Cyclical Time, Slaughter, and Colonial Violence in Sesshu Foster’s Atomik Aztex.

51k44V73W7L._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_I assigned Sesshu Foster’s Atomik Aztex (2005) as an incentive to begin work on the fourth chapter on my dissertation. In all honesty, I was using my students and our in-class discussions as a sounding board for my own ideas about this complicated novel. Unlike other readings this semester (besides Beloved, perhaps), Atomik Aztex is particularly difficult. It is formally and thematically challenging, implementing postmodern stylistics in conjunction with surrealism, Gonzo “journalism,” and the satirical, which can be baffling for readers.  Foster’s mixing of the “low-brow” and “high-art,” popular and consumer culture, Anglo-American and indigenous cultures also present a challenge for readers. My own interest in this book emerges from Foster’s “performance” of Chicanx in this novel and the possibilities that emerge from reading intra-ethnically and across racial and national boundaries.

As a “native” (I hate using this word) East L.A. writer, Foster is long familiar with Mexican-American and Chicanx culture, especially as it relates to this city. Our class began its discussion of Foster’s novel in the same way as with The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by examining the novel’s epigraphs. I started our investigation of Atomik Aztex in this way to showcase the importance of framing devices in literature and, in this instance, to underline the literary networks and influences that enhance Foster’s novel. The “prologue” reads as follows:

This is a work of fiction. Readers looking for accurate information on Nahua and Mexica peoples or the Farmer John meat packing plant in the City of Vernon need to read nonfiction. (See Michael Coe and Miguel Leon-Portilla.) Persons attempting to find a plot in this book should read Huck Finn. Also, in this book a number of dialects are used, including the extreme form of the South-Western pocho dialect, caló, ordinary inner-city slang and modified varieties of speech from the Vietnam era. This is no accident.

As some of the English majors in my class observed, Foster’s prologue/epigraph is very similar to Mark Twain’s “Notice” and “Explanatory” note in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, to which Foster’s note alludes:

NOTICE

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.

BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR, Per G.G., Chief of Ordnance.

EXPLANATORY

In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary “Pike County” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.

I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.

THE AUTHOR.

As with our discussion of Oscar Wao, this note—funny, irreverent, and challenging—places “high art” (Twain) references alongside the “low” (histories and languages unknown to English-speaking Anglo readers). The combination of these elements (like Díaz’s combination of Derek Walcott and The Fantastic Four) create a world that challenges our understanding of hierarchical knowledge, the literary canon, and even questions of what we consider the “American” nation and “American” identity. These epigraphs initiate students in a discussion of history, and I ask them to consider whether the text presents a counter-narrative, a counter-history, to the historical archive about the U.S.-Mexico border and the conquest of indigenous populations in the Americas.

Similarly, the novel’s second epigraph, found on the same page, challenges readers to reconsider what they understand as “the real”:

Step out of history

to enter life

try that all of you

you’ll get it then.

––Charlotte Delbo, Auschwitz and After,

translated by Rosette C. Lamont

I asked students to consider what is means to “step out of history”: how would we do this and what we would find? According to Delbo’s text, what we would find is “life,” something my students noted was more “real” than history itself; more than the historical archive is able to record.

In our introductory class on Atomik Aztex, students completed a “theme tree”—much like our other discussions—were I ask students to brainstorm themes, leitmotifs, symbols, imagery, etc. that recur throughout these initial pages of the text. I find that this activity helps structure our discussion of the opening pages and gives them ideas and things to look for as they continue reading, which you can see below.

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Because this novel is deeply invested in the history of Chicanx and Mexican-American culture, history, and literature, notions of the border, and Aztlán, I structured our discussion of the novel through the theory of Gloria Anzaldúa, especially that in Borderlands/La Frontera (Aunt Lute Books, 1987), and the notion of “Greater Mexico” as defined by José Limón in his book, American Encounters: Greater Mexico, the United States, and the Erotics of Culture (Beacon Press, 1998). These are fields that students are not typically exposed to, therefore I spent some of the time of this initial class summarizing these theories. In Borderlands, Anzaldúa famously states, “The U.S-Mexican border es una herida abierta where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds. And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country — a border culture” (25). Much as Anzaldúa presents a space of ambiguity and violence in the U.S.-Mexico border that challenges typical conceptions of nations and national identity, Limón’s “Greater Mexico” formulates a spectral Mexico that remains with “American” territories and cultures that yokes the U.S. and Mexico to each other. “Great Mexico” articulates an intimate and inextricable dual link between these two countries that cannot be unhinged. Atomik Aztex enacts these theories through its representations of violence––toward human and animal alike–-the foregrounding of indigeneity, and subaltern histories and cultures.

Problematically, Foster’s novel presents an alternate history in which the Aztecs are victorious against the Spanish, but instead of the restorative future envisioned by Anzaldúa and other Chicanx thinkers and activists, the victimized becomes the victimizers. Indeed, the Aztexs become a cyber-fascistic force that join forces with the Russians in order to fight against the Nazi’s, seemingly analogous to American imperialism that we see in our “reality.” Zenzontli, novel’s protagonist, is the “Keeper of the House of Darkness.” His name, from Nahuatl, means “mockingbird,” a designation I cannot help but tie to the sardonic, humorous tone not only of the prologue/epigraph, but of the entire text. I love brining in interesting details from the natural sciences into the classroom when relevant. As its scientific name reflects, the mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos (many-tongued mimic), is known for its mimicking ability. According to Wikipedia (something I definitely have to corroborate), the mockingbid is known for its intelligence: “A 2009 study showed that the bird was able to recognize individual humans, particularly noting those who had previously been intruders or threats.” I will address the other half of Atomik Aztex‘s protagonist in more detail in my dissertation’s last chapter. For now, I will only mention that Zenzón works at a meat-packing factory, attempting to unionize the workers in East L.A. (although the time period is not specified, I would guess that this is taking place during the mid-1990s).

Zenzontli’s name mirrors the text’s dizzying time travel, polyglottal text, heteroglossia,  and references to high art and low popular culture. For example, entering the field of battle, Zenzontli delivers an “inspiring” speech to rile-up his troops:

Everything I’m gonna tell you is True and it will all work in our fight against Nazism, corporate greed, golf shoes, environmental degradation, putrid aesthetiks or moral obfuskation. Aztek Secret Intelligence (ASÍ) has uncovered this numerology thru our revolutionary hallucinations, and I am revealing it here on the Home Shopping Channel only becuz we are in a life or death situation, we are stuck here in a tight spot between Point A & Point B, between a rock and an erased place. Rememberthe following numbers are not to be used for evil purposes, SMOKING CRACK, ROCK OR FREEBASING? Do you want to stop? Acupuncture & yoga relaxation techniques. Call now! 1-800-810-5551. SEXY YOUNG GIRLS EXPLORE THEIR SEXUALITY IN THEIR OWN HOME VIDEOS. Only $19.95 + $3.95 S&H. Media Vision Films 18375 Ventura Blvd. #173 Tarzana CA 91356 (818) 420-9843. (102)

Throughout Atomik Aztex ideas of capitalism, colonialism, and the violence of war and battle converge, demonstrating not only the absurdity of imperialism, conquest, and the desire for bloodshed, but also the intimate connection between war and capitalism. I’m still thinking through many of these sections in the novel, but I am interested in the ways the novel negotiates the brutality of combat, fascism, and imperial conquest with the humor and absurdity of mass marketing, infomercials, and blind consumerism. In effect, the novel makes an argument about the aesthetics of war and the necessity for beauty and utility when it comes to bloodshed: “All this death and destruction without any poetik or aesthetik point to it meant that…nothing would come it, it was all hurly burly, belter skelter, heebie jeebies, and chimichangas with a gnashing of teeth that could never amount to anything” (124).

There is so much to say about this novel, which I don’t have the time to say here. But I’m really looking forward to continuing my research for the dissertation. I’ll leave this post by noting how the publisher at City Lights very nicely put me in contact with Foster, who agreed to answer some of my questions and some that our class brainstormed together. As I said in my email to him, it is such a privilege to be able to speak directly to an author which we are reading in class. Then again, I reminded our class that while the views of a writer about his/her own work is valuable and gives us an insight into the writing process and their intent, we should also be able to disagree, talk back to, and expand upon their understanding of the work. Below, you can see our email exchange (edited for the purposes of this blog):

November 21, 2017

Maia Gil’Adí: My students were really intrigued by the pictures that run throughout the novel: they wanted to know a little more about them, the photographer, and how you chose them. They were wondering if there was a meaning behind their ordering in the book and how to read them in relation to the text? 

Sesshu Foster: The photographs are by Ignacio Bravo, who emigrated to California at about age 20 or 21 around 1930, maybe, and later worked as an assistant to photographer Edward Weston in Carmel. That’s where he learned photography, and he practiced photography for the next quarter of a century, setting up a portrait studio in San Francisco, where he also photographed phases of the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, as well as Paiute and Shoshone children at the Woodsford Indian School (now abandoned) outside Markleeville, in 1937 and 1938, and also worked, like other photographers, for the Works Progress Administration during the Depression. He stopped photographing professionally during World War 2, as photographic chemicals and materials were rationed and difficult to obtain. These photographs Ignacio Bravo took during travels in Mexico during the 1940s and 50s. There is no special order to them, except that the photographs are actual pictures of indigenous cultures in transition, cultures in a nation that is majority indigenous population, and represent a record of people and places that are of course gone, a look at a vanished world, in a way. Like most of his photographs, they were never before printed, published or displayed. Ignacio Bravo was my father-in-law; he died at age 96 in 2006. His photos of Paiute and Shoshone kids at Woodsford were later published by his ex-wife, Leonore Bravo, in Rabbit Skin Blanket.

MG: My students were also intrigued/confused about the conversation that takes place between Zenzontli and Nita at the end of the novel (pp. 187-191). Some of my students called their dialogue a series of malapropisms, but wanted to know more from you about their meaning, or if there was one? 

SF: The dialogue between Nita and Zenzo on pages 187 – 191 does indeed include malapropisms, all meant to befuddle and confuse the interloper, Weasel, trying to eavesdrop in on their conversation and listen for useable, saleable union information.

MG: My class also wanted to know what your major influences as a writer are. Throughout our conversation, various references came up such as Mark Twain, the TV show Rick and Morty, Blade Runner, and James Joyce. 

SF: There’s no direct influences for the novel, though several have noted William Burroughs, Ishmael Reed, and Philip K. Dick. due to editing requests by City Lights editors, who wished for a simpler storyline in the book, the bifurcating or bicameral structure ended up resembling a bit too much Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, but that was not my original intention. I was originally thinking of a mutated structure more cracked and effusive, along the lines of Naked Lunch as well as Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman.

Blade Runner was based on a writer whose books I read in high school, Philip K Dick. Recently I reread Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The novel Blade Runner was based on (which I’d read 40 plus years earlier and didn’t remember) only to find that the movie really is better than the novel, as not much happens in the novel, whereas the movie is given several layers of interest, including the Japonification of L.A., the white men lost in ethnic l.a. visual motifs, the retro-futurist look of the movie, the specificity of place transposed into the future via Bradbury bldg & union station, etc. the book had none of these layers, only a flimsy search and shoot out.

I gave Foster a brief description of my dissertation and how I saw my argument being represented in his novel.

MG: I’m wondering about your reference to the “signifying monkey” at the end of the novel: is this pointing to Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s book The Signifying Monkey? I’m also wondering if the monkey (both signifying and scientifik) that ends the novel is related to the Zenzontli’s name.

SF: Monkeys in the conclusion do not refer to anything related to HL Gates, but rather to aztec lore, which related monkeys to several beliefs and practices, including (but not limited to) music and “play,” that is trickery, games and amusement, and the inhabitants of a previous earth—destroyed by the gods because of its faults, flaws and errors––were turned into monkeys. i.e., http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/artefacts/weekly/ozomatli or, https://metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/307744.

MG: From the research that I’ve done, Zenzontli means “mockingbird” in Nahuatl––the mockingbird being an animal able to mimic and confuse others. What is the role of confusion, cyclical time, and misdirection a driving force for your writing?

SF: These correspond to the historical roles of random chance and changing circumstance in our own lives.

As I continue my research and writing about this novel, I am amazed at the small about of scholarship on Atomik Aztex. For me, this is exciting, as my chapter on this novel attempts to remedy this silence. However, there are some wonderful articles about this novel, such as:

John Alba Cutler, “Borders and Borderland Literature,” The Cambridge Companion to Transnational American Literature (Cambridge University Press, 2017), 157-173.

Stephen Hong Sohn, “Minor Character, Minority Orientalism, and the Borderlands of asian American,” Cultural Critique, vol. 82 (Fall 2012), pp. 151-185.

Kristy Ulibarri, “Consuming Aztecs, Producing Workers: Economies of Indigeneity and Ambivalence in the Chicana/o and Latina/o Imagination,” Latino Studies, vol. 14, no. 2, 2016, pp. 214-233

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