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.

Industrio Ad Infinitum

August 2nd, 2011

I haven’t posted much on the blog lately, mostly because the last few weeks have been extraordinarily busy. I wrote about press freedoms for Newsweek, music festivals in Morocco for Foreign Policy, and the enduring mythology of Tangier for Time. I also reviewed Leila Ahmed’s new book, A Quiet Revolution, for the Los Angeles Times. And in between writing all of this, I went on holiday for a week. But things should be settling down now. (I hope.)

Fiction and Love

June 13th, 2011

Not long ago, I found myself having green tea with an old acquaintance who works in the book business. We were chatting about recently published novels—what was good, what wasn’t—when I suddenly realized that I had never heard him say he loved a book. What I mean is that he often praises some book or other, but he also tempers every bit of praise with a lot of criticism. When we parted, I was left with a lot of his opinions on current fiction, but they didn’t create in me any desire to read the books he’d mentioned.

There are so many novels I love and reread every chance I get—Coetzee’s Disgrace and Waiting for the Barbarians; Toni Morrison’s Beloved and The Bluest Eye; Jose Saramago’s Blindness, etc. But of course these books are not faultless. The perfect book, like the perfect person, is a matter of theory, not reality. Perhaps, I thought, this man is afraid to love books. Love requires you to consider faults and inadequacies and to accept them, along with everything else.

Known/Unknown Stories

May 31st, 2011

One of the books I’ve discussed with my creative nonfiction students this quarter is Zeitoun, Dave Eggers’ compelling account of Abdulrahman Zeitoun’s attempts to help fellow New Orleans residents stranded by Hurricane Katrina, Zeitoun’s eventual incarceration on charges that were never revealed to him, and his wife’s attempts to have him released. Because the book focuses on one individual’s subjective experience, it offers a version of the cataclysmic events in New Orleans that is radically different from the one we’ve seen on our television screens or read about in newspapers. (Remember, for instance, the babies-being-raped-in-the-Superdome story? Or the looting-gangs-roaming-the-streets-of-the-city story? Both false.)

Not long after we had wrapped up our discussion of Zeitoun, it was announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed in Pakistan. The news was covered uninterruptedly on our televisions and radios, in print and online. And yet I couldn’t help but wonder which details of the official story would change. A few, as it turned out. Bin Laden used his wife as a human shield, then he didn’t. He had a gun, then he didn’t. He resisted capture, then he didn’t. He was buried according to Islamic tradition, then he wasn’t. We may never really know what happened in Abbottabad a month ago, or maybe we will, many years from now, when the details of the story will no longer hold so much value—political, personal, mythological—for those who are telling it.

Photo credit: The Zeitoun Foundation.

University of California: Is This The End?

May 23rd, 2011

Have you ever used an Apple product? Have you ever seen pictures of the surface of Venus or Mars? Have you ever watched The Godfather trilogy? Have you ever read Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The Year of Magical Thinking, Salvador, or The White Album? If you’ve answered yes to any of these questions, then you’ve benefited from the kind of contributions—in the arts and in the sciences—that the University of California makes every day to its state and to the nation. Apple was co-founded by Steve Wozniak; planetary exploration pictures are made possible by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, whose director is Charles Elachi; The Godfather was directed by Francis Ford Coppola; Slouching Towards Bethlehem was written by Joan Didion; all four of these innovators and artists are UC alumni.

But the University of California is now being slowly dismantled, and its mission of public education perverted, thanks to the budget cuts it has had to absorb over the last few years. My friend and colleague Tom Lutz, who teaches at UC Riverside, and who was, until last week, the chair of the Creative Writing program, has written a letter to explain what the cuts mean to you, the average Californian (or the average American.) With his permission, I am posting it on this page. I urge you to read it and to distribute it widely:

Dear colleagues and students,

After a year and a half as Chair of the department, I am stepping down. Professor Andrew Winer will be taking my place, for which we should all be grateful.

As my last act as Chair, I would like to share with you my sense of the gravity of the situation we face. I spent most of my academic career doing what most of us do—teaching, writing, reading graduate applications and theses, having office hours, reading in my field, doing research. I didn’t pay much attention to the University and its administration. None of us have that luxury anymore. Budget cuts after budget cuts after budget cuts have left us all painfully aware of how the sausage is made, or not made.

Having served in administrative posts for most of the last five years, I have come to know the budget issues very well. We are now past the tipping point. We are on a rapid downhill slide that will have profound effects for our state, our families, our country, and our world.

In the space of less than a single lifetime, the University of California, Riverside went from being a small agricultural experiment station to being one of the top 100 universities in the world. An incredibly dense and elaborate web of specialists across all fields of scholarship, science, and the arts was developed, and it took enormous efforts by thousands of people over those years to make it happen. In less than the four years it used to take to graduate, it is being destroyed.

Our department is a great example of the breadth of vision and dogged effort that has made Riverside the exceptional place it has been. There are other creative writing programs in the country, but not a single one anywhere with the range across genres and fields, with the breadth of knowledge in world literatures, with the diversity of voices, methods, and styles that we have. And there is not another creative writing program anywhere—and certainly none with our caliber of professors—that is more truly dedicated to its pedagogical mission at every level. The faculty at Princeton is perhaps a bit more famous, but undergraduates there never meet them, much less have access to them in, before, and after class. I have now taught at every kind of school—fancy elite universities, small colleges, Big 10 universities, art schools, and universities abroad. I have never been part of a faculty this student-centered, this concerned about the educational experience and future prospects of its undergraduate and graduate students.

Three years ago I was offered a job at USC, which is much closer to my house, more prestigious as an academic address, and was offering me more money. UCR worked hard and did the best it could to match the salary and I stayed. I stayed because I wanted to be part of this project, I wanted to teach a student body that is over 85% first-generation college students, that comes not from the richest families in California but some of the poorest, students that have a much greater likelihood than not of coming from immigrant families and from families that speak other languages as well as English. I wanted to remain part of one of the greatest democratic experiments in history, and certainly one of the few greatest experiments in public education in the history of the human race, the University of California.

If I got that offer today, though, I’m not sure I could turn it down, and, in fact, many people are not turning down outside offers these days. People who have taught here for more than twenty years are now considering going somewhere else, somewhere the future is a bit more certain. These are people who are the best in their field—you don’t get outside offers unless someone thinks you are among the best in your field—and UCR, and the educational experience at UCR, is diminished each time this happens, each time one of the best of our best leaves for a better job. We can’t blame them—they have kids of their own to put through college, they have research projects that require funding, they know that to teach the most complex subjects effectively, they need to run seminars with 15 students sitting around the table, not 150.

The budget cuts of recent years and the ones we know for certain are coming next year mean a gross deterioration of our school. Those faculty who leave for better jobs are not being replaced. Many of you know Yvonne Howard, who has been the chief administrator for our department since it was founded. This year her job was unceremoniously terminated. Staff people and faculty who retire are not being replaced. Next year students at UCR will have trouble getting the classes they need, and many of the classes they get will be crowded beyond responsible limits. Departments are being forced to abandon optimal class-size limits for classes two, three, and five times that size. The library has virtually stopped buying books. We are on a race to become a mediocre university at best, and if the $500 million of proposed cuts to UC turn into a billion dollars, as they are now discussing in Sacramento, we will be over. The billion dollar cut translates into thousands of classes across the system. It means creative writing workshops with 50 students. It means we will cease to be a real university, and will simply become another community-college-level institution at best. Then, maybe, after a few years, with tuition at $25,000 or $30,000 a year, we can begin the slow, arduous build back into a real university.

Why is this happening? Political demagoguery and corruption. Thirty years ago UC received 9% of the state budget and prisons 3%. Now UC gets 3% and the prison-industrial complex gets 9%. The legislature is taking the money that should be used to educate the best of its citizens and using it enrich the people who make a profit from the imprisoning the poorest. The percentage of the cost of higher education provided by the state has been cut in half, cut in half again, and is on the verge of getting cut in half a third time. The people in the legislature understand the value of public higher education—the vast majority of them (in any given year over 80%) have degrees from our state system, and many of them have multiple degrees—all made possible by the legislators who preceded them, and who had more courage. They do not protect the University for a very simple reason: if they do, they will suffer a flow of conservative attacks and Tea Party racism, funded by the Koch brothers and their ilk, the standard price if one stands up for anything that is directly devoted to the commonweal.

In my darkest moments, I think the monied interests working against reasonable taxation are doing so because they consciously, actively seek to make sure we do not have an informed, educated citizenry, the better to extract our collective labor and wealth unimpeded. But such intentionality isn’t necessary. Simple, short-sighted, grab-it-now, bottom-line greed explains their destruction of our culture, without recourse to any dystopian conspiracies.

The only thing that has a chance of turning this devastation around is student activism. We in higher education cannot spend millions of dollars on campaign contributions the way the prison profiteers or the medical and insurance and aerospace industries do, so we need to find other ways to provide a political counterweight. We need to make our voices heard. For you students, your own self-interest should be the catalyst, as you will, no matter what happens this year, have trouble finding the classes you need, much less the ones you want, and the chance you will graduate in a reasonable amount of time is already gone. But you should also think of what this means for your families, your neighbors, your friends, your own kids when they come of age. And think what it means if California reduces its higher education budget to the levels of Missouri or West Virginia—we will become like those places. Because of its education system, a system that, until just a few years ago, has always been considered the best in the country, California has been among the most innovative and significant literary and cultural centers in the country, and because of this education system, too, California has been the economic powerhouse it has been—1000 research and development companies a year are formed out of the UC system, for instance, and four UC inventions a week are presented to the patent office. We had the best educational system because we were willing to pay for it, and our expenditures were among the highest in the nation, too. In a few short years we have dropped into the middle in state spending, and we are fast falling even farther. Only a political movement strong enough to buck the corporate money determining our tax policy can change this downward spiral. Only you can make that happen.

We have been told, from the top, not to expect a return to ‘the glory days.’ This year was not the glory days. This year we already have discussion sections that are not discussions, fewer classes, an exploded faculty/student ratio, decimated staff; we are very far from the glory days. Now that either 500 million or 1 billion additional dollars are getting yanked out of the system, your favorite lecturer will be gone. The class you wanted won’t exist anymore. Your student advisor will have 800 or 1000 students to advise instead of the 300 we all agreed was an absolute maximum two short years ago. This is the end of quality. And why? Because a few very wealthy people are protecting their wealth from taxes, taxes considered reasonable not only everywhere else in the developed world, but considered reasonable in America until the last 20 years.

I hope you get angry. I hope you get active. Call and write your legislators, get out in the streets, take back your university, don’t let yourselves be the last people to have even this chance.

Tom Lutz
Professor and Chair, Department of Creative Writing

You can contact Governor Brown here. And you can find out the contact information for your assembly member here. Write to them and let them know how you feel.

Exile and the Kingdom

April 28th, 2011

I spent last weekend camping in Death Valley. Actually, “camping” isn’t quite the right word for it, since we had an air mattress, pillows, foldable chairs, and—luxury of luxuries—fresh coffee. But we slept in a tent, we went on several hikes, and I didn’t do any work, so that counts for something. I’ve had a hard time coping with being back, though—not just because of the mountain of mail and email that was waiting for me, but because the news lately has been unrelentingly terrible.

Then today, I heard about the bomb at the Argana cafe in Marrakech, in the middle of the day, just when the place was packed with people. The last time I was in Marrakech, in 2007, I had tea at the Argana, which overlooks the famed Jemaa el-Fna square. I remember that, walking out of the cafe late in the day, I was accosted by a soothsayer who insisted on telling me my fortune. The cards, she said, were very good; they were full of promise, and my promise got even better after I tipped her. This was an anecdote I considered amusing, something I might have told friends at dinner, to joke about how a good tip can give you a good future, but today I thought about it and it seemed completely bittersweet to me.

I remember walking around the square and helping an American friend buy her first tagine set. I remember haggling over the price of a carriage ride, which would take my friend out of the square to see the ocher walls of the city. I remember the meloui I had for breakfast on my last day, how the honey on it was laced with the taste of lavender. I remember so much. And then I think how useless my memories are. It was Camus, wasn’t it, who wrote that the sorrow of exiles is to live with a memory that serves no purpose. That is how I feel.

Greg Mortenson and the Business of Redemption

April 20th, 2011

Is there a nobler goal than that of helping young girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan get an education? Greg Mortenson’s memoir Three Cups of Tea has given an unequivocal answer to this question, though this week it has also shown just how unquestioningly people want to believe stories of redemption. Three Cups of Tea tells the story of how Mortenson was nursed back to health by Pakistani villagers after an unsuccessful attempt to climb K2, the world’s second tallest mountain. As a way to repay the villagers’ kindness, Mortenson promises to return to and build a school for the children. The book recounts how the charity he founded, the Central Asia Institute, went on to build dozens of schools in the region.

Three Cups of Tea became an international bestseller, as well as required reading in many schools and colleges in the United States. Mortenson’s charity, the Central Asia Institute, received millions of dollars in donations, including $100,000 from President Obama. But last week, a 60 Minutes investigation revealed that the central anecdote in the book—the author being nursed back to health by Pakistani villagers after being separated from his party—wasn’t exactly true. Though he climbed K2, Mortenson didn’t come across the Pakistani village of Korphe until a year later. And he was not, as the book asserts, kidnapped by the Taliban. More troublingly, some of the schools he claims to have built were never built at all.

The revelations immediately ignited a firestorm of reactions. Readers took to Amazon.com to vent their rage. “Liar, liar, pants on fire,” read one review. “Another huckster, another charlatan. This makes me sick,” read another. They were, understandably, feeling cheated because they were lied to. But perhaps they need to ask themselves why they were so willing to believe this unlikely story in the first place: because Three Cups of Tea offered them a thoroughly familiar paradigm—Eastern women are in need of Western saviors.

Readers who may not know much about the political situation in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, still know, based on images they see on television, that the situation of women is disastrous. Three Cups of Tea reaffirmed that message, and provided a savior in the form of Mortenson. But what about women’s organizations in Pakistan and Afghanistan? Why are they not part of this picture of empowerment of women? These questions are not directly addressed in these kinds of discussions, because, by definition it seems, Afghan and Pakistani women are victims, and not actors in their own lives; they are in need of help from the outside.

The other reason for the popularity of the book is its inspirational message. To a certain extent, it gives American readers a chance to redeem themselves for their government’s disastrous involvement in the region. After all, the drone attacks that the US government has been conducting in the region since 2004 have resulted in untold numbers of civilian deaths—which set back the cause not just of women’s rights, but of human rights in general. By donating money to the Central Asia Institute, people feel that, in spite of the fraught nature of this involvement, at least some good is being done.

The reality, of course, is different. The Central Asian Institute claims to have built 141 schools, but reporters for 60 Minutes found that nearly 15 schools were empty, or used to store hay and spinach, and that 6 of them did not even exist. People who have donated money to this charity have been cheated, and the children who were supposed to have been helped have been forgotten. Perhaps this could have been averted if aid distribution were transparent—but after 14 years of operation the CAI issued only one audited financial statement.

General Petraeus is said to be a fan of the book; he has even inaugurated some of the schools with Mortenson. But why would a charity so shrouded in mystery receive so much support from a military official? Again, the answer lies in the redemptive story the book tells: that the American military is part of the solution to Pakistan and Afghanistan’s problems, rather than one of its causes.

There is no nobler goal than that of helping young girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan get an education. Building schools is great, but they still need to be staffed by trained, local teachers and supplied with materials, which can’t be accomplished without the direct involvement of Pakistanis and Afghans themselves. And at the moment, they seem to be the ones missing from the story of redemption.

Quotable: Miguel de Cervantes

April 11th, 2011

I’ve been thinking lately about the ways in which novelists use prologues or author’s notes to frame the stories they tell, to emphasize particular readings of the novel, to draw attention to stylistic devices they intend to use, and generally to place the book in a specific context. (Think of the foreword to Lolita, for example.) One of my favorites is the prologue of Don Quixote, where Cervantes pleads with the reader to be indulgent toward the story, because it lacks much of what he may expect from other novels of chivalry, and because it is not a fictional story at all but the true history of a knight’s adventures. Cervantes shares his concerns with a friend:

“Because how do you expect me not to be worried about the opinion of that ancient legislator called the general public when he sees that after all this time sleeping in the silence of oblivion, and burdened by the years as I am, I’m coming out with a book as dry as esparto grass, devoid of inventiveness, feeble in style, poor in ideas and lacking all erudition and instruction, without any marginalia or endnotes, unlike other books I see that, even though they are fictional and not about religious subjects, are so crammed with maxims from Aristotle, Plato and the whole herd of philosophers that they amaze their readers, who consider the authors to be well-read, erudite and eloquent men? And when they quote the Holy Scriptures! Anyone would take them for no less than so many St Thomases and other doctors of the Church; and here they maintain such an ingenious decorum that having depicted a dissolute lover on one line they provide on the next a little Christian sermon, a pleasure and a treat to hear or read. There won’t be any of this in my book, because I haven’t anything to put in the margins or any notes for the end, still less do I know what authors I have followed in my text so as to list them at the beginning, as others do, in alphabetical order beginning with Aristotle and finishing with Xenophon and Zoilus or Zeuxis, even though one was a slanderer and the other a painter. My book will also lack sonnets at the beginning or at least sonnets whose authors are dukes, marquises, counts, bishops, ladies or famous poets; though if I asked two or three tradesmen friends of mine, I’m sure they’d let me have some, every bit as good as those written by the best-known poets in this Spain of ours. In short, my dear friend,” I continued, “I have decided that Don Quixote shall remain buried in his archives in La Mancha until heaven provides someone to adorn him with all these attributes that he lacks—I’m not up to it, because of my inadequacy and my scanty learning, and because I’m naturally lazy and disinclined to go hunting for authors to say what I know how to say without them.”

I love how Cervantes so humorously ties every writer’s worry (being found a fraud) with every writer’s ambition (writing a great book that will earn acclaim), and, by so doing, prepares the reader to enjoy his unique book.

Illustration via.

On the War in Libya

April 5th, 2011

I am not sure what to think about the war in Libya—or the intervention, as the preferred term goes these days. The very use of the euphemism gives me pause; the reasons for distorting language (e.g. “enhanced interrogation techniques” in cases of torture) are rarely innocent. The intervention, we are told, was necessary to prevent a massacre. To do nothing would have “stained the conscience of the world,” the President said.

In Tunisia and in Egypt, we have seen successful popular uprisings against dictators, but we have also seen Western governments support Ben Ali and Mubarak to the bitter end. The French government, for example, was still trying to ship tear gas canisters to Ben Ali two days before he fled Tunis. As for the U.S. administration, Joe Biden was insisting, as late as January 27, that Mubarak was “not a dictator.” There was nary a word of protest from the evangelists of democracy when a foreign police force, sent in by the GCC countries and led by Saudi Arabia, crushed the uprising in Bahrain. In all three countries, dictators committed atrocities against demonstrators, but no one seemed to think humanitarian intervention was necessary or urgent. The world’s conscience suffered the stain of 219 deaths in Tunisia, 384 in Egypt, and 30-odd in Bahrain, without comment from the President. It suffered the stain of brutal police repression in Algeria, Morocco, Oman, Syria, and Yemen.

But in Libya, it seemed, things were different. Here the tyrant needed to be stopped and demonstrators needed our urgent help in the form of a No Fly Zone. And so, with hardly any national debate or the approval of our elected representatives, the President committed the country to this new front. Never mind that Nicolas Sarkozy, who is leading this “intervention,” was perfectly happy with Gaddafi a year ago, letting him pitch his tent in the garden of the Hotel Marigny. Now we are supposed to trust Sarkozy to rescue Gaddafi’s victims. Never mind that Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the man who is often heard speaking for the rebels, was part of the Gaddafi government for the last three years. Now we are supposed to believe that Abdul Jalil speaks for the oppressed Libyan people.

You see why I am skeptical. None of these guys inspire confidence: not Sarkozy, not Abdul Jalil, not Obama. And Western military involvement doesn’t seem to have worked out so well in North Africa and the Middle East. But I am still rooting for the Libyan people. In fact, the only pro-”intervention” argument that seems to me to have any merit is this: some Libyans are themselves asking for foreign involvement. (I have Libyan friends who support it.) And ultimately it is their country. They should decide its future.

3QD Arts & Literature Prize 2011

March 21st, 2011

A few weeks ago, the editors of 3 Quarks Daily, the magazine of eclectic online writing, asked me to judge their Arts & Literature Prize. (The prize is in its second year and was judged last year by Robert Pinsky. Prizes have also been offered in the areas of Science, Philosophy, and Politics.)

Nominations for the 2011 Arts & Literature Prize were opened in mid-February, submitted to a vote, and winnowed down to nine finalists earlier this month.

I enjoyed reading the nine entries very much and appreciated especially the wide variety of subjects and genres: book reviews, personal essays, critical essays, an open letter, and a poem. There was a lot of very strong writing but, in the end, I had to choose just three for the prize. You can find out who they are here.









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