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Griever: An American Monkey King in China (Gerald Vizenor)

March 12, 2010

Oh how I love Gerald Vizenor’s writing! The first work I ever read by him was The Heirs of Columbus, and this novel has completely lived up to my expectations. The way he uses language is so incredibly complex and playful. But let’s see, what do I actually have to say about the story itself….

Well, so I have this burning interest in cross-cultural US ethnic literature, specifically in authors who write about connections between and across cultures in certain ways. Griever is interesting in this regard because of the comparisons between the Native American trickster figure and the Chinese monkey figure. Both figures are culturally known for their troublemaking, their mischief, and Griever happens to be both — a Native American trickster who goes to China to teach English and of course starts all sorts of trouble there (political, personal, you name it, he started it). The Chinese people he comes into contact with often recognize him as a “mind monkey” and completely accept him as such. At one point he tells a guard that he is an American monkey and the guard laughs but accepts it as the truth. The ease with which Griever crosses cultural boundaries and finds his niche within the Chinese culture (a niche parallel to the one he occupied on the reservation) makes a bold statement about the way different cultures mix and about cultural translation in general.

Also, I am in love with Vizenor’s obsession with mixedbloods in this novel. Perhaps this goes back to my own life and my personal experiences (haha), but I really enjoyed it. I think that ultimately the novel makes the point that being a mixedblood is a positive thing. The characters who have a problem with mixedbloods are not characters we’re encouraged to like. For instance, Hanah Dustan (not one of the novel’s completely reprehensible characters, but certainly not one of its exulted heroes either) says the following of mixedbloods:

“Mix oil and water and you end up with neither. […] Chinese, now take these people here, victims of the world over, but not so much as their mixedblood children. […] Even so, when people can be recognized for what they are, then they do better in the world. Jews, like the Chinese and other races, achieve more and earn more in those countries where there is discrimination, but not mixedbloods because no one knows who they are. Mixedbloods are neither here nor there, not like real bloods.” (77-8)

While Hannah’s speech illustrates her attempts to make sense of various races, the point she’s really arguing at the core of the matter is that racism can sometimes work in one’s favor, but that mixedbloods are going to be completely discriminated against because of their racial ambiguity — since they could be anything and are unclassifyable, they get all the bad treatment instead of only some of it. On the other hand, Griever’s comments are quite different. (Plot spoiler ahead!!) When he takes Kangmei with him in his ultralight at the end of the novel, he discusses the positive aspects of her mixed racial heritage:

“You can imagine what the peasants must think when we come down out of the air, a mixedblood barbarian trickster in an opera coat, a mixedblood blonde who speaks Chinese, wears a cape with bundles of silk seeds under her arms, and a cock tied behind the ultralight seat. […] Kangmei was born here but her father was an American, he died in a labor camp during the earthquake at Tangshan. She inherited small bones from her mother and blond hair from her father, which was necessary for her flight to freedom, because, if she weighed ten pounds more we might have crashed in the moat, and if she had black hair she might have been arrested.” (234)

Griever’s comments highlight the positive aspects of mixedbloods — that they inherit characteristics from both of their parents, and that they are more adaptable because of it. There’s also the implication that they are hardier, better at surviving, well-equipped for life in a crazy cross-cultural world.

All in all, I love Gerald Vizenor. I have nothing academic or professional to add to that statement — I refuse to quantify it. His writing makes me so happy, and is so crazy and elusive that I just can’t get enough!

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