Celebrating Banned Books Week

In honor of Banned Books Week, North Philly Notes posts an excerpt from Ganzeer’s entry, Charlie and the Aliens, from Who Will Speak for America?, edited by Stephanie Feldman and Nathaniel Popkin.


Who will speak for America? Barbara Jordan asked this question in her historic address to the 1976 Democratic National Convention. In the wake of Donald Trump’s first year in office, we posed this same question to over 40 essayists, poets, fiction writers, and artists. Like Barbara Jordan, we wanted to know who would have the courage and dedication to speak for American values. 

Our contributors reminded us that the true question was—perhaps, has always been—who will be allowed to speak for America. Banned Books Week emphasizes this ongoing, central fight. There are forces that would prevent us from sharing our stories, expressing our experiences, raising our voices. We must speak, nonetheless, and advocate for those whom the powerful would silence.

This excerpt comes from Ganzeer, whose protest murals were removed by the Egyptian government during the 2011 revolution.Stephanie Feldman, co-editor of Who Will Speak for America? 


Who WIll Speak for America revised_030818_smWhen I was first invited by Nathaniel Popkin⁠—one of the two masterful editors of Who Will Speak for America?—to submit something for inclusion in the book, I thought to myself: Okay, Ganzeer, this is your chance to write a serious scholarly piece for a serious scholarly book! And when I sat down to write the thing, that was in all seriousness my very serious intention. Yet, what came out was something else entirely.

I suppose the reason for this is… well, it’s really hard to write seriously about something that to you seems so obviously absurd. And let’s be clear; things are tremendously absurd right now. From the rhetoric surrounding the migration of human beings within our planet Earth, to the levels of incarceration in American prisons, to the continued prevalence of racial stereotypes, and the ridiculous myths of “American ideals.” It is all quite frankly very, very dumb.

So I found myself writing about it all through the lens of an absurd science fiction story about a 3-eyed alien named Charlie and his arrival to an Earth only scarcely populated by human beings.

I honestly didn’t think Nathaniel or Stephanie would want to include it, that its tone would be too, uh, absurd to include in their very serious academic tome meant to get at the heart of the American question. But much to my surprise I was wrong.

But y’know what? It’s one of the very few times I was elated to be wrong! Not for my own sake, but for the sake of academic publishing, for the sake science fiction, and for the sake of America!


An Excerpt from Charlie and the Aliens by Ganzeer

When it was my turn, I took a step toward the counter. The clerk raised his hand in a gesture that suggested I shouldn’t and then pointed to the kid standing behind me to step forward instead. And that’s exactly what the smug little brat did. He just marched on over without the slightest bit of hesitation.You might find it surprising that this memory is coming to me now as I sit in a cold, dark jail cell on the Moon with three other inmates, sharing stories about how we ended up here. Like campers around a campfire sharing ghost stories, except all the stories are supposedly true, and the thing we’re gathered around is not a fire but a shared sense of camaraderie. Much like a campfire, it’s this camaraderie that gives us a sense of security.When you first set foot in prison, you assume that everyone there must be bad, real bad. That no one there is anything like you. Which contradicts a popular saying we have on my home planet, Capulanos: “If to prison you are sent, then for sure you are innocent.”

I used to think it was just that: a saying, a proverb. It might’ve been true a very long time ago, when the justice system was anything but just. Or maybe it happened to catch on because it rhymes, and our brains are weak, easily malleable things incapable of standing firm against the irresistible power of the jingle. That may be one of the reasons I fell for Earth, a planet that boasts a great many jingles. Of note is:

     Proud to be an Earthling
     Where life is grand and free
     The entire cosmos is burning
     But here in peace we be
     O the wealth we are earning
     For our eternal shopping spree

In any case, the testimony of two of these fellas—a Menos-Earthling and an Aradis-Earthling—leads me to believe that there may be some truth to that Capulanos proverb after all. Both have ended up here by way of completely convoluted circumstances. The third inmate has yet to speak, but he’s the one I’m most excited to hear from because—dig this—he’s Human. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen a Human Being before, despite having lived on Earth for several years.

Figure 5.3 Ganzeer - Starscone BoyBefore Earth, I lived on Capulanos, where I was born. And it was there on Capulanos, when I was still a child, that I walked into Ziggy’s Starscone Store—steps away from getting the most succulent, luscious starscone you could ever dream of—and got my first taste of discrimination. The clerk gave this fat little punk-ass foreigner preferential treatment. Not only did he ask him to step forward when it wasn’t yet his turn, but he covered the kid’s starscone in a thick blanket of Magic Sparkles. Without charging him! I saw it with my own three eyes. The kid then walked out of the store to reunite with his parents, obviously tourists. They had scaly skin and metallic accessories most peculiar in design, and the mother was lavishly overdressed. These weren’t just any tourists: they were from the wealthiest planet in the galaxy, Earth. (But not Human, mind you. I’ll get to that later.)

The clerk, less giddy than he was a second ago, asked me, “Whaddya want, kid?” and when I told him, he gave me exactly what I wanted but with very little interest. He lacked a certain oomph in his manners, which I wouldn’t have noticed had he not been on top of the world to serve the kid who had just preceded me. The kid who most certainly should not have preceded me. When I asked the clerk if I could get a topping of Magic Sparkles, only then did he smile, but it was more of a smirk. He told me it would cost extra. With utmost entitlement and a bloated chest, I pointed out that the other kid had just gotten Magic Sparkles for free. A most unpleasant laugh escaped him, and he proceeded to lecture me on the importance of hospitality toward foreigners. I couldn’t understand why I was being treated as an inferior species on my own planet! And then I wondered: If I were to visit Earth, would I get better treatment than the locals? I couldn’t help myself from staring at the foreign kid and his parents. The kid sinking his teeth into that thick layer of Magic Sparkles while his parents shooed away a couple of locals asking for money. Granted, beggars can be a little pesky, but those kids could have obviously done with a little more meat on their bones.

But more than the local beggars or the parents, I was focused on the kid and his starscone. He noticed. And I’m almost certain that what he saw was a boy glaring back at him with far more hate than the situation called for. Yet the foreign kid’s reaction to this was quite bizarre. After barely a femtosecond of surprise, he smiled. The little punk smiled because he knew. He knew he was a privileged little brat and liked it. He took pleasure in it. For the first time in my life, I felt this sensation: a bulge in my throat accompanied by a cardinal spark of rage. A combination that I can describe only as the thirst for vengeance. To this day, the sweet aroma of fresh starscone brings back feelings of revenge.

The opposite is also true: a thirst for vengeance always brings to mind the smell of fresh starscone. Which is why, sitting here in this murky, bonechilling jail cell about to recall the story of my incarceration, I find myself remembering this childhood incident at Ziggy’s Starscone Store. Because, let me tell you, right now, at this moment, I’m feeling mighty vengeful.

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On the anniversary of the McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950

This week in North Philly Notes, Masumi Izumi, author of The Rise and Fall of America’s Concentration Camp Lawwrites about the McCarran Internal Security Act, which was enacted on September 23, 1950. 

Four years ago in late September, I spoke to a small attentive crowd and many indifferent passersby in a street protest held at one of the busiest intersections in the city of Kyoto. We were protesting the passage of the national security related bills that were steamrolled the day before. The overwhelming majority of constitutional scholars considered that the bills violated the nation’s pacifist constitution because they allowed the government to send its Self Defense Force troops abroad to take part in military actions unrelated to the defense of the territory of Japan. Tens of thousands of citizens gathered in protest in major cities. Thousands surrounded the Diet building every evening. I took part in a rally in Tokyo, joined a couple of demonstrations in Osaka, and walked with my daughter in several marches in Kyoto.

Over many years as a historian, I had interviewed Asian North American grassroots social activists. I wrote papers about political and cultural activism in the postwar Japanese American and Canadian communities. But I was not an activist myself. On that day at the protest rally, I asked the crowd and the passersby: “After the 9/11 attack, the U.S. government passed the Patriot Act and told people that everyone needed to be under surveillance because terrorists might be hiding among them. Then the U.S. government attacked Iraq on an accusation that later turned out to be a lie. Today, the Japanese government is telling us that we are threatened by our neighboring countries, that we need to remilitarize, and that we need to give up our liberties because excessive freedom jeopardizes our nation. But isn’t it our freedom that protects us, because it is our inalienable human rights that hold our government accountable?”

Since the return of a conservative cabinet led by an ultra-nationalistic Liberal Democratic Party prime minister in 2012, I have found myself living under a reactionary regime that imposed a series of repressive legislations. The LDP-Komei Party coalition passed the Specially Designated Secrets Act in 2013, steamrolled the National Security Acts in 2015, and made “conspiracy to commit a crime” a criminal offense in 2017. When the Security Acts passed, it felt as if the protective shield for our land and our people – our pacifist constitution – lost its effect.

Rise and Fall of America's Concentration Camp Law_sm_borderIt was around this time that I restarted my effort to publish the book based on my Ph.D dissertation. In The Rise and Fall of America’s Concentration Camp Law: Civil Liberties Debates from the Internment to McCarthyism and the Radical 1960s, I chronicle the passage and repeal of the Emergency Detention Act, or Title II of the McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950 (hereafter Title II). I elucidate how Japanese American wartime mass incarceration provided a legal precedent for this law. Through discourse analyses, I show how Japanese Americans were discursively placed outside the constitutional protection of civil liberties. The analyses requires a revision in historical interpretations of Japanese American incarceration that it was not only important as an example of mass incarceration of a racial minority but it also was a sinister legal precedent for preventive detention of individuals considered potentially dangerous for national security. I do not mean that Japanese Americans posed threat to national security. In reality they did not. But the Executive Order 9066 granted the military a sweeping power to designate any part of the U.S. to be a defense zone from which it could exclude anybody in the name of national security. This expanded the government’s war power, and it led, in the Cold War period, to the authorization of the government to detain any person whom the government considered might engage in acts of espionage or sabotage. The book also depicts how a Japanese American grassroots movement to repeal Title II, or the “concentration camp law,” led Americans to reflect on their nation’s past and present racism and political oppressions in a critical light in the late 1960s.

When I wrote my dissertation, I meant to write about the past in a foreign country. Now, as I see my book come out in print, I am engaged in an actual struggle to halt the governmental efforts to undermine civil liberties and human rights in my country. I am also witnessing intense protests in the United States against immigrant detention, and I see global movements arising against neo-liberal economic policies and calling for actions to stop the climate change. If I had a choice, I would rather be a historian chronicling activisms in the past, because it feels much safer to study what happened in hindsight. I realize how scary it is to be active when we do not know the consequences of our actions or inactions. But perhaps only through our own struggles, we can understand the fears and hopes experienced by the past activists whom we write about.

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