‘Among the Republicans’

August 30th, 2012

The Republican National Convention is getting a lot of attention in the press this week, but for me the best essay about it so far comes from… 1984. That was the year V.S. Naipaul traveled to Dallas, Texas, to write about the RNC for the New York Review of Books. He captures not the just the absurdities of political theater, but also the kind of detail that might seem at first insignificant but resonates deeply afterward.

That year, the benediction that followed Ronald Reagan’s acceptance speech was given by the famous pastor W.A. Criswell. Here is Naipaul:

Dr. Criswell, working up to his Judgment theme, spoke of homosexuality. His language was direct. No euphemisms; no irony; no humor. He was earnest from beginning to end. He moved about on the platform and sometimes for a second or so he turned (in his white suit) to face his red-gowned choir.

“In our lifetime we are scoffing at the word of God…and opening up society and culture to the lesbian and sodomite and homosexual…and now we have this disastrous judgment…the disease and sin of AIDS….”

AIDS, on the first Sunday after the Republican Convention, and in that voice of thunder! But if you thought about it the topic wasn’t so unsuitable. There was something oddly Biblical (though Dr. Criswell didn’t make this particular point) about AIDS, which struck down buggers and a special kind of black and spared everybody else.

“God is like his LAWS!” Dr. Criswell thundered. “There are laws everywhere. Laws of fire, laws of gravity.”

From this idea of Judgment and the laws (two distinct senses of “laws” run together) Dr. Criswell moved on to Karl Marx. A bugger? Only metaphorically. Karl Marx had his place in this sermon as a nineteenth-century atheist. Dr. Criswell gave Marx’s dates but said little about the heresies: in this auditorium Karl Marx was just his demonic name, and it was enough. Karl Marx wasn’t dead, Dr. Criswell said (or so I understood him to say: the theology was a little difficult for me). Karl Marx was still alive; Karl Marx would die only on the great Judgment Day.

You can update the language a bit, remove certain turns of phrase that now seem offensive, replace Marx with a certain Kenyan Socialist Crypto-Muslim, but otherwise it’s all there: fiery sermons, accusations of being “soft,” and even endorsements by former leftists. You can read the essay in full here.

Photo credit: Nobel Prize website.

Midsummer Days

August 3rd, 2012

And now, suddenly, it’s August. The last few weeks have gone by in a blur. I’m reading a lot, though, mostly on history. I recently finished Bernal Díaz’s The Conquest of New Spain, an eyewitness account of Hernan Cortés’ conquest of Mexico. (Warning: not for the faint of heart!) I also enjoyed Hassan al-Wazzan’s Description of Africa, a fascinating narrative by the famed Moroccan diplomat of his travels in northern Africa in the early sixteenth century. And I’ve just started Patrick French’s biography of V.S. Naipaul—some wonderful revelations about the writer here, though it does nothing to change my opinion about the man. Other than that, I’m working on my novel, of course, as usual, as ever, and trying to get ready for my residency in Marfa.

Travels in New Mexico

July 13th, 2012

Ghost Ranch

I’ve just returned from Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I spent a wonderful week with my family. The picture above was taken outside Ghost Ranch, in the small town of Abiquiu, about 50 miles north of Santa Fe. In the distance, you can see Cerro Pedernal, the flat-topped mountain that Georgia O’Keeffe spent years and years painting.

In the mountains not far from Abiquiu, we also came across an adobe mosque. It was designed by the Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy in the late 1970s and is adjacent to an educational center and retreat.

Dar Al Islam

The landscape near Santa Fe is spectacular. We did some hikes in Bandelier National Park, but the big surprise this time was Plaza Blanca, pictured below.

Plaza Blanca

On Islamophobia

June 15th, 2012

The Nation

Samar Ali is a lawyer, an activist, a White House fellow, and a public servant who was recently appointed by Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam to serve on his Economic and Community Development office. However, because Ms. Ali is Muslim, Tea Partiers are pressuring the governor to drop the hire, accusing her of being a “financial jihadist.” (The same group staged protests against the building of a mosque in Murfreesboro.) Though this kind of story may seem odd and even ridiculous, it’s becoming more common, which is why The Nation‘s special issue on Islamophobia is so timely. I contributed a piece about how anti-Muslim sentiment is often denied or dismissed. Here’s how the piece starts:

Thirty years ago, no one outside the halls of academe had heard of Islamophobia. Yet today it is virtually impossible to open a newspaper without encountering either the term or an argument against its use. The word began to appear in print in the late 1980s, when Muslims in Western countries—people of starkly different racial and ethnic backgrounds—began to notice similarities among their experiences with hate, intimidation or discrimination. But almost from the start, there was a parallel effort to discredit this neologism: it was assailed as a fiction, at best the product of a culture of victimhood and at worst a very dangerous myth. Thus we have Islamophobia and “Islamophobia,” one with currency on the left side of the political spectrum and the other a common target of the right.

You can read my essay in full here.

Quotable: Toni Morrison

June 3rd, 2012

Morrison

Earlier this week, Toni Morrison was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a ceremony in the White House. In his remarks, Barack Obama mentioned that he read Song of Solomon not just to learn how to write, but also “how to be.” Song of Solomon is one of my favorite of Morrison’s novels. And it struck me that it often uses repetition as a stylistic device, which is something that Obama does a lot in his speeches. So I thought I’d excerpt two short paragraphs from the book, both of which use repetition masterfully. Here is a passage from early on in the book, describing Macon Dead’s car:

In 1936 there were very few among them who lived as well as Macon Dead. Others watched the family gliding by with a tiny bit of jealousy and a whole lot of amusement, for Macon’s wide green Packard belied what they thought a car was for. He never went over twenty miles an hour, never gunned his engine, never stayed in first gear for a block or two to give pedestrians a thrill. He never had a blown tire, never ran out of gas and needed twelve grinning raggle-tailed boys to help him push it up a hill or over to a curb. No rope ever held the door to its frame, and no teenagers leaped on his running board for a lift down the street. He hailed no one and no one hailed him. There was never a sudden braking and backing up to shout or laugh with a friend. No beer bottles or ice cream cones poked from the open windows. Nor did a baby boy stand up to pee out of them. He never let rain fall on it if he could help it and he walked to Sonny’s Shop–taking the car out only on these occasions. What’s more, they doubted that he had ever taken a woman into the back seat, because rumor was that he went to “bad houses” or lay, sometimes, with a slack or lonely female tenant. Other than the bright and roving eyes of Magdalene called Lena and First Corinthians, the Packard had no real lived life at all. So they called it Macon Dead’s hearse.

The repetition of the adverb “never” obviously emphasizes how little use Macon Dead makes of the car, but it also informs us about the multiple uses other people in his community might have made of it. Halfway through, the switch from “never” to “no” highlights the fact that the car, like its owner, lacks a certain essence, a kind of vitality. All of which leads us to its funny, and appropriate, nickname: “Macon Dead’s hearse.”

Now, toward the end of the novel, Macon Dead’s son returns to Montour County to learn more about his deceased grandfather, who was also named Macon Dead. And, here, Toni Morrison uses the same device, but for the opposite effect. This is a description of the farm that the elder Macon owned:

A farm that colored their lives like a paintbrush and spoke to them like a sermon. “You see?” the farm said to them. “See? See what you can do? Never mind you can’t tell one letter from another, never mind you born a slave, never mind you lose your name, never mind your daddy dead, never mind nothing. Here, this here, is what a man can do if he puts his mind to it and his back in it. Stop sniveling,” it said. “Stop picking around the edges of the world. Take advantage, and if you can’t take advantage, take disadvantage. We live here. On this planet, in this nation, in this county right here. Nowhere else! We got a home in this rock, don’t you see! Nobody starving in my home; nobody crying in my home, and if I got a home, you got one too! Grab it. Grab this land! Take it, hold it, my brothers, make it, my brothers, shake it, squeeze it, turn it, twist it, beat it, kick it, kiss it, whip it, stomp it, dig it, plow it, seed it, reap it, rent it, buy it, sell it, own it, build it, multiply it, and pass it on–can you hear me? Pass it on!”

Though the sentence starts familiarly with the repetition of “never,” it doesn’t speak of what never happens, but of what people should never mind happening. It isn’t about absence, it’s about presence and power. And then other syntactic forms are repeated: the demonstrative (“this nation, this county”) and the imperative (“take it, hold it”), for instance, to emphasize that power. The beauty of the two passages is how, through the description of two simple possessions, the car and the farm, we get two portraits of two very different Macon Deads.

Photo credit: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

On Los Angeles

May 16th, 2012


The most recent issue of Newsweek includes a piece I wrote about the city of Los Angeles. Here’s how it starts:
I came to Los Angeles with a suitcase full of books and shoulder pads stuffed with cash. It was 1992, just a few months after the infamous riots, and I was about to start graduate school at the University of Southern California, near the epicenter of the unrest. One of my professors advised me against coming here—I don’t remember exactly what he said, but the substance of his message could be summarized in three words: Drugs! Guns! Violence! I had been warned so often about muggings that I decided to sew some bills inside the shoulder pads of my jacket. I didn’t know a single soul here.

You can read the rest of the piece on the website of Newsweek.

(Photo credit: Garry Winogrand, Los Angeles International Airport, 1964)

Who Should Have Won the Pulitzer?

May 9th, 2012

On April 16, the Pulitzer Prize Board announced that there were three finalists for the award in fiction, but no winner—a decision that sparked an outcry in some parts of the literary community. The three finalists were The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace; Swamplandia! by Karen Russell; and Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson. Each book had many vocal supporters, who were understandably upset at seeing their favorite be passed over—and not for another book, but for no book at all.

So the New York Times Magazine asked eight critics and writers, including me, to write about the books they would have chosen for the prize. You can read about our choices here. And you can chime in with your own here.

I Want Your Vote

April 24th, 2012

vote.jpg

I want your vote! And the best part is this: I won’t make you, the voter, any promises I can’t keep. Actually, I won’t make you any promises at all. The editors of World Literature Today have chosen my essay “So to Speak” as one of their five favorites of the past decade. Here is how it begins:

Not long ago, while cleaning out my bedroom closet, I came across a box of old family photographs. I had tied the black-and-white snapshots, dog-eared color photos, and scratched Polaroids in small bundles before moving from Morocco to the United States. There I was at age five, standing with my friend Nabil outside Sainte Marguerite-Marie primary school in Rabat; at age nine, holding on to my father’s hand and squinting at the sun while on vacation in the hill station of Imouzzer; at age eleven, leaning with my mother against the limestone lion sculpture in Ifrane, in the Middle Atlas. But the picture I pulled out from the bundles and displayed in a frame on my desk was the one in which I was six years old and sat in our living room with my head buried in Tintin and the Temple of the Sun.

You can read the essay in full here and, if you like it, you can vote for it here.

(Photo credit: Getty Images)

Event: L.A. Times Festival of Books

April 20th, 2012

The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books is this weekend. It’s one of my favorite weekends of the year—there’s something for every kind of reader, plus lots of great food and music. I’ll also be doing a panel on Sunday; here are the details:

3:30 pm
Fiction: Conflicting Identities
Panel with Dana Johnson, Laila Lalami, Nina Revoyr, and Antoine Wilson
Los Angeles Times Festival of Books
Annenberg Auditorium
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, California

So come on by and say hello. And don’t forget to wear sunscreen.

On Annawadi

April 19th, 2012

My review of Katherine Boo’s amazing book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, appears in the latest issue of The Nation. Here is an excerpt:

During the year I spent in Casablanca, I noticed that slums were discussed in the press almost exclusively with the vocabulary of pathology. The karian were “dangerous.” They were places that “tainted” the city and had to be “eradicated.” One journalist called them “a gangrene”; another urged a “hunt for the slums.” The language became even more antagonistic after a failed terrorist attack in March 2007, when it was revealed that one of the suicide bombers, like those who had attacked the city four years earlier, had come from the slum of Sidi Moumen. I remember vividly a television reporter shoving a microphone in a woman’s face in Sidi Moumen and demanding to know why “your” youths did what they did.

I tell you all this because I want to explain why Katherine Boo’s first book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, struck me with the force of a revelation. Unlike other reporters, who come to the slums in brief and harried visits, only when they have news to report or statistics to illustrate, Boo, a staff writer at The New Yorker, has chosen to chronicle the lives of slum-dwellers in the Indian city of Mumbai by spending more than three years with them, patiently listening to them talk about their aspirations, their struggles and their dilemmas.

Here is one dilemma, all the more disturbing for its banality. Fatima Sheikh, a crippled woman, lies on a bed in Burn Ward Number 10 at Cooper Hospital in Mumbai, an IV bag and a used syringe sticking to her skin. Abdul Hakim Husain, the teenager who is accused of pouring kerosene over Fatima’s body and setting it alight, is in the custody of officers from the Sahar Police Station. After assessing the situation, Asha Waghekar, a part-time schoolteacher and full-time fixer, makes what she deems a very fair offer: Abdul Hakim’s parents can pay her 1,000 rupees and she will persuade Fatima to drop the charges.

You can read the full review here, and you can subscribe to The Nation here.

Event: Chicago

April 14th, 2012

Hello, readers! I’ll be taking part in a panel discussion at the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago on Monday. I’ll be talking about protest movements in Morocco. Details are pasted below:

6:00 PM
Arab Spring: Unfoldings, Refoldings
Panel discussion with Laila Lalami and Ahmed El Shamsy
Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago
Chicago, Illinois

This will be my first time doing an event in Chicago. If you’re in the area, please come by and say hello!

Quotable: Driss Chraïbi

April 8th, 2012

Five years ago this week, Moroccan literature lost one of its greats, the novelist Driss Chraïbi. I wanted to post a short excerpt from Le Passé Simple, his first novel and perhaps the most widely studied of his works. It tells the story of a young man who violently rebels against the edicts of his father, a tea merchant from Mazagan. When it was published in 1954, Le Passé Simple created a huge controversy in Morocco. The country was still in the midst of its struggle for independence. Many Moroccan intellectuals didn’t look kindly on a book that virulently criticizes traditional Moroccan modes of living and ends with the main character leaving for France, and, as a final act of goodbye, uses the bathroom on the airplane, in the hope that “every drop falls on the heads of those I know well, who know me well, and whom I despise.” In France, the reaction was quite the opposite; the book was quite well reviewed, perhaps serving as “proof” that Morocco needed France’s civilizing influence.

But Le Passé Simple is much more than a simple cry of revolt. Yes, it is full of anger at the father character (referred to throughout as “Le Seigneur,” that is, “The Lord”); at the treatment of women; at the teaching in Quranic schools; at the hypocrisy of Moroccan society; and so on. But there are also moments of tenderness for both the father and the mother, for books, for the joys of teenage life. There is a strong emphasis on the powerlessness of silence and fear–the mother is silent, the children are silent–and so, necessarily, on the power of the word. It’s a beautifully written novel, with moments of great lyricism.

Un après midi, j’ai fait l’école buissonnière sans m’en rendre compte. J’ai erré dans les rues , siffloté avec les oiseaux, suivi le vol des nuages. Finalement, je me suis perdu. Une vieille femme m’a rencontré, m’a embrassé, m’a donné deux sous. J’ai mis la pièce dans une boîte d’allumettes vide ramassée quelque part.

Vers le soir, je vis une silhouette connue qui venait à ma rencontre à grandes enjambées. Ce n’était autre que mon digne et respecté père. Le règlement de compte, entre lui et moi, se fit, à mes dépens, en trois actes.

ACTE Ier: Nous passâmes rassurer le maître d’école. Afin de profiter d’une si bonne occasion de se démontrer le dévouement qu’il s’acharnaient à avoir l’un pour l’autre (selon les traités verbaux jurés bilatéralement le jour de mon inscription) mon père me bascula en l’air et le maître cingla la plante de mes pieds une bonne centaine de fois. Nous prîmes Camel au passage et allâmes tous trois a la maison.

ACTE II: Rentrés chez nous, après maintes explications, les salamalecs et pleurs de soulagement de ma mère, la même scène que tout à l’heure recommença, mais avec un léger correctif. Ce fut maman, trop heureuse de voir, qui maintint mes jambes et mon père qui fit tournoyer le bâton. Une demi-heure durant.

ACTE III: Les pieds en sang, je me jette dans les bras de ma mère, largement ouverts et consolateurs. Mon père n’admet pas de faiblesse, nous corrige tous en conséquence, et sort en claquant les portes. Nous restons, là, Camel, ma mère et moi, à nous lamenter comme des pleureuses juives.

EPILOGUE: Plus tard, je me souviens, je souris, je pêche dans ma poche la boîte d’allumettes, l’ouvre et montre ce qu’elle contient. J’ai quand même gagné deux sous dans ma journée.Maman les serre précieusement dans sa ceinture et m’embrasse.

I don’t own an English translation of the book (and I believe the one that was published some years ago by Counterpoint is out of print.) But here is my translation of the passage, for your enjoyment:

One afternoon, I skipped school, without realizing it. I wandered in the streets, whistled away with the birds, followed the flight of the clouds. Eventually, I got lost. An old woman saw me, kissed me, gave me two cents. I put the coin in a matchbox I picked up somewhere.

Toward evening, I saw a familiar figure coming toward me in large strides. It was none other than my dignified and respected father. The settling of accounts, between us, was done at my expense in three acts:

ACT I: We stopped by to reassure the schoolteacher. My father and the teacher used this opportunity to demonstrate the devotion they continued to have for one another (according to the verbal treaties sworn bilaterally on the day of my registration). My father tipped me up and the teacher whipped the soles of my feet a good hundred times. Then we picked up Kamal and went all three of us to the house.

ACT II: Once at home, after many salams, explanations, and cries of relief from my mother, the same scene unfolded anew, but with a slight change. It was my mother, too happy to see me, who held my legs and my father who used the stick. For half an hour.

ACT III: My feet bloody, I throw my self in my mother’s arms, open and consoling. My father does not admit a weakness, and therefore corrects all of us by leaving, slamming the doors behind him. We remain there, Kamal, my mother and me, moaning like Jewish funeral criers.

EPILOGUE: Later, I remember, I smile, I fish out of my pocket the matchbox, open it and show what it contains. I have, after all, earned two cents that day. Maman carefully ties them inside her belt and kisses me.

Chraibi lived in France and didn’t return to Morocco for many, many years. But he wrote other novels; Morocco got its independence; life went on. When he returned in early 1985, attitudes, too, had changed. University and high school students, many of whom were engaged in organizations that opposed the regime, had a completely different attitude to his work. (The influential magazine Souffles defended his work in a long article, too. ) In the end, he became the prodigal son.

Photo credit: MarocCulture

Morocco: The Story of a Return

April 3rd, 2012

The latest issue of Newsweek magazine includes an essay I wrote about returning to Morocco in February, one year after the protests began. Here is how the piece opens:

One afternoon in February, a few hours after I arrived in Casablanca from Los Angeles, I learned that my uncle A., a generous man with a troubled soul, had died. I was putting my shoes on with one hand and checking my phone with the other, already running late for a panel discussion at the Casablanca Book Fair, when I saw the message. I was stunned, not just by the news of his death—he was only 73, after all, and although he suffered from diabetes, he was otherwise healthy—but by the realization that I had missed his funeral.

In the Muslim tradition, a body is interred as soon as possible after death. The hospital notified our family of A.’s passing a little after midnight; by morning, he was already washed, shrouded, and prepared for funeral prayers; by lunchtime he was buried at Martyrs’ Cemetery in Rabat, Morocco’s capital city. Because I had silenced my phone, and because I had slept through my jet lag, I had found out about his death only after he had been laid to rest.

To be an immigrant is to live a divided life—a part of you lives in one country, the other part in another. You speak two languages, read two sets of newspapers, hear the conversations of two nations. You learn to dread the moments when the two worlds come together abruptly—like when your phone rings in the middle of the night. Twice already I have had to find out in this way about the death of a loved one. This time, I was in Morocco, but I had somehow managed to be as absent as if I had remained in America.

You can read the essay in full on the website of Newsweek.

Breaking the Silence

March 16th, 2012

On Tuesday, Moroccans tweeters began expressing their outrage at a tragic fait divers that was published in the newspaper Al Massae: a Moroccan teenager killed herself after being forced to marry her rapist. I joined the discussion on Twitter, but I soon noticed that, though well-intentioned, some of the tweets, comments and articles that followed contained inaccuracies and contradictions about the case. I was also enraged at those who preferred for the news to disappear because it’s “shameful.” So I’ve written about the case for the Daily Beast; here is how the piece opens:

“Moroccan Girl Kills Herself After Judge Forces Her To Marry Her Rapist.” This horrific headline, or some version of it, spread from Twitter to traditional news outlets around the world earlier this week. Using the hashtag #RIPAmina, people voiced their outrage and disbelief, and called for a reform of Article 475 of the Moroccan penal code, which was said to enable rapists. But preventing this tragedy from happening again isn’t simply a matter of legal reform. It’s a matter of how cases of rape are handled by Moroccan society at large.

You can read the rest of the piece at the Daily Beast.

Return from the Enchanted Kingdom

February 28th, 2012

Thank you to all those who came to my panel discussion at the Casablanca Book Fair last week. (Or has it already been two weeks? I’m so tired I can’t think straight.) As usual, the fair was absolutely packed with publishers from all over Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, as well as readers of all ages, including grade-school children. But, again as usual, the signage was poor, so it took me a little while to find the right booth. The event itself was a success, though, and I had a wonderful time.

I spent the rest of the week in Rabat, visiting family and catching up on news from the past year. Several friends have written me to ask what I think about the “political situation,” as the euphemism goes. I have to say I’m not very optimistic, given the economic downturn in Morocco and the continuing social discontent. But I’ll write in greater detail about all this very soon.

Event: Casablanca

February 14th, 2012

A quick post to let you know that I will be at the Casablanca Book Fair this Thursday. Here are the details:

February 16, 2012
5:40 PM
Ecrits d’Amérique
Stand du CCME
Salon du Livre
Rue Tiznit, Face à la Mosquée Hassan II
Casblanca, Morocco

If you are in the area, do stop by and say hello! (I am told the event will be in French.) I should also be at the Dar America booth at 3:30 pm, if you’d like to meet me and get your book signed.

Some News

February 9th, 2012

In my last blog post, I talked about how I’ve been having a hard time with my new novel. I don’t like to complain about my novel–really, who needs more whining from a writer? But that week had been particularly brutal. Now, though, I’ve heard some lovely news, and I thought I’d share that with you too. I’ve been awarded a Lannan Residency Fellowship by the Lannan Foundation for next fall. What this means is that I will finally have that most precious of things: uninterrupted time to work on my book. The fellowship really could not have come at a better moment, so thank you to whoever nominated me for this!

I neglected to mention that, last month, the Guardian asked a few writers, including me, to reflect on the uprisings in the Arab world, one year later. And I also have an essay about Percival Everett’s new novel in this week’s Nation. (The article is only available to subscribers, but you can subscribe to the magazine here, for as little as $10.)

One last thing. Over the last few weeks, I’ve had to contend with several hacking attacks on my website. (As if I didn’t have enough craziness in my life.) So I’ve had to do a few upgrades to security, and I got myself a new design as well, thanks to the brilliant people at Being Wicked. If you’re looking for great web designers, hire them. They’re amazing.

Mental Health Break

January 17th, 2012

I’ve just returned from Death Valley, where I went to decompress a bit after a particularly rough writing week. There’s something about the landscape there that resonates with me—it’s topographically diverse and incredibly peaceful. If you stand still for a moment, you can hear complete silence. Here is a picture of Titus Canyon early in the morning.

Farther down the trail in Titus Canyon:

Then there are the salt flats at Badwater Basin:

A cottonwood tree in Grapevine Canyon:

Ubehebe Crater:

And, lastly, Mustard Canyon:

Quotable: Junot Díaz

January 10th, 2012

Yesterday was the start of the winter quarter at UC, and, as a warm-up exercise for my first class, I used this writing prompt: “an affair has been discovered.” The point is to get students to think about who is telling the story (the cheater? the cheated-upon, the cheated-with?), the details of the discovery (how was the affair revealed? a nosey neighbor? a jealous husband?), the purpose of the story (is it a simple confession? a plea for forgiveness? a justification? a piece of gossip one character shares with another?), and its intended recipient (a priest? a divorce lawyer? one of the people involved in the affair?). These kinds of choices can have a significant effect on the shape of the narrative. A great example is Junot Díaz’s story “The Sun, The Moon, The Stars”:

I’m not a bad guy. I know how that sounds—defensive, unscrupulous—but it’s true. I’m like everybody else: weak, full of mistakes, but basically good. Magdalena disagrees. She considers me a typical Dominican man: a sucio, an asshole. See, many months ago, when Magda was still my girl, when I didn’t have to be careful about almost everything, I cheated on her with this chick who had tons of eighties freestyle hair. Didn’t tell Magda about it, either. You know how it is. A smelly bone like that, better off buried in the back yard of your life. Magda only found out because homegirl wrote her a fucking letter. And the letter had details. Shit you wouldn’t even tell your boys drunk.
The thing is, that particular bit of stupidity had been over for months. Me and Magda were on an upswing. We weren’t as distant as we’d been the winter I was cheating. The freeze was over. She was coming over to my place and instead of us hanging with my knucklehead boys—me smoking, her bored out of her skull—we were seeing movies. Driving out to different places to eat. Even caught a play at the Crossroads and I took her picture with some bigwig black playwrights, pictures where she’s seen smiling so much you’d think her wide-ass mouth was going to unhinge. We were a couple again. Visiting each other’s family on the weekends. Eating breakfast at diners hours before anybody else was up, rummaging through the New Brunswick library together, the one Carnegie built with his guilt money. A nice rhythm we had going. But then the Letter hits like a Star Trek grenade and detonates everything, past, present, future. Suddenly her folks want to kill me. It don’t matter that I helped them with their taxes two years running or that I mow their lawn. Her father, who used to treat me like his hijo, calls me an asshole on the phone. “You no deserve I speak to you in Spanish,” he says. I see one of Magda’s girlfriends at the Woodbridge Mall—Claribel, the ecuatoriana with the biology degree and the chinita eyes—and she treats me like I ate somebody’s kid.
You don’t even want to hear how it went down with Magda. Like a five-train collision. She threw Cassandra’s letter at me—it missed and landed under a Volvo—and then she sat down on the curb and started hyperventilating. “Oh, God,” she wailed. “Oh, my God.”
This is when boys claim they would have pulled a Total Fucking Denial. Cassandra who? I was too sick to my stomach even to try. I sat down next to her, grabbed her flailing arms, and said some dumb shit like “You have to listen to me, Magda. Or you won’t understand.”

Here, the narrator begins with a pre-emptive defense (“I’m not a bad guy”). But he is aware that this defense itself might be incriminating (“I know how that sounds”), so he provides some justification for his actions as well (“I’m weak.” “I”m like everybody else.”) Then he gives his girlfriend’s opinion, which he ties to a stereotypical view of all Dominican men—a clever way of giving us Magdalena’s side of the story while also retaining our sympathy. This very delicate balance is maintained for the remainder of the story, when the narrator, Yunior, takes Magdalena with him to Santo Domingo, where they try to patch up their relationship and where, of course, nothing goes as planned.

The story originally appeared in The New Yorker and was anthologized in Best American Stories 1999.

Photo credit: Blogamole.

On Sexual Harassment

January 6th, 2012

It’s strange how a memory comes back to haunt you when you least expect it. Last month, I heard about the death of an independence activist and labor-rights advocate in Morocco, and, while everyone I knew was mourning his passing and praising his legacy, I could only think about my encounter with him in an office in Casablanca, years ago. At the time, I was working as a correspondent for a local newspaper and I had gone into the office to do some paperwork. I ran into a friend and we struck up a conversation; this famous man joined us, and eventually my friend left and I was left alone with him in the office.

He sat down on a chair by the open window. It was a bright day in July, and the air was already thick with heat and the smell of car exhaust from the street. He asked me whether the rumor he had heard was true, that I was leaving to go to grad school. “Yes,” I said, “I’m leaving next month.” Peering at me over the rim of his glasses, he said it would be a loss for the newspaper, that I should reconsider. He himself wrote for the newspaper frequently. “You can do your graduate thesis with me,” he said. I had completely forgotten he was a university professor; I knew him mostly through his writing and his activism. I said politely that I already had a project I wanted to work on with a professor I liked in California.

All of a sudden, he grabbed my wrist, and told me to sit on his lap. “No!” I said. “Come on, just for a minute. Sit on my lap.” “No,” I said and pulled my wrist out of his hand. I felt such a confusing mix of emotions: shock and fear, of course, but also horror that this man I admired so much could do such a thing. I was twenty-two; he was old enough to be my father. I walked out of the office and went home that day, but I don’t believe I ever told anyone, at work or at home, about this. Sexual harassment was so prevalent that complaining about it was like complaining about bad weather. Besides, even if I had spoken about this, I would have been the one blamed, not him.

I debated whether to write about this. The man is dead. What does it matter what I think of him? But this happened around the same time as the Herman Cain scandal, when the women who came forward were called “whores” and “sluts” by Cain’s supporters. And I realized that silence is what binds all these men together. Silence is what they count on, what allows them to continue.

Refund UC

November 27th, 2011

The last few weeks have been difficult but also instructive for me, both as an educator and as a citizen. I’m a professor at the University of California—the best public university system in the nation— and have of course been following news of its funding crisis. I’ve written about it here and here, and for The Nation here. Throughout all this, I’ve wanted to believe that, though we had different ideas and opinions, the administration, the faculty, the staff, and the students essentially had a common goal: refunding the university, so that it can fulfill its mission of public education.

But when the chancellor of UC Berkeley sends campus police and Alameda county sheriffs to beat and then chase students, faculty, and staff from a space in which they had peacefully gathered—a space, it must be noted, which was built for these very people—I have to question that belief. And when a police officer nonchalantly pepper sprays seated protesters, and the chancellor of UC Davis claims, in spite of visual evidence to the contrary, that such police action was justified, I have to reject that belief.

President Yudof says that he’s “appalled” by images of violence against students and that he’s committed to protecting “the rights of our students, faculty & staff to engage in non-violent protest.” But he has taken no decisive action. Instead, he’s put former LAPD chief William Bratton in charge of a “fact-finding” mission.

Here are a few facts. Right now, I have students who are forced to drop out because they can’t afford their tuition. I have students who borrow money at rates they cannot possibly afford in order to finish their degrees, setting themselves up for a lifetime of debt. My department shares staff with three other departments, which means that our staff have three times the workload for the same pay. The phones on our floor were removed last year as a “cost-cutting measure.” I could go on and on. And the UC Regents’ answer? They are looking at a plan that would raise tuition by as much as 16% annually, for a cumulative total of 81% (yes, 81%) over 4 years.

And it would appear that our administration doesn’t mind replacing state funds with student tuition, because state funds come with restrictions (e.g. they have to be used for instructional purposes only) whereas student tuition can be used for anything (e.g servicing debt.) So students will be paying much more money, but they won’t necessarily see a proportional improvement in their classroom experiences. What the current Regents’ plan shows is that, in fact, we—administration, faculty, staff, students—may not all share a common goal; we may not all believe in the virtues of higher public education.

The students make up the majority of the university community. They are what gives the university its raison d’être. What a shame that they are the ones being made to carry the full cost of disinvestment.

Dichotomy

November 20th, 2011

There is a passage in John Cheever’s “Goodbye, My Brother” that has always haunted me. (The story, which originally appeared in The New Yorker, can be found in The Stories of John Cheever. It’s narrated by a middle-aged high school teacher, an optimistic and unreflecting man. The setting is a family home on the shore of a Massachusetts island, where the narrator’s mother and siblings get together for a summer holiday. Three of the siblings get along reasonably well, but the fourth, Lawrence, is disliked by everyone because of his pessimism. The siblings refer to him, variously, as “Tifty,” “Croaker,” and “Little Jesus.”) Near the end of the story, the narrator tries to talk Lawrence out of his gloominess:

I let him get ahead again and I walked behind him, looking at his shoulders and thinking of all the goodbyes he had made. When Father drowned, he went to church and said goodbye to Father. It was only three years later that he concluded that Mother was frivolous and said goodbye to her. In his freshman year at college, he had been good friends with his roommate, but the man drank too much, and at the beginning of the spring term Lawrence changed roommates and said goodbye to his friend. When he had been in college for two years, he concluded that the atmosphere was too sequestered and he said goodbye to Yale. He enrolled at Columbia and got his law degree there, but he found his first employer dishonest and at the end of six months he said goodbye to a good job. He married Ruth in City Hall and said goodbye to the Protestant Episcopal Church; they went to live on a back street in Tuckahoe and said goodbye to the middle class. In 1938, he went to Washington to work as a government lawyer, saying goodbye to private enterprise, but after eight months in Washington he concluded that the Roosevelt administration was sentimental and he said goodbye to it. They left Washington for a suburb of Chicago, where he said goodbye to his neighbors, one by one, on counts of drunkenness, boorishness, and stupidity. He said goodbye to Chicago and went to Kansas; he said goodbye to Cleveland and come East again, stopping at Laud’s Head long enough to say goodbye to the sea. It was elegiac and it was bigoted and narrow, it mistook circumspection for character, and I wanted to help him. “Come out of it,” I said. “Come out of it, Tifty.”

I have seemingly nothing in common with Lawrence, not even this tendency to say goodbye to everyone and everything. And yet the impulse behind his saying goodbye is one that I recognize, one that I have lived with and struggled with for many years. I think it comes from expecting so much from oneself, from others, from the world in general, which is nothing if not a guarantee of disappointment. But I also have moments when I identify with the narrator, who seems to enjoy the life he has—he swims, plays tennis, goes to a party with his wife, and generally tries to have a good time—without expecting anything else. By the end of “Goodbye, My Brother,” the narrator lashes out at Lawrence, who leaves the island. Only then does the narrator reflect:

Oh, what can you do with a man like that? What can you do? How can you dissuade his eye in a crowd from seeking out the cheek with acne, the infirm hand; how can you teach him to respond to the inestimable greatness of the race, the harsh surface beauty of life; how can you put his finger for him on the obdurate truths before which fear and horror are powerless? The sea that morning was iridescent and dark. My wife and my sister were swimming — Diana and Helen — and I saw their uncovered heads, black and gold in the dark water. I saw them come out and I saw that they were naked, unshy, beautiful and full of grace, and I watched the naked women walk out of the sea.”

One brother is consumed with obsessive rumination; the other is after constant gratification. One is given to despair; the other to hope. One lives in the past; the other in the present. Perhaps the reason I identify with both is that I see myself in both.

Mysteries of the English Stress System

October 27th, 2011

A couple of weeks ago, Maud Newton linked to a short list of English words Nabokov reportedly found difficult to pronounce. The diacritical marks were meant to help him remember which syllable was to receive stress:

prívet
clématis
bígoted
pólypany
múltiple
cátechism
sólace
péctoral
Botocúdos
málleable
nastúrtium

In high school, I learned English from other non-native speakers (two of them Moroccans, one a Belgian). In college, I had three British professors, but the rest were Moroccan: some spoke with a British accent, others with an American one, depending on where they had done their graduate studies. All this made for a thoroughly confusing mix of regional dialects and foreign accents. So when I moved to London to attend UCL, I was never entirely sure how to pronounce certain words, words I had come across before mostly in print, like incredulous and mandatory, or words with Greek and Latin roots, like anthropomorphic and debilitating. Then there were the baffling exceptions, like Gloucester and Leicester, which didn’t sound at all the way they were written. But eventually, my ear grew accustomed to British English. Then I arrived in Los Angeles. And, oh, the words that gave me trouble! Like delicatessen and Mississippi and coroner and a dozen others. But I always relied on mental diacritics. I never had a list like the one above—a little snapshot of personal history.

Common Readings

September 25th, 2011

Recently, NPR’s Talk of the Nation did a series of segments on “common reads.” (These are programs in which incoming college freshmen in the U.S. are required to read the same book over the summer holiday and then discuss it in their first few classes.) Popular selections this year include The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, The Other Wes Moore, and Guns, Germs, and Steel, among others.

Now, I didn’t do my undergraduate studies in the United States, so I had no idea what “common readings” were until Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits was selected for the Life of the Mind program at the University of Tennessee, back in 2006. Over the course of three days, I visited the campus, spoke to several classes, and gave a public lecture. Since then, I’ve done quite a few common readings, the most recent of which was earlier this week at Wingate University in North Carolina, where first-year students (a term I much prefer to “freshmen”) read Hope. I always find it fun to talk to younger students about the book; they always have the most interesting (and often unusual!) questions.

Photo credit: Ibarionex Perello. This was taken at a reading at the now defunct Dutton’s Books.

End of Summer

September 10th, 2011

The weather was wonderfully hot in Santa Monica all of last week, as if to reassure me that I could hold on to summer for a little while longer. But today it’s noticeably cooler, and there is a chance of thunderstorms. The quarter at UC will be starting in just a couple of weeks. Part of me is excited about the prospect of being on campus again–there’s such a great energy the classroom. But part of me still wants to hold on to summer, and to my long days of reading and writing.

Speaking of writing, I have a short story this week in the Guardian. It’s called “Echo,” and is part of a series on 9/11 fiction that also features the work of Geoff Dyer, Kamila Shamsie, and Helon Habila. (I know that, by now, you must all be sick of hearing about 9/11 reading lists, or 9/11 photographs, or 9/11 retrospectives. But this story doesn’t even mention 9/11. Really. Have a read!)

In other news, I also received in the mail this week copies of the Granta Book of the African Short Story, where “Homecoming,” one of the stories from my collection, is reprinted. I’m amazed at how much love Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits continues to get, even this many years after its publication. (I wish I could tell my younger self, when she was receiving rejection after rejection for that particular story, that someday its time would come.)

And if fiction isn’t really your cup of tea, you can also find me in The Nation, discussing Moroccan “exceptionalism.” For now, I have to start getting ready for fall: syllabi, reading lists, and sensible shoes.


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