Over the last few days, two books have pulled me back into asking my perennial question: why am I here and what can I do about it? The books were Olio by Tyehimba Jess and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. The question was, as always, unanswerable.
In many ways the two books are very different. Olio is poetry about the pain and bondage of black American artists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; The Book Thief is a novel about the near-ordinary life of a girl in Nazi Germany, written from the perspective of Death. However, the themes of sorrow and injustice and pain run heavy through both, and they both feel like epics, tracing a larger history than the life of just one girl or a few artists into the tragedy of human nature that continues today.
Olio represents a conglomeration of what you might call “acts,” mostly ragtime pianists and singers who appear in dialogue with and across each other and their oppressors. A common page format throughout the book has two adjacent columns–two speeches by different people–that can be read either separately or as one paragraph: intertwined sentences that often represent hugely dissimilar thoughts. The contrast between the speakers, and the way the speeches fit together so naturally and almost ludicrously, really drives home the injustices that Jess portrays.
For instance, there is a page where one column is an actual quote from Irving Berlin countering the accusation that he stole Scott Joplin’s work, and the other column is Joplin’s imagined response, a seething and grief-filled reply. Joplin’s work never took off whereas Berlin’s hit it big, yet Berlin’s words were flippant and derogatory. It seemed incredibly unfair to me that Berlin ever got away with what he said and did, and though after a bit of research I’ve discovered the claims of the stolen work are not as clear-cut as the book implies, things like that definitely have happened in America’s history. Things where an unjust system took credit from where it was due and placed it in a white man’s hands. Things where the world was upside-down and totally unfair. And still is.
In The Book Thief, Zusak asks my question even more directly. A character dies; another wonders, why wasn’t it me? Even the narrator, Death, emphasizes the places where if a different choice had been made–if Rudy’s family had let him join the army, if Leisel had knocked on the door instead of stealing through the window, if Hans hadn’t given the starved Jew the piece of bread–things would be different. Rudy would still be alive. Leisel would have a friend and the mayor’s wife would, too. Hans would still be at home, and Max wouldn’t have had to leave. But even with all the choices, there are a thousand things that are still not under the characters’ control. Ultimately, Death comes for all of them, and it is not Leisel’s fault that her family was taken from her or that the Fuhror is an evil man. She is simply where she is. There is no good reason why, or why her.
The question of why has caused me a weight of unsettledness. I’m not sure it can be called guilt, and I’m not sure if it’s right to be guilty for a station in life that I never chose. But here I am. And I know that the unsettledness is right, because I am not a Jew in Nazi Germany, nor am I a slave in early America. I am not, but many people in the world were, and many are slaves and martyrs and mourners right now.
Maybe the unsettledness will drive me to action.
Or at least drive me to look for places where I can act.
Anyway, the only place I have found so far is in my writing. So here I am. Writing to recommend that you read these two not only painful but also extremely powerful books, and that you take my own poetry as an outpouring of unsettledness. Reading books like this is hard and it hurts sometimes, but that is the point. If we are all unsettled then maybe one of us will begin to know what to do.
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