The Moor’s Account Book Tour

August 16th, 2014

seattlereading09

Book tours sound very glamorous, but they usually go like this: you wake up at an ungodly hour, you hope that your cab is on time, you hope that your flight is on time, you hope that your seat mate isn’t a sociopath, you hope that your hotel room is ready when you get there, you hope not to get lost on your way to the bookstore. All that hoping can be stressful. So why go on tour? Because after a few years of writing a novel, it’s very enjoyable to talk to readers about it. I have the most amazing readers. Once, at a reading in Los Angeles, a woman told me she had driven three hours so her daughter could come see me. Another time, my friend A. from grad school surprised me by showing up at my Elliott Bay reading in Seattle. He lives in Arizona, but was in town on business, so we ended up having dinner together and catching up. And I love doing events in independent bookstores because, unfailingly, the staff are knowledgeable, friendly, and always have a good book to recommend. Yes, book tours are stressful, but they’re also lots of fun. Right now, I’m getting ready to tour for my new novel, The Moor’s Account. I’ll be visiting Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, Portland, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, New York, Washington DC, and Boston this fall. I’m also doing the Chicago Humanities Festival, the International Festival of Authors in Toronto, and the Miami Book Fair. And I’m speaking at several colleges, including Williams in Massachusetts, Yavapai College in Arizona, and the University of Texas at Austin. Do come by and say hello! I’d love to talk to you about my new book.

Estebanico in Visual Art

August 5th, 2014

While writing The Moor’s Account, I became curious about visual representations of Estebanico (a.k.a. Mustafa al-Zamori). As it turned out, the incredible story of the Narváez expedition inspired quite a few painters. Below, for instance, is the depiction of the Narváez castaways that Penguin Classics used for its cover of Cabeza de Vaca’s Chronicle. You will notice that Estebanico appears nowhere in it.

But as time passed and scholarship evolved, interest in Estebanico also grew. Here is a painting by José Cisneros, where Estebanico appears alongside the other three survivors, Andrés Dorantes, Alonso del Castillo, and Cabeza de Vaca. (Estebanico is second from right.)

estebanico2

It’s interesting to note the differences between artist depictions when it comes to style and dress. In the one below, for example, Estebanico appears shirtless and carrying a halberd, leading the way for the Coronado expedition, which took place many years after the Narváez expedition.

estebanico3

In his hometown of Azemmur, there are a few murals dedicated to the explorer. Here is one where Estebanico is portrayed in the dress and style of a pirate. (Of course, he was no pirate; he was a slave turned scout turned faith healer.)

estebanico4

Adjacent to that mural in Azemmur is another one, also depicting Estebanico. Here, the explorer is shown wearing a turban and a loincloth, and carrying a wooden lance.

estebanico5

What I find fascinating about all these images is what they tell us not about Estebanico, but about the artists themselves. Each one had a different view of the explorer, shaped by his or her culture and experience of history.

Image credits:
1. Alfred Russell, Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca and His Companions Lost on the Shore of the Gulf of Mexico, 1528. The Granger Collection. New York.
2. José Cisneros, Cabeza de Vaca and His Three companions on the Texas Coast. Museum of South Texas History.
3. Artist unknown, Estevanico. The Granger Collection. New York.
4. Artist name illegible, Estevanico/Estebanico El Azemmouri. MonMaroc Guide.
5. Koukou. Estebanico. Azemmur.

In Azemmur

August 2nd, 2014

azemmur

My new novel, The Moor’s Account, comes out in five weeks. It tells the story of America’s first African explorer, a Moroccan slave known as Estebanico. He was part of the Narváez expedition of 1528, which landed in Florida with the goal of claiming it for the Spanish Crown. From the start, however, the expedition faced disaster. The rations were small, the men came down with typhoid, and the indigenous tribes resisted the soldiers’ advance. Within a year, there were only four survivors: the expedition’s treasurer, Cabeza de Vaca; a captain by the name of Alonso del Castillo; a nobleman named Andrés Dorantes, and his Moroccan slave, Estebanico. Together, the survivors journeyed across America, living with native tribes and reinventing themselves as faith healers. Years later, when they were found, the Spaniards were asked to provide their testimony about this epic journey. But because he was a slave, Estebanico’s experience was considered irrelevant or unreliable or unworthy.

And yet his experience was unique. Although he took part in a conquering expedition, he was not a conqueror. He witnessed the Spaniards’ subjugation of indigenous tribes, while his own status was somewhere in between. The complexity of Estebanico’s position drew me in, as did the fact that his testimony was not part of the historical record. The silencing of his perspective felt modern to me. (Open up the newspaper and look at the bylines. Whose views do you read? Whose voices do you never hear?) I was so immediately and so powerfully drawn to Estebanico’s story that I decided to write a novel about him. I gave myself the freedom to speak in his voice, to describe his birth in Azemmur, his family life, his relationships with others, his many failings, and ultimately his redemption.

Last month, I had the chance to return to Azemmur. In the picture above, I’m standing where, I imagine, he once stood. To my right are the Portuguese ramparts, which date back to 1513; the Oum er-Rbi’ river is to my left.

How Not To Write A Novel

June 3rd, 2014

Wait for the right time. Wait for the right place.

Be in awe of your novel’s premise. The best premises in the world still don’t add up to a completed book.

Get up from the chair. Tell yourself you’re just taking a five-minute break. Make coffee. Look for your special mug. You were drinking from it when you sold your first story, so now you must have it in order to write anything. Get back in the chair.

Stare at the screen. Wonder what your agent will think about your new novel, which, by the way, you’re not writing because you’re reading this instead. Wonder what readers will think. Wonder what critics will think, especially the asshole who did a hatchet job on your last book. Worry about your career, such as it is.

Think about your premise again. All it needs is careful execution. But when that’s done, oh, it will be amazing. This book is finally going to make you happy. And popular! All those people who made fun of you in high school are going to feel mighty sorry about the way they treated you. Dream about publication. Wait a minute. Will there be any bookstores left by the time you finish this book? Will there be any publishers left, even?

Google yourself.

Login to Twitter. Argue with an anonymous stranger about political issues neither of you will ever resolve. Login to Facebook. Argue with your crazy uncle about political issues neither of you will ever resolve. Scroll through your newsfeed, look at pictures of your friends at cocktail parties. They all look so happy. Why? Because they’re not trying to write, that’s why. Dwell on your loneliness.

Read your Amazon reviews. Who the hell is ‘kafkaisoverrated75′ and why did he give you a one-star review?

Get up from the chair. Alphabetize your bookshelf. Straighten your picture frames. Rearrange everything on your desk. Get back in the chair. Start reading blogs. Someone posted a tirade about MFA programs. Feel compelled to write a response, which turns into another long tirade about MFA programs.

Oh God, how did it get to be 11 am already? You have to start grading papers soon. Wish you had more time.

Notice the pages you wrote last week. Read them, decide they’re useless, toss them in the trash. Wish you had more talent.

Make a necklace out of paperclips. Check your email. Ignore your credit card bill. Unsubscribe from newsletters. Decline invitations to connect on LinkedIn.

Stare at the screen. Doubt the work. Fear the world. Ask yourself how you ever wrote anything at all before. Read an interview with Toni Morrison in the Paris Review. She wrote The Bluest Eye while holding down a full-time job at Random House and taking care of two children. She got up at 5 am every day. What’s your excuse?

Rummage through the trash, pull out the pages you tossed. Reread them. Maybe there’s a sentence here that can be salvaged.

Tell yourself you’re just taking a five-minute break.

Posted to Twitter on June 2.

Quotable: Margaret Atwood

June 2nd, 2014

>Margaret Atwood

Last week, as the conversation on social media focused on misogyny and sexism, I kept thinking about Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and about this passage specifically:

Is that how we lived, then? But we lived as usual. Everyone does, most of the time. Whatever is going on is as usual. Even this is as usual, now.
      We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.
      Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it. There were stories in the newspapers, of course, corpses in ditches or the woods, bludgeoned to death or mutilated, interfered with, as they used to say, but they were about other women, and them who did such things were other men. None of them were men we knew. The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable. They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives.
      We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom.
      We lived in the gaps between the stories.

Those who think that misogyny is what happens to others are living in the gaps between the stories.

Photo: theironwriter.com

A Grand Unified Theory of Writers’ Desires

May 20th, 2014

mcescherhands

Writers write.
Those who write finish a manuscript.
Those who finish a manuscript want an agent.
Those who have an agent want a book deal.
Those who have a book deal want an even bigger book deal.
Those who have a big book deal want great reviews.
Those who have great reviews want huge sales.
Those who have huge sales want literary prizes.
Those who have literary prizes want movie adaptations.
Those who have book deals, reviews, sales, prizes, and movie adaptations want time to write.
Writers want time to write
Writers want time to write.

MFA & POC

May 7th, 2014

VONA-2004

Last week, The New Yorker published an essay by Junot Díaz about his experience as a person of color in the Master of Fine Arts program at Cornell University. Of his time in the program, he wrote:

I didn’t have a great workshop experience. Not at all. In fact by the start of my second year I was like: get me the fuck out of here.

So what was the problem?

Oh just the standard problem of MFA programs.

That shit was too white.

Díaz goes on to describe the problems he faced: the faculty was not diverse, the curriculum skewed toward white male authors, there was a pervasive silence about issues of race, etc. These are experiences that feel familiar to me. When I took writing classes in the U.S., I discovered very quickly that my literary references were different from those of my classmates. I had read Abouzeid, Mahfouz, Saramago, Choukri, Marquez, but they were writers whose work was never included in reading lists on the craft of writing. If, in the course of a discussion on plot or character or point of view, I brought up an African or South American writer, my example would usually fall flat and immediately be superseded by a more familiar (white) writer. Once, I remember, I was told that I had to completely rewrite one of my stories: instead of it being about Moroccan immigrants to Spain, it should be about Cuban immigrants to Florida because “this will be more familiar to your readers.” I think this was why Díaz’s piece was so popular: it spoke about marginalizing experiences that many young writers of color have.

Díaz’s essay was a condensed form of his introduction for the anthology Dismantle, edited by Marissa Johnson-Valenzuela, Andrea Walls, Adriana Ramirez, Camille Acker, and Marco Fernando Navarro. Dismantle collects the work of alumni from the Voices of Our Nation Workshop, which was founded by Elmaz Abinader, Victor Díaz, Diem Jones, and Junot Díaz in 1999. I attended the workshop in 2004 and found it to be different from others I had taken. No one tried to make my work fit into a mold of what an ‘immigrant story’ should be like, or shied away from difficult themes, or suggested I give my characters ‘easier’ names. Bonus: I made friends with whom I remain close and I learned a few things that I bring into my own pedagogy.

The photo above was taken at the conclusion of the workshop in 2004. (From left to right: Patty Tumang, me, Beverly Mendoza, Estella Gonzalez, Junot Díaz, Maaza Mengiste, Leticia del Toro, Leticia’s husband Michel.) If I look a little dazed in the photo, it’s probably because I had recently had a baby and was completely exhausted from lack of sleep. Every day, I had to get up early to pump, then I’d go to class, come back to my dorm room, and pump some more. I was tired and I missed my baby. Which brings me to another aspect of the writer’s life: we all need supportive partners. One of the pieces of advice that I always give to my students is to build a network of support, whether it’s a spouse, a sibling, a parent, a friend. Writing may be a solitary effort, but it cannot be done without a community.

L. A. Times Festival of Books

April 10th, 2014

The L.A. Times Festival of Books takes place this weekend, on the USC campus. It’s one of my favorite events of the year because I get to spend time with fellow writers, meet readers old and new, and eat churros. My panel is on Sunday:

Sunday, April 13, 1:30 PM
Fiction: Writing Character & Culture
Laila Lalami, Eduardo Santiago, Margaret Wrinkle, Rebecca Walker. Moderated by Sacha Howells
SAL 101
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, California

Do come and say hi. The full festival schedule is posted on the festival website.

In Conversation with Dinaw Mengestu

March 23rd, 2014

L.A. readers: I will be in conversation with Dinaw Mengestu at the Los Angeles Public Library this week. The occasion is the publication of his new novel, All Our Names, about a young student from Ethiopia and a social worker from the Midwest, who take turns narrating their lives and the start of their affair. The book received a rave review in this weekend’s New York Times, and I’m really looking forward to discussing it with Dinaw. Here are the details:

Thursday, March 27
7pm
Mark Taper Auditorium-Central Library
Los Angeles Public Library
630 W. 5th Street
Los Angeles, CA 90071
(213) 228-7000

I hope to see you there.

New Anthologies, Spring 2014

March 9th, 2014

My work appears in two wonderful anthologies that are being published this month. Dismantle collects stories and essays by alumni and teachers from the Voices of Our Nation Workshop. (VONA is a great organization that nurtures and supports writers of color.) Contributors include Chris Abani, Nikky Finney, Maaza Mengiste, Minal Hajratwala, Justin Torres, Cristina Garcia, Mat Johnson, Mitchell Jackson, and me. The book also has an introduction by Junot Díaz.

Immigrant Voices, which is edited by Achy Obejas and Megan Bayles, features the work of Aleksandar Hemon, Edwidge Danticat, Lara Vapnyar, Yiyun Li, Sefi Atta, Daniel Alarcón, Porochista Khakpour, and Junot Díaz. The anthology is released by the Great Books Foundation in Chicago. A launch party is scheduled for March 19, and you can find out more about it here.

The Chronicles of the Veil

February 25th, 2014

I have a new piece in The Los Angeles Review of Books about the ways in which Muslim women’s rights are discussed in different parts of the world. Here’s a snippet:

I was struck then, and I suppose I still am now, by how different the Chronicles of the Veil™ were from the books I had read when I was growing up. Those books were written by Moroccan women and for Moroccan women; the authors explicitly critiqued the laws, cultural customs, and religious beliefs that hampered Moroccan women and prevented them from achieving full equality. But the books I encountered in America, particularly in commercial bookstores, were general, even generic, in their approach. They were often set in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia. They spoke breathlessly about “Muslim women,” a population so large and so diverse that hardly any statements made about them bear scrutiny. What could possibly be said to be true of 800 million women, spread out over 56 countries, dozens of ethnic groups, and a multitude of legal and cultural practices?

There came a moment when I realized that there are two distinct kinds of conversations taking place around Muslim women — one in Muslim countries and one in Western countries. The first conversation is highly specific, and focuses on local problems. In Morocco, for example, feminist activists pushed for a reform of family law for more than a decade; it was finally passed by parliament in 2004, and it granted women greater rights in marriage, divorce, and custody. These activists also successfully lobbied parliament for another reform, this time of the penal code, because it contained a loophole that allowed a man to escape statutory rape charges in case of marriage. Now feminists are focusing on access to education in rural areas, the practice of hiring underage girls as domestic workers, sexual harassment on the street — these are issues that Moroccan women and girls face every day, but they might not be exactly the same issues faced by women in Somalia or Comoros, where the legal apparatus and cultural practices are quite different.

The second kind of conversation takes place in Western countries, primarily via the Chronicles of the Veil™ and other sensationalistic materials. Here, the terms of the debate are global.

You can read the rest of the essay here.

(Photo credit: ArabGlot)

‘Guests of the Ayatollah’

January 5th, 2014

Happy 2014! My winter holiday was brief (as are all holidays, I suppose) and now I am back at work. For those who may be interested, my review of Hooman Majd’s The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay appeared in the New York Times last week. Here is how it begins:

To write about one’s country while living in another is to invite questions about loyalty. Why are you writing this? And for whom? The questions can take an ominous tone: What is your agenda? The journalist Hooman Majd faced such suspicions on one of his trips to Tehran, when an employee from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance told him bluntly: “Just because you have an Iranian passport doesn’t mean you can come here and write whatever you want when you leave.”

It was partly in an attempt to gain a wider perspective on the country of his birth that Majd, who lives in Brooklyn, took his American wife and infant son to live in Tehran for one year. “The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay” is a memoir of 2011, spent reconnecting with the homeland he left as a baby, when his father, then a career diplomat, was posted abroad.

You can read the rest of the review here.

Photo credit: GQ.

The Moor’s Account: September 2014

November 23rd, 2013

For the last four years, I’ve spent the majority of my time inside a man’s body and mind. My character, a Moroccan slave known only as Estebanico of Azemmur, was part of a sixteenth-century Spanish expedition to claim the territory of Florida for the Crown of Castile. But the expedition turned out to be an unmitigated disaster and, within a few months, only four men were left standing: three noblemen, among whom the famed explorer Cabeza de Vaca, and Estebanico. I’ve followed along as Estebanico and the others journeyed to the heart of Florida and, desperate to survive among the Indians, reinvented themselves as faith healers. But my time with Estebanico is coming to an end. I’m happy to report that the release date for The Moor’s Account has been set for September 2014. I’m so proud of this book and so excited to share it with readers.

Illustration: Azaamurum. 1678 map of Azemmur by Daniel Meisner.

Imagine: On J.M. Coetzee

September 30th, 2013

Few writers inspire in me as much admiration and respect as J.M. Coetzee, so I was thrilled to have an opportunity to write about his most recent novel, The Childhood of Jesus, for The Nation magazine. Here is how the piece begins:

In 1516, when he was a councilor to Henry VIII, Thomas More published a slim little novel in which he described a society starkly different from his own, a place where education is universal, religious diversity is tolerated, and private property is banned. Citizens elect their prince and can unseat him if he turns tyrannical. The state provides free healthcare for everyone, and the law is so simple that there are no lawyers. For this ideal society, More coined the term Utopia (“no place” in Greek). It sounds enlightened, doesn’t it? But here is the fine print: in Utopia, each household has two slaves, drawn from among criminals or foreign prisoners of war; the prince is always a man; atheism is frowned upon; and women and children have far fewer rights than men.

Still, what enchants about Utopia is More’s dream of an ideal society, a dream shared by poets and prophets, artists and thinkers throughout the ages. In The Republic, Plato wanted the ideal city to be run by philosopher-kings. In Candide, Voltaire situated the perfect society in El Dorado, where there are schools aplenty but no prisons. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels theorized that the future would belong to workers once they had lost their chains. Every era has its utopia. Imagine there’s no heaven; it’s easy if you try.

The great J.M. Coetzee follows in this tradition in his new novel, The Childhood of Jesus, which explores the enduring question of what a just and compassionate world might look like. Over a career that has spanned forty years, the South African novelist (now an Australian citizen) has given us novels that explore the ethical responsibilities of the individual. How a person copes with power—whether political, physical or sexual—is a concern that runs through all his work. His characters often find themselves thrust into situations that force them to take note of, and act against, an injustice they had previously declined to notice. His latest novel offers a new variation on these themes: it focuses not on the drama of an unjust yet ordinary situation, but on an unusually just one.

You can read the rest of the essay here.

(Photo Credit: Basso Canarsa)

Fictional Grandparents

July 28th, 2013

For the New York Times Magazine, I wrote about my attempts to learn more about my mother’s side of the family. Here is how the essay begins:

My mother was abandoned in a French orphanage in Fez in 1941. That year in Morocco, hundreds of people died in an outbreak of the plague; her parents were among the victims. Actually, no, they died in a horrific car crash on the newly built road from Marrakesh to Fez. No, no, no, my grandmother died in childbirth, and my grandfather, mad with grief, gave the baby away. The truth is: I don’t know how my mother ended up in a French orphanage in 1941. The nuns in black habits never told.

Growing up in Rabat, I felt lopsided, like a seesaw no one ever played with. On my father’s side: a large number of uncles, cousins, second cousins, grandaunts, all claiming descent from the Prophet Muhammad. On my mother’s side: nothing. No one. Often I imagined my mother’s parents, the man and woman whose blood pulsed in my veins but whom I had never seen.

You can read the rest of the essay here.

Illustration: “My Grandparents, Parents, and I (Family Tree)” by Frida Kahlo. Frida Kahlo Museums Trust.

A Cottage of One’s Own

July 20th, 2013

I spent the last two weeks of June at Hedgebrook, a women writer’s retreat on Whidbey Island in Washington. In a happy coincidence, I received my editorial letter just as I arrived in Oak Cottage (pictured above), so I was able to make revisions for my new novel while I was there. I loved being in residency—being alone all day, in silence, in a space where I could spread out my manuscript and all my notes was incredibly beneficial.

Now I’ve returned to my ordinary life, made more hectic by a house move, and I miss the silence.

Quotable: Gabriel García Márquez

June 29th, 2013

From Gabriel García Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch, a stunning and mystical novel about an aging tyrant, translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa:

He played endless games of dominoes with my lifetime friend General Rodrigo de Aguilar and my old friend the minister of health who were the only ones who had enough of his confidence to ask him to free a prisoner or pardon someone condemned to death, and the only ones who dared ask him to received in a special audience the beauty queen of the poor, an incredible creature from that miserable wallow we called the dogfight district because all the dogs in the neighborhood had been fighting for many years without a moment’s truce, a lethal redoubt where national guard patrols did not enter because they would be stripped naked and cars were broken up into their smallest parts with a flick of the hand, where poor stray donkeys would enter by one end of the street and come out the other in a bag of bones, they roasted the sons of the rich, general sir, they sold them in the market turned into sausages, just imagine, because Manuela Sanchez of my evil luck had been born there and lived there, a dungheap of marigold whose remarkable beauty was the astonishment of the nation general sir, and he felt so intrigued by the revelation that if all this is as true as you people say I’ll not only receive her in a special audience but I’ll dance the first waltz with her, by God, have them write it up in the newspapers, he ordered, this kind of crap makes a big hit with the poor.

My editor recommended this novel to me a few weeks ago. I am especially taken with the narration, which comes in the form of the general’s voice, but also the voices of his lieutenants and the voices of his people. It is a structure-less and plot-less wonder, one that cannot be broken down, but must be enjoyed whole, like all of Márquez work.

Photo: Miguel Tovar/AP.

New Novel: The Moor’s Account

May 22nd, 2013

How do you get ideas for your novels? This question, or some version of it, comes up at nearly every reading I give. Since the answer this time around is a little unusual, I thought I’d share it with you.

In the fall of 2009, I was working on an essay for The Nation magazine about Christopher Caldwell’s polemic on Muslim immigration, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe. As part of my research for the essay, I picked up Anouar Majid’s We Are All Moors, which places recent Muslim immigration in the context of a larger debate around Muslim presence in Europe, a debate that started before the expulsion of Moriscos (Spaniards of Muslim descent) from Spain in 1609.

Halfway through We Are All Moors, I came across a brief mention of a certain Estebanico, a Moroccan slave who was said to be a companion of the explorer Cabeza de Vaca. The story of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca is well known. In 1527, he and several hundred Spaniards landed in Florida as part of the Narváez expedition. The conquistadors were looking for gold, but within a year they became lost in the unfamiliar continent and only four of them survived. Cabeza de Vaca and the other survivors traveled across America, living with Indian tribes for many years. But I had not known about Estebanico, the Moroccan slave.

Why haven’t I heard of him, I wondered. Who was he? What was his real name? How did he end up in this expedition? So I read Cabeza de Vaca’s Chronicle of the Narváez Expedition, and was immediately struck by this narrative, by what it emphasized and what it left out. I decided I wanted to write Estebanico’s version of this famed journey. It is now almost four years later, and I am thrilled to report that The Moor’s Account will be published by Pantheon in 2014. I will, of course, have more updates about the book as the publication date draws near.

Image: Alfred Russell, Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca and His Companions Lost on the Shore of the Gulf of Mexico, 1528. The Granger Collection. New York.

Spring Break

March 31st, 2013

A very short break, actually, just three days in Joshua Tree National Park. But, oh, they were glorious.

Quotable: E.L. Doctorow

February 20th, 2013

I had just finished my fiction workshop last week when I learned that Christopher Dorner, the former LAPD officer who was sought in connection with the murder and attempted murder of fellow officers, had been found. In Los Angeles that week, Dorner was the subject of intense debate, especially after the release of his manifesto, in which he alleged that the LAPD used excessive force during arrests and that he’d been fired when he reported it. Although the LAPD denied the use of excessive force, its claim was undermined by the fact that officers opened fire on a mother and daughter who were delivering newspapers, and on one man who was on his way to surf. Dorner was eventually found in a cabin in Big Bear, leading to a stand off during which he took his own life and/or was burned to death, depending on whom you believe.

The Dorner saga made me think about Coalhouse Walker, the pianist in E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime. After a group of firemen vandalize his car, Walker seeks revenge by bombing fire stations in and around the town of New Rochelle. He sends letters to newspapers that read, “I want the fire chief turned over to my justice.” Like Dorner, Walker is the target of a statewide manhunt and a subject of curiosity and speculation.

It was widely reported when he was achieving his notoriety that Coalhouse Walker had never exhausted the peaceful and legal means of redress before taking the law in his own hands. This is not entirely true. He went to see three different attorneys recommended by Father. In all cases they refused to represent him. He was advised to recover his automobile before it was totally wrecked and to forget the matter. To all three he insisted that he didn’t want to forget the matter but to bring suit against the Fire Chief and men of the Emerald Isle Engine.

It is known too that Coalhouse made a preliminary attempt to see the matter through as his own counsel. He had filed a complaint but did not know how to go about getting a place on the court calendar or what steps had to be taken to assure that it was correct in form in order to be heard. He appeared at City Hall for an interview with the office of the County Clerk. It was suggested that he return another day when there was less pressing business in the office. But he persisted and was then told that his complaint was not on file and that several weeks would be required to trace it. Come back then, the clerk told him. Instead he went to the police station where he had originally filed and wrote out a second complaint. The policemen on duty regarded him with amazement. An older officer took him aside and confided to him that he was probably filing in vain since the volunteer fire companies were not municipal employees and therefore did not come under the jurisdiction of the city. The contemptuousness of this logic did not escape Coalhouse but he chose not to argue with it. He signed his complaint and left and heard laughter behind him as he walked out the door.

All this happened over a period of two to three weeks. Later, when the name Coalhouse Walker came to symbolize murder and arson, these earlier attempts to find redress no longer mattered. Even at this date we can’t condone the mayhem done in his cause but it is important to know the truth insofar as that is possible.

Perhaps Dorner will appear someday as a character in a novel. But, since this is Los Angeles, he’ll probably end up on film first.

Photo credit: Jerry Bauer.

Among the Blasphemers

January 19th, 2013

The latest issue of The Nation magazine includes an essay I wrote about Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton, his memoir of life during the years of the fatwa. More generally, this piece is about how society reacts to blasphemy and what those reactions tell us. Here’s how the essay starts:

The name Salman Rushdie and the word fatwa entered my vocabulary on the same February day in 1989. I was standing in the living room of my parents’ house in Morocco; my uncle, a newspaper rolled under one arm, had just arrived for dinner; my grandmother was sitting on the orange divan, her prayer beads wound on her right hand. Then someone pointed to the television screen and we all turned to look. Young men in the small British city of Bradford were burning copies of a book; the footage was interwoven with photographs of a hunched and dour-looking Khomeini. The ayatollah had found something offensive about a novel—wait, what was it called? Satanic something?—and had decreed that Muslims everywhere were duty-bound to kill its author.

Enter: Rushdie, fatwa.

As it happened, my entire family was Muslim. But to the ayatollah’s chagrin, no one rushed out to find the novelist. We ate dinner and talked about inflation and gas prices. I had grown up in a secular family, but as a teenager I had discovered religion and become a practicing Muslim. Of all those seated around our dinner table that night, the two who would have paid the most attention to a supposed insult against Islam were my grandmother and me. But my grandmother was illiterate and had wisely chosen not to form an opinion on something she had not read. And I loved books more than anything; I could not conceive of burning them.

You can read the rest here. And you can subscribe to the Nation magazine here.

(Photo credit: Syrie Moskowitz)

Quotable: Sigrid Nunez

January 15th, 2013

From Sigrid Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind, an exquisite novel about the friendship between two women, Georgette George and Ann Drayton, who meet at Barnard in 1968. This description really doesn’t do justice to the novel, which is about many, many things: class, race, idealisms of the mind and of the heart, identity. I admired, in particular, Nunez’s ability to maintain a consistent voice for the narrator, Georgette (or Georgie, or George, as she is known at different points in her life.) Here is a taste of it:

Where I came from. Upstate: a small town way up north, near the Canadian border. Jack Frost country, winter eight months of the year. Oh, those days before the globe had warmed, what winters we had then, what snows. Drifts halfway up the telephone poles, buried fences, buried cars, roofs caving in under all that weight. Moneyless. A world of failing factories and disappearing farms, where much of the best business went to bars. People drank and drank to keep their bodies warm, their brains numb.
The people. Given the sparseness of the population, you had to ask yourself, Why so many prone to violence? Many were related, true, and a lot more closely than you liked to think. Did inbreeding lead to viciousness? Alcoholism certainly did, and alcoholism was universal. Whole families drank themselves to disgrace, to criminal mischief, to early death. Here was a place where people seemed to be forever falling. And talk about secrets–more skeletons in the closets than in the cemeteries. Statistically not a high-crime area, but a world of everyday brutality: bar brawls, battered wives. And not every misdeed was perpetrated under the influence. I remember acts of violent cruelty even among children. Woe to the weak, the smaller kids, the animals (oh, the animals) that fell in those hands. And I remember blood feuds with roots going way back to before my grandparents’ time, feuds that left at least one in every generation maimed or dead. The savage world of the North Country poor. I do not exaggerate. The boy next door, a teenage giant with a speech defect so severe only his mother could understand him, hanged a litter of kittens from the branches of the Christmas tree.
And yet for all this, as I say, I was homesick when I went away to school.

I met Nunez at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference some years ago, when I was a fellow and she was on the faculty, but I’ve only now read this novel. A treat.

The Year in a Snapshot

January 6th, 2013

The end of the year is traditionally a time of retrospectives and resolutions, a ritual which I tend to resist, but with the end of my sabbatical and my imminent return to teaching, a bit of stock-taking seems inevitable. I was away from the University of California for a little over six months, which sounds like a very long leave of absence, but of course it went by in a blink. I’ve used the time to work on my new book, especially during my Lannan Foundation residency in Marfa, and I’m happy to report that I made significant progress. This novel is much longer than I anticipated when I started it three years ago and certainly the most ambitious project I’ve ever undertaken, but also the most pleasurable writing experience I’ve ever had.

This year, I also wrote a few other things here and there: a short piece for the New York Times on Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder; a review for The Nation of Percival Everett’s Assumption; an essay, also for The Nation, on Katherine Boo’s National Book Award-winning Behind the Beautiful Forevers; and contributions to the Guardian about the Arab revolutions; the Daily Beast on the rape of Amina Filali; The Nation on Islamophobia; and Newsweek on Los Angeles and a return to Morocco.

Most of the reading I’ve done in 2012 was related in some way to my novel, but I’ve also used the time to read for leisure: Joan Didion’s Run River, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, and V.S. Naipaul’s Miguel Street were particular favorites. I read relatively few books published this year, but those that stand out were G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen, Zadie Smith’s NW, and Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton (about which I have an essay coming out soon.) I also read and admired Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel, which tells the story of Henry James’s best-known work. This is not a traditional biography; instead, it shows us the writer at work on a single book: how he came to write it, how it relates to other books of the period, and how it was revised many years later.

I have no resolutions for 2013, save for the usual: to write, to read and learn, and to get better at what I do.


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