A new novel takes a trip to the future–and through the mind of its multifaceted author.

by Chris Rohmann – March 9, 2006 VALLEY ADVOCATE

Andrea Hairston’s new novel is aptly named. Mindscape traverses the author’s prodigious imagination and touches on all the themes that have filled her multidisciplinary, cross-cultural plays for three decades. The book, published last week by Aqueduct Press, is her first novel–yet another instrument in the repertoire of this prolific poet-playwright-actor-director-percussionist-scholar. Mindscape is a sci-fi adventure story set in a future century when the world has been walled into warring zones by the Barrier, a roiling curtain of energy and danger. It’s a novel of ideas–about culture, politics, race and history, plus a dab of genetic theory. It’s also a passageway into the mind of its author.

Hairston is an artist who is also an intellect; a student of the modern world who doesn’t shrink from raw emotion; a black artist who draws nourishment from both European and African traditions and who remains distinctly American. A professor in the Smith College theater department, she’s also director of Chrysalis Theater, the Northampton-based multiracial theater company that produces her poetic dramas-with-rhythm.

The Chrysalis plays have become almost parts of a series, connected by recurring themes: violence, racism, the repression and triumph of women, the need for community, the power of art. Hairston’s work insistently searches for signs that foolish humanity can overcome its divisions and oppressions (both external and self-inflicted) and work together creatively. Her ideal world, in the words of one of her characters, is “not just multiculti, but polywise.”

And that’s the world Mindscape strives for, too–to overcome the political and cultural divisions enforced by the Barrier, which is the novel’s central image and primary metaphor. The idea that “we can change the past with the actions we take now” recurs in various forms throughout the book.

The idea of the Barrier began percolating for Hairston some 20 years ago at the Berlin Wall, that stone-and-barbed-wire symbol of the then-divided Germany, where she frequently visits and teaches. The experience of that physical barrier was reinforced in subsequent years by intangible ones–in Georgia, where she perceived the years of Jim Crow and lynch law lurking in the sunny smile of “the New South,” and back in Europe, when she spoke with women refugees from war-torn corners of Africa, Asia, the Mideast and Central America.

“In all these situations,” Hairston says, “I noted the same kinds of questions–how difficult it is for people to relate to one another, the barriers we put between ourselves, and the horrible, unbelievable things we do to each other–and ourselves.”

In Mindscape ‘s future world, those things include killing people–expendable “Extras”–to harvest their body parts for the international organ market, or in “snuff takes” for ultra-realistic movie spectacles. And in the wealthy zones, the narcissistic drive for personal perfection is facilitated by genetic manipulation–“gene art.” In this multicolored world, racial difference is beginning to fade, reflecting Hairston’s own genome–“We are a mix of African Americans, whites and Native Americans,” she says–but it’s still obsessed with physical and other markers of class.

The story unfolds over several days when a fragile peace treaty among earth’s warring zones is in danger of coming apart, subverted by the age-old demons of greed and mistrust. The delegates come from the world’s three populated zones, all of them extensions, almost parodies, of present-day societies. (The fourth zone, known as the Wilderness, is a kind of nature preserve protected from encroachment by the Barrier, where the earth’s floral and fauna are slowly recovering from the environmental devastations of the past–i.e., our present.)

Paradigma, the wealthiest and most technologically advanced zone, is a vision of where the U.S.A. is headed. Its self-satisfied unofficial motto is “Civilization, Democracy, Free Market, Science” and represents, as the name suggests, the world’s current dominant paradigm. Los Santos is nihilism central, an urban-and-desert tract ruled by lethal ganglords and entertainment barons.

Standing in contrast to these two regions, which manifest “a ruthless disregard for what is most valuable in life,” as one character says, stands New Ouagadougou, “the healers’ zone.” It is the last bastion of spirituality and connection to ancient ways, its wisdom expressed in Yoruba sayings and sand mandalas. (Ouagadougou is the capital of present-day Burkina Faso, in central Africa.) This culture clash is at the heart of the book and the core of Hairston’s worldview–art vs. science, and how the two can be creatively reconciled.

The complex, multilayered story revolves around a conference called to try to save the treaty, but spins out from that in a multitude of directions, simultaneously following six individuals’ trajectories. From Los Santos come actor Ray Valero, the chiseled, burned-out star of cinematic action-adventures, and director Aaron Dunkelbrot, master of high-tech epics, “all silk and sleaze,” who used to be an Extra (and a woman) before reinventing himself through gene art.

Personifying Paradigma’s rationalist obsession is the secret service chief known as the Major. He’s detailed to sabotage the treaty, but is also the boyfriend of rebellious Lawanda Kitt, an “ethnic throwback” from a town called Ellington, who has found herself appointed delegate to the treaty conference. Lawanda is the book’s most original voice, a sister who talks back and talks black: “Ethnic throwbacks be like the ole Israelis bringin’ back Hebrew. … Survival be havin’ words to call home, havin’ idioms and syntax to heal the Diaspora. In your cultural rhythm and rhyme, that’s where the soul keep time.”

One main character dies (sort of) before the book opens, but is a constant presence. Celestina Xa Irawo is the architect of the peace treaty, a healer, spacetime-shifter and spiritual leader of New Ouagadougou. Eleni Xa Celest is her “spirit daughter,” heir to Celestina’s powers and pacifist mission. Described by Ray Valero, her lover, as “a big-assed, big-tit, muscular broad with freaky hair” (her dreads have minds of their own, writhing like snakes and oozing multicolored juices), she can carve passageways through the Barrier with the energy of her mind and spirit.

There are battalions of secondary figures in this sprawling epic–another couple dozen are helpfully listed in a “Cast of Characters” appendix. Some of them have playfully unlikely combos of names from the 20th century, like the renegade scientist/blues singer Mahalia Selasie, the legendary filmmaker Tadeshi Mifune (most of the citizens of Los Santos have names from the movies or the Bible) and Celestina’s assassin, Piotr Osama, an amalgam of Rasputin and You-Know-Who. And some of the names are downright jokes, like Aaron Dunkelbrot, whose surname means “dark bread” in German, but who is the book’s most whitebread character. Hairston says, “A lot of people think I’m a really serious, heavy political writer, but I can also just have fun.”

Some of the place names are joky too. The capital of Paradigma is Sagan City, named for a real-life renegade scientist, and one of Hairston’s heroes, Carl Sagan. “I see him as a kind of Renaissance man,” says Hairston, who planned to be a scientist before veering into theater. “He was a rational man who understood the need for poetry, the need to connect things that may not seem rationally connected, but that’s the way to make leaps of discovery. And that’s the question that goes through the book. Who are the scientists? Celestina or the Major? Which is the model that we would like to have?”

Sagan’s answer, according to Hairston, was to recognize that science and art share a common approach to life’s mysteries–what Stanislavsky, founder of the so-called Method school of acting, called the Magic If: What would happen if…? “That’s the impulse that I was taken with when I was working on the book,” Hairston explains.

She also acknowledges a debt to UMass geoscience professor Lynn Margulis (who was, not entirely coincidentally, married to Sagan). Margulis’s theory of symbiogenesis holds that the Darwinian “selfish gene” theory doesn’t sufficiently explain evolution. Biodiversity results not only from competition but cooperation. In the world of Mindscape, and in Hairston’s philosophy, symbiogenesis, which created the Barrier, can also heal the ravaged planet and fractured humanity.

Mindscape by Andrea Hairston, Andrea Hairston

Mindscape by Andrea Hairston

Aqueduct Press

452 pages; $19.50


The Wisdom of Mindscape

March 9, 2006

Before Mindscape there was Wilderness . In the unpublished first volume of a projected trilogy, Andrea Hairston created the future world she describes in Mindscape and the people who inhabit it. That material forms the backstory to the present work, and other characters from the first book are represented by chapter-heading epigraphs. They include Lawanda Kitt’s equally Ebonic sister, Geraldine, and an Ouagadougouan philosopher of the past, Vera Xa Lalafia. Their writings, imagined by Hairston, constitute the cultural ethos of this fictional world and add up to Hairston’s personal credo.

Here’s a sample:

“The stories we tell, tell us.”

— Geraldine Kitt, Junk Bonds of the Mind

“You see what you think you see. You find what you look for. If you can’t imagine it, it won’t happen for you. Imagine the impossible, imagine the spirit of your enemies, imagine miracles, imagine the last moment of your life, imagine eternity. Imagine what you can’t imagine.”

— Vera Xa Lalafia, Healer Cosmology, The Final Lessons

“We have to time travel. Change the past with the actions we take now. Rehearse the future. Live each moment like it’s forever.” — Celestina Xa Irawo, Preamble to the Interzonal Peace Treaty

“If everybody is the same, nobody is anything.”

— Vera Xa Lalafia, Healer Cosmology, The Final Lessons

“”Survival of the fittest’ be the sort of raunchy, take-no-prisoners metaphor that folk throw ’round to make the universe seem like some sorta competitive meritocracy where the best and brightest get all the props and jacked-up failures get dusted (it’s they own fault too). What universe is this? Darwin oughta be hollerin’ in his grave.”

— Geraldine Kitt, Junk Bonds of the Mind

“In a world of monsters and everyday horror, you want to give a card-carrying scumbag a medal for just being a decent guy once in his life. I suggest waiting until he at least makes it a habit.”

— Tadeshi Mifune, Surviving the Future, Last Minute Notes

“No meaning without experience, no future in advance of living it, no absolute, eternal truth revealed either by God or mathematical logic. The infinite cannot be reduced to a finite algorithm, poetic fantasy, or prophetic Vision. The map of the Universe is the Universe.”

— Vera Xa Lalafia, Healer Cosmology, The Final Lessons

“We are not a chosen people nor have we been abandoned, we are just unfinished. Past glory inspires us, yet nothing works the imagination like terror, except perhaps hope.”

— Celestina Xa Irawo, Preamble to the Interzonal Peace Treaty

“You understand the truth you grasp but not the truth that grasps you.”

— Vera Xa Lalafia, Healer Cosmology, The Final Lessons

“We done let the poetic spirit in folk languish, like bein’ human mean togglin’ a damn switch steada imaginin’ yourself ‘cross spacetime and back. … The square root of bullshit is bullshit.”

— Geraldine Kitt, Junk Bonds of the Mind

“Anything that we are absolutely certain of doesn’t matter and everything that truly matters is uncertain.”

— Vera Xa Lalafia, Healer Cosmology, The Final Lessons

“People be past masters at imaginin’ the end of the world. . . doom and gloom in the twilight of the Gods–but folk’re hard put to imagine a new day where we get on with each other, where we tear it up but keep it real. Why is that? Is an ole question, but I gotta keep askin’.”

— Geraldine Kitt, Junk Bonds of the Mind

“There aren’t singular atoms, lonely souls, or Final Lessons. You’re never done. Everything stretches beyond you. Who knows what will be true tomorrow? We look with the eyes of the ancestors into the faces of our children.”

— Vera Xa Lalafia, Healer Cosmology, The Final Lessons