This summer, I’ve been sitting at a desk in an alcove that is flanked by bookshelves. I’ve been sampling the titles from those shelves, books that are now strewn about the desk along with my class assignments and essay research. There have been so many difficult stories, starting with two novels that featured selfish, albeit hurting, women who went to very questionable lengths to adopt a child (The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman and Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng). Then there was the Italian WWII story, a novel based on the life of teenager Pino Lella from Milan who helps Jews escape over the Alps to Swizerland before working as a driver for a Nazi General while doubling as a spy for the Allies (Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan). I considered picking up another Liane Moriarty book next in order to lighten the mood (The Hypnotist’s Love Story had been particularly entertaining back in July), when my eyes landed on a title that called to me, especially as I watched the news unfold out of Afghanistan.
As I watched President George W. Bush announce his intentions to invade Afghanistan, one of my roommates walked in, took one glance at the screen, and declared Bush the terrorist. I was confused. Weren’t we allowed to react? I thought of all of those people, the pictures I had seen of them falling from the towers and the replays I had listened to of the 911 calls from those trapped within them. I really wanted to understand what my friend was thinking, so I opened my mouth and asked something like, “But don’t all those people deserve to have their killers held accountable?” Instead of answering my question, my roommate yelled something and went to her room, slamming the door behind her, and leaving me in front of the TV with more questions than ever. I was shocked. If my friend wasn’t going to talk to me, how was I going to learn about what was going on?
Looking back, this moment still pains me because it felt like such a significant example of and my first real experience with the assumption that presumed political alignments will preclude any discussion between different viewpoints. There I was, completely lost about what to make of anything, and the only thing I learned was that asking a question was rude and offensive. (And it was no surprise to me later that my alma mater Brown University was used as an example twice in Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s impressive book The Coddling of the American Mind, an example of a place where dissenting points of view were not welcome.)
I’m glad I’ve since learned a bit about Islam and about the Middle East from reading books like If The Oceans Were Ink and Everything Sad is Untrue, both of which helped to flesh out the narrative of The Kite Runner when I finally picked it up last week, but I hoped to learn even more about the political conflict, something that would help me understand what was going on now, and what had happened that led to history repeating itself.
While the beginning of my understanding of conflict in Afghanistan occurred in 2001, Khaled Hosseini’s character Amir in The Kite Runner, draws a different line in the sand: the bloodless overthrow of the monarchy and resulting formation of the Republic of Afghanistan on July 17, 1973:
“The shootings and explosions had lasted less than an hour, but they had frightened us badly, because none of us had ever heard gunshots in the streets. They were foreign sounds to us then. The generation of Afghan children whose ears would know nothing but the sounds of bombs and gunfire was not yet born.” (36, bold italics mine)
Hosseini’s story is largely a book about children, and the teenagers and aggressive young men some of them become. When I take a step back and look at the last fifty years, it appears that each generation of violent extremists are young people who hadn’t even been born when the previous upheaval happened, making me wonder how they learn this violence, and why they choose to repeat atrocious behavior?
The Kite Runner is the story of Amir, a boy torn between his desire for two loves -- the love he wishes he had from his father, and the love of a boy who is like a brother and yet not allowed to be. Amir is raised breathing the racism that pervades the country. He adds to it in lesser ways than the neighborhood bullies, and yet, his inability to escape it alters the course of his life. Even after educating himself via an old textbook and learning the history of how his people oppressed the Hazaras, he has no one to turn to for guidance, for the truth of equality and friendship his conscience craves. His teachers preach racism, and his father permits the discriminatory classism that is a result of it. As Amir describes it,
“Because history isn’t easy to overcome. Neither is religion. In the end, I was a Pashtun and he was a Hazara, I was Sunni and he was Shi’a, and nothing was ever going to change that. Nothing.” (25)
As I turned the pages, I drew parallels to the other books I tackled this month, particularly, Beneath a Scarlet Sky. As racism and greed escalate into war within their countries, protagonists Amir and Pino face similar challenges to their moral character. They are both accused of treason (Amir for fleeing Afghanistan during the Russian occupation; Pino wearing a Nazi uniform instead of fighting with the Partizans or in the Italian army), and, most importantly, both characters fail to stand up for a person they love, a choice that haunts them into the future.
There are also structural similarities, like the use of the childhood nemesis who returns in the end and the complicated nature of the conflicts they find themselves in, whereby there isn’t a simple right versus wrong or one side against another. Pino finds himself, even at and after the war’s end, immersed in a city of nonsensical fighting between Nazis, Fascists and Partizans, where anyone can be accused for any crime, for any conspiracy, where no one is safe, and where, when all is said and done, some of the most atrocious figures, like Nazi General Leyers, are set free to live their lives. For Amir’s part, he listens to his father’s old friend Rahim Khan describe the confusion and terror among the people once they learned of the Taliban’s true intentions but how he and others had at first embraced them after the fighting they endured under the different factions of the Northern Alliance between 1992-1996. Khan says,
“When the Taliban rolled in and kicked the Alliance out of Kabul, I actually danced on that street...And, believe me, I wasn’t alone. People were celebrating at Chaman, at Deh-Mazang, greeting the Taliban in the streets, climbing their tanks and posing for pictures with them. People were so tired of the constant fighting, tired of the rockets, the gunfire, the explosions, tired of watching Gulbuddin and his cohorts firing on anything that moved. The Alliance [consisting of the factions Massoud, Rabani, and the Mujahedin] did more damage to Kabul than the Shorawi [the Russian army].” (200)
People danced in the street when the Taliban rolled in? Did I read that right? Chaos and terror had reigned in WWII Italy and late 20th century Afghanistan, and above everything else, people wanted it to stop. And yet, who was to stop it?
Pino’s uncle remarked in frustration in late October 1944 that “the world’s focused on France, and [has] forgotten Italy.” (289) Amir, for his part in 1989, describes a similar feeling:
“That was the year that the Shorawi completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan. It should have been a time of glory for Afghans. Instead, the war raged on, this time between Afghans, the Mujahedin, against the Soviet puppet government of Najibullah, and Afghan refugees kept flocking to Pakistan. That was the year that the cold war ended, the year the Berlin Wall came down. It was the year of Tiananmen Square. In the midst of it all, Afghanistan was forgotten.” (183-4)
I read these sentences and wonder, in both cases, who they wanted to help? “The world” is a big place. Who is supposed to help? And how?
Second, Marton includes a letter she wrote to her family during her travels to Africa, while accompanying Holbrooke as newly appointed ambassador to the United Nations in 1998. During the trip they visited a refugee camp in Angola where “some of the kids have prepared a little show for us. They sing about peace and, with smiles, ask, in song, “Why so many summits, and never any change?” (137)
As the reader, I wondered, why doesn’t she answer that question? Instead she follows it with this sentence: “I am relieved to leave this battered country.” (137) Her letter is full of self-pity from the pace of the trip and her inability to stay anywhere long enough to unpack a suitcase, meanwhile she is looking real suffering in the face and not showing compassion. Perhaps it is the job of the reporter to present the facts and then let the viewer draw interpretations from the tone of the delivery. Perhaps she meant her intentions to read between the lines.
She does include, however, her late husband’s views on the issues. Regarding the conflict in Bosnia, she quotes Holbrooke as saying with resolve,
“At Srebrenica a month ago, people were taken into a stadium, lined up, and massacred. It was a crime against humanity of the sort that we have rarely seen in Europe, and not since the days of Himmler and Stalin. That’s simply a fact and it has to be dealt with. I’m not going to cut a deal that absolves the people responsible for this.” (131)
Who is supposed to help? Reporters like Marton and diplomats like Holbrooke, sure, in order to share the facts with the world and engage leaders in conversation, and yet, Marton examines the complexity of what actually serves to change the populace. She describes a story she covered in late 1978: “the delicate process of Germans confronting their own history. Astonishingly, the country’s first mass exposure to the Holocaust came with the broadcast of an American television series of the same name.” (93-4) She reported on ABC these words,
“Incredibly, this national soul-searching has been triggered by an American TV series, seen by twenty million Germans -- accomplished what scores of well-meaning documentaries have failed to do: provoked a long-overdue national debate about the past...Shock, bewilderment and surprise. Those were the immediate reactions of Germans as they watched the horrors of the Nazi rise to power...in their living rooms.”
“Willem Knies, once a pilot in Hitler’s Luftwaffe, could only say he was seeing nothing he did not already know, but knowing the facts is one thing, experiencing the emotions is another. ‘It’s terrible,’ he said, ‘and it’s true.’”
“Shortly after the broadcast of Holocaust,” I reported, “West German police started cracking down on bands of neo-Nazis. They’ve confiscated pictures of Adolf Hitler, swastikas, and even more chilling, an arsenal of machine guns and revolvers and explosives found in a small town near Hanover, where a group of eighteen youths had formed a neo-Nazi training camp.” (94-95, bold italics mine)
I read that and wondered what influenced those youths to take up the ideals of Nazism? In the case of Hosseini’s character Assef, Amir’s childhood nemesis, Assef latches onto Hitler’s ideas in order to stoke a cultural racism against the Hazara people specific to his country Afghanistan:
“...Hitler. How, there was a leader. A great leader. A man with vision...if they had let Hitler finish what he had started, the world [would] be a better place now...Afghanistan is the land of Pashtuns. It always has been, always will be. We are the true Afghans, the pure Afghans, not this Flat-Nose here [meaning Amir’s Hazara friend Hassan]. His people pollute our homeland, our watan. They dirty our blood...Afghanistan for Pashtuns, I say. That’s my vision...Too late for Hitler...But not for us.” (40)
As a 13-year-old boy, Assef gifts Amir with a biography of Hitler and bullies and assaults his friend Hassan. As an adult, Assef massacres Hazara people and executes others under Sharia law. Still, this behavior doesn’t only happen in the Middle East. It isn’t specific to one group of people.
Marton writes of her college days in Paris from 1967-1968, idyllic days of renewal that morphed like a nightmare during a student uprising that would come to be called Les jours de mai. She recalls that “roughly one decade after the revolution that ended my childhood [in Budapest] and forced my family to flee, I was caught up in another uprising.” (55) “Caught up in the swirl of street scuffles between students and police in Paris, I was haunted by memories of Hungarian secret police agents lynched by angry mobs, images of my family’s desperate rush to cross the Danube to sanctuary at the American Embassy, one step ahead of Soviet tanks.” (58) She recalls that “posters of Lenin, Marx, Marcuse, and Meo adorned walls stripped of the Odeon’s theater placards. Most shocking to me was a poster of Stalin. Stalin! Did these “revolutionaries” have the faintest notion of Stalin’s cruelty?” (58)
Again, these are young people. Again, history repeats, with war and revolution waged by those who likely hadn’t yet been born during the last major wave of violence, which makes me wonder about the gaps in education, about the breakdown in communication between one generation to the next. How is that they, like the German pilot Willem Knies, understand the facts and yet hold none of the emotional understanding?
Over the past few years, I have read only one story from the “aggressor's” point of view. While Hosseini doesn’t tell the story from the aggressor’s point of view in The Kite Runner, I have to wonder if we heard that story, whether it would sound at all like that of Bashir Khairi In The Lemon Tree, a man (a true story) whose history has been passed down orally, a history that the fighters continue to tell and retell to their children so as to keep the dream of their home alive.
While the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a completely different type of battle from that in Afghanistan, I wonder, is this how the Taliban regained control of the country so quickly this past month? From the inability of its followers to tell a new story or to gain perspective on the old one? What motivates these people? What are they trying to achieve? How can we learn more about them?
Stories of takeover and oppression are as old as time. In my final book of the month, Chester Nez’s Code Talker, I learned more about Americans’ annihilation of Native Americans, and 20th century Japan’s intention to take over the world, driving home the fact that the desire to take over can be found anywhere, even at home.
Of the man appointed United States Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan from January, 2009 to his death in December, 2010, Marton observed “some of [Holbrooke’s] optimism give way during those years, to an acceptance that there is such a thing as true evil in the world. How otherwise to explain neighbors and former schoolmates turning on each other with murderous rage in the heart of twentieth-century Europe? He hated cynicism, inaction, and defeatism almost as much as evil.” (133)
Even with this hopeless backdrop, The Kite Runner offers two satisfying points of action by the end: a successful adoption story and its characters’ dedication to refugee efforts. After reading The Light Between Oceans and Little Fires Everywhere earlier in the month, I found it both satisfying and heartbreaking to read to the end of this story and learn of the terror and sacrifice involved in trying to rescue a child from a warzone while others opposed your efforts with doubts about how the child would be raised, when all you wanted to do was scream that the how of living surely was trumped by the need to live period, the need to give a child a chance to make it to his next birthday.
Reading this story triggered a memory of when I watched Charlie Wilson’s War and how intensely sad I had been at the ending, at the lack of infrastructure put in place after the Russians were sent packing, at the lack of attention to the needs of the children left behind. Every twenty years, another generation needs to be educated. Every twenty years, another chance to try again or repeat the same mistakes.
Gathering all of these stories together from where they sit in piles on my desk, I am reminded by this anonymous quote I found in Other People’s Children by Lisa Delpit, from a Holocaust survivor to a teacher:
“I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no person should witness: gas chambers built by learned engineers. Children poisoned by educated physicians. Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and babies shot at by high school and college graduates. So, I am suspicious of education. My request is:
“Help your children become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, or educated Eichmanns. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human.”
Over the past few days, I found it heartening to read of the number of countries who opened their borders to this latest wave of Afghan refugees. It is a place to start. It is a place to show love in a world so pervaded by evil.
But perhaps the greater lesson here is that it is never too late to learn. Just as West Germans confronted their past via a TV show in the 1970s, I too can pick up Hosseini’s novel twenty years after my roommate blew up at my question about fighting back against the Taliban. I don’t want to be part of any blind attack or retaliation. I want to read more, to understand better, to gain a better sense of how to balance the need to hold people accountable and the need to move on with life. Stories help with this. Amazon may have 30,000 titles about WWII and 6,000 titles on Afghanistan, but there can never be too many stories. Each shares a new angle. Each sheds a little more light on the complexity of our world. Most importantly, we can work at least as hard at educating ourselves as we do at telling the world how they must live. One of the most heartbreaking points in both Amir and Pino’s stories was reading about how the people felt forgotten. Stories help us remember. Stories are our way to say we see you, and we will not forget.
The Situation and the Story
This central question is clear throughout the full length text, and speaks to the first aspect of memoir writing -- to know what it is you’re writing about, and why you are writing it. This was our first task as we approached our own work, to assess the situation and the story in our work, as defined by Vivan Gornick, to define what happens (the situation) and then explore its meaning (the story).
In Ward’s text, this is the situation: “From 2000 to 2004, five Black young men I grew up with died, all violently, in seemingly unrelated deaths.” (7) The story is the search for why “this epidemic happened, about how the history of racism and economic inequality and lapsed public and personal responsibility festered and turned sour and spread here. Hopefully I’ll understand why my brother died while I live…” (8)
I-Narrator versus I-Character
A couple of weeks later, we discussed the unique challenge memoirists face. That is, in telling her story, the memoirist is both a character and the narrator. Both voices need to be present on the page, as the person the story is happening to and the person who is making meaning out of the events from a distance. My instructor taught us to examine Ward’s text in order to identify where she switches from one voice to the other and how she does it without confusing the reader. This technique allows the reader to appreciate the story with the perspective of being years removed from it. Perhaps the biggest challenge for the writer is remembering what she knew then, versus what she learned along the way. We understood that this is necessary work, though, because the interesting part is in the change.
Use of Time
In another session, we examined Ward’s use of time, and how she slowed or accelerated time in order to draw the reader’s attention to a certain event or to move the story along to the next pertinent scene. We talked about how this makes the experience more interesting for the reader because it adds what my instructor called “narrative dynamism,” that is, a way of expanding the story or a particular problem the characters face, as Rowan Fortune discusses in the Medium article of the same name.
The following week, we discussed the ABC’s of storylines, as defined by David Mura in his essay “The A-B-C of Multiple Story Lines” (from his compilation text A Stranger’s Journey: Race, Identity, and Narrative Craft in Writing). He defines the A line as the pursuit of the main goal, and is generally told linearly. The B line is a subplot or other background information, perhaps a past narrative. The C line is deep background information and usually not a large part of the text, but it can contain information the reader needs in order to put the A line in context. In terms of Ward’s book, I identified the A line as the author’s goal to understand why her brother died when she lived via the story of her childhood and family. The B line includes chapters detailing the lives of other boys she knew who also died in that community. The C line includes the community and distant family history that contextualizes the world of the character.
In another session, we talked about how building attachments between characters can actually serve to help a reader build an attachment to the story. We discussed how Jesmyn Ward creates complex characters out of her family members, her friends, and herself. My instructor pointed out that just because someone is real won’t necessarily make them feel real to a reader. Round, real characters have particular mannerisms or gestures. They are flawed and unpredictable but convincing as they change over the course of the story. Above all, they have desires that prompt them to act or not act, desires that can be concrete (like becoming a kung fu master) or abstract (like love or control).
Use of Imagined Space
The following week we talked about how Jesmyn Ward uses her imagination to expand her narrative. We reflected on how this is helpful when we weren’t present for a particular scene or when we don’t remember something well. We learned how imagining a scene or a character’s motivation can deepen the emotional journey or flesh out the story. We discovered that sometimes it’s even interesting to read about what we didn’t know about a certain event or person.
Writing into the World
In one of our last sessions, we identified sections where Jesmyn Ward moves from her personal story to larger social issues without losing the urgency of her lived experience or the uniqueness of her voice. She includes statistics and summary sentences, but the writing is never dry. Using her techniques as a guide, we brainstormed the larger topics of our stories, like the history that was unfolding at the time or the ideas that were being discussed or the issues that the reader might identify with. All of these can transform the story from a solely personal tale to a more universal experience. We looked at how other writers have done that in essay form, such as Incubator graduate Patty Mulcahy with her essay in Cognoscenti, and we were challenged to write our own essays, to look for ways we might publish pieces that dovetail with our stories.
And finally, in our last class of the summer, we discussed endings. We identified techniques such as the returning to key images and repeating them in a new way, and searching for a way to let the conflict culminate and then continue beyond the final words, ideas that Jennifer De Leon writes about in The Literary Life. We read the ending of Jesmyn Ward’s memoir as well as several others. We were encouraged to pick one and use its structure to write the ending of our own material. Some of us balked at the idea, wondering whether this might be plagiarism, but we were assured that it was an accepted technique to help writers think about their material in a new way.
By the end of our ten week session this summer, we had covered a lot of ground. I found it all fascinating but told my instructor that I would know I had learned something when I had a chance to incorporate these ideas into my own material. That is a task for now through the fall, to generate and revise and reshape and see what emerges, all in pursuit of telling the clearest, truest, best story I can tell.
I’ll let you know how it goes…
With my husband Dan away on a work trip this past week, it was my job to walk the dog. Opal is ten months old now and still needs a lot of exercise every day, preferably first thing in the morning to wear her out. Without a group of dogs to run with while we’re away from home and out in Colorado this summer, my husband’s been driving her up to the trail at the top of the hill, just a five minute drive, somewhere she can be off leash without worrying about traffic, somewhere we hope she is under enough voice command that we can call her back should she encounter an elderly hiker. It’s not a retirement community per se, but the population is on the older side, and we don’t want her causing a hip fracture from jumping on anyone and knocking them down.
The first time Dan took Opal out on a trail, a day or two after we arrived here this summer, she treed a bear cub. They got out of there quickly before mama bear had a chance to show up. On two other hikes in two other locations they spotted a bear as well. Three bear sightings.
Before he left on his trip this week, Dan reminded me to talk loudly or sing when we were up on the mountain for walks. But I never saw a bear. I have never seen a bear here in my twenty years of visits. Maybe they know something about human mamas too. Still, I followed his advice and made sure to greet any animals that might be sleeping or hiding in the brush. In between my bursts of one-sided conversation, there was plenty of time to think, to think about this quote by John Muir from The Yosemite, for example,
“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul alike.”
It occured to me that I hadn’t been to church in over a year and a half, and I had no idea when I would go back. The loss of community and communal singing really bothered me, and yet, I knew I could still find God elsewhere. A woman in my church small group pointed out sometime last year that when men in the Bible wanted to find God, they would go to the mountain (think Moses), but when women needed God, he would go to them, and would likely find them in the kitchen (think Martha).
This past week though, it was my turn to go to the mountain.
One overcast morning, as Opal and I made our way through the path in the woods and then along the ridge to another patch of woods, I remembered my prayers from the year before, the year of the Grizzly Creek fire that started the day after we went river rafting through the area on August 10th and that wasn’t 100% contained until December 18th, the year we were on wildfire alert, the year my parents packed up the old family photos and other keepsakes in case we should need to evacuate.
Last summer, my prayer requests were clear and simple: I prayed for rain, and I prayed for a vaccine.
That morning a few days ago, as I made my way down the trail, my hiking pants and sneakers soaked through from the moisture on the overhanging brush, I reminded myself to be grateful. All of the adults in my family were vaccinated and would likely avoid hospitalization even if they did get some new variant. Also, it was raining on and off, albeit lightly.
But the kids, was my next thought. The kids needed to be vaccinated. And, whatever older kids had set off those fireworks a few nights prior in the parking lot at the trailhead where I left our car needed to be reminded that we were still in a drought. One spark could cause extensive damage.
I decided that my prayer requests remained the same, with one addition. Yes, bring on vaccines for kids, and bring on rain, and, once that was done, I decided I would really like God to show my family where to settle down next. Cambridge has been home for so long, it doesn’t feel right to move. Still, our kids need room to grow, and as much as I love our two bedroom condo, well, it is what it is. I said my prayer tentatively, still on the fence about commiting to a move and not yet wanting to put God in charge, God who could make it happen.
As we neared the main path to head back through the woods to the car,
the clouds separated to reveal a patch of blue
that seemed to tell me that everything would be all right.
Fifteen minutes later and about 200 meters from the parking lot, the wind picked up, gray clouds rolled and, and Opal and I were pelted with heavy rain. It was almost like God was saying,
You want rain? I’ll give you rain.
I looked up, intimidated, before asking, What else, God? What else will you give?
Then I hoisted my 50 pound dog into the back of the car and headed off down the road, with the windshield wipers working hard, able to see just enough ahead of me, just enough to keep going.
Last weekend my family drove nine hours southwest from our summer location to visit the Grand Canyon. We began our drive by following a tributary of the Colorado River, and as we approached our destination, we caught glimpses of both the Colorado and the Little Colorado Rivers. Once in Grand Canyon Village, we watched the sun set and then rise over the canyon three times from our hotel room along the rim. A stunning landscape, and a somewhat terrifying place to bring young children, we challenged ourselves with hikes below the rim, with all of us completing the first mile and a half of the Bright Angel Trail and half of the family hiking the first mile and a half of the South Kaibab Trail.
We learned from our explorations of those as well as the Rim Trail that the Colorado River is only visible in certain locations. The tremendous force that created one of the world’s largest canyons proved to be fairly elusive. Trying to ignore our children’s pleas to see the canyon from a whitewater raft on our next visit (although I did that with my family just before entering high school), my husband and I pointed out the striations in the rock and the various animal life, like plenty of condors flying overhead, a group of mules taking riders down the path in front of us, and one lone bighorn sheep perched on a rock face. We also enjoyed seeing mule deer, elk, coyote, and plenty of very healthy looking squirrels.
After putting off our kids’ requests to buy souvenirs, we gave in on the last day, and that’s where we found evidence of an equally elusive yet steady presence within the National Park.
Chester Nez’s memoir, however, tells a greater story than that of defeating the Japanese. After reading about his family’s history and the atrocities they suffered as Americans expanded across the continent, including what the Navajo people call the Long Walk of 1864, the forced 350 miles from Fort Defiance, Arizona to Fort Sumner in New Mexico that killed hundreds of people, I read about his childhood on the Checkerboard Area of New Mexico, near Navajo Nation, how the teachers at his boarding schools tried to erase his Navajo culture and language, and how he witnessed firsthand another example of white man’s arrogance with the unexplained slaughtering of his tribe’s livestock between 1932 and 1934. Nez fills in the history for the reader and at each turn attempts to shed generous light on complicated issues of the day, ones where environmentalism may even have played a role in that last confusing and devastating act. He also includes the effects of this on the tribe:
“In the time before the massacre, friends and neighbors helped one another...The livestock reduction challenged this sense of community by pitting Navajo against Navajo...Neighbors put up fences...The year-round migration from one community grazing area to another that had been the norm as I grew up became impossible...The toll in self-respect was also huge. Families, unable to protect their own livestock, felt powerless. And nothing could have done more to erode the local work ethic. What was the point of working hard to build up wealth, a sizable herd, when the government just stepped in and destroyed it?”
“The massacre killed more than livestock. It changed the dynamic between neighbors; it changed the meaning of hard work; it changed everything. / After the Long Walk, the livestock massacre is considered the second great tragedy in Navajo history. A story now woven into oral tradition, the extermination is discussed wherever Navajos meet, so that like the Long Walk, it will never fade from memory.” (79-80)
Even against this backdrop, Chester Nez, born on January 23, 1921 and never granted a birth certificate, wanted to excel in the world he now found himself in, where it wasn’t possible to avoid white people any longer. He learned English, studied hard in school and didn’t flinch at the request to join the war effort when the Marines came to recruit boys at his high school, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
At a time when Native Americans were denied the right to vote, despite the Snyder Act of 1924 that admitted citizenship to Native Americans born in the U.S., and at a time when Chester Nez and his friends wouldn’t have been allowed to sit in a San Diego bar save for their Marine uniforms, his tribe made this declaration of allegiance in late spring 1940:
“Whereas, the Navajo Tribal Council and the 50,000 people we represent, cannot fail to recognize the crisis now facing the world in the threat of foreign invasion and the destruction of the great liberties and benefits which we enjoy on the reservation, and
“Whereas, there exists no purer concentration of Americanism than among the First Americans, and
“Whereas, it has become common practice to attempt national destruction through the sowing of seeds of treachery among minority groups such as ours, and
“Whereas, we hereby serve notice that any un-American movement among our people will be resented and dealt with severely, and
“Now, Therefore, we resolve that the Navajo Indians stand ready as they did in 1918, to aid and defend our Government and its institutions against all subversive and armed conflict and pledge our loyalty to the system which recognizes minority rights and a way of life that has placed us among the great people of our race.” (84-85)
Following this text Chester Nez writes, “It might surprise non-Navajos to read this declaration of allegiance. No Navajo, however, would be surprised. We have always felt a deep allegiance to our motherland, our Navajo Nation, and our families. To this allegiance is linked a sincere desire to protect all three.” (85)
Yes, I was completely shocked to read both the Council’s words and Mr. Nez’s words, especially his reaction to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor:
“My roommate, Roy Begay, and I discussed the momentous events.
“‘What do you think this means?’ asked Roy.
“‘Our country has joined the war. I think the military will want us,’ I told him. ‘We are warriors.’
“We, like other Native Americans, had been born to the warrior tradition. Like other Navajos, we saw ourselves as inseparable from the earth we lived upon. And as protectors of what is sacred, we were both eager to defend our land.” (87)
Chester Nez and many other Navajo went on to do just that, and the least we can do to honor their service is to continue to tell their story. (And I have to point out that I was even more shocked to read the phrasing “we...stand ready as they did in 1918”, even before they had citizenship! Here’s an article about Choctaw soldiers in WWI.)
There was one moment though where Mr. Nez found himself in complete disbelief -- when he and the other Navajo code talkers were told their mission:
“The officer...told us we were to use our native language to devise an unbreakable code. I read expressions of shock on every face. A code based on the Navajo language? After we’d been so severely punished in boarding school for speaking it?” (102)
At first, the new recruits were intimidated by their task, and yet, by the end of that first day of work, “relief showed on every face. We slapped each other on the back, and joked to let off steam, feeling good about our work. The impossible-seeming task suddenly looked possible. We would not let our country or our fellow Marines down.” (106)
Chester Nez went on to fight and transmit coded messages at Guadalcanal, Bougainville, Guam, Peleliu, and Angaur. He was sent home just before his division was sent to Iwo Jima.
In the military and in battle, Nez makes a point to say that his “skin color didn’t work against [him].” (172) However, he and another code talker were once mistaken for Japanese soldiers and held at gunpoint until a higher-up could confirm their identity. And once he returned to civilian life, he was sneered at inside a federal building in New Mexico where he went to obtain an identification card by a man who told Nez he wasn’t a “full citizen of the United States...You can’t even vote.” (217) Nez didn’t gain that right in New Mexico until 1948.
In 1968, the Navajo code was declassified, and the 400 Navajo code talkers began to receive public and congressional appreciation for their service. Chester Nez, along with all original 29 code talkers, received a gold medal in 2001 by President George W. Bush, with the rest of the code talkers receiving a silver medal. Chester Nez describes his legacy this way:
“My fellow code talkers and I have become part of a new oral and written tradition, a Navajo victory, with our culture contributing to our country’s defeat of a wily foe. The story of the code talkers has been told on the Checkerboard and the reservation and recorded in the pages of history books forever. Our story is not one of sorrow, like the Long Walk and the Great Livestock Massacre, but one of triumph.” (265-6)
That is true, and I’m glad Mr. Nez, who passed away in 2014, considered himself blessed. Still, just as the Colorado River wore away at the rock to form the Grand Canyon, white America wore away at the traditions and lives of Native American tribes. Mr. Nez admitted in his memoir that though his native language was important enough to win a world war, his own children weren’t fluent. And yet, as one of my friends said during a book club a few years ago, “We are still here.” They are still here, and with the declassification of the code talkers’ story, we can now read their full story in humility and awe.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.