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Sunday, September 23, 2012

A Study of Okinawa: No Cultural Sensitivity Toward Shamanism

I was going to wait until I had some fiction to blog about.  I shouldn't be overwhelming my readers with so much non-fiction.  Yet I do want to finally finish with my bloggable August reads.  I've consistently been a month behind on this blog and that irritates me.  I might as well get used to it, I suppose.

I had a roommate who clued me in about Okinawans having a separate culture.  In fact, that was what originally got me interested in minorities in Japan.  I've been meaning to read a book about Okinawa.  I now have ten pages of notes on Identity and Resistance in Okinawa by Matthew Allen  which I must distill into a cogent review.

I found this book on the bibliography of an essay on Okinawans in Japan's Minorities.  The first thing I learned is that Okinawa is the main island of an archipelago. The southern islands of this archipelago comprise Okinawa prefecture. The Northern islands are administratively known as Kageshima prefecture.   The original name for the entire archipelago is Ryukyu which was once an independent kingdom.  See Ryukyu Islands on Wikipedia .The author conducted his study on the island of Kumejima whose shape resembles the continent of Africa.  See map of Kumejima . You need to scroll down to the map and reduce the size slightly to see the shape of the entire island.  The island's name is Kume. The suffix "jima" means island in Japanese.  Under the Ryukyu kingdom Kume had two districts, Nakazato and Gushikawa.  These two districts were retained under Japanese rule until 2001 when they were combined.  This hadn't happened yet when Matthew Allen was on Kume.   He makes numerous references to these administrative districts, and the differences between them.

An interesting fact of Okinawa's history that I learned from this book is that the Satsuma clan from Japan invaded the Ryukyu archipelago in 1609 and established a base there for secret trade with China and other countries during the period when Japan was officially closed.  Since it was supposed to be a secret, a fictional facade of Ryukyan independence was maintained so that the Chinese wouldn't learn that they were really trading with Japanese.  It sounds like a sweet set up for the Satsuma clan.  They encouraged Chinese cultural institutions and suppressed native Ryukyan culture.   I assume that they wanted the Chinese to think that the Ryukyan kingdom was totally under their influence.    In 1872 the Ryukyu islands were officially annexed by Japan.

Although there were no WWII battles on Kume, there were people who were executed by the Japanese military after the war was over.  It was a situation of an officer not recognizing or accepting that Japan had surrendered. I am aware that this happened on other Pacific islands. This officer and those under his command continued to comport themselves as if the war wasn't over yet, and killed some Kume residents for cooperating with the American occupation. The man who brought the surrender documents to this commanding officer was executed along with his entire family. There was another entire family executed for eating American food.  A total of 20 people on Kume were killed by Japanese military right after the war. Matthew Allen tells us that in 1999 the Nakazato Board of Education sponsored a community workshop about this period.  Many expressed feelings of betrayal.  They had believed that they were under the protection of the Japanese military because they were citizens of Japan, yet they had been treated as if they were Japan's enemies.

On the main island of Okinawa, the situation was much worse.  Entire villages had been ordered to commit suicide by the Japanese military so that they couldn't be taken prisoner by the Americans.  By the end of the war, 90% of the structures on the island were destroyed by U.S. bombing, and the surviving  inhabitants had become refugees. On Kume only 20% of structures had been destroyed by U.S. bombing.

 Some might say that because Kume had suffered less during the war, they should have been able to put the events of WWII behind them by 1999.   Yet there was a simmering resentment against Japan on all the Ryukyan islands  because the Japanese authorities have taken the attitude that Ryukyans are inferior.

This is a longstanding Japanese prejudice. For example, in this book we learn that in 1895 it was decided that English wouldn't continue to be taught in the schools of Okinawa prefecture because Ryukyan children were deemed not smart enough to learn it.  In Naha, the capital of Okinawa on the main island, there was a student strike demanding that English be restored to the curriculum.  One student leader of this strike, Iha Fuyu, later became a well-known scholar.  He came to the conclusion that Ryukyans were really Japanese because there were so many similarities between their languages. For more about Iha Fuyu see Wikipedia on Iha Fuyu 

Although I was mainly impressed by this study, when I reached the chapter on shamanism I'm afraid that I had a problem with Matthew Allen.  His social scientist's neutrality doesn't really extend to religion.  This book's treatment of  religion on Kume is rife with confirmation bias.  This means he looks for evidence that there is no legitimacy in their religion and he finds it.  When he also finds evidence that a shaman really isn't just hallucinating, he ignores it.  He definitely buys into the psychiatric model that shamans are schizophrenics that need to be treated. I noticed that there is a psychiatrist on Okinawa mentioned in this book who incorporates shamanism in his practice.  He calls it "culturally sensitive psychiatry".  His name is Takaishi Toshihiro.  There are three books by him listed on Allen's bibliography.  Unfortunately for me, none are translated into English. I think that any anthropologist should choose to be "culturally sensitive" about shamanism. 

Okinawan shamans call themselves kaminchus. Allen devotes a chapter to a psychiatric nurse with the pseudonym of Hobomura who tries to become a kaminchu.  The reason why she fails is because she can't control her visions.  Hobomura discovered that psychiatric drugs  gave her even less control over them, and made her worse.  I  think that psychic shielding techniques would have helped her enormously.  Allen isn't willing to admit that her visions are genuine.  I found the incident of a patient's ghost appearing to her saying that she bled to death very convincing.  She and the doctor went to check on the patient afterward, and she discovered that her vision had been sadly accurate.  Allen still calls it a hallucination even though Hobomura wasn't the only one who saw the ghost.  Given that there was a witness to the ghost's appearance, I find Allen's attitude rather close-minded.  A truly neutral opinion about shamanism is that science doesn't understand what is happening here.

There is a great deal of interesting material in this book, but Allen's prejudice about shamanism lowers its value in my estimation.



Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Henry Berry Lowry--A Lumbee Outlaw Who Became A Legend

When I first wrote about Henry Berry Lowry in my August  post, "An Afro-Native Robin Hood", I said that I was certain that I'd be writing about him again.  I can now post about To Die Game, a book about the Lowry Band by historian William McKee Evans.  If you've been reading this blog, you've probably noticed that for me history isn't about the winners.  I'm interested in minorities, sub-cultures on the margins of society and outlaws.


 How did Henry Berry Lowry and the men in his band become outlaws?   During the Civil War, the multi-racial Lumbee Indians of Robeson County, North Carolina were being kidnapped by Confederates into forced labor under terrible conditions that killed many of them.   So any able bodied Lumbee men hid in the swamp to avoid conscript labor.  This means that they couldn't plow their fields.  The Lumbee were starving.  The Lowry Band emerged out of desperation.  They began stealing food from plantations and distributing it to their people.  To Die Game is their story.

William McKee Evans is a very eloquent writer.  He points out that "men who control food are the taskmasters of those who do not, no matter what words to the contrary are intoned from the courthouse door."

So the story of  the Lowry Band is essentially about conflict between the haves and have nots in  late 19th century Southern society. In  the Ante-Bellum South the wealthy planters were usually Democrats.  This was the party of Thomas Jefferson who was also a wealthy planter.  Jefferson was for states' rights.  This was the ideological basis for the transformation of the Democrats into the party of succession in the Confederate South. When the Republican party was founded, many of its strongest supporters were abolitionists.  The Radical Republicans were advocates of the rights of African-Americans and the dispossessed. Yet in the aftermath of the Civil War these radicals ended up compromising or even discarding their principles.

Evans devotes a chapter to James Sinclair, who illustrates what happened to radicals during this period.  Evans tells us that James Sinclair, a Scotsman who spoke English with a Gaelic accent, began as an activist for better pay and conditions for African American workers.  He founded a newspaper called The Southern Freedman.  The newspaper didn't last because there weren't enough African Americans who could read and also had enough discretionary income to purchase a newspaper on a regular basis.   He was regarded as a rabblerouser, but rabblerousers need money to promote their causes.  Sinclair married into a wealthy Confederate family.  With their help and support, he got elected to the North Carolina House of Representatives. He managed this in a political climate where the Klan had become increasingly prominent.  Sinclair was sympathetic to the Lowry Band.  He knew that Henry Berry Lowry had been originally outlawed for killing a man who'd been helping the Confederate Home Guard hunt Lumbee Indians, but Sinclair became afraid that he would be lynched.  So he signed a petition for the suppression of the Lowry Band.The North Carolina legislature and Robeson County offered bounty money for their apprehension. The radical perspective had disappeared from politics. 

African American men in Robeson County were being beaten and killed by bounty hunters who claimed it was because they wouldn't reveal the location of Lowry Band members. Evans doesn't say this, but I think it very likely that many of these were Klan members who were using hunting the Lowry Band as an excuse to harass, maim and kill African Americans. 

The Lowry Band was so notorious at the time that on April 20, 1872 , the James Gang (Jesse James, Frank James. Bob Cole Younger and Jim Cummings) claimed that they were the Lowry Band of North Carolina when they robbed a bank in Columbia, Kentucky.  I was amused by the historical irony of this incident.  Of course nowadays Jesse James is well known, but few remember Henry Berry Lowry. 

Henry Berry Lowry survived as an outlaw because he was a very clever man.  In a 1967 interview his nephew D. F. Lowry revealed that his uncle once got hold of a uniform for the local militia and joined a hunt for himself. This sounds like one of the traditional Robin Hood stories. There are other stories in this book about Henry Berry Lowry's  brilliant marksmanship and mastery of tactics. 

After trying to gain a pardon in 1871, the Lowry Band stole $20,000 from a store for luxury goods. No one ever saw Henry Berry Lowry again.  It's generally believed that he used this money to start a new life for himself elsewhere.  His brother Steve Lowry was not so fortunate.  He was killed by bounty hunters while playing a banjo.

I think that what happened when the Klan held a rally in Robeson County in 1958 shows the power of Henry Berry Lowry's legacy.  Klan members in robes and hoods had come to terrorize the Lumbees, but a thousand Lumbees surrounded them and battled the Klan until they fled in defeat.  The Klan never again held a rally in Robeson County. For more information see Lumbees vs Klan .  This web page doesn't mention Henry Berry Lowry, but the Lumbees honor him.  Maybe that's why they, his people, weren't afraid of the Klan in 1958.




Sunday, September 16, 2012

Clara Breed: An Exemplary Librarian During World War II

I am returning to the subject of Japanese-American internment during WWII which I discussed in my March post "Revelations About Japanese Internment", a review of Eyes Behind Belligerence by K.P. Kollenborn, and in my April post "The No-No Boy and Anxiety of Representation" which was a review of The No-No Boy by John Okada.

The book is Dear Miss Breed by Joanne Oppenheim which celebrates a remarkable librarian who is unknown to the American public at large, but is considered a hero by many Japanese-American survivors of internment.

                                                 The 2012 Golden Mask Award for
                                                     Best Non-fiction I read this year

Clara Breed was a children's librarian in San Diego during WWII.  When her young Japanese-American patrons were interned at Santa Anita Racetrack in 1942, she did not turn her back on them. She wrote all her Japanese American patrons, and sent them books along with other items that they and their families needed.  A number of Japanese American artists sent Miss Breed art objects in thanks for the art supplies she sent them.  Author Joanne Oppenheim discovered Miss Breed when she was attempting to locate a Japanese- American schoolmate.  She read the story of this courageous librarian on the website of The National Japanese-American Museum at The Clara Breed Collection . This page is a finding aid for the digitized versions of letters that Clara Breed received from the interned children and young adults that she had served as a librarian.  Oppenheim hoped that a book about a librarian who assisted Japanese Americans during WWII would help to prevent the United States from ever interning American citizens again. 

According to historian Roger Daniels, the author of Prisoners Without Trial: Japanese Americans During World War II, the camps where Japanese Americans were relocated should not be called internment camps.  He argued that in a legal sense, internment only applies to enemy aliens.  Japanese Americans were born in the United States.  Internees were also supposed to get hearings.  Japanese Americans were never given trials.  Their rights as American citizens were completely ignored. Daniels believes that the proper term for the camps in which Japanese Americans were imprisoned is concentration camps.  As a person of Jewish ancestry, I associate "concentration camp" with the Jewish Holocaust.  Daniels said that this is also inaccurate.  The Nazis slaughtered Jews in death camps.   I consider this an important distinction.

A letter to Miss Breed from Fusa Tsumagari dated August 2, 1942 described the riot at Santa Anita. I was interested to learn that it was precipitated by a search led by an abusive guard who was Korean.  It occurs to me that this guard was probably taking out a resentment against Japan on Japanese-Americans.  I mentioned WWII Japanese atrocities against Koreans in my June post "Japanese Minorities: Not Enough Respect", but there is a much longer history of antagonism between Japan and Korea.  See the Wikipedia article about Japan's colonization of Korea, Korea Under Japanese Rule .  I consider this an explanation for this guard's behavior, not a justification.  Money was stolen from internees during the search.  They had a right to be angry about this theft.

After the riot, the San Diego Japanese Americans were transferred to Poston III, one of the camps in Poston, Arizona.  Tetsuzo Hirasaki  wrote to Miss Breed that the older internees were on a sort of vacation because they got to go fishing at Poston.  I saw a recent documentary called "The Manzanar Fishing Club" in which Japanese Americans interned at Manzanar described how they risked their lives to go fishing.  Find out more about this film at  The Manzanar Fishing Club Official Website . Apparently, conditions were different when the San Diegans first arrived at Poston.  The camp wasn't surrounded by barbed wire from August to November 1942 which facilitated fishing until a barbed wire fence was erected.   After they were fenced in, fishing would no longer have been a simple leisure activity.

Poston was scarcely idyllic.  It was a very dry climate, and the San Diegans were unaccustomed to the heat of Arizona.  There was also a polio epidemic.  Richard Watanabe, one of Miss Breed's correspondents, caught polio.  Oppenheim reports that he had a limp for the rest of his life.   He may also have suffered from post-polio syndrome.  See Post Polio Syndrome Fact Sheet for more information.

When the military age male Japanese Americans at Poston III were asked to swear loyalty to the United States and fight in WWII, not one of  Miss Breed's male correspondents who were of age to serve declined to do so.  I feel that Clara Breed's supportiveness  encouraged their belief in America, and that there would be a place for them in the U.S. after the war.  Even though they had been wronged by their country, Miss Breed gave them hope.  She wrote an article in support of Japanese Americans that was published in The Horn Book in July of 1943 called "Americans With The Wrong Ancestors" and sent copies to Poston III.  The Horn Book is a publication for librarians dealing with children's literature.  Clara Breed got many favorable reactions from librarians in response to that article.

This book deals with what happened to a number of Miss Breed's correspondents after the war.  I thought it noteworthy that Katherine Tasaki wanted to be a librarian.  Unfortunately, there were no scholarships available for her. So with Miss Breed's help she got a non-professional job at Chula Vista Library.  Later she and her husband Ben Sagawa formed the Japanese American Historical Society of San Diego.

In an afterword Snowden Becker, who scanned the letters of Miss Breed's correspondents for the National Japanese  American Museum while she was still in library school, wrote feelingly about Clara Breed as a role model.  I too was inspired by Miss Breed.  When I returned this book to the library, I went to the reference desk and told the librarian that Dear Miss Breed was one of the best books I'd ever read.



Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Panache and Pathos in World War II France

I am very selective about the fiction taking place in Europe during World War II that I read.  It is such a popular subject, but few writers deal with it in a manner that feels genuine.  Frederik Nath is one of those few.  So I am glad that I chose to review his novel, Farewell Bergerac, for The Bookplex.


 Farewell Bergerac is the second in UK neurosurgeon Frederik Nath’s World War II trilogy that began with The Cyclist.  Yet it stands on its own.  It’s not necessary to have read The Cyclist beforehand.  The book takes place in the Dordogne in France. As the narrative opens the protagonist, François Dufy, has submerged himself in grief and alcoholism due to the loss of both his wife and his only son.  When the war comes to France, it alters his life in ways that are wonderful and terrible. Readers will come to care about François, and the remarkable individuals with which he surrounds himself.  Due to the struggle of the French people against the German occupation, there is a strong thriller component to this book that involves a great deal of action and suspense.  The plot is well-paced with a generous dollop of bittersweet character interaction and a surprising soupçon of humor that appears when you least expect it.

Although François does occasionally exhibit sexist attitudes, I recognized that this was an accurate portrayal for a man of this period.  For him, an attitude of protectiveness toward a woman who can certainly defend herself is a measure of his affection for her.  It doesn’t indicate any lack of respect for the woman involved.

Nath is evidently a Francophile who loves French culture and literature.  Each chapter is prefaced by a quote from Paroles, an insightful book of poetry by Jacques Prévert.   Yet there is another literary association in the choice of Bergerac as a setting.   For me, it is inextricably connected with the play Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand. Like Cyrano, François often fought against impossible odds.  So I feel that “Bergerac” is a very apt metaphor that refers to Rostand’s famously heroic character.


If you want to know more about the author Frederik Nath  and his other books go to his website at

For further information about Jacques Prévert  and his work see the following websites:

Biographical article on Wikipedia
Homage Website with English and French Versions
His Page on Poem Hunter 
Links to Youtube Videos 

For more on the play  Cyrano de Bergerac and its filmed versions see these websites:

Cyrano de Bergerac on Wikipedia
 Complete text of the play on Project Gutenberg
The new Broadway production of Cyrano de Bergerac
IMDB Page on the Film Starring Gerard Depardieu
IMDB Page on the Film Starring Jose Ferrer


Monday, September 3, 2012

Cuba 1920 as a Confluence of Powers

The books I can find at a library book sale amaze me sometimes.  I picked up The Messenger by Mayra Montero from the sale cart because I needed a book that took place in Cuba for the Around The World challenge on Goodreads.  Then I saw the particulars and was blown away.  There's a legendary opera singer, a bomb, the Black Hand (an earlier incarnation of the Mafia) and a  part Chinese-Cuban woman who's a practitioner of Santeria/Lucumi. (For more on Lucumi see my previous post "A Novel About An Iyanifa in Texas".) She is also portrayed as the opera singer's mistress.  I couldn't wait to read a novel that combined these elements.

Although the description of this book makes it sound like a thriller, it doesn't really qualify as one. There is never any explanation for the role of the Black Hand in this novel.  I suspect that they didn't really interest the author.  Montero was far more interested in offering us an exploration of Cuban culture from the point of view of the very liminal Aida Chang who has one foot in the Afro-Cuban community and the other in the Chinese-Cuban community. 

Let's look at the historicity of this story line first.  The great opera star Enrico Caruso really did perform in Havana in  June of 1920. The opera was indeed  Aida.  A bomb did explode at the theatre, and Caruso did escape wearing his costume.  That much of Montero's plot is verified fact. (See Enrico Caruso in Cuba ) There is no evidence that the bombing was an attempt to assassinate Caruso or that the Black Hand was involved.  Aida Chang is a fictional character.  There is no evidence that Caruso had a mistress during his Cuban stay.

How did the Chinese-Cuban community described in this novel become established? Laborers were brought from China to work in the sugar plantations of Cuba. From the 1850's to the 1870's thousands of Chinese arrived in Cuba, but none were women.  Many Chinese had children with Afro-Cuban women like Aida's mother. (See Chinese in Cuba )

There is a Chinese-Cuban character in this novel named Yuan Pei Fu who is a well-respected figure in both the Chinese community and the Afro-Cuban community.  He is familiar with herbs and has spiritual gifts of his own. 

There are also readings described in The Messenger that are done for Aida by a character who is a Babalawo.  This is what a male diviner/priest is called in all the religions that derive from the original spiritual practices of the Yoruba in Nigeria which includes the Lucumi of Cuba. (See Babalawo on Wikipedia )

The spirits who are worshipped in Yoruba derived religions are called the Orishas (or the Orixas in Brazil). The Babalowos do readings in order to learn the will of the Orishas.(See The Orishas on Wikipedia )

I learned of the existence of a female Orisha known as Yewa from this novel.  According to my sources, Yewa  is a daughter of Olofi.  (Olofi contains the powers of all the Orisha and is an aspect of the Yoruban High God,  Olodumare. )  Yewa was a virgin who tended Olofi's garden until she was raped by Chango.  Chango, Shango or Xango is the Orisha of kingship. As a result of this trauma, Yewa never wanted to see a man again.  Olofi sent her to the cemetery to become one of the Orisha who deal with the dead. To find out more about Yewa see Page About Yewa .   Yewa could offer comfort to rape survivors. This makes her an important Orisha for women.  I'd like to thank Mayra Montero for leading me to make her acquaintance.





Sunday, September 2, 2012

A Novel About a Nigerian Priestess in Texas

Sometimes I need to make a separation between the concept of a novel and its implementation.  The concept of  The Path of Lord Jaguar had a really high wow quotient.  I wish it had met my expectations.  The review I wrote for The Bookplex is below.


I wanted to love this book because the concept of an alliance between a Nigerian Ifa priestess and a Mayan holy man sounded so amazing.  Immigration attorney Margaret Donnelly, who wrote this novel, obviously did a ton of research.  It definitely showed, and that was part of the trouble with the book.  I feel that in fiction, the research should be doled out gradually on a need to know basis.  It should also be integrated into the narrative.  It seemed to me that the first half of The Path of Lord Jaguar was mainly an information dump consisting of cultural/historical research and character background.  The plot didn’t really get started until the second half.  The information content in the first half was certainly interesting to me, but it lacked the dramatic impact that I associate with fiction.  For example, when I read about a potentially intense incident in the life of an ancestor of one of the characters, I wished that it had been shown as it was experienced rather than told in summary.  Flashbacks can be utilized to re-create events from the past.  They could have been introduced as ancestor visions of Kemi, the Ifa priestess.  Such dramatization would have made the first half of the novel far more immediate and compelling.

A related problem was the attempt to relay information to readers in dialogue when the characters wouldn’t really have needed to have such a conversation.  For example, Pablo, the Mayan holy man, needs an opportunity to explain his sacred view of the landscape. So the author has Kemi make the following remark:  “But there is no mountain, no temple, no pyramid.  This is mostly prairie.”  I believe that as a priestess, Kemi would have known what Pablo meant without his having to clarify his beliefs.  She wouldn’t have been so literal.  This made Kemi appear unrealistically ignorant.  

I didn’t find the character of Pablo very convincing.  I’m not talking about his spiritual practice. That seemed authentic.  No, I mean the portrayal of Pablo as an individual. He seemed to make pronouncements rather than speak in a conversational tone.  I could understand him and his motivations on an intellectual level, but I couldn’t relate to him emotionally.  His brother Arturo, who never appears in the book, felt more like a real person to me than Pablo did.

It’s also important to note that there was what appeared to be a serious character inconsistency involving the employer of both Kemi and Pablo. Some readers might disagree, but I saw a fundamental flaw in his motivations that undermined the credibility of the story line. 

Despite all these criticisms, I have to say that I adored Kemi.  She overcame tremendous adversity and prejudice to become an inspiration to me. David Levin, Kemi’s immigration lawyer, was another stirring character.  Donnelly probably drew from her own experience as a lawyer to create him.  She must be a very caring advocate for her clients.  

                                                                       ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ 

                       Spotlight on the Iyanifa Controversy

In The Path of Lord Jaguar , the Nigerian priestess who is the central character, does Ifa divination.  A woman who does divination in the religion of Ifa is called an Iyalawo or an Iyanifa. She says that she was trained to perform traditional Ifa divination in Nigeria since she was a child.  This turned out to be a very controversial statement in the context of the novel.  It's also quite controversial in real life.  Why does this controversy exist?  The answers lie in history.

When Yoruba people from Nigeria were kidnapped into slavery, they brought their religion with them to the islands of the Caribbean and Latin America.  This religion evolved in the Americas.  There are some commonalities between the Ifa religion of Nigeria and the African diasporic religions that were developed by the descendants of Yoruban slaves, but there are also some radical differences between them.   In my May post "The Wide Embrace of Marta Morena Vega", I reviewed The Altar of My Soul, a book by a Santeria priestess who has been building bridges between these traditions.  Yet some African diasporic practitioners have irreconcilable differences with Nigerian Ifa.

The Wikipedia article on Ifa has become a flashpoint of this controversy.  Periodically, the perspectives of African practitioners that are inclusive toward women are deleted to make the article conform to the beliefs of Lucumi which is the Yoruban African diasporic religion of Cuba, and of communities in the United States with Cuban background or training.  The deletions are discussed in the Talk Section of the Ifa Article 
 Certainly, the Lucumi practitioners have a right to their beliefs and training methods, but African practitioners should also have the same freedom of expression.  In order to be a trustworthy resource, a page on Wikipedia should deal with all perspectives on the topic. 

Women in Ifa   is an article dealing with Iyanifa training and practice in Nigeria


Saturday, September 1, 2012

Transformation Through Travel

I don't always blog about human cruelty though at times it might seem so.  Today I am blogging about a hopeful human activity as described in a book that I received for review from The Bookplex.

                                               Travelers: The Meaningful Journey

Judging from his book, Régent Jean Cabana, the French Canadian author of Travelers: The Meaningful Journey is a scholar, a philosopher and a bon vivant.  He calls himself a Traveler.  By this he means those who travel on a long-term basis as a lifestyle.  Although he conducted a formal study of Travelers which included in-depth interviews and focus groups, this book isn’t dry and academic.  Cabana also writes about his own life and outlook with a changing perspective that is by turns suave, convivial and wise.  He can be a dependable guide, yet he can also be unpredictable.

Cabana defines Travelers as radically different from tourists who rely on guidebooks to shape their travel experience rather than taking chances, and watching for opportunities to contact the local people in order to learn from them directly about their culture.  

Some of his concepts can be difficult to pin down.  I finally concluded that “finding your rhythm” is most akin to the Navajo belief in hozho which is called “walking in beauty” in English.  Cabana likes using the word “passage” for travel.  I would associate this word with “rite of passage” which is an experience that is intended to be transformative.  Transformation is Cabana’s central goal, and he believes that it’s the goal of other Travelers that he has encountered.

He also talks about “hitting bottom” which I connect with the process of overcoming addiction.  In the context of this book, “hitting bottom” means a time of reflection and self-examination.  I read in this book that some Travelers imagine that they will find people in Third World cultures who are purely traditionalist and uninfluenced by Western aspirations.  It seems to me that they are seeking iconic representations from the pages of National Geographic rather than the real individuals who actually live there.  When these Travelers “hit bottom”, they should consider re-examining how they view people in the countries through which they are journeying.

Cabana himself respects diversity.  He says that “tolerance” is one of his favorite words. “Liminality” is one of my favorite words.   It is the state of being an outsider.  I think that Travelers are supremely liminal.  They leave their cultures of origin because they don’t feel at home there, yet they can never permanently connect with any other culture because they are continually moving on.  Some readers who value a sense of belonging may find this very sad, but I have always appreciated the unique viewpoint of those who live on the margins of our societies. 

This book contains some observations about theology.  I would characterize Cabana’s approach as pantheist.  He believes that the divine is everywhere and that we are all one while still being distinct individuals. 

If Travelers: The Meaningful Journey can be said to have a flaw, I think it’s a failure to give enough credit to those of us who stay at home.  As a rather cautious individual with very limited financial resources, I content myself with armchair travel through books.  A book too can be a journey.  Like the Fool of the Tarot, a reader steps out blithely into the world of a book without knowing whether the consequence of this experience will be a metaphorical fall from a precipice. I would also like to point out that if you live in a major city or its environs, you can encounter people from other cultures and learn from them.  You needn’t travel to another continent to discover cultural diversity and be changed by it.  Travel is not the only means of transformation.


A Digestif of Chateaubriand

Cabana discusses the phenomenon of "reverse cultural shock" which means that you no longer feel part of your own culture when you return home from extended travel.  As an example, he quotes the author François-René de Chateaubriand (1768-1848) as having said that he felt more alone in France than he had been away from France. 

The work by Chateaubriand that Cabana is quoting from is  René .  According to the Wikipedia Article on Chateaubriand's Novella , it is about a fictional young man who settles among the Natchez of Louisiana as Chateaubriand himself did for a while. René  can be found in a combined edition with Atala translated into English according to Worldcat.  It was originally part of a much longer work called Les Natchez  which is available for download in French at The Internet Archive.