BASS 2021:  Brandon Hobson, “Escape from the Dysphesiac People” from McSweeney’s #61

Stephen Mopope: “Two Eagle Dancers”
Like a lot of my recent writing, “Escape From The Dysphesiac People” came out of thinking about the years I spent as a social worker. In this story I was especially thinking about colloquial language and the way certain authorities talked with a common acerbic aggression, exaggerated in this story, of course. For a while I worked in juvenile services and had to make referrals for kids to go to placement at boys’ ranches and other long-term facilities. I was also thinking about how Natives were once removed from their homes and placed in boarding schools, where they were forced to cut their hair and change their speech in an attempt to rid them of their identity.

Brandon Hobson, Contributor Note

This story makes for an interesting comparison with Zhang’s “Little Beast,” which it follows, due to the order in which I’m reading the collection. They both involve a hazy line between imagination, imagery, and reality. But where Zhang’s story felt creepy without ever stepping over to the supernatural, this story abounds with some kind of, well, call it magical realism, yet seems far more rational.

Perhaps it’s the vantage point from which it’s told. It’s in the form of a letter to the protagonist’s grandchildren, so he must be mature, if not elderly, at this point, well past the fifteen years of age he was when the action of the story took place. He survived, and flourished enough to have beloved grandchildren:

Beloved grandchildren: Dr. Estep has recommended I tell the story of how, many years ago, I escaped from the Darkening Land and returned home. I escaped from the men who talked funny, the ones who removed me from my home and cut my hair and put me on a train….
You might know that such trauma – the removal from your home, from your family, from your own identity – causes unease even after years of talking about it, and so be it, my beloved! But this is not so much a story of a traumatic event as it is a story of escape. This is not a melange of distorted events, nor is it a call for sympathy. You must know the history of removal, and this is my own history – my way of remembering those weeks when I was gone.

That action is as straightforward as it is grim. He is removed from his home, from his family, and transferred to some kind of state custody because he is Indian, possibly because he’d committed some infraction only Indian children would be punished for. Or perhaps this was the wholesale re-socialization that was a routine practice in the US and Canada up until the middle of the 20th century: an attempt to teach Native kids to be white.

The first thing they do is cut the boy’s hair and change his name.

“Drink this,” he said. He sat on the edge of the bed. “There will be work for you to do here. Ah.”
I shook my head.
“Mah,” he said. His face twitched. “You’ll choose your name, son. How about Jim? Think about it, ah, or maybe we’ll just call you Chief.”
“I don’t want to change my name,” I said.
“Chief it is. Oh, ah, you’ll need to learn to act and talk just like us.”
I shook my head. “Mah,” he said “your hair looks good short. You are in better territory, ah, away from the dusty plains. Away from the tornadoes and the rattlesnakes. You’ll be happier here. Oh. Ah.”

The strange manner of speech is highlighted throughout the story, and in the title. It’s hard for me to grasp the kind of prosody exemplified by the written dialogue; I assume the mahs and ahs are hesitation sounds of some kind. I wondered if dysphesia was an actual word; I’m familiar with aphasia and dysphasia, but maybe this was something different, so I went googling. Imagine my surprise when I ended up at David Foster Wallace’s essay, “Twenty-Four Word Notes” as printed in his posthumously-published collection Both Flesh and Not.

Dysphesia     This is a medical noun with some timely nonmedical applications. We often use aphasia to refer to a brain-centered inability to use language, which is close but not identical to the medical meaning. Dysphesia can be similarly extended from its technical definition to mean really severe difficulties in forming coherent sentences. As anyone who’s listened to our current president [George W. Bush] knows, there are speakers whose lack of facility goes way beyond the range of clumsy or inarticulate. What G. W. Bush’s public English is is dysphesiac.

David Foster Wallace, “Twenty-four Word Notes” from Both Flesh and Not

I can’t find the spelling with an ‘e’ anywhere else, so I’m going to assume it’s a little twist of irony (dysgrephia?), though it may be some grammatically-justified vowel shift I’m unaware of. In any case, it’s not a term used in the letter itself, but in the title by the author, which adds that same little twist of irony to the story.

We watch as the boy (I’m not comfortable calling him the State-assigned names of Jim or, god forbid, Chief, and his actual name is not mentioned) deals with hard work, little food, and no education. And, of course, fear and loneliness:

Beloved: I saw many people that first night. Apparitions of women and men with blankets over their shoulders, walking down the hallway. I saw children being carried. I saw people crawling and reaching out to me for help. They kept coming and coming, walking and crawling down the hallway past my bedroom. In the dark I couldn’t see their faces, but their bodies were struggling against a wind, pushing forward. My ancestors, I thought. My ancestors walking the Trail.

The Year of Removal in which the boy was taken was not the first Removal in Cherokee memory. Cultural memory is a powerful thing, which may be why white America is so determined to erase it for everyone they’ve removed, enslaved, exploited.

The boy’s mind is on escape all along, but he doesn’t act on it until he comes across a barn full of mannequins. I confess, I don’t really understand what’s happening here; one of the wardens (whatever their title, that’s what they are) tells him they’re just for pictures. Mannequins without eyes or mouths. Were these used to create the apparitions the boy saw, to frighten him? Whatever is going on, it scares him enough to send him running.

Along the road, he meets another Native, whose name is Tsala. It’s a scene as beautiful and gracious as the previous scenes were harsh. They share coffee and a smoke, and Tsala gives him a piece of rose quartz: “For overcoming grief. You can begin healing.” Tsala gives him directions to get home, then turns into an eagle and flies away. And now you see what I mean when I say this blending of imagery and the supernatural is more rational than the teenager’s in the prior story. Is this imagination, a dream, a hallucination?  Folklore so ingrained, it becomes memory? Or a reality some of us can’t understand?

Hobson’s recent novel, The Removed, included a character named Tsala. I’m not sure if the story is from the novel, or just shares Tsala. He discussed the origin of the name and the character with Ailsa Chang from NPR:

Tsala’s an ancestor. And Tsala’s name is a shortened version of Tsalagi, which is actually the word Cherokee in Cherokee language. And so Tsala was actually based on a real man named Tsali, who was killed for refusing to leave the land….Killed by the U.S. government, absolutely, because he refused. And he fought them for refusing to leave and was killed for it. And I had been reading about Tsali. And so I based Tsala on him and being a spirit ancestor

Brandon Hobson, NPR Intervew on his new novel The Removed

Ward included this story in her “surprising” group. She specifically mentions language as one of the elements that featured in surprise, so it’s no surprise when she calls it “surreal and hypnotic, due to the rhythm and building of the prose.” The dysphesiac people may be seen as incoherent simply because they tell lies as truth, claiming the Boys Ranch is a better place for the boy, taking him in the first place. Turning from them (and the mannequins) to Tsala is an enormous relief. Literary fiction rarely involves happy endings, but in this case, we end on, if not happiness, at least the beginning of regaining happiness: the last word, the last word is Home.

*   *    * 

  • Read Hobson’s interview quoted above on NPR
  • Jake Weber’s post on Workshop Heretic has an interesting take on the interplay of culture and religion: “‘Harmony’ — a frequent subject in American Indian lit– means not just erasing the lines between the self and nature, but between the sacred and the secular.”

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