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.

1 comment:

Distillerium said...

Yes, I'd love to read more about all that. Thanks for putting this up.
Someday, of course, it will be re absorbed: the land that is. It is happening already from what i hear.
:-D