LENY M. STROBEL Engages
WATERMELON NIGHTS by Greg Sarris
(First Edition, Hyperion Books, 1998; Penguin, 1999)
I picked up a used copy of Watermelon Nights at the Mockingbird Bookstore in Guerneville recently. I bought it for [a friend] Brenda as she has told me that her book club was going to be reading this book. I've read this book when it was released and all I could recall today is that there are Manong stories in it. At that time of my first read, the book didn't resonate with me. I remember feeling that the voice was too masculine, the stories too sad, the prose too dense.
In hindsight, I now know that it didn't resonate with me because I didn't know enough about Sonoma County Pomo and Coast Miwok history and not enough of the history of Filipino farm workers in this area during the time of the Depression and the ensuing years of racial discrimination, anti-miscenegation laws, and anti-Filipino sentiments. I didn't know enough about the encounters between Indians and Filipinos in Sonoma County.
Re-reading it now with a little bit of knowledge gathered in the last decade or so, I am grateful. Here's the story of three generations: Johnny Severe, son of Iris; Iris, daughter of Elba, the Grandmother.
Elba tells the stories of the Old Ones who still remember the songs, the Medicine, the coming of white people and the sins they brought with them. Iris, Elba's daughter, is born during the time when the reservation was no more. The Indians have settled in South Park in Santa Rosa living in ramshackle houses, making do to survive. Iris goes to school with white folks, excels in spelling and academics, and in the end she is excluded from everything for being an Indian. Most of her life becomes an attempt to fit in, to assimilate in the white world. In the end, she finds herself back at Elba's home, pregnant with Johnny.
Johnny is coming of age as the novel starts. He is an entrepreneur, as he calls himself, re-selling used clothes and accessories from Salvation Army. He is proud of the gift of knowing how to dress people, "how to read" them so that he knows exactly what they need and want even before they tell him. This "gift of knowing and seeing" extends to the vista that Johnny's voice unfolds for the reader -- the effects and consequences of federal policies on Indian reservations and identities: the misery of being displaced and uprooted from the Land, the scattering of the tribe, the inhumane ways the men and especially the women are forced to make their living among white ranchers and landowners as sex workers and/or domestic servants, and then there become the children born of rape and drunkenness.
In Sarris' weaving of this larger history of genocide of his people with their personal histories, what he leaves me, as a reader, is this: This is what Survivance looks like. Survivance, a concept coined by Gerald Vizenor meaning "survival plus resistance" moves the narrative beyond victimry.
Johnny feels ambivalent. He wants to help the tribe (build a bingo hall perhaps) and at the same time he wants to escape the wounding of this place, its narrowed confines of existence. His grandmother Elba, in her own silent ways, tries to teach Johnny what is worth staying for. What is remembered of the Old Ones. What is bigger and beyond what we know in the here and now. There is a Silence here that speaks without words and lives on in a gesture, a look, a song, a garden, a basket being woven, a chanted prayer. This is the way we used to be, Grandmother Elba seems to say, before genocide and slavery.
What strikes me about Sarris' storytelling is that he doesn't dwell on the guilt, shame, sadness, blaming, and anger. They are there in the stories, of course, but Silence here seems to cover a multitude of sins. For example, Del, the Filipino farm worker, who 'rents' Elba for the night decides that he just wants to talk. He pays her to listen and as she attempts to understand and empathize with his stories, he falls in love with her and offers to take care of her. She doesn't take him up on the offer just then but later on in the novel, we know that indeed he has fulfilled his promise. Elba never tells Johnny the story about Del and how they came to live on the ranch with him. Johnny just seems to know that there is a story between the two of them.
What shines through in Watermelon Nights is the big- heartedness of people who might be deemed as "broken" by others outside their world. What shines through is their kindness and generosity to each other. In the novel, there are plenty of stories of people who have hurt each other but they could always return to the embrace of the community. Forgiveness abounds. No one is beyond the demand of compassion.
As I reflect about these stories this time around, I am thankful to Sarris for being able to articulate how I feel many times about my own people and my communities. As one of many Filipinos uprooted and displaced from our own homelands, I, too, feel the wretched anger that history has visited upon us. But as I have learned how to dig deeper and enlarged my own field of vision to include a longer historical and even mythical imagination, I, too, have began to understand and experience that Silence. Silence because we don't know and cannot know everything. Silence because we hold the ancient songs of the Old Ones in our bones and in our hearts, not yet to be spoken of in a world that is not ready to receive such gifts.
The Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria were federally recognized in 2000. At the time of writing of this novel, Sarris and his tribe had been working on getting officially recognized by the federal government for decades. Sarris' grandfather, Emilio Hilario is Filipino. He tells his own story HERE.
Thank you, Greg Sarris.
Leny M. Strobel offers a video on "Decolonizing as a Spiritual Path" at YouTUBE!