History is contemporary: Ishmael Reed’s “Conjugating Hindi”


Ishmael Reed’s new novel Conjugating Hindi (published by Dalkey Archives) is provocatively historical and inspirationally contemporary.

Set in Oakland, California, 2017, the story dramatizes how the old sin of slavery returns under a new president “who pretended to be champion of the Middle Class,” but whose “heart was with the rich”. Under such a circumstance, artists and Blacks are driven out of cities across the nation by real estate poachers (Conjugating 10). With this deplorable scene, the novel sets forth its satirical narration revolving about a commercial debating program on “Was Slavery All That Bad?”

Organized by Columbia Speakers Bureau in New York, the debate is carefully designed to make money from “a human holocaust” (Conjugating 23). For Reed readers, this subject is hardly new. From Freelance Pallbearers to Juice!, Ishmael Reed, with unfailing courage and unique narrative art, has been telling us how stories about human misery, especially those of Black slaves, are stolen and staged by the moneyed and the privileged for profit. Conjugating Hindi probes deeper into this subject by introducing into the story world a right-wing Indian-American, who is used not only against his fellow countrymen, but Afro-Americans. Shashi Paramara and Peter Bowman participate in a series of debates before White conservative audiences. The novel signals Reed’s brisk stepping into the cultural and literary history of India. In various ways, this remarkable story reverberates with Reed’s persistent concern with American social reality as well as his imaginative construction of multicultural poetics which talks back to racism in American culture and literature.

Early in 1977 when interviewed by John Domini concerning the relationship between history and literature, Reed remarked that “the past is contemporary”, explaining his narrative “anachronism” (as is described by the postmodernists) as related to an African Vodun conception of time[1]. Such a statement should not be understood in a simplistic way. As Reed makes it clear in the same interview, “I see writing as a fine art, not just a medium for telling a story”. In another interview of the same year, he picked up the same issue with the following observation:

“I think slavery is contemporary; the same institutions that existed in the plantation situation of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century South exist now” (Conversations, 120).

What is made clear here is a historical sense that is forcefully directed to the contemporary moment when this great novelist is writing. In other words, Reed is almost always addressing a public which seems to be forgetting about the past. Conjugating Hindi is surely about a present when “[E]very vote for Donald Trump was a vote for vulgarity. His supporters got exactly what they paid for” (July 28, 2017 NYTIMES). Very much like the situation described in The Terrible Twos where we see the Reagan administration was satisfied and sanguine while millions in the United States were starving, Conjugating Hindi presents us with similar social scenes, where even the White progressives are protesting against “income inequality”. In circumstances like these, the Black elite has to struggle for a modest existence.

Counterpunch for more

Comments are closed.