Mirage of Words

By Andrej Mrevlje |
Rancho Mirage, location that hosted all the writers. Photo: Andrej Mrevlje

“How many of you in this room had parents or grandparents that were not born in this country,” asked Dr. Khoi Le, a cardiologist born and raised in Vietnam who moved to the United States at the age of 14. Dr. Khoi tested the audience during his onstage interview with compatriot and writer Viet Thanh Nguyen, who became a celebrity after his novel The Sympathizers. It was the first day of the Rancho Mirage Writers Festival and one of the big conference rooms of the local library was packed. Aside from a few exceptions, everybody raised their hands. I looked around the bright room, its glass walls reflecting palm trees and mountains–a mirage! Those who raised their hands–first or second generation immigrants–were, on average, over seventy years old. The audience appeared much older than the celebrity writer and successful cardiologist on stage; they became wealthy and influential in the land of opportunity and, in their retiring age, came to listen to a younger and different generation of immigrants, born in Vietnam but made in the USA, as Nguyen describes in his popular novel.

It shook me. Where had I seen this scene before? An advanced-age population of retired senators, entrepreneurs, and former celebrities with plastic surgery and on Medicare (the biggest Rancho Mirage employer is a health center) that spends their winters in this godly place, blessed with 340 days a year of sunshine.They paid five thousand bucks to come to this library and hear a lesson on egotistic, ramshackle America. With humor and applause. This second generation of immigrants, all white, and the majority Republicans, built their second or third homes in Coachella Valley, planted every palm tree in the area, built an artificial lake and about two hundred golf courses. Five years ago they decided to throw more money together and created a writers festival.

Khoi and Nguyen came to the U.S. in 1975, when the Viet Cong took over the country and the Americans fled Saigon. The Sympathizers is a story about that period, about a communist spy in conflict with where he stands in his political beliefs and in the world itself. His efforts to survive in two worlds at once lead him to make mistakes that end in his capture and torture at the hands of one of the people he most trusts. “The Sympathizer” gives the Vietnamese a voice and demands attention. From whom? Before this novel, Vietnam was a one-sided conversation and, as Nguyen explains in the book, “this was the first war where the losers would write history instead of the victors.” From the stage in Rancho Mirage, the writer also reminded us that wars are always fought twice: first on the battlefield, then in memory.

Nguyen equipped himself for this battle. He not only became fluent in English, he fought hard to master the language, to the point that English became a tool with which to break the stereotypes about his country. The two on stage seem to be in the perfect syntony. “When us, Americans, speak about Vietnam, we speak about the Vietnam war. And in order to be able to commemorate the 58,000 Americans killed, we have to forget 3 million Vietnamese killed in the war,” said Dr. Khoi. Then Khoi, like the hero in the novel, switched his identity, saying that after going to war in Vietnam, the Americans brought back a virus, a kind of bacteria that continues to eat it from within. Khoi laughed and then, as if the two on the stage embodied the viruses, began quoting Hollywood examples like John Wayne as Genghis Khan, and Yul Brynner as the King of Siam.

It was a wonderfully lively, sparkling exchange between Nguyen and Khoi, with much laughter filling the room. The faces became more serious when the discussion led to the difference between refugees and immigrants, and how America likes to see itself as the land of immigrants because they are more acceptable than refugees. “But we, the refugees, are here because calamities happened somewhere,” said one of them on stage. Wasn’t this the infectious bacteria?

Nguyen and Khoi are sons of the short-lived Republic of Vietnam, which by the end of the war in 1975 was obliterated from history, Vietnamese and otherwise. Nguyen and some other artist, Khoi later explained to me, are the rare voices who talk about that period not with the voice of Hollywood, not dubbed or badly translated, but in impeccable, civilizing English. So this is no longer the time of melting pot (was it ever?), but time to fight for the multiculturalism so revered as the foundation of this country. “The ethnic differences will make America stronger, but not before the differences based on slave society, and embedded in the current system, are addressed seriously,” warned Nguyen. So, the current and the most substantial discussion in American society is whether the simple, patriotic model of hierarchical races can be replaced by a multicultural model, said Nguyen. It’s a request that was raised many times by the 50 writers who participated in the festival and shared their narratives with a very attentive audience.

As in the  Pulitzer Prize-winning work The Underground Railroad, which takes place in 1850, shortly before the start of the civil war. Author Colson Whitehead dives into the fringes of American slavery, using the novel to get the truth, not necessarily the facts, as he explained it. “I do not provide the document, I make it up,” he said. The underground railroad is not, in Whitehead’s novel, the secret network of passageways and safe houses used by runaway slaves to reach the free North from their slaveholding states. Or rather, it is that, but it is something else too.

Cora is a young slave on a Georgia cotton plantation. Her mother ran away when Cora was a girl, and that feeling of abandonment has haunted her since. When she is approached by another slave suggesting escape through the underground railroad, she hesitates before the horrors of her life, taking the form of rape and humiliation, gives her the necessary nudge. In a confrontation with bounty hunters during her escape, she kills a white boy, and soon she is being pursued by a notorious slave catcher named Ridgeway, a man straight out of Cormac McCarthy’s dark world, and whose assistant wears a necklace made of human ears. What follows is Cora’s uncertain itinerary through an uncertain hell.

As Juan Gabriel Vásquez observes:

One of the most eloquent passages of the novel — and one that illustrates the way Whitehead’s imagination goes about its business — takes place in the Museum of Natural Wonders, in South Carolina. It is a limestone building occupying an ­entire block; when Cora arrives and asks where she should begin cleaning, she discovers that is not what is expected of her. There is a section of the museum called Living History. Like a railroad, explains the curator, the museum allows its visitors to “see the rest of the country beyond their small experience.” Cora realizes her task is to go behind a glass and act her part in a depiction of the slave experience, all this while the visitors look intensely at her from the other side. One room is called “Scenes From Darkest Africa”; another is “Life on the Slave Ship.” While Cora plays her part (silently, dutifully) in the static scenes, she begins to question their accuracy. The curator, Whitehead writes, “did concede that spinning wheels were not often used outdoors,” but counters that “while authenticity was their watchword, the dimensions of the room forced certain concessions.”…

“The Underground Railroad” is also about the myriad ways in which black history has too often been stolen by white narrators. At a performance Cora sees from a distance, a slave is played by “a white man in burned cork, pink showing on his neck and wrists.” Remembering the passages on slavery contained in the Bible, Cora blames the people who wrote them down: “People always got things wrong,” she thinks, “on purpose as much as by accident.” Whitehead’s novel is constantly concerned with these matters of narrative authenticity and authority, and so too with the different versions of the past we carry with us.

In Rancho Mirage, Whitehead was asked about how he judges Abraham Lincoln, the American president who abolished slavery. “Nobody is perfect. I describe and speak in three dimensions,” answered Whitehead, who explained that his primary source for the book was the slave narratives, written in 1930, but also Gabriel García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” whose handling of time Whitehead seems to owe quite a bit.

The festival went for three days. It was exhausting running from one session to the other, but it was even more difficult to decide what room to visit and what discussion to follow and participate in. There were many authors like Scott Turow, who I read for years, but did not go to listen to simply because there were many new voices to discover. One of them being Alexandra Fuller, who wrote  “Quiet Until the Thaw,” about two Native American cousins who belong to Lakota Oglala Sioux Nation and find themselves at odds with each other as they grapple with the implications of their shared heritage. There was Nancy Isenberg, with her very important book “White Trash,” on how America avoided the discussion about class and created the illusion of social mobility to better fit the idea of the American dream, at the expense of the American dream. The lexicon of White Trash also includes the immigrants, who were considered a “waste” in their own countries and sent to the colonies to make something of themselves in the land of opportunity. White slaves without land or the right to vote in their new country constituted an ignored, neglected class that resurged, in resentment and influence, with their vote for Trump.

It was to my surprise and profound pleasure that among many brilliant authors a book on American healthcare, An American Sickness, researched and written by Elisabeth Rosenthal, was mentioned as the best and the most important book at the festival, not only because it is as well written as a Le Carre novel, but because Rosenthal gives the impression that she learned medicine just to be able to write about it, explaining with illuminating accuracy the exorbitant cost of American health care ($3.5 trillion a year). This is five times the amount of the Pentagon’s budget, its war machine dominating the world. The time will come when America will have to lay down its arms and start thinking about its waste, waste that fortifies the pockets of insurance companies, hospitals, and the pharmaceutical industry, sustained by the lobbies. It’s an elaborately orchestrated plot that marks Rosenthal as a detective of a new era.

At the end of three days of intense discussions–the best are always had during breakfast when the speakers are not yet alert–my life partner helped me to define the Rancho Mirage Writers festival. What if this congregation of rich people acted as the Medicis of the United States? Benefactors of the artistic experiment, purveyors of the social good. I liked the idea because all the people who contributed to the festival are not only benefactors but also alert, smart and articulate citizens. Yes, many of them, because of the degraded political class, Clintons included, favored Trump in 2016. But during the discussions of the last few days, they expressed worry that the current president is doing a lot of damage. Not to them–they are fine–but to the world around us. It may be enough to pierce the mirage.

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