During the end of Lent, Holy Week and Easter, I have been shirking my Quixotic duties in order to concentrate on ecclesiastical matters as well as on my own spiritual health. But now that we are fully engaged in the 50 days of Eastertide, it’s time for me to pull out my keyboard and afflict you with ruminations of a tortured mind.
First up are a couple of book reviews. I don’t mean reviews in the normal sense. I’m not going to pass judgment on the literary merit of the books, but only relate how loudly and profoundly they spoke to me.
The first book is Homegoing by Yaa Gyassi. Many of you might have read it already because it was a bestseller. I was a bit late to the party. It’s the story of two sisters and their descendants and covers multiple decades and several generations. It tells the story of slavery and its aftermath both in West Africa and the United States.
Let me tell you how it impacted my thinking about race..
I considered myself sensitive to the history of slavery, Jim Crow, and racial oppression in this country. In modern parlance, I would say that I considered myself “woke,” although I don’t use that word; and if I did, I would have quit after reading Homegoing. The book taught me that I am not nearly sensitive enough to the sufferings of Black and Brown people at the hands of Americans past and present. Any idea I had that America had entered a “post-racial” era was ripped to shreds. That was a popular notion when Barack Obama was elected, but it was fiction then and still is.
The other book that also opened my eyes wider — The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen — won a Pulitzer Prize six years ago. I was drawn to the novel after reading a review of its sequel.
I grew up with the Vietnam War. I remember vividly getting news of young men from my hometown, Fort Mill, SC, dying in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Word of their deaths engendered in me enough guilt that I left Princeton University on a weekday morning and took a bus to Trenton, NJ, to enlist in the Marine Corps. To my surprise, I flunked my induction physical in Philadelphia two weeks later because of an early history of epilepsy, for which I was still being medicated. In the years immediately afterward, I would describe myself as agnostic on the war. I didn’t march or protest. I wasn’t as prescient as many of my peers. It took Nixon bombing Cambodia very late in the war to turn me against it. So if I’m honest about it, I can’t claim to have been on the right side of morality when I look back..
The Sympathizer looks at that era through the eyes of a Vietnamese man like the author. Like Homegoing, it is engaging, but also an important read. It proved to me that even after years of reading extensively about the war I was naively insensitive to the horror experienced by the Vietnamese. Frankly, I didn’t know squat. This work of fiction was worth more than all the nonfiction I’d ever read about our Vietnam debacle. The Sympathizer walloped me because it taught me how relatively oblivious I had been to this great wrong. I wonder if an Iraqi or Afghani author might one day write a similar tale about our latest military adventures on their soil.
In a short essay appended to the novel, Nguyen writes this:
We can argue about the causes of these wars and the apportioning of blame, but the fact is that war begins, and ends, over here, with the support of the citizens for the war machine, with the arrival of frightened refugees fleeing wars we have instigated. Telling these kinds of stories, or learning to read, see, and hear family stories as war stories, is an important way to treat the disorder of our military-industrial complex. For, rather than being disturbed by the idea that war is hell, this complex thrives on it.
(Nguyen speaks the truth, but one thing has changed since he wrote his first book in 2015: Frightened refugees seeking shelter on our shores from wars we instigated are no longer welcomed here.)
Does our society always keep the kindling stacked, ready to light up for another Vietnam? Haven’t we already had two more Vietnams and several mini-Vietnams since 1975 that raged while we looked away? Has all the chest-beating about “protecting our freedom” made us any more free or secure? And what in the world do those words even mean anyway? They are used to justify almost any military adventure. Dwight Eisenhower’s blunt warning in 1961 about the military-industrial complex still goes unheeded.
My mother and I often debate our preferences for fiction or nonfiction. She is decidedly of the nonfiction persuasion while I prefer a balance, and usually read a novel and a nonfiction book simultaneously. The Sympathizer and Homegoing, both firmly of the fiction genre, are as valuable as any nonfiction account could ever be.
Now, let’s leave the literary scene for the real world in the Spring of 2021. Here are some other things on my mind:
- During the 2020 elections and the run-up, I repeatedly said in my blogs that Joe Biden was too old to be president. I still believe that. Sorry fellow liberals, but I have to be intellectually honest. I am worried about his mental acumen.
- Optimistic rumors about more bi-partisanship in our politics have been thoroughly doused.
- Proxy culture wars are epidemic: Moving the Major League Baseball All-Star game, transgender women in sports, Dr. Seuss, Mr. Potato Head, mask wearing, vaccinations, etc.
To end on a positive note, I’m happy to report that here at St. Anna’s Church in the Treme section of New Orleans, life is becoming more normal. From Palm Sunday through Easter our parishioners and a few tourists and visitors (all masked) filled the church and worshipped joyfully. We, of course, were restricted by how many we could safely allow inside, but all available indoor seats were taken on Palm Sunday and Easter with an overflow into our courtyard on Easter. We are a diverse parish that emphasizes mission and social justice, so we attract worshippers who believe that striving to do mission/outreach and working for social justice are appropriate goals for followers of Christ.
I’m having flashbacks to the Vietnam era as I’m in the midst of reading this book
Very compelling read and so well written
Great minds think alike! B
oh this post spoke to me. I’m taking an 8-week course on Racial Inequity that is put together by JustFaith out of Louisville. I thought I was “woke” as well. But a few pages into WHITE FRAGILITY and that notion blown to pieces. II started the book last summer when George Floyd’s death energized the
BLM movement. It was like trying to read a PhD dissertation. I’m glad I’m now reading it with a group.
I love getting historical novels and look forward to HOMEGOING and THE SYMPATHIZER. For some reason, I listen to most of my non-fiction on Audible and read my fiction in book form or on my kindle.
Oh to be in NoLA in the spring. xoxo
Thanks for the comments Dots. I usually read non fiction in book form, a real physical book. But for fiction, I read on paper, Kindle (so I can read after Lucy has turned off the light at night), and listen on Audible when I am walking for exercise or driving.
HI, Buck! I would also recommend Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck. It is translated from German and centers on the story of African migrants in Germany. In New Orleans, take a stroll to 2100 Ursulines. The campus was developed and restored by Artspace, a national non-profit real estate development company based in Minneapolis, into affordable housing for artists. I am honored to be Board Chair at Artspace and have followed this project from the beginning. You will enjoy meeting the artists who call this campus home. Best to you and all the Closes!
Hi Mary Margeret, How great to hear from you – a friend since birth! And thanks for your reading recommendation and the tip on visiting 2100 Ursulines. I will do so before I decamp for RI in mid May. Thanks for commenting. B
Buck, I’m reading Timothy Keller’s latest book, “Hope in Times of Fear”. It’s not the type of books you’re discussing, but I recommend it nonetheless. Keller has long been one of my favorite Christian authors due to his “accessibility”. What I mean by that is how well he connects with someone like me who is still struggling to fully grasp so much about God and his plan for the world. I’m finding it to be not as smooth as his other books, but as it progresses he reveals some interesting truths. I was distressed to read in the prologue that he is suffering from pancreatic cancer, so he may have been in a greater rush than usual to publish the book.
Buck, a completely different thought this time and one that is actually relevant to. Your blog posting. I was thinking of your comment regarding the military-industrial complex. I agree with you on this in many ways. I remember being in firm opposition to Bill Clinton’s efforts at nation building. On the one hand it’s probably good that we attempt to save societies from their oppressors, even when those oppressors are part of those societies. On the other hand, how arrogant that we think that we can create a new system in our own image that will preserve the freedom of those people into the future.
The first Gulf War can be viewed positively as an effort to oppose an external oppressor, Saddam, in support of a new world order. At the same time we acted in our own national interests. The Second Gulf War had a thin patina of reason, opposing that same oppressor of his own people, but clearly wrong headed. Where is the line?
Thinking about the Vietnam and Korean wars might also be instructive. The former was the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time. What would have been the fate of the South Vietnamese had the North invaded and taken over without our intervention? Much better for the South and the North, pretty clearly. But what about Korea, a war that we didn’t start? The people in the North live mostly under horrid conditions, and it is easy to see those in the South would have suffered the same or worse fate.
What is the answer? Should we simply tend to our own domestic knitting, ignoring what is happening in the rest of the world? Should we have done that in WWII? If you want to take the position that WWII was our only “just” war I won’t quibble with you, but if you say we shouldn’t have become involved at all then I think you’re arguing against the weight of history. In opposing Naziism I think we were doing God’s work in fighting the evil that opposes God. What would have been the judgment of us if we had sat idly by and let evil run free?
So how much of this is really the fault of the military-industrial complex, and how much of it is us, collectively, trying to be God? When do we cross the line from doing God’s work, to wanting to be God ourselves?
Please do not take this as my thinking that I have the answers because I certainly don’t think I do. I think it’s a hideously complex question. I don’t think either side is com0letely right, or completely wrong.