as the extensively-researched “The Night Belongs to Phoenix Jones,” based on a real crime-fighting Seattle superhero who is joined in this endeavor on weekends by an English teacher. “Welcome to Wedgwood” is set in Professor Johnson’s neighborhood and peppered with identifiable local haunts such as the QFC grocery store on 35th Avenue Northeast. In this story, the frustrated protagonist considers how to deal with a noisy new neighbor and eventually questions his own preconceived notions when he confronts the disturber of his peace.
Professor Johnson also has a background as a professional cartoonist and visual artist, and his refined visual imagination contributes to the sense of the story as “a vivid and continuous dream,” the essence of a great story in John Gardner’s view. In “The Weave,” for example, Professor Johnson limns the colorful and glistening interior of a beauty shop in Seattle’s Central Area. Here, the story of a vengeful woman and her boyfriend who steal hair extensions worth thousands of dollars is interwoven with a meditation on hair, and consideration of the pain of those who differ from a dominant culture and of regret in the aftermath of revenge.
Professor Johnson co-wrote “4189” with science fiction writer Steven Barnes and it seems obvious that both enjoyed collaborating on this tale of a dystopian future concerning a man and his realistic sex robot in a society where death is not allowed. In the introduction to Night Hawks, Professor Johnson graciously credits his co-author with creating the story idea, plot, and characters, saying that “I just added some seasoning—a little philosophy and lyricism.”
As Joan Didion wrote in The White Album that “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” For Professor Johnson, great stories must contain “a measure of honest hope for the promise of our human species.” And his new collection exudes wonder and generosity and hope.
Readers will come away from the stories in Night Hawks strengthened by their understanding, their sympathy, their beautiful expression of the universality of human joy and pain, and their encouragement to continue on. To continue on, even through the darkest nights.
Night Hawks: Stories by Charles Johnson. New York: Scribner, 2018. pp.192. $ 24 (Hardcover).
· Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based writer and attorney, and the features editor of the History News Network (hnn.us). His articles have appeared in HNN, Crosscut, Salon, Real Change, Documentary, Writer’s Chronicle, Billmoyers.com, Alternet, and others. He has a special interest in cultural history and the arts.
Orchestration of Universal
Harmony and Prayer
A World Assembly of Poets. Re-Markings’ Special Number Vol. 16 No. 4, November 2017. Guest Editor: Tijan M. Sallah. Editors: Nibir K. Ghosh, A. Karunaker & Sunita Rani Ghosh. New Delhi: Re-Markings in association with Authorspress. pp. 418. $19.99, Rs. 799.
· Gopikrishnan Kottoor, an award winning poet based in Trivandrum, Kerala, attended the MFA poetry program of Southwest Texas, San Marcos, Texas, USA in 2000. He has published ten books of poetry which include Victoria Terminus (Selected Poems), A Buchenwald Diary, Mother Sonata, Vrindavan, and My Little Tsunami.
Of Lessons Learnt by Heart
Anyone below 40 will find these poems too fantastic to be true. Having given this disclaimer right at the beginning, let me start by describing my first reaction (and I am well above 40) upon reading this slim unassuming volume of poetry. I was lost in time, borne aloft on the wings of memory to a time when children sat on a durree in a tiny school with one master and loudly learnt their alphabet and tables (often wrong, but who was complaining?); when evenings resonated with the bells of cows coming home and with mingled sounds of the azaan and the aarti; when djinns and ghosts were real; and when the preferred modes of transport were the horse-drawn tonga, the humble bullock cart, or for the very well off, the elephant. It was a time of Ammi’s home remedies for all ailments and of Abbu’s lessons in life, imparted in strictness that was a reverse euphemism for love. And then, one grew up. All of a sudden, in the blink of an eye, childhood, that innocent little interval between birth and forgetting, was over; and one was ready: circumcised, schooled, and settled into the ways of the world. What remained of that age past were lessons and reflections.
This is the tapestry of Earthenware. Neatly divided into two sections, Soil and Stone, the sixty poems in this volume are small (some only four lines) and succinct. The section titles are metaphorical. ‘Soil’, soft and loose, conveys the beginnings of germination. It evokes the process of growing up, of learning to know oneself, and to know the world. Soil needs to be aerated and ploughed for seeds to sprout; and the experiences of childhood as portrayed in the first section serve precisely this function. ‘Stone’, the succeeding section, is soil, petrified. It is replete not so much with nostalgia as with disillusionment. There is loss, there is sorrow, there are lessons learnt in the process of growing up. The poems are harsher and bleaker in tone, carrying none of the wide eyed wonder of the little boy in ‘Soil’. The companions of childhood are gone, gone are the protective elders, as well as the loved ones. What remain are philosophical ruminations, each one a gem. Consider for example, the simplicity of “Hands can shake the world/ Do undo all/ but hands are held best / in a handshake.” Then there is an entire group of poems titled ‘Missing’ that evoke the ambivalent and multidimensional shades of loss in almost the same way as a multifaceted solitaire. They are cohesive in theme and varied in expression in such a way that every reader will identify with at least one if not more nuances of the concept of ‘missing’. To summarise, the carefree happiness of childhood in the first section is finely balanced by the somber pensiveness of the next section. Despite being two separate parts, both the sections form an organic whole when read together, as the experiences of the first have an implicit bearing on the tenor of the next.
The cover design needs special mention. At first glance, it is just an ordinary looking painting with a few pots and pans of different shapes, colours, and sizes piled against a soft yellow background. Ah, Earthenware! One thinks. How obvious. It is only when one has gone through the entire volume and has shut the book that one realizes how absolutely significant that cover is. The soft yellow background evokes the dusty lanes of that childhood village. The pots and pans, by now, the eponymous Earthenware, become symbolic of the rustic, fragile experiences of growing up. Each pot is an experience lovingly shaped by the creator. But what catches the eye and stays on in memory is the one broken pot dominating the foreground. All beautiful things must end, and some end with the shattering of lovingly held illusions. If, for Keats, “a thing of beauty is a joy for ever,” then in Earthenware, the beauty lies not just in happy memories but also in the “lessons learnt by heart” that life and longing bring our way.
I’ve climbed a jamun tree, purpled my lips, ridden a tonga, told ghost stories, learnt the alphabet (and my tables) loud and wrong, and witnessed grand Tazia processions in my hometown. Twenty years apart and a distinct Muslim milieu, but so many similarities! The images are familiar, yet dyed in a magical hue. Earthenware is a poetic eulogy to childhood and to the inevitably painful act of growing up. It is a symphony of longing and loss. It lingers like an old tune which the mind has relegated to some dusty corner of memory, but which the heart remembers.
Earthenware by Anisur Rahman. New Delhi: Rubric Publishing, 2018. pp. 83. Rs. 200.
· Dr. Urvashi Sabu is Associate Professor in the Department of English at PGDAV College (Delhi University), Delhi. She is currently in UEA Norwich (UK) as recipient of the prestigious Charles Wallace India Trust Translation Fellowship.
Published in Re-Markings, Vol 17 No.3 September 2018
Copyright: Nibir K. Ghosh 2018