Revolution: The Year [Deb Olin Unferth] Fell In Love & Went To Join the War

It seems the North American teenager is a truly resilient creature.  Even when taken out of their natural environment and dropped into an exotic locale they maintain their normal behavior patterns – angry moping.  The quick summary of Deb Olin Unferth’s Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War goes like this –  Girl meets Boy.  Girl falls for Boy.  Girl and Boy go looking for a Revolution.  Girl and Boy hang out, bored.

Or, as Unferth much more eloquently puts it…

My boyfriend and I went to join the revolution.
We couldn’t find the first revolution.
The second revolution hired us on and then let us go.
We went to the other revolutions in the area – there were several – but every one we came to let us hang around for a few weeks and then made us leave.
We ran out of money and at last we came home.
I was eighteen.  That’s the whole story.

Lucky for us, it’s not.  Much more than another coming of age story, Revolution is a Dummy’s Guide to Central American politics in the 80’s.  The world is upside down, and while Unferth travels to El Salvador with the best intentions of helping out the revolution (o.k., not exactly), in truth she’s really nothing more than a tourist.   One among many.  People come from all over the world to support revolutions (who knew?).  It’s common enough that the Nicaraguan locals had a name for them.  Internationalistas:  Westerners who come and go in waves, following revolutions like the Grateful Dead, with no real personal stake in their outcomes. Around them uprisings become inappropriately festive.

A group of jugglers had come from Canada.  They’d gone to the northern mountains of Nicaragua, to the war zone.  “We walk from town to town,” one told me, “juggling.”

Imagine.  We were walking across their war, juggling.  We were bringing guitars, plays adapted from Gogol, elephants wearing tasseled hats.  I saw it myself and even then I found it a bit odd.  The Nicaraguans wanted land, literacy, a decent doctor.  We wanted a nice sing-a-long and a ballet.  We weren’t a revolution.  We were an armed circus.

Revolution:  The Year I Fell in Love & Went to Join the War is told with a large font in a slim book.  The chapters are anecdotal, clustered around a common theme and organized in loose chronological order.  You are reading a series of impressions written down years after the actual events took place.  Unferth readily admits that her memory for details is shaky and her insights recent.  She second guesses herself frequently.  But while dates and times may be estimates, there is no arguing with the raw emotional honesty or the self-deprecating humor.  No one could be harder on Unferth then she is on herself, though I couldn’t help but feel that some things were being deliberately glossed over – particularly her history with her family.

This isn’t a comfortable book.  But being a teenager isn’t comfortable.  Frequently I found myself squirming self-consciously for a clueless girl I completely identified with.  I think most readers will.  All of us have been young, delusional and in love at one time or another…  usually with a much less interesting story when it’s all over.

Publisher:  Henry Holt and Company, New York (2010)
ISBN:  978 0 8050 9323 0

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Visiting India – A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

I have a confession to make.  I’ve never been to India.  It’s incredibly annoying to try to spend an entire month focusing on a place that you’ve had no first hand experience with.  Which is why I’ve decided to call in a ringer.  Erica Derrickson not only spent a significant amount of time wandering around India…she came back with a book full of photographs.  Which, by the way, you can purchase (but more on that later).

The photos in India:  A Thousand Words are beautiful.  The perspective joyful.   They show a landscape and culture that is tangible – as if you could step through the image and into that world without missing a beat.  In her introduction Erica describes India as a place of contrasts.  She cites “poverty and privilege, abundance and scarcity, empowerment and disenfranchisement, purity and filth, the ancient and the modern, enlightenment and ignorance, and life and death.”  But looking through the photographs I could see only the positives in that statement.  So I asked her – did she do that on purpose?  Here is her answer.

India is indeed a country of extremes, and yet while my book does reference that in the opening pages, this book is not about directly portraying those extremes. While moments can be labeled as ‘joyful’ or ‘depressing’, the way I see it is that the images I take are moments that occur in the ambience of the contrasts of these labels.

If you were to look, for example, at the picture near the end of the book of the young child wearing the orange top and a strange scowl on her face. I took this image on the banks of the holy Ganga river in the ancient city of Varanasi, aka Benares, one of the most sacred and ancient urban sites in India. Mark Twain once commented that “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” The child is seated on the steps of one of these ancient bathing ghats (a set of stone carved steps and platforms created for accessing the river) from which the local population has been bathing for generations spanning across centuries. In this same holy city, along the same holy river, there are other sacred ghats that do not host the activities of the living, but rather the Hindu rituals of the dead. Every day, for the past two thousand or so years, hundreds of bodies are burned on grand pyres and ceremoniously interred in the waters of the sacred river. Hindus come from all over India to have their remains laid to rest in this sacred city; to have your body buried in the holy Ganga is to instantly attain Nirvana and end the cycle of life and death, and to wash your living body in its waters is to wash away your karma. Considering the ambiance of these extremes, bathing the bodies of the living in the same waters that are receiving the ashes of the deceased, the look on the child’s face reveals something different, or rather, begs some different questions. This moment of beauty, a fleeting expression that questions the origins of innocence, intends to offer a fleeting glimpse into a world so attuned to the cycles of life and death.

You can find Erica’s book (and see more pictures) by following the link to  India: A Thousand Words.

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