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Nelson Mandela: A life in pictures
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
“I became a writer to piss on all the many white teachers and white editors out there (everywhere) who said it could not be done. Not by the stupid mongrel likes of me,” writes Nasdijj in “The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams.” This is a book unlike any to come around in a long time, and not just because of its author’s unconventional path to publication. Nasdijj writes as an exile in his own homeland. He’s the son of migrant workers, and he doesn’t fit into a racial or cultural category: “My cowboy dad was white. My mother’s people were with the Navajo.” He feels a spiritual kinship with the Navajos, though he has to contend with their suspicion of him for looking white. (Nasdijj is presumably a pseudonym, “Athabaskan for ‘to become again,’” according to the author’s bio.) His childhood was turbulent: “It was a life grinding its slow way through chaos.” His father regularly beat him with a belt and his mother was falling-down drunk most of the time, which explains the fetal alcohol syndrome he suffers from: “Reading is a real struggle. It’s extremely hard work. Things appear upside down. Writing is worse.”
“The Blood Runs” is several things at once: an episodic memoir of a hardscrabble life; a record of its author’s defiant, quixotic dedication to becoming a writer; and a memorial to his dead 6-year-old son, Tommy Nothing Fancy, who also had fetal alcohol syndrome. Its singular language blends Native American mythological rhythms and imagery, stirring Whitman-esque catalogs and unadorned observations about life on and around the reservation. Nasdijj’s terse, elemental sentences don’t so much follow one another as nestle each on top of the next, like a desert rock formation.
His anger at the “white people world” just about reaches off the page and shoves you, and yet there’s a disciplined quality to his fury. For all its descriptions of drunken violence and crushing poverty, the book has a gentleness at its core. Many of Nasdijj’s stories describe small acts of kindness that carry huge symbolic weight. He visits a hotshot cowboy dying alone of AIDS and takes him “into the desert wilderness so he can sit in his rented wheelchair and watch the horses … I can’t give him his life back, but I can give him this.” In a chapter about being homeless, he describes living in a public campground next to a desperate woman and her two daughters, named Molly and Ringwald. (“Now I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that white people have to have their heads examined,” he comments.) He takes the girls to the library and, when an unexpected check arrives, buys them new dolls to replace the dirty, balding ones they drag around. “There is no escape from being defined by what you lack,” he writes, as succinct an evocation of the plight of the homeless as any I’ve read.
Several of the most affecting chapters tell the story of Tommy Nothing Fancy’s life and death. In between descriptions of the effects of FAS on Tommy — mainly “epileptic seizures and out-of-control behavior” — Nasdijj broods over his efforts to be a father to an adopted son he seems to have loved above all else: “I was never a good father. I failed badly. I knew it. Tommy knew it.” Yet it’s hard to see him as anything other than generous and devoted: “Every man who has a son should give something of himself,” he says. “I didn’t have much. I had a dog, I had a truck, I had fishing rods.” When Tommy dies of a seizure on a fishing trip (since his odds of survival are practically nil, Nasdijj refuses to take the boy to a hospital when his condition worsens, which enrages his wife), he carries his son’s body to his truck, then returns to retrieve the well-organized tackle box Tommy had endlessly fussed over: “I could not leave this perfection behind.” In these sections, Nasdijj’s writing achieves something rare and powerful: a remarkably controlled picture of an uncontrollable grief.
All too often, authors of memoirs tell us that writing was a way for them to come to terms with past events, or to understand themselves. Well, that’s nice for you, I often think when I read one of these, but what’s in it for the rest of us? Too much first-person writing these days seems fueled by this annoying momentum of self-reassurance, its authors strangely oblivious to both the likelihood of self-deception and the not-all-right-ness of so much of life.
Reading Nasdijj is an unusual pleasure because he’s something else altogether: He burns to write, and while he obviously takes satisfaction in proving wrong the editors who refused to publish him, writing is not a way to make himself feel better. He clings proudly to his discontent. His chapters often end with an elegant resolution, but he’s careful not to imply that any understanding he has reached erases or makes up for the suffering that came before. “I no longer look at every loss like my arthritis screams in this cold rain,” he writes at the end of the chapter on being homeless, “but now know all my losses for illuminating events (hard as they might be) that light the brain with the horror of the sun and the knowledge that there is no such thing as consolation.” In the end, he writes because it’s what he has, and that has to be enough.
Maria Russo has been a writer and editor at The Los Angeles Times, The New York Observer and Salon, and is a regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review. More Maria Russo.
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
Mandela is accompanied by his former wife Winnie, moments after his release from prison February 11, 1990 after serving 27 years in jail. (Reuters)
In this February, 1990 photo, shortly after his release from 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela, gives the black power salute to the 120,000 supporters packing Soccer City stadium in Soweto, near Johannesburg. (AP Photo)
Nelson Mandela showed his passport in February 19, 1990, shortly after his release from prison. The South African government authorized an application for himself and his wife Winnie - (Juda Ngwenya / Reuters)
In this July 27, 1991 photo, Cuban President Fidel Castro, and Nelson Mandela gesture during the celebration of the "Day of the Revolution" in Matanzas, Cuba. (AP Photo)
In this July 4, 1993 photo, President Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela listen during Fourth of July ceremonies in Philadelphia during which Clinton presented the Philadelphia Liberty Medal to the African National Congress president and South African President F.W. de Klerk. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)
President of the African National Congress Nelson Mandela acknowledges cheers from the crowd as he prepares to unveil the ANC's official election platform in 1994. (AP Photo/David Brauchli)
African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela greeted residents of Mmabatho in March 1994, during a visit after the nominal homeland came under South African control following the ousting of the former President Lucas Mangope. (Reuters/Howard Burditt)
South African President Nelson Mandela smiles with actor Sidney Poitier at a press conference in Cape Town in 1996. Poitier played Mandela in the film "One Man, One Vote" (AP Photo / Sasa Kralj)
South African President Nelson Mandela waves to crowds as he sits next to Queen Elizabeth II in a an open carriage on the way to Buckingham Palace.(AP/Louisa Buller)
Chairman of the Constitutional Assembly Cyril Ramaphosa, left, holds up a copy of the country's constitution which was signed by President Nelson Mandela, in December 1996. (AP Photo / Adil Bradlow / POOL)
Nelson Mandela at a news conference in Johannesburg in February 2000. (AP Photo / Denis Farrell)
South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar, right, received the Rugby World Cup trophy from President Nelson Mandela also wearing a South African rugby shirt, after South Africa defeated New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup , in 1995. (AP Photo / Ross Setford)