Thursday, September 4, 2014

Guestpost: Arthur Powers - A Hero for the People

Please join me in welcoming Arthur Powers here today.  He has written the book A Hero for the People and is sharing some thoughts,



Seeing

                When my granddaughter was seven, she taught me to play “Punch Buggy.”  For those – like I was – who are not in the know, a Punch Buggy is a Volkswagen Beetle.  The object of the game is – as we drive around town – to be the first to spot a VW Beetle and to shout out “Punch Buggy.”  One point for each Beetle, and two points for a VW Bus – which, to my surprise, have become very rare. 
                We played this game avidly for about a year and a half, and she usually beat me.  Now, a mature eleven, she can rarely be inveigled into a game – though occasionally she’ll still surprise me.
                But darn it if I’m not caught.  A year-and-a-half of strenuous training has made me Punch Buggy conscious.  I spot them from the corner of my eye.  I know all the probable Punch Buggy hang-outs in Raleigh, North Carolina – and even have an incipient sociological theory about Punch Buggies (look for them where upper middle-class women congregate).
                Of course, it helps that Punch Buggyies are one of the few truly strikingly colorful cars being manufactured, in this dull culture of white, gray, silver, dusty brown, and black vehicles.  To one who grew up in the 1950s, colorful cars are wonderful.  But that is beside the point.
                The point is, we see what we are trained to see. 
                Brenda (my wife) and I worked in the Amazon with subsistence farmers.  Many of them could not read or write.  But walking through the forests with them, they would spot animals that we could barely see when they pointed them out to us.   They distinguished plants that all looked pretty much the same to us – and thought it funny that they could show us the differences one day and we would have forgotten the next. 
                In his A Guide For The Perplexed, E. F. Schumacher notes that, when he visited Soviet Russia, there were no churches on the official maps.  Walking through Moscow, one could see the churches, but on the official maps they simply did not exist.  The experience made him question how many things might be missing from our “official maps” – from standard college curricula, for instance.  Writing in the mid-1970s, he concluded that our cultural maps were pretty good at describing the empirical world – the “horizontal dimension” – but not good at showing the “vertical dimension,” and that, without both, it was hard to see the Great Truth. 
                Every culture teaches its members to see certain things.  Often this is practical.  A Brazilian subsistence farmers sees plants and animals: these things are his livelihood, or threaten his livelihood.  I can distinguish letters and words on a page: these things are my livelihood, or threaten my livelihood. 
                But often these cultural orientations, practical as they are (or may have been at one time), can blind us to things we are not able to see.   For instance, during the last century, America has been very successful economically.   We have become adept at seeing the economic value of things – knowing how and where to buy cheaply, following the markets, thinking in terms of time being money.  Slowly the economic myth – that the only REAL value is the economic value – has come to dominate our vision.
                Of course, in our hearts we don’t really believe that.  As Robert Kennedy once remarked, economics measures everything except what is really important: justice, beauty, culture, faith, community, friendship, love.  Hallmark movies continue to tell us of simple people who rediscover these truths and give up high pay and position for deeper values (usually embodied in fairly idyllic forms).
                And, of course, many people do, daily, give up higher pay and position for family, friendship, culture, community.  But such is the power of the economic myth – the Punch Buggy we have been trained to see – that we opt for better things almost apologetically.  But we DO begin to open our eyes.
                This is what God calls us to – constantly:  to open our eyes and see that there is more, much more, than what our culture has trained us to see.  Often those approaching religion for the first time have this problem – they are being asked to see something that they have not been trained to see.  As a convert, I can testify – I simply could not understand, at first, what I was being asked to look at.  It was like walking with a farmer through the forest and not seeing the animals – if I hadn’t trusted those farmers deeply, I would have thought they were talking about imaginary animals.
                As a Christian, as a poet, as a fiction writer, I have to attempt to see – really see – and to convey that seeing to you, my reader.  It is my hope that readers of The Book of Jotham will see the world in a new way through the eyes of a mentally-challenged young man, that readers of A Hero For The People will see the world differently through the eyes of a rural farm woman, a small town trader, a Belgian religious brother facing danger, an evangelical minister in the Rio de Janeiro slums.  I hope that, in the ensuing dialogue, we can all grow to see more fully and more clearly.   


Arthur Powers went to Brazil in 1969 and lived most his adult life there. From 1985 to 1997, he and his wife served with the Franciscan Friars in the Amazon, doing pastoral work and organizing subsistence farmers and rural workers’ unions in a region of violent land conflicts. The Powers currently live in Raleigh North Carolina.
Arthur received a Fellowship in Fiction from the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, three annual awards for short fiction from the Catholic Press Association, and 2nd place in the 2008 Tom Howard Fiction Contest. His poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared in many magazines & anthologies. He is the author of A Hero For The People: Stories From The Brazilian Backlands (Press 53, 2013) and The Book of Jotham (Tuscany Press, 2013).


 A Hero for the People: Stories of the Brazilian Backlands is Arthur Power’s debut collection of short stories set in Contemporary Brazil, where he and his wife lived for almost 30 years.

“Set in the vast and sometimes violent landscape of contemporary Brazil, this book is a gorgeous collection of stories-wise, hopeful, and forgiving, but clear-eyed in its exploration of the toll taken on the human heart by greed, malice, and the lust for land.” (Debra Murphy, CatholicFiction.net).

Publication Date: May 3, 2013
Publisher: Press 53
Paperback; 190P
ISBN: 978-1935708834
Genre: General Fiction/Literary
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