Inside Out: Poetry From An Ex-Detainee

November 29, 2011 § 1 Comment

As the economic crisis  has ripped through the world we have seen a stepping up of racist immigrant bashing by the rich and powerful and their governments and parties as they try to shift the blame for the crisis onto the poor and desperate while also grasping around for anything to hold their system together and stop people revolting. Even here in Australia where the crisis has not had the same deep effect as elsewhere we have seen the two major political parties go to hack on refugee rights and ramping up anti-immigrant hysteria.

Both the Labor government and the Immigration Department have done their utmost best to demonize refugees and undermine their right to seek asylum. Their arguments range from baseless claims that their home countries like Afghanistan are apparently safe now to the idea that detention centres aren’t responsible for the trauma and depression that affects so many detainees. Mohsen Soltany Zand challenges some of these myths around refugees in his work Inside Out, a collection of poetry. Through verse it reflects upon detainee depression, the terrible conditions of detention and the anger many feel towards the racist policies of the Australian government.

Mohsen Soltany Zand came to Australia in 1999 from Iran and was held for over four years in several immigration detention centres including the infamous Villawood detention centre in Sydney. Many of the poems in Inside Out were written while he was still in detention, others are reflections upon his post-detention life. One thing is clear – you can not read this heartfelt plea for justice and humanity without burning with rage at the government and their ongoing crimes.

In False Prophets Mohsen writes:

My pen speaks for the accidental criminal

who languishes and waits in a razor wire snare.

His Crime? To ask for freedom and compassion

But finds a fate much worse than terror left behind.

How easily these words could be applied to ‘Shooty’ the Tamil refugee who committed suicide at the Villawood detention centre after fleeing torture at the hands of the Sri Lankan Government, all the while PM Gillard was hanging out with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Mohsen also puts his poetry about the plight of refugees in its broader political context. In Realpolitik he writes:

I see a donkey that is singing for democracy

I see a hyena that is waiting for the ‘war on terrorism’

I see a shark that is helping rescue boat people

I see a prisoner mouse making a party for the cat

I see a fox teaching freedom to the hen and the rooster

The poet puts an intimate human face to the oppression of the refugees. For instance one of the darkest poems in this collection Dream of Freedom concerns self harm in detention and the terrifying atomization and internalized anger that is a direct product of living in detention. Mohsen also writes about his home country Iran and reminds us of what he has fled from:

In my country,

when you ask a child to draw an image

of love – he draws a bullet;

of judgement – he draws a gun;

of freedom – he draws a cage;

One of Mohsen’s most powerful poems is SIEV X. On the 19 October 2001 a Indonesian fishing boat (called SIEV X by the government) sank en route to Australia’s Christmas Island. Over 350 people drowned and at the same time the Australian Government was involved in ‘people smuggling disruption operations’ that included the sabotage of refugee boats. Like the event itself the poem is a stark reminder of what ‘stopping the boats’ really means.

Inside Out is a courageous work that puts the brutal refugee experience into verse and succeeds in both humanizing the refugee condition and enraging people who know that this has gone on for far too long.

So if you are inspired by this review pick up the book here, but don’t stop there! This weekend there will be a refugee rights demonstration outside the Australian Labor Party conference to take on the governments shocking treatment of refugees.

Even though the government has made an announcement that it will be offering bridging visas to refugees it is still clear that some will be held in detention for months and years while they wait. Also the ALP is still trying to push for their rotten Malaysia Solution and only recently tried to deport a Hazara refugee back to Afghanistan.

Mohsen’s poetry then should be seen as not only a howl of rage at the state of refugee policy but also a call to arms for supporters of human rights.

Violence, Reaction and Original Sin

November 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

Every Friday I take a look some fiction from before the current economic crisis, Last week it was Bram Stoker’s horror classic Dracula, This time I look at Blood Meridian. This Post was like the previous one originally published on a short-lived blog called Literature Under Capitalism for those who have already read it I apologize, the rest of the series will be all new stuff I swear.

Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian

The blurb to my Picador 1989 edition of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian has this to say ‘ Blood Meridian is an epic novel of the violence and depravity that attended America’s westward expansion, which brilliantly subverts the conventions of the Western novel and the mythology of the Wild West. Based on events that took place on the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850′s, it traces the fortunes of the Kid, A fourteen-year-old Tennessean who stumbles into a nightmarish world where Indians are murdered and the market for their scalps is thriving.’

So far so good, a Marxist could admire much about such a novel taking a critical view to an often fantasied part of American history and the focus on the genocide of the native American population is also an important feature often overlooked by novels set in the Wild West.

However the The New York Times Book Review is more revealing in it’s quote printed on the first page. ‘McCarthy distances us not only from the historical past, not only from our cowboys-and-Indian images of it, but also revisionist theories that make white men the villains and Indians the victims. All men are unremittingly bloodthirsty here, poised at the peak of violence, the ”meridian” from which their civilization will quickly fall’

Ah so the novel also takes to task those apparently ‘revisionist theories’ that ‘make white men the villains and Indians the victims’. This is the first of two interconnected themes that shape Blood Meridian. Both the Native Americans and the Mexicans are portrayed as brutal savages. An important example of this comes early in the novel. The main character (the Kid) joins an American regiment that heads out towards the Mexcian-Texas border intend on massacre, pillage and war. On the way however they are attacked by Comanches and slaughtered. A semi-lengthy quote from the book is in order to show how the author portrays the attack.

‘Like funhouse figures, some with nightmare faces painted on their breasts, riding down the unhorsed Saxons and spearing and clubbing them and leaping from their mounts with knives and running about on the ground with a peculiar bandy legged trot like creatures driven to alien forms of locomotion and stripping the clothes from the dead and seizing them up by the hair and passing their blades about the skulls of the living and the dead alike and snatching aloft bloody wigs and hacking and chopping at the naked bodies, ripping off limbs, heads, gutting the strange white torsos and holding up great handfuls of viscera, genitals, some of the savages so slathered up with gore they might have rolled in it like dogs and some who fell upon the dying and sodomized them with loud cries from their fellows.’

The novel is full of such characterizations of those groups of people who where almost wiped out of existence in order to establish the United States of America. Native Americans and Mexicans are written about as dogs, animals, degenerates, scum, murderers, thieves and inhuman monsters. The period in which the novel is set is as the early American government is moving to take what is left of the land of the Native Americans as well as to expand the borders of Texas into Mexico with the ideology of the Manifest Destiny to back it all up. McCarthy ends up repeated all the ‘liberal’ apologies for colonialism, apologies that are brilliantly taken up in Richard Seymour’s book The Liberal Defense of Murder ‘Liberal imperialism thus constructed the colonial subjects at best as passive victims, needful of tutelage, capable of self-government after a spell of European supremacy, and at worst as fanatics and murderers, racially degenerate peoples given to tyranny and unnatural practices, fit only for subordination.’

It is true however that Cormac McCarthy is willing to mock the Manifest Destiny, to portray those who carry it out as rather insane individuals hell bent on murder perhaps even as much as McCarthy’s Native Americans. Here we come upon the second but interlinked theme of the novel, humanity’s inhumanity to humanity as it were. Going back to that The New York Times Book Review quote ‘ All men are unremittingly bloodthirsty here, poised at the peak of violence’. So McCarthy shows the oppressed peoples of the Americas as ‘fanatics and murderers, racially degenerate peoples given to tyranny and unnatural practices’ but then argues that prehaps white men are not much better, perhaps we are much like the ‘savage’.

So McCarthy uses the invasion of Mexico and the genocide of the Native Americans as a chance to explore the idea that humanity is bloodthirsty given to violence and depravity. Well what a load of crap.

Marxist’s reject the idea that their is any unchangeable ahistorical ‘human nature’, especially one that leads us to murder and destroy each other. The violence like that of the invasion of Mexico and the imperialist wars that continue to today come from the capitalist system. It is the lust for profits, the expansion of capital and the competition between different groups of the rich that produces violence. Just compare early Native American society before it was annihilated by the European powers.

‘In the villages of the Iroquois, land was owned in common and worked in Common. Hunting was done together, and the catch was divided among the members of the village. Houses were considered common property and were shared by several families. The concept of private ownership of land or homes was foreign to the Iroquois. A French Jesuit Priest who encountered them in the 1650′s wrote: ‘No poorhouses are needed among them, because they are neither mendicants nor paupers…. their kindness, humanity and courtesy not only makes them liberal with what they have, but causes them to possess hardly anything expect in common.’

The use of violent conflicts to drawn out a common idea of the savagery at the heart of humanity is a common enough theme in literature. I am reminded of Joesph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness about colonialism in Africa. Similarly it talked about the horrible policies of Europe and how it was all about profits and madness etc. However the oppressed and exploited Africans are viewed in much the same way as the the other imperialist viewed them ‘fanatics and murderers, racially degenerate peoples given to tyranny and unnatural practices’. Any hope that the oppressed masses might rise up and kick out the imperialists is non existent. That book was demolished by Chinua Achebe’s brilliant An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. One can also compare the well known movie about the Vietnam war Apocalypse Now (which drew upon Heart of Darkness) where the war upon the people of Vietnam by American soldiers is viewed as a chaotic, madhouse driven for unknown and unknownable reasons rather than the priorities of the American state. Also the Vietnamese are invisible.

McCarthy even starts off his novel with this little quote:

‘Clark, who led last year’s expedition to the Afar region of northern Ethiopia, and Uc Berkely colleague Tim D. Whit, also said that a re-examiniation of a 300,000 year old fossil skill found in the same region earlier shows evidence of having been scalped.’

Apparently then we have always been scalping each other and always I guess shall be scalping each other. McCarthy might be destroying the cliches of the Western Novel, the Heroic Epic and the Coming of Age Story but what does he replace it with? The old imperialist cliches of the savagery and the ‘violent’ nature of the oppressed fighting back against their oppressors. Their was nothing new or brave, inventive or otherwise in Cormac McCarthy’s famous novel (praised by the likes of Harold Bloom as one of the greatest of the 20th century), their is only original sin, racism and the death of hope in a new world free of violence and oppression.

Elsewhere In the World

November 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

Elsewhere in the world, happens every second Monday and gives us some space to have a look at fiction, non-fiction, blog posts and political commentary from around the place.

The Great Putsch: welcome to post-democratic Europe by Jérôme E. Roos is a great article on the ‘regime change’ undemocratically imposed in Greece and Italy as well as some comments on the ongoing cycle of crisis and revolt in Europe.

Egypt returns to the streets as protesters seek to further the gains of the revolution and take on the military council. Check on 3arabawy’s blog for the latest information from a revolutionary socialist in Egypt.

Ben Solah over at Blood and Barricades has an article on the push and pull between activism and writing and an approach that I largely agree with, especially as I am in some similar circumstances to him.

The Weird edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer has just come out, I might have to wait until the end of the week to buy it but you don’t! Pick it up now for what will be a dark and dangerous journey down a road to an odd oblivion.

Finally Strange Horizons has two articles particularly of note: Orrin Grey on Cosmic Horror in John Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy” and an interesting interview with southern Gothic/lovecraftian/blues writer John Hornor Jacobs which deals with his shying away from taking up themes of racism in the south.

Dracula & the Fears of Victorian England

November 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

Every Friday I am going to take a look some fiction from before the current economic crisis, Bram Stoker’s horror classic Dracula is the first in this series. This Post was originally published on a short-lived blog called Literature Under Capitalism for those who have already read it I apologize. I would however like to point readers to the excellent article on the influence of the Paris Commune on Dracula in A Presage of Horror!”: Cacotopia, the Paris Commune, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula by Eric D Smith 

Bram Stoker's Dracula

   

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is considered one of the great classics of horror fiction and along with Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is one of modern horrors founding texts.

These are some of my thoughts on the novel, the author and the relationship between the two.

To understand how and why Dracula was created it is necessary to not only look at the creative labor of the writer (Bram Stoker) but also at the age in which he was living in and how this affect his writing.  As Leon Trotsky the great Russian Revolutionary said artistic creation is ‘a deflection, a changing and transformation of reality, in accordance with the peculiar laws of art’. To just focus on the writer would be to slip into individualism and cut yourself off from understanding Dracula‘s place in the late-Victorian era as well as miss an opportunity to delve into many of its themes. However to simply talk about the lat-Victorian Era and the literature it produced would also be a mistake and not take into account the ‘peculiar laws of art’ and how they played out for Bram Stoker in contrast with other more convention writers of his day. Instead we must bring the two together, the writer Bram Stoker and the historical period in which he lived. As well as understand the relationship between the two and Stoker’s novel.

Bram (Abraham) Stoker (1847-1912) was born and studied in Dublin were he also worked for seven years as a civil servant for Dublin Castle. Early on he had an interest in dramatic criticism, history and literature and wrote and spoke on such subjects at Dublin Trinity College. The 1840′s, 50′s and 60′s of his youth were considered the golden days of Victorian England, although living in Ireland Stoker was a part of a section of Irish that had long ago given up much of their cultural heritage and saw themselves as a part of the general British-Victorian Empire. Along many especially those in the middle class (the social circles in which Stoker mainly found himself) there was a sense of satisfaction in the industrial and political preeminence of England. Along with this came a glorification of progress, empire, commerce and apparent ‘civilization’.

The Victorian Era was also known for it’s traditions of sexual moralism, domestic propriety and imperialist ambition. The figure of the aging but almost immortal Queen Victoria embodying many of these ideas. Their were massive moral reform campaigns led by middle class men and woman and eventually the English state and government itself. The working class family that had been uprooted and severely disrupted by the transition into capitalism had degenerated greatly and as the future of the laboring class became bleak the rulers of British capital intervened to to save themselves and their future. The campaigns first started by the more far sighted sections of the middle class were designed to implant the middle class family life into the working masses. Women and children were forced out of work and a family wage was created so that the male of the family could fed, clothe and shelter his family. So throughout this period we see massive interventions by the British state to establish and then enforce sexual and social mores that were once more commonly held in the middle classes.

This whole new sexual ideology was made in contrast to that of the parasitic, autocratic of feudalism who were seen as sexually depraved, morally corrupt and spiritually unwell. So the social and moral campaigns were portrayed as sweeping away the old, dead and depraved ideas of the past and establishing the basis for civilized society. In reality it was an attempt by the ruling class of England to shore up their power and ensure the continuation of the dominance of British capital throughout the world by creating a constant supply of new labour.

However by the time that Bram Stroker was starting to write Dracula things had started to move on, the British Empire’s hegemony over the world was starting to crack and the transition into the modern era that would led to World War One was beginning. The British ruling class had to face a round of economic crisis (which it had falsely thought would cease to happen under capitalism) and growing resistance to it’s overseas empire by both national liberation movements and imperial rivals.  There were massive social panics about the collapse of social order, the decay of British society and the like. Bram Stoker at this time was working in England as the manager for a famous actor Henry Irving and would not have been immune to this. Among the middle class it was especially felt that the British Empire was under threat and with it there whole way of life. Many of these feelings were heightened after the Trial of Oscar Wilde who Stoker had actually known for some time as a rival for the love of his first wife.

Sexual deviance was seen as another sign of the crisis of the British way of life for some it seemed to be the greatest threat of all. One advocate for sexual purity attacked sexual deviance with this lofty passage, ‘Rome fell; other nations have fallen; and if England falls it will be this sin and her unbelief in God, that will be her ruin.’

It is  the empire under threat by forces within and without that provides much of the background to Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

As I said before Bram Stoker was the manager for the famous actor Henry Irving at this time most of his time was spent in the middle class social circles that were around the various playhouses and theaters that Irving acting in. Stoker seems to have seen himself as integrated into these middle class circle. His article on censorship and interview with Winston Churchill reveal as much. Although slightly bohemian in nature the middle class dramatic professions were definitely an integrated part of the British establishment. From Shakespeare to more modern writers the plays were a symbol of England’s cultural importance and a source of entertainment mainly aimed at the middle class itself and to hold up the social and moral ideas of that class.

The original seed for Stoker’s novel came from a dream he had, on a piece of notepaper the day after the bad dream he wrote ‘Young man goes out, sees girls one tries to kiss him not on lips but throat. Old count interferes – rage & fury diabolical – this man belongs to me I want him.’ The homoerotic undercurrent should be obvious, this was later expanded into Johnathan Harker’s journal entry in the novel itself.

From this was written what is really a mixture of Victorian adventure story, gothic romance and supernatural horror in which a group of courageous middle class and upper class Englishmen (and one woman) take on the demonic vampire count from the backwoods of Eastern Europe who represents all the treats to England grafted together. Sexual immorality, foreign backwardness, dated aristocracy and peasant style superstition. The characters use a combination of the latest scientific advances, rational thought and righteous action to force the count out of England and track him back to his homeland were they destroy him and his wives.

Is Stoker’s book then trying to swim against the tide of middle class pessimism and doubt that many novels of this time revel in? Is the triumph against the chaos surrounding the empire as complete as Stoker might have wanted? While Dracula concerns itself with saving Victorian society from the darkness both inside and outside it is far from just an infantile fantasy about protecting a degenerating era. Although Stoker may have wanted the book to end with a tone of smug satisfaction and may have thought it did there is a contradiction for many passages and themes explored in the novel are left unresolved. As Maurice Hindle argues in her introduction to the penguins Classic edition: ‘Something else has ‘passed into” the body of little Quincey (Mina and Johnathan’s son born after the death of the count) too; Dracula’s blood. Of all Dracula’s victim’s, it is Mina Alone who has been forced to drink his blood,having made her as he gloatingly boasts, ‘flesh of my flesh; blood of my blood; kin of my kin my bountiful wine – press for a while’…. The Harkers and the rest of naively optimistic Crew of Light are all convinced that Count Dracula and his kind have been vanquished. Yet one has to wonder: Was Stoker as convinced? Or was this another case of him evading what he had guessed…’

The other currents of madness, increasing sexual revolt and the weakening empire are also not fixed, the count maybe dead but all the threats him represented lived on. I think one critic said it best ‘when such a man as Bram Stoker, just once is thoroughly afraid, the charade stops and what you get is Dracula.’ Despite being couched in the rhetoric of the Gothic (although this shapes and molds it) the novel’s great shocks and horrors are apparently real ones at least for the defenders of middle class life and empire.

I don’t have the space to go into great depth of Stoker’s novel but I hope some of these thoughts have been useful, Dracula is a tortured and disturbing bridge between the stifling moralism of the Victorian era and the violent madness of the Modern era. Written by someone who felt apart of the crumbling British Empire makes it all the more interesting as the novel digs wider and deeper than the middle class professional who wrote it would have liked to admit.

Some thoughts on the decline of Stephen King

November 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

Stephen King's 11 22 63

One gets the sense from horror writer Stephen King’s later works that he has simply exhausted his imagination. It is not surprising then that his latest novel 11.22.63 has been seen by some to continue this trend. I first saw it when wandering into Galaxy Books in Sydney in search of ‘The Third Bear’ by Jeff Vandermeer. At first I was a bit shocked, having been an avid King fan for ages I hadn’t even heard of the coming of this new release. Then I remembered why, King’s last bunch of books have quiet frankly sucked and thus I had stopped caring. While he seems to have had a massive burst of activity lately it can’t seem to hide the fact that behind all of those many, many words there isn’t a lot going on, not even a good story. Rachel Cooke writing in the Observer said that ‘King has delivered a self-indulgent book that is too long (a whopping 740 pages), too complicated and too barmy for words.’ Rachel Cooke’s review combined with my own growing dissatisfaction with King’s last bunch of novels can only confirm in me the worst hopes for his latest book. Which I don’t think I am even going to bother reading.

King has undoubtedly written some pretty good horror novels, I for one gobbled up his books from the age of fifteen to nineteen. His – shall we call them classics?- The Shining, The Stand, Pet Cemetery, ‘Salem’s Lot, It and his epic Dark Tower series are all pretty damn good. The best part of them is the combination of an everyday style language with a clear grasp of narrative tension and then covered in a fine imagination. When I picked up his books as a teenager I loved the fact that I knew that I was in for a great mystery as well as a horror show often led by characters that were based upon normal bloody people that I could actually relate too.

The last point is important, King is partly popular because of his populism, his books feature characters who are often union members, struggling wives, poor writers, blue collar workers of various stripes and white collar office slaves rather than super heroes, occult investigators, vampires with souls or depressed folklore intellectuals. He is also able to paint these people in a way which doesn’t have the tedious boredom of much of ‘realism’ nor the characterless stripped down features of much experimental fiction.

There in though is the first point of degeneration, from about Lisey’s Story onwards his characters become less and less apart of ordinary folk and even when they come from us common stock of humans they appear as little more than cardboard cutouts. Take Edgar Freemantle the main character from Duma Key, I just couldn’t care less about that guy from the books beginning until its end. Despite the horrible accident he suffered I just couldn’t relate to him at all, perhaps it was his amazingly large amount of cash and his ability to idle around Florida doing nothing but paint I don’t know.

Previously it was popular to dismiss King in an act of intellectually snobbery that I thought was just idiotic but that doesn’t mean you can’t be critical of his work – especially his latest stuff. The problem isn’t that his work is popular, its easy to see why people like it. The problem is that King hasn’t been using his popularity as a reason to push himself to new heights, to revision the horror novel in a new way or least in an old but interesting way. Or maybe the problem is that King’s naive post 70’s but pre-crisis fiction just doesn’t fit in as much to today’s world, let alone whatever world we will be in the next couple of years. It’s an important point I think, will the fiction that was popular before continue to be so as society is ravaged by the economic and political crisis? So far King’s popularity has held up but is that because many of his readers have not yet abandoned him despite the nagging feeling in the back of their head that its all just a bit, well done and dusted.

Introduction

November 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

Seeing as this post will most likely never be read by anyone I will try and keep it brief. Literature in the Age of Austerity is a blog that I’ve set up to explore the effects of the current period of economic crisis on literature and to examine the relationship between economics, politics and literature more generally. It will also probably include some shameless promotion for whatever fiction I’ve managed to con some editor into publishing and perhaps some musings on writings as well.

The other thing to say is that as I am a Socialist, so that is obviously my starting point for understanding austerity, crisis and society but also literature and culture. Please feel free to disagree with me in the comments section or via email but understanding that any red-baiting crap will end badly.

So thank you person who has stumbled onto this blog while this is the only post or odd person who has trawled through what I hope will be tonnes of interesting and exciting articles to go back to the beginning.

Hopefully you come from a time when austerity and the capitalist system that breeds it is dead and we live in a society liberated in fact as well as in literature.

Where Am I?

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