Tuesday, November 14, 2017


THE RACE: TALES OF FLIGHT, by Patrick Ryoichi Nagatani (and collaborators)

The Race. Copyright: 2017 Patrick Nagatani (My thanks to the Albuquerque Museum for providing this image and all those below).

The late Patrick Nagatani was known in his lifetime chiefly for his beautifully crafted and conceptually based work as a photographer, addressing issues of topical social and ethical concern. Virtually at the moment of his untimely death, after a years-long battle with colorectal cancer, the Albuquerque Museum has just published his remarkable “novel”, The Race: Tales in Flight.

I use quotation marks advisedly. This is as much a work of conceptual art as fiction. It also features photography as an important element of the narrative. The “fiction” is the invented story of fifteen World War II Spitfires—the plane renowned for its role in the Battle of Britain—disinterred in recent times from a secret cache in Burma, where they were purportedly buried at the end of the war. Acquired by the super-wealthy woman and Japanese corporate executive, Keiko Kobahashi, the (once enemy!) aircraft have been restored and equipped with pontoons to enable sea landings, and have become the vehicle for Kobahashi’s vision of a trans-Pacific air race from Tokyo to San Francisco. Each is painted a distinctive color, and each plane is navigated by a female pilot handpicked by Kobahashi for her special strength and unique qualities as a woman.
Ludmilla Litvyck in Flight. Copyright: 2017 Patrick Nagatani
The first two chapters—a “Prologue” introducing the proposition and a description of the initial “Training Program”—are authored by Nagatani himself.  The remaining chapters before the epilogue are written, mostly with the collaboration of Nagatani, by women writers from different national and ethnic backgrounds and with a wide variety of experience. Their soliloquies describe the journey of each fictional pilot across the Pacific Ocean, with sometimes hazardous refueling stops along the way; and, more broadly, they are reflections on each pilot’s life’s path, her ethnic origins, her professional accomplishments and ambitions, her spiritual beliefs, her sense of responsibility and vision for the future of the planet. Each individual “flight” is in its way the inspirational story of a healing, a journey from personal vulnerability to self-confidence and strength.

More broadly, the whole book is about the healing process. Given the state of Nagatani’s own health as it was written, it is about the various forms of healing of the human body, from Western medical treatments, including radiation and chemotherapy, to alternative healing traditions: Native American shamanism, acupuncture, even Chromotherapy—the color of each airplane is an important reflection of its pilot’s inner life—and all these treatments are offered at each refueling stop. They are based, one suspects, on the author’s own exhaustive attempts to find a cure for the cancer that invaded his body. (There is, indeed, an autobiographical flavor to each of the stories—not only of the women writers who channel the pilots’ narratives, but also of Nagatani himself.)

Still more than individual healing, though, the book is about the healing of the planet. This is a parallel “race”—a race against time to save our species from the environmental ravages caused by our many forms of pollution. Central to the experience of each woman in crossing the Pacific is the encounter, far below them, on the surface of the ocean, with that vast, swirling and ever-growing island of human detritus that threatens not only animal and bird life, but the ecology of the Pacific itself. This encounter is a moment of epiphany for each of the pilots, in most cases provoking a commitment to action on their return to land.

Quite aside from the physical and ecological healing, however, there is emotional and spiritual healing work to be done, as Nagatani sees it. Through the voices of his women guides and the tapestry of their experience in many different geographical locations, Nagatani explores the inner life of the emotions that’s common to us all, the pain and grief that none of us are spared as human beings, our anger, even our rage, along with those seemingly rare glimpses of love and joy. Through their voices, too, he explores the variety of religious traditions—Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, Shinto, Hinudism and Buddhism, not to mention Native American pantheism, paganism, and other ancient tribal beliefs. His book becomes almost encyclopedic in its embrace of the infinite varieties of human aspiration for the infinite and the eternal.
Firoozeh Irani in Flight. Copyright: 2017 Patrick Nagatani
Nagatani’s book is also about the ceaseless human quest for happiness. On her descent into the San Francisco bay area, each women is alerted to her passage through “Cloud Nine”—a mythical place of Buddhist-like awakening where they are able to leave the personal traumas and the perils of the journey in their wake and experience the bliss of freedom from those parts of themselves that once stood in the way of their full transformation into, as it were, the essence of their being.

Kobahashi’s core belief and motivation is that it will take the liberation of strong female energy to heal the world, and she envisions her “race” as a way of marshalling and focusing that energy. Once each woman pilot—save one—arrives at their common destination, she is invited to enlist in a utopian project designed, literally, to save the human species and the planet. Located in an Arcadian community in Hawaii, it is a working center for the pursuit of intellectual, scientific, emotional and spiritual development, where each woman’s special talent and energy will be nurtured and allowed to blossom.

If there is a weakness to “The Race,” it is perhaps here, where the radical feminism that the story honors risks degenerating into an idealism too rosy to inspire conviction. It is an irony, too, that the whole idealistic enterprise is enabled and funded by immense resources of the kind of corporate wealth accumulated precisely at the expense of human economic justice and global ecological well-being. But this is perhaps a quibble. Along with Nagatani and his fictional philanthropist, I myself am coming to the belief that it is women, if anyone, who can save us from ourselves.

The race, it turns out, is also the human race. Our future depends on co-operation and compassion rather than the competitive greed that continues to serve us ill even today. With this intelligent, sensitive, and moving book, his last creative accomplishment, Nagatani has established for himself a fitting and distinguished legacy for his life’s work.

Patrick Nagatani, his wife Leigh Ann Langwell, and their recently deceased dog, Annie. Copyright: 2017 Patrick Nagatani


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