Monday, January 30, 2017

Dispatches from Dystopia, by Kate Brown

I heard about Kate Brown's Dispatches from Dystopia:  Histories of Places Not Yet Forgotten on NPR's book concierge.  It's a series of essays about "the very human and sometimes very fraught ways we come to understand a particular place, its people, and its history."  In this slim volume (excluding the notes, it is only 150 pages long), Brown goes to Chernobyl and Seattle and many places in between, trying to understand how humans form a sense of place.  She specifically chooses places that are often forgotten or left behind, talks to people who stayed behind when everyone else moved on.

This book was a little different than what I expected, though I am not sure what exactly I expected.  It is really beautifully and empathetically written, though Brown herself has more of a role in the essays than I expected her to.  She acknowledges this at the very beginning, saying that it is difficult for her to be a third party observer when she is in the midst of the story herself.  So instead of talking about the places and the people themselves, she talks about her interactions with the people and places she visits.  In this way, Kate Brown reminds me of Rebecca Solnit.

I really enjoyed this book, mostly because it gives a new perspective on many different places.  Very real to me was the chapter on Seattle's Panama Hotel, where many Japanese-Americans left their belongings before they were sent to internment camps during World War II.  Brown talks about how some words were used over others to make the whole thing seem more palatable, how people were taken away quietly and away from others so that no one had to see what they had brought to bear:
White Seattleites in February 1942 voted overwhelmingly for the Japanese Americans' removal.  Imagine their reaction if Japanese American deportees had left their possessions in plain sight: rain-soaked laundry dangling from clotheslines, produce rotting on fruit stands, goods in shop windows fading in the sun.  The unrepressed possessions of suddenly absent fellow citizens would have told a story starkly divergent from newspaper accounts of "evacuation," safety, national security, and inevitable fealty to race.  The basement full of belongings underscores the myth of what was euphemistically called "evacuation," a term implying benevolence, a federal government seeking to remove Japanese Americans for their own safety.  Like the deportations - indeed, like the deportees - the stockpile was meant to be forgotten.  To me, the Panama's storage room of locked-away possessions served as an icon for the quiet banishment of Japanese Americans from American society.
Much of Brown's book revolves around multiple ways of looking at either the same scene or the same situation and acknowledging the different biases or assumptions that get people to those viewpoints.  For example, she describes how American scientists looked at the impact of radiation on people by first studying the environment and what the minimum exposure level of a person was to an environment; Soviet scientists looked at people, saw the symptoms, and made diagnoses based on the person, not the environment.  The approaches reached different conclusions and led to different pros and cons.  The American method has now encroached on how we view almost all environmental disasters and impacts - upon individuals, not upon a whole system.

One of my favorite things about this book was the way Brown insists that we change our perspective on people who live their lives differently than we do.  She visits Chernobyl expecting to see so many horrors, but she sees that some people do still live there.  She visits another town, Pripyat, that has since been abandoned because of a nuclear explosion but that was really quite a beautiful, idyllic place to live when things were going well.  Meaning, just because people lived in the Soviet Union, that doesn't mean they were all unhappy and miserable all the time.  They had good lives, too.

Brown's last chapter takes her to Elgin, Illinois, a town not so far from where I grew up.   She tells a story that is now familiar to many of us that grew up in America's heartland, the steel belt turned rust belt, the towns that many feel have been left behind as jobs and people and money go to the cities.  But Brown also tells the flip side of the story, of how those towns often made decisions that hurt themselves in the long run, choosing short-term profits and cost-cutting over longer-term investment.  When workers at the main employer in Elgin went on strike to fight for better wages, the company response was fierce and immediate.  "For the following century, the company suffered no more strikes, and Elgin leaders enticed other manufacturers to town with tax breaks, land grants, and arguments that Elgin was 'a poor field for the agitator.'" 

And so, even though unemployment was low, people continued to work well past the age of retirement, and 40% of married women continued to work after marrying and having children to support their families.  And then the factory left, anyway, to find even cheaper labor.  Brown talks about how, for such a prosperous country, America has many towns that look abandoned and left behind, almost ghost-like.  "These are the muted smells and sounds of amputated careers and arrested bank accounts.  Looking at the chain of churches and shops displacing one another in quick succession, feeling something between depression and despair, I think about E.P. Thompson's question - who will rescue these places from the enormous condescension of posterity?"

In some ways, Dispatches from Dystopia has the same central premise as Strangers in their Own Land - we need to give people who feel forgotten and left behind a platform from which to speak and feel valued and empowered, rather than just telling their stories from our perspectives.  But perhaps because Kate Brown made the decision to go to multiple places, to draw parallels between towns in America and towns in the Communist bloc, the American approach to science and free will vs the Soviet approach, it felt much wider-reaching.  So much of what we believe is based on justifying acts, making ourselves feel better, like using the word "evacuation" instead of "imprisonment."  Talking about "diversity" instead of "equality."  And it's only when we really push ourselves to make those connections, draw the parallels, that we can fully acknowledge what we've done and what we can do going forward.

Are you interested in learning more about this subject?:
I put up loads of links at the end of my reviews on Strangers in their Own Land and The Unwinding.

If you would like to watch a documentary about the women who still live in the Chernobyl zone, check out The Babushkas of Chernobyl.

While there, you can listen to Holly Morris' TED Talk about the women and what happy, peaceful lives they are living, contrary to what all of us would generally believe.

Holly Morris' story about the Babushkas is also included in this episode of the TED Radio Hour, Toxic.

14 comments:

  1. I am crushed to report that none of my libraries has this book. I haven't given up though! I'm going to see if I can get it through interlibrary loan, because it sounds super interesting.

    I have been thinking a lot, and having a lot of feelings, about the way people sanitize their unforgivable actions by putting different words on what they're doing, and equating things that aren't equivalent to elide moral responsibility. I hope that as things are getting harder (and they are getting harder fast), I can remember not to do this. I hope I can keep finding the right thing to do.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree. Honestly, I am horrified by the way people are justifying really terrible acts. And I agree on the false equivalency. Also, even if there *is* an equivalent in history, however short that history may be, that doesn't excuse doing it again.

      Delete
  2. When I saw the title of this post, I wondered if it were going to be a more personal account of travels around the US. I guess I'm glad it's not! Sounds very interesting, and a relief to think about perspectives and subtlety after a week of everyone lining up and claiming they know good from bad.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, quite refreshing! And to be reminded that every story is shaped by someone, and that multiple stories of a place can be accurate at the same time.

      Delete
  3. This sounds terrific; I've just put a hold on it at the library. Thanks, Aarti! (And I'm going to be keeping a keen eye on your reading these days - keep on keeping on!)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Aww, thank you :-) I'll obviously be doing the same with your reading!

      Delete
  4. This sounds worth checking out!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Honestly I do not know about the whole Chernobyl thing, I have a friend whose family fled. The family that were left behind is cancer ridden, how is that happy

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, it is mostly older women. I would say they are enjoying each other's company and the comfort of living in a home they know well. Vs moving somewhere new and feeling isolated. I don't think it has much to do with actual physical health.

      Delete
  6. This sounds incredible, and I'm definitely requesting it from the library.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It was very good! Also, based on your comment for Strangers in Their Own Land, I think you might like George Packer's The Unwinding.

      Delete
  7. You're such a good review writer; I always feel I really have an understanding of the book and it's issues when I read one of your reviews. Although the topics are different, this book reminds me a one I read a long time ago: Going to Extremes by Nick MIddleton where he visits the hottest, coldest, highest, lowest, driest, and wettest places on earth and gets to know the people and their culture

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, thank you, Helen! That really means a lot to me.

      I'll have to check out Middleton's book - you're right, it is nice that he spends time actually getting to know the people, much like Brown does here.

      Delete
  8. My sister lives in Elgin and I lived with her for a few months after grad school, so I'm curious to read this book.

    ReplyDelete

I read every comment posted on this blog, even if it sometimes takes me a while to respond. Thank you for taking the time and effort to comment here! Unless you are spamming me, in which case, thanks for nothing.