• When You Put it That Way

    By Robin Hemley

    Why had my students and I met in Cuba with a fugitive wanted by the FBI on thirty-two felony counts, the head of International Studies wanted to know. When put that way, I suppose it sounded pretty irresponsible of me, though he hadn’t exactly put it that way, because he didn’t know exactly who the American fugitive from justice was. There are at least seventy living in Cuba. But that’s what he meant when he gave me a call. He also meant, why are you making my life and job difficult? I don’t recall how he phrased it, but there were a lot of questions, he said, about my trip and he sounded nervous as he recounted the chain of telephone calls that had preceded his call to me: first, a Congressman (he didn’t say whom, but most likely Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida, whose great aunt was Fidel Castro’s first wife) had called the Governor of Iowa, who had then called the head of the Board of Trustees of The University of Iowa, who had then called the President of the University, who had then called the head of International Programs. This was the first time I recalled ever speaking more than a few words to him, and I felt a combination of pride that I was the subject of such high-level scrutiny, slight panic that I was the subject of such high-level scrutiny, and the growing certainty that I now probably had an FBI file with my name on it, a fact that in itself gave me, a highly-politicized child in the 1960’s with an older brother and sister who kept me informed about the protests of the day, with a little frisson of pleasure.

    A few days earlier, a website called Contacto Latino had reported my trip to Cuba as a symptom of the moral bankruptcy of the Obama administration’s “lax” policy in allowing educators such as myself to demean America and its principles by meeting with wanted felons. Three US Representatives, Mario Diaz-Balart (R, Florida), Peter King (R, Pennsylvania), and Scott Garrett (R, New Jersey) had written a letter to President Obama expressing their “outrage that, while on a so-called ‘educational’ trip to Cuba, permitted by President Obama’s weakened sanctions, at least one US university arranged for its students to meet with a potentially violent fugitive from US justice.” And Jose Cardenas, writing in Foreign Policy said that I had “gushed” about the meeting and speculated that the fugitive we had met with was “likely be either Joanne Chesimard or Charlie Hill, two radicals wanted by US authorities for the murders of US law enforcement officials in the 1970s.” Why this was “likely,” he never said. We had met neither Charlie Hill or Chesimard, known more widely as Assata Shakur, the most famous of the American exiles.

    The article that started all of this and led to the head of International Studies calling me to explain myself was simply an informational piece meant to drum up interest in a short course I was leading with my colleague Bonnie Sunstein over the winter break. The reporter had written “Hemley said one of the students on the trip last year wrote an excellent piece on an American fugitive who had escaped the country and taken asylum in Cuba. The exile met thirteen UI students who had enrolled in the UI’s study abroad program to Cuba last winter.” Next thing I knew, I was being accused of endangering students and worse yet, “gushing.”

    * * *

    A group of students and faculty from The University of Iowa and Nehanda Abiodun sat in a circle on the balcony of my suite at the Presidente Hotel in the Vedado section of Havana. Nehanda, sunglasses perched on head, wore orange that day: orange pants, a purple/orange patterned blouse, orange dangling earrings, and an orange tie keeping her roped hair in place. Exuding more of a grandmother aura than that of a bank robber or revolutionary, at sixty-two, Nehanda told us in a soft-spoken voice that she took her name, Nehanda Isoke Abiodun when she was thirty. The original Nehanda had been a Zimbabwean spiritual leader who led a revolt against the British colonizers and was eventually hanged by them, though reputedly, she wasn’t easy to kill. Isoke means a precious gift from God. Abiodun means “born at a time of war.”

    Born in Harlem in 1950, her mother was a “Christian integrationist” and her father was a Muslim nationalist. In 1962, Fidel came to New York and her father took her to see him. At ten, she started her “political career” when she joined a group opposing Columbia’s takeover of a gym in the neighborhood. Later graduating from Columbia, she worked at first in a methadone clinic, thinking methadone was a cure for heroin, only to find methadone “was a worse addiction.” She was fired from her job when she refused to administer an increased dosage to one of the patients. At the time, heroin addiction was devastating the black community, and a group of activists including members of the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, Republic of New Africa, and SDS, took over a part of Lincoln Hospital by occupying it, a move that was at first met by the police surrounding the hospital, but eventual acquiescence and a rather remarkable turnaround. The hospital administration reluctantly agreed to the program and the Lincoln Detox Center was born. Nehanda claims a success rate of seventy-five to eighty percent because “the people who were addicted were no longer parasites but contributors to the community.” It ran until 1979, when Ed Koch “sent a SWAT team to close the clinic, because it was a training center ‘for terrorists.’”

    This is how Abiodun tells it, and of course in such hotly-contested histories, who’s telling the story makes all the difference. The first time we met her, American journalist Tom Miller, who has known Nehanda for many years, warned in advance that she didn’t want to discuss the charges against her, which include bank robbery, escape from prison, and racketeering, and that first time she didn’t. She talked almost exclusively about what it was like to live in exile.

    Understandably, or at least predictably, her views on the charges against her favored a narrative of struggle against oppression. Accused of helping free convicted bank robber and cop killer Assata Shakur from prison in 1979, she used the word “liberated” and wanted us to understand the difference between that word and “escaped,” which all of us understood, but whether we believed or sympathized with her version or not was another matter. Among our group on my first visit was a student who had interned the previous summer for a conservative anti-Castro think tank. Our guide Lian took me aside one day and asked what I knew of him, what his story was. Obviously, the Castro government was watching. Lian, with whom we all got along fabulously, was nonetheless the daughter of a well-known Cuban journalist and like all guides, vetted for loyalty. She wanted to know, though in not so many words, whether he was a spy.

    On another occasion at the National Art Museum, I wanted to show my students some paintings displayed in a corner of the museum that were implicitly critical of Castro. Lian scolded me. “Remember where you are, Robin,” she said, indicating the cameras watching us and two elderly women near us, perhaps listening. Later, she told me I had made the mistake of calling him “Castro,” which was how his enemies referred to him, while his supporters called him “Fidel.”

    On this second visit, one of our students was a young woman whose grandparents and mother had fled the Castro regime and whose family, like so many others had lost practically everything they owned when they left. Her mother and sister joined her on the trip, and Bonnie and I allowed her to split off a few times from the rest of the group to explore with her family all that they had lost in the Revolution. The sisters had never visited Cuba before and her mother had left as a young child in 1960, but she had raised them to speak Spanish and carry proudly the legacy of their family’s roots. Among the first places they visited, was their grandmother’s house, which had been converted into a printing plant. They had grown up hearing the story of their grandmother’s sister teasing their grandmother as a little girl, telling her that there was a ghost at the top of the grand staircase. Now there was an enormous likeness of Fidel on the wall there, the ghost that had haunted their family all these years, and an inspirational slogan. Inspirational if you’re not the granddaughter of the woman from whom the house was taken. My student and her sister hugged one another and sobbed at what they saw and the sadness that their grandparents, both buried in a cemetery in the US, could never return.

    * * *

    Nehanda didn’t tell us how she managed to escape to Cuba in the early 1990s, only that she had to do so. “I’ll be real honest with you,” she told us. “I didn’t want to come to Cuba, because I thought I had a responsibility to my community. But there came a time when it became clear to everybody but me that I was going to be captured. I saw it coming—I wasn’t even in the US when I came. The thing that convinced me—the people who loved me said if you’re captured it’s a victory for our enemies. If you come to Cuba, it’s a victory for us. If I’m in prison, there’s very little I can do.”

    A case in point, she mentioned only in passing, Geronimo Pratt, a high ranking official of the Black Panthers whom the FBI wanted removed, and through its counter-intelligence program framed Pratt for a murder he couldn’t have committed, because he was 350 miles away at the time of murder, and he became a suspect only when a paid FBI informant accused him of the murder. Only after he’d spent twenty-seven years in prison, the first eight in solitary confinement, were the charges against him vacated and he was awarded $4.5 million for false imprisonment. He died a few years later, spending his money to try to free other victims of COINTELPRO languishing in prison.

    She put her head on table when Bonnie asked her what she’s done to build freedom in Cuba. She’s known here as the “Godmother of Cuban Hip-Hop,” a title that she’s proud of, as well as being Tupac Shakur’s godmother (Tupac was Assata Shakur’s nephew by marriage). “And I don’t even like hip hop,” she said, the class laughing in response.

    Now she mentors medical students from the US whom, she admitted proudly, “lifted my breasts for me.” She cooks them home-cooked meals and talks to them about what they’re going to do with their medical degrees in the US She talks about social responsibility.

    “If you’re willing to listen to me, you can be one of my babies. I like argument. You do not have to agree with me. The biggest problem is lack of history, misinformation.”

    At this point, our Cuban American student told Nehanda about her own family story, about her grandfather refusing to work as a doctor for Fidel and their house being vandalized and having to leave the country as a result. Nehanda listened sympathetically, admitting there were mistakes that were made and that she wasn’t going to tell this young woman not to feel the way she did, but she just wanted her to come to Cuba and make up her own mind.

    * * *

    That’s exactly what we had done. When the head of International Studies called me and asked what I was doing by meeting with a felon, I pointed out, that as far as I knew, the US didn’t require journalists to hold the same political views as the subjects of their interviews. That seemed more like something an oppressive country such as, say, Cuba, might make as a prerequisite. He took my point but he had wanted to know if I was planning to meet with the fugitive again?

    “Planning?” I asked. “No, I’m not planning on meeting her, but if the opportunity arises…”

    “Fair enough,” he said, “Of course, I’m not forbidding you, but you won’t go out of your way…” It seemed to me he was forbidding me without actually forbidding me, but we both pretended he wasn’t.

    Congressman Diaz-Balart and his fellow signers of the letter to Obama complained that we had dared to expose such impressionable young minds to a potentially violent felon, and how disrespectful that was of the police officers who had been killed by Nehanda’s confederates. Respect or disrespect had nothing to do with it. We weren’t indoctrinating them. We were simply exposing them to different points of view. Bonnie and I were leading a writing course.

    And so, despite the disapproval of some of my country’s politicians and the tacit disapproval of my own Study Abroad office, we exposed our students a second time (!) to a “potentially violent felon” on the rooftop of the Presidente Hotel with a view of the sea and the famous promenade known as the Malecon. I suppose she might have, on a whim, pulled out a pair of six-guns à la Yosemite Sam, aimed them at our feet, and yelled, “Dance, Varmints,” before blasting away. But remarkably, she didn’t. Instead, we were privy to an extraordinary scene, Nehanda and our Cuban-American student hugging, the young woman saying, “I love you” which at that moment seemed possible. Not “I agree with you” or “I admire all your choices.” But a simple and heartfelt moment, one of the most important moments for this young woman of the entire trip, when she was given permission from a fugitive to feel however she was going to feel.

    And the moment, you could see was important for this old revolutionary as well, whose mother had died three years earlier and who hadn’t seen her for thirty years before that. “I’m going to tell you a story,” she said “I’m sitting on the sidewalk waiting by the Capitolio. Going through a litany of things that are wrong with my life, and I see this young couple with this little baby that’s maybe one years old who’s just learning to walk and his father has one hand. The mother has the other hand. There comes a moment when he says leave me alone,” and she pantomimed the baby looking up at his parents. “I can see in his face, I’ve got my mom and my pop to hold me up. I’ve got this.” She took three baby steps. “I’ve got people who will lift me up if I fall. That baby saved my life at that moment. So you ask me how I survive. I sometimes forget I’ve got people who hold me up. Talking to you saves my life. It gives me purpose. That’s how I see it.”

    As I see it, the potential of violence in meeting Nehanda was that of cognitive dissonance. That there were many things wrong in the way the Black Panthers and their associates had worked for social justice seems obvious, certainly in the banks that were robbed, the guards and policemen murdered. That the government’s way of handling its opponents was often just as criminal—how many Geronimo Pratts were railroaded or gunned down by racist police and FBI agents? Many mistakes made, and some things right about both sides. Moral myopia might be satisfying but rarely is it smart. By the time we left, our Cuban-American student was just as anti-Castro, if not more so, than when she first set foot in Cuba. But now her views were that much more informed and complex.

    While it’s so much easier to punish a person than a state—after all, we know how many counts there are against Nehanda—neither the US or Cuba has clean hands. Both countries have committed crimes against their own dissenting citizens in the name of officially lofty ideals. Our crime against America was in meeting Nehanda with our students and listening to her story. Our crime was that we chose in a small way to press the reset button and move, if only in baby steps, towards reconciliation.

  • I Wish I Could Leave It at That

    Roxane Gay’s Hunger is very, very good—the rare memoir that doubles as page-turner. I’m writing this on a flight (Gay’s passages on airplane issues are some of her best: the seatbelt extenders, having to buy two tickets) and the woman across the aisle is reading Difficult Women. “Book Twins!” she just said happily. This never happens. That Gay has reached so many is testament to her skill with empathetic connection. She writes early in Hunger that her “life is split in two, cleaved not so neatly. There is the before and after. Before I gained weight. After I gained weight. Before I was raped. After I was raped.”

    I Could Leave It at That

    I don’t know how to talk about rape and sexual violence when it comes to my own story. It is easier to say, “something terrible happened.”

    Something terrible happened. That something terrible broke me. I wish I could leave it at that, but this is a memoir of my body so I need to tell you what happened to my body.

    We are pulled in by the repetition, as we are by Gay’s hesitance. Hunger reaches this most difficult part of its narrative early, after a sequence of short introductory chapters: Twelve-year-old Gay falls in love with a boy. The boy brings her to a cabin where his friends are waiting, and a horrible sexual assault takes place. It remains secret. “All too often, what ‘he said’ matters more, so we just swallow the truth. We swallow it, and more often than not, that truth turns rancid. It spreads through the body like an infection.” One beautifully depicted consequence of this infection: Gay eats, hoping to disguise her body, disappear into armor. “I don’t know how I let things get so out of control, but I do.” She eventually weighs 577 pounds.

    Part of Hunger’s intrigue is in the frustrating ramifications of this transformation: small movie theater seats, or needing help getting onto a high stage during an event, or strangers taking items out of Gay’s shopping cart (!). The book is also frequently very funny: “Oftentimes the people who I make uncomfortable by admitting that I don’t love being fat are what I call Lane Bryant fat.” But many of the anecdotes interested me on a deeper level. I didn’t want to fall into the trap of using Gay’s book to write about myself, but was struck by a line in The New York Review of Books: “…I suspect that every woman who reads Hungerwill recognize herself in it. For men who read the book, it will be more of a travelogue. Vade mecum.”

    Excellent Latin usage, and a great review, but I identified strongly with Hunger. A very partial list:

    “I go to the doctor as rarely as possible because when I go, whether for an ingrown toenail or a cold, doctors can only see and diagnose my body.” – I haven’t been to a doctor in ten years.

    “When I go to the gym on my own, I always feel like all eyes are on me. I try to pick times when there won’t be many people around, partly to protect myself, partly out of self -loathing.” – I once quit a gym when a well-intentioned man critiqued my squats.

    “Before I got on the plane, my best friend offered me a bag of potato chips to eat, but I denied myself that. I told her, ‘people like me don’t get to eat food like that in public,’ and it was one of the truest things I’ve ever said.” – I rarely eat carbohydrates in public.

    These resonances aren’t just because I was bullied in high school for my weight, though I was badly bullied (to be hit and choked while one is called fat paradoxically really makes one want a Skor bar). There was constant shame then, but I look back, as Gay does in a moving sequence with childhood photos, and see a perfectly fine-looking teenager. But Hungerunearthed something even deeper in me. Take this remarkable, propulsive sequence:

    When I am eating a meal, I have no sense of portion control. I am a completist. If the food is on my plate, I must finish it. If there is food left on the stove, I must finish it. Rarely do I have leftovers. At first, it feels good, savoring each bite, the world falling away. I forget about my stresses, my sadness. All I care about are the flavors in my mouth, the extraordinary pleasure of the act of eating. I start to feel full but I ignore that fullness and then that sense of fullness goes away and all I feel is sick, but still, I eat. When there is nothing left, I no longer feel comfort. What I feel is guilt and uncontrollable self-loathing, and oftentimes, I find something else to eat, to soothe these feelings and, strangely, to punish myself, to make myself feel sicker so that the next time, I might remember how I feel when I overindulge.

    I never remember.

    Toward the end of college, I gained 60 pounds in nine months. I would order Wawa subs on a touch screen (limited shame with the touch screen!), then head to Baja Fresh for an off-menu item called Burritos Dos Manos, which is what it sounds like. More: I didn’t cut my hair for a year and a half. I rarely brushed my teeth. I wore baggy athletic clothing. I buried the truth of me. Sunken eyes in the bathroom mirror; a shamble in sandals; pain, weird pain. Though I’ve slowly taken most of that weight off in the 14 years since, I did permanent damage. My metabolism, my back, the sides of my stomach are not the same.

    There are certain memoirs that are difficult to critically evaluate because they compel us to unearth our own difficulties, and so any discussion becomes necessarily personal. I am a straight white man who grew up six blocks from Donald Trump’s once and future primary residence, so it feels fraught to speak of how aspects of this narrative, though far more intense and unjust than anything I’ve experienced, resonated. But I’ve never connected with a book like I did with Hunger.

    The most frequently criticized aspect of Hunger is the repetition, which occurs not only on the line level, but with repurposed paragraphs. I do wish there was less of this, so that the technique could be even more impactful. But mistakes of intention are part of all books. In Giovanni’s Room the framing device kills the tension; there is too much political writing in the third Neapolitan Novel; The Captive sequence in In Search of Lost Time is, just, preposterously long; The Bible has continuity issues. Many reviews of Hunger chose to treat the repetition as a mistake, as in an accident, disqualifying the book as sufficiently “literary” for some. This protective impulse that’s evident in social media sometimes does Gay a disservice—her writing is not always treated as seriously as the story that she’s telling. But she is an effective, unique stylist.

    Look again at this sequence, one you’ve already read:

    It is easier to say, “something terrible happened.”

    Something terrible happened. That something terrible broke me. I wish I could leave it at that, but this is a memoir of my body so I need to tell you what happened to my body.

    Rendering the inner state of characters with cadence is one of the challenges of the medium; Gay is depicting the circular nature of trauma through prose. Repetition as blank space is a known craft phenomenon—the way we elide the she saids when we read dialogue without adverbs. Gay’s stylistic flourish is a scrim that allows readers to project. As our eyes glide over what we already know, our brain turns inward; our own stories are superimposed on the text.

    In the narrative background of Hunger, Gay drops out of college, leaves Yale for Arizona, comes out to her parents on the phone, and has a sequence of sexually complex relationships. The lack of plotted scene-work when hunger is not the subject is a bit like when a bar plays an interesting-looking movie without the sound on, but marvelous sequences bloom toward the end of the book. She tracks down her rapist: “I googled him when I wrote this book. I don’t know why. Or I do.” There’s a chilling body horror section after Gay breaks her ankle, one that turns unexpectedly humorous. “I marveled at how suddenly someone else’s blood was inside of me. I also enjoyed that the orthopedic surgeon was incredibly attractive, knew it, and had the swagger of a man who is very good at what he does and was very well compensated for that work.” And there are intense moments of introspection, too: “I couldn’t admit this to myself, but there was a pattern of intense emotional masochism, of throwing myself into the most dramatic relationships possible, of needing to be a victim of some kind over, and over, and over. That was something familiar, something I understood.”

    When I was in college, just before I gained all that weight, something bad happened, not worth getting into. Or (be honest): something that I don’t want to get into, because I am not as brave as Gay. As I lost control of my inhibitions, a second bad thing happened, on a night when I lost the ability to move my body. I lay somewhere with someone. Some things happened on me. This is the closest I can come to acknowledging them. The unwelcome rasp of her. The incident has been a comet in fixed orbit around my life ever since, forgotten until it resurfaces and occludes all that’s near.

    Until I read Hunger, I had never made a connection between the bad things and my weight gain. Isn’t that funny? It seems obvious now. I lost control of myself, so I lost my self-control. Then, shamed, I changed my body into something that reflected my inner state. That year was an enduring mystery of my life. No longer.

    It’s an old chestnut that great writing should give us empathy for others. Hunger gave me something rarer: empathy for myself.

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