Sunday, 28 February 2010

Paraguay - Cuisine

I set myself a challenge of making three traditional Paraguayan dishes.  I took ideas from different sources, but probably the best source I found for Paraguayan recipes was which has a free PDF version of Flavours of Paraguay:  A Cookbook by Lynn Van Houten

Payagua Mascada

The first dish I made was Payagua Mascada which are cassava patties with beef and onion.  I'd never cooked cassava before and had no idea how to prepare this root, so it was fun finding out - I watched a video on YouTube of a woman in Africa preparing cassava root, so I took my lead from her.

Cassava has an unusual texture and taste.  The peel is almost like a bark and I couldn't help feeling that I was eating some kind of tree.  I fried some minced beef and onion, boiled the cassava and mashed it, mixing all the ingredients together (with cumin, salt, garlic and cornflour), then made patties which I fried on a pan.

Sopa Paraguayana

Probably, the most traditional dish in Paraguay, Sopa Paraguayana is a type of cornbread.  I've made cornbread before, by mixing cornflour with wheat flour, however this bread is cornflour only, lots of cheese and milk, also fried onions and tomatoes, which was really delish!


My main dish was Zoo-Tosopy, a traditional Guarani beef stew.  The recipe said I should boil the minced beef in water, but I couldn't bring myself to do that, so I made sure the minced beef had cooked through properly before adding water to it. 

I then fried onions, tomatoes and plantain, adding them to the beef, with some long-grain rice and a dash of hot-pepper sauce.  Just like cassava, I had never cooked plantain before, so that was cool and the banana aroma was tantalising.  The overall taste was a bit bland, so I would recommend having some hot-pepper sauce to hand as a garnish, or perhaps using tinned tomatoes, to give the stew a more tomatoey taste.  My pot was probably a bit too small as well, just about managed to get everything in!

It took me about three hours to prepare all three dishes.  I'm not sure whether these dishes are meant to go together, but I wanted to learn how to cook cassava and plantain, and I think the tastes kind of complemented each other.  I ended up making a lot of food, so I imagine we'll be freezing some of it.  The whole lot cost me about 14 GBP, which is approximately $21 and 99,000 PYG (Paraguay Guarani).  

Image credits 

All photos were taken by me.    

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Paraguay - Why I'm supporting Paraguay in the World Cup

Well, the main reason is because Ireland aren't playing (thanks Thierry!) I'm not a big fan of football, but I do enjoy watching the World Cup. Like most Celts, I've always operated an ABE (Anyone but England) policy, however I think that's a tradition that's got out of hand and even become somewhat offensive to English fans. I prefer a STU policy (Support the Underdog), which means not supporting England, France, Brazil or the bigger teams in general. I've ardently supported Croatia and Cameroon in the past.

In terms of underdogs, Paraguay is a good choice and, I'm beginning to believe that they genuinely have a shot at World Cup glory. Paraguay has qualified for the World Cup no less than 8 times and they've got through to the second round three times, in 1986, 1998 and 2002. They always seem to come second in their group and they always seem to get knocked out by one of the big European teams.

In 1986 they came second in Group B, behind the hosts Mexico, but were knocked out in second round by England in Mexico City. In 1998 they came second in Group D, ahead of Spain, but were knocked out by France in the round of 16 (second round) in Lens. France went on to win the tournament.

In 2002 Paraguay came second in Group B, being knocked out by Germany in the second round in Seogwipo, Jeju-Do, South Korea. Germany went on to take second place in the tournament. In the FIFA World Cup 2010, Paraguay has been placed in Group F with Italy, New Zealand and Slovakia. Their first match, which is against Italy, will take place in Cape Town on the 14th of June.

I predict that they will come second in their group, behind Italy, which means they will go on to play the winner of Group E, possibly the Netherlands. Then we'll see whether or not history repeats itself, I'm rooting for Paraguay to get to the third round.

One of Paraguay's top scorers is Roque Santa Cruz. He played for Bayern Munich for many years and was voted the sexiest footballer taking part in the last FIFA World Cup in Germany in 2006, by the German-language version of Kicker magazine. After a short spell with Blackburn Rovers, he now plays for English Premier League team, Manchester City. If nothing else, at least Paraguay will have the world's sexiest player on their side!

Image credits

The image of the FIFA World Cup 2010 poster has been provided through flickr by Shine 2010 - 2010 World Cup Good News which is an initiative set up by Chris Onderstall, in Johannesburg, and provides a forum for South Africans (and others?) to meet an discuss the upcoming World Cup tournament - check out their website

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Paraguay - The Mission v Avatar

I couldn't find any Paraguayan-made films but, as I had never seen The Mission, this seemed like an opportune time to rent the DVD.

It was amazing seeing the Paraguayan jungle come to life, hearing the entrancing music of Morricone and watching some fantastic acting by De Niro, Jeremy Irons and Liam Neeson. I must admit the life of the Jesuits and the society of the 'reductions' seemed somewhat idealized and I guess, given the centuries that have passed, we may never know for sure, what the missions in Paraguay and Brazil were really like. The only remnants are those eerie ruined abbeys that one sees in photographs. Tellingly, one of the missions in the movie, San Miguel, is now in Brazil, so I knew that the Jesuit territory would be handed over to the Portuguese, long before the movie had ended.

I saw James Cameron's Avatar recently and, funnily enough, I found many parallels in the storylines of these two movies. Before I went to Avatar, I'd heard a lot about the movie. Most people told me that it was visually stunning, with amazing 3D effects, but that the story was boring. Having seen it, I agree the technical aspects were amazing, but I also quite enjoyed the story.  I mean, it wasn't brilliant, but I liked the message behind the film.

I think the Na'vi of Avatar, could easily have been based on the Guarani of Paraguay (or the Sioux of the Dakotas, or any of the tribes of the Amazon). When the bad guys come with their guns blazing and their machines tearing up the forest, blasting sacred trees and burning down the huts/teepees of the villagers, you can only watch in anguish as a civilsation steeped in centuries of harmony with the natural world, is crushed uncomprehending by a merciless foe and shot down in cold blood by those thirsty to squeeze a profit out of the forest/earth/native population.

A lot of time has passed since the Jesuits were forced out of South America and the jungles opened up to exploitation. The Mission is an interesting record of this period. I'm not sure whether or not Avatar is a lament for what we've lost, or a warning of things to come. Either way, the message is simple:

Tree-killers, bad. Tree-huggers, good.

Image credits

The image from the mission at Trinidad, Paraguay has been provided by flickruser Travel Aficionado using the Creative Commons License.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Paraguay - Asuncion and the Taiwan connection

It may surprise people to know that Asuncion is twinned with Taipei, the capital of Taiwan. Not that the Taiwanese would notice, with Taipei having no less that 45 twin cities. As far as twinning goes, I guess that makes Taipei the belle of the ball.

So why Asuncion then? What could Asuncion and Taipei possibly have in common? Well, the answer is easier than you think. If you stood in the centre of Asuncion and drilled a hole right through the centre of the Earth (not that this is possible but, please, humour me!) when you came out the other side you would be in Taipei. Well, somewhere in Taiwan anyway, I haven't quite worked out the Maths!

This is because the region around Asuncion and the entire island of Taiwan are antipodes, ie. opposite polar points, (from the Greek for opposite foot). If, like me, you're pulling out your atlas to find your find your own antipodes, well, prepare to be disappointed. In a planet where the surface is mostly covered in water, the chances of two land antipodes (like Paraguay and Taiwan) is extremely rare. Most of the United States ends up in the South Indian ocean, the giant landmass of Eurasiafrica ends up in the Pacific! I wonder if this arrangement keeps the world balanced somehow!?

Of course, when we use the word Antipodean in English, it's almost synonymous with Australia/New Zealand, whereas, in fact, it just means the opposite side of the world. A Paraguayan could call someone from Taiwan antipodean, whereas we would never think of it that way.

The closest we've got to a match in Europe are the antipodes of New Zealand and Spain/Portugal. In 2006, according to Wikipedia, the famous American humorist Ze Frank encouraged viewers of his daily webcast to create an antipodean sandwich, by placing two pieces of bread on antipodes in Spain and New Zealand, with the earth being the sandwich filling. I don't know if anyone in Paraguay/Taiwan has tried the same thing.

Image credits

The image of Asuncion is by flickruser everdaniel - he is a web designer and Asuncion is his hometown, although he now lives in Encarnacion with his family.  You can see more of his work at

The image of Taipei is by flickruser fr064722 a.k.a. Aro, who is from Taipei.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Paraguay - The Geography of Guarani Legends

Apart from Guatemala and the Netherlands, all the countries I've blogged about so far have either been island nations or landlocked countries. I guess these contrasts fascinate me, having grown up in an island nation (Ireland) and also having lived in the world's most landlocked country (Uzbekistan).

Roa Bastos, Paraguay's most famous writer, described the country as 'a landlocked island'. This only makes sense when you look at the geography of Paraguay, specifically Paraguay Oriental, which is defined by the three rivers that demarcate this region. The Parana, on the other side of which is Brazil, the Pilcomayo, which separates Paraguay and Argentina, and the River Paraguay, which cuts the country in two. This might not seem significant now, in the age of air travel, but back in the 19th century, the 'easiest' way to get to Paraguay was by river, an arduous journey that could take weeks, or sometimes months. Paraguay's many dictators did what they could to isolate the country politically but, in some ways, it was a task made easier by the country's physical isolation.

It occurred to me, whilst learning about the Guarani legends, that a lot of our spirits and myths are essentially 'animist' in origin. Perhaps man has been so overwhelmed by the magic of the mountains and jungles around him, that he's personified them in both benign and monstrous ways. Ireland and Scotland are full of rainbows and lakes, so we have pots of gold and Loch Ness monsters. Iceland has its trolls and gnomes that live under rocks. Desert nations have their winds, which can drive people mad in their intensity.

The legends of the Guarani are fascinating. It's all reptiles, forests and swamps. Although the mythology is completely new to me, there is something universal about primitive man's relationship with the Earth. In the legends of the Guarani, there are echoes of a more generic world mythology, from the Chimera of the Greeks to the zombies of the Caribbean, to Chinese ghosts and Native American folklore.

What's interested me most of all are the Legendary Monsters of the Guarani people. It's very much an oral tradition and can, therefore, vary from one tribe to another. Also the myths of the European settlers have sometimes fused with traditional Guarani legends and, like voodoo in the Caribbean or the African religions of Brazil, the end result is something quite new.

I've used Wikipedia as my main source for this. I do make an effort to find other sources online, but it would seem that all roads lead back to Wikipedia in the end and, most of the time, the articles are well-sourced and provide links back to the original texts, in the original language.

So, according to Wikipedia, there are seven Legendary Monsters in Guarani mythology. These are automatically considered to be evil, as they were all born out of either wedlock or rape (depending on which version you hear) between the evil spirit Tau and Kerana, the beautiful daughter of the main (Sun and Moon) god and goddess. I guess, in that respect, Kerana represents the Earth. Their seven, supposedly evil, offspring are all spirits of the natural world.

Teju Jagua is the oldest sibling, and the most frightening, with a snake's body and seven dog heads that shoot out fire (compare this with Medusa or Hydra). Teju Jagua seems to be the least 'human' of all the monsters and inhabits the deepest, darkest caverns and recesses of the many hills in Paraguay. It doesn't seem to do anything except consume the fruits of the earth.

Mbói Tu'ĩ is a snake with a parrot's head, that can let out petrifying shrieks and is the master of all waterways and aquatic creatures.

Moñái is another snake-like creature, this time with horns and is the god of the open fields. It has a habit of stealing the harvest from villages and is duped by the virgin Porâsý, who pretends that she will marry him, but sacrifices herself in the end by tricking Moñái and being killed with him.

Jasy Jatere is the god of plants, most importantly Yerba maté and is responsible for the drowsy, soporific, Lotus-eating qualities of a sub- tropical siesta. Jasy Jatere means 'little piece of the moon' and is the only one that doesn't appear as a monster, but rather a pale, fair-haired boy that lures children into the forest and lets them be eaten by his cannibalistic brother Ao Ao.

Kurupi is a very familiar god of sexuality and fertility with a great 'talent' for impregnating women, most conveniently, due to the length of his manhood, through open windows and doors left ajar. I'm sure that more than one teenage pregnancy and extra marital affair was explained by Kurupi's lust driven appetite.

Ao Ao is the god of hills and mountains, a kind of fanged sheep or hog, that really reminds me of another mystical beast that I can't quite put my finger on. I think there is a Scottish monster which is similar to Ao Ao. It basically roams the hills, preying on lone travellers and naughty children lured into the forest by Jasy Jatere.

Last, but not least, is Luison, the god of death. Luison has somehow merged with the European myths about werewolves and transcends regional mythologies, appearing also in Argentina and Brazil.

It really fascinates me, how dogs are so closely connected to death. There is Anubis

I can, kind of, understand then why independent Paraguay's first dictator, the Rousseau-obsessed Francia, in one of his many bouts of insanity, ordered that all dogs in Paraguay be shot dead. Man's relationship with dogs is a long and complicated one and one that I will keep an eye on, as I continue my learning journey around the world.

Image Credits

The image of the Iguazu Falls has been provided by flickruser willsfca a.k.a Will Luo, originally from Taiwan and now living in San Francisco.  Will is a self-confessed photogeek and you can see more on his website

The drawing/image of the Kurupi is by flickruser cochabambahotel. 

The image of Anubis was contributed to Wikimedia by Jeff Dahl, who has created a whole series of Egyptian dieties - I'm very impressed Jeff!  This image is available under GNU Free Documentation License and the license is at the following link:

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Paraguay and the Failure of Australian Socialism

It's hard to understand Paraguay, without understanding the devastating consequences of the War of the Triple Alliance in the 1860's.  I've talked before about 'national traumas', events which have a lasting psychological impact on a nation, somehow shaping the mentality of its people.  I've talked about the Great Famine in Ireland, the destruction of the monasteries in Mongolia, the colonisation of Jamaica and the great floods of the Netherlands. 

I get the impression that the 'War of the Triple Alliance' was Paraguay's national trauma.  A complicated series of events saw Paraguay coming into conflict with its neighbours Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay.  The result for Paraguay was not only a loss of territory, but also the loss of an estimated 50% of the nation's population, including 90% of the nation's men.  I can't even begin to imagine the impact this disastrous war had on the people of Paraguay. 

So, what has this got to do with Australian socialism?  Well, in a strange turn of events, Paraguay witnessed the failure of an Australian socialist Utopia, Nueva Australia.  In the aftermath of the War of the Triple Alliance, Paraguay's new leaders encouraged settlers to come and repopulate the country, offering generous parcels of land to those dreamers and visionaries wishing to establish new societies in this sparsely populated South American nation. 

Amongst those who took up the offer, in the 1890's, were a group of hardline socialists from Queensland, Australia, led by the erratic William Lane, a journalist of the 'firebrand' variety, already far to the left of Labour and disillusioned with the changing nature of Australian politics, the failure of the Shearers' strike in 1891 and the pressures of a serious economic depression. 

Born in Bristol, Lane's father was a Protestant from Ireland who drank his family into debt, forcing Lane to set off in search of fame and fortune, first in Detroit and later in Queensland, where he founded Australia's first Labour newspaper The Queensland Worker.  It might surprise some people to know that Lane was an ardent racist and the downfall of Nueva Australia is attributed to his despotic insistence that all 283 settlers adhere to strict rules which forbade alcohol and mixing with the native Guarani tribes. 

Many of the settlers returned to Australia, including the poet Mary Gilmore (famous for her World War 2 patriotic poem, No Foe Shall Gather Our Harvest) but some of the settlers stayed and integrated with the local Spanish and Guarani populations and their descendents live in Paraguay until this day. 

By the way, Nietzsche's sister, Elizabeth Forster-Nietzsche, also tried to found a racially pure, Nordic society in Paraguay with her husband and 14 German families, called . . . surprise, surprise, Nueva Germania.  Not surprisingly, their experiment also failed and Forster-Nietzsche moved back to Germany, where she later supported the German National Socialists (Nazis).

I'm going to leave you with a clip I found on YouTube, which shows interviews with people like Mary Gilmore, as well as one old man whose grandfather was an original settler in New Australia and who still speaks with an old-fashioned Aussie accent.

Image credits

The photograph is from Wikimedia Commons and is copyright free.  It's probably the most famous image that exists of the settlers at Neuva Australia and Wikipedia uses this image on their site

The image of the book cover is from and shows the cover of Paradise Mislaid by Anne Whitehead, which documents the story of New Australia.  This book is pretty difficult to get one's hands on, so if you get a copy, don't forget to send it my way, so I can read it :-)

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Paraguay - Asuncion and the Anatomy of a City

Five times found to be the cheapest city in the world to live in (by Mercer), Asuncion, or to give its proper title, Nuestra Senora Santa Maria de la Asuncion, is one of the oldest cities in South America.

Founded in 1537 it was, like a lot of South American cities, named after the religious feast on the day of its foundation (August 15, the Feast of Assumption). Its also known as the 'Mother of Cities', as it was used as a base for the foundation of other cities, most famously, the resettlement of Buenos Aires, after colonisers were driven away from the original settlement there.

Not having visited Paraguay, it's difficult to get a sense of what it's really like but, using Wikipedia, Google Maps and other Internet sites, I have tried to build up a picture, in my imagination, of Asuncion and its many districts.

Asuncion is stretched along the Paraguay river, with Argentina (and Asuncion's slightly dodgy Argentine sister, Clorinda) lying across the river, to the south and west. Apart from the city of Asuncion proper, the almost three million people who live there are spread out in a series of satellite towns, namely to the south and east, but also, to a lesser extent, in the north.

I get the impression that it's a hilly city, especially around Lambare. The satellite towns include Villa Elisa with its German and Scandinavian roots, the industrial cities of San Antonio in the south and Mariano Roque Alonso in the north. There is Limpio, one of the oldest settlements, 25km to the north of the city. There is the airport district of Luque, also the headquarters of CONMEBOL, the South American equivalent of UEFA.

Asuncion city seems to have what most cities have, the University district of San Lorenzo, the pleasant riverside middle-class district of Sajonia, backing on to the working class districts of Obrero (literally workers) and Tacumbu, where the city's main prison is located.

Seemingly forgotten about, in the shadow of Catedral, on the swampier side of the Artigas (the main road heading north) is the district of Dr Ricardo Brugada, also known as La Chacarita, probably the poorest district in Paraguay. In stark contrast, on the other side of the Artigas are the flowery streets of Manora and the well-heeled districts of Villa Morra and Recoleta, an alternative focal point to the more run-down old city. And there is Hipodromo, not surprisingly, a focal point for the city's sports facilities.

The writer in me is already constructing a novel full of characters, living out their lives in the very different parts of the city. I guess what I've described could be any city - Barcelona, Moscow, Paris, Bangkok - you just need to change the names of the districts - it's the basic anatomy of a city!

Image credits:

There's something I really like about the photo of Asuncion, which is by Alexander Steffler, who is from Texas and took this photo from an apartment he was living in, in 2004.  You can see more of Alexander's photos at his flickrpage  I'm pretty sure I've seen another one of Alexander's photos, Asuncion by night, perhaps on Wikipedia. 

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Paraguay - Jesuits and Guarani

I'm doing my first South American country and I'm really excited about Paraguay because, being a big fan of travel magazines like Wanderlust and Lonely Planet MagazineI've read a lot about Paraguay's neighbours: Bolivia, Brazil and Argentina.  Paraguay, on the other hand, is a country I know absolutely nothing about!

Looking at Paraguay on a map, it looks relatively small compared to either Brazil or Argentina. Finding out that it is only a little bit smaller than both California and Sweden, helps put things in perspective. It's quite a sparsely populated country and most people seem to live in the East, between the Paraguay and Parana rivers. The western Chaco is already intriguing me, with its remoteness and its history, bringing Paraguay into conflict with Bolivia in the 1930's and leading, ultimately, to 35 years of dictatorship under Stroessner, and Paraguay's self-imposed isolation from world affairs.

Apart from Stroessner's years in power, the two things that immediately jump out at me, in relation to Paraguay, are the influence of the Jesuits and the status of one of Paraguay's two official languages, Guarani (the other being Spanish).

I'm just beginning to realise how different Guarani is from other native languages of the Americas. I spent a lot of time last month researching the Native American cultures and languages in the US and I think any of these would love to have the status that Guarani has, with its estimated 5 million speakers and the support and resources of the Paraguayan government. Guarani is classified as a member of the Tupi-Guarani language family and is the only native American language that has also been adopted by non-native American speakers, namely the European ancestors of Paraguay's majority mestizo population.

It's also unusual in that it has a strict system of nasal harmony, not just in affixes, like many African languages but, in fact, the whole word will be nasalised, including all vowels and consonants. When Europeans came to South America, they decided that all native American languages were more or less the same and belonged to one big language family. This seems like academic apathy to me and I'm much more excited about hints that Guarani might be traced back to places in Central Asia. To Guarani we owe words like Jaguar, Tapir and Piranha

So why did Guarani thrive when other native languages were eclipsed by Spanish, Portuguese and English? The easiest answer is - the Jesuits! Founded by the Spanish-Basque, Ignatius of Loyola, the Society of Jesus, more commonly known as the Jesuits, became a sort of 'defenders of the faith' sect, within the Catholic church, stopping Protestantism from spreading to places like Poland and Lithuania, later spreading the Catholic faith as religious missionaries to Asia and the New World.

The Jesuits strongly believed in and promoted use of the vernacular (as opposed to Latin) and their universities became famous as centres of study for lawyers and civil servants. Also, when the Jesuits came to South America as missionaries in the 16th and 17th centuries, they used Guarani to spread the word of God and established 'reductions', which were Christianised native communities, that gave the native people some protection from the excesses of colonisation that were so common elsewhere.

So great was the Jesuit influence, in Europe and the rest of the world, that they were eventually banned by most European countries, seeking refuge, ironically enough, in the only country that would tolerate them, Catherine the Great's Russia!

I've only hit the tip of the iceberg with these two themes and it's fascinating, but too much to blog about in one go. Reading about the Jesuits, in particular, has filled in another jigsaw piece for me, in the puzzle of world history.

I'm going to leave you with a short clip from Al-Jazeera, available through YouTube, so we can learn a little bit more about Guarani and (most exciting of all), hear the spoken language. Enjoy!

Image credits

The image of the man on the road is by flickruser Olmovich (Olmo Calvo Rodriguez) from Madrid, who is a part of a journalist co-operative that highlights the work of social movements and publishes an interesting (Spanish language) periodico called Diagonal.  To find out more, check out their website

The image of Ignatius of Loyola is a reproduction of a painting by Rubens, from Wikimedia Commons, and is copyright free. 

Monday, 8 February 2010

Oklahoma - OK

It's time to say goodbye to Oklahoma and I feel it's getting harder to say goodbye, as there is always so much more to learn. My learning journey wouldn't have been complete without watching Oklahoma! the musical, which is a classic, scarily triumphalist, it recklessly promotes taking the law into your own hands, but it's such an iconic movie that I had to overlook all of this and sing along.

I wanted to find an Oklahoman version of Bayan-Olgii, the remote province of Western Mongolia (see blog about Mongolia) and found it in the Oklahoma panhandle, which comprises three counties in the far west of Oklahoma and looks like, well . . . a panhandle!  There are quite a few states with panhandles, Florida, Alaska, Texas etc.

The Oklahoma panhandle sounds remote, a place where even other Oklahomas may not have been, it has a large Hispanic population and is a complex accident of history, being given up by Texas, so Texas could become a 'slave state'. After some years of confusion, as a kind of no-man's land, the Oklahoma panhandle tried to enter the Union as a separate state known as Cimarron, which might have brought more people and opportunities to this remote corner of the USA, but this dream never materialised, hence the panhandle wallowing in obscurity ever since.

I also learned:

- that Oklahoma is known as the 'Sooner' state, a legacy of the landgrabbing era and illegal occupation of Indian lands.

- Oklahoma is the same size as Cambodia

- Brad Pitt and Garth Brooks were both born in Oklahoma

- the first parking meters were introduced in Oklahoma in 1935

- Tulsa is a corruption of the word Tallahassee, which comes from the Creek language and means 'old town'. There are also Tallahassees in Florida and Georgia, where the Creek nations originated.

- In the 1950's, Time magazine described Tulsa as America's most beautiful city.

- There are 6,000 Muslims in Oklahoma

- For some reason, Americans buy books in drug stores.

I also learned some new words like; piki, obsidian, cacique, larkspur, arbor, fetlock, vigas, matate and Kaolin.

I'm not a big fan of country music, however I do have a soft spot for one song by Garth Brooks and that's what I'm going to leave you with. 

Image Credits

The image of the billboard with Brad Pitt was made available by flickruser p22311919 under the Creative Commons license. 

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Oklahoma - The Outsiders

I've probably spent far too long on Oklahoma but, it's my starting point for the US and, in terms of the wealth of information that is easily accessible, books, music, news, radio - I have a lot more options compared to smaller cultures like Kiribati or Lesotho. Plus, everything is accessible to me in English.

I've often thought it would be a good idea to set up a publishing company that would translate books from English into smaller languages (like i-Kiribati and Sesotho) and vice versa. Living in Uzbekistan, although a lot of foreign books had a Russian edition, there was a dearth of new novels being published in Uzbek or Tajik. I think there is a danger of creating a cultural elite in the world, for those who speak world languages. It also undermines lesser-spoken languages to have such intense competition from the major world languages.

English readers also lose out in return - in each of the countries I've mentioned, you'd be hard pushed to get your hands on any recent novels from their most famous writers. Before you say it, I think it's patronising to assume that people in the Third World don't have time to read. Also, being a well-known writer should never be a perk of growing up in the West.

Anyway, back to Oklahoma. I've read so many American novels in the past that you would think it would be difficult to find something new to read. But, of course, this isn't the case, there are still so many books out there, like S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders, that remain undiscovered by anyone outside that specific context (either in time or geographical).

Published in 1967, when Hinton was just seventeen, it tells the story of gang warfare in Tulsa, between the (working class) Greasers and the (middle class) Socs. What surprised me most about this novel is that it was about the differences in social class and, with my European pre- conceptions of the US, I didn't think this would be as relevant to an American audience, as it is to a European one.

Like many female authors writing about male dominated worlds (JK Rowling is another good example), Hinton masculinised her name by using initials, so male readers wouldn't be put off. The fact that women still feel the need to do this merits a while seperate blog in itself, having said that, I did think the emotional voice coming through the narration of the novel was both young and female. Some of the scenes are a bit too weepy, although overall it's a good story.

You easily emphasise with the main character, Ponyboy, the plot flows quite smoothly and I like the way it ends, coming round in a circle (I'm particularly fond of circular or spiral plots in literature). It reminded me, inevitably, on West Side Story, which pre-dated this book and Grease, which came later, as a musical and then a film, in the 70's. The novel seems to have been a sensation at the time and Hinton was somewhat of a prodigy, I wouldn't be surprised if the musical Grease borrowed some elements of The Outsiders' plot.

SE Hinton still lives in Oklahoma and still writes. You can visit her website at

Image credits

The Image of the original(?) book cover for The Outsiders is from

The image of the book covers (of books I have read in reference to Oklahoma) was taken by me. 

Monday, 1 February 2010

Oklahoma - Socialism, Guthrie and the Green Corn Rebellion

I've never professed to have a deep understanding of the American political system and the state politics versus federal politics of Oklahoma is something that confuses me no end. The only state to have voted for the Republican candidate in every county during the last US presedential election, I can't then understand how the majority of posts in Oklahoma's executive are held by local Democrats. Although, Oklahoma votes Republican for its participation in the national agenda, it would seem that they prefer Democrats in their local politics.

I guess a comparison might be how people vote for the European elections here in the UK, which can differ greatly from how people vote in national elections or in local politics. This idea of 'vote- splitting' would be unusual in the UK however, generally you pick one generally you pick one party and remain loyal to them at regional, national and European level.

Deemed to be one of the most conservative states in the US, it's good to remember that this wasn't always the case with Oklahoma. That there was a strong tradition of working-class solidarity in the state, resulting in the Oklahoma Socialist party regularly winning 10% of all votes in the pre-World War 1 elections. The First World War really changed the political landscape in the US, especially for the left, as opposition to the 'capitalist war machine' led to a polarisation of politics and the germination of ideas like 'un-American' behaviour.

Working-class opposition to the draft during World War One led to a brief moment of unified resistance, when the Native American tribes united with the blacks of Tulsa and Oklahoma City and the farmers of rural Oklahoma, to challenge the status quo and raise their voices in opposition to the bloody-minded slaughter of the working classes of Europe. This became known as the Green Corn Rebellion after the traditional Creek ceremony which inspired this revolt.

Events like the Green Corn Rebellion and the Tulsa Race riots in 1921, led to a red scare and played their part in a lengthy swing to the right in American politics. Oklahoma's current flag was designed as part of a competition in the 1920's. It contains important symbols of the state, such as the Native American 'calumet' or peace pipe and an olive branch from the American settlers. The word Oklahoma was added later to improve literacy in the state. The original flag of Oklahoma was considered to be too communist-looking - after the Russian revolution, red flags with stars on them could only mean one thing.

One of Oklahoma's most famous sons, Woody Guthrie, was closely associated with the Communist Party and, if not a member, was considered to be a 'fellow traveller'. He is famous for putting a sticker on his guitar that read This Machine Kills Fascists. Guthrie sang about the working classes and the experiences of the many 'Okies' who were forced to migrate to California in the 1930's, during the depression and dust bowl era. Guthrie was a real working class hero and went on to inspire a whole new generation of folk and protest singers of the sixties, like Bob Dylan.

I think, reading about both Guthrie and the Green Corn Rebellion makes me think that the good guys have always lost out in American history. The left and communism is always pointed to as a danger to American liberty and democracy, but I can't help wondering how different the world might be, had there been even more Green Corn rebellions and even more working-class heroes like Woody Guthrie.

Guthrie's most famous song, now sung in classrooms right across the US is This Land is your Land. It's anti- capitalist and anti-property and somehow in keeping with Native American concepts of the land they'd inherited from their ancestors.

The song I want to leave you with is called Pastures of Plenty and is about the aspirations for a world where no one has to starve or suffer.  It tells of the difficult journey many Okies had to make through the hot deserts and cold mountains to work as wage slaves in the vineyards and orchards of California. 

Image Credits

The former flag of Oklahoma is from Wikimedia Commons and as copyright free.  The image of Woody Guthrie has been released into the public domain and there are no known restrictions on the the use of this image.