Monday, September 1, 2008

Nashville author envisions Hispanic politics of 2040 in unpolished George's Flag

Nashville author Edward Ronny Arnold has self-published George's Flag, a fictional novel about a Hispanic political uprising that is decades in the making, culminating in the year 2040 with the election of the first Hispanic president of the United States.

George’s Flag and its author Mr. Arnold were listed at the 2007 Southern Festival of Books, and Ron Wynn of the Nashville City Paper described the work here as “very intriguing” and an “entertaining, exciting tale.”

What I found in George's Flag, however, was a first draft instead of a finished product. As may be a hazard inherent to self-publishing, this work of fiction needs improvement in plot and character development, subject matter research, spelling and grammar. Despite the accolades of the Southern Festival of Books and the City Paper, I don't think the 548 pages of this book are ready for prime time.

The problem isn't so much that the plot is wildly nonsensical, which it is - from the central idea that six children would launch and sustain a 40-year presidential campaign, to the surprise transformation of a central character from a mild-mannered young woman into an Israeli-trained killing machine - with many similar twists and turns in between. There are just too many rough edges in the book to sustain any suspension of disbelief.

For starters, the characters do and say unnatural things - a drinking game could be based solely on the frequency of the various characters' fits of laughing for no apparent reason. The Catholic characters repeatedly confuse the Bible with Ben Franklin in the same grammatically awkward way ("God helps those that help themselves.”) Many of the diverse members of the book's cast make bold pronouncements about the future ("They will fail!") Some people may talk like that in real life (an apparent example is here), but I don't think it's as much of the population that George's Flag would have us believe.

The spelling errors are also too numerous for a final published work. References are made to “Chicago, Illinois Mayor Richard Daily” (his name is “Daley”), an immigration proposal to “wave” instead of waive fees, measurements made with a “gage” and not a gauge, students from “Berkley” as opposed to Berkeley, a “mute” and not a moot point, “loosing” as opposed to losing, and the government being not liable but “libel” for its abuses.

Even putting aside the plot, characters, spelling, and grammar, the greatest challenge for any future revision of this book is the author's recognition that he does not have an intimate understanding of his subject, Hispanic people. Arnold openly admitted to me by e-mail, “My experience with the Hispanic community is limited.”

This lack of experience explains Arnold's rookie mistake of translating portions of the dialogue into Spanish using only computer translation software. The easier and better alternative, if native speakers were not available to assist with translation, would be to eliminate the Spanish text altogether, and indicate through italics or some other device that Spanish was being spoken. Letting a computer mangle the language, and leaving the subject matter of the book largely unresearched, has the effect of making George's Flag unreadable from the point of view of a Hispanic or Spanish-speaking audience.

Given Arnold's admitted unfamiliarity with the subject matter of the novel, the question arises, what compelled this author to write George's Flag? Arnold answers by describing his personal affection for Hispanic Americans:
I have observed for many years the kindness, gentleness and strength of the Hispanic men and women as they shop at Kroger. There is an old saying; you can tell a "real" man easily, he is the one holding the baby. He is so strong he can be gentle. I see many Hispanic men holding babies. I have observed the interaction of the families and it is one of respect. My wife is from the Philippines and there are similarities.

I have often watched Hispanic men work, they work their butts off. Also, I have been to Mexico and been to the poor areas on three occasions. My friend, [name deleted], also has been to Mexico many times. He tells so many wonderful stories of the people. The inspiration for the book came from observing a large group of Hispanic men, women and children at my daughter's closing ceremonies for Pre-K at Fall-Hamilton Elementary school in 2006. They proudly recited the Pledge of Allegiance and clapped loudly for "every" child that received a certificate. It occurred to me that there is a new generation of Americans. These Hispanics have not abandoned their language and culture but embraced America and its ideals.
In light of Arnold's apparently positive opinions, his inclusion of starkly negative dialogue throughout the book can be shocking:
  • “taco heads” and “illegal taco heads”
  • “perra” (multiple times)
  • “stupid Mexicans” (multiple times)
  • “stupids”
  • “bastards”
  • “Mexican slut whore”
  • “blood thirsty, drug crazed killers”
  • “They are like sheep”
  • “You slept in a bed that a Mexican slept in .. Did you get sick?”
  • “Father Sinclair laughed. 'You really think you can get a wealthy American man or woman to vote for a Hispanic?'”
  • “He stated that he was afraid he would get taco stains on her suit from her loud mouth.”
The reader gets no indication that this kind of vocabulary or dialogue is uncommon in the fictional America of George’s Flag. For instance, the "taco stains" quote is attributed to a presidential candidate, who suffers no apparent political fallout as a result. We don’t know whether the author thinks the U.S. is already at that level of negativity or, if we are not, how he thinks we will get there.

What the book does offer in the way of insight into Hispanic identity comes across as alien to me. For example, there is little mention of the way I understand most Hispanics and Latinos identify themselves, which is by national origin - my friends describe themselves or their families as being from Mexico or Honduras, for example. The characters in George’s Flag, on the other hand, see themselves through Mayan, Aztec, and other such lenses. That may be how some people identify themselves (and it may be useful for a plot point late in the book), but not any of the many Hispanic Nashvillians I know identify themselves that way, from community leaders to former clients to my fellow believers at a local Spanish-speaking church.

What this book could use the most are the themes, ideas, movements, strategies, and the kind of people and perspectives that would come with greater familiarity with Hispanic people and Hispanic politics. What about a nod to the differing opinions on immigration within the various Hispanic communities and how they might change as we move toward 2040? There are substantive issues other than immigration that will draw Hispanic voters to the polls between now and then; explore how the political landscape will or will not change as those issues mature. Various existing and interesting statistics about long-time American Hispanic families and new Hispanic immigrants could be extrapolated into the future, as well. The Hispanic Americans whose families have been in the country since long before the 21st century could certainly get more attention in a book supposedly about the future of Hispanic politics in America. A growing number of Hispanic Nashvillians are readily available for an author to interview on these various topics, and input from them would be invaluable to any future rewrite of this novel (and also to local, state, and national politics, for that matter).

In its current form, George’s Flag is in some ways memorable, from the computer-giddy nuns on page 97, to the souped-up Ferrari with the Lincoln Town car body (funded by and blessed at the Vatican) on pages 141-151, to the Hispanic politician described on page 426 as a “great lawyer” because “he is very blunt and screams a lot,” to the convenient summary of the plot on page 451, in which a character says, “Sounds like a good book.”

Despite my interest in Hispanic themes and politics, and my appreciation for the fact that a local author wrote over 500 pages combining those subjects, George's Flag is not polished, researched, or readable enough to stay on my bookshelf. Like the book's heroine who was born in 2000 and groomed to be president in 2040, the 2008 version just isn't ready yet.

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