Monday, October 27, 2008
Doing it right
I started reading Alaa al-Aswany's highly acclaimed new novel, Chicago, yesterday; so often, westerners imagine other cultures, and our knowledge of, say, India, may have been first shaped by E M Forster. I wanted to see how an Egyptian writer would imagine my hometown, but found myself unable to get past the historical errors on the first page. The novel starts with the arrival of Marquette and de la Salle, and the subsequent brutal treatment of the Indians by Europeans. When I read that the tribes peacefully herded cattle for centuries before the European arrival I started getting peevish, because domestic cattle didn't exist in the Americas until they were brought here by Europeans.
It's hard to write well about a country, society, culture that you don't know well. And that brings me to Tony Hillerman. Tony died yesterday in Albuquerque. I didn't know him personally, but I feel a personal loss. He was one of the great writers, great masters and students of craft, and he valued both a scrupulous attention to detail, and an immersion in the culture that he wrote about, in his case the Navajo nation. He grew up with the Potowatami, even attending a Potowatami girls school in Oklahoma, and, after returning from World War II--minus part of a leg, and vision in one eye--he lived in New Mexico, where he came to know the Navajo. In eighteen novels, he detailed crimes and culture on the reservation, and the local Navajo gave him their "Special friends of the Diné" award, because he wrote so empathically about their nation.
Tony suffered terribly from rheumatoid arthritis, from failing vision, from cancer, from cardio-pulmonary disease, but nothing stopped his writing. May his memory be a blessing.