Monday, August 02, 2021

Take What You Can Carry by Gian Sardar

It’s 1979,  Olivia Murray, who is a secretary at a Los Angeles newspaper,  has aspirations of becoming a photojournalist.  Out of the blue, she has a chance to go to Iraq with her Kurdish boyfriend, ostensibly for a weeding of his cousin, but also because he needs to reunite with his family. And so begins this remarkable 2021 novel by Gian Sardar, Take What You Can Carry

In her acknowledgments at the end of the book, Sarder explains that "... Kurdistan is spread over four countries, so isolation has been both geographic as well as political." While Sardar is quick to point out that her book is a work of fiction, it is based on true events. Sardar’s father is from Kurdistan, and her mother an American. She explains that her father’s tales about his life in Kurdistan provide the kernel of the story she tells in the novel. “Growing up in Kurdistan of Iraq, my father and his family endured atrocities I could never fully capture with words.”

In  many ways this novel is a love story, Olivia and her Kurdish boyfriend, Delan, find their love and their very lives in danger. Delan has called his parents in Iraq to tell them he might show up for the wedding, but they must speak in code, since the family is political, and they know the government taps their phones, and he is not sure from their coded conversation whether his mother is telling him to come, that it is relatively safe, or  whether instead she is telling him not to come, that the risks are too great. 

Even before his trip to Iraq, Delan agitates in the U.S to inform his friends of the plight of the Kurds in Iraq. 

The United States and Kissinger had encouraged and funded them in a rise against the Iraqi government, as a favor to the Shah of Iran, but abandoned them when they no longer served their purpose...They never wanted us to win. That’s what the committee found. They wanted us only to fight and keep Baghdad busy. We were a pawn. Kurds quit their jobs, school, you name it. Everyone joined in to fight and to die in a battle we were never allowed to win.

More than two hundred thousand refugees when they abandoned us, when we were being slaughtered, and not one dollar of humanitarian aid from the United States. Our leader, Barzani, he begged Kissinger for the United states to help.

There is a lot of drama in this novel, and I don’t intend to give much of the plot away. Delan has a brother, Soran, who is a passionate gardener, and who says he must stay out of the fray, since he has an adopted daughter, Lailan, to care for. At one point Olivia questions Soran about his habit of bathing at night. He replies:

People in our family, they’ve always been political. So even in peace we had problems, Arrests. Imprisonments. But then the the kingdom was toppled in ’58  and the republic created. From then on no Kurds had peace. And the government bombed during the day.” He stops, as if this is all that needs to be said, but then sees that’s not the case. “Imagine, not having clothes on when the sirens go  off or when the ground starts to shake and you have to run. Imagine soap in your hair when you see the shadow of the plane.

We learned to live at night. To work, to bathe. When the time came, you had to run. Take what you can carry to the mountains. That is where we would go. The mountains to be safe.

Olivia learns to hear the common saying, Head for the Hills, in a new light.

Juxtaposed with the harrowing arrests and raids and constant fear, Sardar manages also to describe the colors and sounds and smells of Iraq, and to understand the history of that ancient land. She describes the vibrant colors of the dresses at the wedding they attend, so different than the bland whites of American weddings. 

In the field, she catches a flash of silver: the bride’s sisters and friends are dancing with knives. “They’re dancing with knives” 

He turns “They’re about to cut the cake. That’s to let him know they can handle knives. That he should be good to their sister. That they will protect her. 

There is so much color and excitement in this novel, and while it is often sad and frightening, there are also moments of great beauty and courage. Delan is known for his spontaneous kindness and generosity which is often impulsive and even dangerous. But one of his acts of kindness, turns out to save the family when there is an attack by government forces. This incident is one that Sardar explains is based on a real events in her Kurdish father’s life.

This is a wonderful book and I am so grateful that it fell into my hands. I was all set to review a different book, The Five Wounds, by, KIrstin Valdez Quade. But I read that book weeks ago, and it was already vanishing from memory, so I decided on this novel that I had just finished. 

Monday, June 28, 2021

Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia

Gabriela Garcia’s 2021 debut novel is really a collection of interconnected stories, spanning several generations of women. The first story is about women cigar rollers in pre-Castro Cuba.

The air thickened. Maria Isabel had by then breathed so much tobacco dusts she developed regular nosebleeds, but the foreman didn’t permit workers to open the window slats more than a sliver—sunlight would dry the cigars. So she hid her cough. She was the only woman in the workshop. She didn’t want to appear weak.

A quick overview: Carmen came from Cuba to the U.S., and has always felt displaced. Her daughter, Jeanette, is addicted to drugs, and is determined to find out more about family history, and thus goes from Miami to Cuba to learn  more from her grandmother  than her very reticent mother will tell her. Carmen has taken in the daughter of neighbor who has been detained by ICE. Jeanette travels to Cuba and the stories of the three women unravel in  snippets via the stories of women who write down their histories. 

Once in Cuba, now under Castro, she begins to hear or read the stories. 

Study has become a habit among them; today they leave behind the cockfight in order to read a newspaper or book; now they scorn the bullring; today it is the theater the library, and the centers of good association where they are seen in constant attendance.

While the author is quite willing to expose the difficulties of the poor in Castro’s Cuba (and the racism that is denied, and claimed to be only an American problem), she makes it clear that most are much better off than before when American corporations took from Cuba its wealth of natural goods and gave back little.

The grandmother in Cuba has seen the brutal treatment of those who shout for change. She sees the coming revolution that is born of blood and poverty.  Married to a disenchanted intellectual who joins the struggle, she is denied access to the group of agitators once he knows she is pregnant. 

She placed one hand on her belly and felt the something  in her move and stretch as if seeking its freedom, felt as if the whole world were her womb. She wanted to write her own words. She wanted to write her life into existence and endure. Perhaps a piece of her knew death crouched close.

While much of the book is concerned with the political struggles that led to the overthrow of corrupt, American controlled dictators, and then the new set of problem under Castro, the author is also swept away by the incredible natural beauty of Cuba. In a chapter titled “An Encyclopedia of Birds”, the birds a metaphor for captivity and the struggle for flight and freedom:

The burrowing parrot also known as the Patagonian conure also as the burrowing parakeet is the only bird species with eyelashes. This is a little-known fact. Another little-known fact is that burrowing parrots, while often purchased as pets, become exasperated if caged too long. Burrowing parrots need interaction. They need color. If you separate two burrowing parrots, in short order the one left behind will die. She will die of loneliness.

Birds fly even if it kills them.

She speaks of the baby jails where the children of deportees are kept, and of the children’s crayon drawings of birds, there is no sun in the drawings. 

I don’t know what you remember, but they didn’t tell us where they were taking us. I thought we were going before a judge finally. I thought I could argue my case, my credible fear. I had practiced. Instead they boarded us onto a bus with bars on the windows and dropped us off in Mexico. We were Salvadoran by nationality but Mexico was just a few hours away, and that’s where we’d come from , so there they left us. Said, Find you way home. We were supposed to be turned over to Mexican immigration officials, but I guess they didn’t show up. Or they thought we were Mexican.

Story after story about women and children. 

Jeanette had added her own words, We are more than we think we are

I will leave you with the last words of the book which sum up the author’s view well.

And though Ana had no idea why Jeanette had written those words, she chose to believe the sentence, the scribble, was a cry across time. Women? Certain women? We are more than we think we are. There was always more. She had no idea what else life would ask of her, force out of her, but right then  there was cake and candles and this, a gift. She thought that she, too, might give away the book someday, though she had no idea to whom. Someone who reminded her of herself maybe. Someone drawn to stories.

Garcia is a wonderful story-teller, and she understands the power of stories. 

Monday, May 24, 2021

The Cold Millions by Jess Walter

What Jess Walter shows us in his 2020 novel The Cold Millions is that he is a wonderful story-teller, a fine historian, and like one of his characters guilty of “first-degree aggravated empathy.”

This lovely historical novel is on one hand simply a story of the love between two brothers, Gig and Rye Dolan who hop freight trains together, traveling from town to town and job to job. They are part of the cold millions, that is, the millions upon millions of workers who struggle day to day simply to live, while a few wealthy owners live lives of almost unfathomable wealth and luxury.

While Walter is quick to inform  us in his afterward that this is a book of fiction, he also makes it clear that some of his characters are based on real life people, one of whom, is “the great labor organizer, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn”,  a key character in the book. Gurley is a mesmerizing and powerful speaker and organizer. Even the skeptics listen when she speaks.

Listen brothers and sisters, have we ever seen such trying times? She went through a list of outrages, fifteen-hour workdays and women dying at their sewing machine, men crushed in cave-ins while their families got nothing, copper kings and shipping magnates living like royalty while poor workers couldn’t even afford a flop bed, families in tents and hovels, workers given no rights and tossed aside when they were too broken or sick or old to work.

Clearly Walter shares the sense of outrage expressed by Flynn. He tells us that his own father was a union man. Gig, the older brother joins the IWW, although he discourages his brother Rye from getting involved. While Walter’s sympathies are clearly with the so-called Wobblies, he carries on a kind of debate regarding the efficacy of their non-violent methods. One character, Early Reston, clearly thinks non-violent methods will not work, and that rather than piecemeal reform the whole structure must be blown apart. At times in the book both Gig and Ryan become disenchanted with the methods of the IWW.

Rye felt demoralized. It didn’t matter what he did, what Gurley did, what Fred Moore did, what any of them did. Somewhere there was a roomful of wealthy old men where everything was decided. Beliefs and convictions, lives and livelihoods, right and wrong—these had no place in that room, the scurrying of ants at the feet of a few rich men.

It made me think that Early Reston was right, in his way ... that maybe it was the castle that needed to be blown up...

While it is clearly the struggles between owners and labor that is the focus of this novel, the side stories are also fascinating. The story of Ursula the Great, a performer who enters a cage with a full grown cougar, and then strips to near nudity as the crowd looks on partly horrified, partly titillated.  There is also a sweet tale of budding love Rye feels for Gurley, although she is married and pregnant, and nothing comes of it.

I much appreciated the argument Walter has with himself throughout the book regarding the possibility of real change and the methods that can achieve it. At one point when Rye is called out as one of the Wobblies by a salesman:

Rye didn’t answer. But at that moment, he felt done with it all—done with the beatings, done with Taft, done with Lem Brand and Ursula, done pretending they could stand on soapboxes and draw justice out of the air. Early was right. Rye didn’t believe in anything but a job, a bed, some soup. 

If you read this novel, be sure to leave some good reading energy for the acknowledgments and the short closing essay by Walter: “The Undercurrents of History”.  Walter talks of his own growing up in Spokane, Washington, and of how “The World came to me in books.”

With The Cold Millions, I set out to write about the sort of working-class Spokane family in which I had grown up. My dad’s father, a rancher named Jess Walter, first arrived in Eastern Washington on a train he’d hopped as a vagrant field-worker; my mother’s dad, Ralph, was an itinerant laborer in the 1930s who later died on a construction site when a crane fell on him. My own father, Alfa Bruce Walter, was a lifetime steelworker and union leader who worked almost forty years in an aluminum rolling mill.

For those readers who want to go to original historical sources, Walter provides an extensive list of his own sources in addition to his personal experience. For all who have labored, and for all who feel keenly the injustices of the world, this is a must read, and it is also a wonderful story.