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18. The Last of the Maya Hackers

My Cornell days started with a memorial service. Someday in the fall of 1984, I received a morning call from my class mate Shannon Minter. According to her, our common friend Jane, a Korean American grad student who spoke impeccable English, got involved with traffic accident and passed away.  Shannon immediately picked me up and we drove from Ithaca down to Cooperstown, New York where Jane’s funeral took place. Her fiancé seemed in the depth of despair at the church. Deeply depressed by the sad loss, we couldn’t recall that this town is the birth place not only of James Fenimore Cooper, the canonical author of The Last of the Mohicans (1826), but also of baseball as the all-American sport. At that point, I didn’t imagine someday Japanese baseball players will become eligible for consideration by BBWAA for election into the Hall of Fame.

Approximately four decades later, I had the second opportunity of attending a North American memorial service; on June 12, 2022 I flew to North Carolina in order to attend “A Celebration of the Life of Diane M. Nelson” held at Carrboro Town Commons. Being a distinguished professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University, our friend Diane Michele Nelson (June 5,1963-April 27, 2022) is well-known for her groundbreaking research on Guatemala as represented by A Finger in the Wound (U of California P, 1999), Reckoning (Duke UP, 2009), and Who Counts? (Duke UP, 2015).

I and Mari came to know her through her partner Mark Driscoll we met at Cornell University in the summer of 1993, when he was a Ph.D. candidate working with Professor Naoki Sakai. After my lecture at Cornell, he approached and asked us to sign his copy of my edited anthology Cyborg Feminism: Haraway, Delany and Salmonson (Tokyo: Treville, 1991) which includes the first Japanese version of Haraway’s “A Manifesto for Cyborgs” (1985) translated by Mari Kotani, which was to be called the bible of Cultural Studies. Mark had already studied with Haraway at University of California, Santa Cruz before coming to Cornell. He assumed that in order to develop the theory of cyborg it was necessary to explore into the subjectivity of Japanese. Having published stimulating articles in a variety of academic journals and epoch-making monographs such as Absolute Erotic, Absolute Grotesque: The Living, Dead and Undead in Japan’s Imperialism, 1895-1945 (Duke UP, 2010), he was hired as a professor of East Asian Studies at the University of North Carolina.

It is through this encounter with Mark that we were introduced to Diane, another big fan of Haraway. They embodied the ideal of academic couple. Hence our tiny circle that could have been nicknamed as “Donna Haraway Fan Club.” Of course, given that Haraway is basically a feminist science historian, you might be puzzled by Diane’s interest in her theory. Nonetheless, it is true that the more deeply Diane delved into the essence of Guatemala, the more closely Haraway’s idea of cyborg, which primarily presupposes not so much the heroes of Hollywoodian science fiction as the colored women working in the Silicon Valley, got intertwined with the “Maya hackers” as Diane designated them.

Diane’s analogy is not unfounded. On her first research trip to Nebaj, Guatemala in 1985, she told the native children that her name is “Diana,” when they all started yelling: “Queen of the Lizards! Queen of the Lizards!” The name “Diana” immediately reminded them of a U.S. science fiction TV series V., which they had secretly enjoyed watching on the town’s one television at a cantina.  In apparent tribute to Robert A. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters (1951), Arthur C. Clarke’s masterpiece Childhood’s End (1953) and Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers (1955), V. narrates the way the lizard-like aliens storming the earth, with Diana as the previous leader of the Visitors and High Commander who had lived in human skin. The shock of her first encounter with the Guatemalan children convinced her that while science fiction portrays the future, Guatemalans envisions their past within the narratology of invader stories like V. Thus, Diane Nelson’s cultural anthropology, from the beginning, was destined to transgress the boundary between anthropology and science fiction and lead her to invent the notion of “Maya hackers,” who, just like William Gibson’s cyberspace cowboy she loves, appropriate “so-called modern technology and knowledges while refusing to be appropriated into the ladino nation, becoming what Trin Minh-ha has called ‘the inappropriate(d) other” (Chapter 7, “Maya-Hackers and the Cyberspatialized Nation-State: Modernity, Ethnostalgia, and a Lizard Queen in Guatemala,” A Finger in the Wound).

Since she left her last project Riparian Worlding: Mayan Life and Anti-Extractivism incomplete, I and Mari supposed that Diane’s memorial service would be dead serious, full of mournful voices. This is the reason why both of us are dressed in black. Nonetheless, as it turned out, this event was incredibly hilarious, filled with hearty, merry laughters. Unlike my first memorial service in the United States nearly four decades ago, most of the participants dressed lightly, walking in bare feet. Our formal outfit proved radically out of place.

This event opened with a counter-cultural performance of Ecstatic Dancing, which was followed by giant paperhand puppet intervention. The
Service part began with Raga music “Sorrow” played by Mark Driscoll on the Sarod, which reminded me of George Harrison’s sitar tunes “Within You, Without You” included in The Beatles’s psychedelic album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967). It was followed by numerous speeches by Diane’s younger sister and nephew, her gynocentric Sweet Sisters of Solidarity, her Stanford classmates, and even her Ph.D. student at Duke University. Although I can’t mention all the speakers, each speech not only moved us but also amused us very much.

In retrospect, Diane was a cheerful feminist activist happy with big smile as is represented in the “Occupy Chapel Hill” photo on the cover of the event’s leaflet. It is true that Diane was so fond of jokes as to examine the black humorous character of the winner of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize Rigoberta Menchu(1959-), a Mayan woman whose testimonial I, Rigoberta Menchu (1984) revealed how she lost much of her family to Guatemalan army counterinsurgency violence in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and how she was herself forced into exile, and finally returned to Guatemala in 1994. Yes, Ms. Menchu led an incredibly tragic life. It is in part for her decade of international work for human rights and the rights of the world indigenous peoples that she won the Nobel Peace Prize. Simultaneously, however, we shouldn’t ignore the heritage of Guatemalan macabre jokes. For example, reflecting the fact that Rigoberta’s father , Cincente Menchu was burned alive in the Spanish Embassy fire during the Campesino Unity Committee (CUC) action in 1980, someone cracked the following joke: “Rigoberta said she will create a foundation in honor of her father with the money from the Nobel Prize.  The first thing they’re planning to do in his memory is hold a big barbecue.” Moreover, Diane heard Rigoberta tell the following joke: “I’ve been getting a lot of calls from Steven Spielberg. It seems he wants to make a movie called Indio-na Jones.” Thus, Diane explains that this imaginary title plays on the racist term indio, which is used to refer to the Maya (Chapter 5, “Gendering the Ethnic-National Question: Rigoberta Menchu Jokes and the Out-Skirts of Fashioning Identity, A Finger in the Wound).  Being a Maya hacker herself, Diane was so knowledgeable about Guatemalan jokes and black humor as to comprehend the essence of their cultural network. Accordingly, this memorial service itself turned out to be not deeply melancholic but absolutely exhilarating. For the post-service luncheon Mark very generously held at their huge house very close to Carrboro Commons, we brought with us a bottle of Finger Lakes wine produced in the neighborhood of Cornell University.


This trip concluded with a unique episode. After the luncheon, we were supposed to fly back to New York. However, arriving at the Raleigh-Durham airport, we encountered a strange incident. Due to the stormy weather in the skies of New York City, all the flights for JFK, La Guardia and Newark are cancelled. Then, we were forced to stay at Hilton Hotel. It is highly plausible that Diane wanted us to take rest and talk with her throughout the night. Understanding her intention, I and Mari offered her a glass of wine.