When the United Nations was founded in 1945, it was hoped that by establishing a world government, future international conflicts would be avoided. Almost sixty years have passed and though it is true we have not witnessed tragedy on the scale of the two World Wars, rivalries and bloodshed still abound. Even as the UN charters were being drawn up, the Cold War was beginning, polarizing international relations for over forty years. The breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s finally broke the deadlock, and peace seemed just around the corner; but since then terrorists and Islamic fundamentalism have emerged as the new Enemy (or so Western military interests would like us to believe). In truth, the UN has not developed into anything more than the skeleton organization it started out as, and the world is still threatened by saber-rattling between India and Pakistan, the United States and North Korea, Israel and its neighbors, and any number of other disputes. Even within individual countries such as Indonesia, the Congo, Sudan and Russia, violence between different ethic groups persists.
Fortunately there are counterforces that promote cross-cultural understanding and balance out the "us versus them" ideologies. Trade is often touted as an agent of peace and stability—although with the current unfair trade practices it is debatable whether it defuses or adds to international tensions. The arts and sciences show us a higher road; they long have operated on a world stage without regard to national borders. Among them, the field of literature has probably made the greatest contribution. After all, you can scan a physics paper or listen to a symphony without any real regard to the country of the author; but when you read a novel you are inducted into the native culture, you sympathize with its characters and setting. Books like Naguib Mahfouz’s Midaq Alley, Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Storyteller or Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy are doorways into the different rooms of the world; they bring us one step closer to becoming true citizens of the Earth.
In that spirit we present the Whistling Shade "World Issue". Turn the page and you’ll be traveling from Lake Trasimeno to the Ganges, from a South Pacific hut to a castle in France, from a book stall in Bangkok to a classroom in Cambodia, through the jungles of Guatemala and back home to the bouncer at your local bar. Human civilization is probably too various and multi-faceted for any one person to comprehend. But by reading world literature we can make a beginning.
Oh, and one last note to welcome Suzanne Nielsen, whose Cool Dead People column will be a regular feature in Whistling Shade!
- Joel Van Valin