Yang Jisheng's Tombstone, the Great Chinese Famine 1958-1962, is not the kind of book I could rate based on nothing more than how much I did or did not like it. The subject matter is much too deep for that and the dangers the author endured to write this phenomenal work far too real.
Jisheng's account as presented to us in the English-language edition of Tombstone is a single-volume 629-page condensed version of the original Chinese-language 1,200-page 2-volume set first published in Hong Kong a decade ago. There's no need to question what may or may not have been lost in translation because Jisheng provided so much fact-based data with which to work in the original publication.
Moreover, Tombstone is much more than just a triumph of historical writing. It represents in many ways the triumph of a movement to shed light on "the worst famine in human history." As an integral part of that movement: "Yang got people who experienced the famine to describe it in their own words. He found local journalists who'd witnessed and reported on murders and starvation and got them to write their memoirs. He located and interviewed local implementers of the fatal policies. He got surviving resisters to recount their experiences" (pp. X-XI).
Magnitude of the Horror
It took a while for me to adjust my brain to magnitude of the fact that the horror described actually occurred less than 70 years ago. In that hellish avoidable atrocity an estimated 30 to 45 million people died within a four-year period basically because of authoritarian arrogance and a total disregard for the freedom of individuals. Yet my shocked incredulity as a reader is nothing compared to the painful awakening Jisheng experienced as a member of the Communist Youth League proudly committed to promoting the policies of Mao Zedong's "Great Leap Forward" initiative only to discover those very policies in 1959 caused his father's death.
Ironically, it was while working in the late 1960s as an official journalist that he learned "how 'news' was manufactured, and how news organs served as the mouthpiece of political power." (Very different dynamics from what U.S. President Donald Trump's so often proclaims as "fake news.") However, it was not until the late 1970s that the awful deadly scope of the great famine became apparent:
"Now we knew that it was a man-made disaster that had caused tens of millions of people to starve to death... In my effort to shake off deception, I came to understand the social background of my father's death and to reflect more profoundly on his life..." (pp. 11-12).
That "deception" has remained hard for a lot of Chinese to shake off in part because of many official's refusal to acknowledge the famine for what it was and insist on referring to it in such euphemistic terms as "the three years of natural disaster," or "the years of difficulties." Another seems to be to avoid the appearance of discrediting the legacy of People's Republic of China founder Zedong.
Tombstone is not easy reading by any means. Where Jisheng narrates the actions leading up to the abuses of power, and fear of the same, which led up to the famine, he is straightforward and factually dense. That is a quality hardcore historians relish but average readers might find less entertaining. And in a way that is the point.
Jisheng's objective as a journalist is to share awareness of an event which it would seem impossible for the entire world not to know about already, but which it appears relatively few actually do. As a human being and the son of foster-parents who gave all they had to raise him and support his education goals, he is determined to honor those parents and the dozens of millions who lost their lives to the famine. Therefore, the title selected for the book: "A tombstone is a memory made concrete." (p. 3)
The result his investigative labors is indispensible documentation of officials' motives for allowing the tragedy to occur; and, how many hypocritically gorged themselves on the good life while entire villages literally starved to death. Yet such documentation is balanced with reports difficult to read for a very different reason. In short, Jisheng does not censor the stories of people describing acts of cannibalism which they either witnessed or committed themselves.
We learn about: people in villages who wait for strangers to come along so they can kill and eat them, an adolescent sister who kills and eats her younger brother after their parents have died, people who wait a few hours after funerals so they can dig up corpses and consume them. These and other actions seem too extreme to believe they really occurred in a civilized nation. But we are aware now that they did. Some people even describe which parts of the human body they found most delectable.
If you're a fan of the movie Bone Tomahawk, starring Kurt Russell, Lili Simmons, and Patrick Wilson, and you did not flinch watching the scene where "Troglodytes" split a man in half to eat him, then the above accounts of cannibalism might not bother you too much. Anyone who did flinch, throw up, scream, or faint, can empathize to some meaningful degree with those who survived the horror of the Great Famine and with Jisheng's determination to tell their collective story.
The Record of This Particular Memory
The importance of the history provided in Tombstone is evident enough in its own right, or at least it should be. "Human memory," the author tells us, "is the ladder on which a country and a people advance. We must remember not only the good things, but also the bad; the bright spots, but also the darkness" (p. 3).
The record of this particular memory is a significant indicator of the dangers that can befall populations which opt for authoritarian rule by a single individual, or small group of individuals, versus government by a robust engaged citizenry exercising some form of democracy. Even more than pitting one political ideology against another, it is about accepting some share of communal responsibility that automatically comes with living in any society hoping to make great strides forward, or just to maintain for its citizens peace, security, and decently-stocked refrigerators.
author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah
co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
To fully appreciate reading former Savannah mayor Otis S. Johnson's From 'N Word' to Mr. Mayor, Experiencing the American Dream, you might want to note some important clues he shares at the book's beginning. The first is his identification of himself as a "scholar activist." Take that for exactly what it sounds like: he has long been devoted to the cultivation of knowledge within himself and others, as well as to the reversal of heinous social and political injustices.
A second shared hint is his struggle over whether to spell out the word "nigger" in this book's title or employ the more politically-accepted abbreviation. Following his publisher's suggestion, he chose the latter but felt the original more "symbolic of my struggle as a black male in American society." With that in mind, the book in general, he states, "documents my struggle to achieve the American Dream while having to confront the vicissitudes of being black in a racist society" (p. 11)
A Timeline of Powerful History
The above words may sound, to some, like little more than sensationalistic jargon employed to grab attention. It would be more accurate to describe them as precise when considering Johnson was born in 1942 and, from the beginning until the present era, his experience of the American dream has unfolded along a timeline of powerful history-shaping events on personal, national, and international levels.
For its precisely-balanced combination of social history and personal memoir, Johnson's book under any title is one of the most valuable written in recent years by an African-American man, and one of the most important for any time by a native of Savannah, Georgia. Being the former dean of Savannah State University's College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, and current Scholar in Residence and Professor Emeritus that he is, Dr. Johnson's text often reflects the language of his intellectual leanings. That allows him to place his life and his times within an analytical context similar to important works by some of his scholarly heroes, like Harlem Renaissance strategist W.E.B. Du Bois and political scientist Hanes Walton Jr.
Yet, at the same time, he is a very down-to-earth writer who engages readers with stories of his family's Gullah culture heritage, what it meant to lose his father at an early age, learning about racism for the first time, falling in love and getting his heart broken, discovering the world as a young sailor, and confronting the challenges of leadership within a demographically-evolving community.
The city of Savannah and the state of Georgia as Johnson experienced them while growing into maturity during the 1960s were much like America at that time as a whole. African Americans with many White Americans alongside them were calling for an end to Jim Crow apartheid and battling against the system by staging public sit-ins, conducting protest marches, and targeting racial barriers ripe for breaking.
Of his position in this history, Johnson writes, "My life has been full of being in places where I shocked non-blacks with my presence" (p. 88). One such place was on the campus of Armstrong State College (now Atlantic University) where in 1963 he famously became the first African American to enroll in the school. Another was the campus of the University of Georgia, Athens, where he was the first Black from Savannah to attend that institution. At UGA, he walked out of one class after a white professor discussing the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision proclaimed the only reason African-Americans wanted to integrate schools in Georgia was to marry white women.
Most of the kind of anti-racism activism Johnson chronicles is to be expected given the time-frame. In his chronicling, however, he provides important snapshots of black leaders in Savannah, like Wesley Wallace "W.W." Law and Hosea Williams, in political action. But his reportage goes beyond the dynamics of blackness clashing with whiteness.
Through his account of how segregation laws prevented Whites from attending the historically black Savannah State College, founded some 45 years prior to the establishment of Armstrong (as a junior college) in 1935, he demonstrates how racism has caused grievous injury on both sides of the color line. It has also been extremely absurd when considering that in order for him to become the first African-American to integrate Armstrong in 1963 for sake of racial progress in the name of democracy, he had to switch from Savannah State's senior college program curriculum to Armstrong's junior college curriculum.
Navigating Major Changes
Early in From 'N Word' to Mr. Mayor (2016, Donning Company Publishers) Johnson discusses three types of black leadership attributed to sociologist Daniel C. Thompson (author of Sociology of the Black Experience) and with which many readers of African-American literature are familiar: "...the Uncle Tom...racial diplomat...and race advocate" (p. 48). He places himself closer to the third category but more as a "human rights advocate" who believes the following: "'We are all God's children,' but I live in an institutional and structural racist society. 'Self-preservation is the first law of nature'" (p. 49).
By the time Dr. Johnson took office in 2004 as the sixty-fourth mayor of Savannah, and its second consecutive black mayor (after the late Floyd Adams), the city was well on its way to navigating major changes in its multicultural and economic make-up. His determination to meet that challenge at every level resulted in 2006 in a major heart attack experienced while attending the National Conference of Black Mayors in Memphis, Tennessee. Consequently, he writes, "How I approached the job of being mayor during the period before and the period after my heart attack were two very different periods" (p. 291).
As it pertained to his labors as mayor, Johnson's professed sense of racial "self-preservation" took a back seat to his role as a servant leader committed to advocating "for improving conditions that impact people of all races and classes" (p. 261). In the wake of the Great Recession that would create chaos in American cities during his second term, he worked with city council members to help Savannah avoid the kind of disastrous lay-offs and cancellation of services which occurred in cities like Atlanta and Camden. As he points out:
"In 2011, we were still in the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression. We had to find a way to continue providing all of the services to citizens with about $8 million less than we had in 2010...while the 2011 budget was extremely difficult, it was balanced with minimal impact to our citizens and without an increase in property taxes. That was due to strong leadership, clear priorities, and tough resolve by this council, which chose not to spend wildly when times were good" (p. 325).
Candidates lining up for the 2020 presidential race in America could take a few helpful lessons from this former mayor's playbook. One might be committing to running a campaign based on proven abilities and a strategic comprehensive vision rather than one based on negative personal attacks. In fact, though he won his first election to mayor before former U.S. President Barack H. Obama won his first election to the White House, their campaign styles bore striking similarities. (The president and mayor met when Mr. Obama visited Savannah in 2010.)
At times, From 'N Word' to Mr. Mayor reads a bit too much like a college paper, or lecture, as Johnson parenthetically informs readers where he will continue the thread of a particular subject or on which page he has already discussed it. This is easy enough to overlook, and even smile about, when remembering these pages are coming to us from a master scholar at whose literary feet we are fortunate indeed to sit and learn as much as possible.
Author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah
Literary style and form play important supporting roles almost as captivatingly heroic as those of the title characters in Mark Morneweg's highly-innovative novel: Penthe & Alphonse. A reader casually thumbing through the book's pages might do a double-take over the word "novel" on the front cover and wonder if it should be poems instead. Yet a second quick run through the book's 99 pages would reveal it is in fact comprised of 135 brief chapters anywhere from two single lines to three or four pages long.
Having explored fusions of poetry and prose in works of my own with varying levels of success, I wondered how well Morneweg had met this challenge he issued to himself. Once I began reading in earnest, the chapters seemed to alternate like sequences in a film. They moved back and forth between flickering flashes of moments and extended scenes from the characters' private lives and America's public tragedy, also known as the Civil War. It soon became apparent the author has struck a masterful balance of historical detail, lyrical rhythm, and finely-nuanced emotional intensity.
The book begins with Alphonse's older sisters looking from a window down on him and Penthe, two former childhood playmates now entering adulthood, in a New Orleans courtyard reading poetry by Francois Villon. The delicate intimacy between them is apparent and alluring. But because he is categorized racially as white and she, in the language of 1800s American south, as a biracial "octoroon" (meaning "three quarters French and one black") their intense intimacy is also dangerous. In addition, despite racial categorizations, they are second cousins.
The kind of relationship Penthe and Alphonse had during childhood was not uncommon for the time, but most children were expected to "grow out of it" as they matured and retreat to their respective black and white demographic niches. Alphonse's and Pense's relationship, however, continues to develop through a series of circumstances along a more sensuous, humane, and uncompromising trajectory.
Distance Making Hearts Grow Fonder
When Penthe is sent off to a girl's school in Paris, we witness through an exchange of letters how their attachment to each other intensifies rather than diminishes. Most are from Penthe to Alphonse and a couple give us some of the longer passages in the entire book. This is an excerpt from one of Penthe's:
One letter comes from Alphonse after Penthe writes him to confess she may allow herself to be seduced by a "knucklehead...strapling youth" with a reputation for introducing willing young women to sex. It is not the response either Pense or the reader might have expected:
Exchanging letters becomes a practice on which they depend during several trials of separation. It is to the author's credit that he fashions this technique as deftly as he does into an already impressive collage of linguistic versatility.
Complications of Love, War, and Race
If Morneweg had relied on nothing more than Penthe & Alphonse's ever-increasing passion for each other to give shape and substance to his story he likely would have ended up with just a cleverly-styled romance novel (a noble enough genre in its own right). But like certain masters of epic works before him--consider Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in The Time of Cholera, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, or Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God--he establishes a series of contexts which threaten love's chances of survival.
Racism directed against Penthe is something Alphonse makes clear he will not tolerate. When another man calls her "a part-nigger whore," he challenges him to a dual and manages to shoot him without killing him. At the same time, he suffers through moral ambivalence when it comes to fighting in the Civil War, demonstrating how complex the issues behind it truly were: "If the Yankees invade, I will fight them. I will fight, but I am not too thrilled. I will not be morbid in front of Penthe Anne." Such reasoning brings to mind the song by Sade: Love Is Stronger Than Pride.
From one minimalist chapter to the next, they love their way through war, two epidemics of Yellow Fever, race riots, the demands of grandchildren, and old age. Looking at a printed copy of Penthe & Alphonse, or even just the cover on a screen after reading the book, gives the feeling of staring at an optical illusion because Morneweg has managed, somehow, to deliver much more than what appearance promises. The range of time covered, scope and depth of emotions engaged, and intricacy of styles employed seem too much for the pages containing them.
What Geek Bookaholics Often Do
Morneweg, who died almost three years ago, was apparently of the class of authors whose relationship with literature was so unabashedly personal and organic that whether he dressed his text in hard blocks of layered prose or shimmering veils of poetry, it revealed meanings both hauntingly familiar and astonishingly new. What came burning through more clearly than anything else was an authentic original vision of literary possibilities and human values.
In the course of reading Penthe & Alphonse, I began to do what geek bookaholics often do when sensing that within their hands is not just a good book but a rare and beautiful kind of priceless mind. I began attempting to discern who the author's strongest literary influences had been. I could hear William Faulkner's spirit wandering between lines while meditating on the nature and traumas comprising the identity (or should we now say identities?) of the American south. But who were the others?
The answer came one day when I was discussing the title with a friend and she loaned me a copy of a booklet about one Mark Louis Morneweg published by El Portal Press. In it, he noted his passion for "Miss Emily [Dickinson]"along with deep appreciation for others who had also helped stir to action my own pen. Among them: Federico Garcia Lorca, Pablo Neruda, James Joyce, Shakespeare, Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, and Albert Camus.
He shared these words in regard to his approach to writing fiction: "Unplanned adventures in literature. An idea pops into your head and you go from there. Nothing structured or laid out beforehand. Just one word comes and you have an entire chapter to write and that is great..." (The only time I had ever allowed myself that kind of compositional freedom was while writing Christmas When Music Saved the World, later titled Songs from the Black Skylark zPed Music Player.)
Maybe even more importantly for the purposes of this essay, he told us this: "...I am a prose stylist with some amazingly short chapters. Some chapters that are poems. Prose poems." And added: "Penthe is about taking risks. Artistic risks. Passion..." The risk was one that paid off extremely well because ultimately Penthe & Alphonse succeeds as both an epic poem and an amazing novel.
Moreover, in addition to taking risks, it is also about what Lady Gaga refers to as the right to curate one's life as one sees fit. Along those same lines, Morneweg chose not to douse the flames of his startling creative literary inventiveness. He chose instead to feed the fire with boldness sufficient enough to increase its light and heat so others could gather around and savor the prize of unexpected beauty.