The Ouzel refuses to drown

Last night I went to an on-campus Amnesty screening of Total Denial: Doe vs. UNOCAL. It was interesting as an informational tool, both on Burma and on some recent decisions in the US court system. After the events of last summer and fall in Burma, I had a little more information on the situation, so it was good to see some firsthand information and firsthand footage. The two complaints I really had were related to both of those – the firsthandedness of some of the footage meant that it was extremely shaky camera-wise and often quite blurred, making some events hard to understand. Also, some of the film splicing seemed to not make sense, or was at least not explained. (oh, another part of the burning forest. that’s sad. wait, why do I love the hammock?). But still, I’m glad I went and saw it. There was even a college-age girl who had been in Burma during the Saffron Revolution who offered her thoughts and stayed to answer questions.

I remember stories of even the monks, normally sacred and protected members of the community, being tortured and killed. It impacted me, but I had no real call to action from the events. Also at this time I’d purchased the hardcover book Saving Fish from Drowning by Amy Tan for $6 in the bargain book section of the COOP. I began to read it, unaware that this story too would revolve around Burma.

The title revolves around the story of a monk who went out every day and always came home with a basket of fish. A parishioner asked him how he could eat fish while still holding true to his Buddhist beliefs. The monk explained that all the fish they ate were fish he had found drowning. When he tried to save them, unfortunately they died, and he was forced to eat them. But still, the next day he would try to save some again.

The story itself is even more bizzare – it’s the story of a dead woman following the tour group she was supposed to lead around Asia, as retold through a medium, the record of which is discovered by Amy Tan when she runs into some paranormal society library to escape bad weather. It tells quite a bit about the situation and history of Burma, and the ways in which the country’s government reacts to the spotlight of the outside world. It tells of how people are changed by their experiences and interactions, or not changed; how situations are reflected and refracted and adapted when hit by more direct or different light. But it leaves the reader oddly unsatisfied, despite interest, imagery, and a mostly coherent plot.
You may ask of this story, why all the hocus-pocus? Why all the indirectness? Why the confusing and dithering conclusion of the book? Plenty of authors have made bold statements regarding war-ravaged areas of the world – if Amy Tan was interested in this one, why not take a stand? Why not give us some solutions, or idea on where to begin? Why not inspire us to make a difference?

I think the answer has something to do which what we think a story is supposed to give us. I am reminded of part of the movie The Hours, where Virginia Woolfe says the artist has to die so that everyone else can relearn the value of life. Perhaps Saving Fish From Drowning is something like this. Perhaps it teaches us to value a little more what we have. Perhaps it is not meant to give answers or give hope for future change or even enlighten, but simply to remind us of what we have. I’m not sure I know what to do with that type of story right now – have I lost my ability to empathize? Or am I simply realistic about what change I can accomplish?

The story is not yet over. Nobel Peace Prize winners, including Desmond Tutu, are continuing to take a stand, are continuing to effect peaceful change through trade restrictions and other political international moves. Perhaps this will be enough, and things will change. Perhaps the pressure for change will again grow in support of this region, forcing the country once again into the public eye. I remain tentatively hopeful for the betterment of the world.

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