Questions for the Author: Matthew Gavin Frank, Flight of the Diamond Smugglers

SIX YEARS AGO, back in April of 2015, author Matthew Gavin Frank came to DePaul University, here in Chicago where I teach, to read in the Visiting Writers Series from his then-new nonfiction book Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer. NPR called that book “an act of love and erudition.” As I listened to him read, I was struck by the accuracy of that description in the way that Frank set out not merely to teach his audience about the amateur naturalist Moses Harvey and his tentacled subject, but also how much passion and admiration he clearly possessed for both man and beast.

When his latest book, Flight of the Diamond Smugglers: A Tale of Pigeons, Obsession, and Greed Along Coastal South Africa was about to be released and he reached out to see if I’d be interested in being in conversation with him at his Chicago event, I leapt at the chance. Having admired his work for years, I was thrilled to hear that he had turned his lyrical ear and investigative skills to a subject near to my own heart: homing pigeons. Slim, dense, and poetically lilting, Frank blends memoir and research to craft an account of the rapacious corporate avarice inflicted by DeBeers on the geography of this area and the people and animals who call it home.

Matthew Gavin Frank is the author of five nonfiction books and three poetry collections. He teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Northern Michigan University, where he also serves as the Hybrids/Nonfiction editor of Passages North. In early March, we spoke by email about how trained homing pigeons have come to be some of the world’s smallest smugglers, how the diamond industry has concocted its false narrative of scarcity, and how common and even “ubiquitous” things can become quite extraordinary when we begin to pay attention.

 

You’re dealing with material that could potentially be exoticized or romanticized, but you don’t do that. How did you settle on this clear-eyed, matter-of-fact approach, and were you ever tempted to go bigger or become more sentimental about the land itself, the child smuggler Msizi, or the birds?

Well, there was little romance in the worlds and constructs I was researching. Often, I didn’t feel as if I needed to lard observation with undo sentiment. Turning these issues (as they pertain to the inhumane and environmentally destructive side effects of corporate colonialism) into something romantic would seem disingenuous. I didn’t want to mitigate the impacts of real atrocity with romance. I felt the beauty of the birds could be evoked simply by watching them on the page, without overstatement. And I wanted to honor Msizi’s voice and stay out of the way when he was telling his story. His story doesn’t need my constant running commentary in order to illuminate or romanticize it.  

What was your relationship to, or stance on, diamonds before you started writing this book, and did it change as you got more into the project?

Before researching and writing this book, I had no real thoughts about diamonds. I never considered them. I discovered what was to become the subject matter for this book serendipitously—during a conversation with a former diamond diver in a bar one night in Port Nolloth, South Africa, after which I became obsessed.

He told me about the ways in which workers would sometimes use trained homing pigeons to smuggle diamonds out of the mines, and that if pigeons are overloaded with too much weight, they can lose their natural GPS, and begin landing at random. This happened along coastal South Africa—diamond-bearing pigeons dropping from the sky onto the local beaches. I couldn’t get that image out of my head. A rain of birds, burdened with gems. It was that image that eventually led me to investigate further. And the more research I did, the more I began to feel that diamonds—and our near-mythologizing of them, our compulsion to turn them into a symbol—have compelled us to do damage to each other, tipsy on greed and false narratives.

Relatedly, why do people tend to love and obsess over diamonds?

Most simply, when cut and polished, they’re pretty rocks. They’re shiny. The eye is drawn to something that catches the light and refracts it. But I feel the main reason pertains to De Beers’ business practices and marketing machine. The corporation was permitted to buy the entire output of the South African diamond fields. After paying off government officials—and often infiltrating the government themselves—they were allowed to completely control the release of gems onto the world market.

Diamonds are not rare, it’s just that De Beers retained a stronghold on the booty and released them ever so slowly, fabricating a narrative of preciousness and rarity in order to invent and justify obscene prices. It’s a fiction that depends on fear. On the Diamond Coast, unless you’re directly working for De Beers, it’s illegal to pick up a diamond that, say, happens to wash up on the beach. It’s illegal to hold it even for just one second. The beaches are patrolled by security, and the punishments are severe.

Further, the corporation’s advertising department launched a campaign to impact the ways in which we should communicate our love for one another in a socially functional way. A diamond has, en masse, become a condition of marriage. The more money one spends, the bigger the rock, the more intense one’s expression of “love.” Sociologically, De Beers’ narrow narrative on proper gender performance has seduced so many into believing that, to be a man, one must woo a woman with a diamond, and to be a woman, one must want to be wooed in such a fashion. It’s how they prevented the occurrence of a viable secondary market. “A diamond is forever,” De Beers has us believing, and you can’t resell it, because then you’d be selling your love. And we have become unwitting enforcers of these edicts. The corporation started it, but now we’re running with it. We put the social pressure on ourselves, and on each other, to buy diamonds for this reason. It’s absurd, but so many of us remain under their spell.

I feel there’s a more elusive reason people love diamonds, too, perhaps rooted in a desire to possess something so ancient, so hard, forged during a period of the Earth’s history in which we did not yet participate. A stage of fire, lava, pre-humanity. As we humans tend to want to possess things and rule the world, buying and wearing a diamond may represent a claiming of ownership of the very thing that survived a geological stage which we could not.

Same question about pigeons: How did you feel about them generally and then did that feeling alter as you worked on the book? Relatedly, why do people tend to hate and complain about pigeons?

I’ve always liked watching pigeons, actually, but in a casual way. Now, I’m just in love with them. They’re brilliant animals that have—for better or for worse—been variously used by us humans to “advance” ourselves (communicating over long distances, delivering essential medicine, etc.) Maybe people dislike them because they’re so ubiquitous. It’s like the inverse of our thinking about diamonds. If we tend to equate rarity with worth, we also tend to equate the common with the worthless, the boring. The common can be dismissed, and the common pigeon, which tends to thrive in human settlements (roosting in our eaves, eating our crumbs, and yes, sometimes crapping on our cars) can easily be reviled.

Perhaps, in our innate territoriality, we don’t want to share space or food or other resources with pigeons. Do their sheer numbers threaten us? I think of the passenger pigeon—once the most abundant bird in North America—whose extinction we hastened. Perhaps, in beholding another species that seemingly, via a complex network of cooperation, wanted to consume everything, wanted to dominate both earth and sky, we also felt a sense of communion with them that we couldn’t quite bear, a plurality that unnerved us. Communion begat competition, and we felt the earth was ours, not theirs, to pillage. And so they became our enemy.

When you’re talking to MacDonald who’s speaking on behalf of the diamond interests, he says “Look, we want to rehabilitate the environment, but not at the expense of the surrounding economic area. This is still to be mined for diamonds once Trans Hex comes in. There are still an estimated 4.5 million carats here that they know of. It’s just not economically viable for DeBeers to take them out right now.” Why do you think corporations and men like him always frame this question as a binary: a competition between the environment and the economy?

MacDonald is parroting the edicts of the corporation, and the corporation has the personality of a sociopath. It cares only for its own perpetuation without regard for land or people. I think mass protest can help raise awareness that such things are happening, which hopefully can lead to innovations set to addressing the problem. De Beers recently had to create an Environmental Division to address the environmental impact of their mining endeavors, and to attempt to rehabilitate the land they so thoroughly ravaged. Even though the Environmental Division is pretty ineffectual, the fact that De Beers had to create it in response to shifting public opinion, awareness, and resistance, provides a small glimmer of hope.

Your book is full of trivia and little nuggets of information that are—I have to say it—diamonds themselves that the reader stumbles across. My favorite was about how B.F. Skinner found that pigeons are susceptible to superstition. Can you talk about his findings, as well as how you found that in your research and why you decided to include it?

Oh, I had to cut so many amazing pigeon facts from the book, but I was able to retain a few of my favorites: That pigeons have demonstrated the capacity to recognize all twenty-six letters of our alphabet (and other alphabets, if so trained); that they can differentiate between two different human beings in a photograph; that they pass the “mirror test,” meaning that a pigeon recognizes its reflection as its own image, and not as another bird—which is unheard of in the animal kingdom, for the most part.

I included the information on Skinner’s study because I was also amazed by it. Skinner kept a bunch of pigeons in cages and deprived them of food. For a few seconds each day, a mechanism would dispense a meager pile of seed. And soon, the birds developed what Skinner determined to be superstitious behavior. They seemed to believe that by acting a certain way, or performing some kind of action, they could compel a feeding. One pigeon came to believe that if it turned around three times in succession counterclockwise, that would yield a feeding. Another was compelled to swing its head like a pendulum six times, three to the right, three to the left. And another nodded in bursts of five. Yes-yes-yes-yes-yes.

 

Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a team of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poetry on demand. She teaches English and creative writing at DePaul University and is the author of eight books of poetry, nonfiction, and fiction, including the novels O, Democracy! (Fifth Star Press, 2014) and Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk (St. Martin’s Press, 2017), and the novel in poems Robinson Alone(Gold Wake Press, 2012). With Eric Plattner, she is the coeditor of René Magritte: Selected Writings (University of Minnesota Press, 2016). Her most recent novel is Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey (Penguin, 2020). She lives in Chicago with her spouse, the writer Martin Seay.

 

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