Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

438. “I never died,” says he

In Family, history, Inter/Transnational, Music, people, Stories on August 19, 2019 at 2:23 am

This past weekend, August 16-18, was the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, the “three days of peace, love, and music” on a dairy farm in New York State, attended by 400,000 people and including musicians Richie Havens, Ravi Shankar, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Country Joe and the Fish, The Who, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Canned Heat, Sly and the Family Stone, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Joe Cocker, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Santana, and Jimi Hendrix. Although my father came to the United States that same month, in August, 1969, my mother, sister and I didn’t follow until February of the following year, and I always felt that my arrival was somehow belated, that at not-quite-sixteen I had already missed the height of the youth movement that found its expression there. When the three-hour concert film came out, just a month after our arrival, and the triple album a few weeks later, I watched and listened avidly, again and again, until it became, if not entirely part of me, then certainly a part of how I saw this strange new country and my generation in it. Watching the PBS documentary, Woodstock, the other night, and listened to a young and pregnant Joan Baez singing “Joe Hill”:

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night
Alive as you and me
Says I “But Joe, you’re ten years dead”
“I never died,” says he
“I never died,” says he.

I thought about what that song had come to mean to me since. Joe Hill or Joel Emmanuel Hägglund (1879-1915) immigrated to the U.S. from his native Sweden in 1902 and became a union organizer. He joined the Industrial Workers of the World, also known as the “Wobblies,” and wrote labor organizing songs for them, fought in the Mexican Revolution, and then was charged and executed for two murders that he hadn’t committed. Joe Hill, sung by Joan Baez at Woodstock, was written by Alfred Hayes, set to music by Earl Robinson, and popularized in the 1930s and 1940s by the great Paul Robeson.

In the 1980s, while we were in our twenties, Andrew, Eve, and I founded Whetstone Press, a letterpress print shop, and made the IWW our union label. We delighted in being part of the Wobbly heritage and in The Little Red Songbook (first published in 1913), full of songs by the likes of Joe Hill and Utah Phillips. Through the years, in the movement against nuclear power and weapons, protests against U.S. interventions in Central and South America, solidarity with the South African people’s struggle against apartheid, forming a graduate-student union, these songs became old standbys.

Much later, around 2011, now in my 50s, I joined a monthly singing group called RUSH (Rise Up Singing in Harmony), based on Annie Patterson and Peter Blood’s songbook, Rise Up Singing, and organized by the indefatigable Roger Conant, who, in the tradition of Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Woody Guthrie, and Joe Hill, believed in the power of song to bring people together in solidarity. It was a loose fellowship, and people came and went, though there were regulars, and I became one of them. One of the people who attended from time to time was an elderly gentleman called Ward Morehouse, whom I didn’t know outside of the group, but who always requested labor and union songs, like The Banks are Made of Marble, sung here by Pete Seeger; “Joe Hill” was one of his favorites.

Not long after Ward and his wife Carolyn Oppenheim had started coming to RUSH, we received the sad news that he had passed away. It was only then, after reading his obituary, that I learned that he himself had been an active labor organizer and, furthermore, that he had led the movement in the U.S. against Union Carbide on behalf of the workers killed and incapacitated in 1984 by the deadly gas leak at the Union Carbide pesticide facility in Bhopal, India. That led me to write a new verse of “Joe Hill” in his honor* and to attend Ward Morehouse’s memorial service along with my mother.

In 2012 Mum was 85 and had been suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease for at least five years. However, she could still sing along to the songs on the programme for the service, and it turned out that she knew most of them. Carolyn had asked Roger Conant to lead the singing, and I was happy to see that Mum was really entering into the spirit of it. While everyone was singing the international workers’ anthem, “The Internationale”, I glanced over at her, and as she sang the rousing chorus, her fist was raised high in the air.

Here are the lyrics to Billy Bragg’s updated version of The Internationale. And here is a moving rendition of it being sung en masse in Leicester, England. One verse in particular speaks to me loud and clear at this moment in time:

Let no one build walls to divide us
Walls of hatred nor walls of stone
Come greet the dawn and stand beside us
We’ll live together or we’ll die alone
In our world poisoned by exploitation
Those who have taken, now they must give
And end the vanity of nations
We’ve but one Earth on which to live

My dear mother has since passed away and, just recently, so has Roger Conant. They are sorely missed. But just as the spirit of Woodstock lives on, wherever people gather in solidarity and song, they will be with us.

Joan Baez at Woodstock


*The verse of “Joe Hill” for Ward Morehouse:

From Bhopal to Atlanta,
When companies don’t play fair
Where working folk defend their rights
Ward Morehouse will be there
Ward Morehouse will be there.





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429. V is for Vigilante

In blogs and blogging, Books, history, Immigration, Music, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 26, 2019 at 6:59 pm

My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles. Today, the letter stands for vigilante.
Vigilante Man (recorded in 1940) is one of Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl ballads. In it, he bemoans the armed man who lies in wait for hapless migrants, who has hunted, chased, and “herded [them] like cattle,” and killed Preacher Casey, who sought to unite and organize them. Casey’s murder was also mentioned in John Steinbeck’s 1939 Dust Bowl epic, The Grapes of Wrath, in which the Joads were one among many desperate migrant families driven West from their homes in Oklahoma by the climate catastrophe of the Dust Bowl, looking for honest work in the fertile fields and vineyards of California.

 migrant family, 1930s

In this excerpt from the novel, Steinbeck describes the response of local people to the migrants:

The moving, questing people were migrants now…. And the hostility changed them, welded them, united them — hostility that made the little towns group and arm as though to repel an invader, squads with pick handles, clerks and storekeepers with shotguns, guarding the world against their own people.

        In the West there was panic when the migrants multiplied on the highways. Men of property were terrified for their property. Men who had never been hungry saw the eyes of the hungry. Men who had never wanted anything very much saw the flare of want in the eyes of the migrants. And the men of the towns and of the soft suburban country gathered to defend themselves; and they reassured themselves that they were good and the invaders bad, as a man must do before he fights. They said, These goddamned Okies are dirty and ignorant. They’re degenerate, sexual maniacs. These goddamned Okies are thieves. They’ll steal anything. They’ve got no sense of property rights.

         And the latter was true, for how can a man without property know the ache of ownership? And the defending people said, They bring disease, they’re filthy. We can’t have them in the schools. They’re strangers. How’d you like to have your sister go out with one of ’em?

      The local people whipped themselves into a mold of cruelty. Then they formed units, squads, and armed them — armed them with clubs, with gas, with guns. We own the country. We can’t get these Okies get out of hand.

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, Viking Critical Library, 1972, pp. 385-386
(originally published in 1939)

Steinbeck’s migrants were his own countrymen, not migrants from South of the U.S.-Mexico border; but their plights and the reactions of the vigilantes were startlingly similar.

A group of migrants in Sunland Park, New Mexico, where the United Constitutional Patriots, an armed rightwing militia, patrol the US-Mexico border. (Photo: Paul Ratje/Getty Images)

Last week, a story about armed vigilantes made national and international news headlines for a couple of days. Members of a right-wing militia group were caught on video posing as U.S. Border Patrol (CBP) agents to detain migrants and refugees at the New Mexico-Mexico border and then coordinating with the CBP to apprehend them. The Border Patrol could not be reached for comments but sent an email saying, for the record, that it “does not endorse private groups or organizations taking enforcement matters into their own hands.” However, the vigilantes themselves not only seemed to be working closely with the CBP but declared that they were doing their civic duty in the absence of adequate federal law enforcement; and a spokesperson for the city in New Mexico said, “I think they are just out there exercising their constitutional right.” Clearly, the Wild West mentality with civilian posses dispensing “rough justice” extrajudicially, still seems to be alive and well in the Southwestern borderlands. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Mexico has called on the state’s Governor and Attorney General to investigate the “fascist militia,” saying, “we cannot allow racist and armed vigilantes to kidnap and detain people seeking asylum.”

However, even preliminary research into the problem reveals that vigilante violence against people crossing the border has been a reality since the 1970s, something of which locals are very aware, but which has been insulated from the nation as a whole. However, in the past couple of years the groups have grown, organized, formed broad coalitions (joining the Tea Party, for instance), and become much more heavily armed and more closely enmeshed with law enforcement officials. In this February 2019 excerpt by Greg Grandin from his new book, The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America, the author claims that many of the vigilantes are veterans of U.S. wars, with “fortress mentalit[ies]” and post-traumatic stress disorder, or worse:

In the last years of the Obama presidency, as fallout from Iraq worsened and Central American children arrived, vigilantism surged anew in a more aggressive form. Its ranks were filled with younger, angrier men than its earlier version, outfitted with military hardware and desert camouflage, intent on stopping “f***ing beaners”, obsessed equally with Isis, Central American gangs, Mexican cartels and Black Lives Matter. Most have done multiple stints in Afghanistan and Iraq. “For me, it is therapeutic to come down here and join my fellow veterans,” said one veteran, who after four tours in Iraq was left with brain injury and stress disorder.

You can listen to the piece here as a podcast if you don’t want to read it. And you can watch and listen to Ry Cooder’s rendition of Vigilante Man here.

A closing thought: It’s worth remembering that New Mexico was only granted Statehood in 1912, and was part of Mexico until 1848, when it was ceded to the U.S. after the Mexican-American War (New Mexico Joins the Union). Local Native American peoples fought hard against U.S. colonization, but were defeated in 1886, with the surrender of Geronimo. Andrew and I lived in New Mexico for some time in 1978-1979, and it did not feel like the United States; it was a multilingual, multicultural Borderland—Land of Enchantment—with a character all its own. Today, 47% of the state’s population claims Hispanic ancestry, and nearly 10% more are Native American. Additionally, for decades there has been a pattern of circular, seasonal migration between Mexico and the U.S. Southwest, in which Mexicans would migrate north as temporary farm laborers and return home when the season was over. Apparently the recent crackdowns at the Southern border have disrupted this pattern and actually driven up the numbers of Mexican migrants who stay in the United States.

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426. S is for Stranger

In blogs and blogging, Books, history, Immigration, India, Inter/Transnational, Music, Stories, storytelling, United States, Words & phrases, writing on April 23, 2019 at 9:38 pm

My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles. Today, the letter is for stranger.

The stranger is said to be the quintessentially, existentially modern figure. So many twentieth-century
works give us that romantic anti-hero, the angry, alienated man (strange, he always seems to be a man), at odds with society, a stranger to himself. But if the modern era is the era of migration, then its quintessential figure is that of the migrant, the refugee, the exile—stranger in a strange land, a long way from home.

It is dead lonely to be a stranger, and not in the least romantic. The newly arrived immigrant is a complete unknown; but unlike in the song, he is not like a rolling stone who keeps movin’ on. Instead, he tries hard to settle and put down roots, but still remains a stranger.

Although the words “stranger” and “outsider” are often used interchangeably, they have distinct meanings. Apparently, a stranger is a person one doesn’t know, while an outsider is someone who is not part of a community or organization. But the modern stranger, the one recognized by immigrants and refugees, is both. In an influential 1908 essay, German sociologist and philosopher Georg Simmel:

James Baldwin (“Stranger in the Village”)

differentiates the stranger both from the “outsider” who has no specific relation to a group and from the “wanderer” who comes today and leaves tomorrow. The stranger, he says, comes today and stays tomorrow. The stranger is a member of the group in which he lives and participates and yet remains distant from other–“native”–members of the group. In comparison to other forms of social distance and difference (such as class, gender, and even ethnicity) the distance of the stranger has to do with his “origins.” The stranger is perceived as extraneous to the group and even though he is in constant relation to other group members; his “distance” is more emphasized than his “nearness.”As one subsequent interpreter of the concept put it, the stranger is perceived as being in the group but not of the group. (The Stranger—sociology)

In the United States, Simmel’s stranger became Chicago school of sociology Robert Ezra Park’s marginal man. First discussed in his 1928 essay, “Human Migration and the Marginal Man” he was a hybrid figure who, like the newly arrived African Americans from the American South, like the pre-WWI wave of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, lived cheek-by-jowl with others in the new society, and yet “was not quite accepted due to racial prejudice” (Goldberg 201). Richard Wright, a migrant to Chicago in 1927, credited Park with having influenced his thinking in his novel Native Son, while Park credited the black writers of the American South with helping him understand how human civilizations advanced (Warren).

How many years does a person have to live in a land, how many generations of his or her kinfolk have to die there, before they are no longer strangers?

Here are three songs that make me feel less of a stranger, and at the same time remind me that strangeness is part of being human.

People are Strange (The Doors)

I Was a Stranger (Doc Watson)

Wayfaring Stranger (Rhiannon Giddens)


I can’t resist one more S word: S is for SAADA, the South Asian American Digital Archive. By collecting the histories of South Asians in the United States, it makes us less strange, our stories more fully a part of the many-stranded history of this country. Of its many initiatives, its First Days Project collects the moving first-person accounts of people’s arrival in the United States, before they found their feet and got over the initial culture shock. Supporting SAADA tells our stories, fights hate and helps to build a more inclusive future where no one is a stranger.

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425. R is for Refugees

In blogs and blogging, Books, Inter/Transnational, Music, Politics, Stories, Words & phrases on April 22, 2019 at 1:40 am

My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles. Today, the letter R is for Refugees.

‘Refugees’ are like ‘the Homeless’—always thought of in the mass. Refugees are people who have not only been displaced from their homes, but from their countries, because the conditions there threaten their safety, often their very lives. An asylum-seeker is a person who claims to be a refugee but whose claim for refugee status has not yet been evaluated. People apply for refugee status either to particular nations or to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), who, if their claim is successful, will attempt to resettle them permanently, or at least for some time, so that they can resume relatively normal lives. I read yesterday that the most common adjective in the British media that qualified asylum-seeker’ was the word ‘failed;’ Britain has taken a particularly hard line toward refugees. In this piece, British Home Minister Sajid Javid appears to blame the refugees themselves for taking such a dangerous journey: “we won’t allow them to succeed.” How devastating to have reached that state of desperation that makes one decide to pull up roots and risk everything, leave everything, only to have one’s claim for refugee status denied. While awaiting the processing of their asylum claims, many people wait for years in overcrowded refugee camps or are placed in detention facilities. If their claim is turned down, they may be sent back to their original countries for all their efforts.

According to the UNHCR Global Trends 2017 Report, there were 25.4 million refugees and 3.1 million asylum-seekers in 2017, but only 102,800 refugees resettled. That means that there were 28,387,200 people who were still in limbo, waiting, without any settled status.

Between 1980 and 2016, the United States resettled more refugees per year than all the rest of the countries in the world combined. However, it is no longer the world leader in this effort. In 2016 it accepted nearly 85,000 refugees. But in 2017 that number fell to just 33,000; in 2018,  22,491; and the Trump Administration has announced that in 2019 it will accept no more than 30,000 refugees. At the same time, it is cracking down on asylum-seekers, narrowing the criteria for eligibility, treating them like criminals, and even deporting them before hearing their cases.

Maisa organises monthly distributions of toys for Syrian children who live in poor neighbourhoods of Istanbul. She also sings famous Syrian songs with them. (MARIE TIHON/AL JAZEERA)

Meanwhile, between 2011 and 2017, Turkey took in 3.5 million refugees, mostly from Syria; Pakistan and Uganda hosted 1.4 million each; tiny Lebanon hosted one million; and war-torn Iraq, 979,400 refugees.

To give a human face to this global crisis, here are some links to pieces in which

(Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff)
Mr. Qaiconie’s mother and sister, whom he aided in fleeing from Syria to Turkey.

refugees tell their stories directly. In October 2015, Talk to Al-Jazeera interviewed refugees along the railroad from Greece to Macedonia. In October 2017, The Atlantic ran this story featuring video interviews conducted in 2016 with a number of Syrian refugees. Also in 2017, Kristen Chick of the Christian Science Monitor followed Syrian refugee Muhannad Qaiconie on his long and dangerous journey from Syria through Europe to Germany.

The refugee settlement in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh, a challenging area to house hundreds of thousands of refugees.(Photo: Ingebjørg Kårstad/NRC)


In December 2018, ABC News’ Nightline covered the Bangladesh government’s relocation plans for 100,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar to the remote “floating island” of Bhasan Cha. As of March 2019, more than 909,000 stateless Rohingya refugees are sheltering in Bangladesh, the largest number in Cox’s Bazar, currently the world’s largest refugee settlement. There is no hope of their returning to Myanmar anytime soon.



It’s a long read, but worth reading Daniel Trilling’s Five Myths About the Refugee Crisis in The Guardian (podcast here if you

A symbolic border crossing in protest against Austrian plans to deploy its military in the area to block refugees from entering the country. [Fabian Wagner]

prefer to listen). Here are his five myths:

Myth 1: The crisis is over.
Myth 2: We can neatly separate ‘refugees’ from ‘economic migrants.’
Myth 3: Telling ‘human stories’ is enough to change people’s minds.
Myth 4: The crisis is a threat to European values.
Myth 5: History is repeating and there’s nothing we can do about it.

It is worth reading his conclusions, in which he reminds us:

Wars produce refugees. People will continue to move to improve their quality of life – not only because of extreme poverty, but because they are connected to global culture and global networks of communication. Climate change has the potential to create far greater displacement than we have seen in recent years; as with refugees from war, it is likely to be poorer countries who feel the greatest impact. We cannot control whether these things happen; what matters will be how we respond, and whether we repeat the errors of this crisis.

Trilling points out that the security measures to keep the “barbarians” out only reveal a “regression from civilization” (quoting Hannah Arendt) on the part of the host[ile] countries themselves.

I leave you with:

—Mohsin Hamid’s novel Exit West

—Viet Thanh Nguyen’s short-story collection
The Refugees

Refugee Tales: Vol. II, edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus.


Woody Guthrie’s Ramblin’ Round, sung by Linda Ronstadt;


and a prayer for love and unity in this world where climate change alone will be creating many more refugees in the years ahead. Who knows when our time will come, when we too will hope to be treated like human beings as we arrive at those gated cities?

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422. One Love

In blogs and blogging, culture, Inter/Transnational, Music, Politics, Stories, Words & phrases on April 19, 2019 at 2:31 am


Reggae: music of the postcolonial diaspora, now protected by the UN                         BBC News, 2018 (photo:Mike Prior)


My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles. Today, the letter will stand for One Love.

In the 1970s, as a young woman and a new immigrant, Reggae music brought my worlds together and soothed my soul. Bob Marley and Peter Tosh sang of Third World and poor people’s struggles in Zimbabwe and throughout Africa, for equal rights and justice. They warned that there would continue to be war  and rumours of war until it was achieved. We don’t want no peace, sang Peter Tosh, We need equal rights and justice, we shouted back. Them belly full but we hungry, called out Bob Marley, A hungry mob is an angry mob, we responded, with the I-Threes. We little people didn’t have nuclear arsenals, but we had a small axe.

Reggae music was not all righteous anger; it sang the blues, songs of sorrow, exile, and longing. It sang of homelessness with talkin’ blues and exile by the rivers of Babylon, times of terror and transition with Sitting in Limbo and desolation in a strange land with Many Rivers to Cross. It wailed of so much trouble in the world but sang praise to the salt of the earth in Night Shift.

And then it offered us hope and succor. Bob Marley sang, Baby don’t worry about a thing, ‘cos every little thing’s gonna be all right. He had to go, we knew that, but while I’m gone, mind, No woman no cry. (By the way, Andrew and I were at that very  Harvard Stadium Amandla Concert in the videoclips above where Bob Marley and the I-Threes sang “Zimbabwe,” “War,” and “No Woman No Cry.”)

Through all the pain and struggle, all that fussing and fighting, we did want peace. Reggae held up a sustaining vision for the world, a message of unity and inclusion: One Love. It still does.


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415. G is for the Great Migration

In blogs and blogging, Books, culture, Immigration, Music, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 10, 2019 at 1:13 pm

This is my seventh entry for the 2019 Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge: G for the Great Migration.

An African-American family leaves Florida for the North during the Great Depression. (MPI/Getty Images)

An axiom of the U.S. national discourse is the statement that we are a nation of immigrants—with the exception of the Native Americans. But this oft-repeated idea (and I myself admit to repeating it just yesterday) has yet another glaring omission: the Africans taken from their homes against their will, made to travel the deadly Middle Passage, and enslaved in America. They were not immigrants fleeing persecution or looking for “a better life”;  their imaginations were not captured by the American Dream; on the contrary, better lives for the European settlers were achieved on their backs, the freedom of the American Dream depended in large part on their un-freedom. So yes, Africans were migrants, but not of their own accord. But there is a migration that they did undertake out of choice—one that, strangely, is often unacknowledged when telling the American story—and that is the Great Migration.

The Great Migration, which started as a trickle in 1916, and then grew to a flood over the next six decades, was the movement of more than six million African Americans from the Jim Crow South to cities in the North. As Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, has written: By the time it was over, in the 1970s, 47 percent of all African-Americans were living in the North and West. A rural people had become urban, and a Southern people had spread themselves all over the nation. Despite the end of the abhorrent institution of slavery after the Civil War, despite having been declared U.S. citizens with the right to vote, Reconstruction had been sabotaged and African Americans had been systematically impoverished, disenfranchised and marginalized from mainstream American society. White supremacy was rampant, and a reign of terror was maintained by groups like the Ku Klux Klan, supported by state governments. According to the NAACP, thousands of lynchings took place between 1882 and 1968, mostly of blacks, and mostly in the South. During that period, there were 581 lynchings in Mississippi, 531 in  Georgia, and 493 in Texas alone. Life became unbearable, and  eventually African Americans, prevented from declaring themselves at the ballot box, had had enough. They voted with their feet, and left. Building their lives anew in new environments required strength, courage, and creativity, and all those they had in abundance.

The Great Migration led to the transformation of American society in many, many ways: increasing urbanization, a cultural renaissance in almost every arena, people’s movements, notably the Black Power and Civil Rights Movement, that led to the end of Jim Crow segregation and profound political change for all Americans. The South was not forgotten, either. African American families in the north, like so many migrants, made the pilgrimage back whenever they could to visit their children’s grandparents and their extended families, to what Farah Jasmine Griffin, in her first book Who Set You Flowin’: The African American Migration Narrative, has called “the site of the ancestor.”

At this time I can only pay homage to the cultural contributions of the Great Migration through one example. Look at the formation of Chess Records in Chicago, one of the centers of the blues as it migrated from places like the Mississippi Delta through musicians like McKinley Morganfield—the late, great Muddy Waters, without whom there would not have been rock-’n-roll as we know it.

Here’s Muddy Waters in 1963, giving an inimitable performance of Got My Mojo Working, with the help of Sonny Boy Williamson on harmonica and Willie Dixon on bass, both of whom were also Mississippi natives.

And here’s Muddy Waters with James Cotton (also from Mississippi), and Muddy Waters with Willie Dixon and Buddy Guy (from Louisiana).








Grateful for the Great Migration and all that has flowed from it.


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413. E is for Emigrant, Expatriate, and Exile

In blogs and blogging, Books, culture, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, Music, people, Politics, postcolonial, reading, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 6, 2019 at 6:54 pm

This is my fifth entry for the 2019 Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge and since, yet again, I couldn’t settle on just one, I offer you three related words: Emigrant, Expatriate, and Exile.

Emigrant is a word used much less frequently than its counterpart, Immigrant. People are emigrants when they leave their country of origin. When they arrive at their destination, they are immigrants. That seems cut-and-dried, doesn’t it? But it leaves me with all kinds of questions. Once an emigrant arrives and becomes an immigrant, is her emigrant status over and done with? Or does she become an emigrant all over again whenever she returns to her country of origin? What if the person seen as an immigrant in the new country actually thinks of himself as an emigrant and inhabits the remembered haunts of his past as much as he does the physical spaces inhabited in his present? Another way to look at it might be in terms of Raymond Williams’ concepts of dominant, emergent, and residual cultures or and social structures; the social structures of the new society may be dominant; the immigrant status may be seen as emergent, as the immigrants develop interesting new fusions of culture and thought; and the emigrant status may or may not be residual, with old traditions and habits of thought persisting. The bottom line, for me, is that the immigrant and the emigrant are the same person; it’s simply that the former word privileges the place of departure while the latter privileges the place of arrival.

I’ve had an English translation of W. G. Sebald’s 1992 work, The Emigrants,on my bookshelf going on two decades, and still haven’t read it. I’m not sure why; maybe it would call me out as a fellow-emigrant. Sebald was German, studied in Germany and in England and tried to return to Europe but could not settle; he lived in Britain for the second half of his life but continued to write in German. Here’s the closing paragraph of Elizabeth Jaeger’s review of the recent New Directions edition of The Emigrants:

Here in America we think in terms of immigration, people coming to us. All too often, we lose sight of the fact that these men and women were emigrants first, leaving a place they may have loved. We focus on their expectations, their dreams of a new life, and we have written history in a way that highlights what they are running towards. As a result, we often forget or overlook the reasons they fled, the shadows in pursuit, and the memories that may never stop haunting them. The Emigrants is a reminder that many immigrants are burdened with experiences that we are fortunate not to have endured.

An expatriate is a person who lives outside their native country. This category may include people who must live abroad for work, for tax purposes, because it is cheaper to live there, because the climate suits them. It can be a temporary status or it can become a way of life. For one reason or other, expatriates don’t completely burn their bridges back to their country of origin, neither do they fully put down roots in the new country; why not? Are they dilettantes, privileged people who, unlike political exiles who have been banned or expelled from their countries, have the choice to return if they so desire? Sometimes; but expatriates certainly don’t all have lives of luxury. Consider, for instance, the many African Americans who have lived or currently live outside the United States, in search of a place where they can feel free—or at least freer—to be themselves, outside of the U.S. straitjacket of race. France Francois interviews 10 African Americans living in as many different countries in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, and all of them say that they feel freer living abroad. Francois concludes her piece:

All the responses came from people who have lived abroad for years and have immersed themselves in a new society and culture, making a conscious decision to disengage from the U.S. and reaffirm their humanity elsewhere- an act that is still revolutionary in its simplicity almost 50 years after Baldwin left for Paris. Rather than remaining static, Baldwin reminded us that we have a responsibility “to move as largely and freely as possible.”

James Baldwin in Istanbul, 1965. National Museum of African American History and Culture

Kimberly Springer’s essay in The Atlantic, The Tricky Allure of Becoming a Black American Expatriate, notes that for generations African American artists and intellectuals have left the find a place where they can be free from the toxic racism that they have to endure back “home” on a daily basis. Still, she notes that they face other struggles and no place is free from institutionalized inequities. She concludes:

Feeling free from the metaphorical shackles of American racism has lasting value. Yet, being a black expat, one who’s attuned to American racial suffering, can merely heighten one’s awareness of other colonialist histories around the world and the racial disparities that persist because of them—a far cry from actually escaping racism. Living abroad can mean becoming one’s full self and being more deeply engaged with black struggle throughout the diaspora. But after staying in London for seven years. . .I arrived at the sobering conclusion that it’s better the devil you know. And with that, I came home.

Exile is the state of being barred from one’s native country, typically for political or punitive reasons. An exile is a person who lives away from their native country, either from choice or compulsion; so, too, is an émigré: someone who has left their own country in order to settle in another, typically for political reasons.

In 1984, the late Edward Said, the eminent Palestian postcolonial scholar and author of Orientalism, Culture and Imperialism, Covering Islam, The World, the Text, and the Critic, and the memoir Out of Place, among other works, wrote, “Reflections on Exile,” later reissued in Reflections on Exile and Other Essays.  In an audio interview, Said explained that the essay

seemed to me to capture—for my purposes, anyway—the condition of being somebody away from the place where he was born and belonged to, which was my condition. And I tried to generalize out from that to a more widespread modern condition of exile, of uprootedness, of migration, immigration, expatriation, and so on.

While exile can be a terribly lonely state, in fact, as Said notes, it can be enlarged from an individual plight to the condition of our age, one in which we are all uprooted; all dislocated even if we have never moved outside of the town in which we were born, the ground itself shifting under our feet. We can choose to resent and resist the change, or we can seek to understand all the forces that have brought the world to this moment and seek, as Edward Said did all his life, to encourage people in this shrinking world to find ways to live together, with all their differences; to thrive in the insecurity of our times rather than to live in a permanent state of siege, trying in vain to shut out the feared barbarians at the gates.

Let me tell you a story of an exile. Back in early twentieth-century Japan, a man translated Marx into Japanese and was banished from the country for leftist activity. But in Japan at that time a man’s son could go into exile in his place, and so Takashi Ueda Ohta left the country of his birth forever and set out to travel the world. He eventually met and married Virginia Berry, an American woman, and together they moved to Munich, where their daughter, Toshi Aline Ohta, was born. The Ueda family returned to the United States and settled in New York City, where Toshi met and married the singer and musician Pete Seeger, and they became legends in the folk music community, living a long, joyful, engaged, hard-working life together that touched millions of people across three generations and around the world. Toshi Aline Ohta Seeger’s life was predicated on her father’s voluntary exile. But she went on to carry the best of her grandfather’s values to the world.

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405. Not So Grinchy

In Books, Childhood, Food, Music, seasons on November 27, 2017 at 1:10 am

Perversely, I’ve rather prided myself on being a Grinch at Christmastime. The adult I, that is; as a child I loved the whole season, from St. Nicholas’ Day to Twelfth Night, when the tree came down and we stopped singing carols: the anticipation, list-making, decorations, card-counting, opening each new window of the battered Advent Calendar, carol-singing (Good King Wenceslas with Dad roaring “Bring me flesh and bring me wine”), Mum’s sausage rolls and shortbread on Christmas Eve, waking up before dawn on Christmas morning, the  tree (magically decorated overnight), the specially embroidered (by Mum) pillowcases that were our stockings with whole walnuts and tangerines (rarities in India in those days) down at the bottom. It was Mum who made Christmas, though Dad was her willing helper, Mum who maintained a childlike delight in it and passed on that delight to us. I kept up her Christmas spirit, or tried to, throughout Nikhil’s childhood; but in recent years, now that he and his generation have grown and gone and all seasons are the same to dear Mum, it has become more and more of a strain, and I find myself wishing, with hardly any feeling of guilt, that I could just take off on my own and hide away until it’s all over.

Nowadays, as the frenzy of the season gets underway, I resist it actively. Some of that resistance comes from sheer hatred of shopping and consumerism; some of it from sheer busyness: with end-of-semester grades due a couple of days after Christmas and my biggest annual conferences just after New Year, it is an extremely hectic time for me; and I can’t deny that some of it is down to a mildly depressive frame of mind in which I question the point of it all—Christmas, that is, not life itself.  Nevertheless I persist, trying, albeit in small ways, to quiet the cynic within and quicken instead a sense of wonder.

This year had been no exception. I resolutely shut my eyes to the holiday hype that began even before Halloween. Then, after Thanksgiving as always, came the weirdly-named Black Friday, the day the Christmas shopping season officially begins, and one on which I usually observe the buy-nothing rule. This year, for once, I did venture out, with Andrew for support against the feared onslaught of Black Friday shoppers; but it was all very low-key (though admittedly we didn’t stake out a spot in line at midnight or darken the doors of any big-box stores), and I surprised myself by not only not hating it, but actually beginning to feel downright cheery.

We made a beeline for our favorite thrift store, the Hospice Shop of the Fisher Home, all done up for Christmas. I browsed at a leisurely pace, picking up a hundred things, putting down 95 of them, and coming home with a handful of treasures—nothing especially valuable, but little things that made me smile, like a soap dish for the olive-and-argan-oil soap that our old friend Tamara brought us back from Crete. The place was crackling with Christmas cheer, with a retinue of volunteers carrying in large, colorful gift boxes reminiscent of scenes from A Christmas Carol after Scrooge’s transformation.

We kicked it up a notch and went into the discount store, T.J. Maxx. Andrew was tasked with checking out their supply of Christmas crackers, but we rejected them all in the end because of the miserable quality of their prizes; still, we did find one thing we needed there, and emerged unscathed into the bargain.

Trader Joe’s was our last port of call—just for food, nothing more. It wasn’t particularly crowded but there too the atmosphere was electric, with everyone wreathed in smiles, scents of fir, rosemary, and pine, piping hot coffee on the go, and the shelves groaning with spiced cider, specialty cheeses, and boxes upon boxes of chocolates and pannetone. Despite my innate Grinchiness, I was moved. Not to buy anything, you understand; that would have been an unrealistic transformation. But I came home with a spring in my step, put the soap in the new dish and washed Mum’s new baby-blue flannel sheets with snowmen on them.

Come to think of it, the season had actually begun in earnest the previous week with my favorite church bazaar, always the weekend before Thanksgiving, where in the past I have been known to find most of my Christmas presents (which pleases me, but not necessarily my hapless victims). This year I picked up only a few little bits and bobs (as my Auntie Angy would say), but the big find was at the jams, jellies and pickles table, where I bought a small jar of shimmering violet jelly and a larger one of pear mincemeat with nuts and rum from a courtly old gentleman who told me that the violets were from his garden and advised me on how to make the mince tarts. He had just sold his last jar of Madras eggplant pickle or I would surely have borne that home as well.

Now it’s nose to the grindstone until classes are over and final grades are in. But now I am committed to washing my face and making mince tarts with custard. You’ll be seeing no transformation (to quote Fagin) but I can think I can report with some confidence that the plans for stealing Christmas are officially off. It’s beginning to look a little less Grinchy.

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404. Colo(u)rs

In Family, Music, Nature, reflections, Words & phrases on October 22, 2017 at 5:43 pm

In Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, set in the aftermath of slavery, the protagonist Sethe’s mother-in-law Baby Suggs (“Baby Suggs, Holy” when she was a lay preacher teaching newly freed people to love themselves), having lost just about everyone she had ever loved, gave up on people, particularly whitepeople, and spent her last days contemplating colors, one color at a time. She spent a long time on yellow.

The colors in my father’s oil paintings are rich and warm, the watercolors luminous, filling every square inch of the canvas. Migmar always brought him flowers because he loved them so much. “He is like a woman,” she would say every time, full of wonder at his passion for them. Even when he no longer had the energy to paint, he continued to derive great pleasure from just drinking them in. Taking scraps from his art studio out to the trash last week, I found a list of colors, probably a shopping list for oil paints. There were also pages and pages of elaborate color-mixing formulae and charts, bringing home to me all over again how much colors had meant to him.

I love colors too, but being a person who has derived my greatest pleasure from words, I enjoy rolling their names off my tongue (and the English spelling rolls best): Prussian blue, chrome yellow, rubine red, Havana lake, burnt umber, raw sienna, jet black, carmine. Alert to intertextuality, I mentally reference writers from Aldous Huxley (Crome Yellow) to Toni Morrison, The Rolling Stones to Donovan. Here’s the Mexican folk song  De Colores, a celebration of Nature, freedom, and unity in diversity (Spanish and Engish lyrics here).  And Donovan’s Wear Your Love Like Heaven, which, belated Hippie that I am, I continue to love despite the fact that it was coopted in an advertisement for make-up.

Colour in sky, Prussian blue
Scarlet fleece changes hue
Crimson ball sinks from view
Wear your love like heaven (wear your love like)
Wear your love like heaven (wear your love like)
Wear your love like heaven (wear your love)

Lord, kiss me once more
Fill me with song
Allah, kiss me once more
That I may, that I may
Wear my love like heaven (wear my love like)
Wear my love like heaven (wear my love)
La-la, la-la-la, la-la-la, la-la-la

Colour sky, Havana lake
Colour sky, rose carmethene
Alizarin crimson
Wear your love like heaven (wear your love like)
Wear your love like heaven (wear your love like)
Wear your love like heaven (wear your love)

Lord, kiss me once more
Fill me with song
Allah, kiss me once more
That I may, that I may
Wear my love like heaven (wear my love like)
Wear my love like heaven (wear my love)
La-la, la-la-la, la-la-la, la-la-la

Can I believe what I see
All I have wished for will be
All our race proud and free
Wear your love like heaven (wear your love like)
Wear your love like heaven (wear your love like)
Wear your love like heaven (wear your love)

Lord, kiss me once more
Fill me with song
Allah, kiss me once more
That I may, that I may
Wear my love like heaven (wear my love like)
Wear my love like heaven (wear my love)


Words need not replace things-in-themselves. Sometimes I too feel like taking to my bed and simply contemplating colours, slowly, deliciously, one at a time. But there is work to be done, and I’m not dead yet. In these times, when the light of freedom is being dimmed all over, colours are falling out of favor. Time to celebrate them all the more. In the meantime, I can still sing, mix, and continue to dream, in glorious color.



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402. Land Where Our Fathers Died

In Books, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, Music, parenting, people, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on August 31, 2017 at 4:27 am

Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri’s second short-story collection, opens with an epigraph by Nathaniel Hawthorne that also provides its title:

Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.  (from The Custom-House, introduction to The Scarlet Letter)

Like Hawthorne’s children, I had a different birthplace from that of my father, and my son, in turn, had a different birthplace from mine. Do I feel that, as a result, I was raised in richer, more generative soil? I was born in my mother’s city and country, but we didn’t stay there long. For much but not all of my childhood I was raised in my father’s country, though far from the red earth of his coastal home. By the time I was coming of age we had landed on a third continent, far across the the sea and home to neither of my parents, where I was forced to strike my roots into unaccustomed earth. As a result, I will constitutionally and forever question settled concepts of home, country, and belonging.

While I reject the notion that blood and soil (Blut und Boden, that hateful Nazi slogan), race and place, have some sort of mystical unity, I know from personal experience that for some people, place is much more important than for others—that while they may be able to live anywhere (for humans are almost infinitely adaptable) they can only come fully alive in the place where they were born and raised. For them that place will always and forever be home. Some lose their minds, lose their way, even end their own lives. Do we then look at them as failed transplants, as Salman Rushdie describes some of the characters in The Satanic Verses? Should they never have been wrenched from their native soil?

But then, look at Ellis, the protagonist of Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn. When she emigrates from Ireland to the United States, she is forced to leave everything that was familiar to her. There is a long, lonely period of adjustment; but then she works for independence and education, finds love, begins to make the unfamiliar familiar, to put down new roots. Returning “home”, she finds that everything is easy in some respects, seductively, romantically comfortable; yet the growth she has achieved in unaccustomed earth has developed parts of herself that ultimately mean more to her.

One must return to “blood and soil,” the sickening chant of the Nazis and White Supremacists as they marched with flaming torches through the street of Charlottesville, Virginia just three short weeks ago. Why was it so chilling? These men—they were overwhelmingly male—had come together to claim that they, the self-defined “White Race”, belonged to the soil of this country as Blacks did not, as Jews did not, as immigrants would never do; and that they were fully prepared to shed blood defending this soil against racially alien intruders. This country was theirs, they snarled, in a way that it could never be mine, that as far as their children’s fortunes lay within their control, they would strike their roots deeper into their own native soil.

I’m with Hawthorne: that soil is played out; and so is that hate-filled song. Yes, we must be prepared to fight to preserve our sacred Earth, but in this century all earth must be unaccustomed. While I hold an abiding affection for the two places on earth that nurtured my dear parents, I myself am a cosmopolitan, even though at times the word sticks a little on my tongue. I want to belong to a place, but I do not. When I see the people forced from their homes by the flooding in Texas and Louisiana, my heart goes out to them, but then I read of the death and displacement caused by the flooding, not just in Mumbai, home to many members of my family, but also throughout South Asia, including Bangladesh and Nepal, and my heart breaks its bounds again. I cannot feel for one people to the exclusion of all the others.

Commuters walking through waterlogged streets, Mumbai (Reuters)

Where does this leave me? A global citizen, facing potentially catastrophic climate change in uncertain times with my fellow earthlings. I’m grateful to my father for having showed me, at a young age and by his example, how to strike my roots into unaccustomed earth; this radical unbelonging is the condition of our age, and it is a condition that will better prepare us, not to soak the depleted soil with yet more blood, but to come together with others for our mutual survival, and that of our planet.

I once heard it said that one did not feel a sense of belonging to a place until one’s fathers had died there. Well, now my own beloved father has died here in the United States, and though I can scarcely say how I feel, it’s not exactly belonging, but rather, a renewed sense of responsibility to a place that we all must share. Here’s how another revered ancestor, Pete Seeger, put it:

To My Old Brown Earth

To my old brown earth
And to my old blue sky
I’ll now give these last few molecules of “I.”

And you who sing,
And you who stand nearby,
I do charge you not to cry. 

Guard well our human chain,
Watch well you keep it strong,
As long as sun will shine.

And this our home,
Keep pure and sweet and green,
For now I’m yours
And you are also mine

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