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Tuesday, August 1, 2017

In the Shadow of the Banyan and Lit Snobbery

I heard noises outside, the hums and drones of night creatures. An owl hooted, and another answered, telling each other an endless tale amidst an endless banging of hoes and shovels, the earth being smashed. When you hear an owl, so they say, death is nearby. But owls were always hooting in Democratic Kampuchea, and when someone died, they went as quiet as people, afraid to speak up, to cry out loud. I had learned not to be afraid of owls or other night creatures. Animals are not like people. If you leave them alone, they won't hurt you. But people will, even if you've done no wrong. They hurt you with their guns, their words, their lies and broken promises, their sorrow. - Vaddey Ratner, In the Shadow of the Banyan


Holy smokes this post is off to a bad start. First of all there were maybe five paragraphs of me being very snooty about the different kinds of book readers there are, which may have had decent jokes in them, but is not the kind of humor that I want my blog to be about or for me to be about in general. Then I tried to embed a Facebook post that has resulted in the HTML being all messed up on this thing which makes me think that maybe I should have stuck with that multimedia major that I had for the first semester I took in college.

That's weird to think about, that I was going to school briefly to be a web designer. If I'd done that I probably never would have taken a literature class, which means I wouldn't have learned how to read more deeply, and this blog wouldn't exist maybe. Or maybe it would but it would be about something that's actually useful like, "did you try to embed some code into your blogger post and now it's all mucked up? Well you've come to the right place and that right place is Howie's Kode Klub featuring Scorpion From Mortal Kombat So That's Why The K's."

I also bet that I wouldn't have been introduced to nature writing and in turn introduced to environmentalism and in turn introduced to the art of going camping for work. That all sounds like bad stuff but also maybe I'm rich in this scenario? I'm honestly not sure. Do I know any rich web designers?

Anyway, the upshot of all of this is that instead of Howie's Kode Klub (featuring Scorpion of Mortal Kombat who says, "'Get Over Here,' and Enjoy This Quality Kontent" in the masthead for a while until I'm sued) it's Howie's Book Club. And instead of providing valuable advice to web designers instead it's providing no advice to nobody. But hey, at least it looks unprofessional.

I've often said that I quit my creative writing degree program because it was making me hate two of the things that I held most dear, reading and writing. Unfortunately, it wasn't making me love 'rithmatic either so I was in a pretty dark place. I think in retrospect this is partially true. I started to hate writing because of the bizarre standard writing was held to in a college literature class. And I started to hate reading because the list of great writers and works was tiny and narrow. It really messed me up. It took me years before I could read for fun again, and even then there was a tiny voice wearing patches on its sport jacket that would constantly question my reading choices.

That's kind of what this post started out being about, but then it veered into some weird territory where I made fun of bookstore nerds, who I said "fetishize buying books over reading them, and when they might accidentally trip and fall onto a book and actually read it they spend all of their remaining time on message boards talking about their 'book crush' and how casting totally messed up because the guy/girl they cast is just so wrong for the part, probably because they had to cast a real human being.

I'm glad I didn't make fun of bookstore nerds. Like I said before, it's not what I'm about, and it's not what this blog is about. It's not up to me to decide what books should be read or written or what unhealthy relationship is being portrayed as romantic (more about this next week), or how little I care about the conflicted half-elf who spends half of his time loving both a human woman and an elf woman at the other half in a tavern. All I want to do here is talk to you about the book I read and also about what a mess I am sometimes and eventually get very very famous. That's it.

I want a very specific kind of fame, though, which is the kind where people only say good things always and nobody ever looks up my address and sends me bombs. Luckily I'm not a woman saying highly controversial things like, "maybe in video games the goal sometimes shouldn't be torturing women." If you don't like what I say in these posts, maybe don't send me bombs? Thanks.

Huh, after reading that post I don't think I want to be famous after all. Just rich. I just want to be so rich because of my blog but also not famous at all. I just need one very wealthy person to read it and then send me a check for ten million dollars. PayPal works, too.

Anyway, here's the thing about books that I learned and kind of had to unlearn when I was an English major, which is what this part of the post is supposed to be about before it became about becoming rich and not famous: books can and should be about important things. 

The thing I wanted to embed in my post but could not was this. Since I can't embed it, you're going to have to go look at it which I know is a hassle but it could be worse: you could be starving to death in a Cambodian death camp (this applies to a lot of situations). If you didn't click on it even though I asked you to do so pretty nicely, it's a series of parody book covers, many of which are the kinds of books I read in college classes. I can add a couple to the canon, including The Universe Doesn't Care About You So You Might As Well Do Whatever You Want, Two Hundred Pages of Descriptions of Fly Fishing. And my personal favorite, This is Basically A Summary of a Textbook About an Eastern Religion that I Read Once in College and Wedged Between Very Sparse Narrative.

As far as I can tell these are all books for people who are above the petty squabbles of day-to-day life and prefer instead to read a story in which nothing happens to terrible people as they drive across the country and do drugs and say things like "transcendent" in reference to like a hot dog. I don't get into politics, man. It's like, I'm more interested in the universe. They say this because they're still on their parents' health insurance or don't have some genetic disposition towards disease so they don't have to think about it much. Or because they aren't more likely to get prison sentences for the same crime that a white person would get like a medal for, just because of their skin color. Or maybe they don't live in a country in which having the kind of education that lets you spend all of your time reading about university professors who have affairs with their students and learn a little something about existence on the way would lead to a death sentence.

"Raami's story is, in essence, my own. I was five years old when on April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge stormed into Cambodia's capital city, Phnom Penh, and declared a new government, a new way of life." That's what we read in the afterword of Vaddey Ratner's In the Shadow of the Banyan. I'm not going to try to summarize the revolution and subsequent genocide perpetrated by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, but this article does a decent job of it. The upshot is that in a country with a population of approximately 7 million, somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million were murdered by a Communist regime bent on restarting civilization. That's 21 percent of the population.
No one saw through the coded rhetoric of solidarity and brotherly love to a deeply indoctrinated belief that anyone could be the enemy. At first the enemy was the intellectuals, diplomats, doctors, pilots and engineers, policemen and military officers, those of rank and reputation. Then the enemy was the office clerks, technicians, palace servants, taxi drivers, people with mok robar civilai--"modern professions"--which would include almost everyone at the temple, as the majority of us were from the city. those who didn't lie and assume a new identity were called and brought out into the open, like rabbits forced from their holes.
In the Shadow of the Banyan doesn't try to summarize what happened, either. In fact, Pol Pot is never named. Instead, every nefarious deed, every murder, every bit of torture, is perpetrated by The Organization. Young Raami, limping because of polio as a young child, has her brace taken and thrown away. "The Organization will cure you," she is told.

Raami is a princess, though by the time she's 7, royalty in Cambodia doesn't mean much other than general respect and never having to worry about money. She lives a very comfortable life in Phnom Penh, where she is loved by her poet father, doting mother, and multiple servants. The revolution outside of the compound gates is an annoyance, but doesn't effect anyone in the family personally until one day a servant goes missing.

Things go downhill from there.

The family is uprooted from their life in the city and resettled in a small village. The Organization has declared all city life to be immoral, and point to the lives of rural rice farmers as the only way to live. The intent was to return to a purer society untainted by Buddhism and imperialism. Which, let's be honest, that sounds kind of nice. Everyone working with their hands, sweat of their brow, all of that. In fact, Raami kind of likes the life when she settles into it. There is satisfaction in farming and floating the rice patties, catching fish and crawdads.

But let's also be real. While Raami lives the peasant life with a very grandparenty couple, what's really happening is a transfer of power and wealth. People unhappy with who is rich and powerful overthrow the rich and powerful and whoops I guess they're the ones with all of the resources now. Funny how it works out that way. It's almost like being rich isn't the immoral thing, it's the fact that the rich are not you that really gets stuck in your craw.

Things get worse, as these things often do. There are work camps and family members taken in the middle of the night. There are executions and torture. There is unspeakable evil and unbelievable kindness. All of these we see through the gradually eroding innocence of a young girl who walks with a limp and makes mistakes sometimes. Mistakes that have profound consequences, but you guys, she's just this tiny sweet little girl and nobody should be put in these kinds of situations. We watch as her father sacrifices himself for the family. We see the decisions her mother makes to keep her children alive.

I've said this before, but it bears repeating. 1984 is a good book, but also I think it's pretty much useless. It purports a scary, alternative future in which things that have happened in real life all over the world happen to white, Western people instead. Can you imagine the horrors? Or like how scary is it to imagine that the things that systematically happened to black women for hundreds of years in the United States suddenly happened to adorable blue-eyed Elizabeth Moss?

What if instead we read the story of a woman who lived through the real-life horrors of a radical Communist uprising in Cambodia? Big Brother isn't staring at you through the TV, but your neighbors are watching your every move. Especially the children. Let's say the wife of one of the town's leaders thinks you're too pretty, that the leader's eyes linger on her too long. Turns out that you went to university (whether you did or not), which means you have no place in this brave new world. Let's say you wear glasses, or "look Vietnamese." You could be sent to S-21, a prison that held up to 14,000 people, 12 of whom survived.

Clap along with me: The. Reason. This. Is. Scarier. Is. Because. It. Really. Happened.

Instead of saying, "this is just like 1984," when a hypothetical President of The United States questions a judge because of his race, or pushes for torture of political prisoners, or mocks war heroes, or builds the least-educated cabinet in 24 years or fabricates lies whole cloth in order to stir up anger against a certain ethnic group or leads a group of teenage kids in a chant of his name for no reason other than to prop up his pathetic ego when the news makes him sad, say "this is just like the countless other charismatic leaders who slowly eroded the very fabric of a nation that was built to protect us against someone just like him."

Heck, it's happening right now in Poland. It's happening in Turkey. Nations previously considered free and democratic turn authoritarian all the time. Vladimir Putin faked a terrorist attack in order to seize power. And he murders his political opponents. That all happened in my lifetime. It happened after I graduated from high school. He's neat now, though. A real leader.

This gets packaged up in different ideologies. Whether it's communists claiming to fight for the workers against the rich who secretly pull the levers, or a good old-fashioned manipulation of the downtrodden to blame their fellow man who looks or talks a little different, or a bunch of rich old guys who can't stand to see a kid get lunch for free, what it all boils down to is too much power in the hands of someone with too few morals and a bunch of uneducated young kids with guns in their hands and a higher purpose in mind.
"They're not the same men you studied philosophy and history with in France... Nor are they people whose daily struggles and aspirations you've tried to capture and convey in your poetry. They are children who've been given guns--power beyond their years."
In the wake of this godawful tragedy, when almost a quarter of a nation was murdered because of things like wearing glasses or knowing French, the United States took in about 150,000 refugees. Kids who had starved nearly to death, mothers (mostly mothers because men were more likely to be murdered), rape victims, torture victims. They've had a tough time. Because everyone with an education or skill applicable to life in an industrialized nation was murdered, they integrated slower than other groups. Because they had PTSD, they sometimes had behavioral problems. Their rate of poverty is higher than other ethnic groups, and the crime rate is higher. The US has started sending them back. Sure, you say, if someone flees their country and commits a crime, they should go back. But c'mon. 47% of the Cambodian and Laotian (communism again) people deported under Obama had nothing worse than a traffic violation on their record.

It's worse now, because of course it is. A refugee who came to the United States at the age of 8, who was arrested and served time at 14 for gang related violence, but who has spent the rest of his life with a clean record as a barber, is slated to be sent to a country he barely remembers. Thanks a lot, Bill Clinton, way to "strike a mighty blow against terrorism." If traffic violations are terrorist acts now, we should fill Guantanamo with all of the people who speed on my street (no really, let's do this.)

Vaddey Ratner came to the United States at 11. She lived in a Minnesota low-income housing project knowing no English. In 1991, she graduated as class valedictorian. We're lucky to have her. There was a lot of fear of communism in the 70s and 80s, that somehow the people fleeing Cambodia would bring the very same kind of philosophy that ruined their lives here is laughable. Right? It's almost like amazing people come from all over the world and there isn't really anything holy or special about being born within imaginary lines on woefully distorted wall maps.

Anyway, In the Shadow of the Banyan is like a national treasure. We should be honored to have it available to us, and you guys should read it. All of this political stuff is my own reaction to it, none of it is in the book. The book is just an amazing story of survival and if you want to read it like that, that works, too. I'm no literature professor. Thank heavens.