The South, Russia, and Other Places of Occupation

A friend of mine said the other day that he never really felt he understood the deep-seated tensions of the American South until, during a year he spent as a Fulbright Scholar in Belgrade, a local man commented on his attempts to grasp that country’s deep-seated tensions by noting, “It’s hard to understand when your country has never been occupied.” There is something in this, I suppose. It is not something I have ever experienced myself, only seen from outside, and it makes me wonder about the motivations of those who continue to espouse views of the world that we find at best anachronistic, at worst barbaric and conducive to the sorts of horrendous acts of violence that make it into the news, it seems, on a terribly regular basis.

The American Civil War had a number of different causes, and reducing it to one is not very good history. A major one—for some historians the major one—was the question of states rights over the powers of a central government, a sort of proto-libertarian argument about the need for small government. It is not inconceivable that someone flying a flag over a government building today, or the guy flying one off the tailgate of his pickup I saw in the Menard’s parking lot yesterday—might have that idea in mind primarily. Unfortunately for those who might want to make this argument, the flag in question has also come to be a powerful symbol of racism and bigotry of the most basic variety, the kind of racism and bigotry that leads to murder. In combination with the flag flying over a state institution, such acts are indeed equivalent to a form of state sponsored terrorism. They should see that it is doing them no good to continue to fly it, and in fact it is counter productive to their cause. They should take it down.

But I suspect, too, that the little insight my friend gained in Serbia about occupation might be applied to the intransigence of those who would refuse to do so, or try and pretend that it and racism had not become coterminous in the thinking of any but a fringe of extremists. I am trying to imagine it, and I wonder if a history of occupation (or perceived occupation, for this amounts to much the same thing) might be able to do that to one’s head.

Not two hours before on the same day that my friend mentioned his experience in Belgrade to me, another acquaintance, a Russian who has lived in the U.S. for many years, lamented that she could no longer speak with her Russian friends. “They have all been brain-washed,” she said, “by Putin’s nationalism. They won’t admit that his Ukrainian policy is barbaric, based on an Old-World model of imperial domination. They think that he will re-create the Russian Empire.” Now this sounds crazy, and maybe unrelated, too, but the two situations share in a heritage of occupation (or perceived occupation) that may help to explain the deep-seated tensions of the two places, particularly where outside criticisms are concerned.

For example, almost exactly one hundred years ago, Russia did not exist as a country. It had been carved up into pieces by factions from inside and out. Hundreds of thousands of foreign troops—Japanese, American, Czech, British, German—occupied portions of the Russian Far East, Siberia, the Caucasus, Crimea, along with formerly Russian Imperial, present-day areas of Ukraine, Byelorus, and Estonia. This is not very long ago. Nor is the fact of occupation itself an isolated occurrence in Russia’s history. Even without claiming, as some historians have, the existence of a deep scar on the Russian psyche from the many instances of invasion it has experienced—from the Mongols to the French under Napoleon to Hitler, along with what appears by comparison a rather minor “allied intervention” during the Russian Civil War—it is not difficult to glimpse a geo-political strategy consistent with Stalin’s creation of buffer areas around the USSR in Putin’s latest maneuverings, namely in the annexation of Crimea, his attempts to forge closer ties with Kazakhstan and, at least commercially, China, and the on-ongoing war in Ukraine. These actions might be completely out of touch with our reality, but from another perspective, one that takes into account something more of Russia’s historical struggles and experiences, even in relatively recent times, they do not seem completely crazy. Desperate maybe, but not crazy.

These are probably not very original reflections that might apply to other places that have cultivated a prolonged self image of being occupied and mistreated by outsiders (e.g., let us expel the infidel from our lands). A clearer connection between Russia and the problems of institutional racism in the U.S. is provided Mary Dudziak’s Cold War Civil Rights, DudziakCoverwhich posits the following (from the book description at Princeton University Press’s website):

“In 1958, an African-American handyman named Jimmy Wilson was sentenced to die in Alabama for stealing two dollars. Shocking as this sentence was, it was overturned only after intense international attention and the interference of an embarrassed John Foster Dulles. Soon after the United States’ segregated military defeated a racist regime in World War II, American racism was a major concern of U.S. allies, a chief Soviet propaganda theme, and an obstacle to American Cold War goals throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Each lynching harmed foreign relations, and “the Negro problem” became a central issue in every administration from Truman to Johnson. In what may be the best analysis of how international relations affected any domestic issue, Mary Dudziak interprets postwar civil rights as a Cold War feature. She argues that the Cold War helped facilitate key social reforms, including desegregation. Civil rights activists gained tremendous advantage as the government sought to polish its international image.”

Now Dudziak’s thesis is more nuanced than this, and her argument deeper: the supposed improvements did not have to be substantial, they only had to look good. In effect, since the motivation was largely cosmetic, the PR needed to be effective, but the problems did not really have to be fixed in any fundamental manner. They had to be glossed over. This was a book published initially in 2001, less than a decade after the fall of the USSR, and its analysis was about the Cold War, not the aftermath. But if Dudziak’s thesis is correct, what would one expect to happen in a post-Cold War U.S. with regard to race relations?

Take a look around, I suggest.

Human Rights, Translation, PEN

Fifteen thousand words into translating Jergović’s monumental Rod (sticking with the title Kin for now), I’m taking a short break to mention the PEN Awards festivities just completed in NYC last week. I was able to attend for the first time, thanks to an invitation from my friend Esther, who knew I was going to be nearby for an ALTA board retreat and suggested I stick around for a day to see the show.

The absolute best thing about the awards and the celebration, in my opinion, is their democratic character, by which I mean the degree to which they recognize a wide variety of kinds of writing, from fiction and poetry, to theater, science writing, essay writing, (literary) sports writing, and literary translation. Not all the awards that PEN gives out were featured at the ceremony. One or two of the more prestigious ones (e.g., the Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction) are saved for the fundraising PEN Gala that takes place under different circumstances, but still it’s an impressive list, and the atmosphere of the event reflects both the quality of the work being celebrated and the commitment of PEN to issues of social justice and free expression.

This commitment may or may not be coterminous with literature in exactly the manner that PEN’s logo (see below) seems to imply. PEN logoThey certainly come together in enough cases in enough ways to make it hard to argue against an essentially human rights emphasis for an essentially literary organization. I wonder, however, whether we don’t miss something by making literature instrumental in this particular way. There will be kinds of writing that fit especially well as a result, e.g., socially and politically engaged writing, or writing that comes from particular parts of the world, or writing by those who have been historically marginalized, not allowed a voice. But there will also be kinds of writing, some of it exceptional and poignant, that does not really fit that well. Just literature in other words. It can be celebrated but it is less likely to be championed when literature and free expression, or rather free expression and then literature, is the mission.

I found myself mulling over such things during the ceremony and after, especially where translation is concerned. The awards for translation—there are four, one category for works in progress (the PEN/Heim Translation Awards), one for lifetime achievement (the PEN/Ralph Mannheim Award), and two for finished works (the PEN Translation Prize and the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation)—seem on first glance to be especially well suited to a human rights mission. But the criteria for these awards do not mention social justice explicitly and do not seem to be intended to champion the historically under-represented. The long lists include works from the Ancient World (sometimes frequently translated) and works from contemporary France, Russia, Argentina, or Mexico, once in a while China, Japan, or Korea, and once in a greater while India, Central Asia, or Africa. They include women and men on both sides of the translation process, though most of the authors of the original works are likely to be men. They include no or almost no translators of color (because there are almost no translators of color into English). I will leave it to someone else to actually count up the exact numbers in each category. I’ll be pleasantly surprised if just reading through them quickly as I did proves an inaccurate assessment. These are features of translated literature in general, not of these prizes in particular, so I do not mean them as a criticism.

Translation, by its very nature, is concerned with giving a voice to those who would not otherwise have one, and the goal of the under-represented is nowhere better served than by introducing the inscrutable foreignness of “all those other languages and cultures” into the complacency of the English-dominated (and often English-blinded) publishing world. I recall a grad student in fiction who didn’t want to come on one of the overseas writing workshops that Robin Hemley and I organized at the University of Iowa. He thought the presence of the translators would somehow lower the quality, taint the craft of the “real writers” in the group. Too bad for him that he did not come with us that year. He might have learned something about writing that he didn’t already know.