Vietnamese-born, American-raised Linh Dinh is a writer whom I discovered years later than I wish I had; however, I am thankful that have I discovered him at all, and I must thank the politically/culturally raucous site The Unz Review and its founder’s, Ron Unz’s, willingness to promote dissident writers. Though a published poet, Dinh may be better known for his ruminations on the crumbling American empire. While I plan in the coming weeks to publish a review of his highly engrossing (and incredibly affordable, especially given the quality of the content) Postcards from the End of America, I want look at his postcard about a city in which I used to live (twice–fool me once//fool me twice–the shame is all mine) and to which I still have connections: Jackson, MS.
To begin, one must understand that Dinh’s odysseys across the continental forty-eight find their inspiration in a statement by (one of my favorite writers) Evelyn Waugh: “There is no place that isn’t worth visiting once.” Developing this, Dinh believes that “[t]here is no place that isn’t worth visiting a bunch of times, with each subsequent visit richer than the last” (21). However, unlike those who believe that one can experience the body and soul of a place from the interstate or from behind glass and metal, license-less Dinh takes buses to his destinations, and once arriving, he begins his ambulatory adventures, claiming that one can get to know a locale only on foot: “Anything that’s seen through a screen or windshield becomes ephemera, with its death nearly instant. You don’t have to switch channels or run over it, it will disappear by itself. All screens and windshields have been erected to block us from intercourse” (20). By putting himself in sticky situations, as anyone who still walks through shadier (Read: older, more attractive) sections of any downtown knows, this man has died for our automotive sins of omission and embraces the world where the rubber, most decidedly, does not meet the road.
In his postcard entitled “Free Grub in Jackson,” he narrates his brief passage through Mississippi’s capitol city. His description of downtown immediately struck me as accurate and accessible only to one who is passing through a place without prior attachment: “Everything was grimly functional, at best, or else abandoned. There was no art or flirtation, no life” (270). Though it has been a few years since I (nervously) trotted through downtown Jackson, this couplet captures what I remember completely.
Evidently having done his homework about the city, Dinh writes: “The racial tension of the sixties culminated in the police killing of two black Jackson State students in 1970. White flight then commenced [Brandon. Flowood. Madison.], suburban malls were built, so now, the empty and wrecked buildings are scattered throughout downtown…, but this decay is all too common across much of Mississippi, for many of its cities and towns are like quainter versions of post-industrial Detroit” (271). How true. Quainter versions of post-industrial Detroit–a comparison that I have felt for years, but have not had this expression to capture my inchoate suspicion until prodded by Dinh.
Dinh then gives a summary of Jackson mayor Chokwe Lumumba’s brief tenure in office (2013-14), one that ended with a death that had some speculating that he may have worried the right/wrong people in the federal government. I had left Jackson by that point, but my brother, still living in Jackson at that time and a cautious supporter of Lumumba, kept me abreast of the mayor’s political leanings. Dinh rightly compares much of Lumumba’s social advocacy for inner-city youth and his secessionist-rooted nationalistic yearnings for his people to that of whites who desire the same, but who are, for all the obvious reasons, prohibited from being as free in their public expression and political activism as their differently-colored-but-ideologically-comparable brothers and sisters. Yet, as Dinh continues to point out, such mulitcultural-free environments are the provinces only of those who can afford them. The working poor and the middles classes, despite their political preferences and attempts at self-determination, will continue to work and live in environments over which, for the most part, they have little agency or control. For how long, though, can the center continue not to hold? Per Mississippi: “From 1882 to 1968, white mobs lynched 539 blacks in Mississippi alone, the most in the entire nation, but now, there are white groups who keep tabs on the staggering number of black-on-white murders, maimings, rapes and recreational assualts” (274). Do you now, dear reader, see why only a dissident website can/will publish the work of Dinh? Unfortunately, most of America is not reading his observational realtalk to its detriment. (There is also a brief discussion of Lumumba’s mayoral predecessor, Frank Melton, but purchase Dinh’s book to read about Melton’s amusingly juvenile antics–you will not be disappointed. As my brother and I would laugh over a given, ahem, expedition, I found myself starting to admire the man in a weird way.)
He continues to recount his experiences on Farish Street, a street that I have visited only after more than a few drinks and in significant groups of people. The bar that I went to, in my opinion, unofficially markets itself as an authentic Black Encounter for non-blacks who want to risk their lives–or, at least, who do not mind getting accosted by smooth beggars–going to a Historic Black Area. Still, fun times: How many times have you seen a powerfully-voiced black woman sport a Metallica t-shirt on stage–or anywhere? Right. However, Dinh, apparently, wandered into another bar: “Not just an old man’s bar, this was an old-fashioned establishment, and all over its walls, aging itself was mockingly celebrated…” (277). Whether it is the empire or the physical/mental decline of aging, there is little that any of us can do to change its course; why not mock it and have a helluva time in the process? There was a group gathered outside this bar around a grill. Though they were not intending to sell the meats of their labor, a lady (as only the South can produce–regardless of the color) told Dinh that she would give him a plate, and a plate she did give him: “sausage, pound cake and deviled eggs” (278). My mouth watered reading that passage. If you have not eaten in the South, especially Mississippi, then do not talk to me about soul food.
Mississippi may be the poorest state in the (Dis)Union, and we may have the poorest academic scores and the richest teenage pregnancy rates, but we, sure as Elvis is the king of rock ‘n’ roll, are a state that knows how to cook and eat and drink. Also, we are a state that is big on charity. On Dinh’s way to the Big Easy, he met a “homeless man with tattoos all over his face” (278). Did he get robbed? No, he got a piece of fried chicken, for according to the tattooed man, he “had enough, and was going to throw the rest away” (278). As Dinh observes, there is much to lament about the Magnolia State, but, then again, “[u]nder a lovely sun…things do rot more beautifully than with dirty snow” (271).