Thursday, November 16, 2006


"Heartbreaking"--that was the banner headline of today's Elkhart Truth. Four children: Jennifer Lopez 8, Gonzalo Lopez,6, Daniel Valdez, 4, and Jessica Valdez, 2, were found in their house on Hester Street in Elkhart November 14. Their mother, Angelica Alvarez, was initially thought dead, but paramedics found a weak pulse. At this writing, she is in critcal condition at Elkhart General Hospital. The deaths have been ruled homicide by asphyxiation. So far no arrests have been made, but it's likely the result of a custody battle.

Neighbors said the children were sweet and helpful. I don't really know what to say, except to offer my hope and prayers for Angelica Alvarez. Elkhart has had more than its share of crime lately, but the killing of children is the saddest of crimes. I can't imangine a sane person doing this.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Looking for Rexroth's Daughter

Back when I was living in Philadelphia and discovering the the blogosphere, I came across a comment on another blog--perhaps it was a line cast, a hope followed-- by a blogger who called herself rexroth’s daughter. I was intrigued. I had been interested in the poet, critic, translator, and essayist Kenneth Rexroth since the late 1990s, when I learned that he had spent much of his childhood in my hometown of Elkhart, Indiana. And I knew that Greg Brown, who comes from Iowa City, the town where I grew up, had written a song called “Rexroth’s Daughter.”

I didn’t expect that she was Mary (Mariana), Rexroth’s first daughter by his third wife Marthe Larsen. (A second daughter, Katharine, died in 1996.) But I asked her, just in case. She had, as I suspected, taken the name from Greg Brown’s song. And so I got to know Rexroth’s Daughter, along with her husband, Dread Pirate Roberts, through their blog, the new dharma bums.

Recently, both of them have been writing under their own names. Of course they’re still the same people, and I still love their blog, but I miss the wonderful pseudonyms.

Anyone who’s read the book or seen the movie The Princess Bride knows about Dread Pirate Roberts. But what of Rexroth’s Daughter--not the elusive, mysterious woman of the song, who was the inspiration for Robin Andrea’s blog name, but the original Rexroth’s Daughter, who may or may not have inspired Greg Brown to write his lyrics.

Katharine Rexroth Leavitt led a very private life. I don’t think she could have been Brown’s inspiration. Mary, who changed her name to Mariana in 1975 (to get rid of the “excess baggage” of Mary Delia Andree), is a more likely candidate. Born in 1950, she was named for Kenneth’s mother Delia Reed, (though every legal document I’ve seen lists her as the more prosaic Della) and his first wife Andree Schafer.

She certainly had a difficult early life, with a lot more excess baggage than her name. While Rexroth doted on Mary, he was, to put it mildly, less than an ideal husband. Marthe, tired of his extramarital affairs and his demands that she serve him as an unpaid secretary, finally moved out of their San Francisco apartment, and fled with her daughters to New Mexico with poet Robert Creeley. Mary was about five at the time. Marthe later returned to San Francisco, but their attempt at reconciliation was not a success. In 1958 Kenneth made a cross-country tour, leaving his wife and daughters behind. Later that year the family went to Europe, making another attempt at reconciliation.

When the couple finally split in 1961, Marthe went first with her mother. When Marthe moved in with Stephen Schoen and his three children, Mary was miserable. In September, 1962, she showed up at Rexroth’s Scott Street apartment. Though Kenneth Rexroth was the quintessential avant-garde San Franciscan, he expected his daughter to be very proper. According to Linda Hamalian’s A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991), Mary was not allowed to come to the breakfast table in her bedclothes. He had exacting standards for any potential suitor: the sleeve vent on his shirt had to button, the moons on all ten of his fingers had to show, and he should know how to cook a light supper in formal evening dress. “No beatniks for his daughter,” writes Hamalian. “He wanted Mary to attend Radcliffe and marry a Harvard man.”

Mary’s return to Scott Street led to the arrival of Carol Tinker, who served as secretary to Rexroth and caretaker to Mary. Tinker became Rexroth’s fourth, and last wife. In late 1966, Kenneth, Mary, and Carol embarked on a round-the-world tour. By this time, Mary was an accomplished dancer, and would continue to study ballet on their return to San Francisco.

Her dance studies led her to earn money belly-dancing. And in the early seventies, she starred in several triple-X films, and posed for the Playboy article, “The Porno Girls,” (October 1971) which portrayed porn stars as “the girl next door.” As recently as a year ago, you could still purchase a couple of her films over the Internet. You probably still can. (That’s capitalism for you: You can’t get DVDs of a classic 1970s TV series like “The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes,” but “classic” porn from the same era is readily available.)

Does the line in Brown’s song, “I can’t believe your hands and mouth did all that to me/And they are so daily naked for all the world to see,” refer to Mary’s stint in the skin trade? Possibly. But since most American women don’t wear gloves and a veil, the reference could be a simple juxtaposition of the private and public.

She was married to John McBride at the time of Kenneth’s death in 1982, but was no longer married to him when Hamalian’s book came out.

Brown won’t say whether “Rexroth’s Daughter” actually refers to Mariana Rexroth. So we can only speculate. I’ve wondered whether he might be referring to Jack Kerouac’s daughter Jan, who did a lot of wandering in her too-short and troubled life. But “Kerouac’s daughter” just doesn’t work with the meter

A few years ago, I looked for Rexroth’s daughter. I found her, or at least I think I did. I was working on an article about Rexroth in Indiana--something which I’ve put aside because of my moves to Philadelphia and Bloomington-Normal. She was adult education coordinator at St. Dominic’s Catholic Church in San Francisco. (Kenneth Rexroth had been an Anglo-Catholic for most of his adulthood, but converted to Roman Catholicism near the end of his life.) I sent her an e-mail, asking her for any anecdotes her father had told her about life in South Bend and Elkhart. I didn’t get a reply. I’m sure she’s deluged with requests, both literary and otherwise.

Kenneth Rexroth wrote a number of poems to and about Mary. My favorite is “Halley’s Comet,” because I can imagine four-year-old Kenneth, in the duplex on West Marion Street in Elkhart, watching the spectacle:

When in your middle years
The great comet comes again
Remember me, a child,
Awake in the summer night,
Standing in my crib and
Watching that long-haired star
So many years ago.
Go out in the dark and see
Its plume over water
Dribbling on the liquid night,
And think that life and glory
Flickered on the rushing
Bloodstream for me once,
and for
All who have gone before me,
Vessels of the billion-year-long
River that flows now in your veins.

Kenneth Rexroth, "The Lights in the Sky are Stars",
from In Defense of the Earth (1956)

Friday, November 03, 2006

"May we always remember"--a historical view of Half of a Yellow Sun

“May we always remember,” writes novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, at the end her Author’s Note, which she places at the end of her novel, Half of a Yellow Sun (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006). Thus it’s her last word in the book, and it tells us her reason for writing it. Adichie, who was born in 1977, a decade after the birth of Biafra, was profoundly affected by that short-lived republic and its war with Nigeria, from which it seceded. Both of her grandfathers died in the conflict. An uncle fought with the Biafran Commandos.

Here in America, most of us have forgotten. In Iowa City, where I lived for most of that time, I remember expressions of support for the Biafrans, especially after former Writers’ Workshop instructors Verlin Cassill and Kurt Vonnegut, jr. appeared on national television (I believe it was on the Dick Cavett Show), to ask for aid to the Biafran refugees. But the plight of Biafra was dwarfed by the issue of the Vietnam war, the American civil rights movement, and the “Dump Johnson/Dump Nixon” campaigns.

The book’s title refers to the Biafran flag, which features a rising sun. It centers on twin sisters, Olanna and Kainene Ozobia, daughters of a wealthy Igbo chief. The beautiful Olanna takes a position at Nsukka University to be with her idealistic lover, Odenigbo. Kainene, who calls herself “the ugly daughter,” manages her family’s business in Port Harcourt and takes Richard Churchill, a shy English journalist, as her lover. Churchill takes up the cause of Biafra with all the zeal of a convert. A fifth main character, Ugwu, whom we first meet as a thirteen-year-old, comes from a rural village to become Odenigbo’s houseboy, and forms an important strand in the narrative--though we don’t know how important until the very end of the book.

Adichie assumes her readers have a basic understanding of Nigerian history and geography. While one can appreciate the book without it, it was important for me to do some reading on the history. A map and a timeline would be helpful to the book.

Nigeria was an artificial construct--a creation of the British Niger River Trading Company, whose status as a British colony was ratified by the Treaty of Berlin in 1884. Ken Wiwe summarizes the colonial-and post-colonial situation in his book, In the Shadow of a Saint (South Royalton, VT: Steerforth Press, 2001):

“Behind Nigerians’ political desire for independence was an economic imperative--to take control of our resources from the colonialists. The British had kept the independence aspirations in check with good, old-fashioned divide and rule. So the majority ethnic groups--the Hausa-Fulani in the north, the Yoruba in the west, and the Igbo in the east--competed with each other for favors from the imperial master. After the British decided to sail with the winds of change that were sweeping through Africa in the late 1950s and 1960s (by granting us our independence), the majority ethnic groups, popularly known in Nigeria as Wazobia, carried on their pre-independence rivalry, competing with each other for control of economic privileges. The three major ethnic groups contrived to make nonsense of the pre-independence dream of Nigeria as a federation of multi-ethnic nations united for the commonwealth of all its peoples.”

Wiwa is Ogoni--one of the many ethnic groups outside the Wazobia. Adichie is Igbo, and her novel is very much from the Igbo point of view. (Note: Many sources use the spelling Ibo, including Microsoft Works, which puts a little red squiggly-mark under Igbo, but not Ibo. When I heard Adichie use the word, on the Diane Rehm Show, it sounded to my American ears like Ibo. I suspect the problem is one of trying to render an African language into the Roman alphabet.). The Igbo are sometimes known as “The Jews of Africa,” for their entrepreneurial success. But like the Jews of Europe, they were resented.

The following summary of the Biafran war owes much to John Reader’s Africa: A Biography of the Continent (New York: Knopf, 1998):

The Igbo felt they were coming off third-best in the competition. On January 15, 1966, a group of army majors attempted a coup. In Lagos, then the capital, they seized and executed the federal prime minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. Chief Akintola, premier of the Western region, was killed in a gun battle. And the rebels killed the Sardauna of Sokoto, premier of the northern region, at his residence.

The army commander, Major General Aguiyi-Ironsi, took control of the situation, accepted the surrender of the conspirators, and assumed power. But he did nothing to assuage the fears of the northerners and westerners, who perceived an Igbo takeover. Ironsi went on to declare a the end of the federation, and imposed a new constitution.

In the north, anti-government demonstrations resulted in the deaths of several hundred Igbos. Ironsi tried to assure northerners that no constitutional changes would be made without consultation, but his assurances were too late.

A counter-coup led by northern officers took place in late July. Ironsi was captured, flogged, and executed, and many eastern officers were killed. Another round of killings in the north targeted thousands of Igbo living in the north. Adichie portrays the horror of the massacre through Olanna, who has gone to the northern city of Kano to visit Mohammed, a onetime fiancee. Only because of Mohammed’s protection is Olanna able to escape the slaughter. But she witnesses the gruesome aftermath. Richard, arriving at the Kano airport from London, meets a charming young Igbo man, only to see him gunned down by Nigerian soldiers.

Lieutenant-Colonel Yakubu Gowon, considered a moderate Northerner, emerged as the new leader. Gowon, with the support of the northern and western regions, reestablished the federation. But the Easterners, reeling from the massacres, were unsatisfied. In Adichie’s book, Gowan is accused of reneging on a promise to make Nigeria a confederation at a conference in Aburi, Ghana at the beginning of 1967. Most likely, there was a difference in interpretation. Toyin Falola, in The History of Nigeria (Westport, Coonecticut: Greenwood Press, 1999) that “Gowon thought there would be a weak federation while Ojukwu assumed the country would become a confederation…” In any case, Lieutenant-Colonel Emeka Ojukwu, military governor of the Eastern Region, declared the eastern region to be virtually autonomous on March 30, 1967.

By May 30, Ojukwu declared the independent state of Biafra. At first, people in the new republic believed Nigeria would allow them to leave peacefully. But as Kanene says to Richard, when he expresses surprise that the Nigerian government had declared a "police action against the Biafrans, "It's the oil. They can't let us go that easily with all that oil."

Kainene, like people on both sides, believed the war would be brief. Instead, it went on for three years. Initially, it appeared the Biafrans would win. Israel gave them captured weapons from the Six-Day War. South Africa, Portugal, Rhodesia, and France gave them covert military assistance, as they all had reasons to fear a strong Nigeria. A few countries--Haiti, Gabon, Ivory Coast, and Tanzania--actually recognized Biafra. But the support was not enough for Biafra, which was facing a Nigerian army armed with new Soviet-made weapons. While the Biafrans continued to win some battles, Nigeria imposed a blockade around the country, and pushed the frontiers back. As the Nigerians advanced, civilian refugees fled into the remains of Biafra. Perhaps 2 million Biafrans died of starvation and disease.

In the end, Ojukwu fled to the Ivory Coast, whild his vice priesident, Philip Efiong, was left to negotiate a peace with Nigeria. It was a generous settlement. Those who fought for Biafra were given amnesty. While the Biafrans who survived lost property and money, and there were some reprisals by soldiers, there was nothing like the mass killing which precipitated the secession. I suspect it was Efiong who made the radio address on Page 412 of the book. Efiong, in my mind, was one of the true heroes of Biafra. I wish Adichie had mentioned him.

Adichie acknowledges that she has "taken many liberties for the puposes of fiction; my intent is to portray my own imaginative truths and not he facts of the war." Still, her story does not deviate radically from the historical record. She did extensive historical research on the subject.

Wheh I heard Adichie on the Diane Rehm Show, I was amazed that there were so many expatriate Nigerians who called in--many of them who spoke fondly about Biafra. And there was one man who accused Adichie of trying to revive secessiionism. And there are organizations today which openly call for the restoration of Biafra.

But in spite of her sympathy for the Biafran cause, Adichie is a personal example of what Nigeria ought to be--in Ken Wiwa's words, "a federation of multi-etnic peoples united for the commonwealth of all its peoples." English, not Igbo, is her first language. One of the most sympathetic characters in her book is the northerner Mohammed, who saves Olanna. Witnessing the aftermath of the killings, he cries out, "Allah does not allow this. Allah will never forgive the people who made them do this. Allah will never forgive this."

Whether or not we forgive, we must always remember.