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L. Timmel Duchamp
Posted on Sunday, November 23, 2003 - 09:52 pm:   

An essay by Caryl Phillips, "A Beacon in Dark Times," published in the Guardian on Nov. 22, 2003 begins by sketching a brief history of the US as a haven for immigrants, symbolized by the Statue of Liberty, then notes how drastically the US's policies toward immigrants from "the Arab, south-east Asian and Muslim worlds" have altered in the last two years. "A few days ago," he writes, "I rode out into New York Harbor on the Staten Island Ferry for a close-up glimpse of the Statue of Liberty. As I suspected, this different United States of America is proving difficult for Lady Liberty to bear. I swear she now has her eyes closed."

Phillips then sketches out some of the damage John Ashcroft has wreaked (ab)using the extraordinary powers Congress granted him, without public debate or serious consideration, on Oct. 25, 2001. Interestingly, though, Phillips goes beyond lamenting the way in which "the United States has, to use a phrase ascribed to the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, stepped on the throat of its own song." He emphasizes, instead, a surge in the creativity & vitality of a spirit that resists oppression:

<<The great and enduring strength of the United States is that it is an immigrant society subject to continual waves of replenishment from outside. Such is the desire to participate that one person every day is killed trying to enter the country. These "new" people bring with them new narratives, which grow and flourish in the very heart and bosom of the society, narratives that find expression in music, theatre, dance, film, and literature. These "new" people are not only vital to the economic health of the country, they are also the keepers of the cultural and artistic flame. However, after September 11, it is precisely these people who are being hounded and persecuted by the government, and their fealty to the country is being questioned. Their desire to construct narratives has not been stilled, but their new tales are counter-narratives, which seek to explain their situation.

The urge to tell a story is the oldest of human impulses, for it clarifies and orders the relationship between the private and the public, our inner and outer worlds, and it records the dissonance between these two spheres of existence. This being the case, storytelling has always been a logical form for the migrant to utilize to try to capture the conundrum of his own, often precarious, situation in the world. While I remain dismayed by the domestic and foreign chaos that the United States continues to unleash upon its own people, and millions of foreign citizens, I am comforted by the knowledge that her folly will be recorded and exposed by the narratives of those whose private and public lives have been thrown into turmoil by the iniquities of White House policies.

This new work will be written and performed in English, and it will tell us what happened when the Americans arrived, uninvited, in their country. This work will tell us what happened when the FBI came to lock up daddy. Or why grand dad ended up in a jail cell in New Jersey for two years, when he had committed no crime. This work will tell us what happened when one morning, after 10 years of tax-paying, law-abiding residence, the police threw us out of our home. What happened when a neighborhood gang burned down our mosque. What happened when the immigration officer took away our passports. Narratives of belonging and betrayal.

Earlier this year in New York City, In What Language?, a piece of musical theatre by Vijay Iyer, the son of Indian immigrants, opened off off-Broadway. The work explored how ill-formed suspicions of Arabs, south-east Asians and Muslims in American airports are making life in transit impossible for this group of the population. (The phrase "Flying While Brown" can now be added to that equally pithy, but accurate description of American discrimination, "Driving While Black".)

At another theatre in the city, a play entitled Come Undone recently premiered; a series of moving monologues, from a young girl's bewilderment at her father's disappearance, to an immigration service agent's rant, to a Sikh woman's humorous conversation with an arsonist. In My Own Skin is a filmed documentary meditation with five young Arab-American women talking about their lives in the unforgiving climate most have had to endure in the past two years. Films, plays, poetry, dance pieces, artistic installations, short stories and monologues already exist, but more work will follow, and we are probably witnessing the birth of a new kind of American artistic and literary expression; work that brings us the voices of people who feel stunned and bruised by the abuses of American power at home and abroad.

The present-day United States of America is faced with a familiar situation; in some ways the eternal stand-off. On the one side we find the poet and on the other side the emperor. Whose version of history do we wish to listen to? Whose version of history will prevail? Already I hear an insistent whispering from the poet, and ultimately it is the poet who will revive the spirit of the nation and lend dignity to the people.

During the past century we have heard, in Latin America, in eastern Europe, in Africa, in China, the moral authority of the individual voice raised against tyranny, the voice of a person who refuses to look the other way, who is determined to explain himself, who is unafraid to challenge the might of the emperor, who insists on telling his truth.

It is the poet who will eventually enable Lady Liberty once more to open her eyes, and when she does so she might glance down to her feet and there she will find the words of a poet. "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses." Such dignity. Such dark times.>>

I hear, by the way, that Tim Robbins has a play on in Hollywood, titled "Embedded," which depicts soldiers preparing for war in an oil-rich land called "Gomorrah" to fight against the "butcher of Babylon," featuring characters operating out of "The Office of Special Plans" with names like "Rum-Rum" "Pearly White," "Woof." Guess he didn't take being disinvited from the Baseball Hall of Fame event as encouragement to censor himself.


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