Thursday, November 1, 2012

Montagnards and Lowlanders (Philippa, an opera - blog 9)

Another in my series of blogs on the development of the opera Philippa, based on the life of Philippa Duke Schuyler. Philippa, the Harlem-born daughter of African-American journalist George S. Schuyler and white Texan Josephine Cogdell, toured Vietnam as a concert pianist in 1967 and died rescuing some 'orphans', the children of US servicemen and Vietnamese women, during a North Vietnamese attack on Hué. It is interesting to reflect on the feeling she developed for these children. I think she sensed that they, like her, were perilously 'between cultures'.

But it is even more interesting to read some of the articles or essays that Philippa filed from Vietnam and see some of the other attitudes she brought to her observations.The articles I'm reading were originally written for newspapers like The Manchester Union Leader (based in New Hampshire) and were collected in a book called Good Men Die.

I'm particularly struck by one called 'Montagnards and Lowlanders', an account of the hill people of the Vietnam highlands. I tend to assume that someone who has suffered racial prejudice will be tolerant of others who are different. Philippa had a lustrous career while she was young and cute - played with the New York Philharmonic; had a day named after her at the 1940 World's Fair - but as soon as she was no longer young and cute and politically safe, her opportunities dried up. The white world didn't want to know her. She ended up playing in out-of-the-way places (at least as far as a classical music career is concerned). Hey, she was in Vietnam, not Vienna, when she died.  

But what strikes me in this article on Montagnards is the tone of distaste underneath the summaries of mountain tribes' characteristics: "The Bahnar believe in 'tiger-men', half-human, half-animal creatures, and in an appalling heirarchy of vindictive spirits....The Sedang people are hardly more attractive [italics added]....Ancestors' souls hover everywhere, as in animist African regions. These ancestors are malicious and vindictive and behave with the greatest possible mischievousness and discontent.

"The Christian notion that 'God is Love' is sometimes difficult to convey here. One missionary told Bernard Newman, author of Background toViet Nam, that translating the New Testament into some Montagnard languages had been difficult. Using Montagnard terms, 'The Great Spirit Is Not Angry' became the only possible translation of 'God is Love'. The Montagnards did not have a word for love."

A Bahnar rong (communal house) in the village of Kon Kotu, Central Highlands, Vietnam. Photo: Doron, sourced from Wikipedia

A few pages later she says, "...the Viet Cong, who promise autonomy to the Montagnards, can play on the genuine resentment the Montagnards feel toward the Vietnamese Lowlanders, who have a superior culture [italics added] and are a different ethnic sub-group. The Lowlanders, whose contempt for the backward, primitive Montagnards is vast and implacable, have not always given the Montagnards what the latter consider fair treatment."

Philippa herself seems to see little that is appealing in these people. Does she reckon the treatment is fair or what? I wonder if it's because she's playing to the prejudices of the readers of right-wing papers; had her own harshnesses; or if it has something to do with the fact that Harlem was not immune from snobbery of its own kind?

Other blogs in this series

1. - 16 Sep 2012 - an account of my initial thoughts on Philippa, when I was attempting to convey a more comprehensive trajectory of her life
2. - 18 Sep 2012 - containing Act I of a revised scenario, beginning the action in Vietnam
3. - 25 Sep 2012 - containing my revised scenario
4. - 7 Oct 2012 - containing a one-page synopsis, to make sure such a story can fit into "two hours' traffic on the stage"
5. - Becoming a Harlemite, Vietnamese and Catholic 10 Oct, 2012 - detailing some of the research I'll be doing
6. - A Harlem Tradition? 20 Oct 2012 - detailing Harlem interest in white culture
7. - Sacrifice? 21 Oct 2012 - considering the nature of Philippa's death and whether it was self-sacrifice
8. - Classical aspirations 30 Oct 2012 - looking at Harlem's attitude to classical music in the age of Philippa

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