Darulaman Palace. Built in the 1920s by Afghanistan's King Amanullah in Kabul. The name means "place of peace," or "home of Aman," a play on the King's name. Mostly destroyed now by decades of war but undergoing reconstruction. Source: Wikipedia Commons. (The Russian text says, “Kabul, Year 1982,” which is three years after the beginning of the USSR’s occupation.)

Life After Ruins: Ruderal Ecologies, Afghan Diaspora, & Another Anthropocene

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This excerpt is presented here as a preview.
The full essay has been published in ASAP/J, the open-access platform of ASAP/Journal.
To read the full essay, please click here.

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I

I was raised on stories of a glorious Afghanistan. “Most beautiful country in the world” is how my father described his homeland during my childhood, in the 1980s and 1990s. He’d been living in the United States for a while by then, since the late 1970s, and he watched the war in Afghanistan unfold every night on Dan Rather’s evening news. The Soviet occupation. The mujahideen’s resistance. The trail of American money and weapons that we believed was military aid. My father was sure, one day, our family would be going back. Never mind that he was the only one of us who’d ever been there. My Mom was a second-generation Slovak-American Special Ed teacher whose heroes included Gloria Steinem and Oprah Winfrey, and my siblings and I were all born in rural delivery rooms at a tiny hospital in upstate New York. Yet my father operated as if everyone in our nuclear family were temporarily displaced, like him, waiting for our Afghan return. As soon as the war was over, we were going back.

This feeling was shared by all the Afghan émigrés who socialized with my family at the time. There was an intense cultural cohesion among this group of exiles from Kabul, the educated, bourgeois elite, the first to get out when the war began. Whether it was a national or regional bond, I’m not sure. It wasn’t the sort of nationalist pride I’m used to seeing in the States. There was no guns, no combative postures, no defensive slurs to keep others out. Some of my Afghan aunties were proud of being Westernized, they wore thick makeup and high heels, but they hung out happily with their sisters in hijab, all of them cooking dinner together in whoever’s kitchen we’d congregated in that Saturday afternoon. My father’s Afghan friends included a guy who installed a swimming pool in his backyard, and whose his daughter, in an actual bathing suit, dove into the deep end during parties. (As a Muslim kid, this seemed pretty scandalous to me.) And his friends included refugees of more humble means, in traditional perhan tumban, who struggled to make sense of this foreign land and married their daughters off when they turned eighteen. (This seemed scandalous to me too.)

With all their cultural diversity, the Afghans of my childhood seemed to share a soft, confident, loving kind of national connection. A sense of belonging that pulled them back in so they could be whole again. A community based on a land that no substitute could replace—and until we returned, weekend Afghan Parties would have to do. I’ve never lived in Afghanistan. I’m an immigrant’s kid. I’ve absorbed Afghan culture in displaced contexts. But that’s what I felt. I grew up on that expat Afghan aura, and it told me that I didn’t totally belong here in the States. The Americans I knew didn’t know how to sit down and talk quietly and cook for hours and laugh and look at each other and turn off the television and enjoy a cup of tea. One day we’re going back.

One day my father broke out a couple dozen postcards of Afghanistan. I don’t know where they came from. The Afghan mementos and trinkets in my childhood were like that—tea cups, prayer rugs, Persian carpets, bronze plates—these items mysteriously appeared in our home. The postcards he decided to arrange into a collage in a large picture frame. He liked my handwriting so he had me write out افغانستان on a sheet of paper. (That’s Afghanistan in Persian script.) If anyone were to be confused, he wanted to be clear: these postcards represented Afghanistan.

They were souvenirs of tourist hot spots, frozen in the 1970s, stuck in time. These were my visual references for the Afghanistan my father and his friends obsessed over. Before the internet, before searchable image databases, there were the Buddhas of Bamyan in my rural New York State living room. The Blue Mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif. Some amazing blue body of water with rocky cliffs, which I later figured out was Band-e Amir. Meanwhile, on TV, Afghanistan was reduced to exploding bombs and mujahideen rocketing missiles into the air. The Soviets, the Americans, the mujahideen—everyone had their own ideas for the future of Afghanistan. We should have known, but somehow no one admitted, the dissonance between the fading postcard hotspots and the news-report detonations—it was real.

One of those living-room postcards showed the Darulaman Palace in Kabul, the royal castle of King Amanullah, constructed in the 1920s, after the third Afghan-Anglo War. (This is the image at the top of this essay.) The palace’s name is a Persian pun. It means “place of peace” and also “home of Aman”—the king’s promise that the war was over, peace was here, and political progress, represented by the European architecture, was on its way. I have a Lonely Planet guide book to Afghanistan, published ten years ago. It warns against getting too close to Darulaman today: “The palace is now little more than an empty shell. Don’t explore the palace too closely as there are still unexploded ordinances (UXOs) in the area.”

This is what Darulaman looked like after decades of civil war.

Darulaman Palace after many decades of US-USSR Cold War and the subsequent civil war. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

II

I live a double professional life. In one version of myself, I’ve been working on a childhood memoir about growing up as the daughter of an Afghan-Muslim father and Slovak-Catholic American mother, who unhappily raised seven kids and who fought (constantly and violently) over my future and my identity. My memoir’s narrator is an Afghan-American concerned with ethnic diaspora, Islamophobia, racism, and the geopolitics of the Cold War. As a girl, she read the Qur’an, prayed five times daily, wore headscarves over her hair, and absorbed a lot of inter-generational family trauma. We lived in rural New York State, and I grew up with forest as my backyard. I played with bugs, climbed trees, caught toads before they could jump into our muddy pond. Some classic Huck Finn nature stuff: hanging out in the woods to get as far as possible from my physical home, to escape dysfunctional family.

The other side of my double life, the part I have more recognition and institutional support for, comes from those wilderness countryside experiences—at least that’s what I thought for a while. I am an environmental artist, and I founded and now direct an Environmental Humanities Program at the University of Rochester. I earned a PhD in English originally, but I eventually found that I was motivated more by creative interactions with the public than by literary scholarship and I gravitated toward a new artistic genre called “social practice.” My latest projects engage with communities to resuscitate ancient food practices and environmental wonder in an effort to heal a cultural memory disorder that my collaborator, Cary Adams, and I have been so bold to name “Industrial Amnesia.” This is our term for the memory and imagination loss caused by industrialized consciousness. As new techno-science innovations, and colonial occupations, replace slower, more local, self-reliant, or indigenous, and perhaps less convenient practices, we want to know, do we also lose a slower, more contemplative and connected part of our souls? Except for a few individuals who have looked at me with a curious, questioning eye, my audiences mostly assume I am ethnically, culturally, religiously neutral—that is, a passable-white girl with a big affinity for Thoreau. But this environmental work is also Afghan.

It took me a long time to realize how this works.

These two sides of my life rarely touch. Perhaps I’ve been purposefully, unconsciously protecting them from each other—not an uncommon experience, I believe, for those of us whose personal lives and professional survival speak different languages, or for those of us whose most intimate, familial, ethnic experiences are not reflected in the disciplining whiteness of our national culture. I kept my two worlds and my two practices separate. I didn’t have a clear narrative to articulate their connection, to synthesize my two souls. If media, institutions, journalists, critics, and power structures need anything, it’s a digestible narrative, highly processed and refined, and I didn’t have one. Any experience that falls out of the frame—good luck being understood. (Don’t make anyone think too hard. That would be intellectual self-reliance, an idea I got from Thoreau, who was worried, back in 1854, that it was going extinct. There’s that Industrial Amnesia again.)

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This excerpt is presented here as a preview.
The full essay has been published in ASAP/J, the open-access platform of ASAP/Journal.
To read the full essay, please click here.

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Your Origin Story Is Probably a Myth

As I write my memoir about my childhood, I am constantly sorting through voices in my head. Memories that I have taken for granted for decades of my life begin to reveal their sources in my parents’ voices, their motivations, their interest in shaping my personal narrative. Do any of us know our origins? Our early years? What happened? Parents must, and do, fill in the gaps, but their words may not equal the memories imprinted on our bodies. Do they emphasize a violent encounter that imprints on us prelinguistically? Do adults try to rewrite a day of torment as not so bad? Or replace years of trauma with fake smiles in a Polaroid shot?

In the book The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy, written in collaboration with his psychotherapist, Arabella Kurtz, J.M. Coetzee wonders about the childhood “memories” we take as reliable stories of our origins but that are actually edited selections made adults:

“I ask this question with the example in mind of how adults continually entrench memories in children: ‘Don’t you remember how…’ I am properly wary of using myself as an example, but let me nevertheless assert that I have no recollection of the time before I was about four that was not reinforced, if not actually installed, either by my mother’s words or by a snapshot explained to me by my mother. ‘Don’t you remember? That was your third birthday. That was when we were living in that ugly old house on Warrenton, where it go so hot and the mosquitoes buzzed all night.'”

He goes on:

“I have a scar on my right thigh. The scar is there. so something must have caused it. But my only memory of what happened was supplied by my mother, who told me of the accident that occurred in 1942 as a result of which I have to have three or four or five stitches. ‘And you were very brave. You didn’t cry.’ So I became the kind of little boy who doesn’t cry. An instance of how implanted memories can exert a force well into the future.”

I like how Coetzee used the word install.  I obsessively look up words in dictionaries. Even when it’s obvious they mean because they are such everyday, common terms. I like to see how “the experts” struggle through nailing down a meaning, how they capture nuances, subtleties, tensions that are nearly impossible to define. When I looked up install, I was amused to see the following synonym listed: load. It reminded me of  loading software onto a computer. Installing a program. Installing a memory. As a child, for a while, I obliged the memories that were installed in me.

In my latest excerpt from my memoir manuscript, “The Perfect Times,” published on Tamim Ansary’s Memoir Pool site, I write, “As a child, I didn’t know what happened, so I put together a story with whatever information I could find.” The story goes on to reflect on the tension between what my mother taught me about my first three years of life and what was missing from her account, and I’ve tried to create a narrative voice that relates the way her accounts, her scrapbooks and stories, became archived in my mind, meaningful to me in so many ways–but meaningful not because they were true or complete but because I integrated them into my sense of self. I believed them because I needed to. “The Perfect Times” is about my childhood faith in a fabricated past, a past that once I realized the problems my parents had, started to reveal many more complications. I focus especially on the baby scrapbook she painstakingly put together, including images, cards sent when I was born, birthday cards when I reached Year One–a scrapbook I poured over as a young girl, repeatedly re-installing her memory, a living archive rewriting time:

Mom made a scrapbook. Did she do this for herself? Did she do this for me? I’m not sure. My first smiles, my first giggles, my first run across the Jansens’ yard—all were documented with photos, and the details handwritten in the box next to First Word, First Steps, Favorite Toy, Favorite Food, on special note cards made for babies’ early years. My mother was aware of time, conscious of how fast everything changed, but she followed others’ rules for what had meaning. Favorite Toy, Favorite Food, What Makes Me Laugh, Favorite Song. These details do not help me now. What I’d like to know: When was the first time I heard my father’s voice on the phone?

I read her captions, and how she inhabits me, speaking for me when I have no voice:

She wrote captions as if she were me. She took on my voice. In her captions, I’m always talking to her, about her, thinking about her. There are no independent moments. Everything I do relates back to Mom.

Many parents might do this, but I suppose the question to ask is, When does it stop? We do we reboot? Un-install? When does a parent say, That seemed good enough for you as a kid, but now let’s get all the difficult questions answered and out of the way so you will know where you really came from.

My mother installed the software, and I ran the program until I started writing my own book.

 

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Apocalypse of Memory

“My story has to start with that night. I don’t remember anything about it, though I was there, nevertheless it’s where my story has to start. When something big like that night happens, time divides into before and after, the before time breaks up into dreams, the dreams dissolve to darkness.” – Indra Sinha, Animal’s People

I am reading Animal’s People by Indra Sinha about the 1984 Bhopal disaster in India, often called the worst industrial disaster in world history. This novel is on my syllabus next semester for my new “Environmental Apocalypse” course.

My reading of literature could be divided into three categories: (1) memoirs, which I read obsessively to study the form as I write my own book, (2) literary works that I use in my Environmental Studies classes in my job as a professor, and (3) essays and novels I read purely for pleasure with no productive goal in mind. But when I read, these boundaries pretty much fall away, and all blend together. For example, teaching Environmental Apocalypse overlaps with my memoir: living in, steeped in, childhood trauma, and not knowing if you will survive feels apocalyptic in many ways. I didn’t have that language as a child or a teenager. I would never have said, My parents’ marriage is an apocalypse.” Because in many ways I was born into a world already fallen apart, where my life was regularly threatened. There was no previous safe space that disappeared as the anchors of reality floated away. Apocalypse was everyday. In Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, military vet and philosopher Roy Scranton says something similar: living through the war in Iraq, where his life could end any moment, has prepared him for climate collapse.

In Animal’s People, the protagonist, Animal, has been born into apocalypse. My story has to start with that night. He had a few years of life before the Union Carbide plant exploded chemicals into the slums of Bhopal, but he can’t remember them and that doesn’t matter. I don’t remember anything about it, though I was there, nevertheless it’s where my story has to start. My own childhood had a few possible years before the violence began. (I wrote about those years in “Perfect Times,” an essay published by fellow Afghan-American writer Tamim Ansary.) What you don’t remember is still filled with stories, others’ stories, who tell you want that time meant. You weave those accounts–often/sometimes fabrications–into your own memory.

Animal’s People makes apocalypse a buried memory, prelinguistic, installed by others–in contrast with the fear of apocalypse in popular (and even academic/intellectual) culture today. A well-known eco-critic, Lawrence Buell, once wrote, “Apocalypse is the single most powerful master metaphor that the contemporary environmental imagination has at its disposal.” Apocalypse as metaphor, apocalypse as narrative ending–that is not what apocalypse is for those who have survived trauma. In Animal’s People, apocalypse is not a projection into a future. It’s not a threat, the possibility of horror and the fall of civilization. In Animal’s People, apocalypse is an already-happened prelinguistic memory. In Animal’s People, apocalypse is a town. The novel is set in Khaufpur, a fictional name meaning, literally, Town of Terror. Narrating his beginnings, Animal explains, When something big like that night happens, time divides into before and after, the before time breaks up into dreams, the dreams dissolve to to darkness.

Looking for images of Indra Sinha, I was excited to find this one. It is a still from an interview found on YouTube. The setting looked familiar. The gate, the grass, the courtyard, the brick walkway. Upon closer inspection, I realized that Indra Sinha is at Reid Hall, in Paris, which is part of Columbia University, where I studied French many, many summers ago while studying for my PhD. Sinha was participating in a literary conference held there.