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When I decided to take the plunge last year, at the age of 27, from relative literary isolation into the comparative security of graduate school, I had mixed feelings. I had always struggled with academic institutions, sleepwalking through high school, saved by a natural aptitude for writing, and attending three colleges before completing my bachelor’s degree. I was familiar with the myriad criticisms of MFA programs, too, from their promotion of a “house style” to their failure to provide graduates with tangible benefits or skills.

And yet I wasn’t sure what else to do.

I am home, finally, after spending a little more than two weeks at a different kind of home in Seattle, where I was born and raised. My new home is a former mining village in northeast England near where my girlfriend goes to university. The name of her postgraduate program: Culture and Difference.

When I was home in Seattle, I saw a lot of old friends, including one who writes poetry. We both do. This is somewhat coincidental, since we became friends around the time we learned to read. Even now, when I see him, we almost never talk about poetry.

Today, most people would probably view James Dean as an icon of Thug Lite, rather than Thug Life.  The engineer boots, the jeans, the tee-shirt, the black leather jacket, the precision-trimmed pompadour, it’s not just that it all looks retro—American style is additive; nothing ever really goes away—it looks Straight Edge, really.  Subtract the tattoos, and plenty of the hardcore punks who kept the rock but ditched the sex and drugs, look like they’ve “Gone Dean.”

For the sake of context, please allow me to introduce a few of the particularly hush-hush intrigues surrounding Steve Erickson’s back catalogue:

Originating from the point where the printed text begins to shape tunnels and T’s and question marks, torn out pages of Our Ecstatic Days (2005) can be arrayed in a Spira Mirabilis that produces an image of the Tiananmen Square protestor…

Editions of Tours Of The Black Clock (1989) printed after Y2K retain the characters and locales of the original, but subplots and chronologies have been so materially altered that readers from different millennia have, in fact, waded through entirely different texts…

Everyone was talking on their cell phones while walking around Oslo, taking photos of the shattered glass panes outside shoe and clothing stores downtown. Though the explosion had taken place only forty minutes earlier, the only signs that something was wrong were the long lines of police tape around the parliament building and the sound of sirens and burglar alarms. Everyone was strangely calm just after the accident. No one knew enough to be worried. At four in the afternoon, news online was hard to come by. The official report was that some kind of explosion, maybe a bomb though maybe not, had gone off downtown.

As a fiction writer who understands the necessity of plot, did you manipulate truth into a plot when you wrote your memoir?

A memoir is plotted, yes.  You sift through life to find the story-shape.  Events in life are often foreshadowed, but the foreshadowing gets obscured by random facts.  Life has recurring motifs, but they too get buried. And sometimes life serves up a central conflict, a crisis, and, afterward, the opportunity to draw conclusions about that crisis.  My point is that you don’t make a plot in nonfiction as much as you find plot. That’s mostly a matter of elision: leaving out the irrelevant. And sometimes it means emphasizing something that wishful thinking or self-protective evasion will make you hurry past. So a memoir is never the whole truth. It’s the distilled, arranged truth. I write about this overtly in the memoir—my need to find a story-shape in the randomness of life. Finding a story-shape is an act of faith, hanging onto that unproven but irresistible conviction that our mistakes and troubles matter.

 

Is that the hardest part of nonfiction, wrestling it into a story-shape?

It is trickier than writing fiction. Writing a memoir is like cooking for someone on a restricted diet.  You use a recipe, but now you can’t use every ingredient.  You have to make a story, but the ingredients are from a short list: things that really happened.

The other hard part is finding the right perspective, or tone. A memoir requires you to be unflinchingly candid but also measured, restrained. I tended to emphasize what I did wrong, how I’d contributed to my bad luck. I thought that was honest self-scrutiny. I didn’t describe things I’d done well. A few of my first readers and my editor forced me emphasize some of my better moments. In fact, my editor told me I needed to depict a few good moments from my daughter’s childhood, and I told her they’re weren’t any. At the time, I remembered those years as sheer work, serial crises, as a steep learning curve. Then I interviewed my daughter. I didn’t ask her if she had “good memories.” I said: “Do you remember when we lived in the yellow house? What things do you remember?” And she had all of these wonderful memories I’d forgotten. She returned my attention to them, and I am still grateful. I put them in the book. After all, they’re part of the story too.

 

As the author of five books, what would you tell the Debra Monroe who wrote your first book?

I would tell my former self to let the story-shape emerge before I got so married to my labored-over words and sentences. I used to perfect a sentence, then another, then another, until I had an ideal paragraph. Then I’d do I again and again. By the time I got to the end of a story or, God help me, a book, I was so sick of what I’d written, and I’d been miserable while writing. Yet I was certain I had to write so ploddingly to find my essential images to give my story its form. My writing time is more interrupted now. So I write a first draft quickly and return later to slowly refine the sentences and paragraphs. Interesting images still emerge, some in the first draft, some in later drafts. It’s just more fun writing this way. My sense of discovery is more keen because I’m not worried I’m writing something I can’t finish.

 

Can you think of other youthful ideas about writing that have since gone by the wayside?

I used to worry about not being original. Now I realize everyone is. Every life is as non-repeatable as evolution: a series of accidents turning into a causal chain. At a certain point, I realized everyone is so unique that maybe a writer’s biggest task is making uniqueness accessible to others. Then I worried about finding commonality. But finding commonality isn’t hard either. We are all born into circumstances beyond our control. We want to make the most of these, to perhaps transcend them, to grow up to give and receive love, and to live a useful life. And we don’t have forever. There’s that deadline, death.


In your memoir, you’re brutally honest with yourself.  How bad did that feel?

At times, writing the memoir was liberating. I was writing about myself, but I wasn’t writing to myself. I stepped into a persona. While I was describing my younger self, the persona helped me remember I’d once had a buoyant sense that the world was somehow enchanted, as if tree branches were forming a helpful canopy above the road I traveled down, even as I puzzled over how to solve my problems; as if the syncopated sound of sprinklers on city lawns as I walked through streets at night, meantime wondering how to change my life, were syncopating just for me. This is not to say that my early years were a piece of cake. My childhood strikes some readers as less than ideal. And I married that man who had what you might call “anger-management issues.” Yet I survived, not unscathed, but hopeful. Yet, when I began to write about the most daunting events—the book’s climax—I was writing about a time in which I’d lost that buoyant, protected sense. That’s when it felt bad to write honestly. I had to revisit what, so far, were the worst moments of my life. But I’d found the voice that carried me through the beginning, and I decided to trust it: the same stance, the sense of humor, the penchant for oddball details.

 

You were also brutally honest about people close to you. Did that make you nervous?

Of course. But I mostly tell my secrets, not other people’s. I do tell my mother’s. I’m not sure I could have written this book if she were alive. Everyone else in the book is alive, however. But I depict them complexly. No one comes off as malevolent. Maybe my stepfather does. Yet even his worst moments are so incongruous they’re strangely comic.

I know a lot of writers worry about hurting family members. I hear this from younger writers I teach. A student will say his dad is upset about his story. (I answer: So why did you send him one of your two free copies of The Colorado Review?) If your family asks to see your work, then you must tell them: this is fiction, if it is. If it’s a memoir, you say: this is subjective. This is my autobiography, not yours. I’ve been lucky in that my family doesn’t read, and so they’ve never paid attention to any of my books. I never mentioned that I’d written a memoir. But then my niece saw it reviewed in People magazine and was like: “Wow, is that a picture of my aunt and cousin?” So word got out. I’m not trying to downplay this pressure. But if you write well, and that means depicting people with their best intentions and also their best intentions gone awry, you can hold your head up and own what you’ve written. There’s also that other issue—that I signed on to give up my privacy when I wrote the memoir, but people I depicted did not. So, like many memoirists, I changed names and physical characteristics of everyone except family, and I say so in a note at the front. People are free to identify themselves or not.

I’ve also been asked if I feel it’s fair to write about my daughter. I asked her for permission to publish the book. I understand she’s too young to fully understand what that means, but it’s not my first book, and we have many friends who are writers, so she has some idea. Besides, she comes off as the most together person in the book. She was born smart and happy. I don’t feel bad about depicting her—most reviewers note that she steals the show. But she’s ten when the book ends. That was a good time to quit writing about her.

 

You recall many conversations and people. How comfortable were you recalling specifics from memory?

Right, I use dialogue. Reported books—researched nonfiction—don’t, unless it’s taped first. Of course I didn’t tape my life. Not that taping keeps you honest. Think of Richard Nixon. But I couldn’t write a memoir without dialogue. Dialogue is action. It’s the externalization of conflict. A story can’t be all contemplation and pondering. When I wrote dialogue I just tried to be really true to the person as I remembered him or her, to be true to the tenor of the conversation. It’s a matter of balance. You have to show the person’s best side, also moments when that best side doesn’t suffice. Just as you show your own strength and also the moments when your strength fails, you show other people’s strength and the moments when theirs fails too. You do this because it’s good writing. No one believes a story about heroes and villains. We’re all complicit. It’s a matter of making depictions seem fair to a reader, but the easiest way to seem fair is to be fair.

 

When, if ever, is it okay to blur details, or leave out things that may take away from narrative shape?

You must leave things out. My memoir zeroes in on eleven years of my life, but also covers related moments from my childhood. If I hadn’t “left things out,” it would be a gazillion pages long. You leave out what doesn’t pertain. What makes a memoir dishonest is leaving out details that would change the content of the story. Leaving out details because they distort the shape of the story but not its content is absolutely necessary.


What has writing the memoir, including its publication and national attention, taught you?

By the time I’d become a mother, I’d isolated myself. I was living my life in a bunker with occasional quick exits for human contact. I was afraid to let anyone in. But I wanted to be a mother. I had high hopes. Then I was overwhelmed with fear—fear of loss, fear of failure. I was continually reminded that love won’t stave off bad luck or even death. What I learned as I wrote is that excruciating fear—because you want your child to always be here, now, so you can see that she’s fine, so you can help her or save her—is part of love. Love costs, and its price is fear. I’ve learned I’d pay the price many times over.

The attention the book got is maybe because transracial adoption is suddenly more common, and it wasn’t when I adopted. But letters from readers I value most are the ones that acknowledge that, even if the letter writer’s life is outwardly nothing like mine (no adopted child, no weird childhood in Wisconsin), the letter writer felt I was telling her story. I learned that a lot of women, not just me, have been socialized to avoid trouble, to go along to get along, to make peace at any cost. At a certain point, life forces us to make a ruckus, to take charge and live better. I built a home and family from scratch—as a carpenter, as an adoptive mother. But many women do the same on a less literal level.

 

Since the events described in the book, you’ve married and moved to Austin, often called the most liberal city in Texas. Does the “minority’s minority” line still apply? What has become easier? What’s more difficult?

First of all, it’s so much easier being a parent with a good partner. A bad partner would obviously make life harder, which is why I originally set out to be a single parent. But my husband is great—someone with good instincts helping decide how to handle tough moments, also someone to share proud moments with, which used to feel a bit lonely.

As for interracial families being “the minority’s minority” in Austin, even the black population is small here, around 12%, and neighborhoods are pretty racially distinct. So it’s a little more diverse, but not a lot. We do see a few families who look like us. Yet, given when adoption legislation changed, the children are all toddlers, not teenagers.

The big difference between the liberal city and the time-warp country is that racism is coded here. In the country, people blurted out consternation or dumbfounded approval, and we learned to respond. But coded racism means you have to respond in code, which requires a different rhetorical finesse. My daughter has rhetorical finesse to spare—maybe because she confronted questions so early, questions about race, adoption, family. I answered them as honestly as I could in age-appropriate language. It was a crash course I wouldn’t have enrolled her in if I’d had a choice. But she has more clarity and poise than many people twice her age, and a wild sense of humor too. It is easier living here, yes. Maybe our time in country—whether we knew it or not at the time—was a good preparation.

This semester, I’m taking a Representative Authors course on Toni Morrison. My professor is a white woman. There are two black students in the class, and the rest are white. One of the white students frequently comments in class and, though it’s usually in context, I’m beginning to suspect that he registered for this course because he wanted a safe place to say the word ‘nigger’. I’ll come back to that.

In the 1970’s, the television show, All in the Family, was one of the most popular shows in the nation and a real cultural mainstay. One of the reasons for its enduring popularity (aside from great acting and interesting plot lines) was the fact that regardless of where you fell on the political spectrum, All in the Family offered a humorous portrayal of the generational divide. The show’s creators (and many viewers) felt that the show clearly illustrated Archie Bunker’s bigotry and was therefore critical, rather than condoning, of his prejudices. In reality, studies actually showed otherwise. In, True Enough, Farhad Manjoo points out a study that showed that bigots and non-bigots each found the show equally humorous but that they also, “harbored very different ideas about what was happening in the show.” The psychologists Neil Vidmar and Milton Rokeach, who conducted this study, found that people of low prejudice saw Archie Bunker as closed minded and a bigot, whereas people of high prejudice saw Archie Bunker as, “down-to-earth, honest, hardworking, predictable and kind enough to let his daughter and son in law live with him.”

They say the captain always goes down with the ship. But what about the crew…are all those on board bound to this same fate?

From Friday to Sunday a group of us had been holding an extended birthday celebration for a friend in Clarens, a small mountain town in the Free State, South Africa. Sunday morning found me and Pieter sitting at a picnic table outside of the hostel drinking coffee, writing poetry and surveying the wanton destruction of the previous night’s party in which anything flammable and not bolted down had found its way into the bonfire. I reflected upon how the word party may be the most inclusive verb in the English language. It can be used to denote anything from the most benign revelry to something like an orgy with Latvian immigrants all wearing Viking hats.

I had indeed partied last night. Suffice it to say that my overindulgence led to a drunken bellicosity that left me with few allies by morning. Luckily, Pieter had himself consumed heroically, raised his own hell, and passed out early enough to miss my tirades, making him my companion of choice by default. Our friends in this life are not as often those we seek out as those we find ourselves backed into a corner with.

He was one of those South Africans who don’t often speak English. This is not to say such people are lacking in ability, but rather their Afrikaans heritage monopolizes their cultural identity. He worked for Radio Pretoria, a bastion of Apartheid politics. Read: completely racist. I’d found in South Africa that racism was the elephant in the room like booze is for a recovering alcoholic. I often felt while talking to certain people that they were one transition away from a racial tirade. Pieter was one such person. While nothing racist had yet come out of his mouth I felt certain he was one in the way that at home I’m positive the guy buying Busch Light beer has at least two vehicles in his driveway that don’t run.

A rule of thumb while traveling abroad is to stay out of local politics. Of course, this is not to say that one doesn’t notice certain things. De jure South Africa is 15 years removed from Apartheid. De facto South Africa is one where a black government has failed to deliver the promises of an equal society to all but a few, where one in three people live on $2 a day, where whites drive around in cars and live behind gated properties while blacks live in cramped shantytowns without electricity and beg for work on the side of the road, where a large number of blacks, while not locked up during curfew, are desperate enough to kill you in cold blood for a few bucks and a cell phone. In accordance with that traveler’s dictum I steered clear of any polemic on racism. Yet I couldn’t deny that in modern South Africa, equality is still a dream of the future.

At about ten a.m. the rest of the group turned their bleary eyes on the outside world. Their base pleasantries to Pieter and me may have been due to hangovers but I could sense hesitation to approach our poetry jam. By now we’d moved past coffee and onto beer, which seemed the only logical conclusion in response to the past three days. We would keep this train rolling at the risk of abrupt sobriety derailing us. Pieter and I had singled ourselves out as an odd couple united by disgrace and a love of poetry. At least, I assumed he was producing flowing verse on the beauty of nature. After all he was writing in Afrikaans and very well could have been commenting on the Negro’s inferior cranial capacity.

The morning slogged on in a fashion typical of post-revelry. We all went for lunch as a final token of celebration. Over greasy fare and several more beers it was decided that I would catch a ride back to Pretoria with Pieter, who lived close to where I was staying. After eating we returned to our quarters to gather our things before departing. From somewhere on the property somebody played a song entitled, “Kaptein, Span die Seile” (Captain, span the sails) which in South African vernacular would be described as “zeph.” (think white trash). The song is at best a ballad, at worst an assault on music as we know it, but goddamn if it isn’t catchy. I parroted the chorus several times and it stuck. It was an appropriate verse to sing while loading my things into the back of Pieter’s white Mercedes. I serenaded him with it as he made the final preparations, which seemed to please him. He was my Captain, and his stout build and roomy, powerful German auto offered a degree of security.

While saying goodbye to the others they expressed concern over his level of intoxication. I had a brief thought as myself as Ishmael, a wanderer lured in by the mad Ahab promising adventure and reward while really only pursuing his own monomaniacal goals. However, those fears were overshadowed by my rule of thumb that people who drink heavily and drive superior machines are trustworthy. “Kaptein, span die seile!” I announced as a vote of confidence. The eight cylinders roared to life and we were off.

The road out of Clarens was one of expansive views of sky, plains and mountains. Upon rounding a corner and seeing a particularly fine view we pulled over to write poetry. Even though we’d spent most of the morning together we hadn’t spoken much to each other. It wasn’t awkward because I knew he was shy about his English and I also felt a silent camaraderie with him which came from a common purpose. We were two men in adoration of nature and poetry. While we were stopped he pulled a bottle of whisky out of the trunk.

“Help yourself,” he invited.

Well,” I figured, “better to be drunk with him than to sit here sober.” This became especially true as he revealed a propensity for driving at high speeds. All at once he gunned the car up to 200 km/hr and passed several cars like they were standing still.

“Fuck I love this vehicle,” he proclaimed. “I hope you like a bit of speed.” It was not a question but an ultimatum. I assured him we were on the same page.

“Yes Kaptein!” I said. “Fuck yes! Span die seile!”

He chortled, but there was a hint of madness in his voice.

The needle passed 200 km/hr, 210, 220. He steered with one hand while the other passed the whisky bottle to his mouth. The cars in the oncoming lane flashed their lights. 230, 240. He veered back to the left, cutting off a truck and the approaching line of cars whizzed by a bit too close for comfort.

“So, do they have guys like me in America?” he asked.

What, drunken, racist madmen?” I thought. “Yes, lots of them,” I replied. He seemed disappointed.

“And what about this kind of scenery?” he said.

“Sure, out West,” I said, “but not in the Northeast, where I’m from.” The whisky had loosened our tongues and we conversed amiably to a backdrop of stunning scenery.

We stopped again for a poem and a piss. In one massive chug he finished the whisky and threw the bottle into the bushes with a grunt. He then produced another from the trunk. I was all for a little booze to pass the tedium of a long drive, but this was bordering on excessive. As we pulled away he ran through the gears and reached 250 km/hr in about ten seconds, nearly running into the back of a car before swerving around it and then back in front. I gripped the edges of my seat and again thought of Ahab. I recalled the last scene of Moby Dick where he is caught by his own harpoon and pulled down into icy depths by the whale. Only now, a member of the crew was entangled with him. I realized with horror that the White Whale was the Mercedes. We were being dragged inevitably to our deaths on the back of the powerful beast. I thought perhaps I should demand he slow down and gain some control, but I didn’t want to provoke him. I wondered what my role was in the story. Was I Ishmael, the thoughtful, reflective but non-confrontational survivor or Starbuck, the one who sternly objects to the Captain’s madness but ends up perishing?

The smaller country highway gave way to the N1, the main vein which runs the length of South Africa from Cape Town in the south to Messina on the Zimbabwean border. The White Whale held the road expertly despite Ahab’s loose grip. This automobile was meant for top speed on an open road, which was one of the few points of consolation. As we merged onto the N1 there was a police road block pulling people over at random.

“Oh shit,” said Pieter. “I can’t afford to be pulled over. This vehicle isn’t registered.”

Never mind the fact that you’re totally shitfaced,” I thought. I was, in my own way, unregistered as well. My tourist visa had long ago expired. I wondered what the penalty was for being an illegal alien accomplice to a drunken man with an unregistered vehicle. Perhaps if I turned on the Captain they’d show leniency. Yes…mutiny was my only option…

We made it through the blockade and both of us sighed with relief. To celebrate, Pieter took a long swig off of the bottle.

“Your car really isn’t registered?” I asked, probing for an explanation.

“No. I took the case to court last year and won. I don’t support the government. It’s my right not to give my money to them,” he said.

I took “don’t support the government” to mean “hate the blacks.”

I pressed ahead tentatively. “So, what political party do you support?” I asked

“Ach!” he exclaimed with disgust. “It’s all a bunch of bullshit. Majority rule. It’s a pity. The blacks have fucked this country up.” As he said this he grew agitated and the White Whale drifted a bit into the next lane.

“A fucking pity,” he said and punched the dashboard lightly, further drifting into the adjacent lane.

Here it comes,” I thought. “Change the subject. Obviously he can’t drive and focus on his hate for the black man at the same time.”

I switched the conversation to chauvinistic small talk. The thought of degrading women seemed to ease his mind….for now. Still, the specter of a racist outburst and a total descent into madness hung about the car. The White Whale had yet to submerge and take us to our deaths, but I didn’t know how long we could stay above the surface.

The White Whale barreled down the center lane, the Mercedes emblem looking like a periscope to guide the way. Up ahead in the road was a flash of something yellow.

“I’m fucked now!” said Pieter.

In a moment the grim reality dawned on me as well. The yellow was the vest of a traffic cop. We were being pulled over. Surely this was the end of the line. There was no way the driver of this speeding, unregistered vehicle didn’t reek of booze. I clumsily shoved the empty bottles under the seat and tried to look casual. The cop approached the window and said something in Afrikaans. I could make out “180” which I knew must be our speed. The limit was 120. I made eye contact with the officer, trying my best to not look like an illegal American. The men carried on in Afrikaans and I imagined it sounded something like this:

Officer: License and registration, please

Pieter: Well, actually, this vehicle is unregistered.

Officer: Oh, so you mean to tell me that in addition to smelling like a distillery and driving well over the speed limit this vehicle is illegally on the road?

Pieter: Come on, give me a break, just this once, please, I beg you.

Officer: When you’re blatantly breaking three laws? Are you serious?

Pieter: Yes, well, it’s my right because you goddamn blacks ruined this country.

Officer: Well, you deserve it because you treated us like dogs for so many years. You’re in my country now, honky.

Pieter: (begins to write down something) What’s your name? I’m going to report you to your owner. Mdelgaba…is that with one clicks or two?

Officer: Smart guy, huh? We’ll see how clever you are when I haul your ass into the station and hand this car over to my friends for scrap.

Pieter: You black son of a bitch.

Officer: Cheers, whitey. Have a nice day.

Did that really just happen? Are we really just driving away scot-free?

“Did you see what I’ve just done there?” Pieter said, laughing.

“What the hell did you say to him?” I asked in disbelief.

“I told him I’m a freelance reporter and that I’m going to write a favorable story about him and his department in the newspaper. Did you see me take his details down? He actually believed me!”

This man is a legend,” I thought. “He’s some sort of mad, twisted, drunken, smooth-talking genius.”  I congratulated him and acknowledged that the incident was too close for comfort. I was tempted to heap praise upon him before realizing it was his fault for getting us into the mess in the first place. Or was it? I was beginning to lose the ability to make sense of things. I felt a strong allegiance to this man for some reason. Perhaps I’d been locked inside the car for too long, or, was his madness rubbing off on me? Was I becoming no more than Ahab’s protégé? Laughing, I took a gulp off of the bottle and encouraged the Kaptein to give her some gas.

It was nearly 6:00 which meant darkness was firmly established on the mid-June evening. I hoped the cover of darkness would provide safe passage but also realized it could bring out the worst in a man. We were less than an hour from home and things had settled down considerably after we’d avoided the grips of law enforcement. The White Whale moved at a steady 150 while Ahab quietly took sips from the bottle. Perhaps the close call had put some sense into him.

Along the side of the road bushfires burned. When I asked Pieter about them he answered, “The bloody blacks. They want to destroy everything the white man has built.” I couldn’t connect the dots between burning grass and his racial explanation. But it was clear I’d reignited the Captain’s madness.

“My friend, I tell you, this country was fuck all before the white man came here. There were no roads, no hospitals, no government, nothing. We turned this into a proper civilized country. Before us it was a country of savages and they want it to be that way again. I tell you, Apartheid worked. A lot of people didn’t like it but at least there was progress. This country was growing. Now, it’s turning into nothing again. I tell you, these bloody blacks are savages, the way they burn things down, kill people for fuck all.”

If there was somebody to tell, “I told you so,” then would have been the time to say it. The racial tirade that I’d sensed simmering all afternoon had been unleashed.

“Have you ever been the victim of such things?” I asked him

“Yes. I’ve had a knife held to my throat. I’ve been jumped and beaten. People I knew were brutally murdered on farms. I tell you, it’s horrible. They’re butchers. Trust me. This isn’t your country, you don’t understand. Peace is not possible with these people. They’re animals.”

What could I say in response? Surely there was no changing this man’s mind. We drove along in silence, the fires burning brightly in the night.

Somewhere on the edges of Johannesburg we exited the N1 and turned onto another highway which led northeast to Pretoria. As we did a “whump whump: sound began. It was the unmistakable sound of a flat tire. We pulled over to check and confirmed that the back left tire was totally deflated. Cars whizzed by on the highway dangerously close. Pieter got the jack out and we set to lifting up the car. This proved difficult because where we had stopped was on an awkward pitch. Each time I got the car up the jack slipped out. Pieter put the car into neutral and tried to ease back to a flatter spot but the entire section of road was uneven. We’d been at it for over thirty minutes and our tempers were growing short. Just then a taxi van pulled up behind us and a man with a big smile jumped out.

“Is this a hijacking?” asked Pieter, raising his arms.

The man laughed. “No my friend. I’m here to help you,” he said. He pulled a beefy hydraulic jack from the back of the van and helped us raise the car. It held steady and we were able to swap the flat for the spare. We both thanked him profusely.

“My friend,” said Pieter, “I’m in your debt. This is a symbol of a new South Africa, white and black working together.”

The taxi driver smiled and said, “Of course. How could I not? We must help each other.”  We shook his hand and he pulled away with a friendly toot of the horn.

Back inside the car I felt certain the uncanny timing of a black man stopping to help two white guys right after the driver had insulted the entire African race was beyond mentionable irony. However, I felt as if I had to say something. “You know, despite all of the terrible things you hear about white on black crime in South Africa I haven’t had anything even close to dangerous happen to me since I’ve been here. If anything, I’ve found the guys to be really friendly and helpful. Like that taxi driver. No white people stopped to help us and they’re the majority of people on the road.” I waited for a change of heart, an admission of overreaction. Instead, all I got was:

“One in a thousand of the kaffirs are actually fucking human. I tell you, in almost every break in, every home murder, it’s the maid, the gardener, somebody you trust, who’s helped you raise your family or business, they’re the ones that fuck you over. They may not kill you or rob you themselves, but they’ll let the criminals in.”

I thought again of Pieter as Ahab, of the mad captain’s pursuit of the White Whale and what it actually stood for. The captain of the Pequod was driven by rage and revenge. His tale was a warning against the madness and destruction inherent to believing in something too much. Melville wrote:

The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning; to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced in their statue devil; — Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby-Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.

I understood the symbolism properly now. The Mercedes was not the White Whale. Pieter’s White Whale was the black man. In that race of people he’d found a singular object to direct his rage. To him, they were the cause of all of life’s ills. Only the restoration of Apartheid or an equally oppressive system would allow him to feel at peace.

The Mercedes pulled up outside of my gate. As I said goodbye to Pieter I realized that he was a hero of the Shakespearian mold: bold and charismatic yet possessing the tragic flaw of hatred. I was very fond of the man and could even understand his racism. It was the essence of the banality of evil. Who’s to say I wouldn’t feel the same if I or my family or friends had been the target of violent crime? Had I never made a racist joke or reflected upon the vast dissimilarities between people of different skin color and culture? I had many times. Did that make me a racist too? The difference perhaps between being a racist and not isn’t the preference of one race over another. Cultural misunderstandings are natural and should be expected. The truth lies in the acknowledgement that, despite differences, equality and unity are possible. A racist is a totalitarian. Their world is bipolar, hateful and cruel. An Ahabian view on race, or anything for that matter, leads to tragedy, destruction and death.

The conclusion of our saga was like an alternate ending to Melville’s classic in which Ahab survives the fate of his own mad hatred and is given another chance to pursue reason. And, like the original Moby Dick, there was another survivor. As my feet touched down on solid ground I at last knew my role in the tale. Call me Ishmael.

 


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I lean over the railing, watching shrieking seabirds swoop overhead, feeling a swift sea breeze rearrange my hair from purposefully tousled to straight up disheveled. Fishing vessels chug out into deeper waters and boats span their sails to catch a  westerly. Lighthouses peak out from rocky coves. Towering homes with waterfront views stake the claim of unseen wealthy residents. Taken as a whole, the scenery panning outward from the deck of the Martha’s Vineyard Ferry is a Norman Rockwell-esque interpretation of New England summertime utopia.

After the ferry docks I stroll through the port town of Vineyard Haven. Stonewalls frame the perfectly manicured lawns of cedar-shingled homes with fresh white trim paint and Nantucket-blue doors. Restaurants proudly boast on hand-painted signs that they sell organic, island-grown food. Bikers zoom up and down the streets, navigating between shiny imports in that annoying, spandex-soldier manner of cycling enthusiasts

I proceed to the rendezvous point and await my friend’s arrival. While I’m standing there a cop approaches.

“Hi, excuse me, sir. I don’t want any trouble or anything, but would you mind not waiting here? This is the taxi pick up zone. I’m sorry to bother you, but it’s for safety reasons.”

I stare at him, perplexed. I’ve never had a cop speak to me like this. I’m used to brutes with sausage arms addressing me with the humanity of RoboCop. This guy is like a boy scout. He’s talking to me in the defensive way I normally speak to an officer.

“Hey pal, move it along,” I tell him. “Go on, beat it, get out. I don’t want to see you around here anymore, understand?”

Okay, I don’t say that. But I’m certain I could get away with it.

My friend pulls up in the taxi zone. I heave my rucksack into the bed of his truck, slide into the passenger seat, and we’re off. The cop gives a friendly wave in parting.

“So what do you think?” says my friend.

“It’s really fucking white here,” I say.

This single, offhand comment serves as the entry point for a goal I loosely set for myself over the course of the month I am to spend in Martha’s Vineyard. The mission: to discern the essence of Whiteness.

Touching down on this island, I feel the way I imagine Darwin did when he arrived on the Galapagos. Although he may not have immediately known the place would give birth to the theory of evolution, surely he must have felt a sense that the creatures there were a portal to some greater truth.

While arguably scientific, my research is nonetheless painstaking. I linger long after my meal is finished at restaurants and listen in on conversations. I lie on the beach, my eyes hidden behind dark aviators, observing the behavior of the vacationing fauna. At supermarkets I keenly observe what people are buying. While a guest in peoples’ homes I make mental inventories of their possessions. I am, in short, a total creep.

Not long into my project I identify three major varieties of American Caucasian. The first demonstrates an inclination to enjoy such things as copious amounts of horsepower, blowing the fuck out of quadrupeds, and speaking derisively of France. They tend to overestimate their physical prowess while underestimating the importance of family planning. These whites are very rare on the island.

The second major type of Caucasian is abundant during the summer months on the Vineyard, tending to winter in other parts of their eastern range, including New York, Boston, Washington, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Virginia. When not driving their high performance four wheel drive vehicles on dry, flat pavement and subtly endorsing eugenics, they generally keep busy by making sure themselves and their family are spared from inhaling the plebian stench of the first type of white person.

By far the largest gathering of Whites on the island occurs within a third group, and it is this variety of Caucasian that ultimately became the subject of my research. With each passing day the master list of ideas, pastimes and objects that define this group grew into a collective snapshot of their essence. Darwin would be proud. In fact, if he was still alive, he would probably be considered among this group.

Things were going great until somebody forwarded me a link to a website entitled Stuff White People Like, which became so popular it earned the author a book deal with Random House.

I had been foiled by my fellow white man; relegated to mere Alfred Russell Wallace status.

Despite my disappointment, there a good number of differences between our lists, enough so that I feel justified sharing a portion of mine. Besides, I’m not going to let weeks of investigation go to waste. If I’ve learned anything from my research, it’s that distinguishing yourself ever so slightly from your peers is, dare I say, the white thing to do.

Thinking they can speak Spanish

When you ask a white person if they speak Spanish, their answer is typically “a little bit” or “some” or “I know a few words.” This is a lie. It is invariably true that all white people can speak a little Spanish. But when pressed, their knowledge rarely extends beyond what one can learn from hanging out at a Taco Bell trying to get laid by the cute little Latina who works the counter. White people somehow think that America’s proximity to Mexico has resulted in lingual osmosis. As impressive as it is that they we as a nation can say tortilla, tequila, hola and adios, this nonetheless does not qualify as speaking Spanish.

Starting a blog

At some point, most white people consider starting or actually start a blog. White people deem their ideas to be highly valuable, as they spend many hours of their life reading, watching documentaries, amassing degrees, and otherwise learning things that will in no way make them more employable. But one-upping others via pseudo-intellectualism is far more valuable to white people than money. A blog offers the perfect forum for them to repackage their unoriginal thoughts and receive undying praise from a handful of family and friends.

Granite countertops

White people revere granite for its strength, durability, breadth of colors and the fact that it appears in the kitchens of other white people. Although granite is considered top of the line, quartz, marble, slate, limestone and soapstone are also acceptable. Faux granite, if it successfully passes as authentic, could earn a white person praise for their clever taste and value consciousness. If it is easily spotted as a knock-off, however, the impostor’s true hard-stone-owning peers might wonder what’s coming next. Engineered wood flooring? An above ground pool? A Daewoo?

Ideally, granite should be matched with stainless steel appliances and illuminated by recessed lighting. Extra whiteness points are awarded to those who do the work themselves, buy environmentally friendly, re-quarried granite, and extend the use of granite into the bathroom. Nothing says white like browsing The Economist on an e-reader while dropping an organically-generated deuce and appreciating the millions of years of geological activity required to form the vanity top.

Yard sales

White people are fond of shunning materialism, and often speak of “decluttering” or “simplifying” their life. Doing so serves as a material cleanse that leaves them feeling morally superior to their hoarding friends and family. Selling possessions at a yard sale, garage sale, rummage sale, flea market, or any other event geared around the purging of old possessions is a good way to achieve this. For the white buyer at a yard sale, they can feel good about not creating more waste and pollution through the manufacture of new products. It’s a whitey win-win.

Salmon clothing

From a young age we are taught that pink is a color appropriate for girls, not boys. But somewhere around high school white guys substitute the word pink for salmon and begin to occasionally wear clothing of this hue. For the white male, wearing pink is a way to demonstrate he doesn’t care what people think and is an individual who eschews established trends. Both of these qualities are extremely important to white people. Salmon haberdashery is also a hit with white people because it is considered more European, and white people generally consider anything from Europe to be more sophisticated.

Knowing the weather forecast

Due to their connection to nature and need to spend as much time as possible outdoors, it is important for white people to know the weather forecast. More advanced white people can even tell you sunrise and sunset times, when high and low tide occurs, and the current lunar phase. Some white people are so gifted that they can explain the difference between scattered and isolated showers as well as partly sunny and mostly cloudy skies.

Having a good vocabulary

Having a good vocabulary is essential for a white person. It is a way to demonstrate that they are well read and intellectual. Among mixed company, a white person may employ big words as a probe to find other white people. However, they must be careful when taking this approach, as it could be perceived as hostile by those whose vocabulary is not so expansive. When this happens, a white person needs to be able to quickly disguise their words to match the prevailing vernacular. For example, if a white guy uses a word like canard or vicissitude, and subsequently draws dirty looks and/or furrowed brows from other males, he needs to quickly be able to find common ground by talking about the local sporting team and/or degrading women.

It is important to note that one white person will never admit they don’t know the meaning of a word used by another white person. If stumped, they will smile and nod in understanding, then use their 3G equipped mobile device to perform an internet search for the word meaning.

Another interesting case occurs when one white person encounters another of equal lingual talents and a subtle vocabulary standoff ensues. When this happens, the winner can usually be decided by determining who has a greater understanding of word etymology, or who has a better vocabulary in a foreign language, as most white people speak or claim to speak at least 2 or 3.

Historical reenactments

Mock Civil War and Revolutionary War battles. The sites of historical battlefields. Living villages where workers dress in colonial garb and present themselves as blacksmiths, candle makers and grocers. Those places where you can watch knights joust while a serving wench brings you a side of beef and a giant glass of ale. If it involves history being reenacted or otherwise kept in the present, then white people are on board. When considered alongside their predisposition for antiquing, it follows logically that white people have an affinity for anything from the past (which they might refer to as rustic, classic, or traditional). Think of the hours of joy an older white man can experience watching the History Channel, or the fact that most white women would give a fallopian tube to live in a Victorian-era home. This also explains, in part, why white people love Europe. Just by going there and walking among the historic buildings, they consider themselves to be more civilized. Focusing on the past also suits white people because they like to bemoan the soullessness of modern life and offer rural, agrarian lives as a utopia.

Having a shitty job when they are young

Young white people are expected to work at least one degrading job when they are young, such as slinging burgers, working on a construction crew, or being sodomized by a priest. Although the work does not have to be physically demanding, it should be low-paying and foster a sense of hopelessness towards a capitalist economy and consumer culture, two institutions that white people will continue to speak derisively about for the rest of their lives.

Having a shitty job is the closest thing white people have to a coming-of-age ritual. Once a white person graduates from university and takes a stable, well-paying, benefited position, they have entered “the real world,” as they like to call it, and are officially an adult. As such, they gain the authority to talk to younger white people about the importance of temporarily scooping ice cream, mopping floors, stocking shelves, etc. They can explain to the youth that in order to become a know-it-all in regards to the shortcomings of Western culture, it is necessary to first gain firsthand experience in one of its more base aspects.

This period is also a vital opportunity for white people to learn tolerance, another principle that they laud. By working alongside and getting to know foreign and uneducated people, white people learn that members of these other groups, despite holding outdated views on health, politics, religion, and aesthetics, are nonetheless decent. This stance is well summarized by a favorite white expression: “They’re not bad people…they’re just ignorant.”

British Accents

If you have a British accent, white people automatically take you to be more attractive, well-spoken and charming. People from England have the purest form of this tongue, although those from other parts of the UK, as well as residents of New Zealand and South Africa, are also acceptable. Australian accents are tolerable as a last resort.

White people perceive a British accent as an oratory superpower that turns a speaker’s every word into mellifluous diction. When George W. Bush and Tony Blair presided over their respective nations, white people found Blair utterly charming, whereas Bush was seen as a pariah, despite the fact that both men lured their country into an unjustified war using bogus information. When watching Blair spew lies and propaganda, white people responded by wondering why they couldn’t have a thoughtful, intelligent, well-spoken leader. But when witnessing similar behavior from Dubya, white people tended to watch Zeitgeist, talk about how America was become Fascist, and reference Orwell’s 1984 ad nauseam.

All white people dream of dating somebody with a British accent. Being seen with even an average-looking man or woman with a British accent instantly raises the credibility of a white person. When asked to explain the appeal, however, white people generally can only offer up unconvincing comparatives such as, “it just sounds more sophisticated/classy/distinguished.” White people also come up empty when attempting to explain why a British inflection virtually disappears when words are sung.

Thinking they are part Native American

White people are, naturally, of European descent. This fact, however, does not keep a great number of them from insisting that they are part Native American. White people who claim to be of Native descent typically follow the same pattern. They begin by offering a fractional amount of their heritage, such as ¼, 1/8, 1/16, etc. and end by referencing a shadowy family legend about the Native American in question. A comment may also be made about just missing the cutoff that allows people of Native ancestry free admission to Dartmouth. They may go on to attribute their dubitable genetics to a great number of things, including athleticism, woodcraft skills, and the inability to hold their liquor.

White people consider all things Native American, like those from Europe, to be wiser and more desirable. While they have no idea how to live off the land and in harmony with nature, white people still pay lip service to the value of such a lifestyle. It is also en vogue for white people to speak out against the genocide of Native Americans and shun the barbarism of Manifest Destiny. But the fact remains that white people have a much better chance of being related to somebody who killed a Native American in the name of Caucasian dominance than actually having a Native American relative.

I’ve only recently shaken off the trepidation associated with taking public transport after riding a local train through Atocha railway station on the morning of March 11th, 2004, but I still occasionally feel exactly the same kind of paralysing fear that I’m sure every Londoner, Madrileño and every New Yorker is acquainted with, if not every person in the world who is even cursorily aware of terrorism lore.

Photo by Christopher Doyle

Strapped into an international flight, delayed on the runway in Jakarta in November 2006, due to the fact that Air Force one was passing through the airport, I fixated on a Semitic man sitting opposite me who was holding a copy of The Economist open in front of him.

Working his way through the paper steadily, the man was spending an equal amount of time looking at each double-page spread. Eerily, he was staring just as intently at an advert for Continental tyres, and for just as long, as he was spending reading the longer pieces.

Over the space of about an hour, blasted with sleep deprivation, culture shock, beer, Valium and memories of the film, ‘Flight 93’, I’d convinced myself he was pretending to read the paper and was, therefore, attempting to appear like a normal passenger, when, in truth, he was actually a member of al-Qaeda.

In no time, I’d managed to work myself into such a state that I’d dismantled a pen I’d found in my pocket, and was vacillating between squeamish thoughts of just what plunging the improvised plastic shiv into the guy’s neck would actually feel like, and how to explain my suspicions to the stewardess without breaking down and/or causing some kind of paroxysm.

I even wrote it out on a napkin, leaving out the words, “let’s roll”. I was preparing to hand it off when the resignation to the fact that I was going to die began to set in. The only consolation was that in doing so, I would have a part in ridding the world of George W. Bush. This was surprisingly comforting.

At what point does social conscience become interference?

When I was 12 years-old, I witnessed what would now be termed a ‘racial attack’. Some might say I participated in it by proxy. Indeed, apparently “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”.

(Tell that to the Dalai Lama…)

A few seats down the bus from me, a friend of mine challenged a younger boy to specify his ethnic origin as among the people of one or the other of two neighbouring South Asian nation states; one of which he labeled with a racial epithet, the other of which he referred to with the standard demonym. My friend challenged this boy, the only non-Caucasian on a bus full of white people, clearly using the racial slur to antagonise him.

Another friend in attendance began laughing loudly and continued cackling throughout the provocation and the ensuing one-on-one fight. The public racial challenge meant that the onus was very much on the kid to escalate the conflict, and my friend certainly deserved a punch for his bigotry.

Should I also have been one to administer this, in addition to the kid’s justifiably violent reaction to what my friend had said to him? The answer is quite clearly in the affirmative: The influence I had with my friends was the power I had above and beyond that of this beleaguered kid.

A comment or an action from me may not have been able to stop the fight, but it would have certainly registered my horror and disapproval as some kind of ‘societal’ protest, and it certainly would have been easier for me to do this more effectively than he, and perhaps the fight could have been turned more in the kid’s favour.

A typically resonant line from ‘The Sopranos’ comes to mind here…

Character, J.T. Dolan returns to admonish the attendees of a Writer’s Guild seminar he has just been physically dragged out of by Mafia goons:

“An entire room full of writers, and you did nothing!”

I suspect people who weren’t on that bus are still disgusted with me for doing nothing. I don’t feel great about it. I think that the incident lies behind my obsession with ‘jobs’ that legitimise; indeed that require a passive, observatory stance. eg. writer. In both situations, I just sat there shocked into inaction.

I got off the bus well before my stop as a boy, and off the plane as a ‘man’.

I walked the rest of the way home in silence.

IMAGE: Screengrab from ‘The Sopranos’ from youtube.com