In Search of the Rosario Family Gold, Chantal Joffe’s Self-Portraits, and a Lehman Brothers Play
The solution to racism is not more identity politics, but less: Thomas Chatterton Williams talks about the fiction of race and his new book. “My wife is French and she’s white, and it occurred to me that perhaps our kids would be kind of white-looking. But the reality of our daughter’s birth really struck me, and I realized that I couldn’t just send her out into the world with this antiquated logic of hypo-descent, which is really the slave master’s logic and reinforces some really bad stuff if you think about it for a minute, even though it has allowed the black community to have a lot of solidarity when they needed it. We had this very Scandinavian-looking child, and for the first time in my life what I now call the fiction of race was thrust into my consciousness. It’s an experience that most people, black or white, don’t have to have because most people don’t live on the racial margins and don’t see how ridiculous it is to say something like, ‘My father is black, and my daughter is white, but they have the same smile.’ And my daughter is blond-haired and has blue eyes and white skin, but she’s of 20 percent West African descent. Most people don’t actually have these kinds of contradictions. So, her birth really set me down this path . . . So, my book started with this questioning essay about what it means to have a white child — what kind of black person am I if I can have a child like this? What type of white-looking child is she if she can be significantly genetically West African? It ended as an argument against race, just all the way, saying that we’re not going to transcend racism so long as we believe that you are a different race than I am, which necessarily imposes and implies hierarchies. So, I don’t think you can transcend racism without transcending racial categorization, and the book became a kind of memoir making an argument.”
Randy Boyagoda’s new novel, Original Prin, is delightful. You should read it, I say, especially if you work at a university.
Olivia Laing on Chantal Joffe’s self-portraits: “Unless you’re Benjamin Button, you’re getting older by the second. But emotional states are more like weather systems, moving in and out, and so the face is constantly changing in two ways simultaneously. A long slow look, Lucian Freud–style, literally accretes time on the canvas, but Joffe’s strategy of small and fast might be a better route if what you want to capture is not a permanent or solid self but rather instability, the way that moods temporarily tighten muscles or slash fresh grooves, refashioning flesh in a minute-by-minute way adjacent to but nothing like as permanent as the seismic collapses of age. Flesh is so funny. Bottom line, it’s there, too too solid as Hamlet had it, and horribly revealing. The older you get the more you give yourself away; the more the you in you seeps out.”
Looted manuscripts and books returned to German library: “Hundreds of priceless manuscripts and documents believed to have been looted by Belgian soldiers from a German library at the end of the second world war were returned on Thursday. The works, which were thought to have been irretrievably lost, included rare medieval manuscripts, early 15th-century prints, historical maps and the 19th-century illustrated bird books from the library of the celebrated German ornithologist and explorer Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied.”
Alfred Nicol reviews Rhina P. Espaillat’s latest collection of poetry: “The power of even the best poets begins to flag as they reach their eighth and ninth decades. Donald Hall said it well: ‘As I grew older – collapsing into my seventies, glimpsing ahead the cliffs of the eighties, colliding into eighty-five – poetry abandoned me.’ Against those odds, the beloved Dominican-American poet Rhina P. Espaillat will publish two volumes of new work in her 86th year. The first to appear, And After All, from Able Muse Press includes some of the finest poems she has written in a lifetime dedicated to the art and craft of poetry.”
The play The Lehman Trilogy, Nicole Gelinas writes, “like the bank it chronicles, is itself the unlikely product of globalism. As a luxuriously printed, oversize glossy playbill informs theatergoers, it’s the English-language version of Italian writer Stefano Massini’s play, first staged in Paris in 2013, then brought to Milan and, last year, to London’s National Theatre. Three actors—all veterans of the London theater scene—share the sparse stage, which evokes an oversized twenty-first-century office cubicle. They don’t embody their roles so much as narrate them, often speaking of themselves in the third person. ‘Emanuel Lehman, five years younger than Henry, arrived three years ago,’ says Emanuel, for example. It reads tendentiously on the page, but in person, it works, giving the proceedings a quality of inevitability; it also allows the three actors to narrate for successive generations of Lehmans.”
Essay of the Day:
In the 19th century, the Rosario family owned a Dominican gold mine and regularly sent money to banks in Europe. Now the family’s descendants are trying to get the money back. But how much is there really?
“From time to time, lawyers would agree to represent the family, but nothing came of it. When Portorreal took on the case, he told the Rosarios he’d get billions of dollars in reparations from Barrick, both for the land and for the illnesses—skin lesions, most commonly—the company had allegedly caused. In return he wanted a 30 percent cut of whatever he won. Some family members felt his fee was exorbitant, but they were outvoted. In February 2012 he filed the first of a half-dozen lawsuits against the company.
“Portorreal took the Rosarios’ crusade to the streets, organizing protests, holding sit-ins, even making a four-day march to the Capitol in Santo Domingo. He would tell his clients he was in negotiations with Barrick, or that they were doing well in court, or that a settlement was near (all of which a Barrick spokesman denies was taking place). Portorreal told me in our first conversation that ‘a payment from Barrick Gold is almost here.’ Yet after seven years, not a penny had changed hands.
“Portorreal had long known about the Rosarios’ inheritance, he told me. Everyone in the family could recall learning about it as a child. There were Rosarios whose relatives had gone mad dreaming about it. “We may not look it, but we’re rich,” mothers would say to their children. He decided to pursue the inheritance, too.
“He’d already overseen a massive three-year effort to collect genealogical documents going back four and five generations, to prove the Rosarios had valid claims to the land near the mine. Thousands of family members had searched church archives, municipal offices, libraries—anyplace that might have archived death certificates, marriage certificates, and the like. These same documents could be used for an inheritance search.
“According to Portorreal’s account, he then traveled widely in search of the money, to Spain and Switzerland, across Europe, and elsewhere. To pay for this, he’d rounded up a small group of investors, promising them a sliver of the 30 percent he stood to gain if he landed the inheritance. In the Grand Cayman Islands, Portorreal said, he’d found his first Rosario account, containing more than $700 million, as well as a helpful banker who told him what to look for at other financial institutions.
“By the time he was done, in his telling, he’d found 12 accounts, primarily at Banco Santander in Spain and Credit Suisse in Switzerland. Most were in the name of Celedonio del Rosario, Jacinto’s father. (He later told me he’d found more than 12 accounts.) As for the Guzmán accounts, he said he’d stumbled across them while searching for the Rosarios’ money because, thanks to intermarriage, several of the accounts were in both names. He’d then found an additional half-dozen accounts under the Guzmán name alone. Over the years, he said, various family members had tried to get the accounts, but they’d been rebuffed because they didn’t have the proper documents. A court had blocked the accounts, he said, which was why it was such an ordeal to get the money.
“When I finally had a chance to get in another question, I asked Portorreal an obvious one: ‘How much money is there in total?’
“He smiled, threw his hands in the air, and gave a helpless shrug, as if to say, It’s more than we can count.”
Poem: Sylvia Plath, “Circus in Three Rings”
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