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
CHASS INTS 1128
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

The East, the West, and Pamuk

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

Off to Portland

December 21st, 2009

I’m in Portland for a few days, to visit family and friends, and to relax until the start of the new year. I plan to spend most of today at Powell’s.

In Auggie’s Smoke Shop

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

Quotable: Graham Greene

December 9th, 2009

According to a new poll by the Pew Research Center poll, 54% of Americans believe that the use of torture to gain information from suspected terrorists (note the adjective) is often or sometimes justified. This represents an increase since the last time the question was asked (49% in April and 44% in February.) Which reminds me of this passage from Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, where Captain Segura explains who can and can’t be tortured:

‘Did you torture him?’
Captain Segura laughed. ‘No. He doesn’t belong to the torturable class.’
‘I didn’t know there were class-distinctions in torture.’
‘Dear Mr Wormold, surely you realize there are people who expect to be tortured and others who would be outraged by the idea. One never tortures except by a kind of mutual agreement.’
‘There’s torture and torture. When they broke up Dr Hasselbacher’s laboratory they were torturing … ?’
‘One can never tell what amateurs may do. The police had no concern in that. Dr Hasselbacher does not belong to the torturable class.’
‘Who does?’
‘The poor in my own country, in any Latin American country. The poor of Central Europe and the Orient. Of course in your welfare states you have no poor, so you are untorturable. In Cuba the police can deal as harshly as they like with émigrés from Latin America and the Baltic States, but not with visitors from your country or Scandinavia. It is an instinctive matter on both sides. Catholics are more torturable than Protestants, just as they are more criminal. You see, I was right to make that king, and now I shall huff you for the last time.’

I had not realized that so many Americans subscribed to Segura’s philosophy.

A Distant View of Four Minarets

December 8th, 2009

I wrote a short opinion piece for The Nation about the Swiss minaret ban. Here’s how it begins:

When I was five years old, my parents enrolled me in Sainte Marguerite-Marie, a French grade school in a suburb of Rabat, in Morocco. The school was run by a group of Franciscan nuns who had arrived in the country during the colonial period but had stayed behind after independence. My favorite teacher was Soeur Laurette, who nurtured my love of books, and my regular tormentor was Soeur Isabelle, who, whenever I made a mistake, pulled my ponytail so hard my neck would hurt for hours.

My father, like his father before him, had memorized the Koran by the time he started his own grade school education; but he did not see any danger or contradiction in having his child attend a French school. My mother, who did not cover her hair, did not seem to have any anxiety about my spending half my day with women dressed in austere tunics and long black veils. I suppose that my parents’ guiding principle was that they had to choose the best neighborhood school. The fact that it happened to be run by Catholics did not scare them–they understood that being in daily contact with another religion is not dangerous. It does not mean you will be converted. It does not mean that you will have to change. Religion is not passed through the air you breathe or the sidewalk you tread or the classroom you share.

You can read the rest of the article here.

(Photo: Minaret in Wangen bei Olten. Via: Reuters.)

Failures of the Left

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.

Bullshit By Any Other Name

December 4th, 2009

A propos of Obama’s decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, the always incisive Mr. Fish had this cartoon.

Cartoon Credit: Mr. Fish at Truthdig

The Road

December 3rd, 2009

I went to see the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road a couple of days ago. I tried to trick myself into not expecting anything from the movie because I thought that would prevent me from being disappointed. There was anything wrong with director John Hillcoat’s work. And Viggo Mortensen delivers a fine performance (but then he nearly always does.) But I was still terribly disappointed. The problem, I think, is that there was no poetry to this movie and it simply doesn’t do justice to the novel.

‘The New Inquisition’

November 30th, 2009

I have a new essay in December 14th issue of The Nation magazine, which just went up online. It’s about the spate of books that claim that Europe is headed to its demise because of its rising Muslim population, with a particular focus on the most recent exemplar, Christopher Caldwell’s Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West. Here is how it begins:

At a literary festival in New York City some years ago, I was introduced to a French writer who, almost immediately after we shook hands, asked me where I was from. When the answer was “Morocco,” he put down his drink and stared at me with anthropological curiosity. We spoke about literature, of course, and discovered a common love for the work of the South African writer J.M. Coetzee, but before long the conversation had turned to Moroccan writers, then to Moroccan writers in France, and then, as I expected it eventually would, to Moroccan immigrants in France–at which point the French writer declared, “If they were all like you, there wouldn’t be a problem.”

His tone suggested he was paying me some sort of compliment, though I found it odd that he would want the 1 million Moroccans in his country to be carbon copies of someone he had barely met and whose views on immigration–had he asked about them–he might not have found quite to his liking. It was only later, when I had returned to my hotel room, that it dawned on me that the profile of the unproblematic Moroccan immigrant he might have had in mind was based solely on conspicuous things. Some of these, like skin color, were purely accidental; others, like sartorial choices or dietary practices, were in my opinion inessential, but from his vantage point perhaps they suggested a smaller degree of “Muslimness.”

Was this man really suggesting that I was a more desirable immigrant because I did not look Muslim? We had started our conversation as two equals, two potential friends, two writers discussing literature, but we had ended it as judge and supplicant–the former telling the latter whether or not she would make a suitable immigrant. And why on earth did I not say something on the spot? Why did I not ask him what he meant? Instead, I had stared back at him with what I imagine was dumbfounded perplexity, and then changed the subject. Perhaps if I had confronted him I would have been able to remove the sting of the insult that had lain hidden inside the compliment.

You can read the essay, in full, here. The picture above is from an election poster by the Swiss People’s Party, which recently led a campaign to ban the construction of minarets in Switzerland. In a referendum held yesterday, the Swiss people approved the proposed law. It is now set to become part of the Swiss constitution.

In Yosemite

November 25th, 2009

We’re spending the Thanksgiving holiday at Yosemite National Park. I hope everyone has a safe and happy weekend. See you back here on Monday.

Hobby: Sleep

November 24th, 2009

I’ve always been amused by the prevailing idea in our culture that writers are anti-social creatures, people who would rather spend time alone in a room than have to speak to other sentient beings. The writers I’ve met come in all types, of course, but very few have really fit this cliché. In fact, I’ve noticed that whenever they are thrown together at a conference, a festival, or some other literary event, writers don’t mind gathering, late into the night, to talk. I rarely ever take part in these late-night chats, simply because I can’t handle them. I sleep, on average, between nine and ten hours a night. I can function on eight hours, if I have to. But if I’m forced, by circumstance, to get by with seven hours, I’m nearly useless.

When I was in Indiana last week, for instance, all the invited writers and artists wanted to go have drinks. It was almost midnight. I excused myself because I could barely think, let alone talk. They insisted. Why, they asked, could I not come just for a bit? I said I had to go to bed. Which, of course, sounded like the lamest, most ridiculous excuse to their ears. They looked at me sideways. I imagine they thought I was being standoffish. But, really, I was just exhausted, and already counting how many hours of sleep I could get. And the morning after? I was the last one to get up.

Bookstore Browsing Blues

November 23rd, 2009

When I was an undergraduate at University Mohammed-V, I used to find all my English-language books at the aptly named English Bookshop in downtown Rabat. The store was so tiny that the aisles only fit one person at a time. The shelves were stacked high, and you had to get a ladder to reach the top one. The books were ordered in sometimes surprising, but ultimately perfectly sensible ways. I remember the hours and hours spent browsing the shelves, looking for something I could read in my new, halting language.

I went back there last summer, for a visit, and was amazed that nothing had changed. The owner was there, and we chatted for a while about the old days. I know it sounds terribly cliché, but I would never have thought that some day my books would be sold there. (And I couldn’t have thought that not just because the idea of being published was so remote, but because back then I wasn’t even writing fiction in English yet.) The physical experience of browsing through a store—finding new, used, and even out-of-print books side by side—is one that I miss, particularly now that so many independent bookstores have closed.

New Darwish Translation

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.


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