Children of the Land by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo

If you’ve kept up with the hoopla surrounding the American Dirt release and are looking for an alternative, “own voices” book to read that covers similar issues (immigration, the U.S. southern border, living undocumented in America), then you might want to get your hands on a copy of Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s memoir, Children of the Land.

Castillo is a critically-acclaimed and award-winning poet and his memoir reads like the story of a poet. He is also an undocumented immigrant, whose parents brought him and his siblings to the United States from Mexico when he was very young. He went on to become the first undocumented student to graduate from the Helen Zell Writers Program at the University of Michigan.

His memoir reads serendipitously, or perhaps expectedly, like the confluence of these two things: poet and migrant. It is somehow both searingly direct and beautifully imaginative. He manages to balance the difficult and the wonderful, the extraordinary and the commonplace, in language that reflects a deep reflection and in-touchness with self that, as the reader will discover, was hard fought and hard won. It also expresses the pain of a boy at long odds with his father and of a man without a country. Those two realities, being essentially fatherless and essentially homeless, are reflected in the anchor-less he describes; it makes sense that he has found his home in poetry.

Some of the most profound and affecting moments from the memoir, for me, are the ones that are the most ordinary and American. He writes, for instance, about being an English professor and about how he learned to work with students coming out of high schools with “earned As” but who, really, couldn’t write well at all. The exhaustion, confusion he felt about this, and the love he he had for his subject despite the fact that he couldn’t seem to give enough of himself to his students, resounded deeply with me. Equally substantive, though, are the insights he provides about the immigration experience. He illustrates the way immigrants have been and continue to be treated at our borders, as inherently inferior and even diseased people. Now, as the world deals with this new pandemic, this strikes painfully. The way we fear the other, the way we scapegoat them, is an unconscionable tragedy. Reading a first-hand account of a family that has experienced, supplemented by the history of Federal policies that propped-up and perpetuated such stereotypical hatred, was painful but illuminating.

Two of the most moving elements of his memoir, though, are the way he describes never being “quite enough.” Not quite American enough; not quite Mexican enough. He shares moments in his life when he felt he was losing his language, when his English was too good for someone like him, or when he felt his Spanish slipping away so that he had to stumble through conversations with neighbors, family members. That swaying, that rudderlessness, is haunting, particularly when we understand just how many people in the United States must feel like this all the time, whether they’re in limbo at the border or going about their daily lives all around the country. The second powerful section is his portrayal of the immigration system and just how difficult and time-consuming it is, even for those who are following the rules. Castillo shares his experiences working through the immigration process for both his mother and his father, and it’s eye-opening to say the least. Even laws specifically established to help people like his mother, for example, whose case was a special one (I won’t say more than that), are ultimately made to be toothless by the people who work the system and choose whether or not a person’s value is enough.

Children of the Land is not an easy or enjoyable read. There are moments of beauty, both thematically and from the writer’s perspective about life and the world, and beauty in the language and style; but it is a difficult story, not just for Castillo but for his entire family. Being reminded that his is just one story of millions amplifies the discomfort and helplessness one might feel when reading it; but ultimately, that’s the point. There is a helplessness and a desperation that consumes entire groups of people, entire families, and that influences them for generations. Castillo’s memoir illustrates this brilliantly and damagingly.

Notable Quotes:

“I ventured to believe that the function of the border wasn’t only to keep people out, at least that was not its long-term function. Its other purpose was to be visible, to be seen, to be carried in the imaginations of migrants deep into the interior of the country, in the interior of their minds. It was a spectacle meant to be witnessed by the world, and all of its death and violence was and continues to be a form of social control, the way that kings of the past needed to behead only one petty thief in the public square to quell thousands more.”

“I tried to hold the words of my poems inside me like the sounds of snow, but they were nothing like snow, they disappeared as soon as I wrote them” (124).

“He is screaming as if he has seen the future already and knows the past” (357).

“What seemed like hope at first turned into almost an embarrassment. How could we be so naive as to think we could fix this?” (243).

“We needed to ease our way back to him, the way you wade into frigid water, slowly letting your body get numb enough from the waist down to take the dive.” (240).

“I didn’t want to tell people I was a poet because I didn’t want to explain (mostly to white people) what lead me to writing, which would be followed by something like ‘I bet it was a great outlet of expression for such a hard life you lived'” (90).

“Apa always said time stood still out there, like it was broken and would never work again no matter how many watches you wore, which meant that one step was no different than another–they were going nowhere” (41).

Becoming Bodhisattvas

Recently, my mother gifted me any course of my choice from the Great Courses catalog. The timing was perfect, as I had just finished reading Pema Chodron’s edition of The Way of the Bodhisattva, which she has titled, Becoming Bodhisattvas: A Guidebook for Compassionate Action, Living the Way of the Bodhisattva in Today’s World. (Extremely long title aside, the book is wonderfully accessible for beginners like me.)  I was so excited to choose a course on Buddhism, which includes 24 lectures, a guidebook, suggested readings, and more. I’m still waiting on the course to arrive, but after finishing Chodron’s book, I await it most eagerly.

About the Book: The Way of the Bodhisattva has long been treasured as an indispensable guide to enlightened living, offering a window into the greatest potential within us all. Written in the eighth century by the scholar and saint Shantideva, it presents a comprehensive view of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition’s highest ideal–to commit oneself to the life of a Bodhisattva warrior, a person who is wholeheartedly dedicated to the freedom and common good of all beings. And it has inspired many of the tradition’s greatest teachers, providing a remarkable source of insight on the means by which we may heal ourselves and our troubled world. These essential teachings present the core of the Buddhist path, from cultivating deep-seated confidence to infusing one’s life with selflessness, joyfulness, kindness, and compassion.

This particular edition is in fact a “guidebook,” as the title suggests. Almost every verse or section of verses is supplemented by Pema Chodron’s wonderful insight into what the verse means, both in context of the time it was written and for practitioners today. I found myself wondering, sometimes, if I could have just read the original Way of the Bodhisattva, which is much shorter than this guidebook, by itself. While it’s true that some of the verses are straightforward, others require a much deeper understanding of the intentions behind some of the guidance Shantideva gives, particularly when it seems to conflict with contemporary understandings about Buddhism. For example, in some verses he writes about excluding women; without Chodron’s explanations, I would have taken great offense to that kind of instruction, but she explains that part of a Buddhist’s practice is to respect the culture while trying to live that compassionate and joyful life; at the time Shantideva was writing, and in the particular place he was sharing his message, he would have caused enormous offense by suggesting certain (Buddhist appropriate) modifications to customs, such as educating women. To do such would be to lose the audience entirely and thus make no progress in educating any of the people in the ways of the Buddha. A tricky needle to thread.

So, I am very grateful to have picked up this guidebook as opposed to the original text because, in this publication, I get the best of both worlds. The original text is there, beautifully translated, and can be read with or without the commentary; but, for those like me who are just entering into this practice, Pema Chodron’s expert knowledge and wonderful voice are there to help. She also treats the text from a contemporary perspective, which means she is straightforward, precise, direct, and even funny in her explanations. The original tackles issues of sexuality, greed, betrayal, love, hatred, nutrition, exercise, and pretty much every other imaginable part of human life, and Chodron’s elaborations on them all are thoughtful and beautiful.

Some of my favorite ruminations are on the verses that deal with “the klesha urges;” in other words, vices such as addiction. One such verse is as follows:

Therefore, from the gateway of awareness

Mindfulness shall not have leave to stray.

And if it wanders, shall be recalled,

By thoughts of anguish in the lower worlds.

It would be easy to think that “the lower worlds” might refer to a Christian vision of hell, particularly for a western reader raised in and surrounded by Christianity. But Chodron provides context here, as in so many other places, that help a western reader understand what Shantideva really meant. “Emotional chaos,” she writes, “can do us more harm than any ordinary bandits. With mindfulness, however, we can catch the klesha urges while they’re small and disarm them before they harm us.” The lower worlds are essentially states of mind, times when our lack of awareness causes us to get swept up in momentary pleasures that cause eventual pain, rather than acknowledging the pull of some enticement and choosing to create for ourselves a different world, one where we will not cause ourselves to suffer for our own poor decisions.

At least, that’s my understanding of this one small portion of the great text. I’m still very new to the philosophy, but the more I read, the more eager I am to learn and the more right it feels for me, personally. To live a life of joy and service, of mindful action, that seems the summation of anything I’ve tried to articulate about myself in the past. My reading is thus far limited, however, to this text, as well as The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching and Living Buddha, Living Christ. I’m looking forward to the Great Course in Buddhism to help me understand some of the history and context, and terminology, better, and to guide me toward additional readings.

About the Author: Pema Chodron is an American Buddhist nun in the lineage of Chogyam Trungpa and resident teacher at Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery in North America. She also wrote When Things Fall Apart and Living Beautiful, both of which I hope to read soon.

Angels in America

I just finished my third read of Angels in America. I guess it is one of those rare texts that doesn’t just invite itself for a revisit, but is almost a necessary lifelong companion. Speaking as it does to homosexuality in America, and to the AIDS crisis (and the political mess that surrounded/continues to surround it), I feel the play deserves continued attention and examination. But that’s all the sociopolitical intellectual side of things. The play is also damn good, wildly brazen, and a lot of fun, despite its also being incredibly painful and sensitive.

Tony Kushner’s masterpiece is actually two plays packaged together. The first play is called Millennium Approaches and the second is titled, Perestroika. The reason for each title is made clear not just in the theme of each part, but in the very literal text. Part one deals with the awareness of “the plague” as told from one character’s perspective, as well as the other awakenings that are happening to the disillusioned post-Reagan. The second part deals with the managing, if not acceptance, of the many real problems that Americans in the early-1990s were facing. In this way, the two plays tell the two most important parts of a crisis — the recognition of it and the fall out from it.

One thing that stands out to me most upon this third reading is just how fabulously genius the metaphors are; they seem very much “in your face” because they very much are in your face (one of the acts is titled “Spooj.” I mean, hello!) And yet, behind the trumpeting and the camping and the filthy language and the wild, uncensored eroticism (orgasm in the arms of an angel? Oh boy!), there’s a subtle sensitivity, a deep root being strummed in a way that is both painful and almost cathartic. Whether the issue is romantic infidelity, drug addiction, religion (the falling from it or the falling toward it), politics, or disease, each character’s experience is developed in a way that is unusual for drama; they are given depth and personality, and the time it takes to actually deal with their problems. Drama is primarily about action, but Kushner, though using action to propel the plot, also relies on more traditionally narrative-like characterization to illustrate the play’s major themes and to help the audience feel more invested.

Something else I enjoy very much about the play, especially considering its time of publication, is how it outlines the complexity and diversity of homosexual experiences. In literature and the arts, where one might assume homosexuality is more known and accepted, it is homosexual stereotypes, not lives, that have been most often articulated and perpetuated. (A chapter in my book, From A Whisper to A Riot, deals with this, if you’re interested in learning more about this history.) Kushner, though, allows one of his characters to essentially call out that kind of stereotyping (literally, using the word) and then develops a number of diverse gay men who have very little in common, opening up the very idea of what it means, or could mean, to be a gay man in America. The only prominent piece of literature to that point that had done something similar is The Boys in the Band, but unfortunately that play is far less complex and falls into the trap of its time, being filled with characters who mostly hate themselves and each other. Not exactly inspiring, though understandable for 1968. In fact, I think an interesting exercise would be to perform a close comparative analysis of The Boys in the Band and Angels in America, to see just how much changed for gay men between 1970 and 1990.

My thoughts on this one run all over the place, but to put it simply, I think Angels in America should be required reading. It is not just a staple of American drama and an important artifact in the history of that genre, but it is also an important historical artifact more generally. Kushner litters the play with references and allusions to classical mythology, Christianity, Mormonism, Judaism, atheism, American government, science, addiction, war, politics, and so many other factors, that one is sure to walk away from it not only having been entertained and challenged, because it is challenging in its themes, tone, and delivery, but also edified and, perhaps, with a great deal of new questions to consider.

And a final note: the play was beautifully adapted by HBO in to a 6-part miniseries starring Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Emma Thompson, Mary-Louise Parker, James Cromwell, Michael Gambon, and others of that caliber. It is well worth the watch.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

I started reading Homegoing sometime around September of 2019. I just finished it on January 20th, 2020. Four months to read a contemporary fiction novel of 300 pages. That’s a little absurd for me, to be honest, and I’m not sure what took me so long. I could blame it on work, on writing, on other responsibilities, or on the fact that for the last 6 months I’ve been reading 4 or 5 books at a time, constantly (a terrible error I’m now trying desperately to correct! I’m down to just THREE books right now!). Anyway, it took too long, but boy was it worth the time.

It’s hard to describe Yaa Gyasi’s first novel and even harder to believe that it is her first. In many ways, I could compare it to Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, except that I prefer Homegoing. I’m tempted to say, “this is a masterpiece of contemporary literary fiction that deals with the deeply complex history of race in the United States, beginning with the African slave trade and commenting right up until the present,” and leave it at that. But that wouldn’t do the storytelling much justice. It’s true that this novel covers hundreds of years, though it focuses on two lines of ancestry beginning with two half-sisters living in what is now Ghana. One line remains in Africa, having participated in the slave trade, and the other line is made up of descendants of a woman stolen from her tribe, enslaved, and brought to the United States.

Beginning with the tragic relationship between slaver and enslaved, the novel then progresses slowly and methodically forward, chapter by chapter, with each new chapter focusing on one descendant from one or the other of these lines, alternating between the African slavers and the African enslaved. Ultimately, as the generations progress, these two family lines come closer and closer together until, at last, the two contemporary living members of both lines are reunited and they, like fire and water, stand both in stark contrast to each other and in necessary complement.

I’m not sure I’ve ever used this phrase before, but it seems fair and just to say: this novel is a tour-de-force. Not only is it beautifully written and incredibly imagined, but it is also masterfully balanced. The complexity of telling a historical narrative and weaving together two story-lines that diverge and then slowly re-converge after centuries apart is difficult to overstate. It takes a delicate hand and brilliant imagination to make this work, but work it does. The painful history is treated fairly and without reservation. The many types, shapes, and forms of racism and all its variety of implications for those impacted by it since the original sin of slavery is posed in breathtaking sweep and yet, in the most human and relatable ways. From the original capture of native people, to the American Civil War; from Jim Crow to the Harlem Renaissance; from the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s to the continued reckoning of today, Yaa Gyasi’s scope is wide and encompassing.

If you’ve ever tried to wrap your head around institutional racism but get lost in theory or technicalities, Homegoing is a wonderful opportunity. It is, first, a beautiful and painful story about people; but it is also the creative articulation of the complicated web of a shameful shared legacy of racism in the United States. It has the potential to open even those eyes that have been intentionally kept closed to these persistent realities.

The Good Earth

Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth has probably been on every one of my reading challenge lists for the last ten years, or darn close to every list, anyway. It’s also another case of mistaken identity on my part, as I went into this one knowing, again, almost absolutely nothing about it except that so many of my reading friends have raved about it and that it has been critically well-received for a very long time.

My own edition, for example, indicates that Buck won the Pulitzer Prize, that this one is a “classic novel” by a “Nobel Prize-winning author,” and that it is a “comment upon the meaning and tragedy of life as it is lived in any age in any quarter of the globe.” This is all riveting and laudatory, but it’s not a whole lot to go on. Perhaps I can be excused, then, for thinking this was a Chinese novel translated into English and for thinking its author was a Chinese woman, not a white American one. And perhaps I can even be excused for thinking this was a novel of eco-criticism, not one of historical fiction. Maybe? Please excuse me?

First things first, I think this is a powerful and important novel about a turbulent and not very well understood time and place in world history. It is written as a kind of episodic saga spanning the full life of one man, from his late youth (marriage) to his old age, and it details the many hardships and turns of fortune, including extreme highs and lows, alongside the every day experiences of a traditional working man of the land. And the land is everything to Wang Lung. It means more to him than his wife or family, his children or his lover(s), more to him than even his own health or well-being, seeing as how not even extreme poverty is enough to scare him from his land, at least not for long. In this way, Wang Lung is a kind of hero who stands for the importance of man’s connection to the earth. What are we, after all, if we do not have land of our own and if we do not care for it and protect it jealously? Nomads, homeless and hungry.

That’s about as far as Wang Lung’s heroism extends, though, and it sometimes becomes difficult for me to understand just why this book is so popular, other than the fact of its quality writing, its (apparent) accuracy about the period, and its exposing to western audiences a culture that had been and perhaps remains mostly unknown. Because, really, Wang Lung is not a very good man. At least not by contemporary standards. He shows very little kindness to his wife and eventually becomes downright cruel toward her. He shows very little care for his children, except in so far as he helps them to advance his own legacy. He does, however, demonstrate great resilience in the face of countless setbacks and downright bad luck and he honors his family in the traditional family, particularly his elders, even though they do not deserve it. So, in some ways, he might be an example of man, father, and son for his time. But today? There’s so little to root for.

The true hero of The Good Earth is O-Lan, the slave-turned-wife who saves Wang Lung from himself and without whom none of his success would have been possible. Despite lack of love or respect, she persists quietly in making a home for her family, in ensuring their well-being, and in deftly handling some of the most extreme challenges that the Wang family face, both in poverty and in success. She’s a character to celebrate and one that I will surely remember long after most of my memories about the book have faded.

The story itself is a fascinating and deeply personal, even insightful, look into pre-Revolutionary China. Most of the war and its effects are demonstrated by the shifts in society, politics, class, and economics, rather than by any description of the war itself (there are a few brief mentions and it becomes more prominent near the end, though Wang Lung remains stubbornly ignorant to all that is happening, partly because he cannot read and partly because he cares for nothing but his own property and has no use for the world beyond it.) As a description of mostly rural China in the 1920s, it seems to me a masterful work. I’m struck by how much was changing so rapidly and can’t help compare it to the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, which would undergo it’s own riotous transformations.

As much as I enjoyed the story, despite mostly despising the supposed protagonist (which is fine – I don’t mind a book with a character I hate, so long as the writing is good, the purpose clear, and the story solid), I do wonder how much might be different if it had been written by a native Chinese person. Buck spent much of her life, including her youth, in China, but I cannot help but wonder about a story that deals with Chinese ancestry and legacy as written by an outsider. It’s a rather uninformed concern, however, as this is the first text about 1920s China that I’ve ever read. I’m eager to research Chinese reception of the novel, both at its time of publication and to this day. Another new project ahead?

The Good Earth is the first book I’ve completed for the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge.

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