Taken back: January 1991

I’ve just finished The Man Who Ran Washington, a biography of James A. Baker III, who served four presidents (Ford, Reagan, the two Bushes) in a variety of capacities, most notably as Chief of Staff and later Secretary of State. Authored by Peter Baker (no relation) and Susan Glasser, it’s a thorough and eminently readable book. I admired Baker as I read, though I can’t say I entirely liked him. But never mind that; what I especially enjoyed here was how a biography like this takes me back into events that are “history” already but happened in my lifetime and, thus, can be remembered, into consequential events that affected me too (and I recorded in my journal), if only because of the collective mood or tension they created. (Sort of like now, the day before the U.S. election. Sort of like now, months into a global pandemic.)

Take, for example, January 1991, which slid in on the back of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Our children were 15, 12, and eight, and the 12-year-old had written WAR in the square of the fifteenth day of the new calendar. The oldest child, when we discussed his new term schedule, said, “Well, if we’re here then,” and I could tell he wasn’t joking.

So they knew; the children knew. They had taken notice of the news building (pre-internet) in newspapers, television, radio: Iraq given until the middle of the month to get out of Kuwait or suffer military consequences.

When children know and fear, the matter is serious indeed, it’s like a continuous under-skin shivering. We lived in Winnipeg then, far from those countries, but with WAR on the calendar there was no distance left between East and West.

The south sun those days was bright and persistent into the living room and it hardly seemed right that I should bask in it, but I did; I was reading Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and it’s so wonderfully written I felt its inner moan, that present-tense voice, that steady honest relentlessly faithful voice, telling the truth about war, and I wanted to cry but was numbed by the convergence, the helplessness evident in ultimatums and bluffing, though the United States insisted it was definitely not bluffing.

CBC Radio’s Peter Gzowski and some expert guest discussed the finer points of Iraq’s move upon its smaller neighbour, a “second Korea” the expert said, and it was the oddest sensation, me listening as I cooked, witness to these strange events. I should be hiding instead of overhearing. What business did I or the children have with these secrets coming our way on waves in the atmosphere?

But they weren’t secrets, this was public, this talking and talking while we waited. It was fear bricked into walls of sound. James Baker conferred with his British counterpart and their message to Iraq still, and again, was withdraw or there will be an attack. No extension of the deadline.

Saddam Hussein, it appeared, intended not to buckle, and somehow, because of parallel threats against Israel, the conflict felt ominous. So dire seemed the flags of words flapping in the wind from Ottawa and Washington and London and Baghdad, from everywhere, a believers versus infidels narrative in the Babel of incomprehensible language, and the stupidity of it seemed so incredible and yet there we were, humanity poised on the brink of global conflagration.

We reached the 15th of the month. The deadline was midnight. Now, along with the fright, an unpleasant new truth opened in me: I longed for something to happen. Something dramatic and dreadful and destructive. Because the waiting had been terrible, an eleventh hour solution would disappoint. The fists of George H. Bush and Saddam Hussein had been poised at the ready so long that putting them down without a blow would be a letdown. Some other pundit spoke of a mass suicide wish. Yes, it was as if the world collectively had sunk into such despair we longed to die. Like the narrator in All Quiet on the Western Front who dies on the last page, and “His face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come.”

But no! The children hadn’t lived their Long Enough. They had no wish to die.

On the 16th, I woke and my body was tired, as if it slipped away overnight and never slept. We turned on the radio.

“Did the war start?” the eight-year-old asked.

“No, not yet.”

In the evening my poetry group would gather at our house. I couldn’t concentrate that day to write a decent poem. “This damn war,” Peter Gzowski said on Morningside, “pervading everything.”

“Only God knows now,” said another radio voice.

I tidied for the meeting and my writer friends arrived. The oldest child disappeared into the basement to watch the television news. “Tell us if the war has started,” I said. Seconds later he called up, “It’s started!” 

And so it had, the Gulf Crisis now THE WAR IN THE GULF, though nothing was clear at the beginning except that Baghdad had been bombed. Meanwhile, dispirited, we shared and critiqued our poems. 

By the 17th, news reports were full of F18s and B52s and Scud missiles and Patriot missiles. Success oozed from military statements. Jargon and piety too. They were trying, they said, to keep collateral damage down.

“What’s collateral damage?”

“It means civilians. Ordinary people, not military folk. Men, women, kids.”

On the 18th, the supper hour news delivered a second shock. Missile attacks in Tel Aviv.

“Israel’s in!” I gasped.

I sat in front of the television, folding laundry, the children like orbits around me, close, then away, and by the end of the evening I was acquainted with it all. The attack was relatively small, Israel did not retaliate (pressured not to, I learn from the Baker book), anxiety subsided, and I tired of news anchors asking the same questions of every guest and guests offering opinions and guesses, the so-called dialogue holding the crisis to a pitch as a roast to the fire. I shouldn’t weary this quickly, I chided myself, I was warm and safe and alive, not in a sealed Jerusalem room where reporters donned gas masks and heard Peter Mansbridge’s fatherly advice to “keep wearing your mask even if you have trouble speaking.”

My children hardly spoke, it was going on too long for them, they had school and homework and games and lessons to think of, though they were fascinated by the stealth, beauty, power of the weaponry. We watched a missile mount the sky at a diagonal. We were told it could find a target as small as a soccer goal. The younger two played soccer, they were good at soccer, in every game they dipped and dodged, drove forward to score.

Iraq had been crippled, the laundry was folded. The war seemed to have been less than we feared. 

In subsequent days refugees streamed into Iran, Jordan, and Syria. Millions of gallons of crude oil were dumped into Persian waters. Several missiles landed on Tel Aviv but now when we turned on the radio we heard regular programming so we understood that while Tel Aviv remained vulnerable, we were not. A psychiatrist expounded on the emotional reaction to the first media war, what he called our mutual awe. Technological euphoria.

“How,” earnestly asked the host, “do we keep our perspective?” The doctor replied that we must use our “moral imagination,” must imagine ourselves at the receiving end of a missile’s precision. In the eye between the posts.

I tried, but I was busy, my to-do list confident again. The children were busy too. Armageddon hadn’t reached as far as Manitoba, not this time, and by the end of next month the Kuwaiti flag would be flying again, and the news about it settled and calmed, like a stream flowing into reeds and rushes grows quieter and quieter. We turned the calendar to February and no longer saw the word the child had written into the middle of the previous month in black capital letters.

Sally Ito: Becoming oneself through language

I miss the occasional lunches I enjoyed in Winnipeg with writers Sally Ito, Joanne Epp, and Sarah Klassen. I always came away warmed by their friendship and stimulated by our conversation, which sometimes continued later via email exchanges.

Reading Sally Ito’s recent memoir, The Emperor’s Orphans (Turnstone, 2018), shortlisted for the nonfiction prize at the Manitoba Books Awards this year, felt like an extended and wonderful such lunch. The Emperor’s Orphans is full of colourful characters, stories, and ideas that elaborate on the role of writing as “a becoming of oneself through language.” This “becoming” has particular currency for Ito as Japanese-Canadian. “I write to find my cultural identity,” she says.ItoSally_photosByMarlisFunk_0x280 (1)

The memoir is a multi-layered exploration, both in genre (diary excerpts, poems, essay, and storytelling) and in people and places. So rich and complex are the layers, in fact, I longed for a family chart to help me keep names and relationships straight, as well as a glossary of Japanese words! This is a minor critique, however. One can simply sink into the complication that is any personal or family story and observe the way being shapes and shifts. Identity, as her series of essay-like chapters demonstrates, isn’t linear as much as overlapping circles, turning ever deeper into legacy and geography, into past and present meaning.

download (1)Born to a Japanese couple in Alberta and growing up mainly in Sherwood Park, Alberta, Ito’s life and genealogy tugged between Canada and Japan. Some members of her fore-family immigrated to Canada and then returned to Japan, others remained there, yet others moved from their first Canadian home in southern B.C. to an internment camp and then to the flats of southern Alberta. Her story includes the challenges of immigration, race, assimilation, but also the reality of Canada’s insensitivity and injustice to her citizens of Japanese descent at the time of the Second World War.

Her dual loyalties, she says, have led to an interest in translation. Via translation, she shares the writings of her grandfather Toshiro. “He brought into consciousness everything he observed in words,” she comments. His writing was not about identity, for he was Japanese “through and through.” She, however, was “hybrid.” In high school, she began to write. She realizes she was, in this way, beginning to piece out her hybrid identity. “I felt the frisson of the creative energy and clarity words can give to an otherwise unexpressed thought or feeling. I became hooked on writing to find out what it could tell me about myself and the culture I felt I was so much in jeopardy of losing.” Despite growing up in Canada, she was “looking for the motherland.” In 1982, before university, she went to Japan for a year, for in Japan “was embodied the loss of what I felt was missing all these years in my life in Canada.”

Some years later she would return to Japan for a time with her own family. The last chapter of the memoir describes what she admits as perhaps quixotic efforts concerning land in her grandfather Saichi’s name (he immigrated to Canada as a young man), a quest bringing together “a remnant of the fringes of the family tree.” Although this didn’t work out in terms of the land itself, what she gained was “the land of story.”

I found this book fascinating, and recommend it.

Personal Narratives of Place and Displacement: Day One

I’m in Winnipeg, at the Mennonite/s Writing VIII conference, and I thought I would  try to throw up some personal impressions at the end of each day, but if that’s not your thing, feel free to ignore the next few posts.

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