The Wounded Sea, Satendra Nandan, 1991
- Fiji, #2
- Borrowed from SF library
- Read January 2016
- Rating: 2.5/5
- Recommended for: exiles and patriots
(if you just want to skip to the Trump part, it starts in the fourth paragraph)
I liked this book at first. Nandan is a poet and his command of language is evident throughout. But it never really comes together; it reads more like a collection of expanded notes for a very thinly veiled memoir than an actual story. The first 130 pages are focused mainly on Nandan’s adolescence in Fiji; the last forty abruptly shift to the details of the first coup in 1987, when Nandan was a member of the newly elected cabinet and was imprisoned with the rest of the government for several days. The beginning is farcical in tone, excessively focused on scatological humor, with some obsessive observations about female breasts and buttocks (the author’s choice of words, not mine) for a change of pace. The timeline is confusing and occasional serious incidents–mostly the deaths of family members–are presented in isolation from the rest of the story, seemingly as mere devices to give the story some weight.
The book opens, for instance, with the death and funeral of Nandan’s father, with the implication that he had been drinking himself to death for years with disastrous impact on the family. This heavy foreshadowing, which at first I took to be a framing device, leads to exactly nothing. The death isn’t mentioned again; even the drinking problem appears only peripherally. So, too, the death of Nandan’s older brother, who is barely a character until his sudden demise leads to a very brief chapter of anecdotal reminiscences, and then he is gone from the story again as suddenly as he appeared. We learn a little bit about the indenture period, when thousands of Indians were brought to Fiji to work in servitude on the European-owned plantations; Nandan’s grandfather was one of these laborers, and they were the foundation of the significant Indian population on Fiji (Indo-Fijians comprised 48% of the population prior to 1987; the population has declined to 40% since the coup, mainly due to emigration). But he doesn’t explore this background in any great detail, even though it seems vitally important.
Then, after lingering in Nandan’s teenage years for three quarters of the book, we are suddenly thrust into his adulthood with no segue to explain how he went from a horny adolescent to a grown-up government official with a wife and two children. He bears no resemblance to the youth we’ve come to know (and in fact, if the first 130 pages are all about Nandan as a character, in the last 30 he is almost in the background, a mere witness to and victim of the events of 1987), and there is no explanation of the change.
Now. Originally the final paragraph of this post was about how ridiculously overblown Nandan is when he writes about the coup. And I still do think it’s a little over the top to compare Fiji’s bloodless coup to Apartheid (“Political apartheid is likely to become the Fijian way of life. In a sense, it is more terrible than the South African variety: we in Fiji have known freedom and living together”), the holocaust, and the bombing of Hiroshima. But all of a sudden I have a lot more sympathy with his perspective. The democratically-elected government of his country was overthrown by force for apparently racial motivation. Thousands of Indo-Fijians left Fiji after 1987 because they no longer felt safe in the only home they’d ever known. And now, in the past week, it seems that democracy in my own country may be teetering on the brink of failure. We haven’t had a coup, of course; we’ve just had an election rigged by a foreign power to ensure the victory of a narcissistic fascist.
I spent eight years living abroad, and I always planned to return to America. I held onto California, and by extension America, as a bastion of tolerance and diversity. I wanted to raise my children here, where they would be surrounded by people of all colors, creeds, and backgrounds. I knew, of course, that America harbored a reservoir of Christian fundamentalists to rival the most militant jihadist suicide bombers; I knew that there were plenty of racists and homophobes and misogynists. Where I was wrong was in my underestimation of how many they are, how prevalent, and how prepared the vast majority of the country is to tolerate them.
When Trump was elected, I was filled with fear. I knew that rights would be taken away, and the environment would suffer, and the people would probably die, but I didn’t think the downhill slide would be so fast. I thought we would have time to resist, that the ACLU would keep him from doing anything too unconstitutional, that if he did anything outright illegal he would be swiftly impeached. I even believed that enough Republicans in congress might be sane enough, decent enough human beings to stop his most egregious human rights violations. But before he even took office Trump simply declined to address his many many conflicts of interest. He’s writing executive actions left and write, which may or may not be legal or constitutional, but after all that’s happened how can we have any faith in our hallowed checks and balances? How can we depend on the legal system to stop him from breaking the law when he doesn’t believe the law applies to him, and half the people in this country–including most of those in government–seem to be ok with that? Yesterday he released an executive order essentially banning Muslim immigrants to the US for the next four months (and Syrian refugees indefinitely) and declared that Christian refugees will be given priority, effectively torching one of America’s most sacred values (the freedom to practice one’s religion without discrimination). He spent his first Monday in office trying to bully the National Parks Service because, basically, he wanted to believe his inauguration was well-attended and they were interfering with that belief. He is tweeting from an unsecured android and his followers, who wanted to lock Clinton up for similar behavior, are totally fine with it. He is gaslighting all of us, and maybe even himself; when reality doesn’t align with his wishes he simply refuses to accept it. And the country seems to be going along with it. We can march, we can protest (though maybe not legally for much longer), we can sue him, but what difference does it make if he just ignores us? Audra McDonald tweeted that “we are not crowning a king, or bowing down to a dictator. Tomorrow our new employee starts his temp job. We’re the boss,” but what if we’ve hired Bartleby the Scrivener? What do we when he’s impeached and instead of resigning he just says, “I would prefer not to”?
So yeah, I have a little more sympathy with Nandan’s histrionics because I can see how they might be justified. I feel like Americans are living in Germany in the 1930s, or Iran in the last days of the Shah. Fanaticism is running unchecked and the idea that those of us who don’t want to toe the Trump line might have to leave (if we can) is becoming more and more realistic.
And the thing is: I love America. I think there’s a conception on the right that liberals aren’t patriotic, but the truth is that we love our country, and we believe in it. It is deeply flawed but its ideals are in the right place; when we criticize it is because we think it could be better. We want to believe that it is a place where all people could truly be created equal. We want to believe that the better angels of our collective nature will prevail, and that the perfection we strive for will be, someday, attainable. And this is why my heart breaks with every new illegal and heartless executive action issued this week: because it is a betrayal of our principles, and of our very humanity. I love my country, but it doesn’t seem like my country anymore, and it is not inconceivable that many Americans will soon find ourselves in exile, or worse.