Friday, September 24, 2004

Who are the Californians? What's their literature?

Literature of California: Native American Beginnings to 1945 edited by Jack Hicks, James D. Houston, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Al Young is a rather awesome anthology of both prose and poetry. It's the first anthology to be fully multi-cultural and put together by editors from different ethnic backgrounds.

Literature of California includes an excerpt from Richard Henry Dana from his book Two Years Before the Mast describing how in 1835 as a Yankee sailor visiting San Diego he spent a few weeks as a beachcomber curing hides in a hut built by the Russians whose ship had just left and manned by Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islanders. I thought about this combination of Russians, Yankees, and Polynesians working together in Mexican California in 1835. Yes, California has always had this diversity from the very beginning so it's about time an anthology finally begins to capture the literature made by its many peoples.

Section I with traditional Native California literature has the most astonishing literature. I'm not particulary interested in debates about whether or not oral literature without a name attached is literature. Of course, it's literature. "The Origins and the Way of the World" section contains creation epics from the Maidu (one long poem and a shorter prose piece); the Yokuts' "Creation of the Mountains"; two Chumash pieces "The Three Worlds" and "The Making of Man;" and a Yuki "Intiation Song" about the making of rocks in California. One of my favorite in the whole book is the Maidu creation epic poem descrbing how Coyote, laying on his belly,

He stretched out the Land with his feet
Pushing it out, little by little,
he stretched it out to where the sun rises--
first he streched it out to there.
Then to the south, and to where the sun sets,
he stretched it out, little by little-
then, to the land beyohnd, to the North Country--

So now we find out what California is so big--Coyote stretched it out. I also loved the Yokuts tale "The Origin of the Mountains" telling how in the beginning the world was all water with a pole standing up holding a lonely hawk and crow. After hawk and crow made the other kingsfisher, eagle, pelican, duck and other birds to keep them company, they "commenced making the mountains." The made the Te-hi-cha-pa Pass and made all the mountains going north-to-south up to Mount Shasta near the Oregon border. So that's how the mountains got made! What's good about this section is that the mulitple tribal voices begin to illustrate for the reader the hundreds of Native California cultures.

Sections III about California literature from 1865-1914 and Section IV from 1914-1945 are both very good. For example, Section III includes the usual Anglo suspects--Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Abmrose Bierce, John Muir, Frank Norris--whose writings put California on the national literary map. The book also includes a good section of women writers: Paiute writer Sarah Winnemuca's description of growing up Paiute; Mexican-American Maria Amapro Ruis de Burton's novel The Squatter and the Don attacking how Anglos stole the Mexican ranchos; Anglo Mary Austin's From the Land of Little Rain, the first voice defending the Southwest deserts; and Edith Maud Eaton (Sui Sin Far) with her story "The Land of the Free" on discrimination against Chinese immigrants.

Of the poetry, again, it was mostly a good selection of what is now canonical late 19th century and early 20th century California poetry: the Anglos in northern California such as Ina Coolbrith, George Sterling, Edwin Markham, and Joaquin Miller as well as from a later period Yvor Winters and Robinson Jeffers. The one surprise was the inclusion of Yone Noguchi, a young Japanese who visited California from 1893-1904, writing in English poetry as well a prose book about his wandering in America The Story of Yone Noguchi. He had a short relationship with an Irish women which produced Isamu Noguchi, the famous sculptor. The elder Noguchi returned to Japan where he became a professor and writer, so the connections between Japanese and California literature go back a century.

This book has one problem which is Section II "One Hundred Years of Exploration and Conquest 1769-1870." The opening section includes a delightful selection "The Queen of California" from 16th century Spanish writer Montalvo's romance novel about a Spanish knight.This excerpt describes an fictional island floating off the west coast of the Americas inhabited by black Amazons ruled by Queen Califa. The Spanish conquistradores must have read the novel before they named the western areas "Baja California" and "Alta California."

Unfortunately, the rest of the section sounds like one after another report from imperial scouts or imperial conquerers or new settlers coming to live in the new parts of the empire--first the Spanish, then French, then Russian, and lastly the Anglo. The scouts or conquerers or new settlers are all writing for the folks back home about life in this new province. Not one selection gives any feelings of the numerous societies already living in Alta Calfornia--Spanish, Mexican, and hundreds of tribal cultures. Not one section gives any sense either of Native American or Mexican resistance to conquest.

The section would be improved with including Pico Pico, the last Mexican governor of California, whose plainly styled narratives tell about his soldiering and his family based in San Diego. Or the book could include a selection about the Indian uprisings in 1775 in San Diego Natives and 1781 by the Yuma on the Colorado River from Padre Palou, the Franciscan who began California history with his Noticias de la California (History of California). The book could includ a differnt section from Mariana Vallejo's five volume History and Personal Memories Relating to Alta California describing the decades both Vallejo's soldier father and he fought California Indians up and down the coast. The false stereotype of California's Indians was they were peaceful people who did not revolt. If one reads the history of Pico or Palou or Vallejo one realizes that California's Indians fought against conquest starting with the San Diego Indian revolt in 1775 to the Modoc War near the Oregon border in 1873. These three writers also gives a sense of a first Spanish and then Mexican society in Alta California: a society permeated by Palou's intense Catholicism; Pico's strong family ties; and Vallejo's military pride.

The book includes two excerpts from missionaries Fray Juan Crespi and Pedro Fages about the setting up of Californias missions but the book should also include letters from Hugo Reid. Hugo Reid was a Scotsman who settled near Los Angeles and married a Tongva Indian woman. After learning his wife's experiences and talking to other Tongva, Reed published in a Los Angeles newspaper in the 1850s a series of letters attacking how the missionaries brutalized the Tongva people at the San Gabriel mission and how the Indians resisted. I'd include Reeds letters XVI-XX. Then I'd retitle Section II "One Hundred Years of Imperial Conquest and Native Resistance." The present day Native American and Chicano poetry and prose have deep roots.

Other than this one lapse, this volume is wonderful. It's the best there is out there on California literature. Read this book. It gives space to the many voices who've made up California for hundreds of years--the voices of the true California. The book is the first to give us our voices, show us who we really are.

Sunday, September 05, 2004

Arabs Invent Algebra!

A long time ago while an undergraduate at UC Berkeley I signed up for a summer school class in Medieval Islamic History with Bernard Lewis, a visiting professor from England. Lewis was considered one of the leading Anglo-American experts on Islam, but I didn't know that. I was nineteen and needed a history elective in summer school and Lewis's class was open. Lewis is generally pro-United States and has been criticized by younger Islamic scholars. He had us read the whole Koran besides history books. I suggest everybody read the whole Koran. I was moved reading this book which is about the same lenght as the New Testament.

What struck me was Lewis talking about the importance of poetry in Islamic society where political poets had important public roles. According to Eric Ceadel in Literatures of the East Arabic poetry goes back to pagan times (before Muhammed) where the poet was the “artist, journalist, propagandist and public relations officer of his tribe” Besides learning that Islamic society has a 1,400 year history of poetry (longer than the literary history of most European nations), I did a paper in college on Muslim science and mathematic discoveries. I learned that Islamic society produced the most important scientific, philosophic and mathematic writers and researchers while Europe was in the Dark Ages.

In fact, Europe had lost most of the Greek classics while Islamic countries had kept copies of these classics in their great libraries. Further, the Islamic caliphs, the head of the huge empire, encouraged the translation of Greek classics on medicine, astronomy, chemistry, logic, mathematics and philosophy into Arabic. Centuries later Arabic and Jewish translators in Spain translated most of the Greek classics from into Arabic into European languages, thus giving these works to Europe. Besides these translations from the Greek, the Muslims translated history and literary books from Persian; Sanskrit books on mathematics, medicine, astronomy and literature; Syriac books on agriculture. Islamic scholars then built on the work of Greeks, Persians, Syrians, and Indians.

According to Najib Ullah’s Islamic Literature from the 8th-12th centuries Islamic astronomers made huge contributions and “introduced new procedures, formulas, calculations, and tables, which …. were the sources of reference for the great astronomers of Europe such as Tycho Brahe, Kelpler, Galileo, and Newton." Ullah also says that algebra is considered to be a Muslim invention. Mohammed ben Musa al_Khwarazami (d. 850) was the author of the first book on algebra. Ullah also says that Muslim mathematicians made innovations in arithmetic, geometry, spheric trigonometry, and introduced the numeric system and the concept of zero.

As for chemistry and physics, Ullah describes that "Al-Hazen's work on optics was the first of its kind ... The Muslims discovered alcohol, sulfuric acid, nitirc acid, royal water, potassium, ammonia salt, silver nitrate, sublimiated corrosives, as well as the method of preperation of mercury... The words alchohol, alembic, alkali, and elixir are Arabic." Islamic researches, furthermore, contributed to the development of medicine, natural sciences, and agriculture. In medicine, for example, Ibn Zohr of Muslim Spain pioneered in the method of scientific observation in medcine, surgery, and pharmacology as well as diagnosing and treating many new diseases.

I’d like to mention one Islamic scientist/philospher Abu Ali Ibn Sinna (Avicenna) who was born in 980 and educated by his scholar father and at the great library of the kings of Bukhara. Avicenna is very much an Islamic Aristotle: he wrote over 100 books on almost all topics of science, philosophy and literature. He wrote the Shifa, a book on logic, physics, mathematics, and astronomy; a work on logic called The Book of Theorems and Warnings; The Sources of Philosophy on physics and theology; several books of poetry in both Arabic and Persian et al. According to Ullah, “He believed in the unlimited power of reason. … He made original studies on questions of time and movement, the divisibility of matter, the conduction of light and heat. etc. His book on medicine The Canon was used in Europe for centuries.His theories of vacuum were utilized by Galileo and Torricelli ….” During the 12th century, Europeans translated over 100 of his books.

So I wrote the paper on Islamic mathematics and science and learned quite a lot how scholars from the Greece, India and, of course, the Islamic world, contriubted to developing mathematics, medicine and science.

I have yet to seen a mainstream media in the United States make one reference to Islam’s history as a leader of science and mathematics as well as producing wonderful poetry. I’ve never yet seen Muslims portrayed in mainstream U.S media as men and women of reason. I'd like to see a TV show on Abu Ali Ibn Sina (Avicenna) as a great man of science, medicine, poetry and phiosophy. I think another good TV show would be on the debt Europe owes to all those Muslim and Jewish translators (many in Muslim Spain) who translated Greek classics into European languages. At that point Christain, Muslim and Jewish scholars worked productively together to enlarge scholarship. I think the mainstream U.S. media give out very stereotypic views of Islamic civilization and needs to change.