creative non-fiction

Memoir: Looking Back at My Peace Corps Experience in Guatemala

Memoir: Looking Back at My Peace Corps Experience in Guatemala

Much later, I thought a lot about my own role in people’s stories of violence and how I’d also bought into the romance of supposedly primitive cultures. I thought a lot about how tourism to Maya communities could co-exist with state violence against those same communities, how the state had tried to exterminate the very people that it also wanted to serve as tourist attractions.

How We Remember Terrible Things

I've been thinking a lot lately about memory and history. I took all of those thoughts, wrote some short historical snapshots, and wrote a long-form blog post tied together some creative non-fiction and some photos. All this to say, here is a writing experiment. I can only hope it makes sense.


How do we remember terrible things?

History and Memory

Though related, history and memory are not the same. History is the study of change over time. Memory is how we remember the past. People interpret history and create memory of it. Both subject to changes in interpretation.

The Legacy of Slavery in Brazil

We remember terrible things by excavating memories of the past.

People in the United States remember the stain of slavery in a different way than people in other places. Public monuments in the Caribbean and Latin America celebrate the end of slavery, suggesting a landscape of liberation, a reckoning with an ugly and violent racial past that has no place in the present moment. Monuments to commemorate the end slavery in Latin America look nice, but Latin America isn’t the mythical “racial democracy.” One doesn’t have to look very far to find evidence of deep racism throughout the region. Monuments of liberation haven’t shifted underlying systemic structural violence towards people of color.

If slavery is the original sin of the United States (in tandem with dispossession and genocide towards native peoples), we might think about about how nations like Brazil have remembered their long histories of slavery. (To be clear, comparing public memory in Brazil and the U.S. is not a perfect comparison. Nothing like the Confederacy existed.)

Slavery was a crucial part of colonial projects in the Americas, beginning with the enslavement of indigenous people. Because disease killed many native peoples, colonial powers imported millions of enslaved Africans. Scholars estimate that between 10 and 16 million enslaved Africans imported to the Americas. Brazil received four to five million slaves, around 40% of the total estimate. The U.S., in comparison, received 6%. Eventually, 60-70% of enslaved people ended up in Brazil or the Caribbean.

Most enslaved Africans brought to Brazil came from West Africa. Many of the enslaved people who arrived in Rio came from what today is Angola. Possibly as many as 900,000 people passed through the Cais do Valongo in Rio de Janiero. Slave markets and mass graves were located nearby. The living were bought and sold, the dead thrown into mass graves.

 African slavery in Brazil was abolished in 1888. Brazil was the last Western nation to do so.

In the wake of the horror of the Holocaust and Nazi violence, the United Nations formed UNESCO in 1945. UNESCO set out to understand the concept of race in a new way to prevent future horrors. UNESCO’s 1951 statement of race rejected the racial thinking and biological determinism of the past. It proclaimed

“From a morphological point of view, moreover, it is impossible to regard one particular race as superior or inferior to another.”

Because of Brazil’s long history of slavery and miscegenation, the nation became the focus of post-WWII race studies. UNESCO sponsored race studies in Brazil in the 1950s, operating on the assumption that a place with such a complex racial composition had mastered the art of racial harmony. What researchers found, however, was a much more complicated problem than they’d assumed. Race studies began in Bahia, the state with the most evident African influence and blackest population. The scope of the investigation widened as researchers confronted several problems with the project, as their research showed entrenched patterns of structural racism.

Cais do Valongo was rediscovered in 2011 during the public renovations to the city of Rio for the 2016 Olympic games. The Cais do Valongo is one of the few tangible remnants that reminds us of the magnitude and unspeakable cruelty of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The Valongo Wharf Archaeological Site was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2017. A research center and museum now stands there. A proposed memorial at the site includes native African plants and public spaces where slaves might have perhaps practiced capoiera.

Not many slavery memorials exist in Brazil today.

City Beautiful Movement and Denver

We remember terrible things through things we build.

The City Beautiful movement of the early 20th century sought to use monumental architecture to not only beautify cities, but also to instill certain civic values and a sense of moral virtue in the residents of cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and Washington, D.C. The City Beautiful proponents favored monumental neoclassical architecture because it emphasized harmony and dignity, but above all, social order.  The people, of course, targeted by the City Beautiful movement, were the people city planners thought needed to learn these things: women, people of color, the working class.

Fears of losing control over established social order framed the world’s fairs of the 19th century that inspired the City Beautiful movement. The World’s Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893 provided a watershed moment for city planners. Known as the White City, the fairgrounds featured neoclassical buildings, thought to inspire symmetry and balance. The manicured lawns and beautiful architecture of world’s fairs reflected an imaginary vision of the world, one in which people behaved according to racial, classist, and gendered social norms.

The City Beautiful movement also reflected the aims of the popular eugenics movement of the early twentieth century. Eugenics seemed like cutting-edge science. Many world’s fairs featured exhibits fairs provided an opportunity for scientists to teach the public about eugenics. In 1920, the world’s fair in Kansas City held a Fitter Family contest to measure the eugenic fitness of entire families.

The City Beautiful movement influenced city planning in Denver, where I now live. Enacted under the leadership of Mayor Robert Speer (1904-1912), the architecture of the Civic Center park reflected the City Beautiful movement’s goals.  Denver of the early 20th century was a rapidly changing city. In particular, the Labor Movement threatened to upend established social norms.

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Efforts to stamp out the labor movement culminated in the 1914 Ludlow massacre, when the National Guard massacred striking coal miners and their families. Ludlow itself has been abandoned, but a small memorial marks the site. A Woodie Guthrie song also commemorates the strikers.

By the mid-1920s, the KKK controlled most government functions and offices in Denver. Much like mayor Speer, mayor Benjamin Stapleton sponsored many architecture projects, including the famed Red Rocks Amphitheater and the Denver Municipal Airport.The airport became known as Stapleton. When the airport closed in 1995, the neighborhood was renamed Stapleton and redeveloped into subdivisions. The Black Lives Matter movement is trying to change the name of the neighborhood. BLM suggests Justina Ford, the first African-American woman licensed to practice medicine in Denver.

Political power, racial oppression, and public space merge together in memory.

The Oppressive Beauty of Memory

We remember terrible things through beautiful things.

Material culture (for non-historians: stuff) that seem to celebrate culture can also be used to create historical narratives that erase history.   Things that sometimes seem to celebrate racial difference are often complicit in reinforcing it.

One of the stories that I tell in my book manuscript is about a New York fashion designer named Ruth Reeves. She traveled to Guatemala to collect textiles for the Carnegie Institute.  

Ruth Reeves took the Mayan textiles she created and produced textile designs for the Macy’s department store. Her show opened to rave reviews. People admired the timelessness of the traditional designs and marveled over how a people so far from modernity could possibly produce creative designs that seemed so fresh and vibrant. In doing so, she shaped the idea of the material culture of native peoples as artifacts of folklore. She helped to create in public imaginations what Peter Nabokov terms the cute ways of brown people.

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Vibrant indigenous culture is often the result of brutality, violence, and exploitation, not centuries of unbroken pre-Hispanic rituals. Reeves helped create a story in which native peoples produced beautiful and authentic textiles just like they did at the time of the Spanish conquest. The story she helped create papered over a long history of oppression, racism, extermination, and discrimination. Nostalgia for an invented and romantic past oppresses people as much as Confederate monuments.

Tourists today often talk about the beauty of indigenous textiles in Guatemala.

The Vietnam Wall

We remember terrible things differently.

The Vietnam Wall sends no heroic message. A wall, by definition, has two sides.

 I had students once do oral history interviews with family and friends who had living memory of Vietnam. Their interviews showed families often torn apart by the war.

It is still divisive, a scar on the national psyche.

There is also a wall to the South, divisive in other ways and a reminder of injustices there.

Remembering terrible things in Guatemala: (no) hubo genocidio

We remember terrible things when people will not let us forget them.

The armed conflict in Guatemala, stemming from the 1954 overthrow of democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz, claimed around 200,000 lives. Another 40,000 were desaparecidos.

Rios Montt was tried and convicted in a national court for the crime of genocide in 2013. His conviction was overturned shortly afterwards.

In 2014, the Guatemalan congress adopted a non-binding resolution that denied any state attempts to commit genocide.In 2015, then president Otto Perez Molina affirmed: “No hubo genocidio.”

Turns out, a lot of people agreed with this statement. Many people rejected the genocide label; they felt that genocide was not something that happened in civilized nations like Guatemala.

The pillars that surround the main Cathedral in the plaza in Guatemala City bear the names of the victims of the conflict that the government insists was not genocide.

The community of Rio Negro still remembers the massacres, including the one on March 13, 1982. Surviving community members established an educational center to remember the victims of violence. They now walk visitors up the path to the summit of Pa’koxom, where 177 women and children were murdered by government forces.

A small memorial now commemorates the site.

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We remember and yet forget terrible things.

 

An Academic Practices Creative Non-Fiction

I started taking a creative non-fiction class last week. I'd never taken a formal writing class, much less a creative one. I'm practicing writing creative non-fiction this week, writing about how I felt in my very first writing class. As this is a new genre for me, this is a truly shitty first draft. I'm learning.


This week, I attended my first creative non-fiction writing class. I’m practicing. I present to you here the world’s shittiest first draft, in which I write about being an academic writer in a room full of creative writers.

I had wanted to try creative non-fiction writing because I wanted to transform my dissertation into a more readable book. I still hadn’t managed to publish any of my research, save for a few articles I published in a obscure journal in 2010. A colleague once had told me that I’d be a great popular historian, which I took to mean that my writing was more readable than the average academic.

The class met in the attic of an renovated Victorian house downtown. The room was cool, quiet, and softly lit with a long table surrounded by bookshelves stuffed with books about writing. I sat at the far end, in the gunfighter’s seat. I felt safer there because I could watch everyone else. I eyed the other participants, sizing them up and wondering about their writing.

The instructor arrived. After welcoming us to the class, she told us a little bit about herself. We discovered that she was a poet, had published seven books, and was now in a PhD program. She also had a spreadsheet of writing projects to accomplish. She described to us how she’d raised her son as a single mother, getting up at five every morning to write. She’d written daily for five years straight. I tried to remember the last time I’d written five days in a row.

We began with introductions. I was the only academic. “I’m a historian,” I said to the group. I said something else about studying modern Latin America and wanting to rewrite my dissertation as a trade book. The twelve women seated around me smiled politely. Nobody knew what I was talking about. I wondered if I should leave.

In addition to introducing ourselves, we were supposed to mention the book we were currently reading My classmates were reading mostly fiction. Someone mentioned Anne Lamott’s book Bird By Bird. Someone else mentioned Roxane Gay’s new memoir, Hunger. . I think the last book I’d read was something about the history of science, probably something about eugenics, but I didn’t want to say that to a group of creative people.

Our instructor had sent us a few articles about creative non-fiction to read before our first class meeting. Having weekly readings evoked memories of graduate school seminars when professors would send us 500 pages of reading before the semester even began. I felt sure that I’d have something to contribute to the discussion. We began discussing the reading. One piece was about some creative non-fiction writers discussing what creative non-fiction was and wasn’t. The other was an actual piece of creative non-fiction by Joy Harjo.

People talked about what they liked and didn’t like about the readings. Our instructor helped walk us through some of the important points about each of the pieces. We talked about structure, pacing, authority, setting scenes, creating tension, and writing endings that weren’t totally cheesy. We talked about how to pack big ideas into small pieces of writing, like poets do. Some people didn’t like the Harjo piece, feeling like it was too artsy, too literary. I’d actually really enjoyed reading it because it packed powerful ideas into a tiny space, much like poetry. But I didn’t feel like I could say that.

 I’d done the reading and had come prepared to talk about it, but didn’t feel like I knew enough to say anything about it. I flashed back to my first grad school seminar, of sitting around a large table and feeling like the one person in the room who didn’t understand what was going on. Only much later did I realize that my graduate colleagues weren’t any smarter than I was. They’d just read more books and internalized more jargon.

We discussed setting the scene and the importance of concrete details, of describing the world with our senses. My mouth felt dry. I don’t write about the concrete and tangible; I write about ideas. I write about science shaping culture and shaping ideas about what we believe about native cultures. I was definitely in the wrong class.

“Let’s do some writing,” our instructor said. We rustled pens and paper.

We wrote short biographies to learn to take ourselves seriously as writers. I wrote about having a PhD and being a historian. I wrote about my research interests (history of science, neoliberalism, politics of adoption, Latin America). Nowhere in my biography did I say that I was a writer because it felt dishonest.

When we were done with our short writing exercises, we also talked briefly about the how writers shouldn’t write about writing. I had never heard that writers should not write about writing. I write an entire blog about my writing process. Perhaps it was self-indulgent. I’d actually been thinking of publishing a short book based on my blog. It would definitely be a book about writing, which seemed to be some kind of unspoken sin.

Our reading assignment for next week included some stuff by Natalie Goldberg. We briefly discussed how she focuses process and practice, but also about feelings. I learned that but that people don’t take writers seriously who talk about feelings. That usually women writers talk about feelings. That people undervalue women’s writing generally and that women have often had to resort to less respected genres such as memoir and travel writing.

As a historian, I knew this. The women archaeologists I researched often had to write about their scientific findings disguised as travel memoirs. About how they often carried out research more important than that of their husbands, but received far less credit and acclaim. About how media reports usually focused on their housekeeping, rather than their scientific contributions. But I didn’t say any of that.

Our teacher gave us one final writing prompt. “Why do you write?” she asked. I stared at my yellow narrow-ruled legal pad for several minutes.

I finally wrote: I write to be heard and understood.