Don Mitchell: The TNB Self-InterviewBy Don Mitchell
May 12, 2014
Aren’t you a little old for this sort of thing?
But really – you’re on Social Security, aren’t you?
Yeah, and Medicare. Remember what Richard Pryor said? “You don’t get old bein’ no fool.”
Let’s get serious, then. Don’t you think A Red Woman Was Crying is a pretty weird title?
No. The book’s set among a people called the Nagovisi, and I wanted to wrap their myths around the stories I wrote. I started with an origin myth I recorded in 1969, which begins with the line “A red woman was crying.” I didn’t want to start with the one about a man cutting off a woman’s penis.
Shut up. I’ll get back to that. Red Woman’s a typical Nagovisi myth — characters appear and disappear, time and space are twisted around, generally there are no explanations of anything. After Red Woman’s brothers cut her snake husband Sekentu into pieces, she disappears. I love that about Nagovisi myths and if you trouble to read the myths as well as the stories, you probably will too. Another thing I love about Nagovisi tales is that it’s often the seemingly useless or inept old person who has the solution to a problem, or powers no one expects.
What a surprise!
Stop interrupting. And I did think that careful readers might wonder why, in a society where women are very powerful, so many myths center around men and so many demons are women.
Uh, the penis thing?
That’s the one “How Women Got Their Decorations,” because when the guy cut off and chopped up that woman’s penis as it was grabbing breadfruit up in a tree, the pieces turned into the shell decorations that women wear. Osiropa, the woman on the cover, has one in her ear. She was the mother of the man who told me the story. They’re both dead now, sad to say.
The cover says “Stories from Nagovisi.” What’s that all about?
I suppose it’s me being clever. The myths are “stories from Nagovisi,” but beyond that it has a double meaning: stories from a place and people called Nagovisi, and all but one of the stories are narrated by Nagovisi.
That’s not particularly clever.
Let’s just say it involves you and a dog!
Nice mouth! OK, enough fooling around. What’s up with the narrator thing, really?
I’ve always been fascinated by The Other. I grew up in a multicultural environment — 1950s small town Hawai’i — where whites were a minority. So from an early age I had a sense of what it was like to be seen first as a representive of your ethnic group, and only second as a person.
When I got to Nagovisi I was their other as much as they were mine. We worked through it. When I started writing fiction about Nagovisi, I realized that Western fiction basically says, “we’re the regular human beings and you guys out there are the others.” So you rarely see anything narrated from the tribal people’s perspective. It’s typically from the point of view of the outsider who comes among them. I’m not saying that’s always bad. But it’s sure as hell limited.
So why not turn it around? All but one of the stories are narrated by Nagovisi, and they talk about what it was like to figure out the white guy who came to them – that’s the anthropologist named Elliot — how they dealt with his strangeness and his otherness. How did they connect with him? The stories show them connecting in different ways.
So Elliot never really gets a solid first-person voice?
That’s right. I had a few in which Elliot narrated. I planned to include them, but one day I got to thinking about it and realized it would be a lot more interesting for him to be known only through Nagovisi eyes — very different sets of eyes, as one blurber wrote: “young and old, male and female, gentle and fierce.” The Nagovisi are studying the anthropologist as he’s studying them. To me, that’s turning anthropology on its head. True, the last story is probably in his voice. Except it could be me. But I’m not really him.
Never mind you. What did they want to know about him?
Everything. He was a different kind of white man from any they’d ever seen. He wasn’t a racist; he wanted to learn their culture and language, not dismiss it or change it. This was a new thing. The epigraph answers your question: “. . . Who are you? Where do you come from? What do you want?”
Five men and one woman tell us what they learned. Some of them found a deep sense of kinship with him. Two of them extracted terrible secrets from him and, as one says, understood that “what was important was how I might bind his wound as he bound mine.”
Isn’t narrating from their point of view presumptious?
Someone’s bound to aim that criticism at me. Here’s how I’d respond. I lived among the Nagovisi for several years. They taught me their culture and language, and like any anthropologist, I participated in village life. I have a pretty good idea of how the world looked to the Nagovisi of the late sixties. And some of them told me how it felt to have somebody show up and ask to live among them and how to distinguish him from the other whites (missionaries, colonial administrators, miners, traders, soldiers). I have a pretty good idea of how they worked through that. And the narrators in whose voices I wrote were based on people I knew and loved. I’ve maintained my connection with some of them for more than 40 years (all but one have died).
Also, there are plenty of young Nagovisi whose English is excellent, and I’ve sent them PDFs and Kindle versions. There are Nagovisi groups on Facebook and I belong to some of them. There’s a Nagovisi completing his PhD in anthropology – he was willing to blurb the book. So far, nobody has complained.
OK, then. Clearly these are real people. How much of this stuff is true?
I get asked that all the time. I suppose it’s because I was an anthropologist before I was a writer, and anthropologists are rightly concerned with being as accurate as possible. We aren’t supposed to make stuff up. Apart from the myths, and the last story, it’s overwhelmingly fiction. I spun the tales from things I’d been told, things I’d seen, emotions I’d had myself, but very little of what happens in the stories happened in the field. For example, I can’t even count the hours I spent sitting with the leader Mesiamo (see the excerpt). One day, he told me about the fight on the road, and the beheading. Another day — probably months or even a year displaced — he told me about the sorcery revenge killings. I never talked to him about My Lai.
Beheadings? Killings? This Mesiamo guy seems violent. Are Nagovisi a violent people?
No. True, in the old days there was feuding and people were killed, and recently a woman I knew was beheaded in connection with alleged sorcery. That was an extremely rare event. The Nagovisi weren’t warriors. They didn’t particularly like to fight, and when they did they tried hard to get things back in balance.
I greatly admired Mesiamo. I used his real name as a tribute to him. He was a master politician, a fighter, a killer, was widely believed to be a dangerous sorcerer, and possessed of tremendous intelligence and curiosity. Much of the story he narrates revolves around violent events — a man he killed, a head he didn’t (but maybe did) take as a boy, some hard-to-stomach violence related to sorcery, and in Elliot’s case, My Lai.
I wrote violence into A Red Woman Was Crying so that my characters could talk about the ways it makes sense to them and so my readers could see how different it was in kind and scale from the violence we see in our country and elsewhere. Mesiamo has killed many people. What’s the difference between him and someone who, in America, we’d call a killer? Does he kill people because he’s psychologically twisted? For personal gain? Power? Political reasons? I want to make readers think about these issues.
In the story from which I’ve taken the excerpt, Mesiamo starts out wanting to make Elliot fear that if he betrays the Nagovisi, Mesiamo might kill him. But as the story proceeds and Elliot reveals his agony over My Lai, Mesiamo chooses a different strategy: to compare the American large-scale atrocity with the Nagovisi small-scale killings. He’s hoping that Elliot will understand that if he does anything that unleashes outsiders on the Nagovisi, a great many people will die because, unlike the Nagovisi, the Americans kill for no good reason and don’t know when to stop. He’s trying to make Elliot feel responsible for anything bad that might happen. It’s a good strategy and just the sort of thing the real Mesiamo would do.
Yeah. It’s not all about violence. You’ll find an intellectual-bonding story (“Namesakes”), a comedy (“I’m Going to Sovele”), a tragedy (“Fireflies Killed Her”), a road trip story (“Dog Fights”), the violent one (“I Don’t Kill People Anymore”), a kind of love story (“My White Man”) and a memoir (“Crocodile”). Plus you get seven myths, pretty much as I recorded them, to connect with the stories and interpret as you wish. I don’t do that for you.
Finally, again blurring the line between fact and fiction, I give you Google Earth coordinates for the places where the stories are set. You can see where Elliot and Siuwako’s garden was, where the American fighter plane gunned down Polanara’s wife, where the demon Topegina hung out (guys, you don’t want to go there, because she can make your penis fall off).
Wow, Don, you really are good at the Badass Old Man persona. I was especially intrigued by: “The Nagovisi are studying the anthropologist as he’s studying them.” There’s often such a condescending assumption of researcher towards subject. The Russian psychologist A.R. Luria was astonished to find that the Russian village people, among whom he conducted his research, were dismissive of his logical relationship exercises.
Back to your book: This brings the different stories and their linking strands together beautifully and vividly alive. Next on my (extensive) reading list!
As yours (Losing Touch ) is on my list. It’s up as soon as I finish Tony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See. I was in one of his workshops a long time ago and we discovered a mutual interest in radio. I knew he was working on a novel that involved radio, and here it is. It’s very good. He, like you, is comfortable in present tense and knows how to make it work.
First, I would like to say, your collection sounds very interesting. Very. As in unlike any collection I have ever read. And that is a good thing.
Secondly, I am glad you got a TNB spotlight. It’s nice to see old faces on the board and yours is well deserved. And by old, I mean familiar, not related to Medicare or social security.
Lastly, I love your bio. The last line.
Jeffro — it’s great to see hear from you. Maybe some of the old (familiar) crowd will reconvene and we can have a reunion.
Lost me at that grabbing breadfruit.
I couldn’t give the entire tale. Breadfruit hang in trees, often good-sized trees. Typically someone has to climb the tree and gather them. But women usually don’t climb trees, so if you’re a woman and you find a tree loaded with breadfruit, why not send your very long prehensile penis up the tree to gather them?
You can hear an old (ca. 1972) recording of the story here:
but it’s not in English.
Don! I can’t begin to tell you how often I’ve thought of you and the lovely Ruth. I hope you’re doing well. We’ll try to hop to your fair isle soon, but first we’re going to New York. It may take years to recover from the financial hit.
So, this penis thing. I had one and then someone cut it off? I haven’t experienced the hormonal insanity men display between 12 and 90, so I guess I’m okay with it. Although I’d like to pee at the side of the road without squatting. There’s that. But overall? I guess I haven’t noticed the loss.
(these stories also sound a lot like an African tribe I studied in school about a hundred years ago. So long ago I no longer remember their name–only that they also had weird, rambling myths with no rhyme or reason but genitals always featured, either getting removed, falling off, causing trouble, running away, or being eaten. It’s rough to be genitalia in mythology!)
Nah, only Breadfruit Woman had one. For a while.
So don’t worry about a phantom, er, a phantom dick.
“It’s rough to be a genitalia in mythology.” Nice. I’ll have to remember that one.
New York will drain your bank accounts, that’s for sure. But when you recover, hop over and we’ll do some breadfruit. I have a tree growing in the yard and luckily it’s not very tall.
“western” myth is mostly metaphorical, or allegorical (anyway). With these indigenous myths that seem to meander and have characters that have a cameo appearance in the tale and then *poof* they’re off and away again…do you read the same kind of meanings to them?
i.e. many myths we have are morality plays that ostensibly guide us to act like good little tribal citizens, or that have little zingers that act as cautionary tales. They attempt to form our thinking of how we exist in society.
Do the indigenous myths NOT have that function?
and yes, Don…you wave a broken beer bottle in my face in an utterly convincing manner. No suspension of disbelief that you’re actually a sweet, kindly grandpa.
Good to see you here, Dwoz. It feels like the — dare I say it — old days.
Old or not, I’m not a grandpa!
I’ve used the catchall “myths” rather than breaking them down into myths, folktales, legends . . . all those subdivisions that folklorists and some anthropologists like to use. Some of the ones in the book are cautionary tales (such as “Dangerous Words”), some are tales that I don’t think have any particular meaning (the one called “Born in a Stone” is like that, I think), and some, like “Crocodile Kills His Father,” are explanations of why things are as they are, such as where did Crocodile come from, and why do crocodiles eat us? (It’s probably because Crocodile’s father was terrified to see the little Crocodile and cut him into pieces, which he should not have done.)
Bottom line is that I’d answer your question by saying that Nagovisi myths do have those functions, and others.
So get the book, Dwoz, and decide for yourself.
Don, can’t believe I am just now reading this. How did I miss? Love this interview! Of course, I would, because I love “Red Woman Was Crying.” I agree completely with your comments about the role of the other. I lived in Japan for three years, and directly experienced that – being seen first as a representative of my ethnic group, only secondarily as a person. In my case, it was also a huge gender issue. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t seen first as a woman. I was an American/Anglo first, woman only secondarily. As such, even in a culture that was very gender stratified, I was able to be in both worlds, male and female. It is very interesting (and at times unnerving) to be viewed this way. But it also gave me entry into so many situations. Rich, rich fodder for a writer…
Michelle! How did I miss your comment? Thanks for showing up, and, as usual, you offer penetrating insights.