Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Identifying Terrorists and the Ghost of Cesare Lombroso

Identifying Terrorists and the Ghost of Cesare Lombroso

The criminal [is] an atavistic being who reproduces in his person the ferocious instincts of primitive humanity and the inferior animals.  Thus were explained anatomically the enormous jaws, high cheek-bones, prominent superciliary arches, solitary lines in the palms, extreme size of the orbits, handle-shaped or sessile ears found in criminals, savages, and apes, insensibility to pain, extremely acute sight, tattooing, excessive idleness, love of orgies, and the irresistible craving for evil for its own sake, the desire not only to extinguish life in the victim but to mutilate the corpse[.]
            --Cesare Lombroso

So, it’s some time between last Thursday late afternoon and early Friday morning, last week.  My sister and I are riveted by the coverage of the Boston Bombing manhunt.  Separated by 200 miles, we’re in contact via email and telephone.  One of our conversations occurred after the suspects’ photos were released, but our discussion focused on cable network coverage – particularly CNN’s.

On Wednesday last, CNN’s John King had not only erroneously reported that a suspect was in custody but had added that the suspect was “a dark-skinned man.”  Considering that King’s sources were shaky, his gratuitous quasi-racial call-out was troubling.  More troubling, I think, than his erroneous reporting about a suspect in custody . . . because of Boston’s uncomfortable history of racial bias and, even more importantly, because of this country’s uncomfortable history of racialized scapegoating.

But my sister and I were not being politically correct (after all, we were sleep-deprived and caught up in the drama).  Instead, we started guessing the ethnicity of the suspects – after dissing the very ‘white’ John King and his maladroit reporting and suppositioning.  Our conversation occurred before the suspects were identified by name.

Me:  Hell, I lived in Boston for over four years.  If you showed my their photos, and labeled them simply as part of the Marathon crowd, and asked me about their ethnic background, I’d probably say . . . Italian?  Greek?  Lebanese?  Albanian?  Persian?

Sister:  Irish.  One of them looks like a former relative-in-law.

Me:  (With a shrug, and an ensuing conversation about which low-life relative she was referring to.)  Whatever, all I could feel comfortable saying is that they’re not Scandinavian, Central African, or Asian.

Sister:  Actually, I thought maybe they were Asian.

Me:  You’ve got to be kidding (I was thinking of epicanthic folds).

Sister:  No – really, look at the flat facial planes.

Turns out she was right.  The brothers are ethnic Chechens, a segment of peoples from the Caucasus region of what’s now Southern Russia and what was one of the furthest reaches of Mongol hegemony hundreds of years ago.  Mongol, Tatar, etc. . . . all were marauders/conquerors from the east who not only secured political dominance for a while but also marked what is now the Eastern European gene pool (not that such marking is always, or sometimes,  or even at all readily apparent).

Timur the Lame / Tamerlane, conqueror of much of the Ottoman empire, 
Central Asian and Caucasus region hero (after whom the elder Tsarnaev brother was named)

Point of all this?  Here were two well-educated, progressive/liberal women chatting blithely about race/ethnicity.  Considering the circumstances, we were skating on the very thin ice of racial profiling:  what was left unsaid was the assumption that the suspects’ genetic heritage might give clues as to why they did what they did and maybe even to their propensity for ‘terrorism.’  The ghost of Cesare Lombroso haunts our culture still.

Cesare Lombroso, Sir Francis Galton, Louis Agassiz

Cesare Lombroso (1835 – 1909) was a father of anthropological criminology – the belief that there are ‘born criminals’ recognizable through distinctive physical traits.  With the classificatory zeal that typified much 19th-century positivistic science, Lombroso took multiple measurements of criminals and the insane, of the imprisoned and the dead, assembling this data into elaborate taxonomies of ‘avatism,’ regressions in the evolutionary scale.  He accompanied his published findings with weirdly compelling photo arrays ‘proving’ how criminals and ‘lunatics’ are distinguished by specific physical marks, marks readable as ‘facts’ thanks to what he believed to be the camera’s impartial truth-telling. 

A photo array by Cesare Lombroso

Lombroso is just one of many 19th-century scientists fascinated with the intersection of criminality, ‘deviance,’ and photography.  Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911), cousin of Charles Darwin, produced work similar to Lombroso’s; Galton’s studies flirted with a eugenically influenced Social Darwinism and seem to have been motivated in part by fears that Britain’s upper class was being threatened by the lower classes and by undesirable immigrants.  In the meantime, squads of anthropometrists and photographers were busy throughout the British Empire, measuring and ‘shooting’ indigenous peoples so they could be identified, classified, and more easily ruled.

A photo array by Sir Francis Galton

Both Galton and Lombroso were influenced by predecessors like the Swiss physiognomist Johann Lavater, the Austrian phrenologist Franz Josef Gall, and the French criminal photographer Alphonse Bertillon, who invented the mug shot.  But it was in the United States that this composite discipline really took off . . . and has stayed put, as the open-source multi-media photo array produced last week attests.

In the States, the first systematic student of what photography could reveal about ‘types’ was the famed naturalist Louis Agassiz (1807 – 1873).  He collected daguerrotypes of slaves in the late 1840s, supplementing them with pictures of Chinese and Native American people.  These collections reinforced Agassiz’ belief in ‘special creationism’:  that different races were created separately, at different times, a belief easily enlisted as support for slavery due to inherent racial inequality.  At about the same time, Matthew Brady was commissioned to photograph prisoners in New York City, as authorities hoped that correctly reading people’s features could disclose their authentic character and their suitability for rehabilitation. 

One of Agassiz' daguerrotypes:  “Guinea” Jack

By the 1850s, police departments were keeping photographic records (“rogues’ galleries”) of all sorts of criminals, from vagrants to murderers.  After President Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, the photographer Alexander Gardener was tasked with recording the crime scene, evidence, and suspects; he produced one of the first photograph-based Most Wanted posters, featuring the as-yet unapprehended conspirators. 

Gardner’s Wanted Poster

Although new scientific methods – like fingerprinting and DNA testing – have replaced the photo array as ways to solve crimes or to predict potential criminal behavior, photo arrays have not disappeared.  They remain a tool for eyewitness identification, and Most Wanted posters still decorate post office walls.  With the explosion of media technologies, digital Most Wanted posters also can decorate (not to say invade, flood, overwhelm) our televisions, computers, tablets, and smart phones.  From Thursday evening to Saturday morning last week, it was impossible to turn on any electronic gadget, with the possible exception of the microwave, and not be bombarded by images of the Tsarnaev brothers.

Once they were identified, speculation turned to their ethnicity and what it might mean.  Were they militant Chechen separatists?  Were they radical Dagestani Islamicists?  Were they controlled by a mysterious Caucasian branch of Al-Qaeda?

A Russian raid on a village in Dagestan

A rural mosque in Chechnya

A speculation not prompted by their photographs was the possibility that they were mentally troubled (or sociopathic) young men who sought some sort of solution via an explosion of random violence.  In other words, the sort of speculation surrounding other young men who’ve recently committed mass murder in the United States.  No one suggested that the Newtown, Aurora, Tucson, or Virginia Tech murderers were foreign-connected terrorists.  Or the Columbine killers.  Or the Washington D.C. snipers, one of whom was seventeen years old. 

I fear that the spurious connections between appearance, race, and criminality forged over a hundred years ago by men like Lombroso, Galton, and Agassiz have not disappeared.  On a Federal level, the fact that the brothers are labeled as terrorists and charged with use of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ is a bit puzzling.  Didn’t the Newtown massacre create terror, and didn’t the semi-automatic weapons used cause more mass destruction than the Boston bombs, at least in terms of fatalities?  On a sadly predictable political level, some Senators and Congressmen have called for a halt to Immigration Reform efforts in light of last week’s events, using the convoluted logic that since the Tsarnaevs were immigrants, then regulating immigration in a more orderly manner would lead to more acts of terrorism.  Say what? 

FBI’s first ’10 Most Wanted’ Poster, 1950

All this calls to mind J. Edgar Hoover’s comments at the beginning of his career, when he led the World-War-One-era ‘Palmer Raids’ against ‘communists’ and ‘anarchists.’

Most of the individuals involved [. . .] are aliens or foreign-born citizens. [. . .] Out of the sly and crafty eyes of many of them leap cupidity, cruelty, insanity, and crime; from their lopsided faces, sloping brows, and misshapen features may be recognized the unmistakable criminal type.

Hoover is dead.  Lombroso and his like-minded 19th-century scientist confreres are long dead.  The ‘atavistic’ urge to equate criminality with ethnicity, an urge that assumed monstrous proportions in the 20th century, deserves to be dead as well.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Duk Dynasties: Kim Jong Un, the Duck Commander Robertsons, and Park Chung Hee's Daughter

Duk Dynasties: Kim Jong Un, 
the Duck Commander Robertsons,
and Park Chung Hee’s Daughter

“Money.  Family.  Ducks.”
--A&E promotional tagline for Duck Dynasty

The Korean language radical “duk” (also transliterated deok, tok, teok, but pretty much pronounced like the English word ‘duck’) connotes benevolence and virtue.  No doubt, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s official media, party rhetoric, educational programs, and public spectacles have welded these qualities onto the ruling family, creating a duk dynasty now entrusted to the bizarre man-child Kim Jong Un. 

In light of the latest round of DPRK threats, which have escalated to intimations of nuclear annihilation (of what is not clear:  The Republic of Korea [ROK]? Japan? Guam? Alaska? The uninhabited middle of the Pacific Ocean?), we in the United States (and elsewhere) correctly lament our ignorance about what makes Kim Jong Un tick.  Or quack. 

Our attempts to do so tend to fall into two camps.  On the one hand, we characterize Kim Jong Un as an untested leader in over his head, desperate to prove his bona fides, his toughness . . . an almost pitiable victim of the anxiety of influence, battling for his own identity against the covering cherubs of dictator father and dictator grandfather.  On the other hand, we see him as an uncanny clone, repeating patterns established by his forbears.  The long-term pattern is simply to squeeze the country’s people, to the point of starvation if necessary, in order to build up an oversized, unneeded military and a complementary arsenal of oversized, unneeded [but sellable] weapons. The short–term pattern involves undertaking a provocative action, threatening even more dire actions, making expensive demands, agreeing to terms, then breaking the agreement.  It’s a pattern of extortion, wherein money and, perhaps to a lesser extent, international ‘respect’ are paramount.

The problem with these camps is that they are at best simply descriptive and at worst misleading.  They certainly don’t indicate what we (or any country in the DPRK’s sights) should do – not just to defuse any particular nuke-rattling episode but more importantly to change the patterns completely.  Thinking of Kim Jong Un as a symbolic patricidal castrato or as a robotic enactor of a family script, frankly, isn’t very helpful.  Because no country seems to have reliable human intelligence on DPRK ground (if one doesn’t count Dennis Rodman), I here suggest another lens or two through which to contemplate the unpredictable and potentially dangerous cipher that is Kim Jung Un. 

Duk Dynasty (North) and Duck Dynasty

“There are two kinds of people who don’t have beards.
 Women and children.  I am neither.”
  -- Phil Robertson

Devotees of United States reality TV are familiar with the show Duck Dynasty, a wildly popular series chronicling the mild misadventures of the proudly “redneck” Robertson family from Louisiana, a family that’s made lots of money crafting duck calls but stays true to its rural roots.  Like Kim Jung Un’s family, the Robertsons deal in weapons of war (Robertsons:  humans vs. ducks [and occasionally beavers and frogs]; Kim Jong Un and ancestors:  humans vs. the galaxy).  Like Kim Jung Un’s family, the Robertsons are deeply patriarchal; what’s more, the wives are more attractive than the husbands. 

Top: Kim Jong Un and his wife Ri Soi Ju, identified as a former ‘entertainer’
Bottom: Various Duck Dynasty husbands and wives

Like Kim Jong Un’s family, the Robertsons span three generations, and the younger generations respect their elders and hope to follow in their footsteps.  [A variant may be Kim Jong Un’s family tradition of enforcing ‘three generations of punishment,” according to which an offender is sent to a prison work camp along with his/her parents and children, there to languish forever until the entire family line is erased. The Robertsons seem satisfied with tricking teenagers into doing chores around the family homestead.]

Comparing Kim Jong Un, his father Kim Jong Il (DPRK leader: 1994 – 2011), and his grandfather Kim Il Sung (DPRK leader: 1948 – 1994) to the Duck Dynasty Robertsons discloses a few more differences that may help intelligence agencies in East Asia and Euro-America gain additional insight into the current Korean impasse.

Patriarch Phil Robertson’s quote about beards, which heads this section, indicates one potentially important difference.  The Robertson men know they are men, even if they are hen- (duck-) pecked while hunting or forced to shop for a daughter’s prom dress. Kim Jong Un is parodied, usually outside of the DPRK but sometimes even within its restrictive borders, as an asexual baby, which might be a problem, dynastically speaking.  Furthermore, Kim Jong Un’s reputed wife reputedly just had a baby that reputedly is a girl (thus, reputedly, why the birth was not trumpeted from the Diamond Mountains to the Yalu River).  Indeed, in the uncompromisingly masculinist culture of the DPRK, having a first child be a girl is more or less disastrous, and could make the new-daddy dictator even more bellicose than usual, for obvious Freudian and continuation-of-the-dynasty reasons.  In contrast, the Robertson children/grandchildren include a muscular phalanx of male children.

Duk Dynasty (North) and Duck Dynasty, Holiday Version

We got elves that are ten foot tall, and bulletproof.
--Uncle Si Roberson

These pictures give rise to some interesting speculations.  First, both Kim Jong Un and Uncle Si Robertson are publically depicted with elf ears, the former image being a recent hack into DPRK official media, and the latter being from a Duck Dynasty holiday special.  Elves are considered to be helpful, industrious, and cute, descriptors that don’t apply to Kim Jong Un or Uncle Si and thus suggest that the truth is exactly the converse.  A difference is that Kim Jong Un did not sign on to his elfin-Mickey Mouse-Buddha image, whereas Uncle Si was a willing participant.  This picture reminds us (as if the non-ironic embrace of The Worm did not) that Kim Jong Un has no sense of humor, particularly when it comes to himself.  Apparently, he’s fully bought into his civic deification, which makes diplomacy highly problematic.  How do you negotiate with a god?

Second, both Kim Jong Un and Uncle Si dream of a superhero army.  The difference is that Uncle Si’s regiment of bullet-proof elves is fun-fantasy militarism; Kim Jong Un’s is distressingly real but also may partake of elements of fantasy (get real:  If the DPRK actually does launch a nuclear weapon, what do you think the consequences will be?  Let’s start with a huge smoking sink hole just north of the DMZ, goosestepping and accordion-playing troops notwithstanding).  What does this tell us?  Kim Jong Un both depends on the military – the spine of the whole family Duk Dynasty – and fears losing control over it.  Without military backing, Kim Jong Un is yesterday’s kimchi.  And he knows it.  If the elves revolt, where does that leave (Santa?

Kim Jong Un’s Aunt Kim Hyong Hui, Kim Jong Un, and his Uncle Jang Song Taek

Third, there’s the matter of uncles.  Uncle Silas Robertson – brother of patriarch Phil, uncle of Willie (CEO of the family business), Jase (loveable slacker brother of Willie),  and other brothers who sometimes appear on the series– is a relatively renegade family member, a Vietnam Vet (we won’t even go there: to the mercenary help provided by the ROK to this United States’ Asian fiasco) who speaks his mind and insinuates himself into most family matters yet who is lovingly tolerated by his relatives.  Kim Jong Un also has an influential uncle:  Jang Song Taek, husband of his aunt Kim Hyong Hui, a woman said to be extremely influential and also reported to be extremely sick.  In any event, Jang is the main DPRK liaison to China, the country without which North Korea would have no food, no fuel, and no allies.  Thus Kim Jong Un’s dependence on his uncle-in-law is, to say the least, major.  It’s rather like the younger generations of Robertsons’ dependence on Uncle Si, whose wacked-out star power is obviously the main reason that the A&E network keeps making and airing Duck Dynasty.

But back to holidays:  tomorrow (as I write, on April 14, 2013) is the mega DPRK holiday, the anniversary of patriarch Kim Il Sung’s birth (and life and legacy).  If anything scary were to happen, it might happen tomorrow, on April 15.  Prediction:  it won’t . . . beyond, perhaps, another missile test.  (Yawn – old news.  The real issue on the table is whether the DPRK has developed ‘deliverable’ missiles, in which nuclear warheads are successfully size-calibrated to the missiles themselves and made effective by up-to-date satellite guidance technology.)

Duk Dynasty (North), Duck Dynasty (South and Southeast),
 Duk Dynasty (South)

Boys, I will hurt you physically and meta-physically.
--Uncle Si Robertson

Even though it’s a reality TV show, and therefore exists in an unreal space between actual and scripted life, Duck Dynasty also exists in a real media space, one occupied by other semi-similar shows.  Therefore, its popularity and (dare we say) impact are in part a function of its difference from other such programs.  One ‘competitor’ is Swamp People, which chronicles families of alligator hunters but frankly isn’t very compelling: there are fathers and sons, hunted beasts, family dinners . . . but none of it really connects, in the way that Duck Dynasty channels an earlier TV family drama  sweetness in which paterfamiliases, even if clueless, always show that they have their families’ best interests at heart, particularly when they say grace that asks blessings for all family members, no matter what imbecilities may have ensued before dinner.  Good night, Uncle Si.  Good night, Brother Willie.  Good Night, Mother Kay.  Walton Mountain has migrated to the Louisiana bayous. 

Honey Boo-Boo and Kim Jong Un:  separated at birth?

But another Duck Dynasty media rival is Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo, a reality TV show about fairly disgusting Georgia rednecks.  Whereas DD actually does promulgate ‘traditional’ family values, HCHBB flaunts their inversion.  Its family members are crass and grotesque, and there’re no traces of self-respect or grace to confer some sort of likeability.  The star of this non-duk-dynasty is a pudgy elementary school-age would-be-child-beauty-pageant-star.  Stranded as she is among truly icky family members, Honey Boo-Boo has no chance (at least on reality TV) to become a reasonable human being.  This would be as opposed to the Duck Dynasty youngsters, who seem relatively normal and remarkably well-behaved.

My point is fairly simple:  perceptions (even self-perceptions) do not exist in a vacuum.  Just as the Duck Dynasty younger generation is seen against the scrim of other ‘redneck’ reality TV show families, so is Kim Jong Un seen against the scrim of other Korean peninsula duk dynasties. 
Until recently, that scrim would have been fairly singular: that of Kim Jong Un’s own family – his father Kim Jong Il and his grandfather Kim Il Sung.  But last year, the scrim has expanded.  It now includes Park Geun Hye, the new president of South Korea.

Park Geun Hye is the daughter of Park Chung Hee, the long-term ruler/dictator/president of South Korea (1961 -1979) . . . in other words, the banner-carrier of a duk dynasty of his own.  As opposed to Kim Il Sung’s dynasty in DPRK, however, Park’s dynasty in ROK had been a dynasty of one.  When he was assassinated, no heir ascended.  Thus South Korea kept lurching toward mega-prosperous modernity, on a course started by Park Chung Hee, but managed by a succession of leaders not directly related to Park.

After decades of varyingly efficient and/or corrupt regimes, Park Chun Hee’s daughter was elected president of the Republic of Korea just a few months ago, an event that must present a chilling dilemma to Kim Jong Un. Seventy years of Korean history, embodied in larger-than-life [and dead] fathers and grandfathers, have come back to haunt him in the person of the new south-of-the-border president.  Even more galling, she’s a woman, a “venomous swish of skirt” according to official DPRK sources.

Duk Dynasty (North) and Duk Dynasty (South)

“Now we’re talking, he’s fixing to blow something up.”
--Uncle Si Robertson

Today, the two twentieth-century Korean duk dynasties again confront each other. 

Grandfather Kim Il Sung balked the Japanese occupation of Korea, joined Mao’s Chinese Resistance during World War II, and then tried to lead his country to non-imperialist independence.  He also led his country into the costly and ultimately useless Korean War; he was president of the DPRK for almost five decades.  He is widely seen as a Korean patriot, nation builder and freedom-fighter.  In at least part of the Korean peninsula.

Father Park Chung Hee was an officer in the occupying Japanese army during World War II.  He rose in the military (in the U.S.-backed forces) during the Korean War; later, through a military coup, he became president of the Republic of Korea, a post he held for almost two decades.  He is widely seen as a Korean patriot, nation-builder, and freedom-fighter.  In at least part of the Korean peninsula.

These two leaders’ rules overlapped by almost twenty years, spanning the 1960s and 1970s.  Since this period was the height of the Cold War, not to mention the time of the Viet Nam war, the contrasting Korean strongmen gained a perhaps inflated geopolitical importance as conveniently adjacent proxies for Soviet and Euro-American rivalry.  Almost the same age, Kim Il Sung (born 1912) and Park Chung Hee (born 1917) also carried out a vicious personal game of Spy-vs.-Spy, each trying to have the other assassinated, adding personal animus to ideological and political conflict.  [Note:  it seems that Park Chung Hee died at the hands of a dissident South Korean faction opposed to his dictatorial rule, not of a faction allied with North Korea, although the historical record is not completely clear.]

Obviously, both Kim Jong Un and Park Geung Hye are burdened by ancestral peninsular history.  Both current leaders would want to preserve and enhance the duk virtues of their political inheritance and show themselves worthy of their present positions, of course, but there are also old – and personal – scores to settle.  Park Geung Hye was elected on a fairly conservative platform, with the exception that she pledged to strengthen peaceful relations with her neighbor to the North, apparently to gain dominance through economic means.  (It’s not coincidental that one of the DPRK’s first moves in the current crisis was to shut down the joint Kaesong economic zone, funded by the South and staffed b the North.)  In contrast, Kim Jong Il has tried to gain dominance through military means, or at least the hyperbolic threats of such. 

The entry to the Kaeson complex last week

The countries’ most powerful allies are relatively paralyzed:  China because it definitely does not want regional destabilization accompanied by a massive influx of impoverished refugees; the United States because it definitely does not want to participate in another war, anywhere, and its ally South Korea does not want a massive influx of impoverished refugees.

Thus, the present fate of the Korean peninsula lies in the hands of political neophytes who, at the same time, bear almost unimaginably heavy, and lethal, legacies.  How they extract themselves from this suffocating historical box is yet to be seen.  To the extent that other countries can be helpful, we/they should recognize the disturbingly parallel personal histories of these new leaders and understand that their decisions will be as influenced as much by the past as by the needs of the present and by visions for the future. 

I never realized that death could occur, but I ain’t a quitter.
--Willie Robertson

Photo:  dead dictators in state -- 
top left, Park Chung Hee;  top right:  
Kim Il Sung;  bottom:  Kim Jung Il

[Note:  The Korean language is notoriously slippery in transliteration.  Although its phonetics have been ‘in place’ since the 14th century, when King Sejong commissioned a remarkably sophisticated and linguistically accurate indigenous syllabary, Western ways of representing the language have fluctuated and continue to do so.  For example, the large city of Busan used to be written, in English, as Pusan; the common Korean family name of ”‘Ri“ is also commonly written as ‘Ree,” “Rhee,” “Li,” or ‘Yi.”  Further, given names (which follwo the family name) are variously presented as two names (as in Anglo-American first- and middle- names), or as hyphenated names, or as one composite name (as in Kim Jong Un, Kim Jong-Un, Kim Jongun).  In this article, I’ve tried to conform with the most common current transliterations without much regard to consistency, as there actually isn’t much consistency yet in the way that the Roman alphabet deals with the Korean language.]

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Blahging, or the Wonders of Nigerian Ferry Literature

Blahging, or the Wonders of Nigerian Ferry Literature

I’ve been feeling rather blah about blogging.  Last year, with the crazy adrenaline that the presidential race mainlined into the clogged arteries of the U.S. body politic, it was easy to find things to write about.  In fact, the daily doses of mendaciousness and sheer insanity made it impossible NOT to respond – for me, to respond via writing a blog. 

But then the elections were over.  Holiday season, with its happy bustle, ensued.  College basketball entered full-court press mode.  The seriatim financial crises were either depressing or boring.  I received a Kindle for Christmas and discovered the treasury of free books available, so it seemed a good idea to laze in front of a fire and read obscure out-of-real-print works like “The Cannibal Queen of West Africa” (disappointingly, a Victorian missionary tract), “Confessions of a Thug” (a pretty interesting but impossibly prolix fictionalized account of Thugee during the Raj) or “A Taxonomy of Indian Religions” (a stellar example of the impenetrable ‘scientific’ prose generated during the high colonial period). 

Earlier this year, I was chatting about my blogging hiatus with my sister. 

            “I’m tired of politics,” I said.  “So I have nothing to write about.” 
            “That’s not true.”  I could hear her measure her words over the phone; she always prefers being supportive to being critical.  “You know about many things.  Why not write about other issues that interest you?”
            I lit a cigarette and scowled at the phone.  “Like what?  And so what?” 
            My sister is a woman of remarkable patience.  “Well, you’ve already written about art.  And Africa.  And sports.  And religion.  Why not write more about these subjects?”
            “I could,” I grudged.  “But who’d care?”
            My sister’s patience is remarkable, but not infinite.  “Why do you think anyone cared about what you wrote concerning politics?  You write because you like to write, you’ve spent your life writing, and it’s just part of who you are.”

Hmmm.  I’ve spent my life writing, liking to write, and making my living by doing it.  One of my first jobs, at sixteen, was writing ad copy for a hometown radio station.  As a young adult, I wrote for local magazines and city newspapers and advertising agencies of various sizes.  As an academic, I wrote books and articles and scholarly papers.  As I retired academic, I’ve written for the North Carolina Museum of Art and continue to write for a web development firm.

Nevertheless, acknowledging that writing is what one has always done, and is thus an important part of one’s identity, is not the same as rediscovering and re-embracing writing’s peculiar joys and seductions.  That happened, or started to happen, a little while ago when I was cruising about for a non-Kindle book that I could actually go to bed with without fearing it would fall to the floor and break.  I settled on a book I’ve owned for over forty years, “Africa in Prose,” an early collection of stories and essays from the African continent.  At one time, I’m sure, I read everything in it, but that time was decades ago.  Maybe its yellowed pages and fragile paperback binding would offer something newly interesting:  my subsequent study of postcolonial literature, if nothing else, would urge me to look at these pieces  (from the 1960s and earlier) in ways I couldn’t have imagined when I was in college.

And there it was.  I’d like to quote the whole thing, but here are some excerpts from ‘Rosemary and the Taxi Driver’ (date unspecified, but apparently mid 1960s) by the Nigerian writer Miller O. Albert.  From the initial descriptions of the heroine:

            The sun flickered over her canon-ball head, with the hairs on her forehead, heightened like onboard type of shaving.  She resoluted to follow the train at the earliest declining hour of the day. [. . .] She had got all the zests of the West and mettled her sense, to bolster up alertly, to crack love, romance and joke, up to their highest mediocre of acme.  It was a day for love maniacs to some and a day for Rosemary to travel too.

About meeting her love object:

            The man she cloistered at first flush of her sight was a romantic virile odd, who introduced himself Okoro.  After they made a nice little smile, they raged a torrential down pour of speeches, each trying to exhaust the querulous tone God had suffered to give out, free of charge to every individual.  Soon they felt an impression of bigness in themselves, glaring at nature as super love maker.

It turns out that Rosemary is the femme fatale, with taxi-driver Okoro the dopey victim.  He pretends his brother’s house is his in order to impress his seductress.  Ultimately exposed as a poseur, he decides to cut his losses:

            He soon sighed and got depressed.  After many odd remarks, the full automobile of his spirit, compelled him to leave everything, threatening him with pretty tough smiles, of tremor.
            After his liberation, he trotted off with his craggy legs, jumping into the minor with a mad stampede, hoping to finish the speedometre, within an active time.

This is a stunningly splendid story.  One might think that it was written by a Nigerian James Joyce, exulting in the possibilities of recording and enhancing an aspiring working-class Nigerian English soon after the country’s independence, a time when people were caught between honoring the colonial language as a marker of class prestige and freeing themselves from its cultural hegemony, a task made overwhelmingly difficult by the country’s embarrassment of linguistic riches – more than 400 indigenous languages – and the attendant need to have some sort of common tongue in which to converse and do business with fellow citizens.

The Onitsha Ferry, 1960s

But it’s not a calculatedly daring linguistic experiment.  It’s a specimen of what’s called ‘Nigerian Ferry Literature’ – cheap pamphlets, usually centered on sex, violence, and redemption, produced for a specific market: workers who used the Onitsha ferry to commute from the countryside to the then-capital city, Lagos. (There’s now a bridge, and this mini-genre has disappeared.) 

Most ‘Ferry Literature’ was written in less baroque prose, although plots were similar, and more explicitly salacious and moral.  For example, ‘How Mabel Learnt,’ by the pseudonymous Speedy Eric, depicts the man/woman encounter and the woman’s ensnaring and duplicitous lustfulness this way:

            ‘Okay, juicy baby if you won’t allow me eat you, then give me some eba and meat stew,’ he dipped his hand in his pocket and brought out two shillings.  Privately Mabel was wishing to hold that young man in her arms.  That was the very man who had made her toss and twist in bed last night.

What’s missing in Speedy Eric’s story is the joyful linguistic chaos that, in Miller O. Albert’s narrative, transforms a predictable cautionary tale about excessive appetite into a mad celebration of unfettered language – a celebration that seems, at least in retrospect, corollary to the vertiginous hopes of a newly emancipated citizenry, hopes bound up in desire to occupy and reshape the language of power, hopes undaunted by lack of official mastery.  The astonishing contortions of Albert’s prose may have appealed to his readers not as critique but as evidence that even common people can appropriate ruling language regimes in newly empowering ways.  As these ways could be worthy of respect  (what an impressive vocabulary!) or, at least, worthy of paying for, they theoretically could open channels for ordinary folk to enter yet-uncharted seas of postcolonial capitalism.

I doubt whether Miller O. Albert was trying to explore – or explode -- the boundaries of Nigerian linguistic expression.  That would fall to more sophisticated and subtle Nigerian writers like Amos Tutuola, Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinke.  Or, perhaps most pointedly, to the oil wars martyr Ken Saro-Wiwa, whose “Sozaboy:  A Novel in Rotten English” mapped the landmines of post-independence Nigeria by creating a literary pidgen (1986) bent to political protest and artistic display. (Nor do such tour-de-forces need be written by ‘third-world’ authors:  I recommend the U.S. writer Chuck Palahniuk’s “Pygmy (2009),” for example, to those interested in radical language experimentation.)

Ken Saro-Wiwa, 1941 – 1995
Writer and activist, summarily executed  for ‘inceitement by a Nigerian military tribunal

I’ve gone into such detail here, apart from my long interest in African literature, because the English language – particularly (to me) in its written forms – is a truly wondrous thing, a thing that re-reading Miller O. Albert’s story brought back to mind, in full force, cracking my canon-ball head with pretty tough smiles, of tremor.  English’s uncommonly rich vocabulary and global dissemination make it a marvelous instrument for expressing cultural and historical nuances that transcend its narrative, expository, or argumentative capacities.  It’s a language always and ever in transit.

Which is why I love writing. About just about anything.  In English. And why I think I’ll resume writing blogs.  It’s a privilege to muck around with such amazing, and sometimes troubling, raw materials as are provided by this (first-, co-, second-, third-) language that so many of us share.