Tag Archives: summer 2003

30 Days Of Night

30 Days of Night

Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith
IDW Publishing ($17.99)

By S. Clayton Moore

30 Days of Night is set in the long, dark world of Barrow, Alaska, but colors its victims in ghastly shades of red as well, so don't read this slick little volume at night. The unique setting lends this vampire story a novel premise (much in the same manner as Greg Rucka's graphic novel Whiteout, which follows a U.S. Marshall tracking a killer in Antarctica).

See, the sun doesn't rise in Barrow between November 18th and December 17th and a clever vampire named Marlowe has brought his band of undead to town for a feeding frenzy. It's not so much an assault as an all-out obliteration of one town from the face of the earth, captured in the feverish snapshots of artist Steve Templesmith and a razor-sharp script by Steve Niles, who cut his teeth in the same vein on Image Comics' Hellspawn.

"This is the world of which they have only dreamed," Niles writes. "Endless night and an endless supply of blood and meat. This is how it is meant to be: humans, like bottles, waiting for their caps to be popped." In the manner of the best horror stories, only a sole couple—in this case Barrow's husband-and-wife sheriff's team—stands in the way.

Templesmith uses a daring style that combines a bold use of ink and paint with computer manipulation to impart a dreamlike menace. It's not quite real and yet you can almost feel the bitter chill fall as the sun goes down for the last time. 30 Days of Night has been optioned as a film but don't wait until Hollywood has sucked its bones dry—get it now, while it's fresh and juicy.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003

Ruse: The Silent Partner

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Mark Waid, Scott Beatty, Butch Guice, Mark Perkins, Laura DePuy, et al.
CrossGen Comics ($15.95)

by Rudi Dornemann

The founders of CrossGen Comics entered the comics marketplace with the goal of appealing to an audience beyond superhero fans and habitual comics specialty-shop patrons, and over the past few years it's been interesting to watch their plan unfold. Their steadily growing roster of titles has eschewed superheroes but hasn't shied away from other recognizable genres—horror, space opera, medieval fantasy, samurai adventure, mystery. They've made sure that readers can find earlier chapters of ongoing titles, especially through well-timed collected editions. And they've cultivated a female audience by focusing several of their storylines on women who aren't drawn in skimpy costumes. Given the company's business savvy in producing, packaging, and marketing the comics that advance their strategy, the question remains—how good are the comics themselves?

Looking at Ruse—the CrossGen title with perhaps the broadest appeal—it would seem like they're on the right track. While not as edgy as many small-press and independent comics, Ruse is certainly more sophisticated than most superhero books and offers a consistently entertaining read. In pitching their work to a non-comics audience, Ruse's creators and publishers haven't forgotten how much of the pleasure of comics lies in their serial nature, the gradual development of character and story, and the simple fun of anticipation.

Ruse's main character—hyper-logical, largely emotionless detective Simon Archard—would seem to signal that Ruse is a Sherlock Holmes knock-off. This is, however, only the first of many stock items that writers Mark Waid and Scott Beatty use to set up our expectations only to tweak them. Filling the Watsonian niche of sidekick/narrator is Emma Bishop, who is both more capable and less appreciated than Holmes's associate. The crisply-written banter between Simon and Emma propels the comic from panel to panel through some fairly tricky plots.

A large part of the fun of Ruse is the sleight of hand with which familiar tropes emerge only to develop in unexpected directions. The second Ruse collection, The Silent Partner, leads off with a thorough rearrangement of the typical Middle-European-village-menaced-by-vampires scenario. There's also a brief bit concerning an assassination attempt by agents of the League of Aggrieved Manservants—the unstated joke being that Archard has solved one too many cases in which "the butler did it."

Ruse is at its most entertaining when it's least on-task; The Silent Partner's opening two chapter digression and the third chapter's self-contained mystery deliver more zing than the sequence of showdowns in its concluding three chapters. Those three chapters, however, are full of character development, backstory revelations, and climactic showdowns—all of which deepen the world of the characters and prime the reader to pick up the next Ruse collection.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003

Black Theatre: Ritual Performance in the African Diaspora

Black Theatre

Paul Carter Harrison, Victor Leo Walker II, Gus Edwards, eds.
Temple University Press ($27.95)

by Justin Maxwell

A thorough and well-made anthology, Black Theatre: Ritual Performance in the African Diaspora successfully illustrates how Black theatre is, as Paul Carter Harrison says in his prefatory essay "Praise/Word," not a "mere reaction to oppression," but an endeavor to "identify and retrieve African traditions from the American social landscape." Within the broad context of that purpose a lot of ground gets covered. The later essays of the collection deal with theatrical practice—Lundeana Thomas's essay "Barbara Ann Teer: From Holistic Training to Liberating Rituals" explores a process of personal discovery that Teer believes makes individuals into successful African-American theatre practitioners and community members, while Ntozake Shange's essay "Porque Tu No M'entrende? Whatcha Mean You Can't Understand Me?" looks at regaining African cultural life and language predicated on the belief that "English is a greedy, swallowing language that appropriates words and gestures as an infant at the nipple sucks milk."

The first two parts of the anthology deal more with tradition, providing detailed, almost-anthropological insight into Black theatre's cultural subtext. They contain a large amount of material linking African traditions to cultural practices across the sad swath of the Diaspora. As Victor Leo Walker sums up, the terms theatre and drama ... are inclusive of ritual, ceremony, carnival, masquerade, testimonials, rites of passage, the blues, improvisation, "Negro spirituals," spoken word, hip-hop, storytelling, and other performative modes of expression rooted in the ancestral ethos of black Africans in the Diaspora.

These roots save Black theatrical expression from the pitfalls of what J. C. de Graft, in "Roots In African Drama and Theatre," calls the "three destructive enemies of theatre," which are "excessive rationalism," "the tendency to reduce all drama to the level of mere entertainment," and "the tendency towards commercialism." These destructive tendencies are antithetical to the cultural inheritance that allows Black theatre to be multifaceted, a "total theatre." In the words of Babatunde Lawal, "black playwrights turned to the African praxis of total theatre, which blends the visual and performing arts, allows for improvisation, and eliminates the gulf between performers and audience." This inclusive view of art is as much cultural as theatrical; it creates an aesthetic-theological dramaturgy that becomes the embodiment of primary cultural building blocks—religion (Voodoo, church ritual), festivals (Carnival), and community (the "call-and-response practices of collective experience"). The values of Black theatre give it the ability to ritualistically and publicly connect (or reconnect) to the spiritual and the communal, something which is inherent in African (but lost to mainstream American) theatre. This aesthetic of interconnection is the clear result of an African epistemology that survived the Middle Passage and subsequent centuries of oppression, and explains why African-American art ties the modern art-maker to the spiritual/cultural healer, a sublime relationship between the material and the spiritual contained in "the Yoruba concept of Ifogbontáayése."

The inseparable fusion of theatre and life requires that Black theatre be seen completely independent of the Western tradition; Ed Bullins makes this point when he says that "we don't want to have a higher form of white art in Black faces." And Paul Carter Harrison refers to this independence as being "unshackled by the predictable, orderly constraints of Western realism." This unshackling is, according to Paul K. Bryant-Jackson, embodied by the works of Adrienne Kennedy, whose "preoccupation with myth forces her to abandon mimetic representation on the physical stage and substitute an altar upon which she stages an ontological argument in which nothing is certain except the mutable resisting image before us." The incarnation of Black drama as wholly different from mainstream Western drama is also encountered through Jean Young's essay on Ntozake Shange's acclaimed choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf: "Shange's use of call-and-response and dance works as a powerful incantation or mojo force, allowing audience members full participation by projecting them into metaphysical 'suspension of disbelief.'" What Shange's audience experiences is not the fourth-wall suspension of disbelief found in Western theatre; it is something more akin to the moments of ecstasy in testifying during Black Fundamentalist church services.

In the essay "Form and Transformation: Immanence of the Soul in the Performance Modes of Black Church and Black Music," Paul Carter Harrison concisely contrasts African and European aesthetic traditions; he states that Black theatre is "a reversal of the naturalistic objectives of the Western tradition, black theatre does not hold up a mirror to nature; instead, it invokes a process of conjuration to awaken the forces of nature that illuminate experience." The illumination of experience marks a theatre where audience and actor do not have a significant separation; all are participants. The intrinsic connection of observer and maker allows Black theatre an aesthetic-psychic exploration that, in Marta Vega's phrasing, creates a "seamless vision of art as part of sacred life ...essential to the creative expression of Africans in the Diaspora." The intimate connection of secular and sacred is an idea that Western theatre loosely and unsuccessfully approached through the defunct proselytizing of the Medieval liturgical drama and Renaissance mystery plays. Because of the fundamental differences between African and European traditions many scholars have continued to marginalize African drama because it lacked a direct European equivalency, a misguided approach that Tejumola Olaniyan refers to as "the consistent attribution of difference as fault," in her essay "Agones: The Constitution of a Practice."

A close ideological interweaving of voices allows Black Theatre to recreate and actively participate in the aesthetic that it explores. The multiplicity of scholarly and practitioner voices call to one another in the different parts of this text, across the similar cultural terrain of the Diaspora, consequently recreating the practices of Black theatre/culture. This anthology becomes an intellectual call-and-response, an act of cultural harmony that, because of the texts' destiny for classroom use, inherently subverts the aesthetics of a white, hegemonic intellegencia. Because the parts of the text cover such vast territory, the book is as much an anthology of cultural aesthetics, a work of anthropology, as a study of theatre. It's elaborate interconnectedness is wonderful, but illustrates the work's one structural weakness: no index. And this is a book that warrants going back to. There's so much overlap of good material that reference is inevitable and finding one specific idea is very challenging.

Black Theatre is a gateway: to follow its paths creates a lifetime of study and art-making because a lifetime is what each essayist has contributed. It will find a much deserving home in the classroom and on the bookshelves of serious, well-minded theatre practitioners everywhere.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003

Duende: A Journey into the Heart of Flamenco

Duende

Jason Webster
Broadway Books ($23.95)

by John Toren

Flamenco, one of the world's great art forms, is also among the grittiest and most abjectly fatalistic. We therefore accompany Jason Webster in his attempts to penetrate its inner heart with a degree of skepticism. He informs us early in his narrative that he studied Arabic in Egypt to no real purpose and spent years at Oxford without learning a thing. Finding himself at loose ends when his girlfriend dumps him, Webster decides, out of the blue, to explore the world of flamenco; he buys a guitar, though he's never played one, and hops a flight the next day to Alicante, a Spanish city with no flamenco associations, because a friend of his happens to live there.

Webster's prose is painfully jejune: time and again he remarks, as some new aspect of Spanish life confronts him, "My head was spinning." At one point he refers to Franco flippantly as "the odd little dictator," and when it dawns on him that there is no flamenco culture to be found in Alicante, he reflects, "as my limited searching led nowhere, I began to understand how ill-prepared I had been. I had no idea where to start or what to expect." Perhaps the leitmotiv for the entire project surfaces when a fortune-teller stuns him with the observation that he's emotionally immature. "Her words rang inside me like a bell and I sat back on the cushions, confused. How could one be emotionally immature? It seemed such a strange idea."

In short, Webster lacks both the temperament and the discernment required to develop a serious appreciation of flamenco culture. All the same, he does succeed in befriending a number of gypsies operating on the fringes of that notoriously inbred and impenetrable world. In fact, within a few months of taking up the guitar he's accompanying flamenco dancers at village festivals! He names his chapters cutely after the traditional forms—bulerías, soleá, tientos—and passes on many nuggets of flamenco lore in the course of relating his adventures with his boss's wife, his aged guitar instructor, and various landladies, musicians, and gypsy friends in Madrid and Granada.

In time Webster's search for the heart of flamenco picks up speed; he begins dabbling with drugs, gets taken up by a struggling group of flamenco musicians, goes to a bullfight, becomes an unwitting accomplice in the theft of a car, and even attends a gypsy wedding. Yet his naiveté never deserts him, and after all his escapades Webster can still glibly observe: "I had slept well and wanted to maintain the momentum. Playing with dancers and another guitarist would be ideal for this mild, sunny day." After more than two years in Spain Webster is still largely clueless: "Duende, I was beginning to learn, could not be produced on demand."

The mix of fatuous truisms and glimpses of authentic experience makes for bumpy reading, and Duende is unlikely to find a place on the shelf beside such classic accounts of the subject as George Borrow's The Zingali (1842), Irving Brown's Deep Song (1929), D. H. Pohren's The Art of Flamenco (1972), and Michael Jacobs's uncommonly astute A Guide to Andalusia (1990). Then again, these books are all out-of-print. Clearly Webster has experienced the grip of that thing called "duende," a dark beauty that erupts from the midst of flamenco's flurried anguish, and he's spent a good deal of time and effort in pursuit of it. Yet he lacks jondura, the depth to do it justice. What we're left with is Bright Lights, Big City, Andalusian style.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003

Abraham: A Journey To The Heart Of Three Faiths

Abraham

Bruce Feiler
William Morrow and Company ($23.95)

by H. E. Everding

To accompany Bruce Feiler on this journey to understand the roots of the three monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) as well as his own identity, the reader travels through place (e.g., the Negev, Jerusalem, Savannah, GA) and time (four millennia), always in the midst of a never-ending war. In pursuit of Abraham and his heirs, Feiler weaves together on the spot observations, conversations, careful reading of texts, and histories of interpretation in a poetic style that both informs and seduces.

Even though there is reason to doubt that Abraham ever existed, Feiler discloses the power and resilience of Abraham as symbolic progenitor of three faith traditions. Through his non-fictional research, Feiler discovers myriads of fictional Abrahams. At various moments in history, each of the three traditions choose and reconstruct Abraham in their own image and for their own exclusive religious and political purposes.

Abraham represents readable and engaging historiography (despite its lack of documentation) and hermeneutics. For example, Feiler frames the chapter on Isaac with a personal conversation with the proprietor of B. Cohen & Sons, a small Judaic shop in Jerusalem's Old City. In between he traces how the figure of Isaac and his potential demise by father Abraham became a symbol of the suffering pious Jew (the "Akedah or binding"), the prototype of Jesus' sacrificial death for some Christians (the "crucifixion"), and was displaced by Ishmael in Islamic tradition as the one rendered (the "Dhabih or cut"). All three traditions place the story of Isaac/Ishmael "at the heart of their self-understanding," revealing both their shared origins but significant differences.

Feiler's journey starts at the Temple Mount in war-torn Jerusalem overlooking the Dome of the Rock—symbolic place of Isaac's near-sacrifice—and ends at Hebron where Abraham was buried. After an excellent analysis of Abraham's birth and call by God, Feiler explores various traditions about Ishmael and Isaac, and how Abraham was re-interpreted in the three faith traditions. The final section reflects on Abraham's "legacy" as symbol and hope for conversation among the three religious traditions. As Feiler puts it:

Abraham is like water . . . He's a vast, underground aquifer that stretches from Mesopotamia to the Nile, from Jerusalem to Mecca, from Kandahar to Kansas City. He's an ever-present, ever-flowing stream that represents the basic desire all people have to form a union with God. He's a physical manifestation of the fundamental yearning to be descended from a sacred source. He's a personification of the biological need we all share to feel protected by someone, something. Anything.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003

Clown Paintings

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Edited by Diane Keaton
powerHouse Books ($29.95)

by Andrea Balenfield

Anybody who's ever looked over their shoulder at that eerie clown painting in their local dive-bar or past-its-prime restaurant will appreciate this book, as actor/director/writer Diane Keaton has here assembled a bevy of the best this odd genre has to offer. Many of the paintings come from her personal collection or that of art dealer Robert Berman; both Keaton and Berman lurk at flea markets and swap meets, looking for fine art in what Keaton calls "the ugliest genre of them all" among the detritus.

As Clown Paintings amply demonstrates, their search has not been in vain. While none of these works shows the hand of the master, they are startlingly deep in their naïve brushstrokes and restricted subject matter. And rather than conveying a sense of repetition or easy tropism, the more than five-dozen pieces here are intriguingly different. Within the narrow parameters of the genre, these clown paintings convey a real breadth of emotion; as Berman puts it in his afterword, "the passion, absurdity, and the angst in clown paintings transcended all stereotypes that are traditionally associated with works of this nature," while Keaton notes that "these rank amateurs' dogged attempts to put a stamp of personal expression on the map link us to them." That link is indeed indelibly felt throughout these pages.

Keaton further gets at the heart of how we think about clowns by including statements on them by her fellow experts on things comedic: everyone from Woody Allen to Robin Williams weighs in on the subject in short reflections. Unlike the paintings, these pieces reveal an uncomfortable sameness, as most of the comedians confess they simply don't like clowns. Candice Bergen bemoans, "Why don't I get these guys?" Dick Van Dyke confesses, "I never laughed at a clown in my whole life." John Waters reminds us that John Wayne Gacy dressed as one when he wasn't out killing. But some writers give clowns their due: Jay Leno admits, "Their ability to get twenty-eight people into one tiny car is a good lesson for all of us."

This is a fine addition to Diane Keaton's growing shelf of image-driven books, which includes Local News (crime photos) and Still Life (Hollywood tableaux).

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003

Existential America

Existential America

George Cotkin
The Johns Hopkins University Press ($39.95)

by Christopher Luna

Existentialists argue for personal responsibility in the face of what Walter Kaufmann identified as the four elements of this philosophy: "dread, despair, death, and dauntlessness." But as George Cotkin's overview of existentialism's influence upon American culture points out, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir felt that the "confidence and naive optimism" of Americans blinded them to "the problems of existence, authenticity, and alienation." Beauvoir especially found Americans to be materialistic, "afraid of freedom, unwilling to engage in high-level discussions of serious ideas, childish in some ways, and unable to trust themselves." Yet Cotkin shows there was an existential strain in American culture that preceded all three of these philosophers, in the work of Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and Edward Hopper, among others. Unlike their French counterparts, American intellectuals "refused to make a fetish out of nihilism"; instead, "anguish and despair" functioned as "goads to action and commitment."

As Cotkin goes on to illustrate, the horror of World War I and "the skeptical disposition of science had rendered traditional beliefs untenable." The influence of Soren Kierkegaard's "inwardness and religious anxiety" upon American religious thinkers and artists in the first half of the century "did not bode well for political radicalism or reform; it supported for some intellectuals a retreat from leftist commitments of the 1930s." Kierkegaard shared a "faith in the absurd" with his largely conservative followers, who "found much of American religion empty, marked by rote optimism and belief in progress."

The willingness of Kierkegaardian thinkers to wrestle with "paradox, irony, and tragedy" in the aftermath of World War II made the Danish philosopher's ideas very attractive to writers including Thornton Wilder and W.H. Auden, as well as the painters Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, for whom art was "a mythological and heroic 'act of defiance,' which opened the path to transcendence through engagement with the canvas and the unconscious." Kierkegaard's "mode of argument, positing two opposites," was also posthumously appropriated by Cold War proponents who demanded that Americans make a choice between "faith in God and faith in communism."

In the 1940s and 1950s, as the ideas of Sartre and Beauvoir attained prominence, the press emphasized their happiness in an effort to dismiss their philosophy as a pose. The couple skillfully manipulated their reception in France and the United States, presenting a "model of the philosopher as personality" that made them vastly popular. But ultimately, "the reception and dissemination of existentialism" was beyond their control. The chilly reception Sartre and Beauvoir received from the New York intellectuals, anti-Stalinists who "feared the power of popular and middlebrow culture," will be familiar to anyone who has ever argued over whether a particular artist's best work occurred before they achieved fame. Despite their criticisms of existentialism, the writing of New York intellectuals such as Saul Bellow "adopted many of its essentials."

Norman Mailer saw Sartre as "the only thinker in the world who could match him." Both "shared a desire. . . to effect 'a revolution in the consciousness of our time,'" though Mailer thought that Sartre "lacked a sufficient sense of evil." Mailer labeled his own novel, The Barbary Shore, (1951) as existential, and revealed an "existential focus" in The Naked and the Dead, (1948) where "the absurdity of war" is "demonstrated in the utter inability of men to control external events and the forces of nature."

Cotkin includes an astute analysis of Mailer's well-known essay, "The White Negro," in which he claimed that blacks had been "transformed into the psychopathic hipster through centuries of oppressive social conditions." Like Jack Kerouac and the photographer Robert Frank, Mailer saw African-Americans as "endowed with existential recognition and freedom." Cotkin sees this appropriation of the image of the "Negro as sexual libertine" as an act of "bad faith" and racist stereotyping. Mailer's habitual celebration of psychopaths leaves him in "no man's land. Action replaces impotence . . . but at the cost of human solidarity." Mailer is ultimately a "fundamentalist" who believes that only those "who live close to the abyss, who battle against the conformity of American culture. . . are near to religious ecstasy and existential transcendence."

The ideas of Camus appealed to student activists during the 1960s. Like Camus, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organizer Robert Moses and Tom Hayden, radical activist and drafter of the Port Huron Statement, "worried about how the rebel could avoid becoming the oppressor." Moses felt a certain amount of responsibility for those who were injured or killed in the Civil Rights Movement, while Hayden came to regret calling for violent revolution, having learned from Camus that in "defining ourselves, we must move beyond mere inwardness toward commitment to values such as justice and humaneness." Unfortunately, this section of the book is undermined by Cotkin's statement that these students "were the last generation for whom books made a difference," a conclusion that will surely surprise every scholar and writer alive during the four subsequent decades.

Cotkin concludes with a comparison of Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (1949) and Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1962), best-selling books that "transformed the lives of many women in America." Both women focused on the "responsibility of the individual" rather than external sources of oppression, and both held "the existential imperative that men and women create themselves through constant acts of negation and transcendence." But Beauvoir did not "appreciate the heroism of women working against constraints in a limited fashion: surviving domestic violence, facing yet another pregnancy, managing to support a family." Friedan, in turn, disagreed with Beauvoir's critique of capitalism; instead, she "was a reformist, wanting women to have opportunities equal to those of men within the existing structures of power." By 1975, when they met for the first time, "Friedan's conservatism . . . and her rejection of sexual politics—indeed, even of discussions of sexual identity—marked her as bourgeois and backward-looking." Beauvoir saw Friedan's ideas for reform as "reactionary, linked to a notion that 'women are doomed to stay at home.'" Both women virtually ignored the plight of the working class and avoided the subject of non-white women altogether.

Within "liberal and leftist academic circles, existentialism had, by the 1970s and 1980s, been pushed aside by deconstructionist and postmodern theory . . . Critics derided existentialism for its refusal to understand the science of signs, the ways in which the human individual is constructed and constrained by structures of thought." Nevertheless, Cotkin concludes that "existentialism is receiving renewed attention in American culture because it speaks to everyone's frustrations in life: to dissatisfaction with ideals of success and to the unavoidably tragic nature of existence." He hopes that we will be able to "pass through despair to, if not salvation, then to a depth of understanding that is at once humbling and enabling."

Despite its fascinating subject matter, Existential America suffers from a maddening repetitiveness. Particular words (e.g. "anguish" and "absurd") and phrases recur so frequently that one is forced to wonder whether the author lacks imagination or is simply insulting our intelligence. Many of the chapters began as articles in scholarly journals and magazines, and it shows. Although it is unfortunate that more attention was not paid to the overall coherence of the narrative, Existential America is a useful reference volume for students of philosophy and American culture.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003

Pharmako/Dynamis: Stimulating Plants, Potions & Herbcraft

What's Your Poison?

Pharmako/Dynamis
Dale Pendell
Mercury House ($21.95)

by Sarah Fox

"Lastly, it was never my intention to write for everyone.
In which case, I would say, you have scored substantial success.
Thank you, Sweetheart. Good night now."

Thus ends the Preface to the long-awaited Pharmako/Dynamis, the second in a proposed trilogy of books investigating "the nature of poisons" by our favorite contemporary alchemist, Dale Pendell. Having read the brilliant Pharmako/Poeia, released by Mercury House in 1995, and then having re-read it several times, we celebrate the much-anticipated arrival of this equally brilliant second volume. We begin again to surreptitiously scan the seed selection at our local co-op (why are the Heavenly Blue Morning Glories always sold out?), and more closely peruse the Linnaean nomenclature of the plants offered up at our farmer's markets (e.g. the innocent-looking and seemingly ubiquitous "Angel's Trumpet," otherwise known as Datura, or Brugmansia, an important ingredient in the Voudun's zombie potion not to mention its notoriety as a potent hallucinogen whose use is generally discouraged by medical experts.)

And we recognize that mischievously intrusive italicized voice—"the ally," as Pendell calls it, or "Sweetheart"—who continues to shadow his scholarship, his method ("where possible, immersion"), and poetic discourse, into the Gnostic lore and language of "the poison path." The Poison, or pharmakon (Greek: poison, or king; the Eucharist, or Jesus; to Derrida, "the undecidable")—in other words, the drug (Middle English: drogge, dry; in a country where plants are "scheduled," I think many of us can appreciate this etymology)—is "both noxious and healing, medicine and bewitching charm, chemical reagent and the artist's colors." It is also the ally, and it talks. Pendell's preface is basically a warning: "Books themselves are poisons . . . A key is necessary to unlock the gate, but anyone is free to just walk around it. I call this technique 'autocryptosis.' It seems only fitting that a book about poisons ought to be poison itself."

Indeed, this book is not for everyone. The common reader will cast it aside as esoteric gibberish. The D.A.R.E. police will find it impossible to understand, least of all conveniently misinterpret. The recreational drug user will become swiftly bored by the lack of unmitigated encouragement and the consistent allegiance to botany, chemistry, spirituality, and history, not to mention there's poetry in it. All the better for those who've been waiting behind the tree line for a chance to linger, hoping to lay a hand on the key. Pendell writes in the first-person plural, putting the reader directly on the path with him. For some this may feel off-putting. Others understand. The gate is locked for a reason: poison is certainly democratic, but the path itself is the way of danger. As Gary Snyder notes in his foreword to Pharamko/Poeia: "This is a book about danger: dangerous knowledge, even more dangerous ignorance, and dangerous temptations by the seductions of addictions both psychic and cellular. It is a book which requires that one not be titillated by romantic ideas of self-destruction. I hope and believe it will benefit human beings and the plant world too. It is not for everyone—but neither is mountaineering."

Who, then, are these books for? If you're still asking this question, chances are they're not for you.


To follow the Way of Poisons, it is essential to learn about plants. As you learn about plants, you will, by the by, meet plant people. . . . In the old times it was not unusual for people to be turned into plants. The old plant doctors knew those stories. The old doctors talked to the plants directly. They knew. That this tree was a girl, that that flower had been a boy. Such things are still true. . . . Our Way, however, is not about being a plant person. Ours is the Poison Path.
--Pharmako/Poeia

Pharmako/Dynamis is an especially inadvisable read for the faint of heart as it showcases those poisons which are stimulants: "Excitantia" (Coffee, Tea, Chocolate, Maté, Kola, Betel, Ma Huang, Khat, Coca) and "Empathogenica" (Nutmeg, MDMA, Ecstasy, GHB.) Pendell has devised a sort of taxonomical mandala, the primary headings being Excitantia, Thanatopathia, Inebriantia, Euphorica, Phantastica, and further in a pentacle with subgroups and alchemical symbols relating to each subgroup. The third volume promises to explore the realm of Phantastica: the hallucinogens. We really hope we won't have to wait another seven years to read it. "There are those who believe we can live without plants. There is thus some urgency to our task. . . ." Yes. The book goes beyond plants, however, and spends some time in its latter third discussing the potential merits of chemical stimulants, such as MDMA, discovered by Sasha Shulgin. The facts around historical use of MDMA and Ecstasy, and how those chemicals became corrupted (chemically and politically) while plunging into the underground scene, is particularly engaging in Pendell's hands.

It seems important not to underestimate Pendell's implication of "poison." Paracelsus stated "Everything is poison, nothing is poison." He also wrote "It is the work of the alchemist to separate the poison from the arcanum." The original poison: Tree of Knowledge. Doctors, shamans, poets, chemists, herbalists, teachers, politicians: possible poisoners all. As Pendell states in "On the Nature of Poison," the introductory essay to Pharmako/Dynamis, "The pharmakon is both remedy and poison: a baneful drug or a medicinal restorative. Homer uses the word both ways." And he defines Pharmakodynamics as "the study of the effects and actions of drugs on living organisms." That means any drug, including spinach, Skittles, aspirin, that cup of coffee you had for breakfast this morning, your trusty Prozac.

Less rhapsodic, more politically charged and germane to the present social temper than Pharmako/Poeia, Pharmako/Dynamis elicits a historical connection between stimulants and capitalism (or simply industrialization), and as always, Pendell locates plants (poisons) firmly positioned at history's crossroads. "Age of Reason. Age of Stimulants. A reasonable universe replacing a rational cosmos. . . . Stimulants eclipsed the age of Exploration. Speed and destination instead of the meandering looking about of a scout in unmapped territory. A closing of periphery. Mercantilism. The trading ship: nothing to see on the voyage, nothing but straight ahead. Destination. Goal directed." Pendell opens the book with an investigation of coffee, tea, and cocoa arriving almost simultaneously to Europe by the late 1600s. By 1700 more than 3000 coffeehouses thrived in London and became meeting houses for the prominent men of the day. Voltaire, whom Pendell calls "the quintessential coffee-shaman," drank 72 cups of coffee a day (bested, of course, by Balzac.) Pendell finds it difficult to "separate the history of coffee from that of. . .the spice trade," which cast Europeans out into the East Indies and the New World on their various expeditions involving piracy, enslavement, and colonization. The desire to sweeten these bitter beverages led to further plundering abroad, namely in Polynesia and Africa, where it took ten times the number of slaves to produce sugar than to produce cotton or tobacco. Even earlier stimulant nations, such as the Aztec and Inca, exhibited a rejection of shamanistic communalism in favor of violent imperialism. Some readers may note the absence of matrilineal-based cultures in the stimulant narrative—the story of speed does seem to transpire mostly in Apollo's domain. We can assume Pendell will revisit Maria Sabina, whom we last met in the Salvia divinorum section of Pharmako/Poeia, along with a ramble through the Eleusinian fields, in volume three, the aptly titled Pharmako/Gnosis.

Our own culture embraces the stimulant to a religious degree, with every work place housing its coffee shrine, Meth the drug of choice among bored rural adolescents, and everybody wanting to get more done faster, absorb more information, beat the clock. "Speed has become our principal and ruling poison," Pendell notes. Stimulants are buoyant, sociable; they feed on capitalist structures because they make us believe we can steal more time. Stealing more time, obviously, means buying more money. The cover illustration for Pharmako/Dynamis, from the 16th-century Charta Lusoria by Jost Amman, shows a swashbuckling couple dancing with big clay pots on their heads—they whistle while they work. "That poisons are excessive is almost tautological," says Pendell. "In this case the poison path goes beyond aesthetics."

But can stimulants be metaphysically valuable? Can the plants and chemicals from which they come hold keys to deeper, more molecular exchanges; can these poisons also be allies on the path? Pendell shows us they can, when used wisely, with respect and attention toward dosage and intent (not to mention set and setting.) In an interview conducted by tripzine.com, Pendell says "I'm more inclined to look to old ways, the older traditions, natural societies, more anarchistically based cultures and looking back to pre-civilized models of society, less hierarchical things. We could say that civilization has come to mean an advanced developed state, but traditional societies were just as intricate and advanced in their way. Another way to look at civilization is that it's an anomalous condition that humans have been in for the last four-thousand years, which does not represent most of our lives—that of having a centralized state, of having standing armies, hierarchical social structures." There are patches of land left in the world where communities do continue to flourish within what might be defined as primitive constructs. Many indigenous cultures struggle to maintain their shamanic roots and their harmonic relationship with the plant world, despite the frequent introduction of Western value systems through missionaries or researchers. In South America—where native use of psychoactive plants has provoked excessive on-site scholarship over the past several decades—many plants currently abused in Western societies sustain their spiritual import to the natives.

An example of a plant whose status varies significantly depending on the culture using it is the coca leaf, which remains important to indigenous South Americans. The coqueros in the Andes carry coca leafs with them on their treks and sometimes mix lime paste into their quids. Coca tea is Bolivia's national beverage, and the leaves are sold to tourists as a cure for motion sickness. The coca plant has served South America, "as food, as medicine, and as a central ritual of communal spirit," for five million years. Yet its abuse in the United States is legendary. Pendell writes at length about Reagan's role in the importation of cocaine (and the development of crack) to the United States, and his subsequent waging of "the war on drugs" (after media hysteria covered up the political atrocities raging on Central America, and as a potential excuse for later intervention in South America.) Even if you already know that the war on drugs is a smokescreen, that your kids are being brainwashed at school, that there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Pendell's telling is remarkable in its generosity and scope. He's sensible, as well as literary and intellectual. On top of being a poet (he's published seven books of verse), Pendell is also a computer scientist and an ethnobotanist. He knows what he's talking about, and he's unbelievably eloquent. Then again, he does do drugs. But so do we, and Pendell is as gentle and wise a guide as they come. His intent is to bring to his discourse a grounding in both science and higher spirituality and show how, through his alchemical lyricism, their union can be raised to the level of magic: Gnostic wisdom and shamanism. In the aforementioned interview, Pendell says "My whole project is to subvert the way we think, the way we look at the world, and my two targets are, on the one hand scientism which has a reductionist/materialist approach and would 'dis' this whole discussion, and on the other hand, the naively uncritical new-age thought that is dismissive of the scientific tradition. My whole program. . .is a kind of wager that poetic logic is a truer description, a more complete description of the world than a purely scientific description. But at the same time, the scientific tradition has to be incorporated into it. Trying to pull these two currents in the western tradition back into each other. I think the culture needs that. It's a kind of disease we have."

If our culture is diseased—and I think few would argue that it isn't—Pendell offers a possible and sensible approach to the cure, even if we shirk away from immersion. Perhaps the most interesting, and surprising, essay in Pharmako/Dynamis is "Stealing from Tomorrow," in which Pendell seemingly narrates a personal recovery from freebase overload. Even here redemption can be earned, can be "part of the path," and he persists in his resolve that the poison cannot be blamed for its misuse. He ends this essay with

There is a spring. It comes out of the rocks on a high ridge dividing two great watersheds. The water is very cold and is pure beyond any other. It may be the only thing in the world that is not poison. It is surely the only thing in the world that can save your life. I'm not going to tell you where it is, but you know how to find it.

In other words, physician heal thyself. The essay immediately following "Stealing from Tomorrow" is, appropriately, "Wandering and the Vision Quest," a poetic and fragmented discourse on the hermetics of healing and shamanism.

The book is a veritable catalog of facts, ponderings, beautiful illustrations, and poetry, with quotations ranging from Bach to Nietzsche to the Aztec poet Nezahualcoyotl. Each plant receives its Correspondences (e.g. Coffea Arabica, listed in part below:)

MACHINE: Calculator
METAL: Silver
METAPHOR: Measure
MUSICAL INSTRUMENT: Boatswain's whistle
MYTH: Golden Fleece
MYTHIC HERO: Faust
NUMBER: Zero
OUT-OF-BODY REALM: Realm of Infinite Structure
PHASE OF COITUS: Arousal
PHYSICAL CONSTANT: Placnk/h
PLANET: Sun
POISON: Single Vision
QUARK: Up
REALM OF PLEASURE: Brain
RITUAL EVENT: Caucus
SEXUAL POSITION: Missionary
SIGN: Canis Major
TAROT KEY: Chariot
TOOL: Chart/Map
VIRTUE: Fortitude
VOWEL: Middle Front/e

Sub-headings for each plant include "Parts Used," "History," "Signatures," "Taxonomy," "Chemistry and Pharmacology," etc., and these are interspersed and revisited throughout each section. In his preface, Pendell says the book's structure "is three-dimensional and holographic. Start anywhere. Read backwards. A book is linear by nature, but that is only a single projection—other cut-ups might make more sense." Like a cookbook or a dictionary, it is the kind of text one will open to different places for different needs; it is a reference guide, but reading it from cover to cover is also among the most pleasurable reading experiences we've had in a very long time.

A green ribbon appears conspicuously on the spine of Pharmako/Dynamis, indicating, as we learn from the author's bio, that "Dale Pendell supports the Green Ribbon campaign to free the green prisoners. DIY." The only way to learn the poison path is DIY, immersion, and if we're lucky, by the by, we'll meet a fellow poisoner who's one step ahead with a tip or two to share. Plants are the principal teachers. They have a language, and Pendell gets as close as anybody has to transcribing the way that language might look and sound. The path is not about excess or merely recreation. It is, essentially, about death. We are mortal to be sure, but there are systems, laws, ideologies, and contrivances that limit our potential for transcendence. Do plants hold a key? Pendell examines the idea of death both metaphorically and literally. A few of these poisons could actually kill you, but the chances are unlikely if they're used responsibly. Many, if not most, of them benefit the body medicinally as well as psychically. The kind of death more likely to result from walking the poison path—aside from the obligatory "death of the ego"—is the gradual demise of a way of life, of living in disharmony with not only plants but other humans as well. The dissolution of the manufactured selves which separate us from each other and from our natural world. How long will this take? According to Pendell, the future bodes "hard times for large mammals." Will the real poison please stand up?

This is a brilliant, necessary book. There is genius to Pendell's approach, an erudite playfulness and poetic virtuosity unmatched by anyone writing about plants and drugs today. Pendell's books present a Pandora's box, and once opened, the steadfast and curious reader will soon find herself on the path. ("Opening the jar is the Hermetic pursuit.") Her way of looking at the world becomes spectacularly subverted; the poisons, after all, are greater than the human concepts which categorize and consume them, and they can and will live on without us. Has our existence become so clogged with its own stubbornness as to have eliminated the capacity to hear these ally ambassadors who call out from a world where, according to Pendell, "winds and ocean currents are intersynaptic fluids?" Are poisons involved in expanding our perception of the world and our role in its system, do they hold alchemical keys imperative to our continued survival on the planet? Are they worth the risk? We think perhaps so. Good night now.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003

Despite Everything: A Cometbus Omnibus

Despite Everything

Aaron Cometbus
Last Gasp ($14.95)

by Jocko Weyland

Just after Ronald Reagan's first inauguration, Aaron Cometbus and his friend Jesse decided to start a fanzine. They were thirteen years old. A year later Jesse moved away but Cometbus kept going and has now been regularly self-published for twenty years, garnering a widespread following that falls outside of any conventional demographic. The new anthology Despite Everything collects selections from the "ultra-rare and embarrassing early issues" (with names like Impending Doom) to the current, mature Cometbus. It covers the arc of a hitchhiking, dumpster diving, sleeping-under-garages-and-waking-up-covered-by-ants existence through an unorthodox voice that is just as concerned with all things punk as it is with appreciating the splendors of the wider world.

At the same time Aaron started the zine he was in his first band. Sample lyrics: "Feudal aristocracy was not the only class, ruined by bourgeoisie, shove it Marx, up your ass." Combetbus's roots are the exciting and unprecedented burgeoning of American hardcore music in the early '80s and a fantasy land called Berkeley, where six levels of Swahili were on the curriculum at the high school and bands like Fish of Death played exclusively in parking garages. The handwritten text and poor-quality photocopying of the early issues communicate the raw sense of possibility that punk promised then with a visceral punch. Over time the band news fell away and Cometbus became a much more personal project, turning to sharp and witty observations of the punk scene and America's hidden nooks and crannies. These autobiographical stories are full of a literary talent not usually associated with scrappy zines featuring reviews of greasy spoons in Asheville, North Carolina and tales about finding graffiti under bridges and meeting up with macrobiotic-diet bomb throwing fanzine editor skaters in Las Vegas.

In the introduction the author perfectly describes the cornerstones of Despite Everything's appeal and value. Cometbus, he writes, is "About the desire to look and see. To fully engage and explore, to document, challenge, demand or maybe just appreciate," and its mission is "Making your own fun . . . taking the lifestyle, perspective, and attitude of punk and applying it to real life." While these may not seem like goals that would produce compelling writing, they are manifested with a virtuosity that has produced a serial novel of distinction. It is one that takes the punk program to heart and applies it to a changing and complicated world in which things aren't as simple as they were when Aaron's friend Kevin really stood out at his Bar Mitzvah because no one else in the synagogue had a Mohawk.

Much of the content follows a wandering path through the back alleys and squats of an America unknown to most. Along the way Cometbus often works the graveyard shift at copy shops, when "wingnuts come in to Xerox tinfoil." Aaron's metier is an acute observation of and interaction with the unseen, nighttime side of humanity. It's being at Dan's Donut Bar in Arcata, California after a midnight walk and playing chess until "Greasy-eyed glazed dude" on four hits of acid demands his chessboard back. It's going through forty states in six months using a Greyhound ticket scam. Throughout (with the blocky handwriting and comics and Xerox graphics intact) is an appreciation of life's small pleasures—drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, finding worthless antique bottles in the trash and having great hopes of romance for the beautiful young girl wearing a Ramones shirt in some small town, only to watch her get on a different bus. He is willing to put himself out there with hardly any money and not enough food, displaying a kind of asceticism that is partially a badge of honor but makes for a good life lived to its fullest. Cometbus captures the everyday combination of hope, desire and depression and has an exquisite sensitivity to the "small pleasures that quench your thirst for life, and wash down those big disappointments."

One of the main themes of the anthology is punk's communal ethos. At one point while living in a Berkeley house, Aaron and his friends share what little they have: "Plus, I had a friend who worked at the bakery and kicked down the leftovers." In that house he writes by candlelight because they don't have power, and even if that seems like a parody it is exactly how you imagine the bard of punk toiling on his samizdat masterpieces. He states "Well, I'm not opposed to working. I suppose I'd work if we had a two day work week, workers owned the means of production, wealth was distributed equally, etc." That might come across as laughable, but Cometbus has made a functioning life out of refusal and there is something admirable and enviable about his success at not capitulating and staying free.

"Maybe punk rock is a religion. I know I'm indebted to it for saving me." Punk rock is the guiding light of redemption through an uncaring and incomprehensible society. It has morals, a collective consciousness, a code to live by—and Cometbus strives to keep that spirit alive. His religion is based on "people in bands who worked hard, had guts and humor, and set an example by the way they talked and moved and sang." He is a purist and believes fanzines have been instrumental in shaping identity and making connections and forming the movement. Cometbus consistently refers to the heady inception of punk culture and continues to be a fitting tribute and continuation of those beginnings.

The collective nature of the enterprise demands the inclusion of artwork and stories from many different contributors over the years. They are integral parts of the whole, but the real strength is Aaron's straightforward and spare articulation of the pull between traveling and experience and staying home and putting down roots. A less criminally minded Jack Black for the end of the twentieth century, he tells of getting off the bus in Missoula just after the sun comes up and walking through piles of leaves while worrying about packs of rabid dogs, then going to the library to read all day. In Billings someone calls his name and it's twins he knows from Seattle who save the day. He sees the clowns getting off work and walking their dogs, and has a horrible Thanksgiving in Cleveland where he ends up at the church having dinner with the other lost people with nowhere else to go. There is plenty of solitude but it is often counterbalanced by the rewards of genuine engagement and friendship. And always there is that singularly evocative voice, describing "the Central Valley with its dry heat and smells of orchids and olives" and summing up Portland succinctly: "It started out as a bad mood and slowly grew into a city."

Cometbus is often nostalgic in the sense of acknowledging the sadness of the past passing without proclaiming that it was better. It is a celebration of places full of hopeful and noble suffering, as when Aaron tells a gathering in Pacific Grove about the great punk scene there in the mid-'80s that the new guard know nothing about. "In a way it was depressing, but in a way it was funny and profound. Anyway, it was time to get beer." In a manner that "we" can relate to and enjoy, Cometbus has written about that common striving toward worthy goals while ruefully suspecting that they are probably doomed to failure.

A culmination of this romantic mixture of hope for the future and longing for the past comes in an account of going on tour with his old friends in the band Green Day, just as they were becoming successful to an extent no thirteen year-old hardcore kid in the Reagan era would have ever imagined. It is a sentimental education, coming to terms with "How growing up punk, you have all these rigid ideas about how to live, the way the world works, then experience comes along to make mincemeat out of your morals." That bittersweet observation isn't just about what happened with Green Day. It's about the compromises that come with leaving adolescence, the fundamental dilemma and challenge of "growing up punk," and youthful idealism in general. What do you do later? Even those who are not punk at all can appreciate how as an adult Aaron Cometbus wrestles with that question, while drinking in Despite Everything's unique and important sensibility.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003

I Refuse To Die: My Journey For Freedom

I Refuse to Die

Koigi wa Wamwere
Seven Stories Press ($15.95)

by Kevin Carollo

I suffered a prison and detention term, but that is out of the past and I am not going to remember it . . . If I wronged you forgive me, if you wronged me, I forgive you . . . Let us forgive and forget.
—Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya's first independent President, speaking to British settlers after being released from colonial detention

When people forget the lessons of history, nothing is too evil to be reenacted.
—Koigi wa Wamwere

Colonialism is alive and well in Africa. Its legacy is clearly witnessed in the mindsets and policies of postcolonial leaders who have accumulated great wealth and worked to silence the plurality of voices necessary to a nation's vitality. Leaders, including Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, currently engaged in a civil war since Mobutu's overthrow four years ago), Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe (still in power), Hastings Kamuzu Banda of Malawi (deceased), Sani Abacha of Nigeria (deceased), Mwai Kibaki of Kenya (still in power), and so on, have reenacted the colonial order of affairs, typically for the benefit of capitalist interests abroad. On the eves of independence across Africa, the people anticipated liberation from the yoke of colonial influence, and they received more of the same treatment.

In the decades following the era of colonization, it has become incumbent on African writers to articulate the legacy of colonial culture on the minds of Africans. Many have done so at the risk of detention, torture, and death. In articulating the general shift from colonial oppressions to their postcolonial simulacra, the question of freedom has remained paramount in contemporary African writing. We often talk about liberation and freedom these days, with Western leaders antsy for armed conflict among the most vociferous. The current state of the world forces us to pose a number of serious questions surrounding its prospects for freedom: What is the value of liberty taken for granted? Do words such as "liberation" and "freedom" embody more than a rhetorical valence today? What does it take to make such words signify something concrete and meaningful in postcolonial Africa?

If anyone can provide insight into the complexity of these questions, it would have to be Koigi wa Wamwere, the Kenyan activist who has spent thirteen years in prison since the mid-1970s. His autobiography, I Refuse to Die: My Journey for Freedom, was written "for those who value freedom more than power." Initially imprisoned by Kenyan's first postcolonial leader, Jomo Kenyatta, and then suffering multiple detentions under Kenyatta's successor, Daniel arap Moi, Koigi has experienced the various constraints of colonial rule within and without Kenyan prison walls. Whether as a member of Kenya's parliament or as an exile in Norway, he has lived with perennial death threats because of his belief in a Kenya—and an Africa—that truly operates "post" its colonial legacy. The publication of I Refuse to Die provides strong testament to his search for an independent Africa in more than just name. His struggle contains multitudes, and reflects a continental effort to move beyond colonial modes of existence and ethnic rivalries.

I Refuse To Die has a more personal and wide-ranging scope than his 1988 account of his first two detentions, Conscience on Trial (thankfully still in print from Africa World Press, Inc.). Though he re-covers this period of his life, the treatment has a very different feel; the same poems included in both books have different wording, for example. But mostly the shift in narrative effect stems from his lengthy description of the years leading up to his first detention, beginning with chapters entitled "A Kenyan Timeline" and "Childhood 1949-58." With the extensive exposition of growing up in the colonial era—roughly a third of the book—I Refuse To Die offers a more detailed historical context for contemporary Kenyan politics than its predecessor. Once the narrative arrives at the 1980s, things begin to move fast, and Koigi becomes increasingly focused on the juridical nature of his life in prison and exile.

Occasionally, one would like I Refuse To Die to offer more "reflection on" and less "detailing of." What the narrative sometimes lacks in pacing, however, it makes up for in the compelling treatment of how Koigi's life comes to represent the persecution of many, how his survival acquires a curious symbolic resonance for postcolonial Africa as a whole. Like many of its great writers who have endured torture and detention—including Nigerians Wole Soyinka and Ken Saro-Wiwa (the latter was eventually hanged by the Abacha regime, despite international outcry), Malawian Jack Mapanje, fellow Kenyan Ngugi wa Th'iongo, South Africans Jeremy Cronin, Molefe Pheto, Breyten Breytenbach, Ruth First (killed in 1982 by a mail bomb), et al., and so on—Koigi both benefits from and comes under suspicion due to widespread public recognition of his writing and actions. He refuses to die, and his persecutors refuse to kill him—a struggle between freedom and power that often lasts for decades. As in the case of Hastings Banda, Robert Mugabe, and Jomo Kenyatta, some African leaders who detain political prisoners do so after having spent many years imprisoned by colonial regimes—a fact that gives the prison itself a curious symbolic resonance for postcolonial Africa, to say the least.

The Kenyan postcolonial mimicry of colonial order even extends to the roles of prison guards, such that those who guarded Mau Mau dissidents in the colonial era continue working for the independent government. During Koigi's first incarceration in the '70s, a Corporal Kethore asks long-time detainee Achieng Oneko whether he remembers a 1953 flight to Lamu Island Colonial Prison: "When Oneko said he did, Kethore admitted that he was a prison escort in that flight! These askaris were the direct link between the colonial government and the Kenyatta regime."

Many of Koigi's personal encounters with the inheritors of colonial detention reinforce this connection:

"In detention I also met a warden, Kariuki wa Ricu, who boasted of taking part in the hunt for Mau Mau freedom fighters. When he caught Mau Mau, he said, he beheaded them and took their bleeding heads to his white bosses for money."

. . .

"Dr. Bowry bragged that however he badly he treated us, there was nothing we could ever do to him. After all, he asked, what are you? In the colonial detention, I gave Kenyatta water. What did he do to me when he became president? I am still here and will do to you what I want."

. . .

"Another MP [Member of Parliament] had earlier told me how this Kiereini worked as a screener in colonial detention camps like Manyani prison."

These anecdotal links between colonial and postcolonial governments bring home a salient point of regime change: those who inherit or overthrow a corrupt system of government will replicate the corruption of that system—the recognition of which forces us to complicate any notions of independence or liberation. As a consequence, the imperative of saying no, of refusing to die, continues: "I thought, maybe nobody will kill me if I refuse to die. Whenever death beckoned, I would simply say no."

Westerners are willfully ignorant of how a century of colonialism and Cold War has created and enabled the dictatorial regimes of contemporary Africa. But rather than simply blame the era of colonialism for the subsequent problems of contemporary Kenya, and in addition to articulating how the psychology of colonial times continues to operate in the minds of Kenyans, Koigi depicts how indigenous African cultures persist despite the incursion of colonialism. The abundance of Gikuyu proverbs throughout his autobiography suggests that the most accessible forms of resistance lie in indigenous solutions that antedate and have co-existed with colonial rule.

Koigi's lengthy descriptions of family and compatriots serve to illustrate how his suffering has always encompassed an entire people. At the beginning of the text, he asserts: "Among our people, life does not begin at birth." When asked who he was before he was born, his mother explains:

You were my father. That is why I called you him.
Before him, did I live?
Yes, you did.
Have I always lived and shall not die?
People do not die, she said, we only move from one form of life to another and from one world to another. Life does not begin at birth and it does not end with death.

In addition to Gikuyu and Swahili sayings, Koigi includes myriad stories, speeches, and voices to maintain the sense of life as extending beyond the borders of the self. The integration of familial, political, and cultural dimensions of existence does not always occur as effectively as it does here. The collective protests of mothers like Koigi's include such tactics as hunger strikes, public nakedness, and symbolic chaining in court. Their voices are heard loud and clear in I Refuse to Die: "We will remain chained as long as our sons languish in prison. Colonialists put us in chains. Our leaders continue to put us in chains."

Colonialism may be alive and well in Africa, but so are those who say no to it. I Refuse To Die stands as a passionate and poignant testimony to the struggle of one man—and by that I also mean one family and one people—to remember and survive the evil lessons of history. But it is also much more than that. Koigi wa Wamwere, in life and print, challenges us to make freedom a word that means something tangible for all.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003

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