Archive for the ‘literary life’ Category

The Moor’s Account Book Tour

Saturday, August 16th, 2014

seattlereading09

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

Share/Bookmark

How Not To Write A Novel

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Google yourself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted to Twitter on June 2.

A Grand Unified Theory of Writers’ Desires

Tuesday, May 20th, 2014

mcescherhands

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

MFA & POC

Wednesday, May 7th, 2014

VONA-2004

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

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

So what was the problem?

Oh just the standard problem of MFA programs.

That shit was too white.

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

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

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

L. A. Times Festival of Books

Thursday, April 10th, 2014

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

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

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

In Conversation with Dinaw Mengestu

Sunday, March 23rd, 2014

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

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

I hope to see you there.

New Anthologies, Spring 2014

Sunday, March 9th, 2014

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

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

The Chronicles of the Veil

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

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

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

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

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

You can read the rest of the essay here.

(Photo credit: ArabGlot)

The Moor’s Account: September 2014

Saturday, November 23rd, 2013

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

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

A Cottage of One’s Own

Saturday, July 20th, 2013

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

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

Bright Lights, Small City

Sunday, October 28th, 2012

I have been back at home in Santa Monica for a few days now, but I feel as though I’m still under the spell of the magical time I spent in Marfa. I brought back a kind of energy that still surrounds and propels me, and I wonder if it has something to do with the size of the place. All my life, I’ve lived in big cities: Rabat, London, Los Angeles. But Marfa is a small town in west Texas, with a population of 2,100. Although the Lannan Foundation had graciously lent me a car for the duration of my stay, I walked everywhere I needed to go, whether to the post office, the bookstore or the farmer’s market. Everyone waved hello; everyone was friendly; everyone invited me to the Friday night football game; and everyone was a little mystified that writers go on these things called ‘residencies.’

I did attend Marfa High School’s friday night game. There were only six players on each team, instead of eleven, but the stadium lights shone just as bright. Six-man football, I was told, was the only variant that could be played in such a small town. The Marfa Shorthorns did very well that night, beating the Sanderson Eagles with a score of 55-42. But I was no closer to understanding or even really enjoying the game. (Like all Moroccans, I remain a fan of good old football, played with a round black-and-white ball.) What I enjoyed instead was watching an entire community come together to cheer and support its children.

Above is a picture of my desk. This is where I spent the better part of my time last month, working on my novel. I listened to classical music—Brahms and Rachmaninov were favorites—but I did not mind the unusual sounds of an unfamiliar place. Freight trains, which run through the center of Marfa, blew their horns several times during the day. A murder of crows roosting on the tree in the front yard kept me company in the afternoon. There were also neighborhood dogs. None of them were tethered, and I had to overcome my fear of small canines whenever I stepped out. But I loved, especially, the wild and fearless turkey who visited me from time to time. Maybe it was all this unfamiliarity that gave birth to the energy I brought back with me to the metropolis.

On Los Angeles

Wednesday, 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?

Wednesday, 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

Tuesday, 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)

On Annawadi

Thursday, 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.

Common Readings

Sunday, 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.

Known/Unknown Stories

Tuesday, 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.

Greg Mortenson and the Business of Redemption

Wednesday, 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.

3QD Arts & Literature Prize 2011

Monday, 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.








Black, White and Read All Over

Friday, November 5th, 2010

Perhaps the most consistent irony about our mass media is that it’s curated, edited, customized, or otherwise filtered to such a degree that it is not mass at all. We hear only the news that is meant for us, and we scarcely stop to think about the news we’re not hearing. The recent mid-term elections seemed to me to be basically about different news being created for the benefit of different communities. It’s tempting to think of this as a thoroughly modern phenomenon, a by-product of the speed with which news circulates these days. But my recent foray into old travelogues and historical fiction has really shown me that the way we receive and interpret the news hasn’t changed very much. Take Beloved, for instance. (I’ll be using this book in one of my classes next quarter, which is why it came to mind.) Late in the novel, Toni Morrison writes about how two different racial communities in nineteenth-century Cincinnati perceive and interpret a very specific piece of news. The scene takes place about two-thirds of the way into the novel, when Paul D., a former slave, finds out a secret about Sethe, the woman he loves. Stamp Paid is the man who brings the press clipping (with this secret) to Paul:

Paul D. slid the clipping out from under Stamp’s palm. The print meant nothing to him so he didn’t even glance at it. He simply looked at the face, shaking his head no. No. At the mouth, you see. An no at whatever it was those black scratches said, and not to whatever it was Stamp Paid wanted him to know. Because there was no way in hell a black face could appear in a newspaper if the story was about something anybody wanted to hear. A whip of fear broke through the heart chambers as soon as you saw a Negro’s face in a paper, since the face was not there because the person had a healthy baby, or outran a street mob. Nor was it there because the person had been killed, or maimed or caught or burned or jailed or whipped or evicted or stomped or raped or cheated, since that could hardly qualify as news in a newspaper. It would have to be something out of the ordinary—something whitepeople would find interesting, truly different, worth a few minutes of teeth sucking if not gasps. And it must have been hard to find news about Negroes worth the breath catch of a white citizen in Cincinnati.

There is some back-and-forth as Stamp tries to convince Paul D. to look at the article about Sethe in the paper, even as he’s trying to justify for himself why no one warned Sethe that a slave catcher was headed toward her house.

Stamp Paid looked at him. He was going to tell him about how restless Baby Suggs was that morning, how she had a listening way about her; how she kept looking down past the corn to the stream so much he looked too. In between ax swings, he watched where Baby was watching. Which is why they both missed it: they were looking the wrong way—toward water—and all the while it was coming down the road. Four. Riding close together, bunched-up like and righteous. He was going to tell him that, because he thought it was important: why he and Baby Suggs both missed it. And about the party too, because that explained why nobody ran on ahead; why nobody sent a fleet-footed son to cut ‘cross a field soon as they saw the four hourses in town hitched for watering while the riders asked questions. Not Ella, not John, not anybody ran down or to Bluestone Road, to say some new whitefolks with the Look just rode in. The righteous Look every Negro learned to recognize along with his ma’am’s tit. Like a flag hoisted, this righteousness, telegraphed and announced the faggot, the whip, the fist, the lie, long before it went public.

Some pay attention only to what’s in the newspaper, to declarations from police officials and accompanying pictures; others have to keep their ears trained on the noises coming from the road, and then ‘telegraph’ them elsewhere. The juxtaposition is so skillfully weaved into the scene that I didn’t notice it the first time I read it. (Nor did I realize that the character of Sethe was based on a real-life runaway slave, who attracted the attention of Ohio newspapers because of what she had done. One of the reasons I really enjoyed re-reading the book was because of all the things I’m noticing now that I didn’t notice years ago.)

Photo credit: Alfred Eisenstaedt/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

The Half-Known World

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

So far this year, I’ve read thirty-four books—novels, memoirs, biographies, academic stuff—but only one book on the craft of writing. I don’t really like how-to books on fiction, because too many of them come equipped with check lists of things you should do in order to write. But this particular book was great: The Half-Known World, by Robert Boswell. It’s a collection of essays that address different aspects of writing and, for me at least, offer a few new ways of looking at literary fiction. The title essay, for instance, makes an excellent argument against knowing everything about a particular character or world.

It should be no surprise that the fully known worlds presented on television and in commercial movies are populated by stereotypes. To call a character a type is to say that he’s so true to a group of characters that he is indistinguishable from all the others in that group. Here’s another definition of stereotype: any character that is fully known.

I met Boz in 2006, at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, where I was a fellow and he was my faculty mentor. (He was smart, funny, and generous, and I will forever be grateful to him.) The lecture he delivered at the conference that year was called “Process and Paradigm.” It’s included in this collection. So if you’re looking for a good book on craft, try this one. It’s good.

In Morocco

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

I am reading Edith Wharton’s travelogue In Morocco, which was published in 1920 (and which I believe has fallen out of print.) It is an amazing exemplar of what would later be called Orientalism–with musings about “Eastern laziness,” the “fatalism” of the people, the “grave clothes” that serve as attire, the “tortuous soul” of the land, and so on. A visit to the souk gives her the impression of “a draped, veiled, turbaned mob shrieking, bargaining, fist-shaking, calling on Allah to witness the monstrous villainies of the misbegotten miscreants they are trading with.” In contrast, she is full of praise for her host, General Lyautey (who served as Governor General) and his government. The French endeavor to keep the trails “fit for wheeled traffic,” they are “asked to intervene” to save antiquities, and at all times they show “respect for native habits [and] native beliefs.” What strikes me about these contrasts is not that they are outmoded, but rather the opposite: the same images, the same tropes are still to be found in travel writing or reportage about Morocco today. The book is turning up to be quite useful for a piece I’m doing on writing about Morocco (I know, I know, it’s very meta.)

Photo: Edith Wharton Restoration/New York Times

Race and Disgrace

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010

At a dinner party in London a few years ago, I was once again professing my admiration for the work of Coetzee when a writer I had just met interrupted to say that he thought Disgrace was a racist novel. When I asked him what could have led to such a bleak assessment, he replied that no black character in the book is complex and that the novel gives a pessimistic view of the new, post-apartheid South Africa. To bolster his claim, he cited Coetzee’s self-imposed exile from the country as a clear indicator of lack of faith in its future. This was the first time I had heard that argument, but it certainly wasn’t the last; it came up in an email conversation with another friend very recently.

I think that this charge of racism is tied specifically to the scene in which three unknown black men attack the farm where Lucy, Professor Lurie’s daughter, lives and works. Lurie is locked in the bathroom while his daughter is raped. In this life-changing moment, Lurie thinks:

He speaks Italian, he speaks French, but Italian and French will not save him here in darkest Africa. He is helpless, an Aunt Sally, a figure from a cartoon, a missionary in cassock and topi waiting with clasped hands and upcast eyes while the savages jaw away in their own lingo preparatory to plunging him into their boiling cauldron. Mission work: what has it left behind, that huge enterprise of upliftment? Nothing that he can see.

It is easy to see how a quick reading of that passage can lead to the kind of charge my friend was making: there is that phrase, ‘darkest Africa;’ there is the image of the missionary in the cauldron; there is the choice of ‘lingo’ instead of ‘language’; and there is the questioning of the benefit of the mission civilisatrice. Some readers might see this as proof of racism, but I think the problem with this interpretation is that it ascribes to J.M. Coetzee the point of view of David Lurie.

In Disgrace, Coetzee uses a third-person limited point of view, so the thoughts we are reading are Lurie’s. And Lurie is very much an apartheid-era man, someone who believes that European colonization of Africa served the larger, nobler goal of ‘civilizing’ the natives. The rape of his daughter further solidifies his views, however ignorant or incorrect they may be. But in fact Coetzee subverts the narrative of ‘black sexual predators’ much earlier on, when he presents us with an identical, inverted story. Notice, for instance, that the professor refuses to acknowledge that he has assaulted Melanie, who, we are told, is a woman of color (“Meláni, the dark one.”) When Lurie forces himself upon Melanie, he describes the scene as “not rape, not quite that.” Again, the use of the third-person limited point of view allows us to see that Lurie forgives himself for the sexual assault while at the same time he is outraged at his daughter’s fate. These complexities are, I think, what make the novel a subtle and compelling portrait of the cyclical nature of power and violence.

Photo: Still from the film adaptation of Disgrace. Credit: Fortissimo Films. I haven’t seen the film yet, but I am not sure if it can capture the subtlety of the novel.

Whitening Creams, Sammy Sosa, and The Bluest Eye

Monday, January 18th, 2010

Last Friday, the New York Times ran a story about skin-whitening creams, which contain harmful steroids, but are nonetheless widely available on the market. Of course, the marketing material for these creams doesn’t use words like “whitening.” Instead, a range of euphemisms is preferred, particularly in the United States—euphemisms such as “brightening” and “clearing” and “evening out.” But when I visited Asia and certainly in places like Morocco, I’ve seen these creams advertised with the more blunt term of “whitening.” One was called “White Perfect.” The article has a pretty shocking photo montage of baseball player Sammy Sosa, before and after treatment.

All this reminded me of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, which I am teaching this term in one of my classes. The book is a meditation on aesthetics, beauty, and the pervasiveness of a “white aesthetic,” in which white skin equals beauty and black skin does not. It’s also a deep look at what this type of uniformly available aesthetic does to the psyche of the little girl Pecola. One of the reasons I quite like this book is that it is frank and fearless in its exploration of aesthetic preferences, something that is often, whether consciously or unconsciously, silenced in literature.

(Image source: Fun with Dick and Jane.)

Gaza Footnotes

Monday, December 28th, 2009

Yesterday marked the one-year anniversary of Israel’s air-, land- and sea-invasion of Gaza, which resulted in the loss of more than 1,400 lives. In Sunday’s Los Angeles Times, David Ulin reviews Joe Sacco’s long-awaited new book, Footnotes in Gaza, which is about a nearly forgotten massacre in in Rafah and Khan Younis. Here is a small excerpt:

Throughout the book, Sacco shows how much and how little things have changed by the use of what we might call time-fades: paired images that evoke a scene in the 1950s, followed by the same scene in the present day. The most striking of these comes at the climax of his account of the Khan Younis killings, in which he offers side-by-side illustrations, the first showing bodies piled against “the ruins of the 14th century castle, which now forms one side of the town square,” the second featuring the same castle half a century later, its walls festooned with handbills and graffiti, cars in a crowded row where the bodies once had been. Time marches on, Sacco means to tell us, and the past is only prologue if we pay attention to what it says. Yet even in a place so bound up by history, “[w]hat good would tending to history do . . . when [people] were under attack and their homes were being demolished now?”

You can read the review in full here. An excerpt from the book appeared on Mondoweiss this weekend.

Photo: Oregonian

The East, the West, and Pamuk

Thursday, December 24th, 2009

In the most recent issue of the London Review of Books, Adam Shatz reviews Orhan Pamuk’s new novel, The Museum of Innocence, providing a more skeptical, cool-headed view of Pamuk’s work than what we’ve been accustomed to so far. Here is the opening paragraph:

Who could resist the charms, or doubt the importance, of a liberal, secular, Turkish Muslim writing formally adventurous, learned novels about the passionate collision of East and West? Orhan Pamuk is frequently described as a bridge between two great civilisations, and his major theme – the persistence of memory and tradition in Westernising, secular Turkey – is of a topicality, a significance, that it seems churlish to deny. His eight novels, the most recent of which, The Museum of Innocence, has just appeared in English, perform formal variations on that theme. Though his work fits into a Turkish tradition most closely associated with the mid-20th-century novelist Ahmet Tanpinar, one needn’t know anything about Tanpinar, or even about Turkish literature, to appreciate Pamuk, who writes in the Esperanto of international literary fiction, employing a playful postmodernism that freely mixes genres, from detective fiction to historical romance. Much of Pamuk’s fiction reads like a homage to his Western models: Mann, Faulkner, Borges, Joyce, Dostoevsky, Proust and – in The Museum of Innocence, the tale of a doomed, obsessional love affair between a man in his thirties and an 18-year-old shop girl – Nabokov. Indeed, his affection for the European tradition is as crucial to his appeal as his Turkishness, and his books pay tribute to values deeply embedded in the liberal imagination: romantic love freed from the fetters of tradition; individual creativity; freedom and tolerance; respect for difference.

You can read the piece, in its entirety, at the website of the London Review.

Photo credit: Martin Godwin/Guardian

In Auggie’s Smoke Shop

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

The Guardian has published a gallery of twelve beautiful pictures, which accompany a new edition of Paul Auster’s famed “Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story.” The story first appeared in the New York Times in 1990, and has been reprinted many times since. You can listen to Paul Auster read it on NPR. And of course the character of Auggie Wren appears in another Auster production, the film Smoke, which starred Harvey Keitel.

Illustration: ISOL/Faber and Faber

Failures of the Left

Monday, December 7th, 2009

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine wrote to tell me how impressed he had been by a lecture on the challenges of social democracy that Tony Judt gave at New York University. Fortunately, the text of this talk is now available at the New York Review of Books. Here is a small excerpt

But my concern tonight is the following: Why is it that here in the United States we have such difficulty even imagining a different sort of society from the one whose dysfunctions and inequalities trouble us so? We appear to have lost the capacity to question the present, much less offer alternatives to it. Why is it so beyond us to conceive of a different set of arrangements to our common advantage?

Our shortcoming—forgive the academic jargon—is discursive. We simply do not know how to talk about these things. To understand why this should be the case, some history is in order: as Keynes once observed, “A study of the history of opinion is a necessary preliminary to the emancipation of the mind.” For the purposes of mental emancipation this evening, I propose that we take a minute to study the history of a prejudice: the universal contemporary resort to “economism,” the invocation of economics in all discussions of public affairs.

For the last thirty years, in much of the English-speaking world (though less so in continental Europe and elsewhere), when asking ourselves whether we support a proposal or initiative, we have not asked, is it good or bad? Instead we inquire: Is it efficient? Is it productive? Would it benefit gross domestic product? Will it contribute to growth? This propensity to avoid moral considerations, to restrict ourselves to issues of profit and loss—economic questions in the narrowest sense—is not an instinctive human condition. It is an acquired taste.

You can read the lecture in full here.

New Darwish Translation

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

A few weeks ago, when I heard that Farrar, Straus and Giroux was publishing a new volume of Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry, I was thrilled. But I was also a little disappointed that such recognition would come after his passing. (Darwish has been published in the United States before, of course, though never by a major commercial press.) The book is called If I Were Another, and it is translated by Fady Joudah.

“If I Were Another” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) presents long poems from the latter part of Mr. Darwish’s career—the only part that the poet, persistently self-critical, regarded as “mature.” These “lyric epics,” drawn from four collections, weave together many settings and voices. An elegy for the author’s father is followed by a polyvocal poem spoken by birds; a series on Andalusia, by the monologue of a Native American.

You can read more on the book at Speakeasy, the WSJ‘s book blog. Joudah previously translated the lovely volume The Butterfly’s Burden, published by Copper Canyon Press.

Quotable: Tim O’Brien

Wednesday, November 11th, 2009

From the title story in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried:

First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey. They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack. In the late afternoon, after a day’s march, he would dig his foxhole, wash his hands under a canteen, unwrap the letters, hold them with the tips of his fingers, and spend the last hour of fight pretending. He would imagine romantic camping trips into the White Mountains in New Hampshire. He would sometimes taste the envelope flaps, knowing her tongue had been there. More than anything, he wanted Martha to love him as he loved her, but the letters were mostly chatty, elusive on the matter of love. She was a virgin, he was almost sure. She was an English major at Mount Sebastian, and she wrote beautifully about her professors and roommates and midterm exams, about her respect for Chaucer and her great affection for Virginia Woolf. She often quoted lines of poetry; she never mentioned the war, except to say, Jimmy, take care of yourself. The letters weighed ten ounces. They were signed “Love, Martha,” but Lieutenant Cross understood that Love was only a way of signing and did not mean what he sometimes pretended it meant. At dusk, he would carefully return the letters to his rucksack. Slowly, a bit distracted, he would get up and move among his men, checking the perimeter, then at full dark he would return to his hole and watch the night and wonder if Martha was a virgin.

  • Twitter

  • Category Archives

  • Monthly Archives