The event with Ngugi wa Thiong’o was wonderful—thank you to everyone who came. There should be an audio recording on the Los Angeles Public Library’s site at some point, in case you’re interested. Now I’m getting ready for a reading in Oakland, at Mills College. Below are the details:
Tuesday, April 6
Reading and Discussion
This will be my only reading in the Bay area for the paperback release of Secret Son. I hope to see you there.
An evening with Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and Laila Lalami
Los Angeles Central Library
Los Angeles, California
I am very nervous at sharing the stage with Ngugi, so please come by and help me feel at home!
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
The passage below is the closing paragraph of “Harem,” by the Egyptian writer and academic Leila Ahmed. The essay is part of her magnificent memoir, Border Passage, and is about three generations of women in her family. It discusses the changes in their lives over a period of a century and a half.
If the women of my family were guilty of silence and acquiescence out of their inability to see past their own conditioning, I, too, have fallen in with notions instilled in me by my conditioning—and in ways that I did not even recognize until now, when, thinking about my foremothers, I suddenly saw in what I had myself just written my own unthinking collusion with the attitudes of the society in which I was raised. Writing of Aunt Farida and of how aggrieved and miserable she was when her husband took a second wife, I reproduced here without thinking the stories I’d heard as a youngster about how foolish Aunt Farida was, resorting to magic to bring back her husband. But I see now how those stories in effect rationalized and excused his conduct, implying that even though taking a second wife wasn’t a nice way for a man to behave, perhaps he had had some excuse, Aunt Farida being so foolish.
“The mind is so near itself,” Emily Dickinson wrote, “it cannot see distinctly.” Sometimes even the stories we ourselves tell dissolve before us as if a mist were momentarily lifting, and we glimpse in that instant our own participation in the myths and constructions of our societies.
The last time I used this essay in a class, a couple of my students appeared stunned to discover that there were feminists in Egypt, much less in 19th-century Egypt. Feminism (by which I mean simply the belief that men and women are and should be equal) had seemed to some of them, I think, primarily and uniquely a Western movement.
Photo: Harvard Gazette.
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.
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.
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.
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
Reading and Signing
8818 Sunset Blvd.
West Hollywood California
If you’re around, stop by and say hello.
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
Reading and Signing
North Georgia College and State University
March 2, 2010
North Georgia College and State University
March 4, 2010
Lecture and Discussion
Georgia Southern University
If you’re in the area, please stop by and say hello.
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!
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:
Reading and Discussion
Lecture Theatre 1
University of East Anglia
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.
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.
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
Reading and Discussion
CHASS INTS 1128
University of California, Riverside
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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