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Postcards from the End of [the] America[n Empire]
Saturday, June 25, 2016
Friday, June 24, 2016
Friendly Lounge. When I left the bar yesterday around 5PM, Dorothy was sitting there, and when I went to Friendly this afternoon, I saw her again, so Dorothy said, "No, no, I didn't sleep here!"
Hopefully, I can interview Dorothy soon. Two days ago was her birthday, but Dorothy and her husband will only celebrate it tonight when they go out to dinner, then catch a Tony! Toni! Toné! show at Harrah's Casino in Chester, PA. Tickets cost $35 per. Dorothy said she will try her best not to gamble. The most she has ever lost on the slots in one day was $200. The most she has ever won, $4,100.
Right after she left Friendly, Don and I saw Dorothy buying the rub offs across the street.
Thursday, June 23, 2016
As published at CounterCurrents, Unz Review and LewRockwell, 6/24/16:
A billboard for Comcast pitches a lineup of “reality” shows, with this caption, “Recommended for you. Because real reality is boring.”
In contemporary America, real reality is also less real than Big Brother’s cartoony version. While we’re driving, walking, at work, lying in bed or even in the bathroom, Big Brother dictates what we know. Big Brother’s hypnotic screens have become our arbitrator of reality.
What capture us most are not the propaganda images, which can be ludicrously unconvincing, but the voice over. If Big Brother says it, it must be true.
Unlike in Orwell’s 1984, Big Brother does not speak to us in one stern voice. Deploying many puppets, Big Brother will humor, cajole and even uplift. Despite apparent divergences of opinions or even contradictions, Big Brother’s essential messages will always come through most clearly and persistently.
Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, for example, both speak for Big Brother. While Clinton compares Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler, Sanders states, “To temper Russian aggression, we must freeze Russian government assets all over the world, and encourage international corporations with huge investments in Russia to divest from that nation’s increasingly hostile political aims.”
Russia is a threat to world peace, they both agree. In boring reality, however, it is the United States that has surrounded Russia with missiles, staged provocative war games on Russia’s borders and pushed Georgia and Ukraine into wars with Russia.
Donald Trump, on the other hand, is used by Big Brother to fan hatred and paranoia of Muslims. From 9/11 to the Orlando Shooting, every “Muslim” terror attack on American soil has been framed and narrated, with no real evidence, by Big Brother. As with the Boston Bombing, Portland Christmas Tree Plot and the Shoe Bomber Plot, etc., Big Brother has either steered and coached the alleged terrorists, or had foreknowledge of them.
In boring reality, the US has also attacked Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, Pakistan and Syria. Waging war on all these Muslim countries, the US has killed millions and generated millions more in refugees. According to Big Brother, however, the US is not a most brutal and systematic assailant of Muslims, but their hapless target.
Killing Muslims and stealing their land, Israel has also painted itself as a civilized, dignified and unbelievably restrained victim of barbaric Muslim terror.
Without Israel, the US would not be killing and demonizing Muslims endlessly, nor would it suffer these terror attacks pinned on Muslims. Without Israel, not just the US but the entire world would be much more peaceful.
No one remembers the Portland case. The FBI prevented Mohamed Osman Mohamud from working in Alaska so that he could be snared into a terror plot concocted by the FBI. A bomb-loaded van, provided by the FBI, was to be detonated to kill kids celebrating Christmas around a downtown tree.
Though the FBI had recorded and filmed Mohamud extensively, it could not produce the one tape where Mohamud supposedly incriminated himself. Big Brother tells us the recorder had a malfunction at that exact moment, and we don’t keel over laughing, such is our divorce from common sense.
After the Orlando Shooting, we have preposterous testimonies by purported survivors, witnesses and relatives of victims. Angel Colon was supposedly shot once in the hand, once in the hip and three times in one leg, all from an assault rifle at close range. On top of this, Colon was supposedly dragged over broken glass so that his back and buttocks were all cut up. Just three days later, however, Colon had recovered well enough to be presented to the press to recount his ordeal in amazing detail. Though lying face down and pretending to be dead, and in a darkened room, no less, Colon could see that the gunman was aiming for his head when Colon’s hand was hit. He also witnessed the woman lying next to him being killed. This sort of eidetic recall is typical of those whose only knowledge of shootings comes from movies. Colon has also been broadcast from his hospital bed, smiling and lifting, quite casually, his supposedly shattered leg.
Supposed witness Luis Burbano claims to have seen a bullet sticking about five inches from a victim’s leg. Even unfired, a R-15 bullet is just over two inches long, Luis.
Filmed repeatedly, from the very night of the shooting, Christine Leinonen is seen making all sorts of crying sounds and faces, but without actually shedding a tear. While her son was still unaccounted for, Leinonen blubbered, “This is a club that nobody wants to be in. Please, could we do something with the assault weapons so that we could stop this club from ever getting any new members? I beg all of you, please. I want you to know about my son. When he was in high school, he started the Gay-Straight Alliance, and he won the humanitarian award to bring gays and straights together. I’ve been so proud of him for that. Please, let’s all just get along. We’re on this earth for such a short time. Let’s try to get rid of the hatred and the violence, please!”
The Huffington Post deems Leinonen’s discharge “a powerful and devastating plea for more gun control.” Less prone to cow pie, Lucius Nonesuch, a commenter at Unz Review, observes, “It’s not the language of anyone’s everyday speech, nor is it anything like good literary language—it’s more like a bad MFA creative writing student’s verbiage. These ‘average’ people use impossibly bad metaphors and unbelievable figures of speech—the supposed mother above has now “joined a club,” the club of parents who have lost a child to gun violence—how does this dolt of a woman come up with this trite nonsense on her own? It is not her language, it is the language of a Bolshevik Communications Major. Undeniably bad language—and yet completely not right coming from her mouth.”
Thank you, Lucius Nonesuch. If more Americans were like you, we wouldn’t be hoodwinked endlessly by Big Brother. As is, we’re doomed.
Wednesday, June 22, 2016
Tuesday, June 21, 2016
As published at CrossCurrents and Unz Review, 6/22/16:
Showing up in Friendly Lounge, beaming Maria said to bartender Manon, “How’s my baby? Come here and give me a hug! How are your job applications?”
“Nothing yet, but I have a couple of interviews coming up.” For the last six months, Manon has been trying to get hired as a school counselor. She only gets one shift a week at Friendly.
Manon wouldn’t mind disappearing from sight, so I’ve suggested Montana. She’s been there and liked it. Prowling around the remote and destitute Fort Peck Indian Reservation in 2014, I was told it was constantly losing teachers, counselors and doctors.
If an occasional bar stool or cue stick swinging fight doesn’t faze you, there are many pleasant places to get groggy on the rez, and the chicken fried steak at Old Town Grill in Wolf Point is down South good. My buddy, Mervin Garfield, just got arrested for stabbing somebody at Arlo’s.
I also gave Manon the phone number of an Uber driving friend of mine. An immigrant from Pakistan, Anwar is a bit hard to understand over the phone. With business at his purse and watch store declining steadily, Anwar would be dead without Uber. When it rains hard, he gets paid triple. Though Manon’s car is too old, Uber will sell her another if they hire her.
Who says there are jobs? I know a guy in Fishtown who can do roofing, plumbing, carpentry, house painting, flooring and electrical wiring. Though O’Neal will work for just a hundred a day, he’s often idle. Even O’Neal’s cousin won’t hire him. “Standing outside Best Buy are Mexican guys who will work for as little as 40 bucks a day, and they’ll bring their own tools too! I can’t compete against that.” O’Neal has six kids, with five still living with him. His wife has no job.
Though a klutz from inside the womb, even I got a hundred a day in the early 90’s as a housepainter. Everything has gone up but wages.
O’Neal is voting Trump. In an old school Kensington bar, I saw a white, well-tattooed and crew cut pool player with a “FUCK HITLER” T-shirt. O’Neal interpreted this as anti-Trump.
A contractor in my neighborhood, the most ethnically mixed in Philly, has “TRUMP” spray painted in gold on his beat up, white pickup truck. On the driver’s door is a shamrock.
A Friendly regular, Mike, wouldn’t admit he’s backing Trump. He only growled, “I ain’t gonna vote for no woman.” Born in Puerto Rico, Mike used to work in a tinsel factory.
One man who no longer has to worry about finding work is 64-year-old Don. For three decades, my friend and neighbor was a building contractor, with a crew of six employees, usually. When Don was 58, he fell during work and cracked his neck, broke several bones in his right arm and damaged his back. Don retired two years later.
His hammering days over, Don imbibes Bud, fishes and still thinks of himself as a hunter. Even with the yews and hearse in sight, lots of people don’t know they’re old. He has a T-shirt, “DON IS MY NAME / HUNTING IS MY GAME.”
A “Don’s Hunting Excuses Shirt” has, “Trees were in the way. Scope was foggy. I didn’t miss… those were warning shots. I was reloading. Too dark. Someone distracted me. Safety lock was on. Gun barrel must’ve been bent. Waiting for the big one. The gun jammed. My finger slipped.”
It is assumed that Don is suffering from alcoholic anorexia. Sated by beer and Stoli, Don forgets to eat. Deprived of nutrients, his skeleton is starting to skew. Trudging, Don leans on an aluminum cane with foam grip. When times are bad, though, the old don’t envy but pity the young. Soon enough, perhaps the dead will feel sorry for us all.
In Friendly, I’ve caught Don dazed, but never cranky. What’s quoted here has been gathered through half a dozen encounters, the latest just a few hours ago. If Don didn’t have to stumble home to fix something in his basement, we’d still be talking.
I got married at 18. It only lasted two years. I have a 42-year-old son. He lives on the Jersey Shore.
I got a tattoo of my name when I was 18. It’s my only tattoo. I don’t really regret it.
My dad was a beef deboner at Cross Brothers. You know how heavy a side of beef is? It threw out his back. Joe Frazier worked at Cross Brothers.
My dad was a bartender at Villa di Roma. You know where it is. He was real popular.
You can learn more things in a bar than anywhere else. A lawyer might come in and sit next to you. You buy him a beer, he’ll tell you stuff.
I live with my mom and take care of her. She’s 91-years-old. No, she’s not doing too well.
We have a five-bedroom house. It’s too big for us. That’s why we’re selling it, finally. We’ll find a smaller house, maybe down by Oregon Avenue.
I learnt Italian from my grandma. That’s all she ever spoke. Our dog only listened to her. If I said “get out” in English, the dog would just look at me. He only spoke Italian.
I worked at Claudio’s. You had to know Italian to work on 9th Street back in the day.
We’re from Sicily. I haven’t been to Italy. None of us have but my cousins. They didn’t like it. They said the food was bad, but maybe you’re right, maybe they only ate at the touristy places. They said the wine was good, though. Soon as you walked into a place, they’d have a bottle waiting for you, and if you wanted another, they’d only charge you $2. You can’t beat that!
You’ve been all over Italy! I like my pasta simple too. I like it white. I like it with just olive oil and lots of grated cheese.
We never went back to Italy because we didn’t have any money.
I’ll think about it. Maybe I’ll visit Italy. My mom is too sick to go anywhere. She’s lived in South Philly her whole life. She wants to die in South Philly. I’ve lived in South Philly my whole life.
I’ve always been a saver. I’d take out my money and count it. I’ve bought gold coins. Yes, gold is definitely going back up.
I stopped gambling a long time ago. I lost $27,000 altogether.
Last night, my mom wanted ice cream, so I went out to get it for her, and some bread. Sometimes, she falls down and I can’t even pick her up to put her back on the wheelchair. I have to run outside to find somebody to help me.
Today, the nurse will come to check on my mom. She comes once a week. After leaving this bar, I’ll go home and brush my teeth. I don’t want the nurse to smell beer on my breath.
Oh man, I have a really nice fishing rod. It cost me 200 bucks. Every so often, I go on these fishing trips out on the open sea. It only costs $65 for eight hours. If we don’t catch nothing, the boat captain will make it ten hours. Usually, we just go for flounders. You want to come?
I have 22 guns.
On a hunting trip to Idaho, I shot mule deer. We rode horses. They can’t really climb, they’re not like goats. I want to go to North Carolina to shoot birds. Pheasants! The ones in Jersey don’t even bother to fly.
About ten years ago, I took a trip to Mongolia with a doctor and a dentist. I figured if I get sick, there’s a doctor right there, and if I need a tooth pulled, I’ll be OK too. I want to go to Africa next.
The trip over there took forever. I thought we were never going to land. I read an entire book on the plane, and I never read!
In Mongolia, my joints were hurting because of the high altitude. I could hardly walk. I just wanted to go home. I told them, “I need a helicopter! Just get me out of here! I don’t care how much it costs. You can have my gun. I just want to go home!”
I ended up killing the first argali of the day, which meant I had to eat a piece of its raw testicle. I got sick that day and all of the next day. Oh man, it was terrible.
That was the trip of a lifetime. I have all these photos in an album. I’ll always have it.
The Mongolians were the friendliest people, but the food wasn’t too good. When we gave our guides their tips at the end of the trip, they were all sitting on top of the SUV playing cards!
On the way back, we stayed for a couple nights in Seoul, South Korea. That was wonderful.
Though I’m retired, I still take a job every now and then. People know me. I have a couple of Mexican guys working for me. I pay each guy a hundred bucks a day. They’re good. They earn it.
I’ve always voted Republican, but I don’t know this time. It doesn’t really make a difference. I mean, one person won’t make a difference, it takes the whole country. I may not even vote this time. I’m not really political.
Monday, June 20, 2016
Saturday, June 18, 2016
Thursday, June 16, 2016
Born in Reykjavík in 1978, Norðdahl was raised in Ísafjörður, a fishing village of just 2,623 people in northwest Iceland. Its population has been shrinking for several decades. Norðdahl’s father was a fisherman, and his mother a school teacher.
Starting with his first job in a shrimp factory at age 12, Norðdahl has worked as a hotel nightwatchman, cook at a kindergarten, grade school teacher, the only white man on a cruise ship’s cleaning crew in Finland, handyman at a Danish boarding school, caretaker in a nursing home’s sick ward, caretaker at two homes for the handicapped and journalist. Since 2007, Norðdahl has survived mostly as a translator and writer.
With six books of poems, five novels, two collections of essays and even a cook book with short, meditative essays on food, Norðdahl is in fact one of Iceland’s brightest literary stars. His 2012 novel, Illska, was awarded The Icelandic Literary Prize and The Book Merchant’s Prize, and its French version shortlisted for the Prix Médicis Étranger and the Prix Meilleur Livre Étranger. Norðdahl’s translation credits include a selection of Allen Ginsberg’s poetry, Michael Moore, crime fiction and Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn.
As an organizer of the Reykjavik International Literary Festival, Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl brought me to Iceland in 2007, and we’ve stayed in touch over the years. This interview was conducted via email over eight days.
Iceland is a tiny, island country, with just over 300,000 people. When I visited Reykjavik in 2007, I found it to be surprisingly cosmopolitan, with many international restaurants downtown, including a Vietnamese one. A lovely barista at a hip cafe appeared to be an immigrant from the South Pacific, and Belly's Bar felt so American, I could have been in Columbus, Ohio. English was spoken widely, and there were many tourists. It felt like the world was coming to Iceland, with some people intending on staying. Do Icelanders want their society to become more diverse? Do you?
-I’d like that, but I don’t think that’s generally what Icelanders want. It certainly isn’t public policy. What “we” want is tourists, preferably rich tourists who wish to spend lots of money and then go home. Tourism in Iceland has been growing exponentially—there’s probably three or four times as many now as there were in 2007. In my small hometown (2,700 inhabitants) we get huge cruise ships all summer long—sometimes they have twice as many people as the town and they swarm over it like confused locusts with cameras. It’s really weird. And weird to be exotic in that way, or exoticized, by people who often aren't even coming from very far away. I remember a couple of years ago I was standing outside my house, with my wife and my kids, and we were heading to the next town to go swimming. We’re just standing there putting our swim gear, towels and swimsuits, in the back of the car—and I noticed that across the street was a large group of German tourists photographing us. And I remember thinking if people did this differently in Germany; if I was doing something peculiar.
I can’t say I resent the tourism, but it is certainly strange—there’s a horrible Wild West attitude about it. Lots of hotels are run on cheap Eastern European labor—there are many cases of people literally being slaves—the infrastructure has yet to catch up with the great numbers, meaning for instance that there aren’t enough bathrooms so people are pissing and shitting all over the place, and there aren’t guards at dangerous places so people get killed doing stupid stuff, and there’s also too little surveillance at locations where there’s sensitive nature—so people are going around driving off-road, lighting open fires and tearing up moss at places where you really shouldn’t be doing that.
But at the same time immigration from outside the EU is difficult, we hardly take any refugees and most asylum seekers get sent out. The public policy is very strict—we use any excuse we can find to deport people, whether it's back to slavery in Mauritania, to the violence of Boko Haram in Nigeria or destitution in Albania—that last one is the worst, the Icelandic government views fleeing from poverty and disease as a hate crime against our way of life.
Last year there was an online pledge where thousands of people promised to take in refugees from Syria and assist them, if they’d be allowed to come. At the time the idea was to accept around 50 refugees. The minister “responded” to this huge movement by enlarging the group to about 55.
Globalism is of course present. We got our first Dunkin’ Donuts last year—the queue on the first day was epic, there should be Sagas written about it. But there’s no McDonalds anymore, that closed down after the collapse in 2008. Globalism has brought all these restaurants—we didn’t even have pizza until the eighties and beer was illegal. But now everyone is an international gourmand and every other house is a microbrewery.
One immigrant Iceland took in was Bobby Fischer, and I’ve always thought this was a very brave gesture. Fischer conducted many interviews with radio stations in the Philippines, Hungary, Iceland, Colombia and Russia. He called the US a “brutal, evil dictatorship” controlled by Jews, whom he characterized endlessly as criminals, parasites, liars and thieves. The Holocaust is “a money-making invention.” As for Israel, “They torture their prisoners in the worst way [...] They don't even deny it hardly. Jews were always bastards throughout history. They are liars, they are the worst pieces of shit in the world. They mutilate their own children.” Fischer celebrated 9/11 and wished for a military coup, “the country will be taken over by the military, they'll close down all the synagogues, arrest all the Jews, execute hundreds of thousands of Jewish ringleaders.” “The United States is an illegitimate country, just like Israel. It has no right to exist.” Thanks to the First Amendment, the US couldn’t go after Fischer for these statements, but it prosecuted him for playing a chess match in Yugoslavia, an enemy country. Japan did arrest Fischer for the US, but didn’t extradite him. Iceland then offered Fischer not just asylum, but citizenship. This, from a country with twice as many American soldiers on its soil as its own. What do you make of this defiance? More broadly, how do Icelanders view the US?
-Icelanders are rather American—half the country is geographically American and the military base had a huge cultural impact through their radio and TV stations. They are, however, also anti-American, but then one has to keep in mind that the most common modern form of anti-Americanism is an American export product—something born out of the resistance to the war in Vietnam and the ‘68 movement. Bob Dylan taught us how to despise the US, how to hate imperialism.
But Icelanders also being Scandinavian, if we were voting for your president Bernie would win it hands down (although we also really like more simpleminded demagoguery, so perhaps Trump would stand a chance).
As for Bobby Fischer, who was a fixture in downtown Reykjavík until he died – particularly at bars or this one cheap Thai restaurant that he loved—I have a hard time imagining the Icelandic government “saving” him in defiance of the US. That government was very pro US and at the time fighting hard to keep the military base in Iceland—which is why Iceland was part of “the coalition of the willing” and why that was decided on in a closed backroom instead of being taken to the parliament (which might have rejected it, the war being very unpopular). The US military left a little under two years later. That being said, Iceland is highly cronyistic, so if you know the right people you may get the craziest things approved—and Bobby had good friends in the country, since the time of his world championship match with Spassky in Reykjavík. Also, the prime minister at the time is a known megalomaniac. My guess, however, is that the US government just wanted Fischer out of the limelight, which also meant out of detention, since political prisoners of his stature usually garner lots of attention. The decision to charge him for having played a game of chess was also out of sync with the “great American narrative” of freedom—it was bad PR. Fischer spent his last years in Iceland ranting harmlessly, as far as I can tell, with few sympathetic ears, causing no harm to anyone (except perhaps the Jews who happened to pass by, which in Iceland is exceedingly rare, globalism has brought us everything but Judaism). Granting him asylum, rather than simple citizenship, might also have implied a greater recognition of his status as a legitimate refugee.
With its vast open spaces and new, mostly smallish buildings, Iceland looks like it’s still being settled. Civilization hasn’t left much of a visible imprint. There are practically no colossal structures, be they churches, factories or mega shopping malls. Outside its one city, there aren’t even many farms, since not much can grow in Iceland. One would be mistaken, however, in concluding that Icelanders are backwoods hicks or wild men. Per capita, Icelanders read and write more books than anyone else. How did Icelanders become so cultured? It can’t just be because there’s not much else to do but read and think during those long, dark hours during each marathon winter. If that’s all it takes, Inuits would also be cranking out novels!
-There’s actually an amazing amount of malls in Reykjavík—the biggest one is apparently of a design that would fit a city of a million people, whereas Reykjavík only has 200,000 inhabitants (and the whole country only 340,000). But Reykjavík is very spread out and there are very few buildings older than 100-150 years. This mostly has to do with the fact that we were not only poor until WWII, but we didn’t really have our own bourgeois class, and no nobility. The Danish and Norwegian functionaries living in the country weren’t very high on the food chain, their status didn’t justify any castles.
As late as 1940 a large part of the Icelandic population was still living in houses made of mud. This had started to change at the beginning of the 20th century, when we finally gave up on farming after a thousand years of stubborn disbelief and started fishing—got the first proper boats. The economy made leaps during the war when fish prices in Europe soared due to the unsafe waters. Also, we proportionally got more Marshall Aid than any other nation, and the British and US military built a lot of infrastructure—roads around the country, as well as the domestic airport in Reykjavík and the international airport in Keflavík.
But even when we were living in mud houses, reading was an important activity—it may have been more important than it is now. The cliché goes that you could go to the bishop’s house, meet a man in the garden, and not know from how he spoke whether you were talking to the bishop or the gardener. The state of working class home-libraries has fallen but it’s certainly a legacy to build on—that a home without books is no home at all. Also, public libraries are almost as common as swimming halls (there’s a swimming hall in any town with more than 50 people).
This obsession with reading had to do with the nationalist struggle for independence—not only was “the idea” of the nation, the social imaginary, created by a group of poets but our major claim to historical greatness is the Sagas and the Eddas. We don’t have any wars that we won, any great military figures, we don’t have a history of having been outcasts—and we gained our independence mostly through nagging and writing letters and being patient. Iceland has a kind of colonial trauma, but it’s very different from what you’ll find in Africa, Asia or America. The books that were written in Iceland—as well as the oral traditions of poetry—and the struggle from sovereignty in 1918 to full independence in 1944 coinciding with the rising career of our Nobel laureate, Halldór Laxness (who published his first book in 1919 and won the Nobel in 1955)—literature is how Icelandic people have self-identified, without it the country had no narrative of greatness—no “hero's journey”—and therefore no claim to independence.
This has changed a lot though—today Björk is more famous than the Sagas and Laxness combined, and the nationalism that used to be taken for granted is in constant crisis mode; the left, that used to be very patriotic, has abandoned it and the reactionary right is just foaming. It’s much harder to justify nationalism when you’re rich, powerful and independent. But then a lot of the tourists that come to Iceland are rich and powerful people from big bully nation states like the US and Germany, that have come to Iceland to experience a kind of nationalism by proxy. These tend to be left leaning liberals who are uncomfortable with being nationalists at home, but get a kind of catharsis from the Wagnerian (“sigur rós-ian”) exaltation of Icelandic mountains.
That’s interesting, your observation that nationalism is strongest when one’s very identity is threatened. Thus, there’s a need to assert oneself through literature. One must raise one’s voice, literally. When the French occupied Vietnam, there was a famous saying by an intellectual, Pham Quynh, “Truyen Kieu [a 19th century epic poem] remains, our language remains. Our language remains, our nation remains.” Often, what’s called nationalism is really tribalism, and in the US, the strongest tribal instincts have been found in non-whites, but since many whites are feeling increasingly beleaguered, white nationalism is experiencing a revival, with Trump its most visible indicator. With wealth comes a degree of smugness, you’re saying, and I suppose there is a strong temptation to think of oneself as a citizen of the world. In Reykjavik, there's a very odd sight of a train locomotive, plopped near the ocean. Since Iceland never had a rail system, this is just for show. As a symbol of Iceland’s geographical isolation, this going nowhere locomotive is perfect. The compulsion to see the rest of the world, or at least another country, must be tremendously strong in Iceland. You lived many years in Sweden and have traveled very widely. With your wife and kids, you spent four months in Vietnam recently. Please talk about what you find appealing or appalling in all these countries you’ve visited.
-I think nationalism works differently in different situations—the small country nationalism is probably the plainest type of tribalism, pairing as it does a deep-seated inferiority complex with fleeting moments of absolute and utter megalomania. The nationalism of empires does not require an outside threat to thrive; although the most dangerous empires are of course those that feel truly threatened.
One of Iceland’s greatest writers, Þórbergur Þórðarson, grew up on a farm in eastern Iceland at the end of the 19th century. He wrote that it was the blue of the ocean and the sails of French ships that had driven him to move to Reykjavík (which at the time was a thriving metropolis of about 15,000 people). The sails, nota bene, also represent different kinds of spoils—not just a symbol for traveling—since the French and Spanish sailors would sometimes do business ashore, but they would also sometimes run aground and perish, leaving the shores of poor farmers strewn with exotic wealth. Iceland is nearly only inhabited along the coastline so everybody grows up with the land on one side and the ocean on the other—and the ocean has an acute way of letting you know that there’s something exciting on the other end of it. Which makes people wish to travel. But for a long time that kind of just made people want to go to Reykjavík—or at best, Copenhagen, which used to be our capital, in a sense.
I’ve lived in all of the Nordic countries—Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway and the Faroe Islands (missing only Greenland)—as well as Berlin, and then the winter before last, like you mention, in Hoi An. I have also traveled a lot, but mostly within Europe—I’ve only once been in the States, for five days, twice in Canada, I once spent a month in Cuba and then two weeks in Brazil. But otherwise it’s just Europe.
I find it interesting to discover the differences in cultures that are otherwise similar—how for instance Denmark and Sweden define themselves so much as being different from each another. The Danes are obsessed with the Swedes being so horribly PC; whereas the Swedes are obsessed with the Danes having no respect for minorities, thinking that just because you can say something, someone needs to be saying it. If a single Swedish librarian removes a book full of golliwogs from the children’s shelf it’s headline news in Denmark. And they are of course both right—they’re more right about each other than they are about themselves.
When I moved to the Faroe Islands—which are this small group of Islands close to Iceland, where the people speak a language very close to Icelandic, and are even fewer than we are (50,000 vs. 340,000)—it wasn’t just to “see them” but also to “see Iceland,” to understand what we might look like to a foreigner, by going to see the closest thing. I’m not sure it worked, but that was the general idea.
Going to Vietnam was of course absolutely the opposite. I went looking for the great difference. Hoi An is, despite its actual size and the tourism, pretty rural and at a time when European towns and cities are mostly turning the same bland shade of Starbucks or clones, H&M or clones and McDonalds and clones—which is obviously also happening in the bigger Vietnamese cities—uniqueness is something to hold on to when you get it. I don’t know if I was satiated with Vietnam being so horribly different though, as different as I’d hoped—a lot of the difference had been packaged in such familiar terms, everybody marketing “authenticity” to the point that just that word made it all fake. The Disney version of authenticity—sailing down the Mekong I see in the same terms as getting in a jeep and driving up a glacier in Iceland. Authenticity—as far as that exists—isn’t for me something so purposeless as simple wandering, you need to have an errand to run down the river for it to be authentic. Authenticity isn’t really compatible with tourism, at all. At least there didn’t seem to be a way of seeking it out, but sometimes when you stayed put authenticity would come to you, just fall in your lap—sometimes it was what our Vietnamese neighbors would be laughing at (they were good people with a nasty sense of humor and laughed very hard when anybody hurt themselves), sometimes it was the confusion of a pizza delivery man, or the drunk ramblings of our landlord about the communists and the French. Or being headbutted by a cow. Or when our neighbors (across the street, people we never got to know) slaughtered a pig on the sidewalk.
When I think of the places where I’ve lived in terms of appalling/appealing, it’s almost as if they become the same thing. The appalling fascinates me too much, and the appealing is too easily kitschy. The fascination of the appalling goes full circle and its appeal turns into something more appalling; similarly kitsch ends up being beautiful.
Many people worldwide, and Americans too, feel that the US must change. American campaign slogans are always about change, even if it’s only a reversion to a former era. How would you like the US to change? And please talk, too, about your actual experience of the United States. What surprised you during your five-day visit?
-I don’t think it’s a matter of the US changing, per se. By now, most of the world is guided by the same faulty principles. While Bernie Sanders points to Denmark and Scandinavia as examples of something different from the US, Danish policies are moving closer and closer to American policies. The world is more dominated by markets than politicians—who are just another tool of the market. In Iceland, after the collapse, we voted in a left-wing government that eventually just did what the IMF told them to do; in Greece they tried their best, with Syriza, to do things differently but they got a gun to the head and ended up complying. The US is of course a lot more powerful than Greece, let alone Iceland, but I don’t see you voting in any change, really. The cynic in me wishes you’d vote in the buffoon Trump—hoping that it would just cause everything to spin out of control and crumble. But I’m pretty sure they’d rein him in too before things went that far. And if they didn’t that would be hell too—I don’t really favor civil war, world war or any other apocalyptic scenarios. Perhaps the best one can hope for is something incremental. For you guys, that might be a tiny bit stricter gun laws, a bit less racism. For the rest of us it might mean a tiny little more political autonomy.
When I came to the US, that was New York—which everyone always says “isn’t representative” of the US, which I find funny, because it implies a uniformity I doubt is present. I’m sure there’s also a huge difference between, I don’t know, San Francisco and Dallas, or Detroit and Los Angeles. Other countries are also not uniform—northern and southern France are totally different. Not that I don’t believe New York is special, everywhere is special—New York happens to have a lot of cultural history. And be an island. And maybe the birthplace of modern day anti-Americanism (which would explain why they want to claim they’re not responsible for whatever the “US” is).
I remember getting the feeling on the plane that I was finally on my way to Rome; heading to the center, where 90% of all contemporary culture comes from. And that it was strange I’d never made my way there. That was 2008, and I’ve not been back, and I find that strange. I spent most of those five days just roaming around on foot, sometimes with a guide who would explain to me that “this used to be that place” and “that’s where that guy used to live” and “here’s where that thing happened”. It seemed like it had all been in the past. I’ve lived in Berlin, a place with a lot of history, but it’s also a place that’s continually booming—you don’t feel like you’re passing through a cultural graveyard. Or maybe I should say, a cultural Disneyland, a simulacra. Somebody theorized to me recently that, in terms of the poetry scene at least, it had all deteriorated after Allen Ginsberg died—that without a clear figurehead, and a kind, loving one at that, everybody just started eating each other. But I was also just there for a few days, it may take longer to find the actual life—I may have been in all the wrong places.
The city felt strangely—and naturally—familiar. I’ve probably seen every street in Manhattan and large parts of Brooklyn on film. I remember waiting to cross the street when a car swerved in front of another, whose driver braked abruptly, got out of the car and started shouting something about fucking motherfuckers; and I remember thinking that you can’t actually be like that, I felt like they were acting New Yorky for my sake. Similar things kept happening—all that was missing was the high speed car chases, King Kong and spaceships. And Woody Allen, but I’m told he’s around.
Mostly I remember every conversation being about housing. How much do you pay, where do you live, and is it up for grabs? That is also very different from Berlin, which is still cheap—the wannabe artists and slacker hipsters living there aren’t working five day jobs to make ends meet, they’re living from scraps and getting arty-hipster-things done. There's less networking. There’s less posing and everything feels a bit more real. (Although last time I was in Berlin, a few weeks ago, I accidentally drank somebody else’s date rape drug and ended up roaming the city, totally blacked out, until nine in the morning; which was a bit too real for my taste—I like safe backwoods Iceland). Paris is also like this, with the housing and the posing—you don’t get the feeling anybody lives in New York or Paris because they want to, they just live there because all the other cool kids live there. They just get stuck.
During my stay in Reykjavik, I had quite a few hot dogs, not just because Icelandic hot dogs were excellent, but because they were the cheapest food available. I also tried hákarl, your chewy fermented shark that smells and tastes like ammonia. A Finn even warned me it would taste like “dry vomit.” Swallowing it, I had to conclude that Icelanders are an extremely resourceful and stoic people. To me, hákarl also embodies Iceland’s isolation. If you had to be in just one country for the rest of your life, would it be Iceland? If not, then where?
-Ha ha. I actually like hákarl. But there’s a right and a wrong way of enjoying it. It should be eaten in small bits along with shots of brennivín (caraway liquor). Preferably in good company. Most food worth eating is an acquired taste—although there are different levels. I’m still a long way off from “getting” stinky tofu and I was almost 30 before started enjoying nasty French cheeses.
Icelandic hot dogs are good—and sausages in Iceland have gotten so much better in the last years, due to an influx of Polish immigrants. Danish hot dogs are also good, but the rest of Scandinavia can’t really pass muster.
I’ve generally had a problem with staying still—although it is also a dream of mine, that one day I’ll calm down enough to be able to stay put. What’s it called again, mindfulness? Maybe that’s what I’m looking for, enough mindfulness to not need to continually shift things around. I’m married to a Swede and if it came to it we’d have to take that decision together; but theoretically, if it was just my decision, I’d probably choose either Iceland or some huge place I’ve not really been to before. The US, Russia, China. As for Iceland, it wouldn’t really be the country, per se, it’d be my tiny hometown. My affinity for the country is limited but when it comes to Ísafjörður I’m a rambling, incoherent Nazi whose patriotic emotions are unrivaled in any hemisphere. It’s the place from where I come, and the place from where I leave, it’s where I land when I return. Out on the waterfront, squeezed between the steep mountains on all sides, not more than a minute’s walk from anything one would ever need; grocery stores, bars, restaurants, the culture house, the cinema, the library, the swimming hall, etc. When a town of that size works and is dynamic, living there is “just amazing,” as you would say in the US. :-) It truly is.
- Linh Dinh
- Born in Vietnam in 1963, I came to the US in 1975, and have also lived in Italy, England and Germany. I'm the author of two books of stories, Fake House (2000) and Blood and Soap (2004), five of poems, All Around What Empties Out (2003), American Tatts (2005), Borderless Bodies (2006), Jam Alerts (2007) and Some Kind of Cheese Orgy (2009), and a novel, Love Like Hate (2010). I've been anthologized in Best American Poetry 2000, 2004, 2007, Great American Prose Poems from Poe to the Present, Postmodern American Poetry: a Norton Anthology (vol. 2) and Flash Fiction International: Very Short Stories From Around the World, etc. I'm also editor of Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam (1996) and The Deluge: New Vietnamese Poetry (2013). Blood and Soap was chosen by Village Voice as one of the best books of 2004. My writing has been translated into Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Icelandic and Finnish, and I've been invited to read in London, Cambridge, Brighton, Paris, Berlin, Leipzig, Halle, Reykjavik, Toronto, Singapore and all over the US. I've also published widely in Vietnamese.