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samedi 25 mai 2013


the literate man of sioux city
surviving in a non literate city

the weekend was upon us, the Americans were celebrating the Mexican equivalent of the Day of the Dead, or the Vietnamese equivalent of the Tomb Sweeping Day.. it is called Memorial Day in the USA.
Also symbolically denotes the beginning of the light hearted summer festivities: food festivals, so called cultural festivals, riverside festivals, in general an indication for people to get out and have a good time, as the winter has almost become a memory and no one has to worry about heating their homes up for few more months.. in this part of the world..

I have been coming to visit the Indians who live in their reservations just few miles south of this city, which was once a centre of trade and commerce and now even churches have hard times surviving..the language is going from those of the European Migrants to those of Latin American especially Central American migrants and in fact, it is their presence that gives the city any sort of spark, otherwise it would have already joined the multitudes of middle american cities lying in their coffins.

Iowa is a very conservative state, said an educated patient of mine, and in Iowa, Sioux City is the most conservative! so it is no wonder that I have made no friends here despite visiting the town for occasional eating adventures, mainly to the Vietnamese or Thai restaurants.

with one exception
that is Steve Avery!

Coffee Works on the top of Pierce Street was the first decent coffee shop in town which opened in 1994, by an photographer who had spent some time in Thailand. So i had felt comfortable that distant day when i entered and settled down with my coffee and a book.
Sitting across me was a gentleman, who bears resemblance to Michael Douglas, reading the Sunday Edition of New York Times! In those days, Manna from Heaven was easier to find than NYT in a city of the size and temperament of Sioux City.
As Roberto Menguel the erudite Argentine says in his book on READING, the book you are reading, changes the context of your personality. I dont think i would have said Hello to Steve Avery had he been reading the National Enquirer or Reader's Digest...

we have been friends ever since even though our intense conversations are shared only once or even less per year. i am here to be with the indians and the less contact i have with Sioux City the better (the maltreated Indians call the city, the Sewage City). 
But on this day of remembrance, I had a desire to see and say hello to Steve, and what better place than Coffee Works. The owner, the photographer, was only glad to oblige to call Steve who was bicycling thirty minutes distance away.
Tell him I would be there in thirty minutes..
the next two hours, when the owner gave us the keys so that we can lock up when we leave, as he was going home, the conversation was 

It made me think of Paris of Nin and Neruda, London of Naipaul and Vargas LLosa..cities that attract and cradle intellectuals ..

but sioux city? it has to be the least literate place of all the places that i routinely visit, worse than Singapore or Kuala Lumpur ..
I also thought of that erudite man of Kuala Lumpur, Mr Ho!

How do such intellectual people survive these illiterate deserts where there are no oases?

Steve is provocative, he has a reputation for READING and he shared his reading list with me. He is a conduit for me to American Literature since my inclination lie elsewhere. This book power gives him respect and the narrow minded well off residents of this city that lies in another century, grudgingly would say
Steve you know more, because you read a lot!

we touched on a thousand subjects, all related to our reading. somehow we had begun with philosophical reading, so he expounded on Benjamin from where we went on to Foucault and some ancient philosophies and the attractive aspects of Atheism..

If you are a truly clever person, it is difficult to believe in these attractively clothed rituals that passes for religion, he added

the minutes raced past, it was time to say good bye until our next serendipitous meeting.
I thought of the city of my heart, San Cristobal de la Habana, to me one of the most intellectual cities in the world that carries me.. The great metaphor for Steve here in this desert would be the plants trying to grow out of the crevices of long abandoned colonial edifices in that city..

Here is what Steve has read, he tries to read 1000 pages a month, he says he succeeds in reading 900.. and all the books are easily available and it is a compendium of curiosity, the hunger that is satisfied only by holding a book, to question...

Books and readers provide knowledge and understanding..

So when i returned to the comfort of the Blue House among the Indians, I wrote this down, dedicated to the Literate Man from the Illiterate Desert with no Oases..

If you cannot accept the growth and evolution of the knowledge and understanding .. that the external world provides through our experience of it- then you are living in an un natural cocoon of sense,  you are locked in, not liberated. All senses undergo change.

Reading is a tool of that change.

Thank you, dear Friend and companion, Steve Avery of Sioux City, Iowa in the United States of America.