Half of a Yellow Sun: Adichie’s Historical Parable of Race, Class, and Politics

In her Author’s Note for Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recognized scholars, her parents, and other family members for helping her fictionalize the Nigeria-Biafra War of 1967-70; telling, I think, is this: “In particular, Chukwuemeka Ike’s Sunset at Dawn and Flora Nwapa’s Never Again were indispensable in creating the mood of middle-class Biafra.”

Powerful throughout Adichie’s gripping and sharp novel is her weaving together the significance of race, class, and politics—tribalism and race, race and class, and then intellectualism in the context of both race and class.

All of this as well is wrapped in examinations of the power of both language and dialect.

Adichie soars in her deft handling of characterization and narrative against her historical and political purposes.

But the West and especially the U.S. are now probably mostly ignorant of this bloody conflict, although my entry into it is rooted in Kurt Vonnegut’s New Journalism, “Biafra: A People Betrayed,” originally published in April 1970 for McCall’s and then collected in Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons.

Vonnegut tells a story of Biafra as a witness, a white ally of sorts angry in the opening of his piece at slights such as calling Biafra “a tribe” and recognizing how Nigeria/Biafra were pawns in international games:

Biafra lost its freedom, of course, and I was in the middle of it as all its fronts were collapsing. I flew in from Gabon on the night of January 3, with bags of corn, beans, and powdered milk, aboard a blacked out DC6 chartered by Caritas, the Roman Catholic relief organization. I flew out six nights later on an empty DC4 chartered by the French Red Cross. It was the last plane to leave Biafra that was not fired upon.

Despite Vonnegut’s romanticizing, his self-centered report on Biafra carries a recognition of Nigerians and Biafrans as sophisticated people in the way the West likely assumed they were not. But his story is ripe with contradiction:

I admire Miriam, though I am not grateful for the trip she gave me. It was like a free trip to Auschwitz when the ovens were still going full blast. I now feel lousy all the time.

I will follow Miriam’s example as best I can. My main aim will not be to move readers to voluptuous tears with tales about innocent black children dying like flies, about rape and looting and murder and all that. I will tell instead about an admirable nation that lived for less than three years.

There is always something unnerving about Vonnegut’s flippant and darkly humorous tone and his subject matter; in this way, despite his being a white Westerner of privilege, Vonnegut reporting on Biafra seems about right as that circumstance can.

Vonnegut’s WWII bitterness fits the horrors of this civil war: “The Fathers are now being deported forever. Their crime: compassion in time of war.”

As a primer for reading Adichie, Vonnegut’s essay confronts children suffering from kwashiorkor, General Odumegwu Ojukwu, the politics of oil, and “the arrogance of Biafra’s intellectuals.”

Also as in Adichie’s novel, Vonnegut highlighted the light against the dark.

This:

A more typical Biafran family might consist of a few hundred souls. And there were no orphanages, no old people’s homes, no public charities and, early in the war, there weren’t even schemes for taking care of refugees. The families took care of their own, perfectly naturally.

The families were rooted in land. There was no Biafran so poor that he did not own a garden.

Against this:

Palm oil, incidentally, was one of two commodities that had induced white men to colonize the area so long ago. The other commodity was even more valuable than palm oil. It was human slaves.

Think of that: slaves….

What did we eat in Biafra? As guests of the government, we had meat and yams and soups and fruit. It was embarrassing. Whenever we told a cadaverous beggar “No chop,” it wasn’t really true. We had plenty of chop, but it was all in our bellies.

Vonnegut had two agendas, common in his fiction and nonfiction: decry war without being simplistic or naive and champion his great Idealistic dream of large communities, families.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as Nigerian, a woman, and a writer has agendas also.

Unlike Vonnegut’s paternalistic outsider witnessing, Adichie dramatizes her witnessing as James Baldwin envisioned, a lived witnessing as well as a writer’s witnessing to raise the voice of the unheard.

The servant Ugwu framed against the scholar/intellectual Odenigbo and Olanna, from wealth and privilege, draw the reader into the realities and horrors of race, social class, and personal as well as partisan politics.

As in Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State and Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Small Backs of Children, Adichie demonstrates that even in the pursuit of good and freedom, the world is mostly hellish for children and women—violent, rapacious, indiscriminate.

Half of a Yellow Sun works as a parable, then, as it works as a historical novel; this story is an enduring and damning story about human failure, the flaws of men and the wars they demand, the addictive and corrosive influence of power and the frailty of the weak in the path of that power.

Along with Gay’s and Yuknavitch’s novels, Half of a Yellow Sun sits well also with Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast, and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and The Temple of My Familiar—all resonating as parables and historical witnessing.

Beware war and good intentions, these writers implore.

Words matter, they also intone.

Humans are a mess of pain and suffering, they ultimately lament.

I feel no need to walk through Adichie’s novel here, but I do want to stress that along with its historical significance, Half of a Yellow Sun speaks eerily to now for those of us in the U.S.

Adichie recognizes the chasm between intellectuals and so-called common people while she is deft at exposing the hypocrisy and foolishness found in all people; she does not demonize or idealize any of the many ways people are distinct in this novel, how people truly were separated in the years of the war: within and among races, educated and superstitious, idealistic and cynical.

As I often do now, as I read Adichie I heard James Baldwin’s warning about the great human failure:

This rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us; particularly now since if we cannot understand ourselves we will not be able to understand anything.

Adichie’s novel is bursting with “refusals”—political propaganda, interpersonal dishonesty and infidelity, and self-delusion—all of which confront today an already free people who are careless with that freedom and insensitive to suffering on our own soil and throughout the world.

I do not here wish to cross the line Vonnegut may well have crossed, making the plight of Biafra about him.

Adichie’s novel deserves your time as a novel, it deserves your time as a powerful unmasking of an ignored moment in history, but it also can serve you as you navigate the U.S. in the present.

After almost dying as a conscripted soldier, Ugwu exclaims to another servant: “‘There is no such thing as greatness.'”

Damning and bitter, yes, but a warning we should heed none the less.

Anything

I am exceedingly over-educated, well-read to an absurd extreme.

I am also too self-aware, introspective to the point of near paralysis.

And my fortune of privilege and leisure leaves me too much time to think about everything.

Broken, I lie here writing after having been handed an entirely new life not of my choosing, an accident in the first week of my holiday break probably redirecting a significant part of my life as a recreational cyclist.

That first week of recovery was consumed by pain and immobility, but I was not able to relax and read, although I thought that would be one positive to the situation.

This week, however, as most everyone has now returned to work, I find myself entirely alone. I resumed reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half a Yellow Sun, a 2006 novel focusing on Nigeria during the 1960s.

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half a Yellow Sun

Reading this essentially political novel in 2016-2017 has been chillingly prescient about the current U.S., and while I balk at the use of the term “universal” since it tends to be a veneer for normalizing privilege, Adichie’s narrative often exposes the enduring.

In Part Two: The Late Sixties, the section opens as the novel does with Ugwu, an Opi village boy who is a servant for a Nsukka University professor, Odenigbo.

Several years have passed in the story, and Ugwu is temporarily back in his village:

His visit home suddenly seemed much longer than a week, perhaps because of the endless grassy churning in his stomach from eating only fruits and nuts. His mother’s food was unpalatable. The vegetables were overcooked, the cornmeal was too lumpy, the soup was too watery, and the yam slices coarse from being boiled without a dollop of butter. He could not wait to get back to Nsukka and finally eat a real meal. (p. 151)

This is a powerful scene in the context of the first paragraphs of the novel as Ugwa walks to Odenigbo’s house to become his houseboy. Ugwa’s aunt tells the boy, “‘You will eat meat every day'”:

Ugwu did not believe that anybody, not even this master he was going to live with, ate meat every day. He did not disagree with his aunty, though, because he was too choked with expectation, too busy imagining his new life away from the village. (p. 3)

So as I was reading Adichie’s dramatization of politics, privilege, and what is and becomes normal for anyone, I was reminded of Albert Camus’s The Stranger and Meursault’s thoughts from prison:

Afterwards my only thoughts were those of a prisoner….At the time, I often thought that if I had had to live in the trunk of a dead tree, with nothing to do but look up at the sky flowering overhead, little by little I would have gotten used to it. I would have waited for birds to fly by or clouds to mingle, just as here I waited to see my lawyer’s ties, and just as, in another world, I used to wait patiently until Saturday to hold Marie’s body in my arms. Now, as I think back on it, I wasn’t in a hollow tree trunk. There were others worse off than me. Anyway, it was one of Maman’s ideas, and she often repeated it, that after a while you could get used to anything. (p. 77)

Much of my undergraduate time spent as a student-by-choice focused on existential philosophy and literature, leading eventually to my discovering and embracing the educational writing of Maxine Greene.

So as I recover in the weeks leading to my 56th birthday—a new year, a new age, and this new existence forced onto me—I am deeply moved by “you could get used to anything.”

Anything?

What an ugly thing to be human and having the capacity to get used to anything.

But there was a time in the U.S. when slavery was perfectly normal. There was a time in the world when the Holocaust was perfectly normal.

Because normal, like history, is the province of those with power, a way to render some Others “deliberately silenced,…preferably unheard.”

And today the U.S. is eagerly normalizing a person and ideologies that would have seemed illegitimate just months ago.

As happened to Ugwu, will we in a few short years have our tastes so dramatically transformed that this bitter dish being served to us now will become what sates our hunger?

Franz Kafka’s A Hunger Artist is a brief parable about the “art of fasting”—in which the artist becomes so transformed that he fasts himself to death, explaining:

“Because I have to fast. I can’t do anything else,” said the hunger artist. “Just look at you,” said the supervisor, “why can’t you do anything else?” “Because,” said the hunger artist, lifting his head a little and, with his lips pursed as if for a kiss, speaking right into the supervisor’s ear so that he wouldn’t miss anything, “because I couldn’t find a food that tasted good to me. If had found that, believe me, I would not have made a spectacle of myself and would have eaten to my heart’s content, like you and everyone else.” Those were his last words, but in his failing eyes there was still the firm, if no longer proud, conviction that he was continuing to fast.

A gift of Kafka comes in the final paragraph when he offers the briefest of parables within a parable:

“All right, tidy this up now,” said the supervisor. And they buried the hunger artist along with the straw. But in his cage they put a young panther. Even for a person with the dullest mind it was clearly refreshing to see this wild animal prowling around in this cage, which had been dreary for such a long time. It lacked nothing. Without having to think much about it, the guards brought the animal food whose taste it enjoyed. It never seemed once to miss its freedom. This noble body, equipped with everything necessary, almost to the point of bursting, even appeared to carry freedom around with it. That seemed to be located somewhere or other in its teeth, and its joy in living came with such strong passion from its throat that it was not easy for spectators to keep watching. But they controlled themselves, kept pressing around the cage, and had no desire at all to move on.

Like Ugwu,Meursault, the hunger artist—the panther “get[s] used to anything.”

Kurt Vonnegut’s Introduction to Mother Night, a work confronting a Nazi reality now again before humanity, begins:

This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don’t think it’s a marvelous moral; I simply happen to know what it is: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be. (p. v)

I am exceedingly over-educated, well-read to an absurd extreme.

I am also too self-aware, introspective to the point of near paralysis.

And my fortune of privilege and leisure leaves me too much time to think about everything.

I am afraid of who I have become, who I pretend to be, and if I too can “get used to anything.”

And I am near to terrified of the same for the world around me.

The Unbearable Lightness of Lying: Renaming What We Value, Fear

“Who is more to be pitied,” muses artist and main character Rabo Karabekian in Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard, “a writer bound and gagged by policemen or one living in perfect freedom who has nothing more to say?”

As in most of Vonnegut’s fiction, there is a tension of tone between the narration and the weight of the circumstances—a tug-of-war between light and dark, or better phrased Light and Dark.

Karabekian’s failed autobiography is an adventure in What is art? with the specters of Nazi Germany, fascism, and World War II as well as the rise and fall of the U.S.S.R. (the novel was published in 1987) lurking forever in the background.

“The history of writers working under tyranny or in exile is long, and each example involves its own particular cruelties,” writes Nathan Scott McNamara, adding:

From 1968 until 1989, Czech writers like Milan Kundera and Bohumil Hrabal were put in a particularly impossible position. They spoke and wrote in Czech, a language limited to a very small part of Central Europe—and a language that had fallen under the control of a sensitive and authoritarian government….

One of the major successes of the Soviet regime’s control of Czechoslovakia was the creation of a generalized fear, making the Czech people suspicious of each other. Kundera has been largely disavowed by his native land, and in 2008, he was dubiously accused of once working with the Communist Police. Toward the end of his life, Hrabal came to see himself as a coward. At the age of 82, he jumped from the fifth story window of a hospital and died.

In the very real world, Kundera and Hrabal represent what Vonnegut fictionalizes, but struggled against in some ways himself as a writer.

Also as McNamara recognizes, the terrors found in Vonnegut’s novel as well as Kundera and Hrabal’s lives and careers are not something of history:

The survival of the writer under an unpredictable government is no less a serious concern today….

Warning flares are going up in the United States, too, where our President-elect threatens his competitors, intimidates private citizens, and warns that he’ll alter libel laws so journalists can be “sued like they’ve never been sued before.” This past week brought us another painful parallel between the 2016 US Presidential Election and the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia: the role of Russia. We don’t have tanks rolling through our streets, but a digital hack and a manipulated election nonetheless feel like a kind of 21st-century echo. It’s almost Hrabalesque in its absurdity. It’s almost darkly comic.

Yes, in some ways, Trumplandia feels too much like a black comedy penned by Vonnegut, even more absurd than the political theater and political-religious propaganda in Cat’s Cradle.

2016 in the U.S. has become not just reality TV as politics but a thin and distracting public debate about fake news and post-truth America—as Sarah Kendzior explains:

“Fake news” is a term that entered the vernacular following the election of Donald Trump. Allegedly coined to bemoan the terrible reporting that helped facilitate Mr. Trump’s rise, it actually serves to stabilize his rule. “Fake news” poses a false binary, blurring the distinction between political propaganda, intentional disinformation, attention-seeking click-bait, conspiracy theories, and sloppy reporting.

When the United States elects a man who peddles falsehoods, obfuscates critical information about his business transactions and foreign relationships, and relies on both mass media outlets and untraditional venues like conspiracy websites to maintain his power, the manifold ways he lies are as important as the lies themselves.

Kendzior recognizes, however, that naming fake news and post-truth actual works—as McNamara notes (“the creation of a generalized fear, making the Czech people suspicious of each other”)—to further solidify Trump:

However, Mr. Trump’s most powerful lies contain a grain of truth that plays to the preconceptions of his audience. When Mr. Trump lies about the conditions of inner cities, about the economy, or about Hillary Clinton, he exploits the vulnerability of some citizens while telling others what they want to hear. These lies are propaganda: false information with a political purpose, tailored to incite.

The mostly unspoken problems facing the U.S. include the fact that the country has always been post-truth, mostly mythology and narrative bluster, and has always mis-named what we value and what we fear.

For example, considered the jumbled responses to healthcare in the U.S., as unpacked by Robert H. Frank:

The same logic explains why private/government hybrid programs — like Obamacare, and its predecessor in Massachusetts, Romneycare — include an individual mandate. Opponents of the mandate argue that it limits individual freedom, which of course it does. But traffic lights and homicide laws also limit individual freedom; everyone celebrates liberty, but sometimes we must choose among competing freedoms. Failure to include a mandate would eliminate the freedom of citizens to purchase affordable health insurance. In such cases, we must decide which of the competing freedoms is more important.

If we frame the overly simplistic embracing of “individual freedom” that is central to the American Myth against McNamara’s consideration of Soviet communism as totalitarianism, there appears to be a powerful space for renaming what we value and what we fear.

And our fears, in fact, have little to do with communism or socialism—but everything to do with totalitarianism, authoritarianism, and fascism. The Soviet labeled their totalitarianism “communism,” but as critical educators know, institutions of a free people (such as formal education and the judicial system) “can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive.”

Like “communism” and “socialism,” “democracy” and “capitalism” can be veneers for totalitarianism and oppression; and in the U.S., that “can be” often proves to be “is.”

The nastiness of “Make America Great Again” reflects and then seeps into the fabric of a people without real moral grounding, and with a superficial faith in freedom tinted with a cartoonish fear of the Other.

Renaming, we must call for making America great for everyone, finally.

Renaming, we must reject totalitarianism and authoritarianism.

If we return to Vonnegut-as-Karabekian, we in the U.S. are confronted with neither a formal police state nor “perfect freedom,” but none the less, we are unwilling and unable to say unvarnished what we value and what we fear so that we can gain the former and cast out the latter.

A Literary Reader as 2016 Fades

Emily Dickinson’s Singular Scrap Poetry, Dan Chiasson

The way that Dickinson’s poems made it out of that house, eventually reshaping American literature, is a story that is still unfolding. Only ten of her poems were published in her lifetime, all anonymously; publication was, as she put it, as “foreign to my thought, as Firmament to Fin.” Not that she intended her poems to go unread—she often sent them in letters to friends, sometimes with other enclosures: dried flowers, a three-cent stamp, a dead cricket. She also tried a form of self-publishing: from around 1858 until roughly 1864, she gathered her poems into forty homemade books, known as “fascicles,” by folding single sheets of blank paper in half to form four consecutive pages, which she then wrote on and, later, bound, one folded sheet on another, with red-and-white thread strung through crudely punched holes. These books were found in Dickinson’s room after her death, in 1886, by her sister, Lavinia, along with hundreds more poems in various states of composition, plus, intriguingly, the “scraps,” a cache of lines that Dickinson wrote on scavenged paper: the flap of a manila envelope, the backs of letters, chocolate wrappers, bits of newspaper.

Lessons from Literature: Cat’s CradleLouisa Christen

One has to create lies or create truths or essentially just create some reality that allows one to live day to day. This is the purpose of science and religion according to Vonnegut; they provide the destructive truths of the physical world that lead to the atom bomb and the inflated lies of the spiritual world that hide mass indoctrination and ignorance behind the façade of peace and faith. It is this need to create a reality which one can understand that leads to the creation of Bokononism, a universally practiced religion banned on the island of San Lorenzo, based on the ideology of “living by the harmless untruths that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.”

Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” as a Parable of Our Time, Clint Smith

The day after Donald Trump was elected, one of my former students, from that same class, sent me a text message. We had not spoken in some time. She wrote, “I know I shouldn’t be, but I’m a little scared. Unsure of what’s going to happen.” She continued, “I know I wasn’t born here, but this has become my country. I’ve been here for so long, with a lot of shame, I don’t even know my own country’s history, but I know plenty of this one.” In his interview with “60 Minutes,” Trump reiterated that he would move immediately to deport or incarcerate two to three million undocumented immigrants. As for the rest, he said, “after everything gets normalized, we’re going to make a determination.” After I listened to the interview, I began looking over the essays from a writing assignment I had given a different group of students, years ago. The students were asked to write their own short memoirs, and many of them used the exercise as an opportunity to write about what it meant to be an undocumented person in the United States. Their stories narrated the weeks-long journeys they had taken as young children to escape violence and poverty in their home countries, crossing the border in the back of pickup trucks, walking across deserts, and wading through rivers in the middle of the night. Others discussed how they did not know that they were undocumented until they attempted to get a driver’s license or to apply to college, only to be told by their parents that they did not have Social Security numbers.

Now Is the Time to Talk About What We Are Actually Talking About, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Now is the time to resist the slightest extension in the boundaries of what is right and just. Now is the time to speak up and to wear as a badge of honor the opprobrium of bigots. Now is the time to confront the weak core at the heart of America’s addiction to optimism; it allows too little room for resilience, and too much for fragility. Hazy visions of “healing” and “not becoming the hate we hate” sound dangerously like appeasement. The responsibility to forge unity belongs not to the denigrated but to the denigrators. The premise for empathy has to be equal humanity; it is an injustice to demand that the maligned identify with those who question their humanity.

Vonnegut Reader: God Bless You, Kurt Vonnegut *11/11/22 – 04/11/2007*

Dear Kurt (if I may):

The Arc of the Moral Universe may bend toward justice, but it seems at this point on Planet Earth and specifically the good ol’ U.S. of A. that is mostly hokum—though I take some solace that you have been spared in your corporeal state from the darkest joke of all: The U.S. has literally elected your most iconic artwork:

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Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut

Below, in your honor, as a small token to your years of service calling on humanity to dig deep and fulfill your fictional imploring: “‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind,’” I offer this Vonnegut Reader on the day in which, if God had been Willing, you would be 94:

Knowing What’s Nice, Kurt Vonnegut 24 September 2003

So, Kurt, should we even bother to Hope?

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Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut

Nonetheless, God bless you, Kurt Vonnegut.

As I must imagine you Out There Somewhere, know a few of us our trying, although you are likely:

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Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut

Harrison Bergeron 2016

Along with Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron” is one of his most taught, and thus most read, works. Both narratives also represent Vonnegut’s characteristic genre bending and blending—notably dark satire with science fiction.

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“Harrison Bergeron” is the second story in Kurt Vonnegut’s iconic Welcome to the Monkey House collection of short stories.

However, as I have examined, “Harrison Bergeron” is often misread and misinterpreted, reflected in the film adaptation 2081.

In 2016, just days before the presidential election, how and why the story is misread and misinterpreted—forcing on it American faith in the rugged individual and refusing to acknowledge Vonnegut’s principles grounded in socialism and free thinking—is a powerful commentary on U.S. politics broadly and Donald Trump specifically.

Misreading, Misinterpreting “Harrison Bergeron”

Vonnegut’s fiction and nonfiction are anything except simple—even though he practices a style that can be called “simple” because of his accessible vocabulary, mostly brief and simple sentence structure, and staccato paragraphing (which he claimed mimics the structure of jokes).

Yet, many impose onto “Harrison Bergeron” a simplistic theme (anti-communism) and a simplistic reading of Harrison as hero.

“If ‘Harrison Bergeron’ is a satire against the Left,” however, as Darryl Hattenhauer details, “then it is inconsistent with the rest of Vonnegut’s fiction.”

The misinterpretation stems from expecting narratives to have heroes and from careless reading of what the story says about equality; Hattenhauer clarifies:

But the object of Vonnegut’s satire is not all leveling—“any leveling process” that might arise. Rather, the object of his satire is the popular misunderstanding of what leveling and equality entail. More specifically, this text satirizes America’s Cold War misunderstanding of not just communism but also socialism.

Vonnegut’s enduring real-life hero was Eugene V. Debs, possibly the most well-known and influential socialist in U.S. history. Vonnegut was a lifelong advocate for socialism, and “Vonnegut’s concern for the working class eventually blossomed into a full-scale political outlook that was inspired by a combination of Midwestern populism and home-grown American socialism,” explains Matthew Gannon and Wilson Taylor.

Yet, the short film 2081 adapts “Harrison Bergeron” painstakingly true to Vonnegut—except for almost entirely missing that the story itself satirizes both the totalitarian state (embodied by Handicapper General Diana Moon Glampers) with its militaristic police force and Harrison Bergeron as megalomaniac would-be “Emperor!”

Again, as Hattenhauer emphasizes: “Like his fiction, Vonnegut’s non-fiction also satirizes the Right and endorses the Left. And the Left it endorses is not liberalism (America is one of the few nations where liberalism is not centrist).”

Therefore, “Harrison Bergeron” defies both being simple and America’s cartoonish hatred of communism as forced equality (a cultural failure to distinguish between brute equality and social equity). The story, Hattenhauer examines, has an unreliable narration, which describes a dystopian totalitarian state in which “anti-intellectual leveling” is satirized—not “income redistribution,” which Vonnegut as socialist endorsed.

Vonnegut attacks, then, the exact American myths that many who misread the story claim it endorses, as detailed by Hattenhauer:

According to the proponents of the ideology of America’s dominant culture, equal income redistribution would contradict the fact that some are smarter than others (the corollary: the rich are smart and the poor are dumb), and also contradict the fact that some are better looking or more athletic than others (the corollary: attractive and athletic people deserve wealth).

Nonetheless, “Harrison Bergeron,” understood as Vonnegut intended, proves to be a powerful commentary on the 2016 presidential election and the rise of Donald Trump.

Harrison Bergeron 2016

Vonnegut’s writing never fits neatly into clear genre categories, but like Margaret Atwood, he constantly plays with and within genre conventions both in loving devotion to the forms and in ways that defy those conventions.

As well, Vonnegut’s fiction resists traditional portrayals of the hero and main characters. Billy Pilgrim and Harrison Bergeron, for example, are not heroes—but they are not anti-heroes or everyman main characters.

In many ways, Vonnegut keeps an even focus on many characters throughout his works, and tends to include a mixture of positive and negative qualities in even the most static characters—mostly because nearly everything and everyone in Vonnegut is open to satire.

Charles Shields and Gregory Sumner suggest Vonnegut is nearly always the main character in his work, as authorial voice overseeing even identified narrators.

As a result, Harrison Bergeron is presented through an unreliable narrator as larger than life; at 14 years old, Harrison is seven feet tall and “a genius.” But the reader soon learns, as a fugitive, “Harrison’s appearance was Halloween and hardware.”

In short, Vonnegut’s dystopia and Harrison as a character are cartoonish.

“Clanking, clownish, and huge” as well as “wear[ing] at all times a red rubber ball for a nose,” Harrison bursts into the story with “‘I am the Emperor!'”

Misread as rugged individual hero, Harrison is, in fact, a megalomaniac—his bombast a sour joke.

Yet, as a genius and a renegade, he remains a threat to the totalitarian state; thus:

It was then that Diana Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General, came into the studio with a double-barreled ten-gauge shotgun. She fired twice, and the Emperor and the Empress were dead before they hit the floor.

Vonnegut’s dark, dark cartoon of a story ends with a joke worthy of a drumroll, but the story cannot be read with a smile in 2016 because Harrison Bergeron has been manifest in reality as Republican candidate for president, Donald Trump.

harrison-bergeron-2016

Trump as faux-billionaire, bombastic failed business man, and reality TV star stands before the U.S. as a threat as well—although to the promise (albeit tarnished) of democracy.

Enough Americans misread Trump as a hero to suggest why so many misread “Harrison Bergeron” as some sort of anti-communist propaganda: our rose-colored rugged individualism lenses are powerful, like the “spectacles with thick wavy lenses” worn by Harrison “to make him not only half blind, but to give him whanging headaches besides.”

The flaw in the American character that makes so many misread Trump is not simple either. Yes, there is racism and misogyny—but there is also a profound tension between a valid fear of totalitarianism and a simple-minded blurring of communism/socialism with totalitarianism.

When government actually is indistinguishable from the military (Diana Moon Glampers), a people have lost their precious freedom.

But Vonnegut’s cartoon dystopia omits entirely the utopian possibility of democratic socialism and free thinking that Vonnegut championed his entire life—and that many, if not most, in the U.S. remain unable to embrace.

“Harrison Bergeron” does speak to the center-right politics of the U.S., in which the so-called left is represented by a classic Republican (Hillary Clinton) and the so-called right has been reduced to a clown (Trump).

If this were a Vonnegut story or novel, it would be goddam funny.

As real life, the presidential campaign of 2016 is a metaphorical “double-barreled ten-gauge shotgun” aimed at our heads, and it is in our hands with our fingers on the trigger.

Free

although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.

“Theme for English B,” Langston Hughes

The iconic aliens of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five marvel at the idealistic delusion of the human race when challenged by Billy Pilgrim about free will:

“If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings,” said the Tralfamadorian, “I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by ‘free will.’ I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.” [Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five (Kindle Locations 1008-1010). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.]

In the American character, “free” remains a powerful and corrupt term and concept.

It is uttered like an incantation, but in fact, the use of “free” has sullied both the role of government (socialism) and the so-called free market (capitalism).

Nothing of the government is free—not highways, public schooling, the military, the judicial system and police force, and certainly not the bare-bones social services so demonized.

All government structures and services are publicly funded, a powerful and important term that highlights that public funding provides a foundation on which a free people can remain free.

Despite the animosity among many Americans about the damn government (who is us), there would be no free market without essential and publicly funded structures and services; think about how any business could exist in the U.S. without the highway system.

But we sully capitalism as well with promises of “free”—free internet with our hotel room, buy one to get one free.

But, alas, there is nothing free in the free market. The truth is that all products and services are paid for by the customers.

Internet may be included with the price of a room, and two products may be included with the usual charge for one product—but nothing is free, including freedom.

*

Writing in 1946 specifically about bigotry, English educator Lou LaBrant asked: “Do the very words we use and our attitudes toward them affect our tendency to accept or reject other human beings? (p. 323).”

LaBrant was confronting the power of words and the need for teachers of language to stress the importance of using words with care; what we say, how we label and name—these human acts define, shape, and create the world.

But to name does not make truth, LaBrant warns:

A basic understanding which needs to be taught in school and home is that the existence of a word does not at all prove the existence of any thing. Children do not understand this; nor do all adults. (p. 324)

As with “free,” LaBrant would argue: “These abstractions tend to become vague and therefore misleading….Frequently the speaker uses them with apparent assurance that they have meaning, and yet could not for his[/her] life explain what he[/she] means” (p. 325).

This carelessness with language, with words, LaBrant calls “word magic”—and with our slipshod use of “free,” it is a black magic that sullies everything it touches.

*

Free will hangs before the human grasp like an apple forbidden by the Creator.

Tempting, yes, but is it delusion?

Nothing’s free, including freedom, and so, “free” can only be cherished if used with the care it deserves.

Feel free to take such care.