Archive for June, 2008

AWS is Back

Friday, June 27th, 2008

I had always thought that Heinemann had stopped work on its African Writers Series, but Percy Zvomuya of the Mail & Guardian reports that the publishers want the series to continue, and are considering new manuscripts. They are also reissuing eight of their back titles as classics editions: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease, Bessie Head’s Maru and When Rain Clouds Gather, Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s A Grain of Wheat, Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood and Mariama Ba’s So Long A Letter.

The introduction for the classics edition of Season of Migration to the North is written by Wail Hassan, and I am happy to report that his piece will be republished in a forthcoming issue of the Nigerian literary magazine Farafina, which I guest-edited.



In the Rainbow Nation

Thursday, June 26th, 2008

I found Jenny Diski’s LRB essay on post-apartheid South Africa to be thoughtful and well-observed, without being cynical. I don’t really want to excerpt any part of it; just read it all here. Doesn’t political change, no matter how hard people fight for it, always end up being different than anyone expected? Minds don’t change as quickly as governments do. A useful reminder, I think, for our electoral season.


On Censorship

Wednesday, June 25th, 2008

I’ve always been curious about the apparatus that makes book censorship possible, so I avidly read Youssef Aït Akdim’s article in Tel Quel magazine on “The Forbidden Books” in Morocco. There is apparently an office in the ministry of communications (sic) called the “service for foreign publications.” All distributor requests for book imports have to transit through this office.

If a book title is deemed suspicious, either because “it is suspected of sedition” or deals with a “sensitive subject,” the office requests a copy and an employee reads it and files a book report. The report is then turned over to the head of the office, who turns it over to the director, who turns it over to minister, and so on. According to the article, there is rarely an official decision, because once paperwork gets delayed a few times, the distributor gives up. But what about books that are published locally? The article doesn’t say.

Among the novels that have been censored in Morocco, at one point or another, the magazine lists: Mohamed Choukri’s For Bread Alone, Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, and Tayib Salih’s Season of Migration to the North. In non-fiction, the list is much longer and includes Stephen Smith’s Oufkir, un destin marocain, John Waterbury’s The Commander of the Faithful, and Moumen Diouri’s A qui appartient le Maroc?

On a related note, J.M. Coetzee delivered a speech at the University of East Anglia on the subject of censorship. Writing under the threat of censorship, Coetzee said, is “like being intimate with someone who does not love you.” I wish the talk had been made available online, but in the meantime, one can always read the short piece in Granta by Simon Willis, who was in attendance.


(Re) Discover The Union

Tuesday, June 24th, 2008

Someone sent me (thank you, whoever you are) an ARC of State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America, edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey. It’s an anthology of original writing on all fifty states of the union, ranging from personal essays to cultural commentary, from travel vignettes to cartoons. There are some intriguing pairings: Ha Jin wrote about Georgia and Saïd Sayrafiezadeh got South Dakota. Others are perhaps to be expected: The amazing Joe Sacco did something on Oregon, and Jhumpa Lahiri wrote about Rhode Island. But the review copy is a sampler, so Joe’s cartoon’s not in there. (Darn.)


Warren Wilson

Monday, June 23rd, 2008

In about ten days, I’ll be going to Asheville, North Carolina to teach in Warren Wilson’s MFA program. I know nothing about Asheville, but apparently F. Scott Fitzgerald once lived there (!), its minor league baseball team is called the “Asheville Tourists” (!!), and the average high temperature in July is 84 degrees (!!!).


Quotable: Constantine Cavafy

Friday, June 20th, 2008

A poem for this Friday: “Waiting for the Barbarians,” by Constantine Cavafy:

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn’t anything going on in the senate?
Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?

Because the barbarians are coming today.
What’s the point of senators making laws now?
Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting enthroned at the city’s main gate,
in state, wearing the crown?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and the emperor’s waiting to receive their leader.
He’s even got a scroll to give him,
loaded with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don’t our distinguished orators turn up as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden bewilderment, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home lost in thought?

Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come.
And some of our men who have just returned from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.

Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.

More poems by Cavafy here.


Department of WTF

Wednesday, June 18th, 2008

Remember Kanan Makiya? Aside from predicting that American troops would be “greeted with sweets and flowers” in Iraq, he’s apparently also moved more than 7 million pages of records from the Baath party to the United States, where they will be housed in the Hoover Institution at Stanford. The Iraqi National archivist Saad Eskander wants the looted papers back in Baghdad, where they belong, but who’s listening to him? Neither the occupying forces nor their handmaidens in Iraq.


Ansari on The Office

Monday, June 16th, 2008

Producers of The Office have announced that Aziz Ansari has joined the cast for their spin-off show. I am unreasonably excited about this–can’t wait to see what he’ll do.


Hage Takes IMPAC

Friday, June 13th, 2008

The Guardian reports that this year’s IMPAC Dublin award has gone to Rawi Hage for De Niro’s Game:

A debut novelist writing in his third language has bested competitors including Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon and Margaret Atwood to take the world’s richest literary prize. First-time author Rawi Hage was this morning declared the winner of the €100,000 Impac Dublin literary award for his novel De Niro’s Game.

De Niro’s Game is set during the Lebanese civil war in the 1980s, its title alluding to the Russian roulette which features in the celebrated Vietnam film drama. In Hage’s novel, the private lives and morals of two young friends are pushed badly out of shape by the relentless stresses and brutality of the conflict raging around them. The judges’ citation, delivered at a ceremony in Dublin’s City Hall earlier, praised De Niro’s Game for its “originality, its power, its lyricism, as well as its humane appeal … the work of a major literary talent.”

The novel comes out in paperback with Harper in the summer.


Uphold the Constitution, Court Says

Friday, June 13th, 2008

The Supreme Court has ruled, for the third time, that detainees held in Guantanamo Bay can challenge their detention in civil courts within the United States. The justices found that:

“The laws and Constitution are designed to survive, and remain in force, in extraordinary times. Liberty and security can be reconciled; and in our system they are reconciled within the framework of the law,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the court’s 70-page majority opinion.

Justices Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburgh, and Stephen Breyer voted in favor of the decision, while John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented. Ever out of touch with reality, George Bush was quoted by the AP as saying:

“We’ll abide by the court’s decision. That doesn’t mean I have to agree with it,” Bush told a news conference in Rome, where he was on a weeklong European visit. “We’ll study this opinion and we’ll do so … to determine whether or not additional legislation might be appropriate.”

Sigh. Another 220 days to go.



Thursday, June 12th, 2008

Powell’s bookstore has come up with a really neat idea: an indie subscription club whose members get a package of new books every six weeks. The package might include a signed first edition, or a title from the author’s backlist, or an advance copy of a new title, but the coolest part about this is that you don’t know what you’ll get until the package arrives. This would make a great gift. (Hint, hint, Alex.)



Wednesday, June 11th, 2008

The New York Times ran a piece yesterday on the (very profitable) business of hymen restoration in France, and today Slate picks up the subject as well. Both articles mention the case of the Muslim marriage that was annulled by a French court because the bride misrepresented herself as a virgin, but neither one mentions that the groom in the case is actually a French convert who was upset that his North African wife had lied to him about her past (in)experience. He asked for an annulment, and his legal case was based on the fact that she misrepresented herself, not on the substance of the misrepresentation. Naturally many Muslims and non-Muslims in France were upset with this ridiculous ruling because it leaves the door open for retrograde ways of handling the institution of marriage. These two points were not really made in the articles. It never ceases to amaze me how much importance is given in the Western press to what Muslim women wear on their heads, or what they have between their legs. I only wish that their education and their health warranted such attention.


A Piece of Their Mind

Tuesday, June 10th, 2008

I doubt if Ahmed Herzenni, the president of the Advisory Council on Human Rights (CCDH), who was visiting the United States to speak to the Moroccan community about his organization’s work, expected the reception he ended up getting in Washington, DC. The Moroccans in attendance asked him pointed questions about the kingdom’s appalling record on human rights, the lack of independence of the judiciary, the elections, and so on. A couple of the attendees got very upset. You can watch video segments from the meeting here. (Scroll on the right hand side to see all five videos.)


Summer Reading

Monday, June 9th, 2008

The Los Angeles Times Book Review has posted its summer 2008 reading list. Ordinarily, I’d be looking through it to see if there’s something interesting I’m missing, but this summer I’m trying to read older books for a change. At the moment, for instance, I am re-reading, for the first time in twenty years, Driss Chraibi’s Le Passé Simple. My God, I had forgotten how violent that novel is, in everything from action to language.


‘Fulbright Seven’ Free to Go

Monday, June 9th, 2008

Nice news out of Gaza: The seven Palestinian students who had been awarded Fulbright scholarships will be able to come to the United States after all. Proof that, sometimes, reports about injustice lead to pressure, and pressure leads to resolution.


On Realism and Characterization

Thursday, June 5th, 2008

Zakes Mda has written a lovely piece for the Boston Review about his writing process, specifically his approach to realism and characterization. He discusses J.M. Coetzee’s incredible novel Waiting for the Barbarians, placing it in the context of apartheid-era South African fiction, which was often starkly realistic:

What others saw as a failure to represent lived experience appeared to me—I was then living in exile—as a refreshing way to re-imagine South Africa and transcend the repetition of the horrors reported every day in newspapers. Waiting for the Barbarians addressed the brutality of colonialism in a timeless manner and extended the borders of “empire” far beyond those of South Africa: to the rest of Africa, Asia, Europe, Australasia, and the Americas. Springing from the particular circumstances of South Africa, it spoke to a universe in which the state became increasingly terroristic in its defense of imperial values. The timelessness was rendered all the more striking to me when one of my students at Ohio University asked if the novel was written after 9/11.

He also describes how Coetzee’s attention to characterization helped him to see the need to create emotionally and intellectually complex South African characters:

In 1984 my play, The Road, won the Christina Crawford Award of what was then called the American Theater Association and was read on stage at the Hilton Hotel in San Francisco. Theater educators and scouts gathered and offered their critiques. I was taken aback by one particular comment: according to one critic, the Afrikaner character was a thorough scoundrel without a single redeeming feature. (…)The play is highly allegorical, for allegory is the mode of oral literature and folklore in that part of the world. South African theater was allegorical long before Coetzee. Its humor was in its absurdity, which was largely the absurdity of the Afrikaner character and everything he stood for. So, what more did the San Francisco critic want from it? What redeeming attribute could an Afrikaner character possibly have, especially after oppressing me for more than three hundred years?

Of course, real people are never as sharply contrasted as some heroes and villains in fiction, and Mda had to learn to create more complex Afrikaner characters.

Related: On Zakes Mda’s novel Cion for The Nation .


New Day

Wednesday, June 4th, 2008


My site has been down intermittently today, so I wasn’t able to link to the news that Barack Obama has won the Democratic nomination. For those of you who are not won over to the young senator from Illinois, let me just say that there’ll be plenty of time to be skeptical. But for now why not enjoy this historic day? One hundred and forty five years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and forty five years after “I Have a Dream,” an African American has become his party’s nominee for the presidency of the United States. That is reason to rejoice.


How to Parody a Classic

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2008

Goodnight Bush:


You can read the first few pages by visiting the site.


Books for the Candidates

Monday, June 2nd, 2008

The New York Times Book Review asked a few poets and novelists which books they would recommend for the three presidential candidates. I think my favorite suggestions are those given by Lorrie Moore:

For Obama: “The Portrait of a Lady,” by Henry James. A virtuous orphan is plotted against by a charming, ruthless couple the orphan once trusted and admired.

For Clinton: “Macbeth,” by William Shakespeare. The timeless tale of how untethered ambition and early predictions may carry a large price tag.

For McCain: “Tales From the Brothers Grimm.” In case more are needed.

Meanwhile, Gore Vidal contributes a typically Vidalian recommendation: “I can only answer in the negative: I want them not to read The New York Times, while subscribing to The Financial Times.”


Bitter Grounds

Monday, June 2nd, 2008

Newsweek‘s Lorraine Ali gets the final word on that silly Dunkin’ Donuts/Keffiyeh controversy: “Shouldn’t we be more offended [Rachael] Ray was shilling their weak iced coffee, a beverage that should be criticized for impersonating, well, iced coffee?”


Under Siege

Monday, June 2nd, 2008

The Israeli government likes to say that Gaza is not a prison, but what do you call it when eight Gazan students who have won prestigious Fulbright awards have lost their fellowships because Israel will not grant exit visas?

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