PARALLAX: “Gulu, Uganda 2010” by J. Barook

PARALLAX: Seeing the same thing from two different points of view renders three dimensions. 

parallaxWe are excited to premiere  our new column, “PARALLAX.” According to Wikipedia, parallax is a displacement or difference in the apparent position of an object viewed along two different lines of sight. The essays contained in PARALLAX reflect the same displacement. While the shift can be uncomfortable or jarring or even unrecognizable, a new reality is created from the old.

Our first essay, “Gulu, Uganda 2010”  is by J. Barook, whose fiction has appeared in jmww regularly, most recently “The Sangha” in the Summer 2013 issue of jmww.

Gulu, Uganda 2010,” by J. Barook

Children vocalize their pain in different ways around the world.  In Switzerland and Cameroon they say, “aiy aiy aiy.”  In the Philippines they say, “arai.”  As we passed through a refugee camp in Northern Uganda, a mother and father waived us down for a ride to the hospital after their two-year old fell off the back of their bicycle and broke his arm.  Joseph helped them into the back of the truck, but when it started to rain, big hot rain drops kicking up dust, we all squeezed in the cab.  He clutched his arm, wrapped in a newspaper.  He cried out, “yi yi yi” with every bump and gully in the dirt road, sun glinting in puddles, small white birds bursting into sky as we came around the bend.   We dropped them off outside the hospital, angry and scared, and went on our way. It was dusk and we still had a ways to drive before we got to the Sudanese border. 

We passed people wheeling a parade of dead bodies down the road on carts.  “How did they die?” I said.  It seemed to me like an important question.  The night before, we were dancing to Lucky Dube in a Gulu bar and a deaf mute in a crumpled hat told us that the Lord’s Resistance Army was coming to kill us all.  He pointed north towards the border and signed the universal signs for mortars and machine gun fire.  He grabbed Olara by the wrist and traced LRA on his forearm with his finger.  Everybody laughed uncomfortably.  These kinds of jokes were a little too close to home. The LRA haunted everyone’s dreams in this town.  That guy was probably fucking with us.  But you couldn’t know for sure.  “Does he know?” I asked Olara.  Olara shrugged.  Olara had been a child soldier himself years before.  He used to carry around a hand grenade when he was ten.  This wasn’t funny to him.  He found a pretty girl and danced.  Afterwards we wandered around town in the dark.  I pissed in the bushes, then waved down a boda boda motorcycle taxi and went back to my hotel.

In Christian Wiman’s great book My Bright Abyss, he says there was a time when he was enamored of the notion as articulated by Wallace Stevens, that “Death is the mother of Beauty.”  Until he actually confronted death, that is.  At which point, to his surprise, the world did not automatically become more beautiful. A related conceit is implicit in the ubiquity of war fiction and war poetry going back thousands of years past the Middle Ages, at least as far back as The Iliad around 750 BCE.  Throughout history, people have written about war for all kinds of good and silly reasons: documenting history, the drama of conflict and heroism, to make a political statement, to celebrate the human spirit.  After college, I had the bright idea that I was going to be a war correspondent mainly because war seemed damn literary.  Instead, and for much the same reason, I ended up working for an NGO.

In Japanese aesthetics, there are three words for beauty that resonate:  Sabi—the beauty of transience and the passage of time.  Wabi—the beauty of poverty and solitude.  Yugen—the beauty of subtle mystery in the world (not beyond it).  I had the idea that the violence of war, in addition to being entertaining to read about, also had the potential to expose sabi, wabi, and yugen, which seemed to be the most important thing of all.  Those things probably are important.  I have not completely apostated myself from Stevens’ cult of the aesthetic.  But something about it seems wrong, incomplete.

As it turned out, all those people died from diarrhea.  We got to the village.  Joseph and Wilfred discussed whether we should shake their hands.  “How can we avoid it?” Joseph asked.  You can’t not shake hands.  They were glad I had hand sanitizer with me.  Afterwards, when we got back into the truck and drove on towards the Nile River, we slathered our hands and rubbed them vigorously.

Maybe Wallace Stevens didn’t have kids.  Maybe he never noticed how they cry differently from one part of the world to another.  When my own two year old broke his arm in Maryland, he screamed, “owiee ow owiee,” a look of bewilderment on his face.  Now that he’s five, I tell him that to die is to awaken into Life and I hope he believes me because otherwise it’s not worth it and also because it must be true.

border town night life

drunk people spread rumors

of rebels

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