Archive for May, 2008

Department of WTF

Thursday, May 29th, 2008

I don’t get all the hoopla over Scott McClellan’s What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception. If he knew that his boss’s arguments were war propaganda, then why didn’t he step down? And if he didn’t know, then why suddenly come out with it now, when criticizing George Bush has become the safest national pastime? Oh, right: Ka-ching!

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The Road in Film

Wednesday, May 28th, 2008

I have been looking forward to the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road ever since I heard that Viggo Mortensen would play the role of the father. Yesterday the New York Times‘ Charles McGrath had a report from the set on the challenges of filming the post-apocalyptic world that McCarthy imagined.

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Me @ BEA

Tuesday, May 27th, 2008

I’ve been asked to do a signing at BEA, for an anthology to which I contributed a story. Here are the details:

May 31, 2008
2:00 PM
A Stranger Among Us signing
With Stacy Bierlein, Aimee Luu, and Laila Lalami
University of Illinois Press Booth
Book Expo America
LA Convention Center
Los Angeles, California

If you are in Los Angeles this weekend, please stop by to say hello.

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Poetry and Palmolive

Tuesday, May 27th, 2008

Priceless! A 1971 Moroccan commercial that uses the classic tale of Qais wa Laila to hawk Palmolive shampoo:


(Link.)

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Quotable: Tayib Salih

Friday, May 23rd, 2008

Every time I read through Tayib Salih’s Season of Migration to the North I notice how the book remains as relevant today as it was when it was first published.

Professor Maxwell Foster-Keen continued to draw a distinctive picture of the mind of a genius whom circumstances had driven to killing in a moment of bad passion. He related to them how I had been appointed a lecturer in economics at London University at the age of twenty-four. He told them that Ann Hammond and Sheila Greenwood were girls who were seeking death by every means and that they would have committed suicide whether they had met Mustafa Sa’eed or not. “Mustafa Sa’eed, gentlemen of the jury, is a noble person whose mind was able to absorb Western civilization but it broke his heart. These girls were not killed by Mustafa Sa’eed but by the germ of a deadly disease that assailed them a thousand years ago.” It occurred to me that I should stand up and say to them: “This is untrue, a fabrication. It was I who killed them. I am the desert of thirst. I am no Othello. I am a lie. Why don’t you sentence me to be hanged and so kill the lie?” But Professor Maxwell Foster-Keen turned the trial into a conflict between two worlds, a struggle of which I was one of the victims.

This, of course, from the scene in which Professor Maxwell Foster-Keen pleads with the jury to spare Mustafa Sa’eed’s life.

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Writers in/on Palestine

Thursday, May 22nd, 2008

Ahdaf Soueif and Ian Jack have written brief essays for the Guardian about their participation in the Palestine Literary Festival, which took them, along with Esther Freud, Claire Messud, Pankaj Mishra, Hanan Al-Shaykh, Roddy Doyle and others, to the cities of Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Bethlehem.

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Cycle of Violence

Thursday, May 22nd, 2008

All day I’ve been haunted by this photo of a South African mob, with, in the foreground, that smiling man with the hammer in one hand and a stick in the other.

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The usual violence against immigrants in South Africa has taken on such shocking measures in the last few days that it’s frankly a relief to hear that troops have been called–I just hope they actually help.

Photo: Jerome Delay/AP

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On Artsblock

Thursday, May 22nd, 2008

I was interviewed by Gabriela Jauregui for KCET’s ArtsBlock. For the curious, here’s the podcast.

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Department of WTF

Wednesday, May 21st, 2008

You’ve heard a lot about Jeremiah Wright, but have you heard about McCain’s “spiritual adviser,” one Rod Parsley?

Don’t worry, most of the mainstream media haven’t heard either.

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Sir Vidia’s Trinidadian Readers

Wednesday, May 21st, 2008

I really enjoyed David Shaftel’s essay on how V.S. Naipaul is read and interpreted in his native Trinidad. The piece appeared last Sunday in the New York Times Book Review, but, between my novel and my teaching, it’s taking me several days to catch up on reading. Here is the opening paragraph:

If the measure of a writer’s success is the ire he provokes, then V. S. Naipaul is a spectacular success in Trinidad. In this island nation of just over a million people, there is a widespread perception that he has jilted his homeland through unflattering portraits in his books and a string of cutting remarks over the years. “History is built around achievement and creation; and nothing was created in the West Indies,” Naipaul wrote in “The Middle Passage” (1962) — the first sign that he wasn’t going to play the proud native son. A fresher wound came in 2001, when Naipaul omitted any mention of Trinidad from his initial press release after winning the Nobel Prize, which many here saw as a deliberate rebuff. And last year, during a visit sponsored by the University of the West Indies, Naipaul more than lived up to his reputation for cantankerousness, prompting disapproving press coverage after he snapped at a group of students at a Hindu girls’ high school.

Despite the cantankerousness, I’d say it’s still a semi-sympathetic portrait of Naipaul.

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House of Bush, Oil of Saud

Monday, May 19th, 2008

At a stop in Sharm el-Sheikh during his Middle East tour, President Bush told Arab leaders they must work for democracy and that they should: “treat their people with the dignity and respect they deserve. Too often in the Middle East, politics has consisted of one leader in power and the opposition in jail.”

Meanwhile, look who he’s been hanging out with:

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Don’t they look cute together, holding hands like that?

Photo: AP/Susan Walsh.

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Hope in Morocco

Friday, May 16th, 2008

hope-ma.jpgThe Moroccan Cultural Studies Center in Fes has published an English-language edition of Hope. My book has been used in college courses in Morocco for a while, but this edition (priced at 50 Dirhams) will make it easier for college students to get their hands on it. (Previously, they had to order it on Amazon or–gasp!–photocopy it.) The cover art is by Mohamed Mrabet. I’m thrilled!

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Something Old, Something New

Friday, May 16th, 2008

Some people will probably not believe me when I say I’m a big procrastinator (“How do you get so much done?” is usually the retort. Mine is: “You should’ve seen what I had planned!”) It’s taken me four and a half years to finish my new novel. I’m now slowly trudging along with edits, and I’ve devised a new system for positive reinforcement. After every two pages of my work, I allow myself two pages from something old (Life and Times of Michael K., at the moment). At night, if I’ve finished a chapter, I read something new (the new Rushdie, The Enchantress of Florence.) More soon.

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Keeping Government Out of the Bedroom

Thursday, May 15th, 2008

Great news from the California state Supreme Court today: By a vote of 4 to 3, the court has overturned a ban on same-sex marriage.

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Palestine Hotel

Thursday, May 15th, 2008

This revelation should only come as a surprise to those who slept through the early days of the American invasion of Iraq: An army whistleblower has revealed that the Palestine Hotel, where journalists were stationed in the spring of April 2003, was on an Army target list.

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The New Prisons

Wednesday, May 14th, 2008

From a brief piece in the London Review of Books on immigration detention centers:

Boubacar Bah, a 52-year-old tailor from Guinea living in Brooklyn, is one of 71 detainees to have died in the last four years in the custody of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. An illegal immigrant confined to a detention centre after his green card application was rejected, Bah died after a fall that no one seems to have witnessed. ICE, which was set up by the Department of Homeland Security after 9/11, is responsible for the detention of a staggering number of people: 311,213 last year, a million since 2004. They are held in prisons in which, according to Mark Dow, the author of American Gulag (2005), ‘extreme forms of physical abuse are not just aberrations.’ The centre where Bah was detained is managed by Corrections Corporation of America, a firm set up in 1983 in Nashville by a group of investors that included a former chairman of Tennessee’s Republican Party. A pioneer in running private prisons, it has also been quick to specialise in immigrant detention, the fastest growing branch of the incarceration business.

CCA describes itself as the ‘nation’s largest provider of outsourced corrections management’, with 70,000 inmates and 16,000 staff. Its website speaks proudly of ‘similarities in mission and structure’ with the US army and makes a special appeal to veterans in search of work: ‘How will you make the transition from military to civilian life? CCA features a paramilitary structure: a highly refined chain of command, and policies and procedures that dictate facility operations.’

Things are similarly bleak for immigrants and refugees in the UK, as Adam Shatz explains.

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Mission Accomplished

Tuesday, May 13th, 2008

Never mind the Douglas Feith interview. The best part about yesterday’s Daily Show was John Oliver’s report on Jenna Bush’s wedding. You have to watch it.

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Emergency @ The Geffen

Tuesday, May 13th, 2008

In class yesterday, we talked about stories that use history as a starting point, and the challenges that come with this undertaking. Daniel Beaty’s one-man show Emergency (currently playing at The Geffen Playhouse) does just that. It’s about a slave ship that rises out of the Hudson River, in front of the Statue of Liberty; the people of New York are all stunned, but they each react differently to the intrusion of history into their lives. Beaty performs approximately 40 characters, ranging from a little girl to an old widower, from a dispassionate newscaster to a reality TV show contestant. Some of the characters he brings to life are more fully realized than others, but their testimonies ring with truth–as painful, shocking, thought-provoking, and liberating as it may be. Emergency is playing until May 25, so don’t miss it.

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Et Ça Reprend

Friday, May 9th, 2008

As pessimistic as it sounds, I think Lebanon is headed for another civil war before the end of the summer.

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Recapture

Wednesday, May 7th, 2008

While working on line edits for my new novel, I’ve been trying to justify my glacial pace to myself: it must be because I am busy with teaching; or because I spend too much time writing nonfiction; or because I am a perfectionist; or because English is my third language; or because I am lazy; and so on. In a fit of despair, I decided to read up on Vladimir Nabokov’s editing process, and stumbled upon an article by Maxim D. Shrayer: “After Rapture and Recapture: Transformations in the Drafts of Nabokov’s Stories,” which was published in Russian Review. Shrayer cites Nabokov’s preface to Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin:

Rough drafts, false scents, half explored trails, dead ends of inspiration, are of little intrinsic importance. An artist should ruthlessly destroy his manuscripts after publication, lest they mislead academic mediocrities into thinking that it is possible to unravel the mysteries of genius by studying canceled readings. In art, purpose and plan are nothing; only the results count.

This makes the upcoming publication of The Original of Laura, the unfinished manuscript that Nabokov wanted destroyed, a tad problematic, but that’s not my subject here. I was more interested in the distinction Nabokov drew between ‘Rapture’ and ‘Recapture,’ the former being the state of conception, a process not to be interrupted but to be followed wherever it leads, and the latter the state of composition, which is a more laborious, conscious process, and begins with the very first draft. Shrayer’s article demonstrates the extent to which Nabokov recaptured: everything from stylistic revisions to structural changes. I think I needed to read this to be inspired. Back to work.

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Thomas McCarthy’s The Visitor

Tuesday, May 6th, 2008

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I recently wrote a piece about Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor for The Nation‘s online section on books and the arts. Here’s how it opens:

On first glance, Tom McCarthy’s new film, The Visitor, seems to set itself up as one of those dreadful movies in which a white, male protagonist witnesses some predicament of people of color and then, innocently and chivalrously, proceeds to save them. Think Blood Diamond or Rendition or The Last King of Scotland. Some people cry during these movies; I usually yawn and check my watch. But The Visitor quickly turns the formula on its head. For one thing, the main conflict that propels the story is caused by all the characters, and, for another, whatever realizations are made at the end of the film do not neatly separate the characters as savior and saved.

The entire piece is freely available here: “Looking Past Clichés.”

(Photo credit: Overture Films)

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Eye of the Cyclone

Tuesday, May 6th, 2008

When I was getting ready to go to work yesterday, the headlines said that a cyclone hit Myanmar, and that the death toll may be as high as 4,000. By the time I finished teaching, the headlines said 10,000. And this morning the number has risen to 15,000 (now 30,000.) It’s hard to fathom what that means for the survivors, for the families, for the country. But already the humanitarian crisis is being politicized. On both sides.

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The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Saturday, May 3rd, 2008

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I loved Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell and The Butterfly when I read it almost ten years ago, so I was quite reluctant to see the film adaptation, even though I’d heard that it was directed by Julian Schnabel. The movie arrived via Netflix on Friday and…it’s incredible. Schnabel does what so few directors are capable of doing when it comes to adaptations of novels, which is to say, translate literary language into visual language. What a beautiful film.

(photo credit)

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Quotable: Ahdaf Soueif

Friday, May 2nd, 2008

If you’ve sat for baccalaureate exams anywhere in the Arab world, this little passage from Ahdaf Soueif’s In the Eye of the Sun will bring about a bout of nostalgia (or perhaps panic, depending on your grammar skills):

The afternoon is the time for memorising and the morning the time for brainwork. Not that there is much brainwork to any of this. Arabic grammar is about the only thing that can count as brainwork, parsing sentences: the Deed, the Doer, and the Done-To; the Added and the Added-To; the Attribute and the State; the Circumstance of Time and Place and, most problematic of all: the Built upon the Unknown, in which the logical Done-To assumes the form and function of the Doer. These have to be worked out.

When is Soueif coming out with a new novel? It’s been almost ten years since the last one.

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