Robin Wyatt Dunn Interview: “The End of Occidentalism”

robin-wyatt-dunnExtended, with my notes in italics, August 22nd, 2017.


Read “The End of Occidentalism” in Reckoning 1. Or don’t. Maybe read the interview first and then decide.

Michael: “The End of Occidentalism” is explicitly about resistance to colonization. It’s complex, there’s a lot to parse, and I have quite a lot of fun attempting to do so. I don’t get every reference, not nearly–the man in the metal hat in the first line, for example. But it’s addressed to the native, I think. So the first thing I’d like to ask you: what is nativeness? Who is native?

“The colony extends within”, you say, and I agree, we’re all born colonized, to a greater or lesser degree. Some more than others. That’s the part I feel obligated to interrogate on behalf of Reckoning. One of our founding ambitions is to be a platform for Indigenous voices, for people marginalized by dominant culture, by the colonizing force. So I asked JR McConvey, whose story “The Eel of the Lake” features an Indigenous main character, and now I’m asking you: who gets to speak for the native? Where does the colonizing force end and the colonized individual begin? Do you consider yourself Native? What does it mean to assume that authority for the purposes of fiction?

Fiction as a medium for radical thinking fascinates me because it has the safety net of fictionality. I read “The End of Occidentalism” as radical political thinking, in earnest–but I don’t have to. If I wanted, I could take it as thought experiment, or purely as entertainment. I think this safety net is particularly present in genre work that adheres to an expected form–which your work, insofar as I’m familiar with it, does not. How do you think about that when you’re writing, if you do? Another way I’ve asked this in the past: what is political fiction capable of, what are its limitations, what is it for? Do you write in the hope or expectation that what you write will change minds or influence opinions? And if not, what good is political fiction?

Thanks very much for talking to me.


Below is Robin’s complete initial interview response, unedited but for formatting.


Robin: Yes nativeness is so ambivalent; a helic force perhaps, as it is encoded.

We have to begin in space; evidence is mounting that we began there, since bacteria appear to have survived there before, and so may have come from far away.

Of course, this may be wrong. But since I ascribe now to Aristotle’s world without end (a worldview China Mieville adapts, elegantly and gracefully, in his Embassytown), there is no beginning, and so only degrees of recent.

Colony comes from a root word for cycle.

In looking at slavery: the work of the slaver and of the slave, of force, and reaction to force, we are in a cycle, but what kind?

Obviously all kinds of ramifications of violence are perpetuated down the timeline, surfacing in odd ways.

Of course with Benedict Anderson we have imagined communities; I think it is actually imagination which is the “original” (whatever that means!) communion; we are bonded in the mind, elsewhere, or also here, and given the conundrum of existing in multiple places at the same time (which we all do!), we’re forced to construct identities, which again are cycles: idem et idem (identity’s root), again and again, the same faces, the same habits.

But the beauty of history is there are all these outliers, all these freaks, who artists are doomed to become, and so we know better than anyone else, how much fun and dangerous it is to do something different, to, god help us, resist, without the hashtag.

To really slug the slaver in the face and then cut off his nuts. It happens. But not often.

In looking at the question of the origin, we are looking at god, which is only to say, again, looking at ourselves: what are we capable of?

Even now we uncover through archaeology horrendous facts about the origins of white people, and this mystery extends at least as far as Gobekli Tepe in Anatolia.

Genetics tells us the Etruscans were Anatolian; the Lord’s prayer, and its submission to bread, and “bread givers” is thousands of years older than Christianity. It is as old as wheat and its cultivation.

So when we are talking about colonization we are talking about life not only on earth but in the universe.

Life colonizes life. Life cycles through life. Copies, but changes.

So: is there an afterlife?

Is there justice?

Maybe, but only in stories.

As to genre, it is not well understood. I think of it as a cage, and so we’re slaves again.

But I suspect the horrible revolution is to accept that slavery, and learn to acclimate yourself to the exceptions of various genres. I would like to be wrong about this. And it annoys me when writers I respect such as Michael Chabon opine that they would like to “write a book in every genre,” like a kind of slumming, or a gentleman’s tour of the continent to finish him off.

Stories are weapons and like weapons they have various categories.

And like weapons they can be used in ways that are original; that impress other weapon fighters. That make a name for yourself.

The absolute worst thing about being an anarchist revolutionary, is, like Neo, recognizing how deeply and personally you serve the state, for as you become a better warfighter with words, you understand more deeply that this is how slaveowners originally enslaved: with the sword, of course, but never without a better story.

The better story enslaves; and covets the mind, it can create worshippers if you wish. Obviously it can create religions.

What I want to do with my stories is of course horribly bourgeois; I want to be paid some money for them, money which has become extremely hard to come by in these years. So it may well be, and indeed “should” be in some sense, that I am wrong in this desire, and should want something different, or more. Honor or fame or love or understanding. Sometimes I want those things too, though they don’t feed me.

This is another problem with genre: if you are committed, as many would say I have done, to flouting these conventions, it is much harder to make money. In many ways, flouting convention is something only the wealthy can afford to do.

“Reckoning” is akin etymologically to right, and ruling. The straight line which orders and so determines the day.

I think the secret is that the day may be whatever we wish it; and it needn’t be straight. This is how it was for the Etruscans, who were somewhat more inward looking than the Romans whom they colonized but also more scary: they believed, unlike the Romans who looked to the stars to guess at the will of the gods, that they actually determined stellar movements to a degree, and so they looked at the stars to see themselves, and where they wanted to move.

Desire also has a stellar root; it is understood to be something suns do.

You speak of fiction; the root here is dough: we’re back to bread again. The better story; the better slaver.

As an anarchist of course I want liberation, for you and for myself. But the problem is you rapidly find how few want this with you, because of what it will cost mentally, and the responsibilities that come with it.

There is a good curse in the Torah I read when I thought about becoming a Jew: “may you try to sell yourself into slavery, and no one will buy you.”

Yet the root of freedom is friend, so it is something we do together, apes clustered in the embankment, watching for the right time to move ahead, for our meat.

P.S. The man in the metal hat was supposed to be a conquistador 😉


The Reckoning 1 author interviews have not, until now, included much back and forth–I ask questions, I post the answers. This time I felt it was important not to leave the above unchallenged. Need I add that the opinions of Robin Wyatt Dunn do not reflect those of Reckoning Press? The below has been edited somewhat to omit private correspondence.


Michael: I feel I need to point out that though I have posted your interview, and I had fun reading it, I realize you dodged and talked around and thought around the important questions. And now I have a bit of a bad taste in my mouth and kind of wish I’d argued with you further before posting it. So here I am doing what it feels to me is my responsibility: calling you on some bullshit.

What would make me feel a lot better is if you’d agree to posting some kind of follow-up with me where we talk about this in greater depth. That doesn’t have to happen, but I feel like it’s warranted.

You sidestepped the question about nativeness, which, sure–nativeness is all relative from a big picture of time. But it is intensely personal and relevant from the small picture of the individual, which is the only picture any of us actually get without performing somewhat absurd intellectual acrobatics. When you say “native”, when you write about the end of occidentalism, when you write about the impacts of colonialism on culture and on the individual, you’re not talking about my experience of colonialism, a white man’s experience of it in the US, to wit, as something that happened to other people many generations ago and now is felt only in distant vague repercussions. And I have to assume that since you sidestepped the question, that’s your experience of colonialism too. That you are not in fact native in any commonly understood sense, that you’re a white dude with an education like me. You mention that your goal in writing fiction is to make money. I have less of that problem. I have enough money that I can pour some of it into a nonprofit journal of creative writing on environmental justice. So, I don’t know, maybe you’re experiencing personally some of the long-term results of the colonizing force, to wit, capitalism, that I’m not. That still doesn’t make you an authority on nativeness. It makes you a much more direct product of the colonizing force than of any elided or subsumed culture. Which doesn’t mean you can’t write about nativeness, but it makes it look pretty baldly disingenuous to do so without acknowledging that. You write about the end of occidentalism, then answer a bunch of interview questions about it with namedrops of white, entrenched Western male philosophers. That’s not what the end of occidentalism looks like.

Right now I’m reading The Heirs of Columbus, a revisionist historical/non-genre fantastic novel in which Columbus is reappropriated as a descendant of the Maya, and his descendants in turn practice guerilla culture wars on dominant white capitalist kleptocracy. It’s delightful, I’m about halfway through. I bet you’d like it. It’s by Gerald Vizenor, who is Anishinaabe, in other words an actual product of colonized culture. I recommend it. Maybe it would be revelatory for you? Maybe not.

You bring up slavery. Maybe slavery is a cycle, but it’s a long cycle of which we have in the US thus far only seen the part where the rich white Europeans treat the Natives like absolute shit. Sure, white people have a long history. So do brown people. Brown people colonized each other in parts of that history, as did white people. But that history is so distant compared to what people talk about in the modern era when they talk about slavery that making them rhetorically equivalent is glib and insensitive and hard to interpret as other than willfully blindered and frankly I think kind of insulting to their intelligence. Genre is really not slavery like slavery is slavery. Not at all.

Then there’s the fact that you conflated the native and the enslaved. There’s a lot to unpack there, but immediately, just putting those two words next to each other, it becomes obvious to me that’s a leap of logic that can only be performed from the point of view of the colonizer, the Westerner. If slavery is a cycle, then the native isn’t always the colonized. Signifiers slip. You fall back on etymology, and that’s fun and edifying, it’s relevant, but it’s not the whole of how language works. Especially when you’re talking about and in English, a language that eats languages.

How would you feel if I posted some part of this or all of it as a response to your interview response? And we could keep going like that if you want, you could respond. Maybe we’d get somewhere interesting.


The only part of Robin’s response thus far that has seemed fit to print is as follows.


Robin: You do whatever you like.


I hope he answers at more length. I do actually want to talk about all this. If he does, I’ll post it here. But since the tenor of his replies thus far make that seem not particularly likely, I’m making the decision not to wait. Because I’ve said aloud and often that Reckoning invites and encourages Indigenous voices, marginalized voices, voices of writers and artists of color, and I feel like I’d be falling down on the job as editor if I let this stand on its own.

More as events warrant.

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The End of Occidentalism

Robin Wyatt Dunn

Not man in a metal hat aboard a floating city, not carpetbagger walking jauntily from the train. All colonies begin, after all, in the mind: longing for that hub, the warm fire of London, Paris, Berlin, Lisbon, Rome, Jerusalem. Only there can the gravity of this life achieve its divinity; there, past the horizon, wisdom is won on streets of gold.

Next to this mental promise is always and forever the sword, the mighty brittle sword, cutting straight to the native’s throat.

You who long for the pure identity, for the aboriginal truth, for the phantom heart we left behind when we accepted the alphabet or the railroad, you who know that language conquers all including dream, you who have sunk under the meniscus of Reason into the midnight shadow of what anxious scholars call the subaltern, which only means servant, but no less scary for being quotidian, you bold believers in revolution, remember:

skull_green_scenebreak

My father showed me his Social Security Card. A small rectangle of time-worn paper printed with dark and light blue ink, with a simple string of nine numbers typed across the middle below his name. Paper.

“Boy,” he had told me, “this card meant I was part of the eternal vigil for the General Welfare intended by our Founding Fathers, as they wrote in the Preamble to our Constitution.”

It was another vigil that took my father away, the hunt for talkative men, opinionated men who spoke about what they thought.

Our Holy Office is eight hundred miles to the east, the Route 66 Building in Chattanooga, Tennessee. My father is interred there in an unmarked grave. Our corporate charter is unusual in that we do not lay claim to particular territories; we build and maintain roads, and as such subcontract with a variety of governments.

Even so, movement is discouraged. The roads are seldom used. Taxation provides Our Holy Office with the majority of its income.

I am a customs agent. I supervise the scanning of many of the shipments that pass this way, here outside Elk City, Oklahoma. Elk City, a city founded by railroad men, for railroad men.

It is such a slow slip into the river of time, is it not, the tight and eternal bonds of blood between nation and merchant-tyrant, the business of both Americas, O Coolidge, is business, the business of your short-statured smile, of your diesel appetite, of your divine love.

Oklahoma did not fight long for the Constitution. Religion and jobs were easy replacements for the people of Elk City; after all, it was how they had been raised.

skull_green_scenebreak

Not man in metal hat or traveler with carpet bag, no more, the colony extends within, always and forever within, seeking markets in our soul and trading posts in the medulla. The logic of trade is tragic in its immensity, having no innate moral valence: it is like the physics of asteroid fields, marking transits of orbit to orbit, collision to collision. The only end is movement; wheat, fetuses, gold or slaves. Movement, forever on the move, old son, old daughter of my eye.

skull_green_scenebreak

“Run!”

She is under the train and the jackboots are scanning her from above but I don’t think they have X-rays for some ridiculous reason, probably a copyright dispute. Remote monitored but not directly controlled; they hover at one hundred feet as I crouch under a lip in the railroad embankment, my daughter only 25 meters away, under the old steel train, attaching her mapping pod.

Maps are treasure for us. Reliable data.

I have my rifle but it would be slow suicide to fire on the drones; I am not wearing my ID. In this, again, I am unusual man: to facilitate my movements I have been only partially biometrically scanned. Though I have not visited the neighboring corporations, being only imperfectly databased is an advantage when it comes to such official travel: you can still talk fast and make impressions before executive summaries are sent to buyers’ hands.

I close my eyes and wait for the hum to diminish: a statistical forty seconds elapse between stimulus and response for this model drone. I can hear my daughter’s breathing.

Brother, this is my testimony to you. Do you remember that old flag? Have you seen it? Do you remember the state birds and trees? For my father it was mockingbird and pecan. What was it for your father? I wish I could sing with you some old song we both might know.

The hum is fading away, fading west.

“Rebecca!” I hiss.“Strap it on already.”

“I’ve got it,” she whispers back. And we are running back home, running, running in our night.

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Every night I see the debates on the inter-county screens: the thousand comparative sufferings that are the legacy of a complicated continent. I know my father felt as I do, old unreconstructed Marxist that he was, that this obsession ultimately slowed revolution, slowed the mobilization of angry populations to war.

Our Holy Corporate Office does not care what color my skin is except insofar as its melanin concentration marks a biometric datapoint. My native language is interesting demographically but not politically. No, no, it is my access that counts in the end, a number on the screen, a codeword coded down into a variety of linked mountaintops, satellites, and nuclear submarines, an invite list for oligarchy. Which house, which train, which river and which orbital flight belongs to me and mine? None for me, brother, and none for you either.

skull_green_scenebreak

The Chattanooga Choo-Choo will leave Elk City at 23:00 hours tomorrow night: the mapping pod will record its route and transmit this data in a final burst when it reaches the Pacific, some two days later. By then I hope to be in Texas.

“Jamila isn’t coming,” Rebecca says, watching me, watching the sky.

“We can still trust her,” I say.

“What will they do if they catch us?” my daughter asks.

“They won’t.”

“But what if they do?”

“They won’t.”

Texas, my father’s state, is already almost mythical to me. Original and aboriginal.

skull_green_scenebreak

I told my daughter we were lighting out for the territory. The territory, child, always and forever thirsty, which is what a territory is by root: a thirsty patch of ground. I who thirst for the ways of my ancestors am lost, and lost again, because I no longer know what it means to be a man.

I am not a tree or a bird, I am not a national or a tribalist. I believe only in the community of Man, and yes, our manifest destiny of the stars. Is an absence of boundaries a boundary? It is what Che Guevara longed for, that old madman.

I watch my daughter walk ahead of me and admire her strong legs: we will make it to New Mexico on foot, I know it.

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