Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Travel Lit

I was sixteen when I first left the country, bound for Ireland, the motherland or to quote Shane MacGowan, the "shores where me fathers lay." My parents thought the trip a good idea because it might broaden my and my sibling's respective horizons, as well as give us the opportunity to catch up with the extensive family we have throughout the nation. As exciting a prospect as it was to see where my forebearers once lived, air travel is not something I generally like. This fear was nurtured by my mother who is both scared of flying and slightly claustrophobic. But this fear must not and could not hold me back, so I kissed my St. Christopher pendant and down the tarmac we rolled.

The term "Irish time" refers to the Irish and their inability to arrive anywhere at the appropriate time, but this took on a new meaning for my family when we touched down in Dublin. Based on the time difference, we arrived in Joyce's hometown at nearly 6:00 in the morning. We reached Jury's hotel at 6:45. This is where the new definition of Irish time manifested itself. The hotel could or would not check us in until 10:00 AM, which gave us three hours to kill. We did so by sleeping in the lobby, like derelicts.

At the time, Ireland was being ravage by the Euro, a common theme for smaller countries adopting the currency. Prices had inflated drastically. The exchange rate, coupled with the high prices of goods, was an unfortunate and expensive combination. I am happy to say today that Ireland has rebounded. In New York, for example, young Irish entrepreneurs are buying expensive real estate throughout the Upper East Side, one of Manhattan's nicest neighborhoods. This marks, I believe, one of the first times in history that money is coming INTO New York FROM Ireland, rather than the other way around.

That economic unpleasantry aside however, the trip proved to be a remarkable and ultimately humbling experience. My father's father is from Roscommon, a small farming community 40 minutes outside Dublin. We pilgrimaged there (I say pilgrimaged because driving in Ireland is as dangerous as visiting any Middle East holy site) and were able to locate the exact farm my 'grandfar' grew up on. For an average American teenager, generally lazy and enshrouded by technology, this was a moving experience, and though I never met my grandfather, I was eternally greatful that he had his 'American Wake', that is, took the boat to the New World.

But for all her glory, Ireland still has a crushingly painful history. It is a "tragic beauty" as Leon Uris (incidentally born in Baltimore) describes it. One trip that seemed compulsory was a visit to Kilmanhaim Gaol, a site that housed and executed some of Ireland's bravest patriots, including Eamon de Valera, the 'Tall Fella'', who eventually became Eire's first Prime Minister. This painful history cannot and should not ever be removed or ignored. The actions of the Irish Republican Army, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Clan Na Gael, and the Fenians, ARE Ireland. I grew up in an Irish neighborhood and actually saw Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, speak when I was in the fourth grade. Furthermore, I considered myself fairly knowledgable when it came to the "Troubles", especially for my age. But that knowledge pales in comparison to the emotional understanding that seeing, touching, and even smelling this horrible place gave me.

Ireland, much like the New Zealand of Black Rainbow, was (and to some extent still is) a divided country, one where native and colonizer live side-by-side. Ethnicity and religion then, came to identify a person. Catholics lived in Catholic neighborhoods, supported Catholic businesses, and, if they liked soccer, supported the Celtic Football Club. Protestants lived in Protestant neighborhoods, supported Protestant businesses, and, if they liked soccer, supported Glasgow Rangers. In other words, a person's background became his present and his future. It dictated his life and behavior. A Protestant did not walk down Falls Road and a Catholic did not go to the Shankill. I am happy to say that this tension has dissipated for the most part, but there are still certain rabble-rousers that want to inflame the old hatred.

This old hatred seems to be alive in well in future New Zealand. As such, identity plays an enormous role in Black Rainbow. This refers to the identity of being a citizen under the rule of the Tribunal as well as ethnicity. It is not until the narrator meets the True Ones that he becomes explicitly aware of his own background. Certainly, there are scenes where he is discriminated against, harassed, and labeled a "savage" but they merely serve to hint at his true background, that background being of course "Tangata Maori".

Because the narrator is able to assimilate into the "otherworlder" society, his ethnic makeup is not an important part of his character. The exact opposite is true of Aeto, Manu, and Fantail. In their world, their Pacific blood is everything. It is both an obstacle, as well as a sign of pride. Both of those things mark them as contrarians. They refuse to submit to the homogenization, the cultural genocide that the Tribunal is waging. In fact, they at first disdain the narrator for his compliance with the Tribunal's actions. They view him as a "race-traitor" of sorts. When the youths first encounter him, one says, "Jesus, they've fucked you up good to, eh. Like they've done to most of our people!" (123).

As a result of his interaction with the latch-key kids, the narrator starts to question his own indentity, not in the ethnic sense, but in the sense of him being a Free Citizen. He shows them his reference only to be met with, "Shit man, that's for your world ... Yeah, mate, in our world this piece of paper is worth shit!" (123). While nearly everyone the narrator had previously encountered could not hide their excitement at the prospect of meeting a Free Citizen, the True Ones immediately humble the narrator, by putting zero stock in the status he is awarded by the Tribunal. Their lack of respect for the laws, customs, and values of mainstream society eventually lead the narrator into questioning his own beliefs and questioning the motives of the Tribunal. While plotting his assualt of the Puzzle Palace, the narrator notes, "Everything I'm daring to question, see, remember, and plan is against the Tribunal's/President's Laws, against what I was raised to believe in and live by" (149).

One of the most powerful scenes in the novel is Aeto's description of his upbringing. Of the otherworlders he says, "We refused to be converted by them; it would've been so easy to join the other Tangata Maori who have become otherworlders" Wendt then writes, "For twenty-one years he hadn't lost the faith" (159). The diction in this selection is important. 'Conversion' and 'faith' both imply a religious connection, as if being Maori is a spiritual mark, something that cannot be removed by the Tribunal and the President. Furthermore, I could not help but be reminded of the struggle for Catholic Emancipation in Ireland.

As nearly everyone knows, Ireland was under the rule of the British Empire for centuries. Throughout that rotting connection, Ireland has suffered untold atrocities. During especially trying times at the begining of the 20th Century, there were roving bands of Protestant preachers, who went from town square to town square with a cart of soup and dozens of loaves of bread. They would offer the vitals to the local Catholics, on the condition that they publicly renounced their Papist connection and embraced the Anglican, or Presbyterian, or Methodist sects. To a starved, depressed, and defeated people, the prospect of a hot meal must have been an incredible temptation. And yet, many people refused to accept it. Those that did were scorned by the community, a veritable death sentence in a rural society. On a personal note, though I never met the man, it is a mark of pride that my own maternal great-grandfather often spoke about how he "Never took the soup" or in other words, how he "Never lost the faith". Aeto would be proud.

No comments: