“Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” by J. D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy1

J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy was my first real insight into white working-class America – what he describes as ‘hillbillies’ from a poor Rust Belt town. The author gives a compelling explanation of why it’s so hard for someone who grew up the way he did to ‘make it.’ I picked up this book after the 2016 election to get an idea of the Republican base.

I just loved the glimpse into Vance’s chaotic family history – his grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother dealing with demands of their new middle-class life while struggling with the legacy of addiction, alcoholism and poverty that is so characteristic of their part of America.

Vance’s grandparents moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them and to raise a middle-class family. When J.D. graduates from Yale Law School, he succeeds in achieving generational upward mobility – a story interspersed with its fair share of humor and colorful characters. He was mostly raised by his grandparents along with his half-sister because his mother was an addict who went from husband to husband and Vance barely knew his father. He did poorly in school and was lucky to get out of the cyclical poverty when a cousin pushed him into joining the Marines, which was an American melting pot. From there he went to Ohio State and then to Yale Law School.

At Yale, his mentor was Amy Chua – the famous ‘tiger mom.’ But he feels the disdain from his fellow-mates who come from a different socio-economic class and cannot relate to his ‘white poverty’ or his marine background. He meets his future wife, Usha, at Yale and finds much more

Vance doesn’t pretend to be a policy expert or offer solutions – he merely opens our eyes to them. But after reading the book, it did make me think about what can be done to create opportunity in poor communities, especially in ‘middle America.’

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
Author: J. D. Vance
Publisher: Harper
Publication Date: June 2016

Contributor: Shamita Tripathy is a book enthusiast and works as a finance professional in the Bay area.

“This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa’s First Woman President” by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

This Child Will Be Great

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was Africa’s first woman president and this book is her memoir. She recounts how she came to power in her native Liberia and the tremendous odds she had to overcome to get there. Sworn in as President in January 2006 at the end of a fourteen year long civil war, she remained at the helm for 12 years and oversaw a peaceful transition. Liberia went to the polls in October 2017 to elect a new leader.

The book reveals the complexities of Liberia’s links with the New World and its long and painful history. While the slave trade saw Africans shipped from West Africa to the Americas to undergo forced labour, there was a reverse flow of freed slaves to these shores in the early 19th century. Monrovia, the capital of Liberia is named after US President James Munroe and the country’s flag resembles the American flag. The settlers thought they were somehow superior to the indigenous peoples and the seeds of conflict were sown. Liberia’s first President was a man born in Virginia.

Ellen’s paternal grandfather has eight wives and god knows how many children. Her maternal grandfather, a German trader, had married a local woman and the couple had one daughter. At the start of World War I, Liberia expelled all Germans, to demonstrate its loyalty to the US. The grandfather returned to Germany and was never heard of again.
Ellen’s father was the first indigenous man to be elected to the legislature. He suffered a paralytic stroke while in his early forties and soon the family fortunes nose-dived.

At 17, Ellen fell in love and married James “Doc” Sirleaf, who had just returned from college in Alabama. They both found jobs and had four children in quick succession. When James moved to Madison, Wisconsin to study further, Ellen went too, leaving the grandmothers to care for the little ones. She studied at the Madison Business college, and worked part time, sweeping floors and waiting tables.

“In Madison I was so cold I sometimes feared my tears would freeze.” James was alcoholic and abusive and Ellen had to learn to cope. “Doc always did enough to hurt but not enough to maim or kill. Just enough to keep me in a state of fear.” Twice he put a gun to her head but did not shoot. She knew that if she walked away, or even if her husband did, she would lose custody of the children. When they returned to Liberia, James did, in fact, take away the children from her. Following their divorce, he remarried and moved to Florida with the youngest child.

Ellen had a government job and soon she had an opportunity to study at Boulder, Colorado and Harvard. She had already created ripples in government circles by criticizing the powers that be. Her American education, work experience and contacts stood her in good stead as she returned to Liberia and slowly but surely worked her way up the political ladder. When the President of Liberia died in 1971 and a new President came to power, Ellen was offered a new job- that of Deputy Minister of Finance. Eight years later there was a coup. Ellen left the country and took up a position with the World Bank.

Liberia had enjoyed political stability for century but glaring economic disparities threatened the delicate equilibrium and the insensitivity of the men in power brought things to ahead. The Rice Riots saw police fire upon a crowd of demonstrators killing at least 41. Soon thereafter at a conference of the OAU (Organization of African Unity – now African Union) in July 1979, President Tolbert remarked that the most pressing problem of the continent was apartheid in South Africa. The following month Ellen was made the first female Finance Minister in the nation’s history. A year later there was a coup and president Tolbert was killed. Only four ministers were spared – and Ellen was one of them.

The United States bolstered the new government and Liberia soon became the CIA’s main station in Africa. Ellen went back to the World Bank and later worked for Citibank. By then three of her sons were studying in the US.

Ellen never ceased political activity. She was arrested and sentenced to 10 years of hard labour for speaking out against the government. But she was offered clemency due to intense pressure from Citibank and elsewhere. One of the messages passed to her in prison had read, “We’d rather have a live ant than a dead elephant.” Of her subsequent flight from her homeland Ellen writes, “As much as I wanted to stay in Liberia, I wanted even more to stay alive. It was time to go.”

In 1990 civil war erupted and there were massacres in Monrovia followed by a massive exodus to neighbouring countries and total internal displacement of indigenous peoples. A Boston Globe reporter was told by a local, “The dogs ate the dead, and we ate the dogs.”

The book is one long politico-historical story that almost eclipses the personal. But there are interesting insights too, not entirely about Africa. For instance, the Confederate general Robert E Lee freed most of his slaves before the Civil War and offered to pay for their passage to Liberia. Wow! Do you think his statues ought to stay?

Overall assessment: Good read.

This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa’s First Woman President
Author: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Publisher: Harper Collins
Year of Publication: 2010

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“The Boss of Bosses: The Life of the Infamous Toto Riina, Dreaded Head of the Sicilian Mafia” by Attilio Bolzoni and Giuseppe D’Avanzo

The Boss of Bosses

‘The best forgiveness is revenge.’

This book about the Sicilian Mafia boss, Salvatore Riina (nicknamed Toto Riiia or U Curtu) was published 15 years after his arrest and imprisonment in 1993. He is now 86 years old, ill with terminal cancer and about to be released from prison on compassionate grounds. His son Guiseppe Salvatore recently came out of prison and published his autobiography.

I picked up The Boss of Bosses at the Muscat airport while waiting for a flight to Milan. The book was meant to relieve boredom in transit but it actually made me lose my sleep, literally and figuratively. After having read The Godfather by Mario Puzo in my schooldays, this was the first time in decades that I was reading about the Mafia. (I must confess at this juncture that I really enjoy the party game ‘Mafia’ which can be adapted to management training in skilful ways.)

“Cosa Nostra was ruled by terror. You could die over nothing. Over a word, a look. All you needed to do was dither over an order to kill a crony, give one question too many or one answer too few to be squashed like a fly on a window pane.” The authors give a brilliant portrayal of the life and times of the man who rises from a humble peasant background to become the supreme head of the Sicilian mafia in the early eighties.

“One day the Corleonese confided in a cellmate: ‘When I get out of here I want to walk on a carpet of 100,000 lira notes.’ This was a simple peasant from Corleone speaking in 1963. His father and brother had died in a blast when he was thirteen. Toto Riina knew only one kind of life – he had only one option, only one goal, the Cosa Nostra.”
Prison life is described thus: “It was commonly said that ‘you were almost better off inside than out’, and the Ucciardone (prison) was compared to the Grand Hotel. Lobster and champagne came in everyday via the register office, and ended up in the cells of the big guns.”

Riina’s constant companions in the early days were Calogero Bagarella and Bernardo Provenzano. In 1969 he went underground after being arrested and later acquitted in a case of triple homicide. Toto married Antonina Bagarella, the sister of Calo, on 16th April 1974 after a 19 year engagement. They were blessed by a team of three priests at a secret hideout. Their four children were delivered in secret. They lived incognito and were constantly on the move. Toto Riina drove a white Mercedes with his wife seated in front and children at the back all the time remaining undetected. His unexpected arrest in 1993 stunned the nation and the world.

When Toto Riina wrested control of the mafia after a bitterly fought ‘mafia war’ the changes were dramatic. “Cosa Nostra, which was, in its own way of course, a democratic state, became a dictatorship in only two years. The Corleonesi weren’t just a family, they had become a current, an alignment, a party. The affairs of Cosa Nostra effectively changed from one day to the next. The Sicilian mafia had altered its structure, its DNA.”

The book tell us a lot about the mafia – how they lived, what they did, their bizarre norms and values, their code of silence, the businesses they ran, and the bloodshed, vendetta and violence that marked their lives. Here are some interesting descriptions:

• You earned more and risked less with cigarettes. Chesterfield, Camel, Pall Mall. In 1959 a case cost 28,000 lire in Tangier and was sold in Rome for 210,000. Cigarettes were a goldmine. Cigarettes had kept Cosa Nostra alive for a quarter of a century.

• During the early 1980s Palermo was a refinery operating at full steam. DEA experts maintained that the Sicilians covered a third of the North Atlantic market, something like four tons of heroin a year. According to FBI figures it was more than that: six tons a year.

• Piccioli, piccioli, piccioli -money, money, money…No one in Palermo was talking about anything else. Some had mother-of-pearl floors, some had gold taps. They would buy a Jaguar one day and a Ferrari the day after, or build villas with silver swimming pools.

• Giovanni (son of Toto Riina) supplies the proof that his uncle was looking for. At his first murder he doesn’t look away when his victim is dying. He shows character and determination. He doesn’t give in. He doesn’t feel pity. A ‘brave’ son, a man of honour, worthy of his father, his uncle, the whole Corleone ‘family’.

Tommaso Buscetta became the first Mafia boss to spill the beans and his testimony sealed the fate of Toto Riina and several others. In 1987, Riina and several other received life sentences from the court. But he was nabbed only after six years.

In May 1992 anti-Mafia judge Giovanni Falcone was killed in a bomb blast. Soon thereafter another judge Paolo Borsellino was killed. No one had any doubts about who was behind the killings. Buscetta had given valuable information to these judges to enable the conviction of the mafia bosses. After their assassination Buscetta came out with the names of the politicians who were aiding the mafia.

Overall assessment: Brilliant book.

The Boss of Bosses: The Life of the Infamous Toto Riina, Dreaded Head of the Sicilian Mafia
AUTHORS: Attilio Bolzoni and GuiseppeD’Avanzano
TRANSLATOR: Shaun Whiteside
PUBLISHER: Orion Books Ltd.
Year of Publication: 2015

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah

Born a Crime

I am addicted to three late-night comedy shows — The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and Late Night with Seth Meyers — all of which I record daily on my DVR and watch religiously the next day. They are essential for me to get my daily quota of laughs. While I heartily enjoy all three shows, the one that I invariably watch first is The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. He took it over from Jon Stewart barely a couple of years ago, and Jon Stewart was so good that it was hard to imagine anyone being able to fill in his shoes. But Trevor Noah has taken the show and made it his own, imbuing it with his unique sensibility — he is from South Africa and is biracial, and is therefore able to look at events in the US as well as the world with a perspective that is very different from the traditional American talk show host. He also has such a natural fair for comedy, which, combined with an innate charm, makes him immediately likable.

Born a Crime is a memoir Noah has written recently that is primarily focused on his childhood growing up in South Africa, against the ugly backdrop of apartheid. While this inhumane system of institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination was ending as he was growing up — thanks to activists like Nelson Mandela — Noah was born at a time when it was still illegal for black and white people to have sexual relations, let alone procreate. Thus, as the child of a white man and a black woman, he was “born a crime,” which explains the title of the book. However, Born a Crime is far from being a dark and depressing read that is focused on the many horrors of apartheid and the fight to end it; instead, it is an account of Noah’s childhood growing up as a “colored” person in South Africa. He was raised primarily by his mother and had more or less a black upbringing, although the tone of his skin did set him apart and made him learn to be like a “chameleon” to fit in with different groups of people. At the same time, it robbed him of the sense of belonging that comes from fitting in squarely in one group.

We see both these seemingly contradictory aspects manifested in so many ways in the anecdotes that Noah shares in this book about his life, from the time he was a little boy being brought up by his mother — with frequent visits to her family where he got a chance to experience the full gamut of relationships including cousins, aunts, uncles, grandmother, and even a great-grandmother — to his adolescent years — by which time his mother had remarried and had two more boys. By the time he was a young adult, he was well on his way to moving out of the house to a place of his own. He had his share of romantic crushes in school, just like any other adolescent, and also had several brushes with the law — mostly involving petty crime — which stopped when he actually ended up spending a few days in jail. Eventually, his natural flair for entertaining people and making them laugh is what led him to doing comedy for a living.

What I enjoyed most about Born a Crime are the stories of Noah’s early childhood, many of which would have been really sad and depressing but for his outlook and the manner in which he narrates them, which makes them funny rather than tragic. For example, the book starts with his mother throwing him out of a moving bus when he was nine years old and then jumping out of the bus herself with his infant step-brother. With an opening like that, how can you not be hooked? There is another story that is laugh-out hilarious, and that is to do with toilets, or rather, the lack of them. In Soweto, the place where Noah grew up, there were only communal toilets, and even those were little more than unceremonious holes into the ground, with flies a constant present. Noah describes how he always had “an all-consuming fear that they were going to fly up and into [Noah’s] bum.” There’s a lot more to this story which I cannot repeat here — it’s worthwhile reading the book for that story alone! — except this priceless observation, “I don’t care who you are, we all shit the same. Beyoncé shits. The pope shits. The Queen of England shits. When we shit we forget our airs and our graces, we forgot how famous or how rich we are. All of that goes away.”

While few people would refer to our bodily functions so crudely, at least in writing, it is so characteristic of Noah to share his observations so bluntly, without any attempt to sugar-coat them. The other stories he narrates are in a similar vein, and I could literally hear his “voice” as I was reading them, with the same tone and manner of speaking that he has on his show — it comes through loud and clear.

What also comes across is his love for his mother, a truly remarkable woman who was extremely tough as well as fiercely independent, who had him when she wanted to have a child but without the traditional marriage to a man in her community and the subservience that goes with it. She left home at a young age, found a secretarial job at a time when this was impossible for black women, found a decent man — who happened to be white — to father a child, and then raised the child on her own. This is how Noah came to be — a biracial kid brought up by his black mother, who couldn’t even be seen with him in public when he was small because it was illegal. His mother did eventually get married to a black man, who turned out to be abusive, but she never stopped being tough and independent, the rock that supported him. Quite simply, he was lucky to be her son.

I enjoyed reading Born a Crime and getting a chance to learn about the back story of someone whose comedy I thoroughly enjoy and who has made it so big in the US. It was also illuminating to hear a first-hand account of someone who has lived though the waning years of apartheid. Over and above all, it’s always fascinating to get a chance to see how people end up doing what they do.

Born a Crime
Author: Trevor Noah
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
Publication Date: November 2016

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

” Brother, I’m Dying” by Edwidge Danticat

Brother, I'm Dying

An incredible true-life story recounted by a member of a family that was torn between Haiti and the United States. A heart-rending tale of two brothers who loved and trusted each other but were compelled by circumstances to live apart. Joseph, the elder, lives in Bel Air, a hilltop neighbourhood overlooking Port-au-Prince harbour. The younger brother, Andre, moves to New York in the prime of his life leaving behind a wife and two infants. The elder of the two is the author of this book. She was barely two when her dad disappeared. Two years later, her mom follows dad. Edwidge and her brother Bob wait another eight years to make the crossover to privilege and prosperity. Dad slowly and painfully builds a future in a strange country, driving taxis to make a livelihood. Two of his four children are born in the United States.

Of her father’s migration the author says simply, “Because he had a job, a wife and two children as incentives to return to Haiti, my father was granted a one-month tourist visa. But he had no intention of coming back.” While Danticat avoids the temptation of getting too sentimental, any reader can easily feel the intense pangs of separation felt by every one of the characters in the story. Imagine the pain of a mother having to abandon a two year old and a four year old and make a leap into the unknown!

Abandoned children were aplenty in Joseph’s household. His grandson Nick was more or less forsaken by both parents, who separated soon after his birth, his mom moving to Canada and his father Maxo to the US. Marie Micheline, the precious orphan, who lost her Haitian mother and was abandoned by her Cuban father when she was six months adds sweetness and pathos to the story. Raised by Joseph and Denise, she bear four children out of wedlock, escapes domestic violence, and works as a nurse, until her life is brutally cut short when she was only thirty seven. “Nasty, brutish and short,” Rousseau would have opined.

Joseph’s wife Tante Denise appears as a larger than life figure, presenting a portrait of grace and stoicism in the face of adversity. Interestingly, the author’s own mother is mentioned less often.

Joseph loses his voice in 1978 following illness and surgery. There’s no dearth of tragedies – to list them would be next to impossible. Yet the book is not a tear-jerker but a thought-provoker, a true measure of the author’s literary finesse.

The book traces Haiti’s descent into political instability and social chaos, and speaks of abject poverty, lawlessness, gang wars, police raids and indiscriminate violence. “It was Thursday, July 15th, 2004, the fifty first birthday of Jean Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s twice elected and twice-deposed president. Having been removed from power in February 2004 through a joint political action by France, Canada and the United States, Aristide was now spending his birthday in exile in South Africa.” That’s an interesting way of putting it.

“The hill in Bel Air on which the house was built had been the site of a famous battle between mulatto abolitionists and French colonists who’d controlled most of the land since 1697 and had imported black Africans to labor on coffee and sugar plantations as slaves. A century later, slaves and mulattoes joined together to drive the French out, and on January 1st, 1804 formed the Republic of Haiti.” Wow! That’s the only example of slaves vanquishing a mighty colonial power. I’d read about this before but Danticat’s narrative is particularly interesting because it triggers some rare thoughts. Why did the Declaration of Independence (from Britain) by white colonists (in North America) become a globally acclaimed historical event, while a more stupendous feat achieved by poor and unarmed black slaves has gone unnoticed by the world?

And what follows is even more fascinating: “More than a century later, as World War I dawned and the French, British and Germans, who controlled Haiti’s international shipping, rallied their gunboats to protect their interests, President Woodrow Wilson, whose interests included, among others, the united Fruit Company and 40 percent of the stock of the Haitian national bank, ordered an invasion. When the US marines landed in Haiti in July 1915 for what would become a nineteen year occupation…” Oh! So one hundred years later (with mass produced social media ‘fake’ news at our fingertips) if some of us expect President Donald Trump to be driven by his economic interests, that wouldn’t be so far-fetched would it? After all, history is said to repeat itself.

“In the fall of 1994, Aristide returned to Haiti, accompanied by 20,000 US soldiers. Citing the brutality of the military regime and the menace of a mass exodus of Haitian refugees to nearby Florida, then President Bill Clinton launched Operation Uphold Democracy.” The author points out that while Cuban refugees were welcomed with open arms Haitian refugees were often imprisoned and deported. Joseph dies in tragic circumstances and Andre follows soon thereafter.

Danticat is humble enough to say, “What I learned from my father and uncle, I learned out of sequence and in fragments. This is an attempt at cohesiveness, and at recreating a few wondrous and terrible months when their lives and mine intersected in startling ways, forcing me to look forward and back at the same time. I am writing this only because they can’t.”

Overall assessment: Don’t miss this masterpiece.

Brother, I’m Dying
Author: Edwidge Danticat
Publisher: Random House
Year of Publication: 2007

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“My Life with Bob” by Pamela Paul

My Life with Bob

Of the thousands of podcasts that are now available, there are only two that I subscribe to, the New York Times Book Review podcast and NPR’s Fresh Air. In fact, I listen to them so regularly that the voices of their hosts – Pamela Paul of the New York Times Book Review podcast and Terry Gross of Fresh Air – seem more familiar to me than the sound of my own voice. So when I heard of the book, My Life with Bob, by Pamela Paul that was published recently, I had to, of course, read it – despite the fact that I have a marked preference for fiction and My Life with Bob is more of a memoir. (Interestingly, Pamela Paul was interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air shortly after her book was published, so I had a chance to listen to both of them in the same podcast!)

Contrary to what you might expect, the “Bob” of My Life with Bob is not a guy, but a list of books that Pamela Paul has maintained for twenty-eight years, starting from the time she was in high school. This becomes obvious from the subtitle of the book, which is “Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues.” Thus, Bob here is an acronym for “Book of books.” It might seem strange to keep such a list – it’s not something people commonly do – and it is a testament to how much Pamela Paul loves books that she has kept a record of every book that she has read since high school. And not only that, her Bob is so precious to her that if she was forced to evacuate her home in a hurry, Bob is what she would choose to take – after her family, of course, but before critical documents such as passports and birth certificates. (Bob, is contained, so far, within a single notebook and is hand-written, and while I can see the importance of maintaining the hand-written aspect of it, I think it can at least be scanned and archived, so she does not live in mortal dread of losing it!)

For a fellow book lover, My Life with Bob provides a fascinating glimpse into the life of someone who has always been passionate about books since she was a kid. Keeping a list of books may have started out as a whim for Pamela Paul – one of those things you embark upon in your teens but soon lose interest in – but it actually became almost a necessity for her, as books were the one constant in her life that she was always passionate about. Her list starts with Franz Kafka’s The Trial on a summer-abroad trip to rural France as a high-school student and continues till the present day, following the arc of her life through college, early adulthood living in Thailand in the soul-searching “What do I want to do with my life?” phase, early career as a freelance writer in which she was able to land prestigious gigs such as a monthly column in The Economist, a first marriage ending in divorce, her second marriage, the birth of her three kids, and her professional ascent in the editorial and publishing world that has culminated in what would seem to be the pinnacle for someone who wants to work with books – becoming the editor of the New York Times Book Review.

Contrary to a personal journal or dairy which is commonly used by people to capture the events, thoughts, feelings – and very often, angst – at specific times in their lives, maintaining a list of every book that she has read is much more meaningful to Pamela Paul, as it concisely captures the trajectory of her life. Instead of reading her thoughts about what she felt at a certain time if she had captured them in a diary – most people who maintain regular journals will probably have hundreds of them – she can simply look at any book in her list and remember the event or experience associated with it, even if it was twenty years ago – similar to how a photograph can trigger long forgotten memories. In her list of books, she even indicates which ones she was not able to complete, which is also illuminating, as what a person does not like is as indicative of their personality as what they do like. While a list of books cannot always be a good filter to find like-minded people, a person’s reading list does tell you a lot about their personality, and the immediate affinity you feel towards someone who feels the same way about a specific book as you do is undeniable.

As you would expect from someone who is the editor of the New York Times Book Review, Pamela Paul is an accomplished writer, and while I have not read any of her earlier books, I found My Life with Bob very well written. It was fascinating to get an inside look at the life of someone whose world revolves around books, all the way from being a “bookish child” who always felt book-deprived, to her current position where she is surrounded by a glut of books and can only manage to read a tiny fraction of them.

My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues
Author: Pamela Paul
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
Publication Date: May 2017

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Child of the Dark: The Diary Of Carolina Maria De Jesus” by Carolina Maria de Jesus – Translated from the Portuguese by David St. Claire

Child of the Dark

A spectacular diary penned by a virtually unlettered woman in a Brazilian slum. The language is raw and unrefined – and so are the emotions. Carolina was black, an unwed mother of three, a garbage-picker and ultimately a dreamer, who desperately wanted to write. And write she did. “The book is man’s best invention so far,” she says. (It needed a woman of the slums to say this.)

Carolina salvaged scraps of paper from garbage dumps and fashioned her diary. One day in 1958 a Sao Paulo reporter visiting the favela (slum) was astonished to hear a feisty black woman screaming at a group of men, “If you continue mistreating these children, I’m going to mention all your names in my book!” He got talking with Carolina. Later he convinced his editor to serialize the diary. The book emerged soon thereafter.

“Never had a book such an impact on Brazil,” says the translator. “In three days the first printing of 10,000 copies was sold out in Sao Paulo alone. In less than six months 90,000 copies were sold in Brazil…”

Carolina left no subject untouched. Religion, politics, philosophy, economics, sociology, racism, gender, human rights, man-woman relationships, parenting, animals, and even reincarnation are intricately women into the narrative. Here are some excerpts:

  • I am so used to garbage cans that I don’t know how to pass one without having to see what is inside.
  • I bore the weight of the sack on my head and the weight of Vera Eunice in my arms. Sometimes it makes me angry. Then I get ahold of myself. She’s not guilty because she’s in the world. I reflected: I’ve got to be tolerant with my children. They don’t have anyone in the world but me. How sad is the condition of a woman alone without a man at home.
  • Father’s Day. What a ridiculous day!
  • Brazil needs to be led by a person who has known hunger. Hunger is also a teacher. Who has gone hungry learns to think of the future and of the children.
  • I wonder if the poor of other countries suffer like the poor of Brazil.
  • I wonder if God knows the favelas exist and that the favelados are hungry?
  • The daze of hunger is worse than that of alcohol. The daze of alcohol makes us sing but the one of hunger makes us shake. I know how horrible it is to have only air in the stomach.
  • What they (favela children) can find in the streets they eat. Banana peels, melon rind, and even pineapple husks. Anything that is too tough to chew, they grind.
  • The white man says he is superior. But what superiority does he show? If the Negro drinks pinga, the white drinks. The sickness that hits the black hits the white. If the white feels hunger so does the Negro. Nature hasn’t picked any favourites.
  • If reincarnation exists, I want to come back black.
  • The cat is a wise one. She doesn’t have any deep loves and doesn’t let anyone make a slave of her. And when she goes away she never comes back, proving that she has a mind of her own.
  • The publishers in Brazil don’t print what I write because I’m poor and haven’t got any money to pay them. That’s why I’m going to send my novels to the United States.

Oscar Wilde once wrote, “We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars.” Carolina was among the star-gazers – penniless, but with oodles of enthusiasm. She was not bogged down by poverty but battled the odds and clung to her dreams. She was illegitimate and so was her mother. She left home in search of work and ended up in the favela when she was pregnant. Her three children were fathered by white men of three different nationalities. The luxury of sentiment was not for her. When her daughter says, “Mama, sell me to Dona Julita because she has delicious food,” what could Carolina do but record it in her diary?

The book’s success enabled Carolina to buy a brick house and move out of the favela that had been her home for 12 long years. But her children were ostracized by the new neighbours and life continued to be difficult. Carolina wrote four more books but they did not sell. She had to sell her house and revert to her familiar life on the streets. When she died in 1977, a favela neighbour paid for her casket. She left behind 40 notebooks.

Carolina was the only Brazilian woman of colour to leave a written testimony of her struggles. That she could write at all was nothing short of a miracle.

Overall Assessment: Like a diamond solitaire emerging from a garbage dump, this book surely stands out.

Child of the Dark: The Diary Of Carolina Maria De Jesus
AUTHOR: Carolina Maria de Jesus TRANSLATOR: David St. Claire
PUBLISHER: Penguin
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 1962 (First published in Portuguese in 1960)

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diary of Dang Thuy Tram” by Dang Thuy Tram

Last Night I Dreamed of Peace

At the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Ming City, Vietnam, I paid the princely sum of fifteen US dollars for the diary of a dead woman I had never heard of. As I began to read, the realization dawned on me that hers was a true rendering of history – and every word was dynamite. This was no ordinary woman, no white-collared doctor, no run-of- the-mill revolutionary. She had the heart of a humanist, the soul of a poet, and the grit of a guerrilla fighter. “For the first time I dig a grave to bury a comrade. The shovel hits a rock, and sparks fly like the flame of hatred in my heart.”

On 22nd June 1970, Dr. Dang Thuy Tram, barely aged 28, was shot dead by American soldiers as she walked along a remote trail in Duc Pho with three others. Her diary made its way to the United States and remained for decades in the possession of Fred Whitehurst who worked for the FBI, turned whistleblower, and finally tracked down Thuy’s aged mother in Hanoi to hand over the precious memoir. Published in 2005, the diary was an instantaneous hit. The English translation emerged in 2007. Thuy’s last words express her deep anguish and sense of hopelessness in the face of a powerful destiny: “I am no longer a child. I have grown up. I have passed trials of peril but somehow, at this moment, I yearn deeply for Mom’s caring hand. Even the hand of a dear one or that of an acquaintance would be enough. Come to me, squeeze my hand, know my loneliness, and give me the love, the strength to prevail on the perilous road before me.”

Born in a cultured, ‘bourgeois’ family, Thuy learnt to play the guitar and the violin. She qualified as a doctor and was accepted for higher studies in surgical ophthalmology. Yet she chose to move south and join the resistance in December 1966. Her beloved country was at war and America was no mean foe. Part of her motivation was her desire to re-unite with the love of her life, a man she simply calls ‘M’. Thuy had loved him from an early age but he had joined the North Vietnamese army four years earlier. The truth about their break-up remains shrouded in mystery. Thuy’s diary is actually the second volume, the first having been lost in the war zone during a miraculous escape on 31st December 1969. Did she write about her heartbreak in the first volume? We may never know.

The pocket sized diary was often scribbled in dark, humid, underground shelters or narrow caves in the mountainside. US President Richard Nixon is a “mad dog.” American soldiers are “devils” or “bandits”. Thuy speaks of revenge but never kills a fly. She only saves lives. Thuy speaks of young men dying in her arms, of performing amputations without anaesthesia, of a great many medical challenges. In mid 1969, she wrote, “I will not be there when they sing the victory song.”

Of her broken relationship she says little, but her words are powerful. “The trust stemming from ten years of waiting and longing does not erode easily, but when it cracks it’s hard to repair.” And, “I know the roots of my love still lie deep within my heart, dormant but not dead. It can sprout, it can grow if spring returns. A part of me is still that young girl you know, the one who loves to feel cool raindrops on her face.”

Her writing is embellished with simile and metaphor, and the play of emotions mingles with practical descriptions of life’s harshest realities. There is poetry in every sentence. One marvels at the ebullient romanticism of the young woman in an environment shrouded by the horrors of war. Bravery and optimism, pathos and idealism – a plethora of intense feelings gives the diary a powerful voice that reaches out to even the most disinterested reader. Some excerpts:

  • My soul is as full, as tumultuous, as a river after days of torrential rain.
  • My youth has been soaked with the sweat, tears, blood, and bones of the living and the dead.
  • The hand-basket is heavy, but my worries are much heavier.
  • Hatred is bruising my liver, blackening my gut.
  • This war has robbed me of all my dreams of love.
  • Oh! Cruel American bandits, your crimes are piling up like a mountain. As long as I live I vow to fight until my last drop of blood in this thousand-year vendetta.

The diary begins on 8th April 1968, when Thuy had already spent two years among the fighters. The words she used to pay tribute to a fallen comrade are entirely appropriate and applicable in her own case: “Your heart has stopped so that the heart of the nation can beat forever.”

Overall Assessment: Must read.

Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diary of Dang Thuy Tram
AUTHOR: Dang Thuy Tram (translated from the Vietnamese by Andrew X Pham)
PUBLISHER: Rider
Date of Publication: 2007

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“Farewell to Manzanar” by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston

farewell-to-manzanar

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour in December 1941 at the climax of World War II, every American of Japanese descent suddenly became suspect. The Franklin Roosevelt government reacted by rounding up all Japanese Americans and carting them off to remote camps, where they were forced to subsist in sub-human conditions. Manzanar was one such camp on the edge of California’s Mojave Desert and in this book a former inmate gives a first person account of her family’s interment in this hellhole. After decades of silent denial, the author relives long forgotten memories and recollects heart-wrenching details to produce this deeply disturbing memoir.

Jeanne’s father (a native of Hiroshima) was interrogated, taken into custody and deported to North Dakota. Ko Wakatsuki had come to Hawaai at the age of 17 in search of work, moved to Idaho and later California, where he married a Japanese girl and had 9 children. His arrest and three year incarceration changed him. He became despondent, alcoholic, abusive, violent and eager to be invisible. In 1945 after the war ended, the family returned to Southern California and in 1952 they moved to San Jose.

Jeanne was seven years old and the youngest of the brood when the tragedy enveloped her family. Manzanar effectively robbed her of the simple joys of childhood. Growing up in this strange new place with minimal facilities, communal toilets and communal kitchens, deeply affected her – and the return to civilization was just as difficult when the camp was disbanded after three years.

Jeanne recounts her father’s behavior during a school visit by her parents: “I was standing at the head of the table shaking the principal’s hand, when papa rose, his face ceremoniously grave, and acknowledged the other parents with his most respectful gesture. He pressed his palms together at his chest and gave them a slow deep Japanese bow from the waist. They received this with a moment of careful, indecisive silence. He was unforgivably a foreigner then, foreign to them, foreign to me, foreign to everyone but Mama, who sat next to him smiling with pleased modesty. Twelve years old at the time, I wanted to scream. I wanted to slide out of sight under the table and dissolve.”

The California born author describes the incredible pain of growing up Japanese in post-war America. “Easy enough as it was to adopt white American values, I still had a Japanese father to frighten my boyfriends and a Japanese face to thwart my social goals.”

Jeanne met James D. Houston while attending San Jose State University and they were married in 1957. Her husband co-authored her autobiographical novel, which was published in 1973 and won many accolades before being adapted into a TV film in 1976. The book has since become a part of many school curricula to inform pupils about the Japanese American experience during WWII. It presents a thought-provoking account of a dark and embarrassing chapter in American history.

Overall Assessment: Must read, especially if you are Japanese American.

Farewell to Manzanar
Authors: Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and  James D. Houston
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Date of Publication: 1973

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

 

“A Place to Stand” by Jimmy Santiago Baca

a-place-to-stand

A brutally honest memoir by a person born to deprivation and abandonment. Born in the southern state of New Mexico to parents of Mexican and Apache Indian descent, Baca’s early life is the very antithesis of the American dream. This book enables you to see the indifferent face of America, the very existence of which many in the developing world are unaware. Poverty in America? Don’t tell me! Here is a man lucky enough to be born in America and yet living a most horrendous and nightmarish existence from early childhood to adulthood. “I’d begun to feel early on that the state and society at large considered me a stain on their illusion of a perfect America. In the American dream there weren’t supposed to be children going hungry or sleeping under bridges.”

Baca and his two siblings were abandoned in childhood by both parents – their father drifting through life in an alcoholic haze and their mother eloping to California with a lover in her quest for a more settled lifestyle. Brought up by their grandparents for a while, the children keep yearning for their parents’ return. When their grandfather passes way, the boys are sent to an orphanage. Baca runs away again and again – and ends up in a detention center at the age of thirteen. From there, he moves on to street life marked by vagrancy, aimlessness, petty crimes, intermittent jail terms, violence and substance abuse, for a while reuniting with his brother and then losing him again. “And somewhere along the line, I started fighting just for the sake of fighting, because I was good at it and it felt good to beat other people up.”

Baca is sentenced for drug peddling and ends up in jail. During his five-year incarceration at a maximum security prison, he learns to read and write. He attained real literacy only when he was in his early twenties – and it turned out to be his path to salvation. While he speaks of the sub-human conditions that prevail in prison, something that the vast majority of us cannot even imagine, his language espouses a dark beauty and is more poetry than prose. “The rage that came out of him was the kind of rage that transcends friendship. It’s the kind of rage that can be created only in prison. The seeds of that rage are nourished by prison brutality and fertilized by fear and the law of survival of the fittest. It grows and grows, hidden deep in souls that have died from too many beatings, too many jail cells, and bottomless despair, contained like a ticking bomb.”

Of life in jail, he has this to say, “Three meals a day and a warm cot with a roof over my head was a vacation. It was often better in jail than on the streets; I didn’t have to worry for a while about surviving.” And “Handcuffs had become as normal to me as a wristwatch is to a free man.”

Baca draws plausible portraits of everything that is wrong with a system that recognizes human beings only when there is a perceived need to punish and restrain them. “You could see the narrowing of life’s possibilities in the cold, challenging eyes of the homeboys in the detention center; you could see the numbing of their hearts in their swaggering postures. All of them had been wounded, hurt, abused, ignored; already aggression was in their talk, in the way they let off steam over their disappointments, in the way the expressed themselves. It was all they allowed themselves to express, for each of them knew they could be hurt again if they tried anything different.”

The emotional content of the book is stupendous. It doesn’t come as surprise that Baca soon became an acclaimed writer. He had endured so much and he had so much to say. And most significant of all, he had overcome. Through the world of letters, the human spirit had broken out of the vicious circle of drugs, crime and depravity and settled down to the peaceful pursuit of true happiness. This memoir has the potential to awaken hope in the hearts of people who are going through similar travails and plumbing the depths of despair, not only in America but elsewhere. In the author’s own words, “I was a witness, not a victim. I was a witness for those who for one reason or another would never have a place of their own, would never have the opportunity to make their lives stable enough because resources weren’t available or because they just could not get it together.”

Overall Assessment: Definitely worth reading.

A Place to Stand
AUTHOR: JIMMY SANTIAGO BACA
PUBLISHER: GROVE PRESS, NEW YORK
DATE OF PUBLICATION: 2001

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.