Orange Prize Longlist!

March 17th, 2010

Yesterday I was talking about the fact that rejection is just a part of the writer’s life. Well, today I have the opportunity to mention another part of that life: the occasional (and, of course, fleeting) moment of recognition. The Orange Prize longlist for this year has been announced and I am happy to say that my novel, Secret Son, is included. The complete list of longlisted novels can be found on the website for the prize.

On Rejection

March 16th, 2010

It seems I’ve been collecting rejection notices lately. Yesterday’s came from the MacDowell Colony, to which I had applied earlier this year because I wanted to get some writing done in a quiet place, away from home. I had visions of sitting in one of their cozy studios, sipping Earl Grey or Darjeeling or whatever, and composing my newest magnum opus. But that won’t be happening. I’m disappointed, of course, but over the last ten years I’ve learned that rejection is just part of the writer’s life. And I’ve also learned that you can’t really evaluate what a rejection means when it’s just happened; you have to wait to gain some perspective. I remember how disappointed I was to have a story rejected from a particular literary magazine, and now when I think about that I just laugh to myself because that magazine went out of business (and I ended publishing that story elsewhere anyway.) There’s a great book that I often recommend to my grad students when they get discouraged. It’s called Mortification: Writers’ Stories of their Public Shame. One of my favorites is the story that Margaret Atwood tells of giving a reading of The Edible Woman in the men’s sock and underwear section of a major department store.

A Pause, At Last

March 15th, 2010

Last week marked the end of the winter quarter at the University of California, which means I am finally able to take a little break. Actually, it’s a long break, since I am on leave in the spring quarter. I hope to finally have time to focus on my work and find a proper direction for the new book. I’ve been going through a tough time lately—not unhappy, but certainly fraught with all sorts of difficulties and familial worries—and of course it’s affected my work. I’ve been fortunate enough to receive the support of a few friends (and also disappointed in others, but that’s a story for another day.) There’s something about this new novel that’s very different. It takes place at a time and place I’ve never written about before, so there’s the challenge and excitement of that, and it also has an extremely important minor character, and I have to figure out how to do that well.

Reading at Book Soup

March 7th, 2010

I’m back in Los Angeles for a reading at Book Soup. This will be one of only two events that I will be doing in L.A. to promote the paperback launch of Secret Son. Here are the details:

Monday, March 8
7:00 PM
Reading and Signing
Book Soup
8818 Sunset Blvd.
West Hollywood California

If you’re around, stop by and say hello.

Reading in Georgia

March 1st, 2010

I’ve been to Georgia only once before, for a conference when I was in graduate school. I do remember, however, that I kept getting lost in Atlanta because nearly every street was named “Peach.” Peachtree Road. Peachtree Street. New Peachtree Road. Old Peachtree Street. You get the picture. I never got to see anything outside Atlanta, so I am looking forward to being back in the state this week for readings at North Georgia College and Georgia Southern University. Here are the details:

March 1, 2010
8:00 PM
Reading and Signing
North Georgia College and State University
Dahlonega, Georgia

March 2, 2010
8:00 PM
Hoag Lecture
North Georgia College and State University
Dahlonega, Georgia

March 4, 2010
8:00 PM
Lecture and Discussion
Georgia Southern University
Statesboro, Georgia

If you’re in the area, please stop by and say hello.

On The Road

February 25th, 2010

I am back in Los Angeles, but only briefly, as I have to be on the road again next week. You can listen to my appearance on BBC Radio 4 here. And my interview with Mark Coles on BBC’s The Strand has been archived here.

In London

February 18th, 2010

Greetings from London, where it’s really chucking it down at the moment. (“Chucking it down” is one of those wonderful Britishisms I’ve been picking up since I got here; it means “raining heavily.”) The event at the University of East Anglia on Tuesday night was a smashing success, with great turnout and wonderful questions from the audience. I had a great time. Then yesterday and today, I did a whole bunch of interviews, including one with the BBC’s Mark Coles for The Strand, which should be archived here. I will also be on Radio 4 on Saturday, so when the link is live I will post it here as well. Because my schedule has been so packed, I haven’t been able to get out much, although I did get a chance to spend some quiet time at the British Library. I highly recommend the Sir John Ritblat Gallery, where you can see some incredible artifacts, including an 8th-century Qur’an that uses the ancient Hijazi script, the Magna Carta, a handwritten page from Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, one of Jane Austen’s notebooks, and so on. Anyway, I have to cut this short, as I still have loads of emails to catch up with. Toodeloo, as the Brits say!

Reading in the U.K.

February 15th, 2010

I’m in London this week for the launch of the U.K. edition of my book, Secret Son. I will be doing some interviews (details to come soon) and I will also be reading at the University of East Anglia, as part of their literary festival. Here are the details for the reading:

7:00 PM
Reading and Discussion
Lecture Theatre 1
University of East Anglia
Norwich, England

I don’t know if any readers of the blog are in the area, but it would be lovely to meet you if you are. I will try to post the interviews if/when they go online.

Quotable: Monique Truong

February 12th, 2010

By sheer coincidence, three of the five most recent books I’ve read were set in Vietnam or featured Vietnamese characters. One of these was Monique Truong’s debut novel, The Book of Salt, in which the main character, Binh, works as a cook for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. (The idea for the novel came to the author when she learned, from reading Toklas’s famous cookbook, that Stein and Toklas had employed “Indochinese cooks.”) In the passage below, Binh describes the interviews he has to submit to in order to find a job and during which he has to explain what he has been doing between his departure from Vietnam and his arrival in Paris.

Three years unaccounted for! you could almost hear them thinking. Most Parisians can ignore and even forgive me for not having the refinement to be born amidst the ringing bells of their cathedrals, especially since I was born instead amidst the ringing bells of the replicas of their cathedrals, erected in a far off colony to remind them of the majesty, the piety, of home. As long as Monsieur and Madame can account for my whereabouts in their city or in one of their colonies, then they can trust that the République and the Catholic Church have had their watchful eyes on me. But when I expose myself as a subject who may have strayed, who may have lived a life unchecked, ungoverned, undocumented, and unrepentant, I become, for them, suspect.

What struck me about this passage is how easily it could apply to another employee (a chauffeur, say) from another of France’s former colonies (Morocco, for instance.) The relationship between servant and master seems to be colored in similar hues, and it made me wonder if that was because of the similarities in the two colonial relationships.

Reading at UCR Writers’ Week

February 9th, 2010

This Thursday, I’ll be reading from my novel, Secret Son, at the 33rd annual Writers’ Week, hosted by the University of California, Riverside. Below are the details:

Thursday, February 11, 2010
4:00 PM
Reading and Discussion
Writers’ Week
University of California, Riverside
Riverside, California

Later that evening, Lawrence Wright, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Looming Tower, will be delivering the Hays Lecture. If you haven’t read The Looming Tower, I highly recommend that you do. That book will not only educate you about Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, it will also make you appreciate more fully all the intelligence failures that led to the attacks of 9/11. And then on Friday, UCR will host the amazing and amazingly talented Dolen Perkins-Valdez and Heidi Durrow, both of whom have recently published first novels, which I am very eager to read.

Quotable: Joan Didion

February 5th, 2010

I’m working on a new essay this week, so in order to put myself in the right mood I went back to one of Joan Didion’s older essay collections, After Henry. Here is a brief excerpt from “In The Realm of the Fisher King”:

This was the world from which Nancy Reagan went in 1966 to Sacramento and in 1980 to Washington, and it is in many ways the world, although it was vanishing in situ even before Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California, she never left. My Turn did not document a life radically altered by later experience. Eight years in Sacramento left so little imprint on Mrs. Reagan that she described the house in which she lived—a house located on 45th Street off M Street in a city laid out on a numerical and alphabetical grid running from 1st Street to 66th Street and from A Street to Y Street—as “an English-style country house in the suburbs.”

She did not find it unusual that this house should have been bought for and rented to her and her husband (they paid $1,250 a month) by the same group of men who gave the State of California eleven acres on which to build the “governor’s mansion” she actually wanted and who later funded the million-dollar redecoration of the Reagan White House and who eventually bought the house on St. Cloud Road in Bel Air to which the Reagans moved when they left Washington (the street number of the St. Cloud house was 666, but the Reagans had it changed to 668 to avoid the association with the Beast in Revelations); she seemed to construe houses as part of her deal, like the housing provided to actors on location. Before the kitchen cabinet picked up by Ronald Reagan’s contract, the Reagans had lived in a house in Pacific Palisades remodeled by his then sponsor, General Electric.

I love how Didion’s sentences are structured in such a consistently effective way in all her work. I admire, for instance, the way she dislocates some of her clauses whenever she wants to save a particularly surprising or incisive point till the end. This essay originally appeared in the New York Review of Books and reprinted in After Henry, which was published in 1993.

Race and Disgrace

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.

Upcoming Events

February 2nd, 2010

I’m desperately trying to make some progress on my new book before I have to travel. Next week, for instance, I’ll be taking part in Writers’ Week at UCR. The week after that, the UK edition of my novel, Secret Son, comes out and I will be traveling to London for some promotion. In March, I’ll start the paperback tour for Secret Son in the US. You can find out more about all the events here. If you happen to be in one of the cities I’ll be visiting, please stop by and say hello. I’ll also make sure to post more details as the dates get closer.

Quotable: Toni Morrison

January 29th, 2010

I mentioned last week that I was teaching Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, so I thought I’d share a very short passage that I’ve always liked, because of how the author explores the idea of beauty in physical surroundings and then connects it to the stories we tell ourselves:

There is nothing more to say about the furnishings. They were anything but describable, having been conceived, manufactured, shipped, and sold in various states of thoughtlessness, greed and indifference. The furniture had aged without ever becoming familiar. People had owned it, but never known it. No one had lost a penny or a brooch under the cushions of either sofa and remembered the place and time of the loss or the finding. No one had clucked and said, “But I had it just a minute ago. I was sitting right there talking to . . .” or “Here it is. It must have slipped down while I was feeding the baby!” No one had given birth in one of the beds—or remembered with fondness the peeled paint places, because that’s what the baby, when he learned to pull himself up, used to pick loose. No thrifty child had tucked a wad of gum under the table. No happy drunk—a friend of the family, with a fat neck, unmarried, you know, but God how he eats!—had sat at the piano and played “You Are My Sunshine.” No young girl had stared at the tiny Christmas tree and remembered when she had decorated it, or wondered if that blue ball was going to hold, or if HE would ever come back to see it.

As a side note, while preparing for class, I looked up the reviews of this novel, Morrison’s first. (I do this sometimes, because I get curious about how novels that are today considered necessary or important were received when they were first published.) The NYT reviewer, one Haskel Frankel, wrote, “She reveals herself, when she shucks the fuzziness born of flights of poetic imagery, as a writer of considerable power and tenderness, someone who can cast back to the living, bleeding heart of childhood and capture it on paper. But Miss Morrison has gotten lost in her construction.” It was a decidedly mixed review, as you can see. Lucky for us that “Miss Morrison” continued to write anyway.

Photo: Toni Morrison at the Miami Book Fair in 1986.

R.I.P. Howard Zinn

January 28th, 2010

As you may have heard, the historian and activist Howard Zinn passed away last night in Santa Monica. You can read the AP obituary on the NPR website, which of course mentions his A People’s History of the United States.

Published in 1980 with little promotion and a first printing of 5,000, A People’s History was — fittingly — a people’s best-seller, attracting a wide audience through word of mouth and reaching 1 million sales in 2003. Although Zinn was writing for a general readership, his book was taught in high schools and colleges throughout the country, and numerous companion editions were published, including Voices of a People’s History, a volume for young people and a graphic novel

At a time when few politicians dared even call themselves liberal, A People’s History told an openly left-wing story. Zinn charged Christopher Columbus and other explorers with genocide, picked apart presidents from Andrew Jackson to Franklin D. Roosevelt and celebrated workers, feminists and war resisters.

I believe his last published piece is this contribution to a Nation forum on Obama’s first year. He did not sound optimistic in the least.

Saviano on Italy’s New Heroes

January 26th, 2010

Recently when I read about the rioting by African immigrants in the southern Italian town of Rosarno, I assumed it had something to do with their precarious situation under the law. But in an opinion piece Roberto Saviano (the author of Gomorrah) says he thinks the riots were a revolt against the rule of the Calabrian mafia, which controls all sorts of economic activity.

An immigrant who lands in France or Britain knows he’ll have to abide by the law, but he also knows he’ll have real and tangible rights. That’s not how it is in Italy, where bureaucracy and corruption make it seem as if the only guarantees are prohibitions and mafia rule, under which rights are nonexistent. The mafias let the African immigrants live and work in their territories because they make a profit off them. The mafias exploit them, but also grant them living space in abandoned areas outside of town, and they keep the police from running too many checks or repatriating them.

The immigrants are temporarily willing to accept peanut wages, slave hours and poor living conditions. They’ve already handed over all they owned, risked all they had, just to get to Italy. But they came to make a better life for themselves — and they’re not about to let anyone take the possibility of that life away.

The last line of the piece, especially, is very moving.

Photo: Marco di Lauro/NYT

Quotable: Marguerite Duras

January 22nd, 2010

Here is a brief excerpt from Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, published in 1984:

I think it was during this journey that the image became detached, removed from all the rest. It might have existed, a photograph might have been taken, just like any other, somewhere else, in other circumstances. But it wasn’t. The subject was too slight. Who would have thought of such a thing? The photograph could only have been taken if someone could have known in advance how important it was to be in my life, that event, that crossing of the river. But while it was happening, no one even knew of its existence. Except God. And that’s why—it couldn’t have been otherwise—the image doesn’t exist. It was omitted. Forgotten. It never was detached or removed from all the rest. And it’s to this, this failure to have been created, that the image owes its virtue: the virtue of representing, of being the creator of, an absolute.

I am really intrigued by the structure of this novel, by how Marguerite Duras composed it, almost like a collage, and yet the narrative still manages to move forward smoothly. It works so beautifully to reinforce the themes of memory and forgetfulness in the the book.

Photo: Autores e Libros.

Hope, But Little Change

January 20th, 2010

I am well aware of the fact that I am the kind of voter no elected politician wants to hear from, particularly not after an election. I’m in favor of bank regulation, gun control, and the public option; I’m against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the continuing occupation of Palestinian lands, the suspension of habeas corpus, and the use of torture; I support the right to marriage for all and I also don’t want anybody telling women what to wear or what to do with their bodies. In this country, such views are liable to get you labeled a godless socialist. But I will still say what I think.

I was excited about Barack Obama’s election and I really wanted him to succeed. I still do. But after one year in office, I don’t think he has delivered any significant change on the major issues facing the United States. He allowed major banks to receive taxpayer money, but did not demand accountability in return. His work on the public option was so anemic from the start that it was no surprise at all when the option wasn’t included in the Senate version of the health care bill. He expanded the war in Afghanistan, which he’d pledged he would do, but he hasn’t imposed a definite timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, despite his promise. It is now possible that some of the Guantánamo Bay prisoners will stay in detention forever, without trial. He hasn’t categorically outlawed torture. He has completely ignored the rights of gay citizens and he hasn’t stood up for women’s reproductive rights during the health care debate.

Many people still think that Americans are better off with Obama. Usually this means “better off than with George W. Bush, or John McCain, or Sarah Palin.” This is true, of course, but are we supposed to be happy that the country is not run by an idiot, a megalomaniac, and another idiot? They point out that Obama banned water-boarding, or that America’s image abroad has improved, or that he helped nullify Ledbetter v. Goodyear. Those are all good things, but they don’t weigh enough in the balance after one year. And this voter, at least, feels she has the right to expect more.

Callaloo 32:4

January 19th, 2010

I am very happy to report that I have a short story in the newest edition of the journal Callaloo. This special issue was devoted to the Middle East and North Africa and was edited by the novelist Salar Abdoh. It includes poetry by Mahmoud Darwish, Hayan Charara, Nathalie Handal, Fady Joudah, Sholeh Wolpe; nonfiction by D.H. Melhem; fiction by Raja Alem, Ibrahim Al-Koni, Radwa Ashour, Pauline Kaldas, and yours truly. There are also photographs, art, book reviews, and drama selections. You can view the entire table of contents here. The journal is now in its 34th year, and though it was founded at the University of Louisiana at Baton Rouge, it is now primarily supported by Texas A&M University. It is an important forum of African diaspora and African-American arts and culture, and you can support it by subscribing here.

Whitening Creams, Sammy Sosa, and The Bluest Eye

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.)

On Haiti

January 13th, 2010

I’ve been busy over the last week with all manner of academic work (preparing for classes, committee meetings, applications to our graduate program, etc.) and haven’t had a chance to update the blog, but I did want to pop in here after I heard the news about the horrific earthquake in Haiti. I am sure many of you want to donate money, so I wanted to post a link to this very interesting article on how to choose a charity.

What do you need to know? First and foremost, is your favorite charity already working in Haiti? Have they had personnel there for years, with contacts in affected areas? Do the really know the country and the local leaders who will help deliver aid quickly and equitably to those who need it most?

If an organization isn’t already set up and ready to go in Haiti, your donations are going to go to help them build an infrastructure, set up offices, and hire staff. It makes more sense to donate to an organization that already has these elements in place. This might seem obvious, but in the aftermath of the destruction caused by the tsunami of 2004, organizations who had never worked on the ground in affected areas raised hundreds of millions of dollars, much of which never reached its intended recipients and succeeded only in bolstering the stature of the organizations.

As for me, I donated to Doctors without Borders, who seem to have a decent record in Haiti. Please give, if you can.

Hope and Secret Son, Now in Audio

January 7th, 2010

I’m happy to announce that both of my books, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits and Secret Son, are now available in audio format from Audible. They are narrated by the Palestinian-American actress Lameece Issaq. You can buy the CDs directly from Audible, or from Amazon (here and here).

Back in Los Angeles

January 4th, 2010

I spent a wonderful two weeks in Oregon, where I tried to stay away from the news and did little but hang out with friends, watch movies, and sleep. I did get a chance to read a few books, among which was a very good collection of essays, recommended to me by my friend Cristina. It’s called Notes from No Man’s Land by Eula Biss, and it explores the topic of race in America with refreshing honesty. Of course, it was impossible to stay away from the news after the foiled Christmas day attack on Northwest flight 253, the bombing of Yemen, and the open calls for strip searching all Muslim men between the ages of 18 and 28.

The picture above is a reproduction of Pearblossom Highway by David Hockney. The artist probably never meant for his collage of polaroids to be interpreted like this, but increasingly I feel that the world is like this little stretch of highway; one part is for people whose travel is restricted in all sorts of ways, and one part is for people who are free to move about as they want.

Gaza Footnotes

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

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