Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Terror Under A Flower-Killing Moon

first published in Star2 in The Star, 13 June 2017


The Osage Indians of Oklahoma in the United States speak of a "flower-killing moon" that happens in May, when the blossoms that carpet the landscape in April would be overrun by taller plants.

But in the early 1920s, flowers weren't the only things being snuffed out over there.

When white settlers moved into the American heartland, many displaced Native Americans were shunted onto reservations. The Osage were no exception, but the large oil deposits beneath their reserved lands made them rich. Soon, many schemed to obtain that wealth, resorting to unethical and even deadly means.

During a period of several years dubbed the "Reign of Terror", affluent Osage began dying in dubious circumstances. Many of the deceased were related to an Osage woman called Mollie Burkhart. With local lawmen and private detectives being too inept, corrupt, or afraid to investigate (those who did were threatened or killed), the Bureau of Investigation (BOI) under J. Edgar Hoover stepped in. The bureau, known today as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, would expose a web of death, deceit, and betrayal in the heart of Osage territory.

American journalist and author David Grann's gripping account of this killing spree and its aftermath, Killers Of The Flower Moon, traces the beginnings of the Osage oil boom and the murders and covers the BOI, its agents, the investigation and the subsequent trials; it also recounts Grann's travels to parts of Osage country in the present day, an epilogue of sorts to this bloody chapter in American history.

By now, details about the Osage incident can be found online, though I'm not sure how much of it has always been there or was unearthed by the publicity surrounding the book. Regardless, I highly recommend Grann's work as a starting point for those who are interested.

It has the kind of writing that I've come to appreciate and expect from him, after reading his piece on explorer Percy Fawcett and the fabled "Lost City of Z" in The New Yorker magazine, published in 2005 (he is also a staff writer with the publication). He masterfully weaves facts and drama into a compelling yarn, putting the audience right where the action is. Taking a break from reading was hard.

Grann told news website Uproxx that he'd only heard about the Osage story in 2011.

"I did not know that the Osage had been the wealthiest people per capita in the world in the beginning of the 20th century. I had not known that they had been murdered. And I had not known that it had become one of the FBI's first major homicide cases."

With this information, Grann dug deeper. Among many other things, he discovered the corruption, lawlessness and prejudices of the day that enabled droves of opportunists to fleece the Osage, taking advantage of laws that restricted the tribespeople's control over their own money. Despite the shining examples of humanity in individuals such as BOI agent Tom White, this tale is blighted by the enormity of the crimes and what fuelled them.

Vile, perhaps, but not shocking. The Guarani fighting land grabs in Brazil, the anti-logging blockades by the Temiar and the Penan, and the Standing Rock Sioux's resistance against the Dakota Access Pipeline – the Osage chapter is but one example of how indigenous peoples and their lands' natural resources were (and still are) systematically exploited.

Sadly, the ordeal isn't over for the Osage. The book suggests the Reign of Terror might have been longer and reaped a far larger toll than officially stated – more unsolved deaths, more next of kin seeking answers, and more culprits left unpunished. On top of that, a renewable energy company built a wind farm on Osage soil without the tribe's permission.

Loyal and hard-working Tom White, arguably the hero in Grann's story, died in obscurity. In contrast, his boss Hoover, who achieved great status and allegedly abused his power as head of the FBI, remains in the limelight years after his passing.

A nation can't truly move forward when it still can't get over its past – which is what one feels about the United States from what's been going on there of late. So the release of this account is perhaps timely, especially now when the country appears to be going through another phase of soul-searching.

"...the Osage know their history very well, but so many people – whites, primarily, but other Americans – don't really reckon with this history, don't record the voices of these victims, are not familiar with the stories and the lies that these people lived and went through," said Grann in the Uproxx interview. "It's really important as a country that we reckon with this history."

But I think it's not just the United States that needs to reckon with its past and re-evaluate its current conduct towards its indigenous minorities.



Reviewing this book was daunting, and the deadline was ASAP - never a good thing for me. And because this was my first submission to The Star in three years, I was eager to make an impression in record time.

Ambitious and dumb.

So I knew, even as I hit "Send", I'd be writing a postscript to the review, but never did I think it would be this long. Nor did I realise how much I had missed out in the piece, or that others have written about the Osage murders before - another omission I regret. David Grann's book might not be the most authoritative text on the incident, but I can say it's one of the good ones.

The review could have turned into a white-bashing fest. It's too easy now, considering what the United States is becoming, and also because the principal bad guys in the book are white. On top of the policies of the day to dilute or altogether erase Native American identity and culture, the crimes committed against the Osage elicit disgust.

As I had said, none of this shocked me because we still see this sort of behaviour, and not just in the US. Cops shooting blacks, Standing Rock, the deportations ... the dehumanisation of certain groups or their reduction into crude caricatures to advance certain agendas persists to this day.

Yet I don't think Grann wrote this book as another indictment of white America's attitudes towards minorities or as an expression of shame in being a white guy. Rather, I see this as an effort to hold a mirror to the nation and its conduct in the past with some hope that, if more of such efforts are kept up, the majority will finally have the courage to look itself in the face, recognise the enormity of their deeds, and change.

And how to bash all white people when, in the actions of those fighting against the wrongheaded (and, arguably, boneheaded) moves by the current US administration, I see shades of BOI agent Tom White? The former Texas Ranger and hero of this book glows with integrity, loyalty and a steadfast sense of duty.

Though White wrote his own account of the Osage investigation, it didn't attract much interest. In a way, I feel Grann is picking up White's torch, to shine a light on and add a little warmth to this otherwise mournful account.

I stand by my endorsement of Grann's Killers of the Flower Moon, inadequate (and a little biased) as it may be. His storytelling is something you have to experience for yourselves.



Killers of the Flower Moon
The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI


David Grann
Doubleday
338 pages
Non-fiction
ISBN: 978-0-385-54248-7

Amazon | Bookurve | Book Depository | Kinokuniya | MPHOnline.com

Friday, 2 June 2017

Book Marks: Print Piracy In Africa, Hollywood Books Up

I've been reading news about how serious book piracy is in Africa, but lately more incidents are being reported. Among the latest:

Kigogo, a Kiswahili play written by Pauline Kea, was approved late last year as a secondary school set book in Kenya for 2017. So it came as a shock when the book's publisher, Storymoja, learnt that the book was on sale, four weeks prior to its official release.

The source material was reportedly stolen and later reproduced. Many pirated books are for use in schools, where sales are "guaranteed", but much has also been said about the poor quality of some of these pirated editions. So when good-quality fakes come out...

Part of the problem is the lack of understanding about how the publishing industry works. Books cost that much for a reason. As Muthoni Garland, author and co-founder of Storymoja, told AllAfrica.com:

"Most people think publishing equals only printing. But publishing is a huge investment in content creation, editorial work, engaging book designers, warehousing, marketing, legal and financial aspects."

African authorities are doing all they can to address the issue. In a book exhibition in Rwanda, for instance:

The Ministry of Sports and Culture has said [that] deepening the reading culture among Rwandans, competitiveness among writers as well reducing the cost of locally published books will expand the market of the books, subsequently allowing for mass production of local content.

It'll take more than that, I feel.



Is Hollywood, accused of rehashing and pumping out sequels from older stuff, raiding bookshelves for inspiration?

Sofia Coppola drew from Thomas Cullinan's classic Southern Gothic novel for The Beguiled starring Colin Farrell as a handsome Union officer who stokes sexual tension and jealousy inside a girl's school during the American Civil War. And Francois Ozon turned up the temperature of Joyce Carol Oates' sexual psycho drama Double Delight to almost unbearable levels for his steamy 'Amant double'.

Both these books were published in 1971 and 1999 respectively, but these days Tinseltown isn't just looking at old publications; Kevin Kwan's Crazy Rich Asians trilogy, published between 2013 and 2017, is coming to cinemas. And let's not start with the films "inspired" by local books.

I'm not sure if this is the kind of motivation to write or publish, but one can hope that the film industry can help unearth a few gems as it mines for material.


Also:

  • In a panel discussion on Jane Austen during the Hay literary festival, author Colm Tóibín "has issued a rallying call against what he sees as the scourge of modern literature: flashbacks. The Irish novelist said the narrative device was infuriating, with too many writers skipping back and forward in time to fill in all the gaps in a story." This reminds me of a time when I ... never mind.
  • "Kannada writer Vasudhendra created quite a storm a few months ago with the publication of his short story collection, Mohanaswamy, in English. This collection was published a few years ago in Kannada to the usual acclaim Vasudhendra gets for all his books, barring one thing. There were gay stories in it, and the critics, predictably and pathetically, ignored the book altogether." An interview with Vasudhendra about publishing, writing, his life and his next project.
  • "What kind of pressures are India's English language publishers under in 2017? How has the business changed? What do the heads of the companies have to do differently now?" Scroll.in spoke to two CEOs of publishing companies in India to answer these questions, and more.
  • "For Tunglið, how you publish is as important as what you publish. Named after the Icelandic word for the moon, the tiny publisher prints its books in batches of 69 on the night of a full moon. So far, so weird. But keen readers must also buy their books that same night, as the publisher burns all unsold copies. Weirder still. Why?" I'm still asking "Why?" at the end of the article.