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Monday, April 30, 2012

Finding Diamonds in an Anthology


 One of the reasons why I love anthologies is because they can be surprising.  When I decided to review A Calm Whisper for The Bookplex, I didn't know what to expect.

There were several strong and skillfully written stories in this anthology. “Juliet” is a haunting tale about an angst-ridden doctor that turned out to have been authored by a rather talented seventeen year old. Also worthy of mention is “Stripes and Lollipops”, a powerhouse of a story about a young graffiti artist sentenced to community service, and “The Price”, a dark fantasy tale written in a lush poetic style that contained mordant social commentary.

Other stories seemed less successful.  “My Heart Beats For You” was written with a great deal of authentic emotion, but it lacked credibility. I can’t imagine how a doctor would agree without hesitation to commit a serious crime that should have resulted in the loss of his medical license.  I thought that the protagonist in “Annabeth” changed too abruptly at the end of the story.  “That Day” should have been powerful, but the author needed to do better medical research.  If he had, it would have impacted the storyline. I found “All That We Are” inspirational, but I felt that I needed an explanation for a character that appeared near the close of the narrative.  Some readers might be content to wonder about him, but I wanted to know the truth.  “Epiphany” was stylistically beautiful, but I would have liked to have seen more context.

Many of the poems faltered in their rhythm, had forced rhymes or seemed to be lacking in original expression, but I thought that “Empty Your Heart” was a nearly flawless gem.  It literally gave me chills each time I read it. I wished there had been more samples of this particular poet’s work.

 I liked a number of these art works, but the one that stood out for me was the surrealistic “Dream”.   I thought it was an authentic portrayal of dream experience.  I liked the blending of the images, and the way the dreamer was integrated into the whole.

Most anthologies vary in quality, and this one was no exception to the rule.  Yet I was glad to discover new writers and artists within the pages of A Calm Whisper whose work I will want to encounter again.


Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Novel Dealing with an Afro-German Holocaust Victim


Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan was an eye-opener for me because I had no previous exposure to Afro-German Holocaust victims.  In fact, I was unaware that they existed.  In this novel, Hieronymus Falk, an Afro-German musician is arrested by the Gestapo and disappears.  The tale is told by an Afro-American musician who played with him.  The narrator is both unreliable and increasingly unsympathetic.  This caused me to dislike the book.  I wish it had been written from Hieronymus Falk's viewpoint and that I had learned more about Afro-Germans in Nazi Germany.

As a result, I had to do my own research. reveals that 25,000-50,000 Afro-Germans are estimated to have been killed in concentration camps.                                                 

 Hans-Jurgen Massaquoi, a former managing editor of  Ebony,  was born in Germany in 1926.  His father was from Liberia and his mother was German.  Massoquoi wrote a memoir called Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany.  There has been a German TV movie based on his book that aired in 2006.  Whoopi Goldberg owns the English language rights to a film version of  Destined to Witness, but has been unable to generate the interest to produce such a movie.

An essay by Eric Brothers states that 400 Afro-German children in the Rhineland were forcibly sterilized in 1937.  A survivor in the movie Hitler's Forgotten Victims  testified that no anesthetic was used.

Below is a photo from the Nazi period of an Afro-German child :

Here are a few links to assist you in learning more on this subject:

Black History in Germany on

Destined to Witness by Hans-Jurgen Massaquoi on Goodreads

You Tubes on Propaganda Pravda Blog  Please scroll down.
The first You Tube showing an Afro-German survivor of the Buchenwald concentration camp has not been translated into English.  The second is a German documentary on Afro-Germans with English sub-titles.

Blacks in Nazi Germany and the Holocaust by Eric Brothers

Hitler's Forgotten Victims Documentary on IMDB


Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Perspectives on World War II Nanjing Atrocities

 Last year I read and reviewed Nanjing Requiem by Ha Jin.  This review, which was posted to Goodreads, is my most popular review to date.  It is reproduced for this blog below.

I read this book because I thought a novel would be a better way for me to read about the Japanese occupation of Nanjing. Reportage of atrocities can de-sensitize us so that they have less impact and you care less about the victims. Fiction with characterization where you see into the minds and hearts of the characters and see their lives in context should make you care more. Unfortunately, as other reviewers have said this is closer to reportage than fiction.

One of the problems is that Ha Jin wanted a Chinese viewpoint character while choosing to focus primarily not on the viewpoint character, but the American missionary Minnie Vautrin. This is an odd choice. The POV character, Anling, a Chinese Christian missionary, vanishes behind Minnie Vautrin for long stretches of the narrative. Yet she emerges from the shadows very poignantly when she experiences an inner conflict over her son. This is a genuinely complex character dilemma in a book where so many of the characters are as papery thin as fallen leaves. So by the end of the book I considered Anling a better choice of viewpoint than I had originally thought.

I also discovered a Japanese journalist's non-fiction book about these events in Ha Jin's author note. Ironically, I am pursuing reportage. I put it on hold. I know that Japanese authorities have done their best to try to suppress any accounts of these atrocities, so I want to find out how this Japanese author managed to write such a book. It's The Nanjing Massacre: A Japanese Journalist Confronts Japan's National Shame by . Honda Katsuichi. I feel that I ought to give this book an extra star because it's leading me to this other one that sounds so significant.

 I  didn't follow up on The Nanjing Massacre by Honda Katsuichi until recently.  I have now completed my evaluation of this thorough history.  

      Honda went to China and interviewed a great many survivors.  He also had access to materials in Japanese such as war diaries by Japanese soldiers.  He deals with these war crimes in context to show that this behavior was characteristic of  the entire invasion, and not just the occupation of Nanjing. There were numerous atrocities committed en route to Nanjing.  There were also many thousands of  prisoners who were killed as a matter of policy.  Honda quotes a 1933 textbook used by the Japanese Army Infantry School called Studies in Methods of Fighting the Chinese Army. This textbook states that most Chinese soldiers are "drifters", so killing prisoners would have no consequences.  It seemed to me that the actual reason that  the Japanese army established this policy, was that they couldn't feed the prisoners.  Yet killing them was still a violation of the Geneva conventions which are a series of international agreements about the treatment of  military prisoners.  The last such agreement before WWII was in 1929.  See Wikipedia on the Geneva Conventions  

When I read the book I looked for examples of  courage and resourcefulness on the part of the survivors. Although some survived due to good fortune,  I did find accounts that illustrated bravery.  In some cases there was cooperation among groups of individuals that allowed them to survive.  I found this inspiring and illuminating. 

Honda got death threats as a result of having published this book.  The Wikipedia article about him   also discusses a lawsuit against Honda and the publisher of the book from two families related to Japanese soldiers that participated in a killing contest in Nanjing.  See Wikipedia on Honda Katsuichi   
It is important to check Wikipedia's source especially when the article isn't dealing with well-known facts. I was very interested to learn that the source in this case is a book called The Nanjing Massacre in History and Historiography.  I have requested it through inter-library loan and hope to obtain it soon.

Given all the trouble that the author has encountered as a result of having written about events that the Japanese government has tried to either bury or minimize, why did he consider it so important to bring this information to light in Japan?  Honda says that refusing to fully acknowledge Japanese war crimes during WWII injures the credibility of Japan.  This is certainly true, but I should point out that Japan is scarcely unique in sweeping atrocities under the rug.  China has made political capitol out of being victims of Japanese invasion, but they also refuse to acknowledge their atrocities in Tibet.  I would also be remiss if I failed to add that the United States has not been especially good at acknowledging atrocities either.

I will say that I respect Honda Katsuichi for being willing to stand up for what is right.  His book is excellent scholarship and I would recommend it to anyone who wants in depth research on what happened in Nanjing during WWII.


Friday, April 20, 2012

The No-No Boy and Anxiety of Representation


I found The No-No Boy on   K.P. Kollenborn's Blog in her entry listing other books dealing with Japanese American internment after I had read her novel Eyes Behind Belligerence.  Since Eyes Behind Belligerence and No-No Boy had protagonists dealing with being Japanese American during and after World War II, it seemed natural to compare them.  Both Kollenborn’s Jim Yoshimura and Okada’s Ichiro Yamada are what was known as “No-No Boys”.  This means that after they had been interned, they refused to swear an oath of allegiance to the United States, and they refused to serve in the American military during WWII.  Yet these characters could not be less alike in their response to their experiences.  Jim never doubted that he had made the correct decision.  Ichiro was completely angst-ridden, and continually referred to his “mistake”. 

A reader might ask who is more typical of “No-No Boys”, but I don’t believe that characters in a novel can or should be considered representative of an entire group.  If an author is successful in creating characters that resemble actual human beings, then they are unique individuals that represent no one but themselves.  If some readers respond to a character as being true to their own experiences, there may still be other readers who don’t identify with the character. 

For a writer, the idea that a novel speaks for a particular community can inhibit expression.  I will call this anxiety of representation.  If the author is not a member of the group that is the subject of the work, he or she may wonder if it’s possible to reflect what the writer has never experienced.   K.P. Kollenbern is not Japanese American.  John Okada was not a “No-No Boy”.  I am certain that there are many who believe that only someone who has actually been in the protagonist’s shoes can authentically re-create what that character endured. Yet it’s important to point out that anxiety of representation is a much more painful issue for members of the group.  If both the authors of these novels had been Japanese American “No-No Boys”, their work could still be branded as having been false to the experience of “No-No Boys” in some respect.   They would then be ostracized from their own community.  This can happen any time an author writes about any group.  If anxiety of representation overcomes a writer, they might never complete or publish their work.  There may be no fiction dealing with members of a particular community at all.  When Frank Chin says in his Afterword to No-No Boy that he didn’t want the responsibility of being the first Asian-American author, his concern is anxiety of representation.  No-No Boy was the first Asian American novel, but it was also John Okada’s only published work.  It seems to me that anxiety of representation could have been a major factor in John Okada’s failure to complete his second novel during his lifetime. I would like to see this issue vanish from literary discourse.  Instead of focusing on the single truest representation of a group, we should consider enriching literature by celebrating a diversity of perspectives.

This is why I think that a better question for a reader to ask is why Jim Yoshimura and Ichiro Yamada had such disparate responses.  This question can be answered by examining these characters’ backgrounds as they are portrayed in their respective novels.

In Eyes Behind Belligerence Jim Yoshimura’s father was a respected leader in his community.  This could explain his son’s moral certainty and his willingness to challenge the American status quo.  It’s also true that Jim isn’t portrayed as introspective.  He doesn’t second guess his decisions.  I personally tend to prefer characters who display some degree of inner conflict--especially when they have made decisions that could have unpredictable ramifications.  I usually dislike characters that are too certain. 

On the other hand, it is possible for angst to become so overwhelming that the character is unable to make choices.   He suffers from a paralysis of will.  Ichiro Yamada in No-No Boy exhibits this sort of crippling anxiety.  As an extremely introspective character, Ichiro is very aware that his dysfunctional family is the root of his inability to trust his own capacity to decide anything.  He therefore believes that being a “No-No Boy” was a mistake.  It makes him feel un-American.  It doesn’t occur to him that it could be an American’s patriotic duty to stand in opposition to the oppression of internment.  He accepts the judgment of bigots as valid.  Although I had tremendous compassion for Ichiro, I would have liked to have seen a clearer indication of personal growth toward a sustainable future for him. 

Jim and Ichiro are on opposite sides of a spectrum of behavior.  I don’t think that either should be regarded as typical.  They can be considered portraits of individuals in a time of a crisis ably portrayed by their authors. 


Monday, April 9, 2012

Emerging From World War I

          Until recently I thought that World War I lacked any enduring significance.  Yet some of the most interesting historical fictions I've been reading this year take place during that period.  Tara Chevrestt's Ride For Rights approaches WWI as instrumental in advancing the cause of women's rights.  Joseph Richardson's  Fire Angels reveals WWI as a crucible that defined the character of those who fought, and those who didn't fight.  Jacqueline Winspear's Birds of a Feather also deals with attitudes toward military participation in WWI.

         The cultural meaning of the white feather in Winspear's book as a sign of cowardice contrasts with the white plume of courage in Edmond Rostand's  Cyrano de Bergerac. This was pointed out in a discussion about the significance of white feathers on Straight Dope.  (See "Why Does A White Feather Signify Cowardice?"  ) The English Channel separates the WWI White Feather Campaign from Rostand's 1897 play.  Yet white feathers representing pacifism is in continuity with the dove as a symbol of peace.  I'd expect that this is why doves appear on the UK edition's cover of Birds of a Feather shown above.

         Winspear's mention of pilates in this novel intrigued me.  She revealed that Joseph Pilates began to develop his system of exercises during WWI to assist wounded soldiers.  According to my research, Joseph Pilates was motivated by a desire to overcome the illnesses from which he suffered as a child in Germany.  His father's history in the sport of gymnastics probably also motivated Pilates to become stronger.  In England, he became a self-defense instructor at Scotland Yard. Despite this service to law enforcement, he was interned during WWI due to his German origin.   According to a French website devoted to pilates, its founder originally called his discipline "contrology".  Today pilates is as popular  as yoga which influenced Joseph Pilates.  

Here are the sources that I consulted about Joseph Hubertus Pilates and his work:

Joseph Pilates and the History of Pilates

The Origin of Pilates

Australian Pilates Website

French Pilates Website

Wikipedia on Pilates

   The Maisie Dobbs mystery series to which Birds of a Feather belongs focuses on post-WWI society.  I expect I will learn a good deal more about the impact of WWI if I continue to read it.