I have been battling with every ounce of my strength the urge to respond to Martin Amis’s latest comments on Muslims. I have succumbed to that urge before, mind you, but not this time. Instead, I offer you, gentle reader, a quote from James Baldwin.
[I]ndeed, within this web of lust and fury, black and white can only thrust and counter-thrust, long for each other’s slow, exquisite death; death by torture, acid knives and burning; the thrust, the counter-thrust, the longing making the heavier that cloud which blinds and suffocates them both, so that they go down into the pit together. Thus has the cage betrayed us all, this moment, our life, turned to nothing through our terrible attempts to insure it. For Bigger’s tragedy is not that he is cold or black or hungry, not even that he is American, black; but that he has accepted a theology that denies him life, that he admits the possibility of his being sub-human and feels constrained, therefore, to battle for his humanity according to those brutal criteria, bequeathed to him at birth. But our humanity is our burden, our life; we need not battle for it; we need only to do what is infinitely more difficult–that is, accept it.
Excerpted from “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” reprinted in Notes of a Native Son.
As I mentioned a few days ago, Words Without Borders has asked me to lead a book club discussion of Camara Laye’s The Radiance of the King. My first post is already up on their site. Here’s how it starts:
When my friend Mark Sarvas introduced his book club discussion of Sándor Márai’s The Rebels, he wrote that “as an American of Hungarian descent, taking on Márai was an obvious and overdue choice for me.” I confess to a very similar bias in my own choice. When I was presented with a list of books to pick from, I naturally gravitated to a novel by a fellow African, in this case Camara Laye, whose Radiance of the King I had not read before. Generally speaking, African authors who write in French, or indeed in any of the native languages of Africa such as Gikuyu or Berber or Swahili, are not nearly as known or read in the United States as those who write in English. So the opportunity to discuss Camara Laye was also an opportunity for me to invite readers to consider a different African book and a different African author than those with whom they may already be familiar.
Camara Laye was born in 1928 in Kouroussa, a small village of Guinea, which at that time was under French occupation. He attended Qur’anic school as well as elementary school in his village, but moved to Conakry, the capital, in order to continue his education. In 1947, he moved to Paris to attend engineering school. His experience of double dislocation—from his village to the city, from Guinea to France—appears to have inspired in him a deep nostalgia for home. His first novel, the semi-autobiographical L’Enfant noir (usually translated as The Dark Child), was published in 1953, and was met with a mixture of admiration and hostility: Admiration for Camara’s storytelling skills, and hostility for his depiction of an idyllic village childhood at a time when the country was under colonial rule. These reactions remind me of those reserved for Moroccan novelist Ahmed Sefroui’s La Boîte à merveilles, published in 1954, and which also depicted a happy childhood under/despite French rule. Some scholars today may consider both novels ethnographic works, while others may emphasize the tribute they pay to ways of life later disrupted by French rule.
You can visit the book club area for the rest of this entry, and to post some comments.
One of the advantages of being on vacation is that, despite having brought my laptop with me, I did not keep up with the news. So until I came back, I had been unaware that riots had ignited in the suburb of Villiers-le-Bel in France, following the deaths of two teenagers of North African and West African descent; that there had been a circus at Annapolis, in which nothing was achieved (well, except for Mahmoud Abbas getting to try on the local haberdashery); that the Sudanese government was using a stupid teddy bear to divert attention from the killings in Darfur; and that my beloved Tangier lost its bid to host the 2012 World Expo.
(The above picture is from Glass Beach in Kauai.)
The December 10 issue of The Nation magazine is its annual Fall Books issue, so it’s a particular delight for those of us who like to read books, and read about them, too. There are pieces on Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah, Paul Krugman’s The Conscience of a Liberal, Philip Roth’s Exit Ghost, among many others.
The magazine also includes an essay of mine about the headscarf controversies in France. It’s called “Beyond the Veil.” Here is its opening paragraph:
“A kind of aggression.” “A successor to the Berlin Wall.” “A lever in the long power struggle between democratic values and fundamentalism.” “An insult to education.” “A terrorist operation.” These descriptions–by former French President Jacques Chirac; economist Jacques Attali; and philosophers Bernard-Henri Lévy, Alain Finkielkraut and André Glucksmann–do not refer to the next great menace to human civilization but rather to the Muslim woman’s headscarf, which covers the hair and neck, or, as it is known in France, the foulard islamique.
In her keenly observed book The Politics of the Veil, historian Joan Wallach Scott examines the particular French obsession with the foulard, which culminated in March 2004 with the adoption of a law that made it illegal for students to display any “conspicuous signs” of religious affiliation. The law further specified that the Muslim headscarf, the Jewish skullcap and large crosses were not to be worn but that “medallions, small crosses, stars of David, hands of Fatima, and small Korans” were permitted. Despite the multireligious contortions, it was very clear, of course, that the law was primarily aimed at Muslim schoolgirls.
The rest of the article is freely available online, here.
We are leaving for a week’s vacation in Hawaii tomorrow (in fact, I should probably be packing instead of blogging.) Last night, while choosing which books to take with me, I ended up pulling out Joan Didion’s essay “In The Islands,” which was published in her collection The White Album. The opening paragraph reads:
1969: I had better tell you where I am, and why. I am sitting in a high-ceilinged room in the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu watching the long translucent curtains billow in the trade wind and trying to put my life back together. My husband is here, and our daughter, age three. She is blonde and barefoot, a child of paradise in a frangipani lei, and she does not understand why she cannot go to the beach. She cannot go to the beach because there has been an earthquake in the Aleutians, 7.5 on the Richter scale, and a tidal wave is expected. In two or three minutes the wave, if there is one, will hit Midway Island, and we are awaiting word from Midway. My husband watches the television screen. I watch the curtains, and imagine the swell of the water.
The bulletin, when it comes, is a distinct anticlimax: Midway reports no unusual wave action. My husband switches off the television set and stares out the window. I avoid his eyes, and brush the baby’s hair. In the absence of a natural disaster we are left again to our own uneasy devices. We are here on this island in the middle of the Pacific in lieu of filing for divorce.
Isn’t this the best of Didion, and the worst? The precise adjectives, the varied syntax, the parallel between natural and personal calamity–any writer would envy her those qualities. (I know I do.) And yet, the paragraph also has the worst of her, doesn’t it? Did you really need to know that she stays in a “high-ceilinged room” at the expensive Royal Hawaiian Hotel? The best and worst compete with each other for the rest of the essay, and yet of course I felt compelled to finish it, and read the best sentences out loud to my husband.
I have an essay titled “Why I Write,” in the Dutch literary magazine Nexus. I wrote this piece last spring in Casablanca, at the invitation of editor Rob Riemen, who wanted a piece on the subject of childhood dreams–you can easily guess what my dream was. The essay was translated into Dutch by Ineke van der Burg. I haven’t submitted the essay anywhere in the States yet (maybe if I stopped traveling so much…) but maybe someday the original English-language edition will appear somewhere. For those of you who read Dutch, the table of contents is available here, and you can purchase a copy here.
Words Without Borders, the wonderful organization that brings you literature in translation, recently started an online book club. I’ve linked before to the conversations: Mark Sarvas discussing Sándor Márai’s The Rebels and Michael Orthofer talking about Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s Mandarins.
I mention all of this again because, next month, I will be doing the book club discussion on Camara Laye’s The Radiance of the King, translated from the French by James Kirkup. If you’re interested, why not get the book at your local bookstore, or borrow it from your library? You have a couple of weeks before the conversation starts. I haven’t read the novel yet myself–I am taking it with me when I go on vacation later this week, and will savor it then. Once I have something up on the WWB website, I’ll mention it in this space as well, so you can take part in the conversation.
I will be taking part in a reading tonight at the Los Angeles Public Library to honor the victims of the bombing of Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad last year. I will be reading two brief poems (one by Mutanabbi himself, one by Darwish) in the original Arabic, followed by English translations. My wonderful UCR colleague Chris Abani will read, as will Beau Beausoleil, Suzanne Lummis, Marisela Norte, Sholeh Wolpe, and Terry Wolverton. Please come.
The new issue of Bookforum is now available, and it includes a review by Siddhartha Deb of J.M. Coetzee’s new novel Diary of a Bad Year. In the U.K., where the book first appeared, the reviews have been mixed, but this early piece here in the U.S. is just lovely. Here is its concluding paragraph:
The books have all been short, the language deceptively simple, but Coetzee’s recurrent themes have been no less than the vital signs of a culture, one possibly in its death throes. Diary of a Bad Year may be his most successful diagnosis yet of what we are suffering from, one that even offers hope in the form of resistance, critical thought, and the odd, imperfect humanity that emerges in the story of Anya and Señor C. In other writers, such hope would appear trite, but we know that Coetzee is no sentimentalist. His humanism has always been hard-won, wrested from those early lessons in authoritarianism and opposition, and this brilliant novel shows how much better prepared Coetzee is than many Western writers to come to terms with our new age.
When I was in Europe earlier this fall I was frustrated to see that the Italian translation of the novel was already published while we here in the U.S. had to wait until January. Another six weeks to go!