on his previous email:
Saturday, March 21, 2015 11:21 PM
I was six when I found out that I was a communist. It was like getting a diagnosis. I’d been watching Green Beret with John Wayne on VHS – my father was a fisherman, which in the early eighties in northwestern Iceland meant that a) you were flush (for working class) and b) you had easy access to new foreign consumer products. Iceland wasn’t a communist country but it had many things, I’ve come to realize in retrospect, in common with communist countries – not least that there was only one state TV station and one state radio station. The TV started broadcasting around 5-6 pm and stopped between 10-11 pm (the last piece broadcast was the national anthem). There was no TV on thursdays and no TV in July – TV was unhealthy and people should be protected from it (the US military, which had their own TV station at the military base in Keflavík, were forbidden to send out a signal stronger than so and so, so that the population wouldn’t see it and become americanized).
So when VHS came and video rentals it was a big thing and thursdays were video rental days in my home. My father was a big western fan and thus a John Wayne fan – he’d seen all the movies as a kid at the movie theatres in Reykjavík and was passionate about sharing his fandom. Which explains why I was watching a bloody Vietnam war-film at the age of six. I already understood some English which I had picked it up from TV – since almost nothing was dubbed, including children’s shows, but subtitled (which also meant that I learned to read pretty fast; I had to be able to read the subtitles before they disappeared). All I remember from the film was John Wayne throwing hand grenades at the Viet Cong (or the NVA) yelling: "Die, commie bastard!“
After the film was over I went to the kitchen and asked my father – who remarkably wasn’t out at sea, where he spent most of the year until I was about eight – what „commie bastard“ meant. It was the only concept I didn’t grasp, or at the very least the most important one. My father pointed at my mother and said: A commie bastard is a communist. You are a communist because your mother is a communist and your father is a communist and your grandfather was a founding member of the communist party in Siglufjörður, who at one time raised money equalling one tractor and sent to Stalin.
I remember running to my room crying. Perhaps it’s misrememberance – it’s certainly more dramatic that way. It was inconceivable that John Wayne would want to kill me, he was the face of everything good and right. I now see, of course, that John Wayne didn’t want to kill me – he wanted to kill you.
Some years later I remember getting into a fight with a friend – I may have been about 11, at least it was before the fall of the Soviet Union – over whether communism or capitalism was a better system for governance. My friend pushed my face into the snow (although tall, I was never good at fighting) and shouted: Would you rather live in the USA or the Soviet Union? And I shouted back: The Soviet Union! (although bad at fighting, I didn’t mind losing as long as I didn’t willingly give up). When I was seventeen the same friend – who’d not been my friend for years – came up to me in the high school library and asked if he remembered correctly that I was a communist. I nodded, thinking if we weren’t too old to be fist-fighting over the quality of life in the Soviet Union, which had collapsed by then, and he told me they were starting a “leftie-club” in the school and would I like to join? Apparently he’d discovered Public Enemy and Rage Against the Machine and decided communism wasn’t so bad after all – on my part, I acceded that the Soviet Union had perhaps not been the greatest model for justice, and together we agreed communism could be something else.
I was active in that club for years, was chairman for awhile, edited the photocopied zine (called Turbo News) – as well as taking part in the socialist movement on a national level, and even running with the social-democrats for local council and parliament. I went through phases of being active and inactive, organising and not, but I always called myself a communist if asked, and in the sense that I believe that all people are of equal worth.
In 1998 I went to Cuba to pick oranges for the revolution – a work and friendship tour. We stayed with a nordic brigade of about 200 people in a labour camp about 40 km outside of Havana, close to a town called Caimito. And I think that was the first time I encountered true seventies kind of lefties – people of a more Stalinist tendency, what the scottish would call hard cunts. They weren’t all old – some were my age (I was twenty) – but they all shared a kind of ruthlessness about the truth. These were all europeans, mind you – the Cubans avoided politics. You couldn’t say anything negative about Cuba. They would refuse to notice the prostitutes in Havana (even after engaging in business with said prostitutes; perhaps they saw it as a gift economy, who knows). I think the most hilarious example was when one of the Icelanders – with whom I’d earlier gotten into an argument with about the “class nature” of cops, where he claimed he would never witness a cop killing, with no shades between violent big city cops or a traffic cop in northwestern Iceland – got amazingly upset that I’d called Fidel Castro “old” (he would’ve been 73 at the time).
When I got back to Iceland I started to become more sensitive to some of the propaganda – I refused to default on taking a stand with Cuba on everything, refused to justify political prisoners, refused to “understand” that they were in a precarious situation, the revolution was in constant siege by the US and the imperialists. Other parts of the propaganda I would joyfully take part in – much of the symbols, for instance, which are important – and I would defend movements, even violent ones, that I felt didn’t overstep some barrier (for instance, in Peru I supported the MRTA, which as far as I could tell actively avoided collateral damage; and opposed Sendero Luminoso, which held public floggings and all sorts of sadistic justice courts). My politics had in effect not changed much; but my outlook on some of my comrades had.
When I moved to Helsinki in 2007 I made some friends from the Czech republic and I slowly noticed that when I referred to communism in their company I would refrain from implicating myself in it – I wouldn’t start making excuses and claiming that communism was something else, that what happened in the eastern bloc or Asia or Africa (or the revolutionary cells in Europe) was something else, and that true communism wouldn’t be like that.
I also remember that at that time I had a poster of Mao – one that I found in Iceland, at the nordic house, perhaps the time you were there, a tongue-in-cheek kind of thing for me, but meant in earnest by those who made it, about some conference or whatever – and my wife wouldn’t let me have it on the wall so I took it down.
After the financial meltdown in 2008 – which hit Iceland pretty hard, as you probably know – the rhetoric in Iceland became increasingly (and predictably) marxist. Suddenly many of my friends – who had been lukewarm social-democrats when we met – were all about that communism. I was asked to write for a book on marxist thought and wrote the editor a rather lengthy letter about my reservations about marxist thought in general – mostly that marxist thinkers don’t really care about people, let alone working class people, whom they despise, whose culture they laugh at, whom they don’t see as relevant agents, and that much of the rhetoric is just gymnastics at best and justification for crimes against humanity at worst. I suggested I could write something about this, but the editor never wrote back.
I am still a communist, however, a dying commie bastard, walking around in Hoi An with my social-realist-art T-shirt on listening to Nah’s Fuck Communism and nodding my head in agreement; you and I, Nah, I think, we are the true communists – perhaps in the vein Duong Thu Huong regards Ho Chi Minh in The Zenith, that it wasn’t Bac Ho who betrayed the revolution but the revolution that betrayed Bac Ho. And that too, is a too familiar trope – that Lenin was guilty of nothing and Stalin did it all, that it all would’ve turned out better had Trotsky won, that Mao was wasted on opium and it was the gang of four who were responsible, etc. etc. Excuses, excuses.
I am obviously not a vietnamese communist. Not card-carrying, card-wanting, card-accepting. Nor indeed vietnamese. But I am a communist. These are my contradictions, my whitmaniacal multitudes. And I don’t find much comfort either in the western university type radicalism – the kind which equates KG’s poetry reading to the slave-trade (much of that takedown rhetoric is all too reminiscent of Stalin’s rejection of dada and surrealism – to be replaced by an army of third rate Maxim Gorki wannabes – the US poetry scene seems from the outside to be a thoroughly spiteful cesspool of envy and careerist fencing; I used to want to take part in it but now it just scares me). If you don’t have a sense of proportion you should take some time off, if possible, relax, look at the world; if your primary feeling about everything is simple indignation (and the complicated justification of said indignation) you’re not a revolutionary, you’re just an asshole. If you’re incapable of embracing solidarity where you find it, you’re of no use to the revolution. If all you’re interested in is flexing your resistance on Facebook – well, one day we’re all gonna be too old for this tiring bullshit and the world will remain as fucked up as ever, with new people showing up to perform the same old tiring bullshit.
All the best,
Sunday, March 22, 2015
on his previous email:
- 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.