The Disillusionist


Mondadori Portfolio/Getty ImagesElsa Morante, Rome, 1961

We live in a golden age of reissues. Every publishing season seems to bring fresh editions from a vital but ignored past: say, Clarice Lispector, who had one book come out last year, or Lucia Berlin, who had two. For readers, republication offers something rare: the possibility of reclaiming history simply by opening a book. The proper response to this is surely celebration. But I can’t help feeling a bit depressed that so many of the cool new writers are dead.

I’ve been particularly interested in the resurgence of midcentury women novelists who share certain characteristics. These women were underappreciated in their own lifetimes. They may have gotten prizes and awards, but they never earned the fame or money of their male peers or, in many cases, their more successful husbands. They distanced themselves from the women’s movement. They were rude in ways that were probably deeply unpleasant for their contemporaries but now translate nicely into witty anecdotes and retorts.

Take Elsa Morante. Like many of the authors who are regularly discovered and rediscovered, Morante never became internationally famous. Her novels are not widely read outside of Italy, unlike those of her husband, Alberto Moravia, or the works of many of the artists she collaborated with over the course of her life, like Pier Paolo Pasolini and Natalia Ginzburg. Her novels are not difficult, but they are also not easy: violent, emotionally tangled, lushly written in a way that often reads in English as more melodramatic than dramatic, and almost overwhelmingly ambitious.

“Elsa was a bit totalitarian,” Moravia said of his wife after her death. A man who had escaped fascism could not have meant that lightly, but it comes across as accurate and sincere. Morante’s novels have the drive of a general ready to obliterate the field. She’s also one of Elena Ferrante’s favorite writers, and the one from whom she derived her pen name. The connection is made very clear by the fact that this new translation of Arturo’s Island is by Ferrante’s translator, Ann Goldstein, and has a quote from Ferrante on the back.

The violence of Morante’s world starts at birth. Adults who pine for their childhood, boys who want to climb back into the womb: the men Morante wrote about experience entering the world as rejection. “I know, in fact, that mine was real weeping, desperate mourning,” Manuel says of his birth in Aracoeli (1982), Morante’s final novel. He “didn’t want to be separated from” his mother. “I must have already known that that first, blood-stained separation of ours would be followed by another, and another, until the last, the most bloody of all. To live means to experience separation.” Later, he describes trying to suckle on his mother’s breast as a child after his younger sister died: “A great pounding of my heart shook me, a mixture of shudders and happiness; I felt like someone diving into the sea for the first time…. This fulfillment, this honeyed taste made me close my eyes as if in sleep.”

For Morante, the tangled entrapment of family wasn’t theoretical. Poverty and cramped quarters made independence early in her life impossible. Her parents had hoped to create a happy household. But on their wedding night her mother, Irma, a schoolteacher with thwarted literary ambitions, discovered that Augusto Morante was impotent. Irma punished her husband by making him sleep in the basement. Elsa and her siblings later came to learn that their real father was someone they had been introduced to as “Uncle Ciccio.” In Woman of Rome: A Life of Elsa Morante (2008), the novelist Lily Tuck describes how Morante’s mother used to wait until everyone was asleep before she went to the bathroom. The home was so small that even the facts of living had to be hidden.

Morante was born in Rome in 1912, though she liked to shave off a few years. She was a brilliant student but didn’t have enough money to stay in school. She found an apartment of her own and supported herself by editing bad academic writing and exchanging sex for money. “Every day my life becomes more stupid, subject to and tormented by physical needs: material and sexual,” she wrote in 1938 in her diary, one of the few private writings that she preserved. What comes across, even in these short snippets, is a hungry singularity of mind, a tunnel vision of ambition and desire. She complained about her longing for men and then dismissed them as distractions: “My spirit is slave to these obscene, little pastimes which give me the feeling of death.”

She met Alberto Moravia in 1937. He later recalled that they “had supper together with some friends, and as I was saying goodnight to her, she slipped the keys of her house into my hand.” During the war they married, then fled to southern Italy. Both worried about being arrested by the Fascists. This period of panic was in many ways the high point of their relationship. The chaos of war seemed to create a greenhouse that allowed the otherwise fragile marriage to thrive. Morante, who throughout her childhood had read stories of heroes and gods, could act bravely and boldly, as a character in a romance or myth might. She crossed occupied Rome to save the manuscript of her first novel, House of Liars, a long and convoluted story of love and disenchantment. Morante and Moravia wandered around the Bay of Naples, he with an owl on his shoulder, she with a Siamese cat on a leash.

Morante could deal with the stress of war. The boredom of peacetime was what she found difficult. “She considered herself, as it were, an angel fallen from heaven into the practical hell of daily living,” Moravia wrote. (Morante herself refused interviews for much of her life and destroyed many of her papers. Biographers are therefore unfortunately reliant on the words of her ex-husband to gloss her own.)

Both Tuck’s biography and Elsa Morante, a French biography by René de Ceccatty, ponder whether Moravia and Morante were the Sartre and Beauvoir of Italy. Like their French counterparts, they were a visible and successful literary couple. They worked on a magazine together and each won many prizes. Morante seemed to enjoy competition with her husband, especially when she won. The translator William Weaver remembers how the only way to get them to come to dinner was to invite Elsa first, then mention that Alberto could also come, if he was available.

From the 1950s, each began to sleep around, Moravia with younger writers (he eventually married one of them, and then another), Morante with a series of men, including the director Luchino Visconti, who were either gay or bisexual and with whom she had tortured relationships. When they separated a decade later, someone told Moravia, “Pity. Morante-Moravia had such a good sound.”

Morante and Moravia each had a Jewish parent, a fact that flits in and out of Morante’s work like a family secret. In History (1974), her best-known and probably best novel, a widowed schoolteacher named Ida is raped by a German soldier and becomes pregnant with a second child. Her fear about the imminent rape is tempered only by her real terror: that the German will discover that her mother was a Jew. Her mother has already escaped her worries through insanity and drowned herself trying to swim to Palestine. Ida raises her children alone in Rome. She fears what will happen if someone learns about Useppe, her son born out of wedlock. She leaves him at home, with a dog as a babysitter. At school, she teaches her students about the glory of Mussolini. “Copy out three times in your good notebooks the following words of the Duce,” she tells them. Lonely and lost, she wanders through the ghetto in a confused search for family or connection. In one of the book’s most remarkable scenes, Ida watches Jews being deported by train without realizing what is going on:

The interior of the cars, scorched by the lingering summer sun, continued to reecho with that incessant sound. In its disorder, babies’ cries overlapped with quarrels, ritual chanting, meaningless mumbles, senile voices calling for mother…. And at times, over all this, sterile, bloodcurdling screams rose; or others, of a bestial physicality, exclaiming elementary words like “water!” “air!”

The book is overtly political: Morante punctuates the story of Ida and her two sons with summaries of what’s happened in any given year of the war, like intertitles in a silent movie: “December [1941]: Leningrad does not surrender.” But the war is seen at eye level, viewed only through characters who have lost nearly everything but can’t put their grief into words. Ida doesn’t quite understand the photographs of concentration camps that appear in the newspaper. She tears them up and tells Useppe to do the same. “Throw away that nasty paper! It’s ugly!” she says. “Perhaps a week afterward,” Morante writes, “Ida was wakened in the night by a curious prolonged sob. And when she had turned on the light, she saw Useppe sitting beside her, half out of the sheet, waving his little hands frantically…. ‘It’s uggy…It’s uggy!,’ he moaned.”

History is the most capacious of Morante’s books. The story seems to wish to be several things at once: dispassionate and warm, realistic and magical. When Ida and Useppe return to Rome after several months in a refugee camp called “the Thousand,” Morante begins to recount their fate from the point of view of their dog, Bella. It’s amazing that the project hangs together, a feat Morante accomplishes through an evenness of tone and an innate understanding of storytelling. The book’s Italian title, La Storia, means both “history” and “story,” and it is one of Morante’s most powerful insights that the former too often lacks the latter: the more people die, the less we see them as people, with loves and fears and hopes. When it was published, she insisted that it be made widely available as a cheap paperback. The book sold nearly a million copies within a year. An article from The New York Times described how “for the first time since anyone can remember, people in railroad compartments and espresso bars discuss a book—the Morante novel—rather than the soccer championship or latest scandal.”

“I should be grateful to Mussolini,” Morante once said.

In 1938, by introducing the racist laws, he made me realize that I myself was a Jew; my mother was Jewish, but the thought had never crossed my mind that there was something peculiar about having a mother whose father and mother used to pray in a synagogue…. When the Germans took over Rome in 1943, I learned a great lesson, I learned terror.

Still, what interests Morante in religion is not heritage but faith: how necessary it remains for human survival, even—and especially—when contradicted directly by every fact of life. Morante herself was a practicing Catholic. She insisted on being married in a church and refused to divorce Moravia until he demanded it so he could marry again. “The lack of religious meaning seems to me to be one of the major problems of our time,” she wrote. “Without religion, we cannot live.” (She admired Simone Weil, herself a Jew who turned to Catholicism.)


Archivio Angelo Palma/A3/Contrasto/ReduxElsa Morante, right, with Adriana Asti and Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1965

Morante’s characters are constantly clinging to illusion, even as the realities of the world crowd around, ready to shatter their beliefs. The only real attempt to understand what is happening in History comes from Davide Segre, a Jewish anarchist who meets Ida and Useppe in the refugee camp and slowly loses his mind on drugs. Davide is the only man in the book to have even a theoretical understanding of the larger reasons for the present disarray: “The word Fascism is of recent coinage, but it corresponds to a social system of prehistoric decrepitude…in reality, there has existed no other system but this.” But it does him no good. By the end of the novel he’s alone in his apartment, raving about the Antichrist and revolution, his face “walled-up in a directionless stare, a kind of white and void ecstasy, like that of a man accused but not confessing, when the torture machinery is shown to him.” Several pages later, he dies of an overdose.

Reading Morante today, what’s particularly striking is how closely she ties the hatred of women to other kinds of political violence. One of the best-drawn characters in History is Nino, Ida’s older son, who becomes a Fascist, then a Communist, then a war profiteer, in no small part because he’d rather hang out with blackshirts than listen to his mother. Some of the most telling scenes in the book show how rambunctious teenage energy quickly finds an outlet in the growing Fascist movement. Early in the novel, Nino decides to drop out of school. His mother objects. “Aw, Mà, why don’t you cut it out?” he pleads, and then, sensing her disapproval, begins to sing

Fascist anthems, like an immense chorus, improvising some obscene variants on them, to make things worse. At this point, as could have been foreseen, fear annihilated Ida. Ten thousand imaginary policemen spurted from her brain within that explosive room, while Nino, proud of his success, actually began singing “Red Flag.”

Arturo Gerace, the main character in Arturo’s Island, first published in 1957 and set in the late 1930s, has imbibed misogyny since birth. “Of the many evil females one can meet in life, the worst of all is one’s own mother! That is another eternal verity!” his father tells him. He lives on Procida, off the coast of Naples, but from the beginning it is clear that the island is not a sunny idyll for vacations by the beach. With its volcanic rock, ancient craters, and large prison, it is threatening and unwelcoming, especially to the women who live there:

The women, following ancient custom, live cloistered like nuns. Many of them still wear their hair coiled, shawls over their heads, long dresses, and, in winter, clogs over thick black cotton stockings; in summer some go barefoot. When they pass barefoot, rapid and noiseless, avoiding encounters, they might be feral cats or weasels.

They are rarely seen. “They never go to the beach; for women it’s a sin to swim in the sea, and a sin to watch others swimming.” In fact the entire island seems misogynistic, down to the volcanic core:

When a girl was born on Procida, the family was displeased…. They were small beings, who could never grow as tall as a man, and they spent their lives shut up in kitchens and other rooms: that explained their pallor. Bundled into aprons, skirts, and petticoats, in which they must always keep hidden, by law, their mysterious body, they appeared to me clumsy, almost shapeless figures.

Arturo doesn’t know any women. His mother died in childbirth. He only has a picture of her: “In her black eyes you can read not only submissiveness, which is usual in most of our girls and young village brides, but a stunned and slightly fearful questioning.” He doesn’t go to school. He roams and swims and sails while his father, Wilhelm, is off on unknown adventures. The only female being he spends time with is his dog, Immacolatella, who accompanies him on his daily explorations. The dog is not immune from the island’s curse. She becomes pregnant, and delivering the puppies kills her.

Arturo loves his father, whom he considers to be a great hero. The boy spends his days reading chivalric romances and stories of great soldiers of the past: “The books I liked most…were those which celebrated, with real or imagined examples, my ideal of human greatness, whose living incarnation I recognized in my father.” He imagines himself and his father within them. Most of all, he longs to be appreciated by his father: “When I have wrinkles, too, it will be a sign that I’m grown up, and then he and I can be together always.”

The prose here is distant, stiff, as if descended from the chivalric tales that Arturo reads, and is tempered only by Morante’s soft touch. Arturo is young and naive, but Morante preserves the childish seriousness with which he takes his own ideas, which he records in a “kind of Code of Absolute Truth”:

I. THE AUTHORITY OF THE FATHER IS SACRED!

II. TRUE MANLY GREATNESS CONSISTS IN THE COURAGE TO ACT, IN DISDAIN FOR DANGER, AND IN VALOR DISPLAYED IN COMBAT.

V. NO AFFECTION IN LIFE EQUALS A MOTHER’S.

Italian speakers have complained of the stilted way Morante’s prose comes out in English. “The effect is much like that of listening to opera on a scratchy record,” Tim Parks wrote in 1988. Ann Goldstein’s deft translation is an exception; it gives a clear sense of Morante’s love of the romantic, while preserving a lightness of tone that prevents the lyrical prose from calcifying.

When Arturo’s father brings back to the island a new wife only two years older than the now teenage Arturo, his world changes. “Tell him he can call me Ma,” she says. “This was really the boldest, most insulting provocation that the two of them could make!” Arturo thinks. The admiration Arturo felt for his father is now complicated by anger at this new wife, Nunziatella. Wilhelm doesn’t seem to like Nunziatella either. It’s not clear to Arturo why they married. Arturo’s father insults his wife, and Arturo, seeking his approval, does the same:

She looked at us, submissive but hesitant, and because of this hesitation my father’s desire became stronger. With unexpected, violent animation, he called her over again. Then I could see the enormous fear she had of him: it was as if she had to face an armed bandit, and she stood there, struggling between obedience and disobedience, unable to decide which of the two frightened her more. And in one step my father reached her and grabbed her: she trembled, with a wild expression, as if he had seized her in order to beat her….

“What do you imagine, Arturo? No, no: they deloused her thoroughly for her wedding.”

One of Morante’s insights here is how quickly men can bond over the hatred of women. Nunziatella’s presence alone seems to bring father and son together:

One would have said, at that moment, that, for the sole fact of existing and encumbering the air in front of him, she was committing a crime, she was threatening the right of Wilhelm Gerace.

Arturo tries to kiss Nunziatella, but she rejects him. He hits her instead. Arturo learns that his father is homosexual—he’s been pining after a prisoner from the mainland, who rejects him. Another illusion shattered. Wilhelm has been traveling not to exotic places but to nearby Naples in search of lovers. (There’s something a little dated in Morante’s equation of homosexuality with tortured mother-love, whether she realized this or not. “El niñomaderero,” thinks Manuel in Aracoeli. “The mama’s-boy fairy tale is stagnant, typical retrieval of a psychoanalytic session, or subject of an edifying pop song.”)

Having lost his faith in everything, Arturo goes off to World War II: “What I wanted was to fight in order to learn to fight, like an Oriental samurai. The day I was a master sure of my valor, I would choose my cause.” It’s the first time that the outside world has punctured his consciousness. In war, he decides, he can become a great hero. But the reader—whether in 1957 or now—knows that even if he makes it out alive, as an Italian, he will lose, which for a hero is a fate worse than death.

Morante was not interested in the women’s movement. She refused to contribute to anthologies collecting work under that rubric, and said that she identified more with the boys in her books than the women. “Arturo c’est moi,” she declared to a friend, though one suspects that it was really Flaubert she was thinking of. Still, her books were popular among Italian feminists. When the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective, a group of Italian feminists in the 1970s, put together a list of “mothers” for women to read, Morante was at the top. Now, again, our catalogs are filled with mothers. I’m eager to see what the daughters and granddaughters reading them now will produce in response.

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The Striking Demands of LA Teachers


Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty ImagesStriking teachers and their supporters rallying on the second day of the teachers strike, downtown Los Angeles, January 15, 2019

Los Angeles—Thirty years ago, when United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), the union representing rank-and-file educators in the county’s public schools, went on strike, Nadia Morales and Pedro Martinez were students at Los Angeles High School. Morales was the straight-A, Advanced Placement type and Martinez a class clown, so they had never before shared a classroom. But with all their teachers out on strike, classes were combined, and the two found themselves chatting in what amounted to a massive communal study hall.

After graduation, Morales and Martinez got married and trained for careers in education that led them back to their alma mater. Morales started out as an elementary-school teacher, then switched to academic counseling, which she’s done at LA High for the past eleven years; Martinez worked there, too, teaching history and social studies, until six years ago, when he was transferred to another high school in the district. And so, last week, when the couple and their two young children joined the picket line outside LA High, Morales thought of her teachers from three decades ago. “Now, I’m on that side, following their footsteps and what they fought for—for students and future teachers,” she said.

The strike of UTLA’s 33,000 members across some 1,200 schools, the first since 1989, began last Monday, January 14. It was, like most work stoppages, about pay and benefits and an expired collective bargaining agreement. It was also about unteachably large class sizes (of forty, sometimes fifty students) and similarly burdensome ratios for nurses, social workers, librarians, and counselors. The union’s demand for more counselors, in particular, has emerged more strongly than in other recent teacher strikes—because, Morales said, of the increasingly acute needs of LA’s majority brown and working-class student population. Counselors are essential mentors to new immigrants and first-generation college-goers. They connect students and parents to social services and help them integrate into the community. In this sense, the strike was as much about an ideological question as a labor dispute: Who is the public being served by public education?

It is impossible not to ask such questions at LA High. The immodestly categorical character of its name owes much to the school’s long history: when it opened in 1873, it was the only high school in Southern California. It has produced a number of eminent alumni, including the actor George Takei and Charles Francis Richter, the inventor of the Richter Scale. Today, LA High is what’s called a community school, intended to serve the surrounding area. But the neighborhood just to the north, Hancock Park, is 71 percent white, with a median income of $85,000; the student body, meanwhile, is 79 percent Latino, 12 percent African-American, 7 percent Asian, and 64 percent “economically disadvantaged,” drawn from Koreatown, Mid-City, and neighborhoods farther afield. One part of the campus is not open to all: since 2016, a small section of LA High has been occupied by a selective, STEM-focused charter school, Girls Academic Leadership Academy.

Over the years, Morales, who holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in school counseling, has been assigned to between a third and a half of LA High’s 1,200 students. Her job is to keep them on track academically by helping them stay in school, choose the right classes, and plan for life after graduation. But the reality of her students’ lives often upends her plans: “Every other day, we’ll have a kid come in and say, I want to kill myself,” she said. “When that happens, everything stops. I have to be with that student.”

Morales’s current caseload of 350—thanks to the school’s use of discretionary funds to hire a third academic counselor—includes every student classified as an English learner. As a Guatemalan immigrant who grew up undocumented, Morales is used to translating concepts from one language to another, but it’s still a challenge to explain the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA, to Vietnamese-speaking parents. (“But that’s LA. If you’re from LA, that’s it,” Martinez said.) Morales has, at least, the comparative luxury of being on campus five days a week. LA High can only afford to have a nurse one day a week and a psychiatric social worker, two days a week. When neither clinician is available, medical triage and suicide risk assessments fall to academic counselors, EMTs, and even, worryingly, school police.

California ranks forty-seventh in the nation when it comes to counselor access: there’s an average of one counselor for every 682 students, far exceeding the recommended ratio of one to 250. The lack of counselors, nurses, and social workers in the city feeds the school-to-prison pipeline, Amir Whitaker, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, told me. “It relates to the teachers’ having large classes: if you can’t manage forty students and call for help, and if there’s no social-emotional support, only the police are on hand.” Edith Ruedas, a guidance counselor at Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet High School in East Los Angeles, hopes that the strike will draw more attention to the importance of mental health. “Before, schools were just academic. If you had emotional issues, it was, Oh, you can talk to a doctor about that,” she said. “But people now know we are the resource. We see the students every day. We can reach out to them. We know their families.”

Back in the 1989 strike, workers outside the classroom weren’t a priority for the UTLA. “For a long time, the union didn’t really represent counselors,” said Rosemary Rubin, a former LA Unified School District (LAUSD) employee and emeritus group chair of the California Association of School Counselors. “Things have started to change. School counselors became more recognizable.” The union’s present focus on the counselor shortage—and the related understaffing of nurses, librarians, and speech and occupational therapists, many of whom are classified as “itinerant”—might also be seen as part of a new, progressive agenda. Arlene Inouye, the secretary of UTLA, explained that the union has made it a priority to represent non-teacher perspectives. “Last year, I had meetings with all of the health and human services representatives to find out what their issues are,” she said. “For the counselors, it’s workload, doing things they shouldn’t be doing.”

Inouye was elected on the reform slate of Alex Caputo-Pearl, a Teach for America alumnus-turned-public-sector-loyalist, who became the union president in 2014. Caputo-Pearl’s “Union Power” slate vowed to place a cap on charter schools, support rank-and-file activism, and, if necessary, wield the power of the strike. One of the slate’s first big initiatives was to push for an increase in union dues—perhaps the least ingratiating move possible, yet more than 80 percent of the members, some earning as little as $50,000 per year, voted in favor of the measure. The underlying message—about the need to protect school children against pro-charter forces and the coming of a national right-to-work regime—was clearly articulated and prescient.

UTLA has organized charter-school teachers and sued Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, a local charter network, for union-busting. Meanwhile, as collective bargaining continued to stall, more than a year after the contract’s expiration date, an astonishing 98 percent of the more than 80 percent of members who voted agreed to pre-authorize a strike. On Saturday December 15, thousands of red-shirted UTLA members marched through downtown LA. A friend of mine, who has taught in the district since 1985, said he hadn’t seen anything like it for thirty years.


E. Tammy KimCounselors, nurses, and social workers rallied alongside classroom teachers on the fifth day of the strike, in Grand Park, Los Angeles, 2019

The union’s nemesis is Austin Beutner, a former investment banker who became superintendent of the school district last May. Beutner is widely regarded as a Betsy DeVos-style privatizer, and he has the backing of Eli Broad, a billionaire who, in 2015, pushed a $490 million plan to turn half of all LA schools into charters. Although Beutner has acknowledged that “smaller class sizes, more teachers, counselors, nurses, and librarians in schools would make our schools better,” he argued that there was simply no money because of the existing liabilities of retiree pensions and health insurance. (One member of the overwhelmingly pro-charter School Board that oversees the LAUSD said that sufficient funds did, in fact, exist; when I requested an interview with Beutner, his spokesperson referred me to the district website.) Superintendent Beutner has also refused to touch the district’s $1.8 billion in reserves, citing a projected decline in student enrollment. But, as a state fact-finding report concluded last month, the LAUSD’s ability to retain student levels turns on reducing class sizes, in order to appeal to parents. 

Since the passage of Proposition 13, in 1978, which amended the state constitution to freeze residential and commercial property taxes, California’s once incomparable public schools have struggled to thrive. Deprived of local revenue, districts became dependent on politicians in Sacramento (85 percent of the LAUSD’s $7.5 billion budget is from the state), and California began to slide toward the bottom of national rankings for per-pupil spending. The termination of busing and a perceived decline in the quality of education provoked rampant resegregation: in 1970, the average Latino student attended a school that was 54 percent white; now, her school is likely to be 84 percent nonwhite. Then, charter schools came on the scene, tapping public funds and seizing upon a feeling of neglect among families with children in the public school system. California now has more charters—nearly 1,300 schools, educating 630,000 students—than any other state, and the LAUSD boasts of being “the largest district charter school authorizer in the nation, with 277 independent and affiliated charter schools serving over 154,000 students.”

The UTLA represents some 900 charter teachers and staff, but there are limits to solidarity. Last week, the teachers at GALA, the all-girls charter school on the campus of LA High, held a separate, tiny picket down the street from where Morales and her colleagues marched. The “co-location” of charters on the grounds of traditional public schools is increasingly common. One campus I encountered houses two public schools and two charters. Typically, in addition to the building itself, some human services are shared, such as the nurse, custodian, and sports teams. But, in Morales’s view, this is less a case of community-minded cooperation than of free-riding. 

Charters, she said, “promise the kids the moon and the stars, and of course they can choose, so they only take the kids they want to take.” GALA was exclusive, whereas LA High took pride in serving everyone in its catchment area. According to Morales and Martinez, many charters begin the school year with a high head count, to maximize their budgets, and then, as the year goes on, send away “difficult” students—those with disabilities or behavioral issues—to their neighborhood schools. But the per-pupil funding isn’t adjusted mid-year, and by the spring semester, schools like LA High see their numbers rise well above what their budgets can stand, with a high concentration of students in need of counseling.

There’s a growing sense that communities are being cleaved and traditional schools underfunded by the flashiness and promised innovation of charter schools. I was surprised by the extent to which striking counselors and teachers brought up these issues of funding and privatization. In East LA, Favian Rodriguez, a thirty-three-year-old pupil services and attendance counselor at Lincoln High School, bemoaned the fact that “schools have to purchase positions. They have to decide between a nurse, an academic counselor, a teacher, or a psychiatric social worker.” After Morales and Martinez discussed charterization with their eight-year-old daughter, Sophia, she made a protest sign that read:

❤ Student on Strike
I am not a berry to be picked
Charter Schools Pick their Students
No to Charter Schools

“It’s about public education for everybody. We’re a product of that,” Martinez said. “We owe it to the next generation to make their lives better.”


E. Tammy KimNadia Morales and Pedro Martinez at home with their eight-year-old daughter, Sophia, and their son, Los Angeles, 2019

At many school-based pickets, and in the crush of tens of thousands of red-shirted teachers at the rallies downtown, I heard talk of other public-sector comrades between chants of “UTLA.” The plight of the furloughed federal employees, an imminent teachers’ strike in Oakland, and last year’s mass walkouts in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Arizona were on people’s minds. There was also talk of UTLA’s efforts to partially repeal Proposition 13 and to put a moratorium on new charters. “The strike provides that liberated time to talk about things,” said Arturo Romo, a graphics-arts teacher at Sonia Sotomayor Learning Academies in Northeast Los Angeles.

On the sidewalk in front of LA High, as passing drivers leaned on their horns and parents and students stopped by to chat, Morales smiled broadly. Neither she nor Martinez was being paid, and the weather during the first four days of the strike had been rainy, even torrential—parts of their street in Glendale ran a foot deep with water—but on Friday, in time for another mass demonstration at City Hall, the sun emerged. Jerry Villafuerte, a former student of Morales’s, came to show his support between classes at LA City College and a part-time retail job. It was Morales, he said, who had guided him through school, and, when a baseball career didn’t pan out, offered alternatives. “I came back after I graduated high school and asked Ms. Morales, “What’s a good major that has to do with sports?” he recalled.

Villafuerte is now studying kinesiology, with the hope of becoming a baseball coach at LA High. I also spoke with twenty-three-year-old Omar Quan, an army reservist and security guard who was twice Morales’s student: first, in elementary school, during her stint as a teacher, and second, at LA High. In his teens, Quan, the son of first-generation Honduran immigrants, struggled with “anger problems,” he said, “to a point where it became an issue at school.” His father had passed away, leaving his mother to care for three children all by herself. “My mom doesn’t speak English that well, but Ms. Morales speaks Spanish,” he said, one of many reasons he opened up to her—“I never approached a teacher with stuff like that.”

The Martin Luther King Jr. holiday gave strikers, students, and parents an extended weekend reprieve, but contract negotiations continued. On Tuesday morning, Caputo-Pearl, Beutner, and Mayor Eric Garcetti held a press conference at City Hall to announce a tentative agreement. Though details of the deal were not yet public and would still have to be approved by the School Board and voted on by union members, Caputo-Pearl said there had been sufficient progress on all the major issues, from class size and counseling hours to charter co-location and salaries. Playing the part of mediator, Garcetti called for an end to caricature: Caputo-Pearl was not an unreasonable bully, he said, nor was Beutner a ruthless privatizer.

Across the district’s 710 square miles, union members received phone alerts from their local representatives. The TA would be circulated for review; then, at 5:00 PM, everyone would convene at their school sites to vote. Morales, who heard the news while on a bus from LA High to yet another downtown rally, felt optimistic. “Apparently we’re ok. We are voting today… The bus shook with excitement!” she wrote in a text. Romo, the graphic-arts teacher in East LA, was more sanguine in the text he sent me: “So far, there’s been a really strong push against celebrating early here at Sotomayor.” Then, a few minutes later: “Dancing in the streets before the vote…”

The UTLA posted the tentative agreement to its website around lunchtime. Overall, the new contract provisions—gradual reductions in class size, a salary bump, “a nurse in every school,” and additional counselors—seemed responsive to the union’s main demands. Also tucked into the forty-page document were protections for ethnic studies, strengthening of district committees (a win for parent and student representation from the 1989 strike), more say in charter co-location, coordination of social services for immigrant students, and a pilot program to reduce the use of random searches of students. There was also a separate, non-binding resolution, to be presented to the school board, urging state legislators “to impose a cap on new charter schools approved in our district” and commission a study of “charter authorization reform.” 

At 5:00, strikers huddled in meetings with their chapter chairs, dissecting the agreement before taking a vote. It was naturally deflating to go from street protest (one handmade sign: “45 is the speed limit, not a class size”) to legalese (“the District shall reduce class size by 1 from the 2017-2018 Class Size MOU”), and many workers were disappointed with what seemed like minimal movement on the counselor ratio—additional hiring would still leave a ratio of one counselor for every 500 students. Yet there was also an awareness of the vast sums of money behind each decision, and the risks of striking into a second week. Moreover, because the protest had been about ideals—of the value of the public sector and quality education for all—not everything could be achieved through a contract. 

The UTLA announced, around dinnertime, that a “super-majority” of members had voted to approve the tentative agreement. In less than twelve hours, the school bell would ring.  


This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. (For further information, sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.)

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Rapping with Fanon


Bruno Barbey/Magnum PhotosPerformers with portraits of Ahmed Sekou-Toure, Leader of the Democratic Party of Guinea, Pan-African Festival, Algiers, 1969

On Christmas Eve 1959, the revolutionary psychiatrist Frantz Fanon went to a party at the home of his secretary, Marie-Jeanne Manuellan, in Tunis, where he was working as a spokesman for the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN). Fanon had invited himself over, and Manuellan could hardly say no to her boss, but she was dreading his appearance. She had been taking dictation for his study of the Algerian war of independence, A Dying Colonialism, and found him so severe, and so unfriendly, that she nicknamed him “The Sadist.” “Dance in front of Fanon?” Manuellan writes in her recent memoir, Sous la dictée de Fanon. “It wasn’t possible… But how could I tell him, ‘Stay home!’ He was going to spoil the evening for us.” 

To her “great astonishment,” Fanon was the life of the party. “Smiling, truly happy, cracking jokes,” he picked up a guitar, sang West Indian songs, and chatted till the small hours with her husband about jazz and blues. Music brought out a levity, a warmth, in Fanon that Marie-Jeanne had never before noticed. 

Fanon was not a musician, but he loved what he called the “charge” of words, their power to move, and not merely persuade, and he was no stranger to improvisation. In her memoir, Manuellan describes taking dictation from him: “Fanon didn’t have any paper in hand. He would walk and ‘speak’ his book as if his thought shot smoothly from his steps, from his body’s rhythm, with very rare interruptions or reprises.” Both A Dying Colonialism and his 1961 anti-colonial manifesto The Wretched of the Earth originated, in effect, as spoken word performances, with Manuellan the sole member of the audience.

In his 1959 lecture at a congress of black artists and writers in Rome, Fanon drew upon a musical example to illustrate his vision of a revolutionary culture. “On National Culture”—later published as a chapter of The Wretched of the Earth—celebrated the defiant “new humanism” of bebop, which had grown out of “the inevitable, though gradual, defeat” of segregation. Having cast off their role as entertainers for the white man, bebop musicians were shaping their own destiny as artists. In “fifty years or so,” Fanon predicted, the “type of jazz lament hiccuped by a poor, miserable ‘Negro’ will be defended by only those whites believing in a frozen image of a certain type of relationship and a certain form of negritude.” Black American jazz, with its commitment to artistic independence and innovation, was, for Fanon, an exemplary practice of cultural freedom, a model for the wretched of the earth in their efforts to invent a new, emancipated identity. 

In times of revolutionary upheaval, he reminded his audience in Rome, “tradition changes meaning,” since it is “fundamentally unstable and crisscrossed by centrifugal forces.” The liberation struggle, he insisted, would not “leave intact either the form or substance of the people’s culture.” 

Fanon died in 1961, less than a year before Algerian independence. His critique of cultural traditionalism was mostly ignored by the FLN leadership, which turned away from his revolutionary modernism. But Fanon’s vision of a revolutionary culture received a spellbinding tribute in Algiers in the summer of 1969, when Nina Simone, Miriam Makeba, the free jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp, the Beat poet Ted Joans, the Black Panthers, and representatives of various national liberation movements arrived for the Pan-African Festival—the Woodstock of the Third World. “We are still black and we have come back. Nous sommes revenus,” Shepp declared from the stage, in a performance with a group of Tuareg Berber musicians. “Jazz is an African power! Jazz is an African music!” 

It lasted ten days; nothing of its ambition or scale was ever repeated. (The American activist Elaine Mokhtefi, one of the organizers, gives a moving account of the festival in her new memoir, Algiers, Third World Capital: Freedom Fighters, Revolutionaries, Black Panthers.) But the spirit of Algiers in 1969, which heralded a more expansive, collective freedom than Serge Gainsbourg’s libidinal anthem “69 année érotique,” inspired a vast and sprawling cultural movement. The movement has received a fabulous musical tribute from the French rapper known as Rocé, an anthology of twenty-four tracks, recorded between 1969 and 1988, with the explicitly Fanonian title, Par les damné.e.s de la terre, “by the wretched of the earth.” Anyone who has listened to its nearly eighty minutes will find it hard to imagine that anyone could ever have asked whether the subaltern can speak, a question famously posed by the literary theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. These “voices of struggle,” as the subtitle calls them, speak (and sing) with radiant, unpretentious, unstoppable eloquence—and with a seductive confidence that, whatever setbacks they encounter, history is on their side. They remind us that Third World liberation wasn’t simply a cause; it was a romance. Yet Rocé’s purpose isn’t to rekindle a love affair, much less to mourn its passing. Par les damné.e.s de la terre is conceived as a musical history from the bottom up, addressed to contemporary listeners of French hip hop who, in his view, have been deprived of knowledge of their cultural heritage. As Rocé explains in his “note of intention”:

I’m part of the generation that saw the rise of French rap, and along with it, a real craze for this music created by the children of second and third generation immigrants. But I wanted to go beyond rap, to dig deeper into Francophone artists who convey a message of poetic urgency, of sensitive poetry on the edge, committed to a cause despite itself, because their environment gives them no choice… Many artists present in this collection didn’t have the good fortune of finding a receptive audience at the time; I think that current issues around migration and identity will give special resonance to these words and this music. 

Rocé, who is forty-one, has been a passionate reader of Fanon since he discovered Black Skin, White Masks as a teenager. Fanon’s 1952 study of racism in France captured the feelings of alienation that he’d experienced as a young man of color in Paris. (Rocé’s mother is from Algeria’s small black community.) He was equally struck by The Wretched of the Earth, whose depiction of a colonized world “cut in two” by “the barracks and the police stations” reminded him of Paris and its banlieues: “The banlieues in France are managed today like the former colonies, with the symbolic barriers of the police. But because of the universalism of the left here, we’re supposed to pretend that race doesn’t exist.” French hip-hop—in large part the creation of young men and women from black and Arab families—helped break the wall of silence and denial around the problem of race in France. 

Par les damné.e.s de la terre, which doubles as a history of French rap’s hidden ancestry, is an album teeming with words. Reciting his poem “Il est des nuits” (“There are nights”), Léon-Gontran Damas, one of the founders of the Négritude movement, evokes with grave, sonorous beauty,“the nameless nights, the moonless nights” of his days in Paris as a poor student from French Guiana. (As Amiri Baraka remarked, Damas wrote “literally poems to be sung.”) We also hear directly from Ho Chi Minh and from General Vo Nguyen Giap, who, in a 1976 interview in Algiers, declared that “nothing is more precious than independence.” But even as Rocé pays his respects to such legendary Third World revolutionaries and writers, his project focuses on music by artists who have either slipped into obscurity or who were hardly known in the first place: the B-sides of the revolution. For all its insurrectionary fervor, most of the music he selected is more lyrical than didactic. Rocé’s understanding of “independence” has less to do with the liberation of territory than the liberation of the imagination. 

To listen to this anthology is to be struck by the sheer variety of genres through which the Francophone “wretched of the earth” expressed their rebellious energies: Berber songs of exile, rock, folk, free jazz, reggae, Afro-pop, even—in the singer-songwriter Pierre Akendengue’s lilting “Le trottoir d’en face,” a flâneur’s diary of street life in Gabon—an African gloss on the French chanson tradition of Piaf, Brassens, and Brel. Cross-pollination, collage, and “appropriation” were the order of the day. But it’s not just the range of forms, or the interplay of tradition and innovation, that seizes the attention; it’s the sense that the struggles invoked by the title were shared and overlapping, part of a transnational project of liberation whose ultimate goal was the decolonization of the Francophone world, including France itself. That goal proved elusive. Independence led to new forms of oppression in countries liberated from the French empire, while the French establishment still shies from acknowledging the crimes of imperialism or, for that matter, the existence of French multiculturalism, the empire’s bastard offspring. (Last November, a group of eighty French intellectuals published a vitriolic letter in Le Point denouncing postcolonial studies as a threat to Republican values, even as a form of “intellectual terrorism.”) Yet these artists succeeded in creating a common culture of revolt, an anti-colonial internationalism “made of fluid exchanges and mutual borrowings,” as Robert Malley has argued in his study of Third Worldism, The Call from Algeria.

They also helped remake the French language, a language their ancestors had been forced to speak, by smuggling into it the subjectivity, the accents and the speech of the Republic’s imperial subjects. In his 1948 essay on the Négritude poets, “Black Orpheus,” Jean-Paul Sartre argued that the French language was a double-edged sword for black poets who, even as they rejected French colonialism, were forced to “rely on the words of the oppressor’s language… this goose-pimply language—pale and cold like our skies… this language which is half dead for them… Like the sixteenth-century scholars who understood each other only in Latin, black men can meet only on that trap-covered ground that the white man has prepared for them: the colonist… is there—always there—even when he is absent, even in the most secret meetings.” But the performers on Rocé’s anthology suggest a more hopeful story. As the Algerian novelist Kamel Daoud has written, the process of decolonization produces its own “strange creole,” a new language that grows out of the imposed language only to turn it to radically different expressive and political ends. Par les damn.é.e.s de la terre is an exhilarating tribute to the revolutionary beauty of this strange creole.

Rocé’s definition of “the wretched of the earth” is refreshingly supple, referring not only to people colonized by the French, but also factory workers and victims of fascism. There are two tracks by the Groupement Culturel Renault, a psychedelic band formed in the early 1970s by anarchist militants in the Renault factory in Boulogne–Billancourt who combined the deadpan pose of Serge Gainsbourg and black American soul with denunciations of workplace alienation. Rocé has also included an otherworldly tribute to the First Nations of Quebec by the poet Claude Péloquin, who grumbles in Quebécois over the whirling, freaky sounds of “The Machine,” a synthesizer created by his partner, the electronic musician Jean Sauvageau. “Monsieur l’indien” (1972) is a gorgeously paradoxical work, using modern technology in defense of a pre-industrial civilization threatened by what Walter Benjamin called the “storm” of progress, symbolized by the sound of the high-speed train we hear at the end. 

The inclusion of “Monsieur l’indien” may raise some eyebrows, since neither Péloquin nor Sauvageau is a member of the First Nation. It may be for, but it’s certainly not by, the “wretched of the earth.” Péloquin himself dismissed the idea that their work was an act of solidarity. “We were beyond the revolution,” he said. “We were about consciousness. We were closer to the Fluxus Group, and to people like Ferlinghetti.” But the lines between the counterculture and Third Worldist politics were porous in those days, and one was often a gateway drug to the other. You don’t have to be persuaded by the politics of “Monsieur l’indien” to be hypnotized by it, which is probably why it made the cut. This is the anthology of an artist, not a historian, and it expresses Rocé’s love of revolutionary sounds as much as his commitment to revolutionary politics. 

Although Par les damné.e.s. de la terre was intended as an inspiring soundtrack of resistance, it also displays a strong undercurrent of disappointment; a thread of postcolonial melancholy runs through the album. There are, not surprisingly, a number of tracks about the plight of Arab and West Indian laborers in France, but Western racism isn’t the only target here. A number of tracks describe the aborted promise of independence in countries ruled by predatory elites, the “native bourgeoisie” who Fanon warned would confiscate power after the overthrow of colonialism. In the most heartbreaking track on the album, “Le mal du pays” (“homesickness”), recorded in 1984, the exiled Haitian singer-songwriter Emmanuel “Manno” Charlemagne evokes the terror of the Duvalier dictatorship and the Tonton Macoute paramilitaries, wondering if he will ever return to “sing of liberty.” Ten years later he did, and in 1995 he was elected mayor of Port-au-Prince. But he was forced into exile once again, and died in Florida in 2017.   

In “Les Vautours” (“The vultures”), recorded in 1978, Abdoulaye Cissé, a guitarist and singer-songwriter from Burkina Faso, describes a continent that fell into permanent exile from itself. The vultures are the traders and colonizers who diverted Africa from what might have been its natural path. Before their arrival, he sings over a warm, Afro-Cuban groove, “the African sky was so serene, the soil of Africa was at peace… since that day men have been fighting… the people of Africa have been looking for what they have lost, and at night around the fire, the sound of the drums rises in the sky, in search of the treasures the vultures took with them.” Cissé held a number of positions in the revolutionary government of Thomas Sankara, and conducted its choral groups, until Sankara was assassinated in October 1987. The time of the vultures had never ended.  

*

The idea for Par les damné.e.s de la terre arose by chance, in a record shop. The owner, Aurélien Delval, a childhood friend of Rocé’s, played him a spoken-word piece recorded in 1970 by Alfred Panou, an actor, filmmaker, and poet from Benin. Panou, who had played a revolutionary in Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend, was staging a play called Black Power, a setting of texts by Angela Davis, Amiri Baraka, and Stokely Carmichael, when Pierre Barouh of Saravah Records invited him to record something with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the great American free-jazz band, which had decamped to Paris for the year. Just before going to bed that evening, Panou scribbled a poem, “Je suis un sauvage” (“I am a savage”), in a fit of automatic writing; he recorded it with the Art Ensemble the next day at a studio in Montmartre. 

Panou had discovered Fanon when he came to Paris, and in “Je suis un sauvage,” he offers an outrageous, Afro-surrealist take on what Fanon called “the lived experience of the black man” in white spaces, particularly the encounter with the white gaze. “I am a savage, but not a slave,” Panou proclaims, mocking racists by ventriloquizing their phobias about the black body (“despite my daily shower… my odor stuns the illuminated”) and African cannibalism (“What sauce do you prefer to be eaten with? The state will pay for it!”). Panou was obviously having great fun, as was the Art Ensemble. Malachi Favors’s bass hooks us from the moment the track begins. The saxophonists Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman play stately, unison lines on reeds, around which Lester Bowie performs dancing, mischievous riffs on trumpet. The wit and irreverence of “Je suis un sauvage” floored Rocé. In Panou, who, he discovered, was still living in Paris running a cinema for African films, Rocé felt as if he’d found a French contemporary of The Last Poets: an authentic exponent of spoken-word poetry, an ancestor of French rappers like himself. 


Rocé/FacebookAlfred Panou and Rocé, 2017

Back at the record shop, his friend Delval had another revelation waiting for him: “La Pieuvre” (“The Octopus”), recorded in 1968 by the singer-songwriter Colette Magny, a former typist best known for her 1963 “Melocoton.” Born in 1926, Magny was well known for her covers of jazz and blues songs, and praised as France’s Ella Fitzgerald. But her husky androgynous voice, her taste for songs of torment and anger, and her manner of declaiming as much as singing her lyrics were more reminiscent of Nina Simone. By the late 1960s, Magny had become an outspoken leftist, recording for Le Chant du Monde, a label close to the Communist Party. On “La Pieuvre,” Magny chronicled the grueling working conditions at the Rhodiaceta textile factory in Besançon, where a strike erupted in 1967. (The French filmmaker Chris Marker featured the song in his 1968 documentary about Rhodiaceta.) “You baptized our factories with rocket names / Harsh wine names,” she sings, with accusatory passion. “We work with continuous fires / At more than 30 degrees / And 70 percent humidity / We all become nervous / Our ulcers bloom / our ulcers flourish.” Magny 68, the album on which “La Pieuvre” appeared, was banned by French radio, but Magny refused to retreat. On her 1972 album Répression, whose cover featured a drawing of a black panther, she paid homage to the slain Black Panther party member George Jackson and lashed out at police violence against African-Americans. When Rocé heard “La Pieuvre,” he told himself, “If I can find two tracks like this, there must be more.” 

Rocé has an unusually intimate relationship to the history of these “voices of struggle.” Born José Youcef Lamine Kaminsky in 1977 in Algiers, he comes from a family of anti-colonial militants. His father, Adolfo Kaminsky, the son of Russian Jews who had emigrated to Buenos Aires before settling in Paris in the 1930s, fabricated passports for the French Resistance while he was still a teenager. After the war, he forged papers for the Algerian rebels, and later for anti-fascist Greeks, Spaniards, Portuguese, ANC activists, Angolan revolutionaries, and other national liberation insurgents. In his memoir, A Forger’s Life, he says he also provided passports for the militant Jewish group Haganah in its fight against the British in Palestine, but recoiled when he realized the Zionist movement’s intention to create “a state religion, which came down to creating, once again, two categories of population: the Jews and the others.” In the early 1970s, on his first visit to Algeria since independence, he met Rocé’s mother, Leïla, a law student who in her spare time was volunteering for the Angolan national liberation movement. They lived together in Algeria for a decade, before moving with their children to Paris. In his memoir, Kaminsky writes that during his career as a forger, he used “the only weapons at my disposal—technical knowledge, ingenuity, and unshakable utopian ideals” to oppose “a reality that was too harrowing to observe or suffer without doing anything about it.”

Rocé has done much the same, both as a politically aware rapper who has collaborated with free jazz musicians like Archie Shepp and Jacques Coursil, and as the producer of Par les damné.e.s de la terre. But when I spoke with Rocé at his office in Paris last summer, he disabused me of the notion that he’d been steeped in his parents’ experiences of liberation struggles. “Fanon’s books were in the house, but my father never told me about Fanon. That was his history, not mine, and he didn’t want to talk about it. Often when parents change country, they don’t want to start again. They want to move on. So their experiences aren’t really transmitted”—a problem he says the the album was partly designed to redress. As Rocé writes in his notes, “It’s crucial to pass on these moments when anything was possible, so that they infiltrate and disperse the bleak mood that new generations are growing up with.”

Like many French rappers of his generation, Rocé was initially attracted to Fanon because he was “a warrior,” an intellectual who joined a national liberation struggle, but what fascinates him now is “the link Fanon made between the deconstruction of imperialist culture and the creation of a new world.” That link is the implicit subject of one of the album’s most striking tracks, “Complexium,” recorded in 1974 in New York by the singer Dane Belany. “Complexium” is a taut setting of a few lines from a play by the Martinican poet Aimé Césaire, who had been Fanon’s mentor; the piece originally appeared on an album dedicated to Fanon, Motivations. Belany’s story is among the intriguing ones unearthed by Rocé’s project (and recounted in the album’s excellent liner notes by the historians Naïma Yahi and Amzat Boukari-Yabara). The daughter of a Senegalese father and a Turkish mother, educated in Paris, Belany won acclaim in the 1960s as a “sexy jazz singer” who combined the “charms of Paris and subjugation of Harlem.” But at the 1969 Avignon Festival, she experienced an epiphany that radicalized her outlook. Her straightened hair had begun to kink under the sun when a black American jazz musician took a comb to her head, unfurled her curls, and told her, “this is how you should comb your hair.” She became one of the first women in Paris to wear her hair in a towering Afro (featured in a triplicate image on the cover of Motivations), only to find herself insulted on the street. When she moved to New York a few years later, she immediately felt at home in the world of black musicians and artists—notably Ornette Coleman, who became a close friend. 

Belany’s producer on Motivations was Raphaël Schecroun, a bebop pianist and drummer who called himself “Errol Parker,” in homage to his two favorite musicians, pianist Errol Garner and saxophonist Charlie Parker. An Algerian-born Jew, Schecroun had played piano with Kenny Clarke and Django Reinhardt in Paris, and attracted the attention of Duke Ellington, who published two of his compositions and encouraged him to move to New York. By the time Schecroun arrived in the city, in the late 1960s, the Black Power revolution was in full bloom, and he embraced its vision of reconnecting with the African motherland. He founded Sahara Records in 1971 and began applying the hand-drumming techniques of North Africa to the Western drum kit. On Motivations, he accompanied Belany on drums, along with two veterans of the loft scene: the tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman, a member of Coleman’s band, who performs on the bagpipe-like musette, invoking the sounds of the Arab East; and the bassist Sirone (Norris Jones), who plays spare chords that punctuate Belany’s melodic lines. Their accompaniment is stark and elemental, a foil for Belany’s vocals. She had recently suffered laryngitis and was in poor voice, but Coleman suggested that she speak the lyrics she couldn’t sing. On “Complexium,” she powerfully recites the monologue of the rebel in Césaire’s play And the Dogs Were Silent:

My name: Hurt.
First name: Humiliated.
My state: a rebel. 
My age: the stone age.

Here is the voice of a young woman who has inherited an ancient rage: a reminder that, as Walter Benjamin wrote, the revolt of the oppressed is “nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren.” Her instrument may be weakened, but she uses it to highly theatrical effect, much as Abbey Lincoln did in her civil rights songs of the early 1960s. As Parker wrote in his liner notes, “This stunning brown-skinned redhead, a singer, composer, actress and dancer… has invented and put together a total form of black musical expression in which elements of poetry, satire and tragedy are coherently blended into African rhythms and free jazz.” 

Motivations was banned in Senegal: President Léopold Sédar Senghor, one of the founders of the Négritude movement, considered it subversive, perhaps because of Belany’s dedication to Fanon, a fierce critic of Senghor’s. After returning to Paris, she fell into a long depression and all but lost her voice. Her thrilling cry of revolt, an essential document of Third World free jazz, deserves to be reissued in its own right and in full.

What, ultimately, is the purpose of Par les damné.e.s de la terre? The revolutionary spirit it honors is all but extinguished, not least in France, where the gilets jaunes have been notable for their lack of ideology—and the conspicuous absence of non-white demonstrators. Rocé’s project carries more than a whiff of radical chic nostalgia, which he does little to conceal when he describes the 1960s and 1970s as “an epoch of struggles, of possibility.” Yet Par les damné.e.s de la terre is an unexpectedly moving document, not only because it presents an extraordinary archive of recordings, but also because it illuminates the radical hopes that inspired them. Rocé himself, the son of a left-wing French Jew and a black Algerian Muslim who met at a meeting for the liberation of Angola, would not have existed without these hopes, and the new world they dared to imagine. Par les damné.e.s de la terre is a powerful reminder of what that world sounded like. 

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Can a Translation Be a Masterpiece, Too?


Private Collection/Look and Learn/Bridgeman ImagesAn engraving, nineteenth century

Do the beliefs we hold about literature add up to something consistent and coherent? Or are they little more than random pieties? Take two crucial notions I heard repeatedly last year. First, that in a fine work of literature, every word counts, perfection has been achieved, nothing can be moved—a claim I’ve seen made for writers as prolix (and diverse) as Victor Hugo and Jonathan Franzen. Second, that translators are creative artists in their own right, co-authoring the text they translate, a fine translation being as unique and important as the original work. Mark Polizzotti makes this claim in Sympathy for the Traitor (2018), but any number of scholars in the field of Translation Studies would agree.

Can these two positions be reconciled? Doesn’t translating a work of literature inevitably involve moving things around and altering many of the relations between the words in the original? In which case, either the original’s alleged perfection has been overstated, or the translation is indeed, as pessimists have often supposed, a fine but somewhat flawed copy. Unless, that is, we are going to think of a translation as a quite different work with its own inner logic and inspiration, only casually related to that foreign original. In which case, English readers will be obliged to wonder whether they have ever read Tolstoy, Proust, or Mann, and not, rather, Constance Garnett, C.K. Scott Moncrieff, or Helen Lowe-Porter. Or more recently, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, or Lydia Davis or Michael Henry Heim. 

How perplexing. One of the problems in this debate is that most readers are only familiar with translated texts in their own languages. They cannot contemplate the supposed perfection of the foreign original, and when the translation delights them, they rightly thank the translator for it and are happy to suppose that the work “stands shoulder to shoulder with the source text,” as Polizzotti puts it. It makes these readers’ own experience seem more important. Alternatively, when they rejoice over the perfection of Jane Austen, Henry James, or F. Scott Fitzgerald, they do not see what foreign translations have done to the work as it travels around the world.

Let’s consider a couple of examples, one from English into Italian and one from Italian into English, and try to get a clearer idea of what actually happens between original and translation, untroubled by polemics or special pleading. Here is Henry James opening his fine story “The Altar of the Dead” (1895):

He had a mortal dislike, poor Stransom, to lean anniversaries, and loved them still less when they made a pretence of a figure. Celebrations and suppressions were equally painful to him, and but one of the former found a place in his life. He had kept each year in his own fashion the date of Mary Antrim’s death. It would be more to the point perhaps to say that this occasion kept him: it kept him at least effectually from doing anything else. It took hold of him again and again with a hand of which time had softened but never loosened the touch. He waked to his feast of memory as consciously as he would have waked to his marriage-morn. 

We’re struck at once by the curiosity of “lean anniversaries” and the rather unexpected “pretence of a figure.” The story of the fiancée’s death allows us to realize that “lean” has the sense of unhappy (as in the lean and fat cows of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream), while the account of Stransom’s obsession adds to this leanness the idea of the girl’s softening hand holding him from beyond the grave. At this point, the choice of “mortal” right at the beginning and “pretence of a figure” also make sense: it’s as if the various parts of some gaunt, ghostly manifestation were calling to each other beneath the surface of the writing. The cleverness of the three uses of “keep” helps bring them together: Stransom keeps the anniversary, but no, it keeps him, it keeps him from doing anything else, because, in a way, Mary Antrim is not dead. Lean and softly decaying, she is still pretending to figure. And James is having fun. Stransom “wakes” to his “marriage morn,” which is, in fact, a wake and a mourning. And so on. Here is the Italian, by Giulia Arborio Mella, which, with patience, we shall try to understand: 

Lui non le poteva soffrire, povero Stransom le celebrazioni scialbe, e ancor più detestava quelle pretenziose. Le commemorazioni lo affliggevano non meno dell’oblio, e una sola trovava spazio nella sua vita: a modo suo, aveva sempre osservato la ricorrenza della morte di Mary Antrim. Ma forse sarebbe più esatto dire che era quella ricorrenza a osservare lui, a tenerlo d’occhio, anzi, al punto da sottrarlo a ogni altra cura. Anno dopo anno lo ghermiva col suo piglio mitigato dal tempo, ma non per questo meno imperioso; e ogni volta, per quel festino di rimembranze, Stransom si destava pronto e consapevole come fosse stato il mattino delle sue nozze.  

When I show these two texts to Italian students without saying which is the original, they often imagine it is the Italian. The writing is attractively literary, vaguely pompous, archaic, solemnly fluent. It feels like the kind of things Italians used to write. Paying a little attention, however, we see that there are parts that don’t make much sense. Here is a brutally literal translation of the Italian back into English:

He couldn’t stand them, poor Stransom, those banal/empty celebrations, and he detested pretentious celebrations even more.

The English posited one kind of anniversary/celebration that Stransom dislikes, the unhappy kind, which he dislikes even more when they put on a show; in the Italian, he hates two kinds, empty anniversaries and pretentious ones. This doesn’t really set us up for his obsession with Mary Antrim’s death. Here’s the next sentence, again in my literal translation: 

Commemorations pained him no less than forgetfulness/oblivion, and only one found space in his life: in his way he had always observed the anniversary of Mary Antrim’s death.

James’s Stransom found it painful to commemorate an unhappy anniversary and equally painful to suppress it, to pretend it wasn’t occurring. The Italian has Stransom equally pained by commemorating and forgetting. It’s not clear how this could be; once something is forgotten, it ceases to be painful. Stransom’s problem is precisely that he can’t forget. Let’s take the remaining two sentences in one chunk, noticing the problem the translator has in finding an equivalent for James’s game with “keep,” the disappearance of the suggestion of decay in the softening hand, and the inevitable loss of fun with “waked” and “morn.” 

But perhaps it would be more exact to say it was the anniversary observed him, kept an eye on him rather, to the point of subtracting him from any other concern. Year after year, it clutched him with a grip mitigated by time, but no less imperious for that; and every time this feast of remembrance came round, Stransom woke up ready and conscious as if it had been the morning of his wedding day. 

In many ways, the Italian version is an excellent translation. Certainly, many Italians will have enjoyed reading it. Better to have it than not. But it doesn’t reproduce the internal tension and apparently easy patterning of the English, that crucial meshing of a language’s possibilities with an author’s imagination that gives us literature. The Italian translator is playing catch up as best she can, tossing in melodrama (“clutch… imperious”) where James only has the quiet, but deadly effective “keep.” Perhaps another translator might have given the first lines more faithfully and just as fluently, but there would still have been moments when the writing wasn’t so intensely allusive and interconnected. This is simply because one is translating rather than writing.

Now the other way around. Here is the great Giovanni Verga opening the short story “I galantuomini” (1883). 

Sanno scrivere—qui sta il guaio. La brinata dell’alba scura, e il sollione della messe, se li pigliano come tutti gli altri poveri diavoli, giacché son fatti di carne e d’ossa come il prossimo, per andare a sorvegliare che il prossimo non rubi loro il tempo e il denaro della giornata. Ma se avete a far con essi, vi uncinano nome e cognome, e chi vi ha fatto, col beccuccio di quella penna, e non ve ne districate più dai loro libracci, inchiodati nel debito. 

This time, let’s look at the translation straight away. This version, by G.H. McWilliam, is entitled “Bigwigs”: 

The trouble is, they know how to write. They’re made of flesh and blood like the rest, so like any other poor devil they put up with the hoar-frost on a dark morning and the dog-days at harvest time, so as to keep watch on their workers and make sure they’re not wasting their time and robbing them of a day’s wages. But once they get their claws into you, they jot down your name, surname and parentage with those pens of theirs, and you never get out of their grubby little books, you’re in debt up to your ears.

Like the Italian translation of James, this looks pretty fluent and readable. Of course, the word “Bigwigs” shifts our perception of these men quite a distance. The English term is always disparaging and has fallen into disuse; the Italian “galantuomini” is alive with antithetical energies; it means gallant men, honourable men, but also possibly and simultaneously, criminals, mafia, bosses—“gallant,” that is, within an abhorrent moral code. The Italian begins “Sanno scrivere—qui sta il guaio” (They can write, there’s the rub). Readers are not used to hearing this kind of thing; how on earth can knowing how to write be a problem? The English opening, “The trouble is…” is weaker. But that is an issue with this particular translation and surely not absolutely necessary. 

There follows, in the Italian, a classic example of what linguists call “dislocation”: that is, the two objects of the verb “pigliarsi” (suffer, feel, take) are shifted to the beginning of the sentence, before the subject or verb. This is standard behavior in colloquial Italian and is often accompanied by a device called anaphora, in which the object is then repeated, as it were, in pronoun form. I’ll give a literal translation following the Italian syntax. Watch how this organization sets Verga up for the repeat of the word “prossimo,” meaning neighbor or fellow man in the Biblical sense of “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” In fact, “prossimo” is used in the sense of ‘neighbor’ only when recalling Christ’s commandment.

The frost on a dark dawn, the hot sun of harvest time, they feel them like every other poor devil as they’re made of flesh and blood like their neighbor, to go and check that their neighbor is not stealing their time and the day’s money.

This isn’t fluent English and our translator was right to move things around. But the Biblical reference seems crucial. The idea of loving one’s neighbor is evoked exactly as these men seek to control and exploit their neighbors. It’s worth noting that like the syntax, the words used—“pigliarsi,” “carne,” and “ossa”—all have a colloquial, low-register feel that makes the text intensely homogeneous and suggests that the speaking voice is close to the men being watched over, rather than the landowners who are watching. All this, however, is nothing to the problem of the metaphor Verga sets up in the next sentence, clinching his paragraph with an image that explains the claim of the opening few words. Again, I’ll give a literal version:

But if you have to do with them, they’ll hook you name and surname, and the person who made you, with the nib of that pen, and you’ll never extricate yourself from their horrible books, nailed in debt. 

The “problem” with knowing how to write, it turns out, is that it allows the rich to nail the poor by recording their names, and the names of “who made you” (your parents) in their debtors’ books. It’s all rapidly and effortlessly delivered in the Italian, with the harsh vocabulary (“uncinano,” “libracci,” “inchiodati”) again at one with the impression of a local speaking voice. The English is idiomatic enough with its “get their claws into you” and “up to your ears in debt,” but it has lost the strong metaphor of the pen as an instrument for capturing and torturing the neighbor you were supposed to love. 

These are just two translations of a couple of paragraphs of fine literature. No doubt, both could be bettered. But they are fairly ordinary examples of what happens in the translation process. It is not that the original has achieved some mystical perfection, but it is marshalling syntax, lexical choices, rhetorical devices, and cultural context—everything, in short—to conjure up that density of possible meaning combined with felicity of expression that gets us so excited when we read good literature. 

The translation does its best, and if the content and plot are strong, the reader will be drawn in and not feel the loss, since he or she can’t know what is being missed. On its side, the translation has the advantage of exoticism: we may be fascinated by Verga’s Sicily precisely because we don’t know much about it. For its part, the original can call on the more potent resource of recognition; this is our world described in our tongue, we can’t deny it.

To return to our original questions: an original we might now say is not so much a perfect text as one that is truly embedded in the culture that produced it. A translation can indeed be creative and “important,” but it is the creativity of astute accommodation and damage limitation, the “importance” of allowing as much as possible of that original to happen in the translator’s culture. To imagine, however, that Henry James could ever be to the Italians what he is to us, or Giovanni Verga to us what he is to Italians, is nonsense.


An earlier version of this essay misidentified the translator Constance Garnett. The piece has been updated.

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Notes from Underground


Magnum Photos
Nelson Mandela after his release from prison, Soweto, 1990; photograph by Inge Morath. It appears in Linda Gordon’s Inge Morath: An Illustrated Biography, just published by the Magnum Foundation and Prestel.

In a speech he gave after his release from prison in 1990, Nelson Mandela described the triumph of the South African anti-apartheid struggle he had done so much to lead. “We won peace standing on our feet, not kneeling on our knees,” he proclaimed with evident pride.

Mandela had joined the African National Congress in 1943, and when it was outlawed by the South African government in 1960 (weeks after the Sharpeville Massacre killed some seventy protesters near Johannesburg), he cofounded its armed militant wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). (MK began a campaign of bombings against power facilities and government posts that, prior to Mandela’s imprisonment, avoided human targets.) In 1962 he made a secret trip to several independent African nations and London, in search of funds and support for the fight against apartheid, and received weapons and sabotage training in Morocco and Ethiopia. Shortly after his return he was arrested, convicted of incitement and leaving the country without a passport, and given a five-year sentence. The next year he was prosecuted again, this time for sabotage, and in 1964, at the age of forty-five, Mandela was sentenced to life in prison. As grim as this was, many had expected that he would receive the death penalty.

In those days, few confidently predicted that the struggle against race-based minority rule in South Africa would have a peaceful outcome that blacks could be proud of. The country’s system of governance, based on legally entrenched and violently enforced segregation and white privilege, looked formidably strong at the time, and its leaders were determined to perpetuate apartheid. South Africa’s coffers were brimming with mineral revenues, boosting their confidence. There was little pressure for change from Western governments, whose attention to Africa was driven by the polarities of the cold war; as recently as the mid-1980s, they were still treating Mandela and the ANC as terrorists and Communists (Mandela himself remained on the US international terrorist list until 2008).

The cursory familiarity that many people today have with Mandela’s story of moral courage and triumph has produced a near-universal secular beatification. Mandela enjoys an image akin to that of Martin Luther King Jr. The late South African has, in other words, become an easy-to-claim hero. And in keeping with the often invoked King quote about the arc of the moral universe being long but bent inescapably toward justice—a particular favorite of Barack Obama—from the perspective of the present, Mandela’s ultimate triumph can feel deceptively predestined.

Mandela’s political journey, like that of his country, was far more complex. The black South Africa of the early 1960s did not yet have an obvious leader: it lacked not just a stirringly popular figure, but someone who possessed the tactical acumen and tenacity that would be needed to withstand the assaults of a ruthless racial tyranny, while channeling his society’s energies—and those of the world—in the direction of peaceful liberation. Mandela’s given name was Rolihlahla, which is commonly translated as “troublemaker,” and some of the people closest to him worried that this was a bit too fitting. Mandela could sometimes seem both vain and impetuous, excessively given to dramatic gestures that placed him center stage. These were traits for which he would harshly judge himself in succeeding decades, as in a 1970 letter to his wife, Winnie: “I must be frank & tell you that when I look back at some of my early writings & speeches I am appalled by their pedantry, artificiality and lack of originality. The urge to impress & advertise is clearly noticeable.”

Perhaps the most famous example of his troublemaking was his fateful decision to slip out of the country in 1962. Upon his return, by then a wanted man, he rejected the warnings of friends and allies to shave the beard he wore to make himself less recognizable, and he even appeared at a social event that was attended by other activists and almost certainly infiltrated by the police. Mandela was arrested shortly afterward, and would not be free for another three decades.

Other associates of his have said that even as Mandela’s popularity soared in those days, he was initially reluctant to build bridges to other oppressed groups in the country, such as South Africa’s sizable South Asian minority. He had studied law (though he had failed to earn a degree) and impressed almost everyone who encountered him with his spirited intelligence, yet Walter Sisulu, an older ANC leader and mentor who was given a life sentence in the same trial as Mandela, worried early on about his skills as a public speaker in English.

Today’s familiar figure, enormously self-controlled, morally towering, and powerfully eloquent—the man who would ultimately drive South Africa’s peaceful transition to full democracy—was largely shaped during his decades of confinement. Those qualities were forged, deepened, or revealed during years of hard labor and deprivation of many basic human needs, such as a warm blanket and a mattress. During his first several years behind bars on Robben Island, where he would remain until he was transferred in 1982, Mandela was assigned a so-called D Grade, the lowest classification of South African prisoner, with fewer rights and more restrictions than even the most violent criminals. He and his codefendants in the trial that had resulted in his life sentence were regularly subjected to humiliating anal searches in front of other inmates. Even more painful were the limitations his jailors placed on human contact. Initially, Mandela was allowed only a single visitor every six months, and could write and receive just one letter limited to five hundred words during that time. In 1967, this draconian quota was increased slightly, to two letters and two visits.

These were conditions that seemed designed to break ordinary men, but Mandela drew lessons from them. And even as he absorbed innumerable vicious personal blows, he somehow grew stronger. Early in his long years of confinement, these blows included the deaths in quick succession of his mother and his eldest child, his son Thembekile (or Thembi), neither of whose funerals he was allowed to attend. They also included constant orchestrated attacks and harassment against his wife and, finally, press reports fed to him about her extramarital relationships. This last ploy seemed obviously designed to push him into hopelessness after nothing else had worked. Years later, after his release, Mandela’s marriage would founder, partly because of her infidelity, but as long as he was jailed there was no question of giving his tormentors the satisfaction of an open rift between him and his wife. Until late in his prison term most of the letters to Winnie were signed “A million kisses & tons & tons of love,” or some variant of that sugary formula.

This is the picture that emerges with remarkable force from The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela, which draws on hundreds of letters to loved ones, friends, and, in surprising numbers, to the authorities who confined him. Many are reproduced in his own neat and compact hand. They reveal a man who grew wiser and more resourceful behind bars, who developed a monk-like self-awareness and stoic discipline, and who became both more strategically astute and increasingly generous of spirit toward others, including, ultimately, the men who presided over the country’s morally repugnant government.

Many of Mandela’s missives were composed in tones so even that his voice can sometimes feel flat on the page. When his mother died in 1968, for example, he wrote to an acquaintance who was a traditional chief and official in his native region, then called Transkei. “Her visits had always excited me and the news of her death hit me hard,” he says. “I at once felt lonely and empty. But my friends here, whose sympathy and affection have always been a source of strength to me, helped to relieve my grief and to raise my spirits.”

The pathos mounted, however, along with the toll on his family. A year later, after Winnie had been taken from their Soweto home, jailed for fourteen months, and subjected to solitary confinement, Mandela wrote a letter to his two young daughters, Zenani and Zindzi, which begins:

My Darlings,

Once again our beloved Mummy has been arrested and now she and Daddy are away in jail. My heart bleeds as I think of her sitting in some police cell far away from home, perhaps alone and without anybody to talk to, and with nothing to read. Twenty-four hours of the day longing for her little ones. It may be months or even years before you see her again. For long you may live like orphans without your own home and parents, without the natural love, affection and protection Mummy used to give you…. Perhaps never again will Mummy and Daddy join you in House no. 8115 Orlando West, the one place in the whole world that is so dear to our hearts.

Less than a month later, following the death of Thembi in a car accident, Mandela wrote a letter to his recently jailed wife that reads, in part:

I find it difficult to believe that I will never see Thembi again. On February 23 this year he turned 24. I had seen him towards the end of July 1962, a few days after I had returned from the trip abroad. Then he was a lusty lad of 17 that I could never associate with death. He wore one of my trousers which was a shade too big & long for him. The incident was significant & set me thinking. As you know he had a lot of clothing, was particular about his dress & had no reason whatsoever for using my clothes. I was deeply touched for the emotional factors underlying his action were too obvious.

At such moments of great personal tragedy, Mandela was given exemption from the letter-writing quota.


Ian Berry/Magnum Photos Nelson Mandela acting as a defense lawyer for himself and other members of the ANC on trial for treason, Johannesburg, 1961

Against a backdrop of tragic personal news, important patterns of resistance that would persist for years were already taking shape. Because the tight prison censorship barred any overt political discussion, much of what Mandela did consisted of bucking other people up. To Winnie, who was about to face jail time in 1969 for contravening the country’s Suppression of Communism Act, he writes, “In such a situation your best defense, & one no power on earth can penetrate, is truth, honesty &courage of conviction. Nothing must be done or said which might imply directly or indirectly a repudiation of your principles & beliefs.” In other letters he recommends his prison exercise regime (“I start off my day by jogging and I stretch before I go to bed. Exercise helps with a lot of things, insomnia and helps to keep the body fit and healthy”) and even suggests that his correspondents read Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking.

The short introduction and brief and discreet editors’ notes that appear sporadically in The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela are full of background and insights that reveal not only new tactics necessarily adapted to prison but also the emergence of a different kind of leader, at once more deft and more courageous than he had been before. Some of the most remarkable letters concern Mandela’s earliest days of imprisonment, and these make clear that although his full transformation took decades, it began almost immediately.

Two of the earliest letters published here were written to influential foreigners. The first was a 1962 letter to the secretary of Amnesty (later Amnesty International), in London, thanking him for sending an observer, L. Blom Cooper, to Mandela’s first trial: “The fact that he sat next to us furnished yet another proof that honest and upright men, and democratic organisations, throughout the civilised world are on our side in the struggle for a democratic South Africa.” On the eve of his receiving a life sentence in June 1964, he wrote a similar letter addressed to the Dutch ambassador to South Africa: “We would like you to know that we regard you as one of our greatest friends, and are sure you will continue to be of assistance to our people in their struggle against racial discrimination.”

Letters like these are forerunners to correspondence that appears throughout Mandela’s twenty-seven years of detention, during which he worked tirelessly to enlarge and sustain a diverse coalition of support for his cause, both domestic and international. The objects of his attentions ranged from traditional monarchs and clan leaders in South Africa, to whom he sent regular greetings, marking weddings, births, and deaths, to allies and sympathizers of South Asian descent to whom he sent letters peppered with Gujarati phrases, to influential foreigners around the world such as the late Paul Tsongas, whom he calls a “good family friend.” About the Massachusetts senator, he writes, “I was very disturbed when I read in the Time Magazine that our friend [Tsongas] is suffering from some form of cancer & that, as a result, he will not seek election for a second term.”

The other frequently used tactic is what might be called peaceful but active resistance. One of the first editors’ notes in the book relates Mandela’s response when he was physically threatened by a guard: “You dare touch me, I will take you to the highest court in this land, and by the time I’m finished with you, you will be as poor as a church mouse.” Another anecdote, more famous, recounts how Mandela urged fellow prisoners to simply ignore the commands of prison guards to walk fast when they were being marched about. This was as much a moral lesson as a tactical one, a demonstration that prisoners and even slaves always retain some modicum of power; over time, as the book makes clear, Mandela would use such stratagems to gain increasing leverage over his captors.

About the first of these incidents, Mandela later told an interviewer, “I was frightened; it was not because I was courageous, but one had to put up a front and so he stopped.” It seems likely that success with this tactic may have prompted what soon became a torrent of letters, many included here, which protested details of his treatment and prison conditions generally. Through them, Mandela became not just a thorn in the system but a leader for many other prisoners. One of them described Mandela as a “battering ram,” saying he could not be ignored, “not only because of his status but because he would ‘not let them do it.’”

Although there were always constraints on the content of his correspondence, in early 1969 the government began to ease the tight restrictions on the number of letters that he could write, beyond the letters he could address to the wardens who held him or to the system itself, which were unlimited. There is unfortunately no tabulation of the numbers of letters or a breakdown of them by category in this six-hundred-page book, but page after page contains correspondence of this kind, as Mandela petitions, prods, and challenges his jailers with remarkable insistence, and mostly in a courteous and almost starchily formal voice. Requests typically begin with “I should be pleased if you would kindly…”

In the early years these efforts seemed practically Sisyphean, as if Mandela were chipping away at a granite boulder with a mere chisel, but over hundreds of pages one can witness the prisoner slowly winning various forms of grudging relief. His complaints almost always have a subtext that goes beyond the narrow matter of deplorable treatment and dismal prison conditions; they use moral arguments to appeal to his oppressors’ sense, however vestigial, of fairness, justice, guilt, and ultimately plain human decency.

Throughout his time in prison, Mandela overcame petty obstacles in order to study not only law—he finally finished his LLB degree in 1989—but also the Afrikaans language, the better to understand his adversaries. In a 1969 letter, after seven years in prison, he used the history of Afrikaner revolt against Britain to highlight the hypocrisy and cowardice that underlay his treatment, seek acknowledgment that he was being held as a political prisoner, and demand his release:

In the past the governments of South Africa have treated persons found guilty of offenses of this nature as political offenders who were released from prison, in some cases, long before their sentences expired. In this connection we refer you to the cases of Generals Christiaan De Wet, JCG Kemp and others who were charged with high treason arising out of the 1914 Rebellion [by Boers against the British]. Their case was in every respect more serious than ours. 12,000 rebels took to arms and there were no less than 322 casualties…. These acts of violence were committed by white men who enjoyed full political rights, who belonged to political parties that were legal, who had newspapers that could publicise their views. They were freely to move up and down the country espousing their cause and rallying support for their ideas. They had no justification whatsoever for resorting to violence.

The white men he names had been sentenced to terms of six and seven years, but were released after less than a year in prison.

In 1985, sixteen years later, Mandela still made the same moral argument. The end was near, but by no means in sight. “As far as we are concerned we have long ago completed our life sentences,” he writes with his fellow prisoners and former codefendants from 1964 to South African president P.W. Botha. “We’re now being actually kept in preventive detention without enjoying the rights attached to that category of prisoners. The outdated and universally rejected philosophy of retribution is being meted out to us, and every day we spend in prison is simply an act of revenge against us.”

When the government learned that the aging Mandela had serious health problems—first prostate cancer, then tuberculosis, likely related to the cold and damp conditions of his detention—the tables began to turn. Mandela is in jail, but now it is he who, in a sense, holds the state hostage. South Africa’s white leaders realized that they were lucky to have an interlocutor as sober and as morally grounded as Mandela, who by this time was the world’s most famous prisoner. As protests engulfed the country, their panicked attention shifted to how to arrive at a settlement with him before he died.

First there were dark plots about further harming his health and then releasing him in a greatly diminished state as a way of avoiding a potentially explosive martyrdom. Then, inevitably, the government sought to entice Mandela to accept a conditional release involving a move to his native Transkei region and the renunciation of violence. He rejected this maneuver, calling it a “shrewd and calculated attempt to mislead the world.” “Apartheid, which is condemned not only by blacks but also by a substantial section of the whites, is the greatest single source of violence against our people,” he writes. “As leader of the National Party, which seeks to uphold apartheid through force and violence, we expect you to be the first to renounce violence.” For good measure, he adds, “the vast masses of the oppressed people continue to regard you as a mere broker of the interests of the white tribe, and consequently unfit to handle national affairs.”

In 1989 Botha suffered a stroke and was replaced by F.W. de Klerk, who showed a greater willingness to engage Mandela on the prisoner’s terms. This was made possible not only by Mandela’s steel will but also by the end of the cold war and the protests in black townships that were making South Africa close to ungovernable. By this time, Winnie Mandela had emerged as an important political leader in her own right, and was seen by many youth as the most stirring symbol of resistance. With demonstrations against apartheid becoming common throughout the West and American corporations forced by divestment campaigns to pull out of the country or reduce their stakes there, it was becoming clear that South Africa would have to accept change.

Despite this, in the final phase of Mandela’s detention, some voices, even within the high councils of the African National Congress, worried that the government, by engaging in solo discussions with him and preventing him from consulting freely with his fellow ANC leaders, was still seeking to pull a trick card from its sleeve, perhaps in the form of a negotiated settlement that would deliver something less than full political freedom and unfettered majority rule. In the end, though, Mandela insisted that other senior members of the ANC who had, like him, been imprisoned for decades be released before he was. He finally left prison on February 11, 1990.

After his release he stuck to convictions expressed in some of his earliest prison writings. The essence of his thinking is contained in a strikingly defiant 1967 letter from Robben Island addressed to the “Liquidator,” a prison administration office at the Department of Justice. In it, Mandela defended himself against charges that he was a Communist, while pointedly refusing to renounce his movement’s Communist allies:

My one ambition in life is, and has always been, to play my role in the struggle of my people against oppression and exploitation by whites. I fight for the right of the African people to rule themselves in their own country.

[But] although I am a nationalist, I am by no means a racialist…. The principal task before us is the overthrow of white supremacy in all its ramifications, and the establishment of a democratic government in which all South Africans, irrespective of their station in life, of their colour or political beliefs, will live side by side in perfect harmony.

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Poons v. Koons: The Art of ‘The Price of Everything’


HBOArtist Larry Poons walking to his studio in East Durham, New York, from Kahn’s The Price of Everything, 2018

The quandary at the heart of The Price of Everything, the art world documentary recently acquired by HBO, is summed up in a scene with the great German artist Gerhard Richter. Gesturing to one of his own paintings, Richter explains, “It’s not good when this is the value of a house. It’s not fair. I like it, but it’s not a house.”

Fairness and basic human needs such as shelter, however, are far from the minds of most of the participants in Nathaniel Kahn’s busy, stylish account of money and contemporary art. The opening credits bloom and fade over a breakneck montage of art auctions; the shouted numbers are in the millions, the artworks—Stella, Warhol, Richter—are chivvied along as props in the play of conspicuous consumption. As hammers fall, the voice of ex-auctioneer Simon de Pury intones, “Art and money have always gone hand in hand… It’s very important for good to be expensive… The only way for cultural artifacts to survive is for them to have a commercial value.”

It’s a statement so silly (plenty of extant cultural artifacts predate money by millennia) that one can only assume it is meant to shock rather than to be believed, a gauntlet thrown in the face of wimpy platitudes about art’s ineffable value. But viewers who anticipate a filmic celebration of capitalism as a force for cultural good, or alternatively, a condemnation of commodification, will be disappointed. The Price of Everything develops no particular argument, posits no solutions, uncovers no scandals. It isn’t a polemic, it’s a portrait, and in its mix of the grotesque and the earnest, a pragmatic and recognizable one.

Once upon a time, the buying and selling of art was conducted discreetly in back rooms; auctions were the dingy purview of specialist dealers; and contemporary art barely got a look in. Today, the contemporary art market is a glossy subject of public display and fascination (this is quite different from the art itself being fascinating to most people). Record prices for paintings appear above the fold in newspapers; the villainous art dealer is a common cinematic trope. The attraction is only partly explained by eye-popping sales: the global trade in art in 2017 was estimated at $63.7 billion, which is a lot of money, but tiddlywinks in comparison to other commodity classes (the Japanese automobile maker Toyota alone pulled in four times that amount that year). Unlike the automotive industry, however, the art business is mostly privately held and unregulated, so its workings are opaque. Then there is the fact that nobody needs a painting to get to work or put a roof over their heads, as well as the reality that aesthetic experience is stubbornly subjective. Finally, there’s the discomfort many feel in talking about art as a commodity class at all. Add moral anxiety to mystery and money, and you’ve got a hook.

Kahn’s film makes the most of this hook, trading on the very lures it critiques: big numbers, famous names, slo-mo shots of the privileged class enjoying its privileges. The closest it gets to “gritty” is the picturesquely dilapidated country house of painter Larry Poons and the East LA studio of MacArthur fellow Njideka Akunyili Crosby. Kahn, whose Oscar-nominated film My Architect (2003) focused on his father, Louis Kahn, is comfortable in this milieu. He is never seen on camera, but we hear his voice affably chatting with the rich and (art world) famous who occupy the lens. Most of his conversation partners are shown at work—the painters paint, the dealers schmooze, the collectors survey their spreadsheets—which is unexpectedly humanizing. For better or worse, these are people doing their jobs.


HBOArtist Jeff Koons in front of one of his Gazing Ball paintings, from Kahn’s The Price of Everything, 2018

Kahn does not editorialize explicitly, but he clearly has his favorites, and they do not include the woman looking at paintings with her sunglasses on, declaring, “I want more. I want more. I always want more.” He devotes the greatest amount of screen time to Poons, an art star of the 1960s whose later painterly abstraction fell out of favor with the high-end market. Scrappy, funny, and unkempt, Poons acts as a foil to market darling Jeff Koons (the rhyme is a lagniappe), whom we see roaming his antiseptic factory, while assistants slave away producing his art. Poons, meanwhile, is shown in a shambolic barn where everything is coated in accretions of paint, including the artist. Musing on his fall from art world glory, he says, “All the success, all the sameness finally began to look like sameness… I wanted more… I wanted to be, you know, Beethoven.”

At the other end of the system, Kahn follows Sotheby’s Amy Cappellazzo as she prepares for a November 2016 contemporary art auction, and collector Stefan Edlis who, with his wife, Gael Neeson, recently presented the Art Institute of Chicago with forty-two works valued at almost half a billion dollars—the largest gift in the museum’s history. Cappellazzo and Edlis both take unabashed pleasure in art and the deals made around it. When Edlis describes his brand new, $2.5 million Koons painting as “modestly priced,” he is being accurate by the standards of his community (one can certainly pay more). But elsewhere—in the living rooms of most HBO viewers, one imagines—this is an outrageous, even stupid, amount of money to pay for what Edlis himself calls “a knock-off” (it’s a copy of Gustave Courbet’s 1866 soft-core porn canvas, Le Sommeil, executed by Koons’s assistants, with a garden gazing ball stuck in front).

The film goes some way to unpacking how we got here: it includes footage of the famous 1973 auction in which Robert and Ethel Scull reaped large profits, selling art they had bought just a few years earlier, often from the artists. The artists saw none of those gains, of course, prompting a famous on-film fracas between Robert Scull and Robert Rauschenberg. Equally revealing, at one point the camera slides past a Poons painting and we hear Scull say, “I’d never seen it stretched since I bought it.” Filling out the story, Phillips auction house executive Ed Dolman explains the synergy between a diminishing supply of available important old master works and a rising class of “younger people, enriched beyond imagination, with a thirst for the new and the now.”

There is a consensus among Kahn’s informants that contemporary art is being monetized in ways that, while not unprecedented, are newly brazen. Dolman mentions the Koons “futures” trade—the buying and selling of promissory notes for works not yet produced. On CNBC, Cappellazzo discusses art as “a very attractive asset class,” while the ticker tape scrolls below.


HBOArt collector Stefan Edlis in front of artist Urs Fischer’s Dried collage and Untitled (Candle) sculpture, from Nathaniel Kahn’s The Price of Everything, 2018

The irony is that art is wildly unreliable as an investment. In the 1880s, Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (circa 1665) was sold at auction for about $30 in today’s money, while Ernest Meissonier’s 1805, Cuirassiers Before the Charge (1878) commanded about one million. The Vermeer is now undoubtedly one of the most valuable canvases on the planet, while the Meissonier is… not.

But really, why should we care? If the rich aren’t going spend money on things like public education or curing malaria, does it really matter which baubles they accumulate? Some figures bemoan the disappearance of art into private collections; others worry that the gravitational mass of so much money distorts the production of art. In one affecting scene, Akunyili Crosby—then thirty-four years old—watches the live stream of the Sotheby’s November auction as her painting, estimated at $200,000–$300,000, sells for $900,000 (over a million, with commissions). The collector who sold it had owned it for less than four years. The expression on her face can only be described as dismay.

“Without doubt, we’re careening toward some edge or some end,” says gallerist Gavin Brown. “I think I can smell smoke.” Perhaps. At least one of the film’s talking heads, dealer Mary Boone, could shortly be doing prison time for tax fraud. But the doomsaying may be premature. The excess, myopic worldviews, dubious self-justification, and passive acceptance of extraordinary disparities of resources that characterize the art world are simply a reflection of the world at large. As long as there are mad amounts of money going around looking for a place to park, it seems likely that art will continue to represent an “attractive asset class.” And name-brands within any given asset class will tend to rise and fall.

Though the art market is often described as capricious, it has a clear logic: the art that commands the most money at a given moment is that which best reflects its collectors’ view of themselves—pious or powerful, beautiful or deep. Edlis observes, with self-deprecating charm, that “to be an effective collector, deep down you have to be shallow.” Koons—whose shiny objects, vendor-babble, and dead smile recur like a fugal motif throughout the film—has provided this service for decades, celebrating the crass while flattering his buyers that they are clever and superior for being in on the joke.

Will Koons be the Meissonier of the twenty-first century? Noting the dearth of Koons works in the 2016 fall auctions, Edlis remarks that “the real estate people started thinking of Jeff Koons as lobby art.” “The kiss of death,” Cappellazzo agrees. “You never get out of the lobby once you’re in there.” They both shrug.


Nathaniel Kahn’s The Price of Everything is streaming on HBO.

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Listening to Women’s Bodies


Episode art for the podcast Bodies by Kathy Farthing, 2018

When I was diagnosed with chronic migraines five years ago, I didn’t feel as though I was pursuing a medical mystery, exactly. I had my first migraine when I was five, and they have been a part of my life ever since. What did feel mysterious was why nobody had told me that this mundane, common condition could get so bad—that migraines could transform into a daily, even nonstop event; that they could derail my life. That there was no standard, tolerable, or effective treatment made my attempts to manage the condition feel like a gauntlet, even an odyssey. The other mystery was that almost no one outside of my immediate family—including, initially, my doctors—seemed to comprehend how devastating this was.

In July, audio producer Allison Behringer released her podcast Bodies, distributed by Los Angeles’s NPR affiliate, KCRW. Each episode looks at what Behringer calls “a medical mystery” told through a particular woman’s story. Most of the episodes don’t track unusual diseases, outlying cases, or difficult-to-diagnose conditions, but rather the more humble, routine transitions, breakdowns, and malfunctions of the body. The first episode, for example, is an intimate account of Behringer’s first serious relationship, one that begins to unravel due to unexplained pain during sex. It’s notable not because painful sex is so rare—as we hear, it’s really not—but in part because it is Behringer’s first profound experience of being mystified and disappointed by her body. The intimacy of the subject, and Behringer’s willingness to make herself vulnerable as she seeks answers from doctors and loved ones, sets the tone for the show.

From there, Behringer turns to other women’s difficult experiences. There’s KalaLea, who has painful periods so heavy that she routinely misses work and often avoids going out; Reese, whose anxiety and disorganization persist despite all efforts to get it together; and Vivian, a family doctor with a newborn who refuses to breastfeed. As women find themselves blindsided by what it means to inhabit their bodies, complaints to doctors are met with blank stares, resignation, or pat responses. In the absence of knowledge, guidance, and, in many cases, empathy, each subject wonders what could be wrong—if there’s something wrong at all—and how best to address the problem.

Women’s bodies so often feel unknown even to those who inhabit them. The questions we have about our bodies, because they are hard to formulate and touch on subjects that are private or taboo, become mysteries. As with my migraines, most of the circumstances that these individuals face aren’t extraordinary. Rather, they happen frequently, to many women all over the world. But that doesn’t make them any more comprehensible. If not truly mysterious, the stories Behringer tells are confounding and intractable. They are traumatic for the people who experience them, and vivid and painful—and likely familiar—to many listeners. We listen as each protagonist deforms her life, or her psyche, to accommodate pain, confusion, and dysfunction as she struggles to find relief. Behringer suggests that they needn’t be. Those years of desperation, or bearing physical and psychological pain, might be avoided, she tells us, if we didn’t feel the need to hide.

*

Between hiding what we’re told is embarrassing and presenting ourselves to the world to be appraised, women’s relationships to our bodies can be complex, even brutal. As Behringer reminds us in one episode, being a woman only comes with one instruction: “Be beautiful.”

One of the standout episodes of Bodies is “Other Than,” in which we’re introduced to Jeromey, a young woman plagued by thick hair on her cheeks and neck. The hair begins to grow at sixteen, during the uncertain molting of puberty, and Jeromey finds herself shut off from any sense of blossoming femininity. Mocked by classmates, unsupported by her sister and mother, Jeromey tries to bear her lot as best as she can: wearing turtlenecks, shaving her face. When she finally sees a doctor, she’s told that whatever hormonal imbalances the hair suggests are likely a result of her obesity—a problem not easily tackled, and one the doctor can’t treat. Later, when she’s encouraged to see a gynecologist, Jeromey refuses. “I just thought my vagina was like this scary place… that there would be cobwebs down there,” she recalls.

Jeromey isn’t exactly proactive about dealing with her body. Instead, for much of her adolescence, she holes up in her small apartment. Lonely, tormented, she sometimes finds herself consumed with violent thoughts, which she purges in powerful poems, stories, and “video essays,” collections of scenes from horror films that she edits together. Many of the horror films are sexually explicit, though they avoid the usual tropes of women as victims, and it’s here that Jeromey begins to access her own sexuality. Eventually, she decides that she wants to be a filmmaker. The episode builds to a description of Jeromey’s senior thesis film, a chilling fable of a woman who loses her virginity and, like a praying mantis, then consumes her mate. Alongside her artistic actualization, Jeromey incrementally attempts to deal with her physical condition. But Behringer’s main focus is the artistic identity Jeromey carves out for herself in the process. As Behringer puts it, “Stuck in a world where beauty begets womanhood, Jeromey creates her own sexuality and power.”

In other episodes, Behringer emphasizes sharing practical, constructive information. Above all, Bodies wants to help. The show demonstrates the difference between a compassionate, forward-thinking doctor and one who is just going through the motions. It empowers women to do their own research. 

From there, the particulars of each woman’s experience evolve into more political, systemic questions: Is my experience in the range of normal? Should a woman’s discomfort or confusion be tolerated and suffered? Doctors have always treated women differently than men. Since the nineteenth century, women’s unexplained medical ailments have been chalked up to hysteria, a catchall category vaguely associated with a woman’s anatomy and tumultuous hormones. (“Hysteria” comes from the Greek root “hystera,” meaning “uterus.”) Even if hysteria is no longer diagnosed as such, the physical symptoms that women present are often conflated with psychological ones, and health conditions that impact women tend to be less well studied than those that affect men. In her 2018 book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick, Maya Dusenbery writes that diseases that disproportionately affect women, like autoimmune disease, migraines, fibromyalgia, and other chronic pain conditions, are under-researched, leaving doctors without the tools to recognize and properly treat them. Women, who are more likely to suffer from chronic pain, are also more likely to be prescribed antidepressants or tranquilizers for pain than men are. Women are underrepresented in clinical research—until 1993, the FDA banned women from participating in drug testing, and there is still little research on the way that medications impact people by sex. Finally, symptoms and medical issues that are considered a natural part of a woman’s life—PMS, birth control, menopause—are poorly studied, with insufficient treatments and few drugs in the development pipeline.

Even when explanations are forthcoming for the women Bodies profiles, that doesn’t always lessen their suffering. Here Behringer gets at a bigger, more existential question: When we encounter these disappointments and pains, whether inevitable or not, how do we go on? With warmth and empathy, she patiently asks her listeners to reconsider what we expect of our bodies, and what we can do to support each other. In the course of our lives, we will all encounter physical pain, moments when our bodies don’t work right, and the grief associated with both experiences. Part of Behringer’s project is to help us accept the fact that bodies fail us. Beyond information and support, that acceptance is part of healing.

*

Behringer introduces her first episode with a message for her mother. “Hey, Mom,” she begins. “You did a great job. But why didn’t we ever talk about how sex is supposed to be just as good for me as it is for my partner? Why did I think it was okay to always put myself second?” Over the course of the show, Behringer evades her mother’s questions about her relationship, climbs into her mother’s lap to cry, empathizes with her mother’s losses, and revels in her mother’s triumphs (an active and happy sex life in her fifties). Behringer Sr. (we never learn her name) presents on tape, like Allison, as compassionate, warm, and nurturing. It’s a touching testament to their mutual trust that Allison expects her mom to have taught her all of this in the first place.


Ed BrickerRadio producer Allison Behringer

Underlying Behringer’s question for her mother is the issue of intergenerational knowledge. In a world where women’s bodies are a vortex of expectations and prohibitions, what collective knowledge exists? What information do we pass down? What responsibility do we have to educate each other? How can we ensure comfortable, routine conversations about our bodily experience and what it takes to be healthy? 

Behringer believes we each bear the responsibility to talk openly about our bodies, to assuage the suffering of other women. In each episode, Behringer calls for us to let down boundaries and to ignore taboos. “Talking about our bodies is about reckoning with our most vulnerable selves,” Behringer says, and revealing those parts of ourselves is the only way to build collective knowledge. In the first episode, she describes how the doctor, who finally helps her, holds a mirror up during a pelvic exam to show Behringer what she “looks like,” as Behringer puts it. She learns about the vulvar vestibule, the glands inside her vagina, her pelvic floor. She does this all on tape.

This permission to feel and explore the body immediately brought to mind Our Bodies, Ourselves, a comprehensive book about women’s health first published in 1970. Inspired by the second-wave feminist notion of consciousness-raising, the members of the Boston Women’s Book Collective wrote and self-published the book to answer the questions women had about their bodies that they couldn’t get physicians to answer. The book privileges women’s individual experiences over clinical research, and its information and advice is inclusive rather than prescriptive. (One of its mainstays is encouraging women to hold up a mirror to look at and explore her genitals.) Behringer’s Bodies is timed extremely aptly since the collective just announced last year that it will cease to publish updates and new editions of the book. 

The interplay between generations persists throughout Bodies. In the final episode of the season, “Unraveling,” Behringer returns to her mother. Behringer begins with the story of a woman named Lisa going through menopause, who was so disoriented by mood swings, dizziness, and panic attacks that she stopped being able to drive. Lisa’s story piques Behringer’s curiosity about her mother’s experience with menopause, a phase Behringer missed because it coincided with her years away at college. When she asks her mother about it, Behringer Sr. tells her daughter that her menopause transition was colored entirely by her grief after the sudden death of her husband, Allison’s father. Behringer Sr. found herself weeping on many days, and expresses gratitude for a tight-knit group of friends and thoughtful neighbors who drew her out of isolation and encouraged her to see a doctor. That doctor found that Behringer Sr.’s heavy, clotty periods, which Behringer chalked up to the burdens of perimenopause, were due in part to a prolapsed uterus, a painful condition where the pelvic floor weakens and the uterus slips into the vagina. She also gave Behringer Sr. a prescription for Lexapro. Like her daughter, Behringer Sr. is willing to make herself vulnerable in service of honesty and disclosure about our bodies.

Behringer began her podcast by asking her mother why she hadn’t told Behringer what she needed to know to have a happy sexual life. In learning how painful and disruptive menopause can be, Behringer returns to her first question: Why didn’t I know? Speaking to her mother, she says, “Over the course of making this podcast, I’ve been forced to reconsider a lot of things that I just never even thought about, like breastfeeding, when I called you the other day and I was like, ‘What was that like?’ I don’t know anything about that.” She feels embarrassed that she never bothered to ask.

Her mom’s response is wise and sweet and understanding. She tells her daughter that she’s getting ahead of herself. “You’re not supposed to know that,” she tells her daughter. “You’re not there in your journey yet.” Behringer Sr. reminds her daughter, and all of us, that we can’t know of every possible physical challenge that will come. All we can do is take things as they come, do our best to confront them with grace and tenacity, and find a way to endure.

*

When my migraines were at their worst, I spent a lot of time reading about the condition: everything from recent medical research on new medications and related morbidities to advice from migraine specialists to message boards where people shared experiences, treatments, and frustrations. I read memoirs as well as philosophical texts about pain, illness, and the body. Some of it was terrifying—I learned of “migraineurs” who had given up careers or hopes of family entirely—and sometimes I had to take a break to protect my own mental health. But it was ultimately helpful to know that the bewilderment I was experiencing wasn’t unusual or unique.

My migraines are stable now—I still get them, but they’re predictable, treatable, and don’t prevent me from making plans or meeting goals. What’s been most rewarding, though, has been passing on that hard-earned knowledge to others. In October 2016, I published an essay about my chronic migraines, and the wisdom I’d gained from watching my mother, who suffers from her own painful neurological illness. I received dozens of emails and messages, many from strangers who had suffered their own sagas with chronic migraines. Some still had headaches every day, but had managed to make a life for themselves, and were eager to reassure me that I could do the same. Others wanted to share tips and tricks they had learned through years of pain and treatment. Still others wanted advice, and I found myself spending hours, for weeks, sharing all that I knew that might be useful. Dispensing advice and reassurance was as important as receiving it.

I know few women who haven’t suffered from one form or another of chronic illness and pain, mental illness, painful periods or sex, body dysmorphia, or infertility. Behringer’s recognition of how widespread these experiences are has spawned a Facebook group in which Bodies listeners can discuss the episodes as well as their own medical issues. Advertising the group on the podcast, Behringer always advises: “Nothing is off the table and everyone is welcome.” Her project, in addition to a feat of storytelling, can boast another accomplishment: it has created its own community.

Though, to date, Bodies is only six episodes long, Behringer offers something of a formula for confronting medical conundrums: take a mystery and reveal how common it is. Acknowledge how much suffering something mundane can cause. Treat with information and empathy. Repeat. But a couple of times, Behringer breaks from her formula. In one interlude, in which Behringer is not the narrator, the listener gets to spend four bright and curious minutes with Elizabeth, an eleven-year-old who has recently been fitted with hearing aids. Now, Elizabeth’s world is filled with the discovery of sound. Fans, machines, the pages of a book, her father’s voice, her mother’s radio all crowd the sonic landscape, giving us a glimpse of Elizabeth’s experience of being inside her body. The segment is as joyful as it is playful, dealing with discovery rather than loss.

Whether or not she produces another season of Bodies—and I hope she does—Behringer leaves us with a counterintuitively positive thought: “There’s a lot to look forward to as our bodies age.” Behringer ends with a momentary manifesto. She calls for “building a new reality, one with no dark corners and plenty of room for our full bodies, our many-layered selves.” It’s a reminder that, even as our bodies inevitably change and break down from illness and age, they also offer opportunities for discovery, pleasure, and wonder.


Bodies, produced by Allison Behringer, with music by Dara Hirsch, is distributed by KCRW.

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The Twisting Nature of Love

Roma


Carlos Somonte/NetflixYalitza Aparicio and Marco Graf in Roma

Water comes over the screen in waves for long minutes as the film opens. Offscreen, we hear the scrubbing of a straw bristle brush, as soapsuds float in and out of the frame, and at last the shot widens to reveal a young woman, tin bucket in one hand, long-handled squeegee in the other.

The tiled area under the brush is the carport of a home in one of the older parts of Mexico City, and if you’re a Mexican viewer you’ll know without thinking that the person with the bucket is a servant, doing the daily morning clean-up. You’ll know her occupation even before you really see her face because she is dark-skinned and too poorly dressed to be anything else in a house of that size, and because she exudes an air of calm and ingrained patience. What you won’t necessarily realize is that she, Cleo, is the protagonist of the film, because no Mexican film, other than the farcical and offensive comedies featuring la India Maria, has ever had a household servant at its center.

(It is only later that we’ll understand that what Cleo is so busily scrubbing away is the filthiest of all filth: dog shit, supplied in large quantities by Borras, a cheerful mutt who is the house dog, but not exactly the house pet. American-style pets didn’t really exist in Mexico back in 1970, when the film begins.)

For an American viewer—or at least for those viewers who have never met or been a domestic employee, known anyone who employs a full- or part-time servant, or hired a woman to provide domestic help—reading the character of Cleo, and by extension those of her employers, is possibly even more complicated. But start by looking carefully at the house: it is in the no longer elegant Roma neighborhood. Large but not enormous, and somewhat run-down, it’s certainly not luxurious. In addition to Cleo and her best friend, the household cook, seven people live here: four children, who share two bedrooms; their father, who is a doctor, and his wife, a chemist; and the wife’s mother. The furniture, heavy and dark, most likely belongs to the wife’s mother, as, in fact, the whole house probably does. (How do I know this? Because in the 1960s professionals like Cleo’s employers lived in newer, more comfortable houses in the suburbs, or in apartments that were cheaper and easier to care for.)

This is the house that Alfonso Cuarón, the director of Roma, grew up in. Or at least it’s the recreation, meticulous to the point of madness, of that house. And this is the story of Cuarón’s memory of a turbulent time in his childhood. The movie is shot parallel to the action, as if the camera were the ghost of Cuarón revisiting his childhood and looking on it silently, with the compassion and distance we are sometimes lucky enough to muster for our sinning youth and that of our parents. The hero, though, is Cleo, the nanny whose affection, unlike the parents’, is never wavering or disconcerting, and who, unlike a different, infinitely tiresome nanny on other screens around the city, performs true miracles. She had been on Cuarón’s mind for years: in his early masterpiece, Y tu mamá también (2001), one catches a glimpse of Liboria Rodríguez, the real-life model for Cleo, carrying a tray of food up a long flight of stairs to the rich kid played by Diego Luna, and handing it to him with an affectionate pat. (The Luna character is nearly oblivious of her care, her effortful journey up the staircase, her love for him, her hard work. Almost, but not quite; later in the film, as the car he is riding in passes a road sign pointing to Tepelmeme—Liboria’s hometown in real life—the Luna character notices it and reflects that this is the place the nanny he once called mamá came from.)

So who is Cleo? The subtitles tell us that the language she speaks with Adela, the cook, is Mixteco, so we know she is from a desperately poor highland area of southern Mexico comprising parts of the states of Puebla and Oaxaca. Her small size and the shape of her face tell us so, too, because the dozens of nationalities, languages, and customs of the first peoples in Mexico were as highly distinct as those of Europeans; there were, among others, long-boned Apaches in the north, Purépechas and Mexicas in the middle, and delicately built Zapotecs, Mayas, and Mixtecos in the south. (Both the real-life Liboria and the first-time actress who plays her, Yalitza Aparicio, a recently graduated preschool teacher, are Mixtecas. Aparicio was living in her native village in the highlands of Oaxaca when Cuarón recruited her to play Cleo.)

Lastly, Cleo is part of a family, or rather two. She belongs to a family back home, of course, but Roma is about the family she works for and lives with. Nannies everywhere are often considered part of the family, and families tend to reflect the societies of which they are the building blocks. In this particular case, Cleo is and will remain throughout the film—and, we understand, beyond it, as the real-life Libo has remained to this day—part of a hierarchical, exploitative, unequal, unstable, and nevertheless unstintingly loyal and, yes, loving, Mexican family.

Cleo and Adela (played with relaxed authority by another Mixteca nonprofessional actress, Nancy García) are probably kin. Adela, the older of the two, may have emigrated first to the city, in search, like Cleo, of a life better than the parched subsistence she and her family eked out back home, with its grueling workload of endless days that transformed women into hags before they turned forty. But Cuarón is not interested in portraying Cleo anthropologically: he wants to show us what she was to him, and to tell the story of Mexico City and what happened to Cleo the year that his own family shattered.

Life in la capital is both exciting and pleasurable for the shy Cleo and her more forward friend. They share a crowded room at the back of their employer’s house—how lonely to sleep by yourself! The work is delightfully easy compared to the punishment they left back home, the money better—they can buy a sandwich and drink soda whenever they want! And they are lucky to have stumbled on good patrones—they get a day off every week. Like any live-in nanny—like any full-time housewife, for that matter—Cleo’s days are as long as those of the four children she cares for. She sings them to sleep, nuzzles them awake, is nourished by the way their eyes melt with love when they say goodnight. Cleo doesn’t say much when she is around them, in part because her Spanish is hesitant, but alone with Adela the two chatter and giggle endlessly in Mixteco about boyfriends, the patrones, and the children.

The thrill of going regularly to the movies in one of the ornate movie palaces that dotted the city back then is superseded only by the excitement of romance. Cleo falls for a wised-up capitalino, Fermín. We should know he’s bad news from the moment he guzzles her soda on the sly before rejoining her on their date, but, like her, we are dazzled by his grace and sheer beauty. Fermín tells Cleo what Cuarón needs us to know; he is a child of a shantytown on the city’s eastern outskirts, Nezahualcóyotl. Today, it is a full-blown city of one million people, but back in the movie’s time it was a vast expanse of reeking mud—no paved roads, streetlights, water, or phone service—where immigrants from the desperate countryside often found a first foothold.

Fermín drank too much, huffed glue, was generally a mess, he tells Cleo, but then he discovered the martial arts of which he has just given us such a ravishing demonstration. He is a different, more powerful man now. Of course, he gets Cleo pregnant. Of course, he walks out on her the moment she breaks the news to him. Of course, the day she travels all the way to Nezahualcóyotl, where he is part of a kung fu stick-fighting group, he denies that the child could be his and calls her a whore. Meanwhile, seeing garbage trucks parked behind the field where he has been training, we realize that Fermín is a garbage worker.

And so, now that we have been introduced to Roma’s main characters, calmly and in some, but not too much, detail, the action lumbers forward like a tank that takes a fair amount of time to roll up to cruising speed, but then is almost impossible to stop. The crucial events take place on Corpus Christi, a movable feast in celebration of the transubstantiation of the body of Christ that, in 1971, fell on June 10. An extremely pregnant Cleo and the matriarch of her employers’ family go together to a furniture store, to buy a crib for Cleo’s expected baby. In Cuarón’s obsessive recreation of the real-life events of Corpus Christi, we see the two women pass through a street scene that the inhabitants of Mexico City have come to know well: roads lined with military armored cars, police vans, heavily armed police, and tense men in civilian clothing carrying not-so-concealed weapons.

Also walking toward broad Ribera de San Cosme Avenue are increasing numbers of young people, on their way to join a march that is gathering at a crossroads a couple of blocks away. In real life, less than three years had passed since the gruesome Olympic Games massacre at Tlatelolco Plaza, and the Corpus Christi march was the largest protest since that event. At the start of the march, demonstrators sang the national anthem, which, in the movie’s brilliant soundscape, we hear approaching offscreen. A growing murmur of panic rising from the street draws the shoppers in the furniture store to the windows.


Alfonso CuarónYalitza Aparicio and Jorge Antonio Guerrero Martínez in Roma

Dazed, they watch the protest break up under the assault of men wielding heavy sticks and firing guns. Marchers scatter like a column of ants threatened by a torch, and now their utter panic is brought inside, into the store, to the very threshold of Cleo’s body: a clutch of murderers in civilian clothes has burst into the showroom, guns pointed at a terrified protester. The young man is shot and falls dead; another gun is pointed at Cleo, and at the other end of it is a face whittled by adrenaline to a feral point: Fermín. Of course: those of us who remember the Corpus Christi massacre’s history know that many of the men who attacked the demonstrators, killing dozens, were garbage workers controlled and trained for the occasion by goons from the ruling party (and, the movie implies, by US operatives). In the shock of recognition, Fermín retreats, Cleo’s water breaks, chaos ensues.

When I was a child there was always a nanny. My parents were broke more often than not—breakfast and supper might frequently be a bread roll and black coffee—but there was always a nanny, and no matter how sporadically we paid her, she never left: it was the order of things. Carmela fed me breakfast when my parents weren’t around. She took me with her wherever she went: to market, to shop for the day’s meal; to the shoe repair shop; to the park, where we sat on a bench to watch the pigeons while I clung to her, blurting questions; and even to faraway Xochimilco, where she had relatives, and where, on a dusty road in the middle of cornfields and narrow canals, I saw my first funeral—a quavering chant in the air, a dozen mourners, the men in straw cowboy hats, the women wrapped in rebozos, everyone holding a flower or a candle in the late-afternoon light, and at the center, a small white coffin bearing the angelito, the dead child.

There is a dead child in Roma, too, stillborn but perfect, that an exhausted Cleo watches as it is carefully wrapped in its little shroud. In the past, angelitos flew from their mothers so often as to make it an ordinary occurrence. My own grandmother gave birth to twelve children, of which six survived. Women were always pregnant, and it was up to the father, if the marriage was stable, to find ways to feed five, or eight, or twelve children. Or the woman might die young, frequently in childbirth. There would most likely be a second marriage for the father, and the new wife might want to ensure sustenance for the new family by attaching the husband more to her own brood than to the one from a previous union.

Families are fragile and even dangerous things, as Cleo learns: throughout her pregnancy she has watched the breakdown of her employers’ marriage. The husband, whom we first see arriving home in an ostentatious Ford Galaxie almost too big for the driveway, has found a new love: his heart commands him to abandon his wife and family, and he follows its orders. (Cuarón, directing the film of Cleo’s life, which is also that of his life as a child, has his little revenge: the Galaxie drives straight into a neglected pile of dog shit, and the father himself steps on another of the dog’s efforts as he leaves home for the last time.)

As Roma’s producer, writer, cinematographer, editor, and director, Cuarón may have asked himself as he began to conceive this film how much of his love song to his nanny would be understood outside his country, or whether a commentary—a translation, really—would be a necessary complement for some viewers. What is evident is that he has made no concessions to foreign audiences, for whom every second of the movie is unavoidably not as transparent as it is to Mexican viewers—or for whom the film might not provide enough background to see that the central problem Cuarón is dealing with is the twisting nature of love.

I once interviewed a couple of dozen domestic servants about their work. It was hard to get young empleadas to talk to me, particularly if they were from the countryside: the fear of sounding ignorant, of saying the wrong thing, of losing their job, of speaking, made most of the young women I approached simply turn away from me. But the older women had plenty to say. A surprising number stated that they were happy with their families; an overlapping majority had loud complaints about their salaries. But what I heard most frequently was the rage they felt at previous employers who had fired them with no warning or thought for their feelings. What about the children? they would ask. They fire us, we have to abandon them, and then you have to learn to love a new set of children, and you’re always afraid you’re going to be fired all over again and lose them. One woman cried as she explained this. “They never think about the fact that we love the children,” she said.

What no one talked about, unless I asked, and then not much, was the fact that, if they were live-in nannies, most of them had their own children, who were being raised at home in faraway Oaxaca, or Hidalgo, or Guerrero, by grandmothers or aunts.

How, I wondered afterward, does a woman’s heart unravel once she is in this impossible fix? She is working to guarantee her children a better future than the one she faces, but while her child might be at home eating stringy meat and watery soup, she herself eats like an empress. The children she cares for loudly demand the latest-model cell phone every year, while at home a single phone with a cracked screen might be shared by an entire family. Her employers’ children will go on to top universities, learn smart things, move easily through the world; her children try to get enough education to graduate from the menial jobs their parents hold. She knows the household children intimately; her children do not know her very well at all. Does she resent her employers’ children for this monstrous difference? Or—let us face the thing squarely—does she love them more than her own? That the women I interviewed could love the children they cared for—and love them, in fact, to the point of heartbreak—was to me nothing short of miraculous.

And thus does Cleo love her family’s four children. She performs a miracle for them, even, saving two of the four from drowning during a trip to the beach, although she has never seen the ocean before and does not know how to swim. But here’s the thing that Cleo can admit at last: she did not want to bear her baby, Fermín the assassin’s stillborn child, and the guilt has been threatening to drown her. She did not want to give birth to her, pobrecita, poor little thing, she blurts out after she has performed her redeeming miracle. No la queria. She loves the four children more.

So much happens in Roma. It is so bursting with life, Mexican life! Geese copulate at a New Year’s party, men fly out of cannons, dogs shit and jump for joy, street vendors call out their wares, Norwegians sing, corn grows, young men are murdered, rich people dance the conga, and a poor girl from the Mixteca region loses a baby she did not want to have, saves two children, forgives herself, and climbs a rickety outdoor staircase to a rooftop sink to do the family laundry after a transformative trip. When I saw the movie in New York, the entire audience sat in silence as the credits rolled over a long, meditative shot of the staircase and the sky, until the screen blacked out over the title, and they sighed, and moved on.

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‘Reeducating’ Xinjiang’s Muslims


Radio Free AsiaUighur detainees listening to a “deradicalization” presentation at a reeducation camp, in a photo posted to the Xinjiang Judicial Administration’s WeChat account, Hotan Prefecture, Xinjiang, 2017

In a courtroom in Zharkent, Kazakhstan, in July 2018, a former kindergarten principal named Sayragul Sauytbay calmly described what Chinese officials continue to deny: a vast new gulag of “de-extremification training centers” has been created for Turkic Muslim inhabitants of Xinjiang, the Alaska-sized region in western China. Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh, had fled Xinjiang and was seeking asylum in Kazakhstan, where her husband and son are citizens. She told the court how she had been transferred the previous November from her school to a new job teaching Kazakh detainees in a supposed “training center.” “They call it a ‘political camp’…but in reality it’s a prison in the mountains,” she said. There were 2,500 inmates in the facility where she had worked for four months, and she knew of others. There may now be as many as 1,200 such camps in Xinjiang, imprisoning up to a million people, including Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and especially Uighurs, who make up around 46 percent of Xinjiang’s population.

Sauytbay’s testimony provided the first dramatic public evidence from a Chinese citizen of the expanding gulag in Xinjiang. But news of it has been emerging since 2017, thanks to remarkable reporting by Gerry Shih (now at The Washington Post) for the Associated Press and Josh Chin, Clément Bürge, and Giulia Marchi for The Wall Street Journal, as well as important early stories from other researchers and correspondents, including Maya Wang (Human Rights Watch), Rob Schmitz (NPR), and Megha Rajagopalan (BuzzFeed News). Especially important is the Washington, D.C.–based Radio Free Asia Uighur service, which has for years provided detailed, accurate coverage despite notorious controls on information in Xinjiang.

At first, officials in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) denied there were any camps. Then state media briefly floated a story that 460,000 Uighurs from southern Xinjiang had been “relocated” to “jobs” elsewhere in the Xinjiang region. There have been no further announcements about that jobs program, and the explanation seems to have been dropped. When confronted at an August 2018 UN hearing by Gay McDougal, a member of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the Chinese delegation denied that there were any “reeducation” camps, while admitting that there were “vocational education and employment training centers” and other “measures” to counter “extremism.” When pressed again at the UN Human Rights Council’s universal periodic review in November 2018, the PRC representative accused “a few countries” of “politically driven accusations” and repeated that the camps were simply providing vocational training to combat extremism.

People outside Xinjiang first began to learn about the camps in 2017. Uighurs abroad grew alarmed as friends and relatives at home dropped out of touch, first deleting phone and social media contacts and then disappearing entirely. Uighur students who returned or were forced back to China after studying in foreign countries likewise vanished upon arriving. When they can get any information at all, Uighurs outside China have learned that police took their relatives and friends to the reeducation camps: “gone to study” is the careful euphemism used on the closely surveilled Chinese messaging app WeChat.

The punitive nature of the new detention facilities springing up in the desert, ringed by high walls and barbed wire and flanked by guard towers and police boxes, became apparent from photos and reporting by the fall of 2017. Our best sense of what is happening inside the camps comes from former prisoners, one writing anonymously in Foreign Policy, and others interviewed in Kazakhstan by Shih and Emily Rauhala for The Washington Post: detainees must sing anthems of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), disavow Islam, criticize themselves and their family’s beliefs, watch propaganda films, and study Chinese language and history. They are told that their culture is “backward.” Some must memorize the moralizing Three-character classic (San zi jing), a classical Chinese children’s primer in trisyllabic verse, abandoned as a pedagogical text elsewhere in China for over a century. Cells are crowded and food is poor. Those who complain reportedly risk solitary confinement, food deprivation, being forced to stand against a wall for extended periods, being shackled to a wall or bolted by wrists and ankles into a rigid “tiger chair,” and possibly waterboarding and electric shocks.

Shohrat Zakir, chairman of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, said in an October 2018 interview with Xinhua that internees must learn Chinese,

gain modern science knowledge and enhance their understanding of Chinese history, culture and national conditions…learn legal knowledge, including the content of the Constitution, Criminal Law and Xinjiang’s Counter-extremism regulations, as well as acquire at least one vocational skill…to suit local conditions and the job market.

Given this imposing curriculum, it is not surprising that we know of almost no one who has been released after being interned in the Xinjiang prison camps, and that we don’t know what internees will face if and when they are let go. There is growing evidence from relatives’ accounts, satellite photos, and internal documents that following a course of indoctrination, internees are forced to work in factories in or near the camps.

Research by Adrian Zenz of the European School of Culture and Theology confirmed the frightening extent of the camps and provided an estimate of how many people are confined in them. Zenz has tracked the discussion of Xinjiang “de-extremification” and “transformation through education” in Chinese media and party journals for several years. He identified seventy-eight bids by contractors to build, expand, or upgrade internment camps; several of them were planned to exceed 100,000 square feet in area, and one was nearly 900,000 square feet. Documentary evidence for the rush of camp construction is corroborated by satellite photographs of the sites—many first compiled from Google Earth as a remarkable personal project by Shawn Zhang, a law student at the University of British Columbia, and since confirmed and expanded by professional remote-imaging firms working with the BBC and other media. Another indication of the breadth of the internment comes from visitors to Xinjiang, who have commented on the shuttering of Uighur shops and a noticeable lack of people, especially Uighurs between fifteen and forty-five, on the streets.

Comparing data from leaked documents and statements by local officials with population data, Zenz and other researchers estimated that between several hundred thousand and over a million people are interned in the reeducation camps. In February 2018 a Uighur activist media outlet in Turkey released a document it says was leaked by a “believable member of the security services on the ground” in Xinjiang. The document, dating from late 2017 or early 2018, tabulates precise numbers of internees in county-level detention centers, amounting to 892,329 (it excluded municipal-level administrative units, notably the large cities of Urumqi, Khotan, and Yining). Though the document’s provenance cannot be confirmed, if genuine it supports the estimates of a million or more total internees. (The US State Department estimates that between 800,000 and two million Xinjiang Muslims are interned in the camps.) These estimates do not include the rapidly increasing numbers of people in ordinary prisons: according to PRC government data, criminal arrests in Xinjiang increased by 200,000 between 2016 and 2017, and amounted to 21 percent of total arrests in China in 2017, even though Xinjiang has only 1.5 percent of China’s population. It is believed that the PRC has so far locked up over 10 percent of the adult Muslim population of Xinjiang.

How did the PRC come to this? I see two broad reasons: an official CCP misunderstanding of what Islam means to most Uighurs and other Muslim groups, and a recent CCP embrace of Han-centric ethnic assimilationism, an idea that runs counter to traditional Chinese modes of pluralism. (The Han are the majority ethnic group in the PRC as a whole, though not in the former colonial territories of Xinjiang and Tibet.)

The people of the Tarim Basin, the ancestors of modern Uighurs, along with Turkic tribes of the steppes and mountains (including the Kazakhs’ and Kyrgyz’ forebears), converted to Islam in several waves beginning around the year 1000. Central Asian Islam is quite different from that of the Middle East, however, and especially from that promoted in modern times by Wahhabi and Salafi groups sponsored by the House of Saud. Uighur prayer can involve chanting and dancing, and music is not forbidden. Visiting the shrines of venerated saints and telling their stories not only structure Uighur religious practice but geographically shape their identity, as the historian and Uighur scholar Rian Thum has shown in his ingenious book, The Sacred Routes of Uighur History (2014). Sufi saints were so important in Uighur Islam, Thum writes, that a circuit pilgrimage of their tomb shrines, all found within Xinjiang’s borders, was an acceptable substitute for making the hajj to Mecca.

Since 1949, Chinese policies have tended to undermine indigenous Uighur Islam and to enforce, through the party-controlled Islamic Association of China, an idealized version of Islam modeled in part on Sunni practice as promoted by Saudi Arabia. Besides reflecting Beijing’s diplomatic ties with Riyadh, these policies may echo a traditional Chinese notion, derived from experience with Buddhistic millenarianism, that religions have safe “orthodox” and dangerous “heterodox” expressions.


Lisa RossThe Uighur scholar Rahile Dawut conducting ethnographic research at a wedding in southern Xinjiang, 2005; she was disappeared in late 2017 and remains missing

Although the CCP has since reversed course and rails against the dangers of “Arabization,” it has not revised its intolerance of Sufi practices in Uighur Islam. By repressing Uighur culture and discriminating against Uighurs, and inadvertently promoting a version of Islam more in line with Saudi practice, the PRC government has increased the attractiveness to Uighurs of Salafi ideas from outside while undermining indigenous defenses against such an ideology. Rahile Dawut, an internationally renowned ethnographer and scholar of Uighur culture and religion at Xinjiang University, could have explained this to Chinese authorities—but she was disappeared in late 2017, another victim of the current mass internment.*

Xinjiang is part of the PRC today only because the Manchu-ruled Qing empire (1636–1912) conquered it in the eighteenth century, in the course of a westward expansion that also included the annexation of Mongolia and Tibet. The Qing administered the Uighurs through local elites, under light-handed military supervision, while promoting trade and agricultural development. The Manchus prohibited Chinese settlement in densely Uighur areas for fear of destabilizing them, and did not interfere with Uighur religion, food, or dress. This culturally pluralist imperialism worked well, and despite a series of minor incursions from Central Asia into southwest Xinjiang, from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century the region was on the whole peaceful—enough so that the Uighur population increased fivefold and the economy expanded. Troubles in the region only began when rebellions in the rest of China cut off Qing funding for its Xinjiang officials and soldiers. Corruption, rebellions, and invasions ensued.

As Beijing sought to regain and maintain control over Xinjiang, a debate emerged pitting Qing-style imperial ethno-pluralism against Han-centric nationalistic assimilationism. The nineteenth-century political thinker Gong Zizhen and General Zuo Zongtang (of the eponymous chicken dish) advocated colonial settlement of Xinjiang by Han Chinese and government by Han (rather than Manchu or indigenous) officials. Zuo’s successors tried this in a limited fashion until the Qing fell in 1912. Thereafter, during the nearly four tumultuous decades until the Communists took power in 1949, most rulers in divided Xinjiang, whether Han warlords, rebel Muslims, or Soviet puppets, built regimes around various types of ethno-pluralism, letting Uighurs govern Uighurs, Kazakhs govern Kazakhs, Mongols govern Mongols, Han govern Han, and so on, in a patchwork across the diverse region.

When the CCP took over, it applied this ethno-pluralist approach, already entrenched in Xinjiang, nationwide. As an ethnically Han Communist Party reoccupying the former Qing empire in Central Asia, the CCP faced the same problem as the Russocentric Soviets with their tsarist legacy: how to run an empire without looking like colonialists. Loosely following the Soviet example, the PRC granted fifty-five non-Han peoples official status as minzu (nationality or ethnic group), with special rights enshrined in the Chinese constitution. Some nominally autonomous administrative territories were named after minzu: hence the province-sized territories of Xinjiang and Tibet became the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and the Tibetan Autonomous Region of the PRC.

The PRC minzu system also echoed aspects of Qing imperial pluralism: beneath the supreme central CCP power, the fifty-six minzu (including Han) were supposed to stand as equals. Han civilization was, in theory, not considered superior. Actual practice varied, but in the 1950s and again in the 1980s the party did make a show of defending minority groups against “great Hanism,” China’s equivalent of the “great Russian chauvinism” denounced in the USSR. Except during the Cultural Revolution, the minzu system generally celebrated China’s cultural diversity, encouraging publishing in non-Han languages, putting minorities on the currency, and featuring them at public events in colorful “traditional” dress. Western observers have found the kitschy parade of singing and dancing minorities offensively exoticizing, but insofar as it bolsters their cultures, China’s non-Han minzu generally support top-down PRC multiculturalism. The strongest critique delivered by Ilham Tohti, a Uighur economist sentenced to life imprisonment for “separatism” in 2014, was simply to press for genuine observance of the minzu-friendly laws and constitutional provisions already on the books.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, which many Chinese political theorists blamed on Soviet nationality policies, a reassessment of the ethno-pluralist minzu system began. The former Qing imperial territories in Xinjiang and Tibet remained restive, despite rapid economic growth. After riots in Tibet in 2008 and Xinjiang in 2009, some scholars of ethnic studies in Beijing who were close to CCP leaders suggested that China’s minzu system was part of the problem and began discussing how to revise it.

The strongest proponents of a radically revised “second generation minzu policy,” Hu Angang (director of the Center for China Studies at Tsinghua University) and Hu Lianhe (then a counterterrorism researcher, now a leading official at the United Front Work Department of the CCP), argued that only after assimilating minorities into a broader pan-Chinese ethnicity (Zhonghua minzu) would China be stable. The two Hus proposed, in effect, to abandon China’s traditional imperial pluralism, as continued under the PRC minzu system, in favor of a concept of unitary identity reminiscent of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century European nationalism.

Terms such as “fusion,” “blending,” and “melting” entered the discussion, and in 2015 scholars and ideologues debated whether Sinicization (Hanhua), the notion that over the ages Chinese civilization spontaneously and peacefully assimilated neighboring peoples, had ever occurred. The myth of Sinicization has been long debunked by Western and many Chinese historians, who accept that acculturation between contiguous groups can happen, but is neither inevitable nor one-way. Yet the idea of Sinicization as a magical power of Chinese civilization is attractive to CCP nationalists, along with the concomitant fable that China only ever expanded peacefully.

The next stage in the PRC transition from imperial pluralism to Han assimilationism has been the demonization of religion. Although today official sources still publicly blame ethnic unrest in Xinjiang and Tibet on extremist ideas from abroad and small numbers of individuals, articles in party journals and leaked internal discussions reveal that the CCP leadership increasingly views religious belief itself as contradictory to the unitary pan-Chinese identity it desires, and it hopes to cure whole populations of supposedly deviant thinking. A speech distributed as an audio recording online in October 2017 by the Xinjiang Communist Youth League, apparently intended to reassure Uighurs, fully embraced the medical metaphor:

If we do not eradicate religious extremism at its roots, the violent terrorist incidents will grow and spread all over like an incurable malignant tumor.

Although a certain number of people who have been indoctrinated with extremist ideology have not committed any crimes, they are already infected by the disease. There is always a risk that the illness will manifest itself at any moment, which would cause serious harm to the public. That is why they must be admitted to a re-education hospital in time to treat and cleanse the virus from their brain and restore their normal mind. We must be clear that going into a re-education hospital for treatment is not a way of forcibly arresting people and locking them up for punishment, it is an act that is part of a comprehensive rescue mission to save them.

The PRC does have some legitimate concerns about Uighur unrest. Sporadic incidents of resistance broke out in the late 1980s and 1990s, including student marches, a small uprising (in Baren, outside Kashgar), bombings of a bus and a hotel, and a major demonstration that turned violent in Yining (Ghulja) in 1997. Before 2001, the PRC generally attributed such “counter-revolutionary” events to “Pan-Turkism/Pan-Islamism,” designations that, although anachronistic by the late twentieth century, did recognize the ethno-national as well as religious roots of Uighur identity. After the September 11 attacks, however, taking advantage of the terminology used in the Bush administration’s “global war on terror,” the PRC rebranded all Uighur dissent as Islamic terrorism. The PRC State Council issued a white paper in early 2002 that cited, with few details, 162 deaths and 440 injuries from acts of “terrorism” in the 1990s, and also listed a number of Uighur separatist groups. Only in a few cases did the white paper attribute specific acts to named groups.

In return for China’s vote in November 2002 for UN Security Council Resolution 1441 condemning Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, the Bush administration agreed to list one Uighur group as an international terrorist organization. The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) was chosen, although it was extremely small, because of evidence that it had had some contact with Osama bin Laden from its base in Afghanistan. (“East Turkestan” was a term embraced by Turkic groups who established two short-lived independent states in parts of Xinjiang in 1933 and 1944–1949. Many Uighurs in diaspora prefer it to the colonial name “Xinjiang,” which literally means “New Frontier.”)


Lisa RossLisa Ross: Black Garden (An Offering), 2009, from her book Living Shrines of Uyghur China. Her work will be on view in the exhibition ‘I Can’t Sleep: Homage to a Uyghur Homeland,’ at Miyako Yoshinaga Gallery, New York City, January 17–February 23, 2019.

The Chinese white paper had not claimed that ETIM perpetrated any violent acts, but the US government’s public statement mistakenly attributed all ten years’ worth of incidents mentioned in the white paper to ETIM. Thus was born the notion, still prevalent inside and outside China, that an organized terrorist group is responsible for separatist violence in Xinjiang. (ETIM collapsed in 2003 after Pakistani troops killed its leader, Hasan Mahsum, in Waziristan, though someone, under the new sobriquet of the Turkestan Islamic Party, subsequently claimed in videos to have taken up ETIM’s mantle.)

Despite constant warnings in Chinese propaganda and foreign media, for years the much-prophesied Islamic terrorism failed to occur. From 1990 through the Beijing Olympics of 2008, while Xinjiang was not entirely quiet, the incidents that did occur did not fit the jihadist pattern of attacks on random civilians. Though official Chinese statements and state media call all Uighur resistance “terrorism” and “separatism,” most events of the past decade, as best we can tell through the heavy media controls on Xinjiang, are what Western observers would label “unrest” or “resistance” rather than “terrorism”: for example, street demonstrations or attacks on local government offices or police targets by farmers armed with knives or agricultural tools. One demonstration in Urumqi on July 5, 2009, after being repressed by armed police, erupted into the bloodiest civil unrest in Xinjiang since the Cultural Revolution. Nearly two hundred Han died, thousands of Uighurs were arrested, and many died when Han vigilantes took to the streets on subsequent days. The number of Uighur casualties in the riots and during the backlash has never been released. In the aftermath, authorities cut off phone and Internet service to Xinjiang for ten months. (Such Internet “kill-switch” capability has now reportedly been installed across China.)

Though horrific, the Urumqi “7-5 Incident” was a race riot, not a premeditated terrorist attack or an expression of religious extremism. However, some events since 2008 do resemble jihadi terrorism in their random targeting of civilians and possible religious motivation. In March of that year a Uighur woman allegedly tried to ignite flammable liquids on a plane after takeoff. In October 2013 a Uighur man drove an SUV with his wife and mother inside into a crowd in Tiananmen Square, killing two tourists; the occupants of the SUV perished when it then burst into flames. In March 2014 eight Uighurs armed with knives killed thirty-one people at the railway station in Kunming, in southwest China. The following month, while President Xi Jinping was visiting Xinjiang, three people used knives and (possibly malfunctioning) explosives to stage an attack at the Urumqi railway station, killing three. In May 2014 five assailants in two SUVs killed forty-three people on an Urumqi market street with explosives. And in September 2015, in a strange incident that may have been more labor dispute than terror attack, seventeen Uighurs, including women and children, reportedly killed fifty people at a mine in remote Baicheng country, in Xinjiang. They then fled to a cave in the mountains, where Chinese troops, after an extended manhunt, flushed them out with flame-throwers and shot them.

It is not the case, then, that China faces no threat of Uighur violence, but it exaggerates the threat, often mischaracterizes it as terrorism, and has adopted wildly excessive and indiscriminate measures in response. After years of “strike hard” crackdowns, the situation for Xinjiang’s Turkic Muslim groups worsened sharply after August 2016, when the new Xinjiang party secretary, Chen Quanguo, was appointed. Chen came from a poor family in Henan province, where he climbed the CCP ranks and served there under governor Li Keqiang (now China’s premier). In 2011 Chen was sent to Tibet, which had been roiled by riots and a series of self-immolations by Buddhist monks. Chen quelled resistance in Tibet through grid policing, a dense network of “convenience police stations” in urban parts of Tibet, and thousands of new police. Chen brought these techniques to Xinjiang, and from 2017 complemented grid policing with the rapidly expanding reeducation gulag. He has since been appointed to the Chinese Politburo.

Since Chen’s arrival, Xinjiang, too, has recruited tens of thousands of security personnel, making the region likely more highly policed, per capita, than East Germany was before its collapse in 1989. Chen’s security grid features police boxes every few hundred yards, constant patrols, armored personnel carriers, and ubiquitous checkpoints. Recent reporting has also revealed a vast and expanding surveillance network of facial-recognition cameras, cell-phone sniffers, GPS vehicle tracking, and DNA, fingerprint, ocular, voice-print, and even walking-gait scans that are linked to the growing database of personal information gathered from mandatory surveys of the travel history and religious practices of Xinjiang residents and their families. These surveys are scored: devout Muslims lose points for regular prayer, which the state deems a potential risk factor for extremism. Simply being an ethnic Uighur results in a 10 percent deduction.

Distinctive Uighur religious and other cultural practices are increasingly circumscribed or legally banned. School instruction in the Uighur language, once available from kindergarten to the university level, has been eliminated. Xinjiang authorities now define as “extremist” veils, head coverings, “abnormal beards,” long clothing, fasting at Ramadan, the greeting assalam alaykum (“peace be upon you” in Arabic), avoiding alcohol, not smoking, “Islamic” baby names like Muhammad and Fatima, the star and crescent symbol, religious education, mosque attendance, simple weddings, religious weddings, weddings without music, cleansing a corpse before burial, burial itself (as opposed to cremation), visiting Sufi shrines, Sufi religious dancing, praying with feet apart, foreign travel or study abroad, interest in foreign travel or study abroad, communicating with friends or relatives outside China, having the wrong kinds of books on one’s shelves or content on one’s phone, and avoidance of state radio or television. Though generally not publicly religious, members of the Uighur cultural, academic, and business elite, including top administrators of universities and chief editors of presses, have been singled out for detention.

PRC officials promote these policies as a cure for “extremism.” The official definition of “extremism,” however, has progressively expanded, and authorities confine people in the reeducation camps for mundane Islamic practice and, indeed, for much of what it means to be a Uighur. “It is impossible to be Uighur without violating these new rules,” as Rian Thum puts it. In statements obtained by Radio Free Asia, local officials have admitted that they have been given quotas of Muslims to send into reeducation. Qiu Yuanyuan, a scholar at the Xinjiang Party School, in a 2016 paper since removed from the Internet, warned explicitly against quotas for reeducation, on the grounds that such an imprecise numerical approach could backfire. This suggests that the Party was discussing them internally at that time. Based on figures from localities around the region, Adrian Zenz estimates that up to 10 to 11 percent of the Uighur and Kazakh populations are currently detained, though quotas of up to 40 percent have been cited for some areas, and camp capacity continues to grow.

There is a curious cultural specificity to some of the measures in Xinjiang: this is a security state with Chinese characteristics. The traditional Chinese practice of assigning groups of ten households to mutual-accountability units has been revived in parts of Xinjiang, where Uighur families are now made collectively responsible. Because some of the terrorist attacks involved knives (and Chinese believe all Uighur men must carry a blade), authorities in Xinjiang implemented strict knife control: before sale, even kitchen knives must be etched with a QR code carrying the buyer’s personal ID card number and other data. Uighur cooks in restaurant kitchens chop with cleavers chained to the wall.

In an echo of the Cultural Revolution practice of “sending down” city dwellers to the countryside, Chinese officials and intellectuals, mainly Han, have since 2014 been dispatched to live for certain periods in the homes of Uighur families. During a campaign named “Ethnicity Unity ‘Becoming Family Week’” in December 2017, a million CCP cadres moved in to live, eat, and work with Uighurs. In these repeated stays, the Han officials are meant to teach Chinese to Uighur “little brothers” and “little sisters,” instruct them in Xi Jinping Thought, and sing the Chinese national anthem, while helping out around the house.

In a music video celebrating the campaign, produced by the Xinjiang Communist Youth League, the Han arrive in the village wearing hiking boots and carrying backpacks, as if on a camping expedition. Images roll past of the Han and Uighurs looking at books, sweeping the dirt courtyards, and eating together. On the soundtrack, a singer raps in Chinese that living among the Uighurs helps one recapture the romantic revolutionary spirit of Party General Secretary Xi Jinping’s years as an “educated youth” in a rural Shaanxi village.

But a triumphant social media post from the Bingtuan Broadcast Television University (BBTU), which sent teams to the Uighur village of Akeqie Kanle, revealed that the home visits are more about surveillance than ethnic amity: “The [BBTU] work team is resolute. We can completely take the lid off Akeqie Kanle, look behind the curtain, and eradicate its tumors.” A few months after the Bingtuan work teams’ visits, a fifth of Akeqie Kanle’s adult population had disappeared into the camps.

The CCP’s mass internment and coercive indoctrination of Muslim minorities is intended to forcibly remake their identity. The word “conversion” (zhuanhua) appears in official Chinese names for the camps (jiaoyu zhuanhua peishun zhongxin, “Educational Conversion Training Center”) and in the “de-extremification” regulations. The party now increasingly finds Islamic faith and even non-Han ethnic culture to be inimical to the goal of homogeneous Chinese identity.

There are grave dangers to locking up a million people for coercive indoctrination at the hands of hastily mustered, ill-trained guards. Even if the Xinjiang reeducation gulag avoids the widespread torture, rape, and killing that have accompanied ethnic cleansing elsewhere, and Uighurs and other Turkic peoples can endure the psychological trauma of the camps, it is a tragedy for the PRC to abandon Chinese traditions for managing diversity in favor of the Western ideology of nationalism, so ill-fitted to the globalizing age the CCP wants to help shape. The CCP, after all, invented Autonomous Regions, Special Economic Zones, and the notion of “One Country, Two Systems.”

The PRC once experimented creatively with models of reallocated political and economic sovereignty in order to address frontier issues left over from the Qing imperial past (Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, Taiwan). And it did so with policy ideas drawn from that same past (imperial pluralism, frontier trade enclaves, tax-free zones, treaty ports). What is sometimes called the “Xinjiang Problem” is but one dimension of a broader question: Can today’s PRC tolerate diversity? Or does it plan to resolve its Tibet Problem, its Hong Kong Problem, and its Taiwan Problem as it does its Xinjiang Problem: with concentration camps?

—January 10, 2019

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    Dawut publishes mainly in Uighur and Chinese, but writes in English about mazars, or Sufi shrines, in Mazar: Studies in Islamic Sacred Sites in Central Eurasia, edited by Dawut and Sugawara Jun (Tokyo University Foreign Studies Press, 2016). A 2013 exhibition at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City of photographs by Lisa Ross highlighted the startling variety and abstract beauty of Uighur shrines (see illustration on page 40); that work is collected in her book Living Shrines of Uyghur China (Monacelli, 2013), which includes an essay by Dawut.  

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Shooting Down A Legend

In response to:

The Impersonator from the December 20, 2018 issue

To the Editors:

Alan Hollinghurst [“The Impersonator,” NYR, December 20, 2018] repeats the popular legend that Lord Arran, who sponsored in the British Parliament the law that partially decriminalized male homosexuality in 1967, did so because his brother, the translator Paul Sudley, had shot himself after years of depression about his sexuality. I own a copy of Paul’s official death certificate. He died in hospital after a cerebral hemorrhage in 1958. No bullets involved.

Richard Davenport-Hines
Ailhon, France

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