Expendable Mudge Muses Aloud: My Reading Life

Illustration from Wikipedia of a great German concept, the Mittelstand

My second entry into the exploration of what makes a smaller publisher’s output so interesting and so valuable to me as a reader focuses on Phoneme Media. It might be useful to repost the list of qualities of companies in the Mittelstand share, either in whole or in part (via Wikipedia):

  • Family ownership or family-like corporate culture
  • Generational continuity
  • Long-term focus
  • Independence
  • Nimbleness
  • Emotional attachment
  • Investment into the workforce
  • Flexibility
  • Lean hierarchies
  • Innovativeness
  • Customer focus
  • Social responsibility
  • Strong regional ties

I associate all of these traits with a small, small handful of US companies, the largest of which is Johnson & Johnson, an amazing organization of shocking social responsibility that makes profits from helping and soothing the world’s ill people. I am gobsmacked that it exists at all, trained as I am to accept predatory capitalism as The Norm. But I digress.

The Mission Statement of Phoneme Media contains the following:

Phoneme Media is a nonprofit media company dedicated to promoting cross-cultural understanding, connecting people and ideas through translated books and films. … Phoneme Media is fiscally-sponsored project of PEN Center USA, a nonprofit organization founded in 1943 to protect the rights of writers around the world, to stimulate interest in the written word, and to foster a vital literary community. As a fiscally sponsored project of PEN Center USA, Phoneme’s mission to translate and publish international literature and, through film, to document the lives and cultures of its authors, compliments PEN’s own mission.

I love the characterization of Phoneme Media as a publisher of “Curious Books for Curious People” because it exemplifies the spirit of innovativeness, independence, and social responsibility from the Mittlestand’s list of lovely characteristics I wish many, many more businesses shared. *ahem* Sorry, there I go again. The simple reason that Phoneme Media’s founders David Shook and Brian Hewes named it that is on the Home page:

phoneme |ˈfōnēm| noun

1] any of the perceptually distinct units of sound in a specified language that distinguish one word from another

2] a non-profit publisher of curious books for curious people

ORIGIN late 19th cent.: from French phonème, from Greek phōnēma ‘sound, speech,’ from phōnein ‘speak.’

Speaking the truth, speaking the tales that limn the truth against the backdrop of the Mainstream’s Narrative, these are qualities in a work and in a publishing house that I value above all others. It is the reason that I seek out literary fiction, and the strongest reason I have for making literary translations such a large part of my reading repertoire.

I was asked by a Goodreads friend where I find the unusual publishers whose work I so appreciate. My response is, I go looking for the small publishers of the world! I use resources like Entropy Magazine’s stellar Small Press Database, which was begun by a social-media friend of mine, workaholic and outstanding young novelist Michael Seidlinger. I realize that small publishers face the gargantuan task of alerting people who will respond to their efforts of their existence. Advertising isn’t terribly effective in the book industry. How can you trust a copywriter to know your own taste? The usual way people find books is word of mouth, as exemplified by Digital Book World’s analysis of Goodreads’s founder Otis Chandler’s case study of making a bestseller. Book reviewers, professional or amateur, are the ones filling the niche of trusted advisors; we have been around as long as books have…before that, even, taking the First Council of Nicea as a book review panel that read a huge mass of scrolls containing texts surrounding the Life of Christ and developed a reading list from it that we call “The Bible” today. As I am in an unusual position in this capitalist world, a man in full command of his powers who is also in full command of his own time, I set about finding smaller business entities, asking them for samples of their output, and using my time, my talent with words, and my deep desire to have the world listen to me in their service.

Phoneme Media and Me

When I contacted Phoneme founder David Shook via their website, I gave him my usual pitch about my interests, the places I talk endlessly about them, and how that can be used to his organization’s advantage. I asked for copies of Baho! and another Phoneme title, Bessarabian Stamps, to review. He was generous enough to send both titles to me; I’d like to share my review of Baho! at this time, though I’ll be reviewing Bessarabian Stamps later.

Phoneme’s description of Baho!:

When Nyamugari, an adolescent mute, attempts to ask a young woman in rural Burundi for directions to an appropriate place to relieve himself, his gestures are mistaken as premeditation for rape. To the young woman’s community, his fleeing confirms his guilt, setting off a chain reaction of pursuit, mob justice, and Nyamugari’s attempts at explanation. Young Burundian novelist Roland Rugero’s second novel Baho!, the first Burundian novel to ever be translated into English, explores the concepts of miscommunication and justice against the backdrop of war-torn Burundi’s beautiful green hillsides.

That sounds tasty to me. I love being an early literary adopter. I know little about Burundi, and that’s catnip to my brain. I am also a great aficionado of books that present the horrifying and enduring consequences of war. I am horrified at how little the USA attends to the complete devastation of people’s lives in the wake of its actions or inactions on the world stage. It is a sad reality that women are, comme d’habitude, the sufferers of the greatest personal indignities in war: rape, the loss of livelihood especially in agrarian societies, and the horrifying loss of the children they gave birth to in “service” to some geopolitical hoo-hah. An earlier review of mine, of Beasts of No Nation, noted that the child narrator was only nominally a child. He was removed from his mother’s orbit and pressed into a life of murder and rape, committed, witnessed, perpetrated; this should be the subject of an unendurable and inescapable international outcry heard over the din of the USA’s ubiquitous televisions. Yet it isn’t heard over that screen of noise, at least not by most of us. Books have to do the job that TV should be doing.

Baho! does that job admirably, as a fable of modern life, not just in Africa but the world over: An atmosphere of fear and mistrust arising from more than a decade of endless war causes Nyamuragi (not Nyamugari as above; this is my one minor whine about this title, the lapses in care while copyediting and proofreading) the mute to be accused of rape, then of murder as the heat of the moment causes passions to rise higher and higher. His “victim” is a teenaged girl who is accustomed (horribly) to the idea that every woman is a man’s fair game. She isn’t even close enough for Nyamuragi to touch until after she screams, when he grabs her to put his hands over her mouth. The whole village hears the commotion and, being on edge as a whole, assumes that there’s trouble and sets out to find the screamer and help her. They see Nyamuragi manhandling their woman-child, assume the worst, and the pursuit begins. Running, of course, makes Nyamuragi look guilty, so the pursuers begin to stone him.

An elder of the village, widow of one of the wealthy men, is out tending her goats when the kerfuffle starts:

With her left eye, the one-eyed woman tries to make out the pack of pursuers.
With the other eye, her bad one, she searches her thoughts. Tears escape them both. It is hard work with sweat trickling down. One eye makes out reality, and the other seeks the explanation for its harshness. One sees, and the other deliberates. The old woman’s comprehension in either case is muddled.

Her comprehension about matched mine, as the age of our protagonist Nyamuragi changes from eleven to twenty-six and hovers in an uncertain state from beginning to end. This is intentional, per translator Christopher Schaefer’s note. The author is working in the oral storytelling tradition and piles on details that contradict each other as a means of overwhelming the reader, making the story more intensely alive, and who am I to argue with success?

As the mob drags Nyamuragi towards his death by hanging with a “virgin hemp rope” (this will be important later), the one-eyed old woman hears the word ejo, which leads her into reverie:

Tomorrow and yesterday: two different times, a single word to label them both. Two places in time, a single name. As a result, one becomes the other. Or maybe “tomorrow” and “yesterday” meld into one another, because they contain two chimeras: past and future.
(itals in original)

It seems that Nyamuragi has tried, in his torment, to assent to the mob’s mistaken murder of him, to offer himself as a scapegoat for the rage and terror of the whole nation of Burundi, by shouting ego, in his village’s native language an assent; since he’s been electively mute for his whole life, his vocalization is misunderstood and the crowd roars ejo back at him. They wonder what he means, did he do mischief yesterday or will he if they let him live until tomorrow? In the throes of their rage and fear, they can’t decide and no one can agree with anyone else.

Nyamuragi is, in the extremity of his manhandling and torture, driven by his agony to retreat into the waiting state. He’s not fully in his body, he keeps blacking out, falling asleep, waking again to be dragged up and up the hill where his village mates are going to hang him from the giant fig tree. His ejo is very much where he is:

In fact, at a very young age Nyamuragi had loved to read, this way of summarizing life with signs. Letters which possessed hats, ties, crooked dashes, feet, arms pointed upwards or turned downwards, hooks above and below, commas, periods, scrawls and scribbles, with the odd one crossed out.

It is always safer, Nyamuragi has learned the hard way, to avoid speech and trust silence. Words on paper are blessedly mute. He has emulated them through the horrors of his parents’ murders; he has emulated them so well that now he can’t summon them despite his great need.

If Nyamuragi had possessed speech, perhaps he would have prayed for divine intervention. He needn’t bother, since the divine has already intervened by sending his Uncle Jonathan the demobbed soldier to the village to see his nephew now that the wars are over:

He had served on the frontlines. He knew that tactical decisions win wars. The disorderly two-hundred-strong crowd did not overwhelm him. He knew they were weak. Because he was systematic. And especially because kuvuga menshi siko kuyamara — to speak much does not imply exhausting one’s words.

It is Uncle Jonathan who saves the day, and saves Nyamuragi.

This fable of rage, fear, revenge, guilt and expiation, is as relevant to US society as to Burundian. While the scapegoat isn’t guilty of the crime of rape, he looks like he is, so he is targeted and the sins of the villagers are heaped on the outsider-from-birth. Mob action might be more direct in Burundi than here, but only just. That the village unites around its young woman and protects her, promises her vengeance, is a refreshing difference from US society’s casual, uninterested assumption that the rapist is more “innocent” than the victim. (Typing that sentence nauseated me.)

I recommend to you that, if you read this book (and I think you should), be prepared to do some involuntary soul-searching. How would you have handled the mob’s decision to murder someone you knew for something you don’t know whether or not he did? How would you have tried to comfort the terrified girl whose screams set off the whole nightmare? Would any course of action you can imagine have made any difference?

Only the best books can do this to a reader. This is art of a high order.