Thursday, August 21, 2008

Three Cultures I Met by Studying Linguistics

I can't speak any languages besides English. I can muddle through a very rough translation of anything written in a Romance language: Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, Catalan, etc. I can stumble through a verbal conversation in Spanish as long as I can flip through a dictionary frequently for vocabulary and as long as I can speak present tense. With longer pauses and more consultation of the books, I might be able to speak a little in past tense. In written form, many words in Germanic language --of which English is one-- jump out at me, mostly because of their resemblance to English. Yet, I remain, really, embarrassingly monolingual.

I loved linguistics when I discovered it while in pursuit of my English literary studies degree. I jumped into it with both feet and earned a minor in it by taking Language Analysis, History of the English Language, Sociolinguistics, World Englishes, and Language and Culture (an anthropology course). Unlike my schoolmate Jeremy, I was spooked away from seeking a higher degree in linguistics, by the language requirement. If I had been in my 20s and pre-MS, it would have been a different story. But one's capacity for learning new languages physically diminishes with age. And I can only guess what brain damage does to it. So even though I was fascinated, I did not go the Linguistics direction.

Unlike my other schoolmate Renee, who is unafraid even of non-Indo-European languages and has learned Japanese, Arabic and Finnish just in the time I've known her. Unlike the intrepid Angela who flew away to Mexico for a summer. In fact, as I progress in academia, more and more the people I know are fluently bilingual if not more. Especially the PhDs.

But this fascination with languages persists, even as I freely admit that English is the only one I will ever be able to speak. And because I am a mom, undereducated and mostly broke, I have also not had the opportunity to travel (though my heart longs to). So I am grateful for my language study because through it I have encountered cultures that have caught my interest, not because they are literary and classical but because they are reviled, oppressed, and barred from social justice, right now today, in this bright beautiful world of ours.

First, in World Englishes, while reading God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, I discovered the Dalit (the Untouchables), a whole group of people in India who are reviled by birth, born to the lowest caste, barred from jobs, opportunity and justice. Roy is a huge social justice activist who wasn't intending to be an author of fiction, but she saw a story that needed to be told. It is her only novel. The Dalit have very dark skin. In India, skin whitener is a common cosmetic and mothers-in-law will freely brag that their son is marrying a light-skinned girl. The lighter the skin, the higher the privilege. In God of Small Things, a kind Dalit man is accused of a crime and has no redress. Also, a light-skinned woman falls in love with him and of course their love doesn't stand a chance in hell. Throughout history they have held the lowest jobs, hauling away shit and dead bodies, tanning leather, working as scullery maids. Here is the kind of neighborhood the Dalit live in.today. Note the bright-eyed curious child in the lower left corner.


Second, while doing my linguistics practicum, which was a major research project, I discovered the Aboriginal people of Australia. Yes, of course I already knew of them, already loved didgeridoos and the concept of dreamtime, had seen Yothu Yindi, seen Rabbit Proof Fence and read David Malouf's Remembering Babylon. But in doing my research, I discovered that the Aboriginal people are reviled and oppressed in Australia today, filling the jails, dying young, etc. My thesis was that they get accused of crimes and denied justice because the legal system thinks they are fluent in English when they aren't, something I had learned first from an article in Sociolinguistics. Every social ill in Australia is magnified for the Aboriginal people. That project was so hard to finish, because I learned so much that I had no idea what to do with it all. Jeremy had to come over, lend support, hand me tissues, and help me rein in my data. I was ready to fly to Australia and teach English.


Finally, I discovered through linguistics the Romani people, whose language is linked to Sanskrit, who are currently being actively oppressed all over Europe. More than a thousand years ago they came from India, spread throughout Europe, traveling in small bands and living without land. Yet against all odds they retain a culture, a language, even a flag. They maintain happiness and hope, which amazes me.

Yet it is high on the list of topics in Europe now, the "Roma Problem." These folks take it as part of life that there will be "No Gypsies" signs in restaurants and shops, that they could get arrested at any moment and no one would even care. When Hitler did his despicable things and 6 million Jews died, half a million Roma died as well. Their word for the Holocaust is porajmos, the devouring.

Here's what I really, really want to know. Why don't we ever EVER hear about any of these three cultures in American media? Who doesn't their oppression reach our news? Who decides what news we will receive here in the USA?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

I Must Be Fertile Ground

Parable of the Sower is still haunting my dreams. I'm about halfway through the book, and the little walled cul-de-sac has been raided and destroyed by desperate, starving, drugged-out invaders. Our hero is on the road now with the go-bag she had packed for herself. The road is a horrible place, like a scene of miserable, plodding refugees meets a scene from Dawn of the Dead.

I think what makes this story so powerfully disturbing is that it takes place on the most familiar ground, 21st century California. The refugees are heading north from a suburb of LA to Oregon or Washington, if they can get past the heavily guarded border. Places where water is plentiful, like right here where I am while I write this. Fleeing refugees is not a rarity in this world at all. When I Googled in search of the above image, I had hundreds to choose from. Try it: Google "refugee." We Americans are so unbelievably insulated and caught up in our otherness philosophy. We think, we firmly believe, such things could never, ever happen here in the magical land of America. Things like that only happen to Other people. Even after Hurrican Katrina, there was a sense of otherness to the refugees, they were poor, black, they didn't behave well in their shelters. Making them easier to dismiss.

Here's a scene from Dawn of the Dead. In Parable of the Sower, there are wacked out people on drugs that would kill you if you have a bottle of water or even a pair of shoes they want. These people in this illustration kind of remind me of some Eureka residents. No kidding. I can't help but wonder if our apocalyptic fear might lie at the heart of the contemporary fascination with zombies.

I predict that Parable of the Sower and its sequel Parable of the Talents will be blended and made into a movie for our thrills and entertainment in the near future. Another dreary apoclyptic book has recently been made into a movie, Cormac McCarthy's The Road. The film is set to release in November, but the Parable stories have more hope. As I have mentioned before, hope is everything.

Anyway, in my dream I was on the road and scoping out a grim little brick house for possible shelter. It didn't have many windows and that seemed like a good point. Wandering through it, I scavenged odds and ends I thought might be useful, stuffing into my pocket some not-very-convincing counterfeit bills I found wadded up on the floor. As we were leaving, an armed neighbor came out of his house to investigate. My friend and I quickly pulled ome giant sunflowers down over us and hid behind them, holding very still until the neighbor walked across the patio and into the house. Then we ran around the outside of his house into the adjacent woods. There was a hole that went down into the shrubs and underbrush, obviously where people escape. We had no choice but to go into it, in spite of our terror of what might be down there in the darkness.

Like this but darker.

Anyway, the dreams I wish I had:

Before I sign off and get started on my day, I want to find out what the Parable of the Sower is. Biblical imagery is rampant through this novel. If I was teaching it I would be having to lead discussion on who is Job (a guy whose faith God and Satan tested in a game using horrible tragedies), what is "to sow" (to plant seeds), and what's a parable, etc. Parables were like fables that Jesus was fond of telling, stories with morals. This one goes:

Behold, there went out a sower to sow: And it came to pass, as he sowed, some fell by the way side, and the fowls of the air came and devoured it up. And some fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth: But when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up, and choked it, and it yielded no fruit. And other fell on good ground, and did yield fruit that sprang up and increased; and brought forth, some thirty, and some sixty, and some a hundred. And he said unto them, He that has ears to hear, let him hear (KSV Bible, Mark 4:1-20).

Meaning: we shouldn't waste our creative efforts on things that will waste them, but if we work hard on "fertile ground," things that matter and are possible and ready, our efforts will create bounty.

OK food for thought.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Conspiracy Theories

I am reading Parable of the Sowerby Octavia Butler, and it's giving me nightmares. It's Book of the Year at HSU and College of the Redwoods, so we are all expected to know it. It's a dystopian novel (dystopiaas the opposite of utopia) of the near future when the world has become the unbearable place it could so easily become. Novels like this, like Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, scare me to death because they are so very possible, perhaps even probable. This book makes me want to move to Montana with Fred and start stockpiling grain and guns. I'm not even joking.


In the nightmare, someone came to the front door and even though I saw through the peephole that I didn't know them (two women), I opened the door anyway to send them away. As I did I heard a noise in the house behind me, realizing the front door was just a distraction for someone who had just broken into the back door. They were going to kidnap me. I ran out the front door yelling hoarsely "Help!" but the neighbors ignored me and I knew the cops wouldn't care.

Anyway, I am reminded of when my nephew was a baby and my sister was dabbling in the Charismatic Movement, a sect of Christianity similar to Pentacostal. Anyway, we used to listen to taped sermons sometimes, and there was one particularly chilling one I will never forget; it has haunted me ever since because all its bizarre prophesies have since come true.

It was about the biblical chapter Revelations that predicts the end of the world. The taped sermon predicted the coming of a "One World Government" where all the money was controlled. People had to get the Mark of the Beast in order to have access to their own money and thus to food and supplies. First people would pass through check out lines running their cards through, and soon their "cards" would be implanted directly in their hands. Christians should avoid this because the Rapture was not far behind, and those with the Mark could not get into heaven.

At the time (1976!!!) this sounded so outlandish, like a sci-fi-Big Brother conspiracy theory. But soon there were ATM cards you could use in the check out lines at the grocery store. Then they started implanting microchips in dogs. Now Verichip Corporation is implanting microchips in people, marketing it as a way to keep your baby safe from kidnappers, or to keep babies from getting mixed up at the hospital or for diabetics to monitor their blood sugar without pesky fingerpricks. Now people are using them as VIP markers to get into exclusive nightclubs. And there is a New World Order and the European Union and economic globalization. I can't help but look around for the anti-Christ.

Of course people have been predicting apocalypse for literally ever. See A Brief History of the Apocalypse. But just because none of those ever came true does not mean that an extinction event is not possible. The very geological processes that formed the great fossil-studded flatlands of Texas were an extinction event that wiped out more than 90 percent of the species on Earth (96% of marine and 70% of land species).

It was this Permian-Triassic Extinction Event that created all that oil (fossil fuel) in Texas, all the oil everywhere that we fight over and pay $5 a gallon for while still driving huge guzzlers around as if it makes us look bad-ass, as if it makes us look anything less than carrogant idiots. Wouldn't it be apropos if we engineered our own extinction event based on our lust for those very fossil fuels?

Ok, well there's my conspiracy theory for the day! And here is how I feel right now:

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Writing for Self-Discovery




Not that it matters anymore, at least for another year, but I am thinking much more seriously about a paper my colleagues assign: the autoethnography. I need to familiarize myself with it because it may be one of the best assignment for a freshman to attempt, for any writer getting to know oneself to attempt.

Like many writing assignments in English 100, the autoethnography comes from the field of anthropology. Anth is a natural match for developing writers because writing about oneself comes more naturally than writing in the abstract. So anthropology, which allows a writer to examine what it means to be human, works a bit like a bridge. For example, in Marianne's class we started the semester with a consumer artifact analysis. (Artifact analysis also comes from anthropology.) In writing this paper, our students usually started with something interesting about themselves, began looking at its meaning in society, segued naturally into analyzing society and viola, they were writing/thinking in the abstract, even as they were coming to know themselves better and moving toward more conscious living. It was an incredible process to witness, assist with and engage in.

I want to intern in a class where the autoethnography is taught so I can learn more about how to teach it. I think it has incredible potential. I realize it is what I was doing last night:

When I was writing about Roma yesterday in this blog, I mentioned Bohemian lifestyle and put a link in to a Wikipedia article on Bohemianism. As I did so, I realized I wasn't entirely clear on the concept, why was it called Bohemian, where is Bohemia? As I read, I realized Bohemian is the group I do belong to. I have been a misfit all my life; even in the alternate lifestyles I have chosen, I don't actually fit in. I lived a sort-of Deadhead lifestyle for many years, but I didn't really fit into that, not being as gungho on the music and the band as the others. Nor was I really ever a hippie entirely. Turns out it was the Bohemian aspects of the lifestyle I was attracted to, and the dissonances I felt led me away from it eventually. Likewise Humboldt County: I am attracted to the Bohemian aspects but at the same time I am turned off by its obsession with marijuana, which I don't share at all. When I was reading about Bohemianism last night, I realize that is the subculture I belong to, but sadly at age 45 I have never really managed to find my people. I have felt like an alien my whole life, to my detriment and to that of my family.

Maybe some of my students will have felt like aliens too, and an exercise like this can help them find self-knowledge early enough in life to do them some good.

That treasure-hunt aspect is what I love about research, what I love about being a scholar and a writer. One thing leads to another. Suddenly, there is a whole avenue of thought and literature open to me, Andre Gide, La Boheme, things I was only dimly aware of before but not actively interested in. Too bad the summer is nearly over. I think I will go to the bookstore today.


Sources about autoethnography.

Relating with Romani



Every Halloween when I was a kid, I was a "Gypsy." Only on Halloween would my mom let me wear one of the beautiful, coveted square-dancing skirts that had belonged to her mother. These skirts were tucked away in our fragrant cedar chest, made of crinkled cloth, tiny-waisted, full-circled and tiered with sparkly rick-rack. I wrapped a scarf around my head and wore all my mother's necklaces at once and I was off trick-or-treating.

If we hadn't begun moving from place to place following my father's advancement at work when I was 11, perhaps I would have turned out to be a homebody. Instead, those many moves throughout my childhood gave me a wanderlust that I still cannot quite manage to control. I have lived in 32 houses. For nearly four years I didn't live anywhere at all.

In 1986, I bought an old VW bus for $300. My father helped me remove the seats and gave me a foam pad for sleeping. My mother sewed curtains for it out of colorful paisley fabric. I draped it with scarves and pretty tapestries, hung bells strategically. With its distinctive decor and its rounded edges, it reminded me of a gypsy wagon. Once when I was cleaning it out, my friend Dan commented, "Oh I get it: it's a big purse!" Indeed, once I settled into a house again later, I found it very inconvenient to get used to not having everything I owned with me at all times.

I hung out with people on the fringes of society: homeless people, deadheads, hippies, winos, street musicians, nomads. It wasn't always good, sometimes it was awful. I worked sometimes and my money went a long way because my lifestyle was very inexpensive. I cut cabbage at the saurkraut factory, I tended bar, I waited tables, I made handicrafts, I played guitar and sang by an open guitar case. It was in those years that my creativity blossomed, that I wrote stories, songs, and poetry. I learned to play guitar, to sing in harmony, to make things with my hands. I thought if I had a daughter, I would give her the middle name Tzigana (gypsy).

This evening I looked at my friend Renee's photos from her trip to Finland and saw images of Finland's Roma population. After Renee left, I went online and read about the Romani people, their language, their history. Where they came from, how they are treated, where they are concentrated. I feel a certain kinship with them because of the lifestyle I have lived before, and because of my only semi-successful attempts to assimilate into the mainstream. But when it matters, like when my child is beaten by the local police, I am reminded that I have no redress, that I belong on the fringe, that I can't fool myself into thinking I have assimilated. The school administrator and the cop who beat my child recognizes us as fringe dweller, powerless, people who will never fit in.

There is a reason I don't fit it and a reason my children don't fit in either. We are indeed different; we don't approve of mainstream living, we see a problem with it, but because of a lack of a culture of our own, fail to bring a better idea to the table. I envy the Romani people that they at least have strong customs, kinship, and history. In another time and place we would be Bohemian, we would live in artist colonies or be expatriates in pre-war Paris.

For the sake of my children I have sought stability, but it has been a lie and a failure. I am not stable and I have not in any way provided stability for them. And kids crave stability, need it for solid ground so they can grow. I knew that so I tried. However, by pretending to assimilate, I failed to provide them with an alternative to feed their spirit when they are disillusioned with the mainstream. This is what has led us to the present pass.