John Reed’s most recent book, Tales of Woe (MTV Press, 204 pages), structured in novelistic intertwined short stories, is actually a work of non-fiction. Each tale is entirely true, which perhaps is ultimately what makes the book so difficult and simultaneously profound. We walk with Reed through the murky depths of the worse angels of our nature.
Part crime-log, part historical map, we follow countries in contemporary time into the psyche of many cruelties. Reed’s tight minimal prose reads poetic, ultimately serving the work both in realistic relay of information, but also in artful seduction to the reader. Dickinson said, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” and there is no heavy-hand here. This is a contemporary noir project which asks us to persevere through humanity. John Reed asks us to take a look at the truth, at what really goes on in the world, ultimately at ourselves and how we navigate within it.
“The stories we ordinarily hear in Western culture are sin, suffering, redemption,” explained Reed by gchat. “In fact, when something happens that’s just bleak, bleak, bleak, newspapers will pass because ‘that’s not a story.’ The sin, suffering, redemption model has been peddled by Hollywood dogmatists as Universality. Of course, as they took their claim on a global tour, other cultures were quick to correct them: ‘that’s not what we call a story,’ they said. The sin, suffering, redemption model is actually a Christian model of the story, and a Christian model as adapted by Rome. If you want to control people, that’s the story you tell—the one that says you’re suffering for your sins, and that if you haven’t sinned your suffering will be redeemed. Bullshit, as we all know. But it’s a powerful, emotional argument, an argument that comes in the guise of hope. But if you believe in justice, that justice is a right, you’re in for nothing but despair. You’ll search for a reason for you unhappiness, for how you’re at fault—well, you’re not at fault. You’ll search for a reason it will all work out for the best—well it very well may not.”
Considering the 3,000 illustrators Reed culled to eleven to highlight the tales with varying paintings, sketches and imagery—considering that the entire book is printed on black paper with white and red font: we are met with a book which is not only profound in content, but an artbook in form.
It’s the smaller details within the work that are sometimes more telling than the actual tragedies man has caused to befall the planet. It is the way in which, through John’s economy of language, we are sometimes given greater detail into the stories than the stories happening in real time: a tragedy occurs at an amusement park, a woman at the park with her small children immediately uses her cellphone to call her ex-husband for help. Reminiscent of Grace Paley’s anthem story “Wants,” a husband and wife are divorced and many years and much ado much later, the husband returns, and the wife still answers with, “Hello, my life.” John Reed’s reality reportage brings us back to fiction and the literary renderings of the human way within it. “I did want to say things that were outside the narrative,” said Reed. He opted, instead, to convey character with action and description.
Political themes seem unavoidable—with the various tragedies pointing us toward the tragic inconsistencies within government, varying systems, economies—but Reed has found a way to speak through real fact. There is no embellishing, but there is craft. Woe is a finely tuned, entirely innovative collection.
–Nicolle Elizabeth, author of Read This Sh*t Out Loud (forthcoming).
excerpt from “Elixir of Albino: the Unpigmented Ailmentive,” Tales of Woe
“In Tanzania, albinos are called “zeru, zeru” or ghost, reflecting a traditional belief that albinos are not entirely alive or human. The birth of an albino may be considered the result of a curse, or hex, or ancestral discontent-and not a hereditary bestowal of recessive genes. Tanzanian albinos contend with prejudices that impact every part of their lives –work, family, health. Many are shunned by their families; albino mothers are often left to fend for themselves and their offspring (albino children may be considered a sign of infidelity); skin-cancer, an ever present danger, is offset only by prohibitively expensive sunblocks, beta carotene supplements, and sunglasses: poor eyesight, and the ability to finance prescription eyewear results in a generally degraded level of education (many leave school); the life expectancy of Tanzanian albinos is approximately 15 years shorter than the rest of the Tanzanian population.
Tanzania: 38 million people: 300,000 albinos.
Albinism: from the latin albus/alba, meaning, “white.” The condition –a genetic deficiency or total lack of melanin–affects numerous species, including mammals. In humans, the condition results in pale skin, white or blonde hair, and light blue, red or purplish eyes; the severity of the condition is contingent on the paucity of melanin.
In December, 2007, Tanzania’s Albino Society (TAS) questioned the commitment of the Tanzanian government to the safety of Tanzanian albinos; at least four albinos had been murdered in three months…TAS called for the arrest of witch doctors who traded in potions derived from albinos. The potions were sold as powerful “get rich” brews, and cures to injuries and disease, such as HIV and AIDS, which infects 5 to 10% of Africa’s population…Samuel Mluge, Chairman of the TAS: “We need to get rid of the corruption, to make sure that those behind the witchcraft are identified and brought to justice and cannot buy themselves immunity.”
…Albinos with red eyes, especially elderly women, are historical targets of witch-hunting mobs…In the Congo capital of Kinshasa –according to a 2003 count-30,000 children lived in the streets, homeless and hungry, many of them HIV positive or with AIDS; most had been cast out of their homes for sorcery.