I’m going to prepare the dinner myself, I told him doing my best not to sound apathetic, pressing stubbornly against that last word of the sentence. We’ll have some people over, you’ll see, it will be nice.
I awaited some sort of reaction, but none came, or roughly none. What I got instead was his head turning unhurriedly upwards from where it had been standing, resting unnaturally on his right shoulder, in a failed attempt to appear affectionate? Had he moved it sooner or faster I would have read more into it, sensed some eagerness at least. But no, the head moved with the taciturnity and intent of a door opening and closing somewhere on the upper floors of a deserted office building, the yawn of workers on the night shift. The head climbed through the smoke of the cigarette leaning miserably against the ashtray full of crushed butts and fossilized ashes. His cigarettes, I thought the instant I became aware of the chocking smell of smoke, the ones he had once sworn to let go of (for my sake?) in a moment of utter felicity we had both shared at one point.
Occasionally, the chockfull ashtray had to be gyrated and the room spun with it. We took turns at turning it because apparently none of us had the courage or the will to empty it. There was nothing else left to do anyway, our well of desire depleted, our love vocabulary scarce. The evening sun spoke patronizingly through the dusty blinds, its speech muffled, punctuated by passing cars and the singing voice coming from the bedroom. Nothing’s even right or wrong, the singing voice came and went in waves, elephant in the room goes boom.
I tried to imagine the scene, observed by a quiet audience who had previously paid to swallow the thickness of our kitchen scene dissolution, our skin darkened, once, by the lack of lighting, and then again, by their desire to smear us with their expectations. What could two men like us do within the confines of this sanctimonious kitchen except grow gills and play fish? Surely, we couldn’t enact their fetish for submissive wives and dominant husbands whose mental breakdowns constituted a shared family value.
Our knees caressed each other shyly underneath the table as if on their own volition, following a script over which we had no control. I felt as if we were being watched, not only by that voyeuristic audience, but also by a presence I sometimes sensed lurking deep within you, one that could detach itself from you and slide just far enough to observe the scene from a critical distance. A row of grimy coffee mugs stood in between us, an imaginary frontier erected out of a familiar xenophobia, brown testimonies penned on their innards, their inherited grief replicated infinitely downwards into the shiny celestial black of the table top. Their long white shadows like the feet of Dali’s sumptuous elephants caught in gracious expectation.
Sitting around the kitchen table, we were like mourners on the rim of a hole in the ground throwing one last look at the coffin being gradually eclipsed by mud and thoughts alike, and the fear that we were going to be next.
We had been at it for a while, our tenuous relationship, and splayed there, on the table, in blunt contrast to me but most likely indiscernible to him, stood, unsheathed, my attempts at reviving it.
The mugs, as the fossilized ashes in the tacky ashtray, had been there for a while, weeks maybe, I couldn’t recall. They, too, seemed possessed by significant amounts of volition. Mugs like cupped hands that had once held something, carried something to the mouth, an offering of food and unguarded indulgence, and with it the guilt of having gulped something foul, pleasurable to the tongue but foul for the rest, the portentous sign of an abundance of clutter piling up inside the guts and the mind. There was no place for them in the kitchen sink since that space too had been saturated with unwashed dishes, and not even on top of the washing machine that stood next to sink. I had developed the habit of washing only those on the top when I ran out of dishes while those on the bottom lingered there for weeks on end to the point where they seemed to clean themselves. Bread crumbs would vanish on the spot, mayonnaise and other sauces in the same grouping would put up a fight at first and then dilute resolutely, admitting defeat.
A dinner party, having some friends come over to that place I had come to see as our place even though he, gracious boyfriend, didn’t spend too much time in it, was the ultimate comeback I presumed. Scrawled on the stonewashed fabric of that week’s impending dull routine the idea of a dinner party shined with the promise of finally having something to think and fuss about for the following few days. The subdued excitement it brought resembled that of Broadway revivals, and it went in hand in hand with the kind of last resort actions suggested by the newlywed’s guide to a happy marriage. Except there was no such guide for us. It was up to us to write one, and there I was, preparing the way.
The things I would do for him, you couldn’t even imagine, as I can’t imagine him doing the same things for me. Were we ever going to be as good for each other as we were in each other’s fantasies, in the books we read before falling asleep? We lacked the grace of admitting it but we were more in love with the people we were reading about than with each other. And the people we were reading about sometimes happened to be the same. That parallelism, I believe, gave us a sense of participation in building a world that pertained to none of us individually, but which belonged to the both of us as a couple. It was our way of coming together. There, at least, we smiled at each other.
No smile here, imagine, not even the idea of a smile took shape on his face, no compromise, and with this lack came the thought that we’re going to go through this misery together, that long ago we had accepted it, armed ourselves against it. No reach of hands across the table, no patting on the shoulder, just the filmy veneer of that smoke coming out of his nostrils and mouth, turning him into a magical creature consumed by the overuse of his powers. Heaped on the chair, the smoke being the only thing that moved, he resembled a steam engine in recess after a long journey, the clatter of jagged wheels finally over, the cargo finally unloaded. He smoked his cigarettes with such elegance that for a very long period after we had met Ithought the spectacle was intended for me to savor. And I did, most ardently.
Who are we going to invite?
The smoke danced above our heads, a poisonous aurora borealis.
Then, finally, a reach across the table, not to hold hands or touch in any way, but simply to poke at the dying cigarette, affect a ripple in the thin vertical smoke. The elephant in the room goes boom.
I’m going to prepare something fancy, you’ll see, I told him, something extravagant. I was so enthralled by the promise of that fantasy that I couldn’t even look at him anymore. Even so, I knew that for a brief moment he smiled the way people smile when they see a glimpse of happiness being enacted, or at least the desire to attain or revive it. I felt the chill of that smile growing like fern frost on a cold December morning.
A speech given at the end of the semester, in one of my summary writing classes.
This class has been a complete failure and a waste of everyone’s time, money, and patience on so many levels.
In this class, we’ve been reading texts and trying to summarize them to the best of our abilities. Unfortunately, we’ve been honing a skill that will most likely prove useless. And that is because in whatever job you’re going to grapple with in your future, your employer will NOT ask you to read texts and summarize them. No one will stand in awe at your summarizing skills or admire you for having read and understood a newspaper article accurately. Most importantly, you won’t be able to use these skills as pick-up lines on a Saturday night, drink in hand.
Let me give you some figures to show you I’m not being wild.
In terms of employment, we’re on the ladder’s lower rungs. A recent survey conducted by Alma Laurea (the Italian Inter-university Consortium) shows that 82,1% of language graduates found a job within five years after graduation. Those in the literary/humanities group fare even worse: only 77,8% of graduates were employed five years after graduating. That’s acceptable, you might say, satisfactory even. But compared to graduates in the field of information technology (97,2%), engineering (96,4%), economics and architecture (91,8% and 91,6%, respectively), the complete picture becomes rather grim.
In financial terms, in Italy, the situation doesn’t look promising either. Compared to IT graduates who earn on average €1,871 per month, those in our field earn around €1,389 per month. Architects and engineers get about €1,587 per month plus benefits. A five hundred euros difference might not seem much, yet they can make a difference when bills and rent have been paid at the end of the month. To put it bluntly, compared to STEM graduates, our graduates might find that they have too much month at the end of their money. To put it more bluntly, graduates in the humanities place themselves below the average income of all graduates put together, which is €1,552 per month.
When choosing a job, the options are also minimal, to say the least. For example, you could become a tourist guide or an interpreter or translator. On the other hand, if you’re lucky enough, you might land a job in a multinational company, where you will be required to interface with foreign clients or other businesses. Or you might work as a foreign correspondent for a newspaper or news office. Or you might become a museum technician and conservator. Yet, most graduates in the humanities end up working as event organizers or as teachers, jobs in which they are either unqualified or overworked and underpaid (as language teachers are most of the time).
Globalization and technology haven’t been kind to us either. Jobs in translating, interpreting, copy editing, and even teaching are increasingly becoming side jobs. They can be outsourced, meaning you won’t be given tenure or a full-time job, and you will lose all benefits that come with that. You will most likely have several contracts with different companies and institutions with diverse terms and conditions. The taxation regimes of those contracts will also be dissimilar, which means that you will have to give some of that money back to the state in taxes every year.
Juggling jobs can be fun: it means you can do something else every time you get a new contract and build an impressive resumé and a diversified set of skills. But this also means you don’t get any paid leave if you get sick or have a baby. In addition, you will need to work on holidays, and it will become increasingly difficult to separate your job from your private life. For example, I often answer emails from my various employers while on the loo or while brushing my teeth in the morning.
It goes without saying that none of my employers, except for Unito, require me to summarize newspaper articles. So naturally, therefore, I can’t even put it on my resumé.
So, unaffectedly, this raises the rather dreadful question, which, I’m sure, has haunted many of you over the years. And that question is: what are we doing here?
Let me give you an anecdote or two.
When I was in primary school, my math teacher would call me names whenever I found it difficult to understand equations. He called me a goat, a ram, a potato. I even got slapped really hard on the back of my neck every once in a while. “You’ll never amount to anything,” he would say whenever I was in front of the class, “what are you going to do with this thing you have for literature?” The sense of shame and purposelessness derived from that public humiliation has stayed with me for a long time. I can still sense it there, in the recesses of my mind, where it turned to rancour and, finally, to acceptance.
But inherently, it was also humiliation aimed at us, the humanists, the language experts, the literature enthusiasts. More often than not, we’re portrayed as those who escape or hide from reality, only to find haven in the words of someone who died centuries ago. We’re the ones who are afraid of a real job. Men in the humanities are allegedly feeble, effeminate, not men enough. Women are seen as spinsters or obsessive librarians who are only attractive in porn movies.
When I told my high-school English teacher, who had insisted I become a lawyer or notary, that I would study languages at university, she enthusiastically discouraged me from doing that. After all, what would one do with a degree in foreign languages and literature besides teaching? Why toil at something that will eventually prove useless and will only result in educating people who will become just like us?
So let me ask you that dreadful question again: what are we doing here?
The answer is relatively simple, and we’ve been avoiding it or secretly despising it because it doesn’t translate into more money. If you study Information Technology, you are 97,2% sure you will get a job almost immediately after graduating. The same goes for other STEM graduates. But unfortunately, knowing how to communicate effectively in different situations with different people in different languages doesn’t translate into that. It doesn’t equal money. It equals something else, and that something else may turn into cash at a certain point. At most, it constitutes a talent rather than a lucrative skill. And that’s a problem when financial austerity and crises are just around the corner.
I believe that what STEM graduates (and other people) knowingly or unknowingly refuse to acknowledge is that their work would become static without our effective communication systems. They wouldn’t be able to publish their results. No one in this world would be able to move without the humanists and the linguists who painstakingly work, often without getting paid, to streamline communication. To make it easier for us to understand each other.
So please, I beg you, I beseech you: do not bear this shame any longer. You are not less intelligent than your STEM colleagues in any shape or form. Whenever they, or someone else, tries to remind you of that shame, blow a raspberry at them. Tell them that all the knowledge they have about computers, economics, and building skyscrapers was, before all else, a string of words in a book, something that you are masters of.
When Liberty Island reopened to the public three months after the attacks of September 11, 2001, tourist information plaques on the island still needed to catch up with the altered Manhattan skyline. A vacancy had appeared where the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center stood. “Amid the glittering impassivity of the many building across the East River,” John Updike wrote in The New Yorker a few days after the attacks, “an empty spot had appeared, as if by electronic command, beneath the sky that, but for the sulfurous cloud streaming south toward the ocean, was pure blue, rendered uncannily pristine by the absence of jet trails.” Even three months after the events, one of those tourist plaques, situated just at the edge of Liberty Island where visitors could get a breathtaking view of the tip of Manhattan, still featured the ‘old’ Manhattan skyline in which the two towers stood proudly intact.
The disparity between reality and representation was haunting. It placed the two instances, the old and the new, in a relation of simultaneity, of coexistence. This dialogic simultaneity between reality and its representation gave an ominous aura to “that day”,as 9/11 came to be called in its aftermath, and it reflected a state of mind. It was a showcase of before and after akin to shampoo TV commercials or those brain-fitness puzzles that askplayers to spot the differences. Yet, it indicated something else as well, a shift not just in terms of landscape. The gap in the “glittering impassivity” of Manhattan’s skyline needed more than concrete and hard physical work to be sealed.
The plaque on Liberty Island was not the only one to proffer such uncanny commentary on the changing scenery. In November 2015, while I was staying in New York City, during one of my morning runs in Astoria Park, I stumbled across a similarly ominous plaque. Situated on the sidewalk, approximately halfway between the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge and the Hell Gate Bridge, the green plaque faces the East River and, beyond it, Manhattan’s skyline. It does not contain any images, yet the weather-beaten plaque tells the story of the 1904 General Slocum Disaster, which involved a steamboat that sunk in the East River along with its 1,300 people on board. Out of all those people on board only about 280 managed to survive. However, that was not the information that caught my eye as I was skimming the long commemorative text. What drew my attention was the last sentence of the first paragraph, which tells its readers that “prior to September 11, 2001, the burning of the General Slocum had the highest death toll of any disaster in New York City history.” Besides the seemingly innocuous comparison that this piece of information offers, which is most likely meant to help New Yorkers and tourists get a sense of perspective with regards to the death toll and the importance of such an event, I could not help but think how the plaque is incidentally much more about what happened on and in the aftermath of 9/11 than about the General Slocum Disaster.
The two events, akin to the two versions of Manhattan’s skyline, were also placed in a dialogic simultaneity. Yet, in this case, the comparison between the two was no longer about forceful changes in an otherwise recognizable landscape but rather about how certain events are dethroned by culturally resounding ones in a city’s cultural memory. It somehow chronicled the degree to which 9/11 turned into a watershed moment in the city’s history since most people will not remember a steamboat that sunk on a Sunday afternoon due to “organizational and leadership failings.” The comparison also offered 9/11 as a unit of measurement for the perception of that other disaster, as if the General Slocum Disaster could not have been understood without bringing 9/11 into the picture, and maybe even the other way around.
Joan Didion, in The Year of Magical Thinking, was making a similar, albeit unconscious association when, while speaking about how violent events are almost always preceded by unremarkable circumstances, she brings together the “ordinary Sunday morning” of Pearl Harbor and the “ordinary beautiful September day” before 9/11 happened. Yet, the mental levelling Didion succumbs to in her comparison is not far-fetched. Akin to Pearl Harbor, 9/11 was an act of unswerving aggression perpetrated on the homeland, and Didion was surely not the only one to shed light on the connection. David Ray Griffin, an American professor and political writer, declaratively entitled his book on the Bush Administration after 9/11 The New Pearl Harbor, and in the days following the attack, politicians of all colors resorted to the same association in their public speeches. In this sense, it is as if there is a transfer of ‘cultural weight’ between these events placed in dialogic simultaneity: the steamboat incident offers the death toll, 9/11 offers the attitude and the solemnity the former somehow fails to trigger, while Pearl Harbor legitimizes a military response.
This transfer of cultural weight could be easily explained and understood in psychological terms by invoking such notions as the “availability heuristic.” If applied, the notion would reveal that whoever conceived the text for the plaque offered readers a mental shortcut by relying on immediate examples that come to a given person’s mind when evaluating, for instance, the death toll of the General Slocum Disaster. Yet, such an approach is limiting, to say the least. It reveals more about the authors and the readers of the text, as well as about the post-9/11 atmosphere, than about the nature of the events themselves, if such nature could ever be graspable.
On this line of reasoning, it is my contention that this dialogic simultaneity indicates a modification in the world’s primal scenes and constitutes a symptom of how 9/11 and the ensuing wars have created a ripple effect from a cultural point of view. “Many people”, George Packer argues in The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq, “allowed historical analogies to do their thinking for them.” In the case of the ‘war on terror’, triggered by the events of September 11, the two primal scenes, or mental shortcuts, were the Second World War and the war in Vietnam and many people funneled their perception of the new wars along those lines. However, the General Slocum commemorative plaque indicates a further development inthat mental process. The plaque seems to suggest that, in terms of casualties, 9/11 has become the primal scene for the understanding of the General Slocum Disaster despite the chronological primacy of the latter.
By taking into consideration both fictional and non-fictional texts as well as other cultural artifacts coming from different fields, this article looks at how culturally resonant occurrences such as the terrorist attacks of September 11 and the ensuing ‘war on terror’ tend to become ‘selfish events’. As this paper will argue, this transformation is particularly fruitful when these artifacts enter processes of dialogic simultaneity with those artifacts that have “circulating signifiers” and whose cultural frames could be exported to fit new contexts. To this purpose, by looking at Elliot Ackerman’s novel Green on Blue as well as other texts pertaining to the discourse(s) of the ‘war on terror’, the paper tries to argue that such dialogues result in ‘violent’ interpretative intrusions not only at the level of succeeding cultural discourses but also at the level of preceding discourses. However, the notion of dialogue employed in my argument does not inherently imply intertextuality. Albeit their authors do acknowledge some writerly debt to other cultural artifacts and authors, the degree of influence is never stated specifically within the texts themselves. ‘Dialogue’ hereby implies simultaneity and is most observable when these texts and cultural artifacts are brought together in interpretative processes and their overlaps are pinpointed and discussed.
One way to go deeper into this process of transfer to understand it better would be to look for other instances in which this dialogic simultaneity and transfer of ‘cultural weight’ occur, and post-9/11 literature offers plenty of revelatory examples. One of these moments of cultural transfer is accurately documented, for instance, in Siri Hustvedt’s novel The Blazing World. In terms of narrative tactics, the novel strategically builds the story using different points of view thus permitting the reader to see the issue from dissimilar angles. After having lived for so long in the shadow of her art-connoisseur-dealer husband, Harriet Burden, the protagonist of the novel, decides to conduct an experiment by concealing her female identity behind three male artists who agree to present Burden’s work as if it was their own. The purpose of the experiment, as explained by the protagonist herself in the many journal entries included in the novel, was to show the degree to which the art world was biased against female artists, the latter being portrayed as victims of a ‘phallocentric’ perception of art. What interests me most however, is the way in which one of Burden’s art installations, titled suggestively “The Suffocation Rooms”, was perceived simply because it was mounted in the aftermath of 9/11:
The show was mounted the spring after New York was attacked, and the little mutant that crawled out of the box had the haunting look of a damaged survivor or a new being born in the wreckage. It didn’t matter that the work had been finished well before 9/11. The increasing heat in the rooms contributed to the interpretation; the last, hot room felt ominous. At the same time, my debut was an insignificant casualty of the falling towers.
Yet, in Hustvedt’s fragmented narrative, Burden’s art installations are not the only ones that fall prey to the cultural violence of the ‘falling towers’. The works of another artist, who goes by the name of Rune and who later becomes one of Burden’s male fronts, are subjected to the same kind of interpretation with the only exception that his works are exhibited well before the events of September 11. The narrative thus chronicles how after 9/11 Rune’s ‘colored crosses’ took on an entirely different meaning. “Modeled on the Red Cross symbol in different colors,” one of the narrators explains, “they could have been an ironic reference to the whole history of Christianity or to the Crusades. After 9/11 they looked prescient: East-and-West conflict, civilizations at war. Or were they just a shape?”
In a similar vein, the novel also accounts how after 9/11 artists themselves felt compelled to change their own aesthetics. Culturally resounding events such as September 11, the novel seems to suggest, not only contaminate interpretation but also engender a need for aesthetic shift and a commitment on the part of the artist that transcends the boundaries of representation. They formulate an ethos of art production and perception, one that must necessarily acknowledge the presence of these events as regulatory ‘primal scenes’. This double shift even became the topic of a 2012 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Entitled September 11, the exhibition gathered a series of artworks most of which were not necessarily connected to 9/11 but were close enough to force the audience to come to terms with the idea that while the works themselves had suffered no alterations in the meantime their perception had in fact changed in the aftermath of the events. “The exhibition”, as Michael H. Miller notes in the Observer, “is more about how September 11, 2001 changed the experience of viewing art after the fact, and less about the day itself. This new kind of context gave certain works a more menacing appearance.”
A similarly striking example can be found in Don DeLillo’s novel Falling Man, where a still life painting by Giorgio Morandi, showing a series of household items (boxes, biscuit tins, and bottles), appears to be weighed down by the same artistic prescience with regards to 9/11. It is worthwhile to note that Morandi’s paintings, much like Rune’s ‘colored crosses’ from Hustvedt’s novel, had been conceived and exhibited more than fifty years before 9/11:
Two of the taller items were dark and somber, with smoky marks and smudges, and one of them was partly concealed by a long-necked bottle. The bottle was a bottle, white. The two dark objects, too obscure to name, were the things that Martin was referring to. ‘What do you see?’ he said. She saw what he saw. She saw the towers.
The two dark objects in Morandi’s painting could have been any two household objects as the series itself suggests. Yet, after September 11, their obscurity and lack of a definite signifier takes on a precise meaning. The mere resemblance to the Twin Towers makes them appear as representations of the towers themselves and the dark implications that come with that interpretation. In a similar manner, George Segal’s sculpture titled “Woman on a Park Bench” mounted as part of MoMA PS1’s September 11 exhibition corroborates the same kind of interpretation process. When the show was mounted at MoMA in 2012 the artist had been dead for more than ten years, and his artwork first came to the light of day well before 9/11. Yet, the woman in the sculpture, of complete whiteness as if covered in white powder, could have been easily seen, akin to the “little mutant” in Burden’s art installation, as one of the survivors who had fled the clouds of dust coming from the falling towers.
The same process of dialogic simultaneity becomes apparent even in the case of the discourse(s) surrounding the American ‘war on terror’. To include even examples from popular culture, consider for instance the atmosphere of government surveillance portrayed in Netflix’s original series Stranger Things released in July 2016. Though set in 1983 the audience of the series could only perceive this atmosphere from the point of view of the Edward Snowden leaks and the ensuing surveillance scandals that dominated the mass media immediately after. When Mr. Wheeler, the oblivious dad from Stranger Things, tells his wife to trust a pack of shady government officials because the government is always on their side, somehow that does not ring true anymore considering recent events. Much like the works of art in Hustvedt’s and DeLillo’s novels, these images become prescient and almost an admonition directed at those who, in their daily ignorance, ‘had not seen it coming’ even in the 1980s.
Now, taking these examples into consideration one might begin to see a connecting thread. Even though these representations do not make specific references to the events of September 11 or the ensuing ‘war on terror’ along with their subordinate discourses, they do tend to have “circulating signifiers” that can be easily exploited by a culturally dominating event or a ‘selfish event’ (following Richard Dawkins’ notion of the “selfish gene”). This interpretative intrusion occurs not only at the level of succeeding cultural discourses (consider, for instance, the examples from Hustvedt’s novel) but also at the level of preceding cultural discourses (consider, for instance, the Morandi painting in DeLillo’s novel), up to the point where even cultural artifacts that previously bore no inherent connection to the events themselves begin to gain new significance in the aftermath of the occurrence of those events. These become prescient in a bizarre kind of way.
Such was the case for instance of an episode from Van Partible’s American animated television series Johnny Bravo that was aired on April 27, 2001, on Cartoon Network. Entitled Chain Gang Johnny, the episode innocuously shows in the background of one of its scenes a movie poster that features a burning tower. Ominously enough, the movie poster vaguely states that the burning tower is “coming soon”. The movie featured in the poster does not have a title, which further fueled the imagination of conspiracy theorists around the world. The theory was later dismissed as mere coincidence.
Even more ominously and somehow ironically, on September 10, 2001, on a stage in Vegas, George Carlin, the comedian, performed a “red-hot closing bit he planned to use for his latest HBO special” in which he told his audience that he enjoys “fatal disasters with a lotta [sic]dead people.” It is worth noting that before this closing bit of the show Carlin had also joked about Osama bin Laden and airplane explosions due to excessive flatulence. The HBO special was released only fifteen years after its initial recording. Carlin had supposedly withheld the release on matters of taste. The Quiet American, a movie based on Graham Green’s novel with the same title, “had been ready for distribution just after September 11, but Miramax’s fears that the movie might be thought unpatriotic delayed the release for more than a year.” Like Burden’s and Segal’s works of art, these cultural artifacts would have become casualties of ‘the falling towers’ if they had been released on time.
To put it differently, culturally resounding events such as these have the capacity to contaminate cultural artifacts that happen to be in their proximity and change the way they come to be interpreted by an interpretative community, a contamination that is never unidirectional from a chronological point of view. When cultural artifacts with “circulating signifiers” are placed in dialogic simultaneity, be it temporal or spatial, with these ‘selfish events’ they tend to be absorbed within the discourse of those events, especially when the events have not yet had the time to form a stable discourse of their own and they are still ‘cultural stumps’. Like Dawkins’ “selfish machines” they will stop at nothing to preserve their cultural subsistence. To push the concept even further, one might say that such ‘selfish events’ ultimately perform a‘cultural appropriation’ of sorts. Their ‘cultural stump’ enters a dialogue with fully formed cultural artifacts and they appropriate some of their features up to the point where they even contaminate those artifacts. By extension, and due to this ethos of appropriation that ultimately becomes the signature move of culturally selfish events, the cultural artifacts that further stem from this kind of events will tend to replicate that signature move. But cultural appropriation can be a tricky thing. To appropriate one cultural artifact or at least some of its features impliesstepping away from one culture, shedding the characteristics that separate it from the others, and plunging into another. Such appropriation also infers that boundaries between cultures are always clearly set and accessible by intellectual means.
This last assumption is probably what drove Elliot Ackerman, “whose five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan left him highly decorated”, to write his first novel, titled suggestively Green on Blue. Set in Afghanistan and told from the perspective of an Afghan soldier who desperately fights to maintain his wounded brother’s manly dignity, Ackerman’s novel has been repeatedly described by literary critics as performing an act of ‘cultural appropriation’, an audacious act unheard of at least in the genre of war writing. True, novels about the enemy are common in times of war, but Ackerman does more than that. Green on Blue lets readers linger, at least for the duration of the reading, in the very mind of the enemy, who, in the end, is not much of an enemy after all, but the peon caught in the vicious whirlpool of a war in which money has become a “weapons system”, to use a phrase from Phil Klay’s Redeployment.
Yet, besides the typical reactions that a novel narrated from the perspective of the ‘enemy’ could ultimately trigger, and besides the ideology of the conqueror/winner lurking in the backstage of such denunciations of ‘cultural appropriation’, it is my contention that Ackerman’s novel also offers precious insight precisely into how discourses surrounding such historical events as the terrorist attacks of September 11 and the ‘war on terror’ perform these interpretative intrusions by setting up a dialogue between two cultural artifacts. One way to assess the degree of this intrusion would be to bring two other cultural artifacts, one pertaining to and imbued with the culture of the one performing the ‘cultural appropriation’, namely Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian, and the other pertaining to the culture of the ‘enemy’, namely Hassan Blasim’s collection of short stories The Corpse Exhibition: And Other Stories of Iraq.
Though Ackerman explicitly stated that “while the American West wasn’t ‘front and center’ in his mind while writing, ‘the American counterinsurgency campaign was, and so by default, the Indian Wars became a layer in understanding how Americans behave in these types of war’.” Worth noting from this point of view are the novel’s frequent covert references to the American West and the Indian Wars, which, besides being pertinent because of the similarities between the Afghan landscape and that of the American West, also attest to a cultural recognition of preexisting narratives. In fact, a great number of vets identify McCarthy’s Blood Meridian as the novel that best describes Afghanistan for several reasons that are not as striking as they look.
The resemblance is mostly visible in the way the landscape is described in Ackerman’s and McCarthy’s novels. On one of his first missions with the Special Lashkar, a military group supported with American money to maintain a balance of power and influence in the region, the narrator, Aziz, describes the Afghan mountains in animalistic terms, giving them the characteristics of a mouth that “swallows” the convoy, the ravine that “rolled out like a sloppy tongue”, descriptions that recall some of those present in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: “the cotton eye of the moon squatted at broad day in the throat of the mountains.” From this point of view, both Ackerman’s Green on Blue and McCarthy’s Blood Meridian seem to portray a geography whose constitution is imbued with fear, a feeling prompted by a nature that refuses to be something other than a stubborn force, that refuses to accommodate human presence. In both novels, nature has its own impenetrable rhythms, it follows cycles and unwritten rules.
Along the roads travelled by the protagonists of the two novels, one can almost hear the same sounds, the same barking dogs, see the same “low mud houses”, and sometimes even encounter the same characters. Consider, for instance, the old hermit whom ‘the kid’ from Blood Meridian encounters towards the beginning of the novel, an old man who is so much like Mumtaz from Green on Blue, both offering comfort to the protagonists. “The family of itinerant musicians” who “were dressed in fools’ costumes with stars and halfmoons embroidered on” reemerge under a similar guise in Ackerman’s novel as “travelling musicians looking for work.” There is even something in Aziz’s demeanor that reflects the behavior of‘the kid’ from Blood Meridian. Both protagonists are young and unknowing, and their education, or lack of it, is not aligned with the violently changing political environment, an aspect which in turn reinforces their malleability. Yet, the references to the American West are at their peak of visibility particularly when the narrator tells of how their military company had been divided into two groups with revealing names, the Tomahawks and the Comanches. The split, Aziz explains, had been done not only for strategic purposes but also because their American sponsor, the ghostly Mr. Jack, “had a great affection for the American West”.
Yet, it is my contention that this is the issue with Ackerman’s attempt at ‘cultural appropriation’. Though the novel is written from the perspective of an Afghan soldier, Aziz is still the beholder of an ‘American gaze’, or, to put it more bluntly, an ‘Americanizing gaze’. Aziz inherits some parts of that myth of the self-made man. This is particularly visible towards the end of the novel, where Aziz emerges triumphant as a spy in an American spy movie, as someone who has reached a superiorunderstanding, despite his limited education, of the very war he had been fighting in and of the forces that come into play. His ‘Americanizing gaze’ is also visible when he goes back to visit his maimed brother under the guise of deceit to tell him that he had been apprenticed to a merchant in Kabul and that he was doing the work of an honest man. Aziz acts like an American when, while still fighting for the Special Lashkar, he pounds on the top of the car to let the driver know that they are all ready to go. The gesture, somehow an awkward imitation of Hollywood action movies, has the same hollow ring as the scene in which ‘the kid’ from Blood Meridian enters a bar and all the men inside “quit talking when he entered”. Most importantly, that presence of spirit is there when he tells his imagined readers that Mr. Jack wrongly assumed that they, Afghans, “did not understand what it meant to be named after the Indians of his country, but we understood. To us, it seemed a small but misguided sort of insult. For our tribes had never been conquered.” For an uneducated Afghan soldier, Aziz seems to know an awful lot about Native Americans.
Still, the novel’s cultural appropriation works best particularly when members of the US occupation forces come to be portrayed throughout the novel. Besides the occasional American soldiers that appear in contrast with the Afghan soldiers due to the size and shape of their bodies, the only instance of American presence that somewhat strikes a chord is that of Mr. Jack, whose ghostly presence matches in tone the almost carnivalesque appearance of the Comanches and the Apaches in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Mysterious, coming and going only during the night in a pitch-dark vehicle, Mr. Jack stands out chiefly because of his blinding white teeth, his ridiculous wardrobe, “his shalwar kameez [that] still held the creases from where it’d been folded in plastic packaging,” and his American way of speaking Pashto.
One way to test the accuracy of this instant of cultural appropriation would be to look for similar textual instances in narratives written by those within the culture that is being appropriated and see how they engage in dialogue with each other. The example that comes nearest to that of Mr. Jack is the representation of “the blonds” in Hassan Blasim’s short story “The Madman of Freedom Square”, included in The Corpse Exhibition. Albeit the narrative does not specify overtly that the two blonds are American, their narrative seems to follow a prescribed structure: two blonds, most likely a reference to the color of their skin and hair, come to town and suddenly everyone is getting a raise, the town’s infrastructure develops, the usual tropes of American financial support within the discourse of the ‘war on terror’. Soon enough, akin to Mr. Jack with his blindingly white teeth and eyes drained of color, the blonds acquire a certain mythical aura around their presence. “The local women”, the narrative goes,
attributed to the baraka or spiritual power of the blonds the fact that their husbands, who worked sweeping the streets or as school janitors in the city center, had all received pay raises. The husbands, who had been skeptical about the baraka of the two men, soon stopped scoffing, when the government decided to install electricity at the beginning of winter.
The very presence of these two men bears an uncanniness akin to the presence of Mr. Jack in Ackerman’s Green on Blue. This mode of describing American presence, however, has apparently turned into a trope and is not limited to fictional representations. In The Assassins’ Gate, while describing a formal meeting between American officials and Iraqi exiles that took place at the London Hilton Metropole in 2002, George Packer resorts to the same vocabulary. “Sprinkled among them”, Packer notes the contrast, “palely lurking, were the Americans. […] These Americans moved through the throng of Iraqi exiles with the glowing and watchful fervor of missionaries among the converted.”
Going back to the notion of ‘selfish events’ and trying to give an answer to the question as to why interpretative intrusions such as these occur, it is my contention that any such event, due to the immediate effects of its occurrence, does not have the time and the cultural resources to create a discourse that could explain the complexity of that event, and as such it resorts to cultural artifacts that happen to be in its proximity so as to sustain its cultural presence at least until a separate discourse, of its own, has been created and culturally reinforced. This process is most visible for instance, in the kind of comparisons that politicians, and other figures that retain high amounts of cultural capital, make in the immediate aftermath of violent and sudden events. Such is the case, just to give an example, of how the attacks of September 11 were frequently compared to the attacks on Pearl Harbor. At that point in time, 9/11 lacked an eloquent discourse that could make it culturally sustainable and therefore it needed another, more eloquent discourse, to act as cultural scaffolding. And until the ‘war on terror’ does not form its own eloquent discourse it will keep resorting to other discourses for cultural sustenance. For the time being, it thrives only within this constant dialogue between cultural artifacts, images, ideas, texts.
The headmaster is explaining to us the importance of broadcast programming. No more movies containing nudity or sex scenes. “Children need to be protected,” he tells us, “from the vices of our times.” I’m thinking how wonderful it is that there are people who take us, children, into consideration. No more hiding our faces when people in the movies start having sex. No more French movies at noon. The headmaster’s words sound prescient.
Children rejoice all around the world.
Math is not my forte: I just can’t deal with divisions because the numbers are asking me to take giant leaps and I can’t do that being overweight. Math makes me angry. Numbers feel as if I’m drowning. The teacher, a short plump woman whose hands tremble violently whenever she’s angry, doesn’t like that. In the eyes of everyone, my failure is her failure, so she asks me to stay after class. Tears run down my chubby cheeks while I watch the other kids head home. The lightness in their step feels like mockery. I sit at the wooden desk by the blackboard and watch the numbers commingle with the numbers on the page.
Why can’t I just be like all the other kids? I’m so ashamed I can’t look my mother in the eye when I get back home. No one mentions it.
The headmaster is a tyrant teaching biology. He sits and watches us as we return to class after the break and at the slightest sign of misconduct he grabs us by the baby fat under our chins and the hair. He slaps the girls at the back of their head as if to obtain cinematic effect: their ponytails startle and bounce. The shame of getting caught doubles the pain. It’s our way of learning math.
Later, the math teacher, whose thick glasses make his head look ovoid, laughs at my geometry homework in front of the class. “You can’t just say the base of the triangle is this long,” he stops and laughs raising his face to the ceiling, “you need to calculate it!” The room roars with laughter. Why can’t I just draw the triangle and measure it? I don’t tell him my father helped me with the homework because that would only make matters worse.
The headmaster enters the class and orders us to take out a sheet of paper. “THIS IS A TEST!” He’s angry at us because he is thirty minutes late for class. Question number one: “THE LUNGS! YOU HAVE 5 MINUTES!”
We’re going up the stairs after recess, and someone pushes a girl from my class and she’s limping because she’s had an accident and broke her femur. I stop to help her, but the headmaster sees me break the line and I instantly become his target. He levitates. He pulls me aside pinching my baby fat. I’m wearing overalls and I feel ridiculous because I hate them. I hate jeans. Other boys follow suit, all of us trespassers. I try to explain to him I wasn’t doing anything wrong, I was merely helping the girl, but he won’t listen. The headmaster is adamant in his decision to have me punished. He tells us to wait until the teachers come.
Potato. Chicken. Worthless. Sheep. Devil. Not-amount-to-anything. We’re being called with all these names when we fail to understand the rules of our adults.
At times, I gave my classmate, A–, peanuts in exchange for his math homework. “This exercise is worth four peanuts,’ he says pointing to another triangle and the calculations that surround it, “it’s not cheap, I know.” Reluctantly, I pull out the four peanuts from the bag and give them to him. The math teacher with the thick classes leans down to look at my homework and nods in agreement. Behind me, someone says he didn’t have the time to do his homework and he receives a blow. Potato!
I use my fingers to count because unlike numbers, I can hold my fingers. Feel them. Counting them feels like progress.
Every once in a while, I go to A–’s place because he’s got nice hair and his thumb curves in a weird but somewhat sexually appealing way. And he’s very good at math in a mad-scientist sort of way. He shows me the ropes behind equations and complex exercises, but I need to stop him again and again because I don’t seem to understand why the parenthesis goes there and not all the way over there. I laugh heartily whenever he explains stuff. His mother comes into the room. ‘That’s why you’re so fat,’ she says smiling, ‘because you laugh too much.’
After another recess, someone pushes a kid and he falls and starts crying. A teacher asks who’s the culprit and the kid points at me. There are about a hundred kids around me but no one says anything because teachers cannot be contradicted. The teacher punishes me. I do my best to explain to her I had nothing to do with it, but she is adamant. Tears roll down my cheeks as I await my punishment. I am asked to stand with my arms raised in the corner of the class.
High-school. Our history teacher beats the crap out of one of my classmates because he smiled at something that was said. We don’t look at him doing it. We only hear the words and the teacher’s open palm hitting hard against the back of his neck. “Why are you laughing, you idiot!?”
“I can’t photocopy that book,” the man at the copy shop said, “the pages are loose and I might damage the spine.” The shop was in the corridor of his aunt’s apartment. At least, she acted as if she was his aunt, and he was the nephew who was desperately trying to make a living by illegally printing books for equally desperate students. “Please,” I begged him, “I need a copy of this book. My professor sent me.” I told him I would return the next day.
Cluj-Napoca, 2008. My daily routine involved waking up early in the morning to go to university. One morning I peed myself because there was only one bathroom and there were four of us. When my flatmate, who was studying medicine, came to my door to ask whether I was coming with him to the bus station, I declined saying I didn’t feel that well.
Everyone feared the Phonetics professor. Rumour had it that out of hundreds of thousands of students, only three lucky ones passed his exam, and that he was gay. Those same students mentioned names of alleged boyfriends and other such horror stories. Whenever a classmate showed the slightest interest in the topics he taught, he instantly became gay. The newspapers spoke highly of the professor’s cruelty, but there was no mention of his homosexuality. He was one mean guy. Students changed courses just to avoid him.
I ate kebabs and felt guilty about it because I always bought two and told the waiter to hold the mayonnaise in one of them. One’s for me and the other one’s for my colleague at the office. “Of course,” he said, “I’ll put an X on the one with no mayonnaise. At home, I hid in my room and ate both of them. On Saturday mornings I cleaned my room and was extremely happy when I managed to do it before ten in the morning.
My classmates studying Norwegian spoke approvingly of one of their professors. He was tall and had curly hair and spoke various languages. One cold evening I had the opportunity to watch him closely while he was waiting for the bus. He read and made annotations under the street lamp. Every once in a while, he raised his head to look at the passers-by. The eagerness with which he did that felt somewhat uncanny as if he was waiting for someone to appear and save him from what he was doing. I thought, how odd! Can’t he wait until he gets home to read? But then I realised I wished to be as studious and diligent as him and read while waiting for the bus. I was also surprised to learn that he was gay. I mean, he had curly hair and spoke different languages, and read under a street lamp. Of course, he was gay!
I once fell in love with Gaspard Ulliel from Les Égarés (2003). I watched all of his movies and wanted him to be my best friend. Then, I came across a gay commercial on YouTube about a man who imagined being friends with every handsome guy he laid his eyes on. I thought: how odd! I’m feeling something I should be ashamed of.
My dentist recommended x-rays, so I sit in the waiting room secretly hating everyone. Why are they so slow? On TV, teachers and university professors are asking for a raise: they’re working with their brains, they say, they need more money! The President, Traian Băsescu, wants to say YES, but then the railway workers also ask for money. Then the doctors ask for cash as well. Everyone wants more money. CRISIS. My world crumbles. I also notice the president’s face is anfractuous, and he covers his bald head with the hair on the sides. It’s my turn: I rush to the door with the yellow sign that says “DO NOT ENTER X-RAYS”. The doctor places a rigid collar around my neck and tells me to stay still. Then, she goes into another room and speaks through a megaphone. STAY STILL! IT WILL ONLY TAKE A SECOND! No problem there, doctor, stillness is what I strive to become.
I receive a short message saying “meet on Thursday afternoon?” and I reply “who are you?” with the urgency of a virgin who secretly wishes to fuck and be fucked by everyone. Three days pass until I get a reply from my secret admirer: “I was just asking.” I imagine there’s a silent “Jesus” at the end of that message. Jesus, hold your horses. I call the number several times, but there’s no reply. Months pass, but there’s no reply, so I let it rest. After months and months, I am reminded of that first short message by my obsessive-compulsive desire to be desired. Call that number again! Do it now! I recognise the voice at the other end: it’s my Literary Theory professor. Oh sorry sorry sorry, I didn’t mean to intrude! Please excuse me, professor, really, I don’t know what I was thinking. “Now you know,” he says. I think of all the calls in the middle of the night, the minatory short messages I sent, and I shudder at the thought. But then I realise I’m the one who’s being stalked here!
One of my classmates wants to talk to the Phonetics teacher, the allegedly gay one, and she stops him on the way to class. He looks at her, fuming. “Ms, LEAVE ME ALONE!” he says and walks away. “He’s such a dick,” she tells me after class, “I only wanted to ask him about the exam.” In fact, I believe she meant “he’s such a cock sucker.” Of course, he is gay, he wouldn’t be so frustrated otherwise. Years later, on Facebook, she tells me I’m so fucking full of myself. I wanted to remind her of that time when, during a literature exam, she asked me about the difference between the Philistines and the populace, but I didn’t.
I return to the copy shop and realise the guy is a good lad. He’s nice (perhaps too nice) and tall and somewhat muscular but on the chubby side. He says: “I’m really sorry, but the printer’s out of ink…
The first time my mother came home from Italy to attend my uncle’s wedding, she brought me a phone with a camera on it.
I took tiny pictures with it: of grandma’s roses; of my shadow against the trees in the forest behind the house.
Before mother’s arrival, my older brother had told me about the phone’s miraculous features. I could watch Cartoon Network if I wanted. Make video calls. Watch porn late at night when everyone else was sleeping. My world thrumming with expectations, I taught myself patience, a virtue that had been growing within me since childhood.
When the phone finally arrived, I stopped eating. There were so many things to do. Mother couldn’t stop looking at me. She hadn’t seen me in years and was now somewhat impressed of my development. “He’s so different,” I overheard her telling my father over the phone, “he sounds like a man now. I can’t believe my ears!”
A video I shot in the garden with my new phone was so real that my aunt’s brother said it had been processed on a computer.
Then the phone started running out of memory so I had to cancel some of the photos. Some of them were saved on a computer, which I no longer have. It became my uncle’s computer so I had to delete any traces of my persona from it.
There was no Cartoon Network on it either. In Romania, at that time, there was no 3G connectivity and the phone only worked with one operator and there was no way to bypass that.
The next time mother came home was at Christmas time and she brought me another phone. It had no camera but it had a full QWERTY keyboard and a huge screen.
Though shiny and new, the phone felt like a disappointment of sorts: I had hoped to receive a laptop computer. Father was in prison and I was ashamed to ask for more or show that disappointment.
Mother sat by the kitchen stove and smoked and wept. “Stop smoking, child,” grandma said, “your boys are here with you. What else is missing?” But I knew she was missing my dad and the cigarettes reminded her of him. I knew what grandma thought about father because long before that she had confessed to have asked mother to ask for a divorce. “It was high time she got a divorce,” grandma said. Her words were as soft as wooden smoke: they curled above her nose and went up into the air and turned into a fungus. I imagined men lining up for my mother’s hand because that is what had happened when father left us to go to Italy for work. The men called her and came to our house and mother’s cheeks turned red.
I watched TV on that phone: the connection broke at times and I had to give up trying. We didn’t have a TV in the apartment I lived in during college. Mother asked me to go visit my dad in prison and I followed her instructions. Go to the guard at the reception, tell him who you are. He will take you to your father. The guards rummaged through the bag I had brought for my father. His medicines were in there. We sat at a table in a room that was probably under ground because there were no windows. One of the guards sat with us at the table and I felt as if I had to play a part. I was embarrassed, as was the guard. I couldn’t wait to get out.
The new phone did not have a calculator. One of my classmates drew my attention to that. “You can watch television on it,” he said before a class, “but you can’t do 2+2 on it?” He had a Lenovo laptop computer his brother had bought from the UK. It had facial recognition.
Not having a computer at home, I had to do research and write my papers for university at Internet Cafes and libraries. Since I couldn’t save anything on those computers, I had to email everything to myself and print pages and pages of summaries and things found on the Internet. I printed handouts and lesson plans. The printer was often out of ink…
A few years ago I created a Google Form and shared it on different social networks just to see what would happen. In it, I asked people to talk about the people they fell in love with or about the things that made them fall in love with people. Since it was anonymous, I specified that respondents should be as sincere as possible. To my surprise, I received plenty of responses that seemed very encouraging at that time.
The first question in the survey asked respondents to talk about what they saw in their significant other. And this is what I got:
I admire the man he is despite hardships he’s experienced. He’s kind and sweet, even if a little rough around the edges. I love his creativity and his mind, and his blue eyes.
“Protection, humor, goodness.”
“A nugget of purity in a corrupted world. Honest eyes. The ability of being so goddamn cool without posing. A curious mind.”
“My best friend and sometimes my enemy.”
“I see him as a friend, a boyfriend, a lover and a husband. He is different from me (he is more pacific, I’m a tornado) but we are at the same time similar, we shares values, ways of thinking and we have something special that links us. It is difficult to explain.”
“Chemistry, magic, smell, a sexy voice, a stimulating dialogue, the fact that we share a life, in its wholeness.”
“I am in two relationships, actually, and I love both. I respect both. Both make me feel safe, although in very different ways: one gives me security; the other adventure. But I know I can count on both. One makes me feel loved, the other makes me feel desired (although I know that the first wants me, and the second cares for me). In some sense they look alike, similar beautiful greenish eyes. One of them seems fragile, but he’s a rock. The other seems strong and powerful, but I am beginning to understand his utter and dangerous fragility. At the end of the day I realise that, although I like feeling cared for, it is me who ultimately cares for and protect them, both.”
“Gli occhi, la voce, se ha un moto di gentilezza nei miei confronti, se vuole sinceramente aiutarmi senza credermi un inetto, se hai dei bei piedi, se gli piace leggere e fare un po’ il cazzaro… che abbia rispetto per la propria famiglia e la mia, se è sincero con me, se ha l’addome deformato, se ha un pisello nella media, se è in grado di comprendere i miei silenzi senza forzarli, aspettando che riesca ad aprirmi a lui.”
“Sinceramente, vivo una relazione con una persona che trovo sempre più diversa da me. Con lui mi sento al sicuro, è un ragazzo forte.”
“Una persona da amare e che mi ama, con cui condividere il mio quotidiano, sia nei momenti di fatica, sia in quelli di divertimento, gioia o tristezza. Un compagno di vita.”
“I see a Partner who can bear with me through thick and thin.”
“A partner in crime, a friend, a beautiful lover, an awesome father.”
“I see a person who wants to be with me and likes me they way I am.”
“The admirable way he is unapologetically himself. The sparkle in his eyes when he looks at me.”
“I always thought him more attractive than the average humans walking the Earth. When we first met, I found myself comparing him to every Hollywood actor I ever had a crush on and I witnessed myself falling for his looks as he annoyingly overshadowed each and every one of them. My list specifically included a young Colin Firth and Jon Hamm. He does in fact have a Hollywood smile and a soldier s allure, both complimented by a genuine unawareness of his beauty (that s a gorgeous trait always). I also love his weird coloured eyes (I believe that greenish light brown is called hazel) and his wavy kinda vintage haircut.”
“My future in his eyes.”
“The possibility to communicate on a very complex and emotional level.”
“A person I can trust and who takes care of me.”
“Vedo la persona con cui potrei stare tutta la vita. È sia il mio amato che il mio migliore amico.”
“I see a person who gives me peace and from whom I can learn everyday.”
“I’m in two real relationships. On one of them I feel challenged in an intelectual level and motivated to DO things, to move the world. The other one give me well being, it is my beautiful island away from this chaotic world.”
“Someone that understands me.”
“Inspiration and a way to improve myself.”
“Not in a relationship, except the one with my cat.”
“Confort, security, stability.”
“Besides her personality, also the small things, like the way I smile when I think about her or being physically close to her, the way she smiles after I kiss her or all the funny little things she does that she probably doesn’t even knows etc.”
“A trusted person, that loves me, that I can rely on.”
“Quanto sia capace di capirmi, quanto sia aperto mentalmente, e che mi attragga fisicamente.”
While you sleep, I imagine ships leaving their harbors unattended. Left to their own devices. At last, the world is free of speech.
On torrid afternoons mother went to work at the telephone exchange and I would call her to ask what time it was. Which was another way of asking: when are you coming home? My brother and I never asked for father. He was at work, somewhere. Late in the afternoon, when mother’s lips turned bruise mauve, he returned and prepared food for the pigs. He smashed the boiled potatoes with his hands and mixed them with bread and water and maize. In the barn, the pigs squealed and hit their heads against the wooden doors.
‘Get off the line!’ Mother would sometimes lose her patience and beat us with the rubber tube from the washing machine. Father never raised a hand and he was proud of that. In church, the gods often had raised hands and I winced at the sight of them, expecting a blow. ‘You’re keeping the line busy,’ mother said, ‘there might be an emergency somewhere.’ The phone was made of shiny red plastic. On Sundays, mother and father slept late and we were not allowed to make noise. My brother and I looked for ways to forget about the time spent in our parents’ absence.
At school, the teacher would place the notebooks of those who wrote flawlessly in a showcase at the back of the class. My notebook never got to that point. ‘If it hadn’t been for this tiny error,’ the teacher said pointing at a smudge with her red pencil, ‘your notebook would have been placed there, behind glass, for everyone to see.’ It felt like a tiny success to me.
‘You’ll get there,’ mother said and I went and hid in the garden and stared at the clouds. ‘Give me a sign,’ I would scream at the cotton candy above, ‘tell me I’m the chosen one, and I will stop being so sad and lonely!’ I wished for infinite knowledge and for everyone’s attention. I wanted to be a boy but not just any boy. Envy was what I pined for.
Instead, rain came and I couldn’t cry because there was nothing to cry about. ‘Stop being such a child,’ mother seemed to be saying.
That one looks like a bunny.
That one looks like an ice cream cone.
That one looks like a cock.
I looked for things to play with in the trash. ‘Behind the bar,’ one of the kids told my brother, ‘there are lighters galore!’ When we got there I wanted to pee really badly so I had to use the toilet behind the bar. There was shit and broken glass everywhere and it had no doors. I told everyone I peed when I had not.
Mother worked at the telephone exchange day and night. She slept on the table because of the mice. People called in the middle of the night. She listened to all of them, helped them connect to the source of their longing. At times she eavesdropped and told grandmother about men and their mistresses. On TV, people sang about love lost and I turned to my brother: ‘why don’t they just get married?’ He said it was not that simple.
Mother never received money from the telephone exchange. That is, I never saw her receive money. We were always running out of money. At the end of the month she went to the slaughterhouse and bought salami, which we cut in thin slices and ate on Sunday mornings.
When the salami was over we went back to eating potatoes and mother seemed to hide within her clothes. Her collars became higher and thicker; her hair grew beyond control. Her shirts seemed borrowed. Grandmother hid behind the tall grass in the garden and mother avoided our gaze. My brother and I searched for food and we found dried polenta and pickled cucumbers.
We ran from home, which was another way of saying: ‘when are you coming back?’. I jumped over fences and bruised my thighs.
My brother said Champagne instead of Spain.
Once, I was so hungry I stuffed myself with green plums until they started coming out through my nose. In between plums I said: if only I could find a friend.
I found him inside the food I wolfed down and in the prayers I read from a small yellow book. I burned incense and googled how to make a pact with the devil. I wrote notes on small pieces of paper and woke up in the middle of the night to read them. I wouldn’t cut my hair and saw myself as a mythological creature. I went to church and asked for forgiveness.
I discovered joy in eating meat and found nothing under the Christmas tree.
‘Stop eating!’ Mother screamed at me. When she wasn’t looking I searched for the sour milk and dried polenta. We ate crab apples.
I sat in the undersized chair, notebook on my knee, surly pain developing in my upper back. I couldn’t complain, it was a kindergarten after all, and all the chairs were similar, the teacher’s included. There was nobody else around, even the janitor went home after having shown me how to lock the door on my way out. The staff was submissive enough, and one of them apologized for having made me wait for so long. I hadn’t waited for long, but I accepted their apologies with a dismissive wave of the hand.
The kid started crying when he was told he had to stay behind after class. He perceived it as a form of punishment. I tried my best to reassure him, while he was sobbing uncontrollably, that it wasn’t a punishment. I simply wanted to talk to him about matters from his past.
The school headmaster had indeed warned me that this was one sensitive kid, prone to crying every time he felt he was being singled out for something he wouldn’t even think of doing. I sympathized with the kid on that, because I, too, often suffered from such fits of paranoia. The headmaster did not seem to understand the meaning of my statement and instead smiled awkwardly. I knew such people. This man had probably never left the village, and probably could not even recognize the Empire State Building when shown a picture of it taken from an unrecognizable angle. Mental illness was probably as bizarre to him as a pair of human kidneys drying in the sun. But then again I was at his disposal, and I couldn’t deny the awkwardness of the situation. I was a tall man in my late twenties wearing a long coat and a black hat, and I wanted to see a kid who had absolutely no idea what I wanted from him.
When I asked the question about the woods and the older boys again, the kid became defensive. That caught me off guard. He raised the tone of his voice and moved his arms frantically. He was clearly trying to mime an older member of his family, most likely the mother. But I could see through it anyway, I didn’t feel threatened, he was still a kid, and I was the adult in the room.
‘Why are you here?’ The kid almost jumped from the chair. ‘What is it that you want from me? Just leave me alone. I’m going to tell my father about this, and he’s going to come and talk to you.’
I’m here to tell you about strings vibrating underwater.
I tried to reassure him again by telling him who I was and what I was doing there. I told him about the investigation I had undertaken, I told him about my research and the fact that his case might provide useful information. He smiled then as if to say that yes, he probably had some helpful information, something the other kids didn’t have. Most likely that made him feel special, and so he relaxed a bit. He started talking again about the Russians and the stories his grandfather told him about the war. I jotted down all of that, and he slowed down every time I showed signs that I wanted to write something down. He obviously thought I had picked him out from the other kids because somebody told him he was a genius of some sort. I didn’t want to break the spell because not only would he not understand that it was only a spell, but he would also refuse to talk further. I tried steering the discussion back to the woods and the older boys. He told me he was ashamed of talking about it. ‘There’s no shame in talking about that,’ I told him, ‘I’m going to write a book about it, and you’re going to be in it.’ That seemed to satisfy him beyond recognition. His face got lost suddenly, became the flicker of a mask as if he was trying to settle on the kind of look he needed for that moment.
They were his brother’s friends, not his, he didn’t have any friends, he didn’t say why so I pressed him for it. I knew the answer, of course, but I was also trying to lower his defenses by making him feel small, humiliate him. The kid was obviously overweight, and his parents had been overly protective about it. Don’t let the kid suffer, he’ll have the rest of his life to suffer, just don’t let him suffer now, right? I bet that was the philosophy behind it. The kid’s relationship with food must have been out of control: irregular meals, overcompensation, lack of control, hence lack of taste when it came to food, no idea about nutrition, just a whole lot of inherited ideas about food and how a person should look like. And the parents had also probably inherited the notion that people are going to accept the kid the way he was.
‘The other kids don’t like me,’ he told me after brooding over it for a while, ‘they make fun of me, and I don’t like it. They just run away, they don’t want to play with me.’
‘Why is that? Do they feel threatened by you?’
‘Because I can’t play their games and also because they’re stupid.’
‘And you’re not stupid.’
‘I’m not,’ he said, ‘I read books, I read books every day.’
I had, in fact, checked the kid’s library card and noted that he took a lot of books home, but they were returned the very next day when other books were taken on loan, which most likely meant he didn’t read them till the end. I mean, this kid could not have read Crime and Punishment in a single afternoon. He seemed content that I knew of his readings and so I pressed him to tell me about Crime and Punishment. As I expected, he told me the beginning of it then got lost and told me he had forgotten the details. That was a book he had read just a few days before our encounter. I asked him if he knew anything about Dostoevsky. He didn’t. He had simply read Crime and Punishment, and that was the end of it. I told him I thought he was lying and he swore that he had, in fact, read the book. He was obviously lying, but I went back to the episode with the older boys.
‘What were you doing out there, you and the other boys, in the woods on that Sunday afternoon?’
He told me about the schoolteacher, who had these grandchildren living in the city. Every once in a while, the schoolteacher would come to visit and bring the grandchildren as well. They were a couple years older than him and when they were all alone in the woods just behind the house discussions obviously deviated towards sex and what adults did in bed. They were hiding in the tall grass when the kid turned face down and told the others he was going to stay like that. He even pulled his pants down, showing his ass to the other kids. One of them stuck a twig in the kid’s ass. I asked the kid whether the twig penetrated him, and he denied it, saying it was only playful.
I told him to continue, and that’s when I saw what could have made the other kids avoid him. It was his effeminacy and the excessive way he tried to look small in a body that refuted minuteness. If ever I could even begin to believe in the separation between body and soul, he would be a good case study. Inside him, something else moved, which was what he seemed to hold onto with naive keenness.
The kid couldn’t remember the transitions, his memory just wasn’t good with that. In his mind, his life was a series of sudden screams, moments painted in intense colors, oversaturated, excessive structure, contrast turned to extreme degrees. Each memory was a construction made of human bodies. So the next thing he knows he’s part of an orgy in which, by turns, he is a newborn and a mother being fucked by a nasty husband who just came home from work and brought green leaves instead of green dollars. No penetration was involved, the kid assured me, but they did wave their little dicks in the air and mimed penetration. He described the place where it all happened accurately. I wrote some of the details down in my notebook. There’s a small puddle next to the place where it happened, and it is surrounded by thick greenery. He clearly recalls the smell of musk and then the smell of shit because one of them had taken a dump afterward simply because he wanted to show the others how shit can sometimes come out with blood on it. The demonstration was successful apparently. He also recalls the leaves that the other kid used to wipe his ass.
Clearly, I was disgusted by the whole story and didn’t make any effort to hide my disgust, so the kid grew silent. I asked him if they had, at least, washed their hands afterward. He couldn’t recall any such detail, but then he told me about the crab apples they used to eat in the woods and the green leaves that had the taste of lemon, so I realized that personal hygiene wasn’t one of their strong points of the people in the village.
‘Why did you pull your pants down there in the woods?’
‘I don’t know,’ the kid told me, ‘I just felt like it.’
‘You felt like offering them your body on a platter, just like that.’
He didn’t seem to understand but nodded anyway.
‘And were there other moments such as these?’
He told me there had been plenty of moments. The same thing happened with a cousin of his who used to come to play. And again he gave up his body to this other boy who was still too young to have an erection.
‘Why did you do it? What was the purpose of it?’
‘We were just playing, the kid said, nothing more to it. We wanted to be adults, wanted to see what it was like to have sex.’
The moaning of adults must have been fascinating for them, the guttural ululation, the intertwined bodies, the sweat, they were curious about what happened between their legs. They must have seen it in the movies on TV, they must have overheard adults talking about it or even doing it. These people gathered together during the winter and slept in the same room, sometimes sharing the same bed to save on the wood used for the heating. Younger parents always got the advantage of having a place all their own for specific reasons, of course, while the other members of the family were crowded in the same room.
‘What was the thing that you enjoyed most about it?’
I don’t recall exactly how the kid told it, I must have written down the thing mechanically because the sentence sounds too elaborate to have been uttered by a kid his age. He told me that he liked the warmth of the other boy’s body on top of him, the weight of the body pressing him down against the floor.
‘You didn’t do it on the bed?’
Never on the bed apparently. The bed was like a sacred space that could not be disturbed with such trivial matters. It wasn’t an empty floor, of course, there were thick covers placed on the floor where the parents used to nap after lunch.
‘Did that happen often?’
Often enough, and he was never the one to initiate the situation. It was always the other one, who appeared surreptitiously and without warning when nobody was around. I tried to imagine the reach of the hand and the touch that then led to the rest. I wondered how that must have felt. An arm reaching across an unperceived chasm? What sort of satisfaction were they hoping to receive at the end of everything?
The kid then told me about the other guys, a different group of friends who did the same things with him. He was always the one at the bottom, and in his presence, the others felt like asserting their alpha masculinity. It was the same scenario over and over again: the husband coming home from work, tired, bringing green leaves that stood for money, hoping to have a good fuck with the wife who was always waiting at home. No penetration was involved. It was the performance of those roles that gratified them since there was no orgasm at the end. I thought of the games children usually play when they have used up all of the resources of their imagination. It’s always the ‘family game’ that comes up next, a sort of effigy of family life minus the issues because, at that age, family issues are ever taken care of by the adults. The children are part of the decision, but their own opinion is never really taken into consideration except as a side note. And the fake parents in the children’s games are performing similar roles, but they never get as far as sex. But then again the games also respected gender differences, the mother was always a girl, and sex with a girl was just too real to be performed in a game. What was it then that made those boys perceive this kid as a woman?
I then realized that I had been talking with the kid for too long, and he was getting visibly uncomfortable. He was also hungry. And so I told him that he could go home because it was getting late and his mother must have been expecting him for a while. He put his coat on, which seemed about two sizes too big for him though it was rather new, and put his bag over the shoulder, his belly awkwardly protruding against the bag making it stand up. For a moment he resembled a mentally retarded kid. I did not say anything because I was waiting for him to go out so I could see the way he walked. I was hoping to get a clue of some sort, something that could help me elucidate the mystery of this kid. What made him so vulnerable and, most of all, what made him so socially awkward? He went out, and I could see the tip of his hat just below the window. A woman was waiting for him at the gate.