Peru: Ear to the Ground

Life has taken an unexpected but quite welcome turn for me. I’ll be spending the next three to six months in Peru teaching adults English for the purpose of expanding their job opportunities while I learn Spanish for much the same reason: ideally so that I can work with immigrants upon my return!  The school is El Arte Sano and I will be living in Urubamba, which is in the Sacred Valley below Machu Picchu and an hour outside of Cuzco, a major Peruvian city. Central and South America have long fascinated me due to the intersecting issues of human rights and economics. Both have had an impact on the regions quite deeply. I am SO EXCITED!!!

During the past few weeks I’ve been reading whatever I can about Peru and have teased out at least a couple of topics I’d like to keep an eye on while there:

  • A friend was kind enough to point me to a law Peru’s president signed regarding indigenous rights and natural resources: Indigenous people must be consulted before natural resource deals proceed on their land. I’ll definitely be following developments about this.
  • While the US has initiated Coca eradication programs it has not stemmed the flow of Cocaine. On the other hand, it has disrupted Peruvian indigenous life in which Coca leaves play an integral part in the culture.
  • Language and colonization: The indigenous language of Peru is Quechua (Keh-choo-uh) and for some it remains their first and only language. I was dismayed to read that Spanish has been used as a method of control in much the same way that illiteracy has been used to keep people from voting in the United States.
  • The influx of tourism is resulting in the degradation of native arts and crafts. The global demand for cheap goods results in the use of lesser quality materials for things such as textiles so that local artisans can compete.

Last but not least: Martin Chambi, a Peruvian photographer in the 1920s, was quite taken with Machu Picchu and took over a thousand photographs of the ruins. Quite a feat in itself, it’s important to remember that photographic equipment was heavy, large and fragile in those times and there wasn’t the regular bus service or roads to Machu Picchu that there are today!!

Martin Chambi: Cuzco's Plaza de Arms

Martin Chambi: Cuzco's Plaza de Arms (The main square)

He gained quite the notoriety with the Cuzco elite and began to receive funding and commissions. One of these Cuzquenas was a socialite who required that he bring she and her thirty or so friends along, complete with a group of musicians:

Chambi amused himself with the bright young things of Cuzco, many of whom had never been in the mountains before, by killing snakes with his machete for dramatic effect. A photo survives of the party when they finally arrived at the ruins: the musicians play in the background as couples tea-dance in the overgrown and deserted buildings. It is an intensely romantic and unreal image. But this is perhaps the most distinguishing feature of a photographer whose work tried to document the light shining through the mundaneness of Peruvian daily life.

Story and quote from The White Rock: An Exploration of the Inca Heartland by Hugh Thomson. I wish I could find the picture he speaks of!!

Martin Chambi: Cuzco

Martin Chambi: Cuzco

Policeman with boy; Cuzco, 1923.

Martin Chambi: Policeman with boy; Cuzco, 1923.

Self-portrait near native village of Coaza Carabaya, Puno, ca 1930.

Martin Chambi: Self-portrait near native village of Coaza Carabaya, Puno, ca 1930.

Who said that all is lost? I come to offer my heart.

Yo Vengo a Ofrecer mi Corazon, one of my favorite songs, is featured in Naomi Klein’s documentary The Take and sung by Lhasa de Sela. Unfortunately a recording by de Sela has never been officially released. The most popular version is sung by Mercedes Sosa, a popular Latin American folk singer and (from my understanding) an important resistance figure. I was excited when I finally found an English translation and saw that the words are just as touching as the vocals. The song was written by Fito Paez in an expression of solidarity for victims of violent oppression.

Yo Vengo a Ofrecer Mi Corazon

Quién dijo que todo está perdido
Yo vengo a ofrecer mi corazón
Tanta sangre que se llevo el río
Yo vengo a ofrecer mi corazón

No será tan fácil ya sé qué pasa
No será tan simple como pensaba
Como abrir el pecho, y sacar el alma
Una cuchillada de amor

Luna de los pobres siempre abierta
Yo vengo a ofrecer mi corazón
Como un documento inalterable
Yo vengo a ofrecer mi corazón

Y uniré las puntas de un mismo lazo
Y me iré tranquilo, me iré despacio
Y te daré todo, y me darás algo
Algo que me alivie un poco más

Cuando no haya nadie cerca o lejos
Yo vengo a ofrecer mi corazón
Cuando los satélites no alcancen
Yo vengo a ofrecer mi corazón

Y hablo de países y de esperanzas
Y hablo por la vida, hablo por la nada
Y hablo de cambiar esta nuestra casa
De cambiarla por cambiar nomás

Quién dijo que todo está perdido
Yo vengo a ofrecer mi corazón
Yo vengo a ofrecer mi corazón
Yo vengo a ofrecer mi corazón
Yo vengo a ofrecer mi corazón

I Come To Offer my heart

Who said that all is lost
I come to offer my heart
So much blood that the river took
I come to offer my heart

It wont be easy, I know that
It wont be that simple as I thought
Like opening the chest, and taking out the soul
one stab of love

Moon of the poor always open
I come to offer my heart
Like an unchanging document
I come to offer my heart

I will join the ends of a lasso
And I’ll go quiet, I’ll go slowly
And give you everything and you’ll give me something
Something that will help me a little

When there is no one else near or far
I come to offer my heart
When the satellites do not reach
I come to offer my heart

I speaking of countries and hopes
And I speak for life, as I speak for nothing
And talk about change in our home
to change for changing sake

Who said that all is lost
I come to offer my heart
I come to offer my heart
I come to offer my heart
I come to offer my heart

Melancholy Monday

At the Ruins of St. Paul's

A woman sits at the base of the ruins of St. Paul's in Macau

(I know it’s not Monday, but we’re going to pretend it is. This was supposed to be for Monday!) I have a thing for melancholy. Done right, it’s delicious. Books*, music, whatever… it’s a tangible thing to savor. My love for the way that good melancholy can make one’s heart ache, while at the same time making everything feel beautiful reminds me of the Indian concept of rasa. Thinking back to an undergraduate Indian dance course I took in which we studied the topic extensively, it is a characteristic that the performer seeks to infuse their act with. With the combination of the artisan’s expertise and the appreciation and knowledge of the form that the audience brings to the performance, the audience can “taste” the emotions that the dancer is seeking to bring forth.

Having had a melancholy playlist a long time ago, I decided to put it back together… then I wanted to share it with a friend… and then I figured, hell, I’ll put it here. In addition, I’ve been grousing about not having made a music mix for anyone in awhile, the kind with long handwritten notes about what the songs mean to you with the intent to make some sort of connection over sharing art. So this is my mix tape. My mix tape to the internets!!! Some of these may defy what one thinks of as melancholy, but a lot of them are chosen just as much for tone, if not more-so. “40″ is first of course, as it’s always the song I go to first when I want melancholy.

*A mere two books make my “melancholy cut” so far:
Peel my Love Like an Onion – Ana Castillo
My Dream of You – Nuala O’Faolain

Book Review: A Strange Piece of Paradise by Terri Jentz

Tai O Fishing Village

Tai O Fishing Village - Lantau Island, Hong Kong. My own strange piece of paradise.

(I did my best to try NOT to use passive voice here regarding the attack on Jentz and her friend, but my brain is too tired to do the verbal mathematics at the moment.)

I picked up A Strange Piece of Paradise not for the details of the axe attack that Terri Jentz experienced during her biking tour across the United States, but rather because I was interested in the symptoms that resulted from the experience and her process of healing. While one is not privy to the gritty details of PTSD or the various revelations she may have had about her psychological state during her investigative process, she makes it clear that her research of the details surrounding the attack played a big part in this process. While this was a truly interesting, gripping book I felt somewhat disappointed by the end that so little of this aspect was featured. Despite that, it’s stayed with me for the past few weeks and I keep coming back to a few points that I’ll touch on in a subsequent post.

At first, A Strange Piece of Paradise is very much along the lines of a true crime book, consisting of the background of Jentz and her biking companion and the memories Jentz has of the attack. As the book progresses and she gets further into her investigation, it becomes a much broader rumination on the impact of the crime on the surrounding community. The warmth and concern of the people who remember the attack is often tangible when she recounts her meetings with them.

Jentz also explores the psychology of violence against women on both the micro and macro level, as her main suspect is a repeat offender: how violent relationships are sustained and the attitude of communities that continually give well-known abusers a pass, from neighbors to the law enforcement and court systems. As she interviews each of the women who had been involved with her suspect, struck by the idea that these were not the “type” to put up with such abuse, she puts together a rough portrait of how such a person breaks down and isolates their victims in an increasingly vicious cycle.

One of the most salient critiques I read about the book is that it can get repetitive. At the same time, I found that the way she constantly comes up with the same details from different people can be quite fascinating in terms of how stories change and what impacts each person’s memory. Again and again the attack is remembered “as if yesterday”, allowing for a large number of people to talk with. In addition, it was a useful lens through which to view people – for instance, the man she interviewed who made her attack all about him and how his failure to be the hero “ruined” his life (And yet, his memory of the attack is grossly inaccurate and leads one to question if he was even there at the time it happened.). I also never got tired reading how each new individual she interviewed wanted to bond with her over this event that impacted her and the community so deeply.

To some extent there are more radical strains lurking under the surface here, and every time she touched on them I just wanted to nuuudge her a bit so that she would further develop and explore these thoughts. While she makes the connection between society’s entrenched misogyny and violence against women quite clear, she only touches on such things as community versus state sanctioned justice and the cult of individuality in America and its adverse impact on the cultivation of community.

By the end of the book the music of Twin Peaks was playing in the back of my head, foreboding shots of pine and fog looming. Jentz successfully ties the dark, moody landscape to wanton violence against women as her personal investigation increasingly turns up stories of murdered women having been dumped in the surrounding pine forests. I found myself feeling increasingly disturbed and unsettled (though one is anyway by the main subject of the book) despite the warm, welcoming community of people she encountered as she investigated her own near murder.

Overall a good book. I found myself liking Jentz more and more as I got to “know” her through her connection with people over her brutal experience, particularly the way she bonds with other women later on in the book. When I put it down I didn’t expect it to linger as it has, and a number of questions and thoughts have come up in the past few weeks that I’ve been exploring.

Against Love: A Polemic by Laura Kipnis

Caged Songbird

Caged Songbird in Yuen Po Street Bird Garden


Against Love: A Polemic

Against Love: A Polemic by Laura Kipnis

And why has modern love developed in such a way as to maximize submission and minimize freedom, with so little argument about it? No doubt a citizenry schooled in renouncing desires – and whatever quantities of imagination and independence they come partnered with – would be, in many respects, advantageous: note that the conditions of lovability are remarkably convergent with those of a cowed workforce and a docile electorate. – Laura Kipnis

About a year ago I decided that perhaps I should educate myself about this ephemeral concept of romantic love. Not so difficult, as one of my favorite authors, bell hooks, writes extensively on the subject. But of course there was that one book that seemed so absurd I had to go for it. Against Love: A Polemic. Really, could Kipnis pull it off?? And if she managed to convince me of the idea that adulterers are in fact “freedom fighters” (as one review put it) what would that say about me? Well, fast forward a year – my little side project was interrupted by life (no, I wasn’t dedicated enough to lug these books to Hong Kong), but resumed a few months back. I finally resolved to sit down and check this one out.

I have to say that upon reading Against Love, Kipnis is an author who has earned my solid dedication. My reaction at page 10 was… “someone is trying way too hard to be edgy”….pg. 20…. “wow, these are some fascinating theories”…. pg. 30…. “what an incredible framework”…. pg. 40 “her way with snark!!! I LOVE IT!” … pg. 60, telling anyone in range that they HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK.

I may not always agree with Kipnis, to the point of having been infuriated more than a few times with The Female Thing: Dirt Sex, Envy, Vulnerability. At the same time I love her sharp perception, that snarky way of cutting to the quick and the widely ranged dabbling in political and psychological theory (Citing Marx, Weber, Freud and Wilhelm Reich among others here.). In Against Love Kipnis draws parallels between capitalism and love, establishing the framework of the “emotional economy”, to some extent implying that relational transgressions stand in for the political, which has become so passé in today’s climate. The quaint, patronizing manner that idealism and working for change are regarded with today is something she alludes to more than once.

According to Kipnis, love has been co-opted by the language and culture of the capitalist work place. A breezy critique of marriage is leveraged, mining theorists who put forth that “the only social purpose of compulsory marriage for life is to produce the submissive personality types that mass society requires.” Definitely something to research further. Ultimately, adulterers are regarded as the people who are bold enough to dream and try to realize emotional “utopia.” I strenuously disagree with this premise – what kind of utopia leaves some people out in the cold (ie, those hurt by infidelity)? Not one of my imagining, anyway – firmly putting me in the “moral trumping” category (as she puts it – though my own “righteous prig” is so much more colorful). If one were to really take this line of thinking a step further it seems that those who conduct (modern) polyamorous relationships are the ones trying to establish utopia, yet they don’t warrant mention. They are willing to face up to an entrenched system and openly say “this doesn’t work for me”, looking for a new solution and actively involving others in doing so.

But oh how appropriate, the honeymoon with Against Love didn’t QUITE last. The dazzling start waned for me as she segued into the point of the book: “the domestic gulag” and the question of infidelity. I was faintly amused as she shook the finger at those of us sitting there reading and thinking “I would never do this” with the none of these people thought so either, dearies (ok, so not quite verbatim). While I’m not at all interested in a critique of love that trumpets the virtue of adultery, I was disappointed at how the book completely fell apart and lost its focus by the end. It spiraled into an ever widening train wreck, from infidelity to a survey of the sex scandal drenched 90s of American politics, which doesn’t seem all that different from the last decade either (Or the past week, with the latest news of Weiner. Wiener indeed.) And while part of the point of this is to illustrate that in all the white knuckled determination of Americans to “preserve marriage” this is 1) utterly hypocritical and 2) all this relational transgression really does say something I think but oh my god my eyes have glazed, do we have to relive Bill Clinton and the oval office all over again?!

But all right, there really were some amazing threads of thought here which I loved despite the organizational train wreck. For instance, that it’s all a-okay to preach about keeping miserable marriages together for the children and enacting policy that promotes marriage as an exit out of poverty, however ill conceived these concepts may be. And yet when it comes to enacting policy that is serious about alleviating the impact of poverty or raising the quality of life of children, the United States ranks quite dismally.

And as this feminist looks askance and grits her teeth at the constant cultural pronouncements replete with evolutionary psychology that “prove” shaky conclusions, who can forgo such lines as these?!

Harkening back to some remote evolutionary past for social explanations does seem to be a smoke screen for other agendas, usually to tout the “naturalness” of capitalist greed or the “naturalness” of traditional gender roles. Man as killer ape; woman as nurturing turtledove, or name your own bestial ancestor as circumstance requires. (When sociobiologists start shitting in their backyards with dinner guests in the vicinity, maybe their arguments about innateness over culture will start seeming more persuasive.)

Or cutting, incisive lines like these:

Using love to escape love, groping for love outside the home to assuage the letdowns of love at home – it’s kind of like smoking and wearing a nicotine patch at the same time: two delivery systems for an addictive chemical substance that feels vitally necessary to your well-being at the moment, even if likely to wreak unknown havoc in the deepest fibers of your being at some unspecified future date.

Against Love introduced me to some incredible concepts concerning love and political economy and one I’m going to follow up on. As usual, Kipnis challenged me in certain ways, while in other ways the book just fell flat. So often I wish she’d take these cultural critiques and ask the deeper questions behind them but perhaps her aim is to set us on that path rather than do the digging for us. And hey, accuse me of doe-eyed naiveté but she didn’t convince me that love isn’t worth the work. If anything, it only strengthened my conviction. Don’t ask me how that happened. I’m still trying to puzzle it out myself.

Having graduated….

Garden Path

Here we are again.

…I suppose a retrospective is in order, given I started truly posting on the eve of my entrance into graduate school. It seems my last effort at retrospection oriented towards the future rather than an actual rumination on my trip. It takes me a bit of time to pull these posts together, often multiple revisions occur over a period of time and result in very different final drafts. My effort to actually write a retrospective, given the time sensitive nature I placed on this post was an affair of saccharine sentimentality. At the same time, I feel like there needs to be a benchmark here, however spare.

I officially have my Master of Arts in International Affairs with a concentration in Governance and Rights. For now, I’ll say that I felt truly privileged to continue my education. I love being a student – to me, the accumulation of knowledge is exhilarating. I’ll miss it more than I anticipated.

I’ve got bits and pieces of about five posts in the works that I hope I’ll have the time to flesh out now that I’m out of school. In addition, I’m hoping to begin a series of essays. I’m not sure if they’ll make it here, but I’ll certainly consider it. First I need to get over sweating at the blank page. While I have a lot of material I can cull from journals and such, the idea of turning the concepts in to full length essays is daunting.

A Game of Thrones: Same old, same old.

How many frogs for a prince?

How many frogs to get a prince?

Gina Bellafante’s review of HBO’s Game of Thrones adaptation has stirred the ire of women fantasy readers given she termed it “boy fiction.” Worse, Bellafante asserts that perversions such as the incestuous plot-line seem to have been thrown in as an afterthought of the show to attract women.

Having picked up the first three volumes last summer, I enjoyed them to some extent. I would consider myself to be an avid fantasy reader and Martin is certainly a talented writer. At the same time, I couldn’t get past the rampant sexism and misogyny of his world. He threw us ladies some bones with a few strong women. Even then, he wrote about a heavily male dominated world in which belittling women is as commonplace as the long stretches of winter. Every other page registered a new slur or slight in the characters’ every day scorn and hatred of women.

Of course, fantasy literature set in a sexist world is nothing new. Sometimes authors are even smart about it. What boggles my mind is that a genre labeled “fantasy”, something that by its very nature aims to step outside of the bounds of “reality” so often hews to extreme gender roles. While the conception of a world with dragons or fantastic magic is no stretch of one’s imagination, authors often unthinkingly replicate and even grossly exaggerate patriarchal norms.

Martin failed to show me that the extreme sexism of his world had any sort of point in the first three volumes. While I bridle at the idea of labeling things “for boys” or “for girls”, I don’t think Martin’s intended audience ever included women readers. In the great majority of fantasy writing, male characters ascend and stand out in the face of all kinds of adversity. Isn’t it time we retired this one-dimensional trope of the token few women who manage to succeed despite (and according to how well they take on the mantle of) patriarchy?

The Women Men Don’t See*: James Tiptree Jr. aka, Dr. Alice B. Sheldon

Self Portrait in Snow



“I’d peeled myself down to the empty core. But then it seemed as though there was a little more of me after all. I found another onion.” – Dr. Alice B. Sheldon

“It has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing.” – Robert Silverberg

James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon

I had been lusting after James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon for awhile, and in ‘celebration’ of my decision to read more women’s biographies decided to finally grab a copy. I know, so counter-intuitive, you would think I would have done so after actually having read a few but I find all sorts of excuses to buy books….

So… onto this book in which all lavish adjectives of praise fall short. I picked it up the day it arrived to read “a page or two” and never put it down. From the very first page, Phillips successfully envelops one in Sheldon’s life. It was my “go-to” book until I had about 100 pages left. At that point I began rationing it every night “wanting to spend a little time with Alli.” A little nuts maybe, but this book is such a perfect synthesis of the words of Sheldon’s through letters and journals, the relationships she built with writers and fans of science fiction and Phillips’ narration of her life. Of particular interest are her exchanges with women sci-fi authors such as Ursula le Guin and Joanna Russ (both of whom I want to know more about now) and reading their own efforts at navigating the genre as women.

The terrible thing is, when I get a letter (or a reaction) like that – from a man – I tend not to grow 10′ teeth but to start crying. Which makes me feel muddled, humiliated, grateful, humiliated that I feel grateful, and most of all – recognized.

Joanna Russ on the cachet that praise from men has, despite being fully aware of the power dynamic at play.

I feel like I “know” Sheldon, and what a beautiful, complex, flawed person. I felt utterly captivated and my heart ached for her as the book drew to a close. While one is aware throughout the book that she ends up committing suicide, I still couldn’t help but mourn, the breath knocked out of me as I read about it, feeling sick inside by the loss of someone I had just “met.”

Alice B. Sheldon/James Tiptree Jr.

While there is the opportunity to think about gender and writing throughout much of the book, Phillips weaves in a pointed meditation about the subject in its final pages. It goes to show how one’s opinions of gender inform the way one reads or receives a work (I can call up a particularly long winded critique about this after seven years of working in the book world.) and to my ultimate chagrin, is a conversation that rarely seems to go beyond feminist circles. In addition, it truly saddens me that Sheldon had so much trouble acknowledging her incredible accomplishments as a woman. She seemed a vibrant, passionate and intensely curious person (Gardner Dozois: “one of the most fascinating conversationalists I’ve ever met, brilliant, theatrical, far-ranging, strikingly perceptive.”) and yet she believed she was nothing without the veneer of a male persona. While I am certainly not foolish enough to believe it would have vanquished all of her demons, I wonder how things would be different if she had been much younger when the feminist movement occurred. She was incredibly perceptive about the structure of society and the way things work and yet lacked the affirmation that while patriarchy does not deem it as such, HER activities carried just as much merit as a man’s. Two of the passages that were such striking examples of this are below:

Moreover I suspect that most of the organised world activities are male-structured (as well as male-dominated) so I can’t believe that simply filling in the personnel-slots with women means anything real. And I don’t think things would get much different unless women had a chance to build their own world… which ends up like Russ’ “When it changed” and not Beyond Equality at all (My note: Beyond Equality was a sci-fi anthology of stories imagining what the world would be like once equality between the sexes had been achieved that Tiptree and Russ had been asked to contribute to.). Everything else I try just ends up with Golda Meier running a space station, the Heinlein jocks-in-skirts thing. [...] I REFUSE to fancy some stereotype like Women-Have-ESP or Only-Women-can-understand-aliens etc. etc.

- James Tiptree Jr. in a letter to Vonda McIntyre.

The distasteful proof that my sexuality is bound up with masochistic fantasies of helplessness [...] depressed me profoundly. I am not a man, I am not the do-er, the penetrator. And Tiptree was “magical” manhood, his pen my prick. I had through him all the power and prestige of masculinity, I was – though an aging intellectual – of those who own the world. How I loathe being a woman. Wanting to be done to. [...]

Tiptree’s “death” has made me face – what I never really went into with Bob [Harper] (my note: Sheldon’s therapist) – my self-hate as a woman. And my view of the world as structured by raw power. [...] I want power. I want to be listened to. [...] And I’ll never have it. I’m stuck with this perverse, second-rate body; my life.

- Dr. Alice B. Sheldon

It frustrates me that she did not have the benefit of a therapist that could help her explore what it is to be a woman in patriarchy but rather a man who seemed to regard her as an oddity, completely uncomfortable with a woman expressing or being angry. There is also the question of her sexual orientation, and it couldn’t have helped to be at a loss as to what one was feeling in a society that was(is) simply intolerant and did not allow language for that expression. I also wonder truly if she suffered from agoraphobic anxiety. I feel like this brilliant woman was completely failed by the time she lived in, and it makes me so sad.

I hadn’t been interested in reading her work as James Tiptree Jr. before reading this book, but now I will be sure to pick it up. *The title of this entry is the name of one of Tiptree’s stories.

“You can’t stop force with force.”

Bigots are American Too

September 11, 2010 - Tea Party sympathizers chant ugly slogans in an anti-Mosque rally while others slip behind them with signs such as Free Hugs, Love, and Bigots are American too.

I’m taking a course this semester called Communities and Conflict, which interested me due to its focus on civilians in war. I have long been deeply frustrated about the wars the United States wages in the name of “freedom” and “liberty.” We allow these pat phrases to gloss over the intense destruction civilians experience on the ground, resulting in a frightening lack of holistic perspective and an inability to grasp why our foreign policy is so problematic. A class on the anthropology of war with a focus on the civilian perspective seemed like a perfect start to help me begin to remedy this gap in my knowledge.

Parallel to this is my increased interest in literature, preferably written by women. Encountering an annotated edition of Virginia Woolf’s anti-war text Three Guineas in the bookstore the other day, I simply could not resist. I have been slowly absorbing the introduction to the book, written by Jane Marcus, with intense pleasure. I don’t generally consider myself to be a pacifist, but I find Woolf’s intention with Three Guineas to be fascinating in light of my own reaction to the texts I’m reading for Communities and Conflict. An interesting and integral feature of the book is the pictures of men who held positions of power in England at the time – a decorated general (and founder of the Boy Scouts), the President of Cambridge, an Archbishop, and a judge – she is prompting us to connect the dots between these interconnected seats of power and direct our ire towards the structure. Jane Marcus states that without these pictures, which many editions removed, one is not reading the same book. In addition (emphasis mine):

The Spanish photographs of mutilated “dead children” and of “ruined houses” are ruthlessly referred to over and over again in the book. They are like a red flag or (perhaps) a Republican banner running through her agonizing argument that you can’t stop force with force. She notes disapprovingly that the Madrid bombing photographs incite one to anger. She will not print them, lest they incite more volunteers to go off to war. But what are we to do with these bewigged and bemedaled men we see in the photographs in the book before us? (lxi)

It seems I would garner Woolf’s disapproval as I can’t help but read Carolyn Nordstrom’s book, A Different Kind of War Story, without feeling despair, helplessness and rage. It chronicles the coping strategies of civilians in the Mozambican Civil War. Layers of violence characterize their lives – from the acute (physical) violence that is typically showcased in accounts of war to the cultural and structural violence that continues to impact Mozambicans in the ensuing upheaval. I can’t help but think “raze it all” when thinking about the perpetrators, an “instinct” (?) to strike back with some sort of violence in response. Something that really gripped me was Nordstrom’s point that one of the essential facets of war is the obliteration of a culture and one’s vision of the future:

The Mozambican scholar Sergio Viera once said to me that the aim of the war was to create a nonsociety, and that is why tactics like castration are employed. The spectacle of violence cannot be detached from its experience, its aftermath, its enduring reality. Dirty war specialists know the actions of today define the truths of tomorrow.

One of the most insidious and powerful targets of violence is the very sense of future that gives definition and direction to people’s lives. In an uncertain present, a future is impossible to determine. But to be human is to have a future, and this lack of future, people said, can fuel further violences…

I think what fascinates me so much about these two texts is the alternatives outlined in respect to the urge to continue the cycle of violence. Nordstrom reveals the coping strategies that Mozambicans have created to stop the violence of the war, stating “it is my opinion that average Mozambican citizens instituted a series of conflict resolution practices that are among the most refined I have seen anywhere in the world” (p. 40). While one may regard Mozambicans with possessing more of a “right” than anyone to fight violence with violence, they employ alternate mechanisms.

For instance, villagers kidnapped and reintegrated soldiers, rehabilitating and accepting them back into community life. Both victims of violence and participants were encouraged to farm plots of land to reestablish their connection to the community and the land in an effort to promote healing. A number of different kinds of ceremonies were held in order to promote this healing process. It seems to me that these ceremonies, conducted by the community as a whole, were integral in recreating the bonds that the violence targets and severs through the promotion of very specific acts. Rather than respond and continue the cycle of violence, Mozambicans invested in the well-being of others and worked to restore the sense of future that had been destroyed. War and violence were treated as a disease that needed to be cured and “taken out of people” (p. 144) rather than an innate part of human nature.

My own exploration of cycles of violence has never gone beyond power dynamics, but I’m finding that I obviously have a lot to learn about subverting that cycle. As illustrated by the protests sweeping the Middle East, pacifism need not be passive and has the potential to be incredibly powerful. I am still astonished to have learned (thanks to the ALOUD podcast with Slavoj Zizek) that the phrase “turn the other cheek”, so often used to promote taking abuse willingly, had another meaning when Jesus invoked the phrase. Rather, it meant to demand equality, creating a dilemma for the person who meted the abuse. With that, I’ll end with a final but captivating quote from Nordstrom’s book:

Ultimately, the Mozambicans who forged systems of resistance to war remind the rest of us that violence is not a fixed entity, a “truth” to be dealt with, but instead it is a social, political, and cultural construction that noncombatants – the targets of most violence – can redefine to assert their own political will. In de-legitimizing violence, people reconstruct a new political culture, one that delegitimizes the politics of force. Such political reconstructions are a serious threat, for they simultaneously delegitimize the political systems that rely on force to maintain power. They remind us that violence crushes political will only if people believe in its ability to do so. When people take the definition of violence into their own hands, they are affecting political will. (p. 143-144)