Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Pan Review of Books: Whatever Happened to Wolde Ayele?

Robert Boyd

There are people like me who love digging up Houston's forgotten cultural history. For most people who ever have cause to think about such things, the juxtaposition of the phrase "cultural history" and "Houston" is utterly laughable. But there were times when such derisive laughter could be heard when people expressed an interest in the cultural histories of Los Angeles and Chicago (both of which turn out to have rich and fascinating artistic histories).

In 1986, Mirage by Wolde Ayele was published by Hothouse, a University of Houston-sponsored publishing house headed up by Phillip Lopate. (Mirage was, in fact, Hothouse's only title.) Prior to that, Ayele had published two articles that I can find, both under the name Wolde-Ghiorghis Ayele. The first, in Cite 11 from 1985, discusses El Mercado del Sol (a large planned Hispanic themed shopping area in the 2nd Ward whose developer went bankrupt before it opened). The second is called "Mirage" (Cite 14, 1986) and is an excerpt from the book itself.

The book is tiny. The trim size is 6 x 4 inches and the text runs 72 pages. I recently reread it while eating breakfast. It is a handsome book with big french flaps and heavy paper. Unfortunately it was perfect-bound, the cheapest, worst binding technique--it's how mass-market paperbacks are bound. After a few years or after lots of handling, pages will fall out of a perfect bound books. Thus it is with my copy, which must be stored in a little plastic bag when not being read.

Mirage opens with a drawing by Derek Boshier, who was then an art professor at the University of Houston.

Boshier's drawing reflects the newness of Houston--the way it popped up overnight out of a broad flat prairie/wetland. It's like a mirage, and true to Boshier's vision, there are telluric currents of sex and money underneath it. It's a vision I like, but it doesn't really reflect Ayele's book.

Remember the timing. The price of oil (Houston's primary industry) had peaked in 1980 and by 1985 had dropped to a third of that. Then the S&L crisis happened and sucker-punched the already staggering Houston economy in the gut. Houston went from its peak to a deep crisis in about a year. Mirage reflects peak Houston, the day before the crash so to speak. Ayele, by writing Mirage, is in essence saying that Houston is worth thinking about as a city in comparison with other cities.

Mirage is a personal essay. Ayele structures it around a train ride in Mexico he took, from a remote village (where he had to go at 3 am to catch the train) to Mexico City. He uses things he experiences on the train ride as launching points for reflections on Houston. For example, he mentions how weird it was to be at the depot at 3 am, but there were other travelers there and he felt "strangely satisfied by the scene." This makes him compare this feeling with a similar situation in Houston.
One is completely deprived of the "crowd sensation" in Houston. This is a complaint voiced by practically anyone who has lived in a reasonably large city anywhere else in the world. It's the same old story. Whether it be in Bombay or Barcelona, Tokyo or Tangiers, people tell you "I used to walk unaccomapnied at two o'clock at night." In Houston, it's different. Only in your worst nightmares would you find yourself parading, alone, on some God-forsaken street. And yet you would probably be the only person there until the next morning. That's what frightens me most. A despairing isolation and a vivid reminder that you are quite alone, unprotected. 
Ayele is a cosmopolitan person. He has lived elsewhere, experienced other cities. (For such a cosmopolitan person, he is a bit prudish--his sense of propriety can easily be offended.)

He circles around the fact that Houston is ultimately an automotive city. He isn't much of a driver, or if he is, he rarely mentions it. So even though he extolls the benefits of wandering, he doesn't ever write about the exquisite pleasures of driving aimlessly in Houston. The poet of that activity has yet to come forth in Houston. But he does write that if you only drive, you are missing out. "To live in a city and not use public transportation occasionally is a shame for most but a crime for the flâneur."

He talks about aspects of Houston that seem so obvious that people never talk about them. But for Ayele, the lack of mountains, for example, is important--almost a spiritual crisis for the city that the largest parts of the landscape are man-made. Or about the weather he writes:
Everyone talks about the weather in Houston, and with good reason. Since I was born in Africa and have lived in Latin America for many years most people assume that I am used to severe climates. However, that is not the case. Nowhere have I lived where the climate is quite as brutal as it is in Houston. The heat is legendary, and rightly so. It is a Red Sea heat, without the beneficence of soothing breezes and languid lifestyles.
(As a Houstonian who has lived within five degrees of the equator in Brazil and Nigeria, let me say "hear, hear.") But if this observation about the weather is a bit banal--Houston's hot--Ayele follows it with a brilliant suggestion.
Every September, at the onset of the first cold front, there should begin a cult of the Feast of Deliverance. Citywide celebrations would demarcate the occasion. At last relief is in sight.
As I sit here on a cool October afternoon, with my window open, I can only agree.

He also writes about the touchiness of Houston.
Much like an adolescent who might have the necessary willpower and physical prowess to accomplish anything he sets his mind to, Houston seems to exhibit symptoms of the same condition, flaunting wealth and power on one hand, and surprisingly vulnerable to criticism and rebuttals on the other. A city yet unsure of itself, tempting all those who live here to define it according to their own terms. That is part of the glory of Houston. It is unnervingly elusive.
He wrote this in 1986, but it could have been written yesterday. The horrible "Houston is Inspired" mural and the various "Houston. It's Worth It" books speak to this defensiveness.

Houston isn't the only city he writes about. He writes about Mexico City quite a bit, and mentions Addis Ababa and Waco and other places. And if Houston is the subject, Ethiopia is the subtext. Ayele was living in Houston after having lived in Mexico--probably because living in Ethiopia was impossible since the Communist revolution that toppled the aged dictator Haile Selassie in 1974. This event only directly enters the text once, when Ayele and his sister encounter a stranger at a McDonalds. He is a drunk man asking for directions who turns out to be Ethiopian (the sight of a drunken Ethiopian shocks the sober-minded Ayele). Out of fellow feeling for his country-man, he drives him in the direction he needs to go while the man raves about the betrayals and failures that caused Ethiopia to be lost to the bloody regime of Mengistu.

As I read this, I was reminded of a supervisor I had once for a summer job. He was from Ethiopia, and because of his work in the oil industry, he often had to travel to the Middle East. He always made sure his flight path avoided crossing Ethiopia--he was afraid of what would happen if the plane were forced to land there. (The period after the coup was known as the "Red Terror"--500,000 people were murdered. After the famines of the 80s, the people rose up against the Communist government. There was a civil war, and with the collapse of the Soviet Union no one came to Mengistu's aid. Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe and a new government was established in 1994. Mengistu was convicted in absentia of genocide in 2007.)

Wolde Ayele

Mirage presaged good things from Ayele, but there was never any follow up. Phillip Lopate has said that he has never been able to track Ayele down in subsequent years. Searches on the internet are fruitless. Perhaps he died in the Ethiopian revolution. Perhaps he died crossing the street to catch a bus in Mexico City. All we are left with is Mirage, his beautiful meditation on Houston and the nature of cities.

And reading Mirage will cost you. Like that other great book about Houston, Sig Byrd's Houston, Mirage is long out of print and copies can only be found on websites specializing in old books. Mine cost me $33. (It was my second copy--my first was purchased in 1986 at Brazos Bookstore and lost in a move long ago.) The Houston Public Library has one copy. Remember what I said above about Houston's forgotten cultural history? The fact that these two books are permanently out of print and that there is no local publisher that has the ability to bring them back into print is one reason why we keep forgetting our cultural history--forgetting that we once hosted writers like Sig Byrd and Wolde Ayele.



  1. We received the following email yesterday. Phillip Lopate has given his kind permission to have it published in the comments.
    Dear Robert Boyd

    Thank you for your beautiful and exquisitely intelligent write-up of "Mirage." A little context for how the book came about might interest you. My architect friend John Kaliski, who was then teaching architecture at UH, and I, then a UH English professor, decided to co-teach a course on the Literature and Architecture of the City. Our syllabus paired writers and city-makers, such as Whitman and Olmstead, Benjamin's book on Baudelaire and Haussmann, Frank O'Hara and Robert Moses, etc. Half the class consisted of graduate writing students, the other half of graduate architecture/planning students. Wolde Ayele was one of the latter. We had asked the students to keep urban diaries, and Ayele's came in, neatly typed, and amazing. (Curiously, the best writing was thus not by a writing student). John and I decided to publish it as is, and since John was/is married to one of the best book designers in the world, Lorraine Wild, she agreed to do the cover and the specs. We never really had plans to publish other titles, especially since--though both of us were fans of Houston--we sensed we would soon be scattered to the winds: as it turned out, he to Los Angeles, I back to New York. He went on to teach the writing/architecture course by himself several tiems, focusing on LA, and I edited "Writing New York" for the Library of America. As for Wolde Ayele, who knows? He was polite, soft-spoken, handsome and rather mysteriously aristocratic in his manner.

    Best wishes,

    Phillip Lopate

  2. Thank you for an amazing story. We have to get together soon and enjoy "the exquisite pleasures of driving aimlessly in Houston."