Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Sport of Kings

Randall Jarrell famously defined a novel as "a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it." We are squarely in Jarrell territory with this one, The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan.

Through much of this novel I was in thrall--to the story, the writing, the ambition--I was impressed, I was thrilled. And then by the end, not so much. I just glanced at Amazon and Goodreads and see that the average rating is, respectively, 3.6 and 3.7. Count me among the masses, I guess, because ultimately, although I'd started out thinking this was going to earn the big five-oh along with a gushing rave, I'd say that the Amazonians and Goodreaders have it just about right. Ultimately, this is a good but not a great book, and I'll try to grapple here with why.

There is much to admire. There is gorgeous writing. There are some well drawn characters. Mostly, and it's why this is a notable book even if not a great one, there is broad scope that takes in big questions and takes on the most crucial, the central, the basic defining issue of U.S. society and U.S. history: racism. This is a narrative that contains multitudes, from the evolution of millions of earthly species to the particular individual tales of a number of particular individuals, from enslaved Africans creating the riches of 19th to 21st century Kentucky to the self-proclaimed genteel bluebloods living off those riches, from the great Secretariat to a series of his descendants, from babies to children to preachers to receptionists to prisoners to trainers and grooms and jockeys, from lynchings to beatings to trotting to planting to drowning. To the landed gentry, always back to the strutting entitled wealthy white landed gentry of bluegrass country, around whom the story revolves.

So what's not to love? Some of it is quibbles. That gorgeous writing does spiral off in places toward the realm of overblown overdone verbiage. In fact the author herself, in a bizarre aside that I wish Morgan's editor had been able to talk her out of including and that in fact has the feel of a response to an editor's efforts to talk her down from some of the lengthy loopy flights of language, has the omniscient anonymous (or maybe not) narrator suddenly break the fourth wall briefly to speak directly to the reader and defend against the charge that it's all "too purple, too florid." Whoa! Way to break the spell, not to mention protest too much. But okay I was down for the most part with the many long, language-rich passages, most of them evocations of the natural world or natural history. Mostly, they're beautiful, and mostly they work--they draw the reader in, are in some places pure poetry, breathtaking. Not everywhere though. A quibble.

Sadly, some of the Jarrellian "something wrong" rises above the quibble level. SPOILER ALERT from here on.

As I read, especially as I passed the halfway mark, and definitively once I'd finished, I felt troubled by the unevenness of character development. Surprisingly, although perhaps it's unfair to be surprised, by my read the female characters get short shrift. The deepest, richest most multidimensional characters are male. Most of the novel's women are, well, sketchier, thinner, less full. Several have sort of walk-on parts, play a plot-related role, and walk off. Mothers, mostly, the first of whom, Henry's, is pretty much a cipher; the next, Henrietta's, gets a bit more fleshed out but is quickly disposed of; the third, Allmon's, is more fully treated yet still, somehow, it seems to me, is on the page primarily to fulfill her plot function. Maryleen, the onetime cook, is dispensed with early on, only to re-emerge at the end as a sort of deus ex machina and then disappear again. Is she meant to be the writer of these pages? I hope not, because I don't think she'd treat some of the characters the way the actual writer does.

Then there's the main female character, Henrietta. Troublingly, she seems to me to be not fully realized either, not in the way her father Henry or her lover Allmon are. There's something hollow to her, something not quite filled in. Now it may be that this is purposeful. That Morgan writes Henrietta in this way to convey how damaged she is by one of the central horrors of the story, the fact that her father rapes her for many years, probably from early adolescence on until her death in her late twenties. I use the word rape because that of course is what it is when a father has sexual relations with his child, regardless of how the father sees it and also regardless of how the child sees it, must see it, forces herself to see it, doesn't allow herself to see it or think of it in order to survive. But I don't believe the word rape is ever used in the novel; actually, the deed is never shown, nor even directly referred to, nor ever acknowledged directly in word or thought by either the victim, Henrietta, or the perpetrator, her father Henry. Which I'll address more in a minute. Here, though, the point is that it's not clear to me how I was supposed to read Henrietta the character on the page. If she is meant to be the walking wounded, which she absolutely is, if she is drawn as finding a way to function via dissociation, via separating herself from the central trauma of her life, via acting out in various potentially dangerous ways, that, I guess, is accomplished. And if so, okay, that explains the as-if, not-quite aspect of the character's portrayal. I don't know, though, if this explanation can be stretched all the way to explain the decision she makes when she realizes she's pregnant. As shown in a brief scene by the side of a road that as far as I can tell takes place over ten or fifteen minutes at the most, Henrietta sort of skims her mind over the situation and opts stunningly quickly to go ahead and have the baby. This did not ring true to me. She's been fucking her father as well as a man she's fallen in true deep love with, she has no way of knowing who has impregnated her, and she doesn't even take any real time to consider having an abortion, let alone decide to have one. I don't know, maybe I'm not being fair, maybe I'm lumping this in with every TV show that never allows any woman to have an abortion, that always has everyone who gets pregnant go ahead and have the baby, which is not how it works in real life nor should it, in real life women often decide, as is their right, to have abortions--maybe this doesn't fit with those TV offenses, because maybe her carrying out the pregnancy is a function of her damage, of her not-all-thereness. I don't know. It bothered me. But okay.

What bothered me worse was Henrietta dying in childbirth. It disappointed me deeply. There were so many other ways the story could have gone. Instead, by my read, it felt as if here went yet another, the main, female character being shuttled off the scene so the story could get back to its focus on the men.

I've gone on too long and will have to abbreviate the rest. Also, I didn't intend to go so negative on this novel as it does have a lot to recommend it. It's one I could see arguing about, could see another reader countering all my criticisms and that would be cool. But. A couple more things.

I was also deeply disappointed that the character Henry never, to put it simplistically, gets his comeuppance. Maybe I'm wrong, but by my read, despite his vile racism and despite his vile sexual predation against his own daughter, on balance he remains a sympathetic character. We are with him in his head a great deal, and especially as the novel takes its final turns toward the end, there are indications that he is growing, changing, opening, regretting. There are intimations of, lord help us, redemption. Well that's the author's prerogative. It too rings false, at least for me.

Then there's the end--the sacrifice? the narrative tying-up device? the gunshot suicide? the drowning?--of Allmon. I had my doubts, my unease, about the portrayal of this character throughout. There are places in his story, there are scenes, for example in prison, that strike me as, sorry, stereotypical, even though I understand that is the furthest thing from the author's good intentions. His life, his thoughts, his feelings feel authentic sometimes but not all the time. I just don't think the attempt to create this character has quite been pulled off. But okay, close enough. Until. Except. Really? The Tragic Mulatto? He really has to go down in flames? Crazed and destroyed by the racist system, the white power structure, the rich white man who--note well--does not die, is spared, will raise Allmon's and Henrietta's child as his own, none the poorer after the insurance settlement, much the wiser, kinder, mellower white man. Sigh. I don't know. It doesn't sit right. Is this really the only imaginable outcome to this story? Couldn't Allmon have been granted some agency? If not a happy ending (although why not, after all his suffering?), then some more complex conclusion, some road forward? Something more than destruction?

In this Commonweal interview The Sport of Kings author C.E. Morgan is asked about the fraught issue of white writers writing Black characters, the interviewer quoting "some hard questions" raised by Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda in their book The Racial Imaginary. I find Morgan's response unfortunate, to say the least. She goes off against, yep, "an embrace of political correctness with its required silences," and it gets worse from there, including the nonsensical assertion that "the far political right and the far political left aren't located on a spectrum but on a circle, where they inevitably meet in their extremity." So oy, there's that.

I can't help but contrast this book and its reception to the magnificent novel that drove me to revive this blog earlier this year: The Castle Cross The Magnet Carter by Kia Corthron. Kings was published by Farrar Straus Giroux, one of the big boys in the publishing world, a division of MacMillan, owned by the German conglomerate Georg von Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, with all the promotional money available that implies. FSG brought out Kings with much fanfare earlier this year, and it got the full treatment: many reviews, feature articles, author interviews. Corthron's novel was published by Seven Stories Press, an independent. It was reviewed, and there was some press, but it was not given the Big Book treatment the way Morgan's was. Does a white writer writing about race get more props than a Black writer writing about race, does the white writer's book get more attention, is it seen as a more important contribution, even when the Black writer's book is superior? Welcome to the USA.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Fifth Season is a great book!

In the early years of this blog I may have written once or twice about my frustrating relationship with science fiction. Or speculative fiction as it's often now called. Or fantasy, its, what, sibling? Whatever you call it, for most of my reading life I've wished to love books of this genre. And my wish has gone almost entirely unfulfilled. Time after time, I've turned to a new novel, a new writer, having heard that this is the one. The one with actual original ideas. The one with genuinely creative concepts. The truly new story. The beautifully written, literary, gripping thought provoker. The politically progressive, socially relevant, maybe even radical one that contributes something to the literature of struggle. Only to be, time after time, disappointed. Stale reworkings of tired old tropes. Uninteresting non-ideas. Pedestrian language. Now I know it's wrong to dismiss an entire genre simply because my own experiences have been lacking. No doubt I've simply not found the right writers. And so, revolutionary optimist that I endlessly urge myself to be, I keep trying. Again I read a review or hear a recommendation. Again I'm told that no, really, this one is different. This one will blow you away. Again I steel myself, prepared for the inevitable letdown.

No letdown, not this time. All praise to N.K. Jemisin! I've just read her novel The Fifth Season and I'm  squirming and squealing with delight. I've found it--a great sci fi book. I've found her--a brilliant sci fi author. All hail! And let the breathless countdown to the August 16 publication date of sequel The Obelisk Gate, second in the trilogy begun with The Fifth Season, begin. In fact I've just pre-ordered it, something I don't believe I've ever before done.
What is it that has me so over the moon after reading The Fifth Season? Well, everything whose lack has bummed me out so many other times. The world Jemison has built with this story is unlike any I've encountered in all my 56 years of reading. She's had a new idea! She's imagined a truly different world! Yet at the same time she's fashioned a story, built upon the foundation of her original idea and utterly true to her new world, that resonates powerfully with the realities of our own real, deeply damaged world. On top of all that this novel is powerfully free of the constricting archaic constructs of race, sex, and gender from which very few writers successfully liberate their fiction. Or even try.

At the same time, precisely by breaking free of heterosexist and racist norms in the pages of this brilliant story, Jemisin makes us think about the real world, the racist sexist anti-LGBT society in which we live. She makes us think about bigotry, about inequality, and also, in this story of literally earth-shaking cataclysms that drive epoch after epoch of the creation and destruction of civilizations, about the current international crisis of mass migration caused by war, occupation, poverty, imperialism. About what community is, what humanity is. About unity and divisiveness and about what can be accomplished with joint effort. There are echos of it all in this novel. And on top of that, there is, in an unbearable plot development at the end, an homage of sorts to Toni Morrison's masterpiece Beloved. A sad, bitter necessary nod to the only kinds of choices oppression offers.

Jemisin is a very fine artist. The Fifth Season is packed with delicacy, lyricism, passion. The characters are multidimensional. The story drives forward relentlessly. It involves you utterly. It challenges and stirs you. Who could ask for anything more?

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

QUEENS BOOK FESTIVAL! & OUTWRITE!

As a little known writer of an obscure novel published by a small press, it's always a delightful surprise when somebody wants to hear anything from me. So I'm still a little shocked to say that I'll get a chance to say a few words about books, writing, and my take on it all at two separate important literary events on the weekend of August 6-7.

First, I'll be in D.C. for the annual OutWrite LGBT Book Festival. It's a weekend-long extravaganza of books, writers, readings, talks, panels, that is as far as I know the most inclusive, interesting, multifaceted gathering of LGBTQ writers and readers that ever takes place in this country. I'll be reading from my novel Vera's Will, and also taking part in panels on historical fiction and literary activism, all on Saturday August 6.

I'll rush back home to Queens, NY, on the train that same night, because the next day I get to be a part of the first Queens Book Festival. This is truly exciting--both the daylong event, and the fact that I get to be part of the inaugural edition of what promises to be an excellent annual literary gathering. The New York City borough of Queens, my home for 22 years now, is the most multinational locale on earth, and naturally as home to people from all over the globe it's also the site of a burgeoning literary and arts scene that gives voice especially to working-class and oppressed poets, writers and artists who have for so long been shut out from access to the bourgeois-corporate literary-artistic marketplace (for want of a better word, well actually it's a perfect word). I'll be part of a 4 p.m. panel on LGBTQ Representation in the Literary World. But I plan to be at the festival most of the day, because there's a stunning lineup of writers whose voices I want to hear.

To tell the truth I'm more than a little stunned at the cohort alongside whom I'll be presenting at the panels and readings I'm taking part in at both the D.C. OutWrite conference and the Queens Book Festival. These are names I've known, artists I've admired, for a long time. It'll be an honor to share some time, some space, some thoughts with them. A surprising honor.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Orlando, oppression, writing & activism



In early April I was a featured author at a Texas university's annual literary festival. I was interviewed by the campus TV station, did a reading from my lesbian-themed novel, took part in a lively Q&A, signed books. It was altogether a lovely evening, and a thrill for a little-known writer like me.

It was also illuminating. In two ways. First, it opened my eyes—and I was surprised they needed any opening—to how advanced young people's consciousness regarding the LGBTQ struggle is. Second—and this is only now unfolding fully in the wake of the Orlando atrocity—it reminded me of how hard queer life can be.

Yes we can get married, which for some, including my wife and me, has brought concrete material benefits. Yes we are protected from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender expression in some states.

Not under federal law, however. And not even in most states. Certainly not in Texas. Or Florida.

Bigotry, hateful rhetoric, violence, especially against trans people, especially against trans women of color who are murdered with impunity, remain the norm.

Last week, as women across the country reacted with rage to the news of the Stanford rape and the rapist's slap-on-the-wrist sentence, one uniform note from women everywhere was: yes I know. Yes this has happened to me. Rape and brutality for too many. For those who have not been raped there's still a lifetime of affronts.

For me, as what I think of as my greatest-hits reel of sexist incidents ran through my mind, I realized that many, perhaps most of them, were anti-lesbian in essence.

The time I was walking down my own block in a Lesbian Power t-shirt when a man suddenly pushed up against me, his hand gripping my ass, his mouth covering my ear, his tongue sticking into it, and hissed, "Tight pussy."

The time a man asked woman after woman in a gay bar to dance and when I, apparently, the last straw, said no, he punched me in the jaw.

The time my roommates and I had to flee down a street as a gang of young thugs chased us with chains and bats yelling, "Dyke."

The time a cop at an LGBTQ demonstration against Jerry Falwell grabbed me by the left breast and dragged me by the breast away from the barricade.

The time I was using a pay phone (young'uns—look it up) and a man shoved me and screamed, "Get off the phone you fucking dyke."

The time my mom said she wished I'd never been born.

Back to the Texas lit fest: that April evening as I sat signing copies of my book after the reading, a young woman approached and told me she had a bone to pick. She chided me for how I'd replied to one of the Q&A queries.

I'd been asked whether I personally had ever experienced lesbian oppression. The question took me off guard. I was flustered. I flushed and stuttered as the greatest-hits reel started to play in my mind. None of it, I felt, none of these flashpoints of fear, frustration, powerlessness, fury, rose to nearly the level of the awful things that have happened to others. I wasn't killed or beaten, haven't even lost a job or housing. I'm white which means I don't face the double, triple oppression LGBTQ people of color endure.

So yes, I'd said, I've dealt with some stuff but only a little, and I mumbled about hard times with my family, threats, epithets. All minor, I'd said, nothing too bad. Now the student said that was wrong of me. I should not have downplayed it, she scolded. If we keep sweeping the wrongs done to us under the rug they'll never stop, she told me.

I felt humbled and stupid. I nodded and said she was right. I apologized. I won't make that mistake again, I promised.

She was right. The way I'd said it was wrong. But that's not the whole story.

Because here's the thing: in this racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic society you are lucky if you end up with merely a litany of wrongs like mine. You're lucky if you survive.

Really, though, it's not about luck. The more oppressed you are, the more your life is at risk. I am oppressed as a woman, as a lesbian—but I do not face anything close to what LGBTQ people of color face as the targets of racist, homophobic, transphobic violence that is escalating at a horrific rate.

Don't let anyone say otherwise: LGBTQ oppression is what killed those 49 beautiful, young, mostly Puerto Rican queers murdered in Orlando. A few days before, it killed Goddess Diamond, a 20-year-old Black transwoman murdered in New Orleans.

Racism killed nine people massacred in Charleston's Emanuel AME Church on June 17, 2015—and we must honor them now, one year later, even as we reel from this latest horror.

Oppression is a political concept. It comprises a long list of crimes, injuries, violence, bias, constant relentless mistreatment that characterize the lives of those in the oppressed group. Racism. LGBTQ oppression. Misogyny. Ableism. Islamophobia and anti-Muslim attacks, which are multiplying.

Oppression is embedded in the capitalist system. It is necessary for the system to sustain itself. It is, along with the exploitation of labor, the crux of capitalism. That's why all the people crying out for gun reform right now, as if it's the solution that will end these vicious crimes, miss the point. I understand the impulse, the desperation that leads so many to think this is the way forward, but gun control will not end racist violence, rape, the killings of Black trans women, mass murder of LGBTQ people like our sisters and brothers cut down at Pulse.

James Byrd, lynched in Texas in 1998, was not killed by a gun. In February in Philadelphia Maya Young was stabbed to death. LGBTQ clubs have been bombed, set on fire.

The weapon is not the issue. The ideology is the issue. Until the ideology is wiped out, the attacks will continue, one way or another. The only way to wipe out the ideology is by building the struggle. By uniting and fighting against the endless U.S. wars and occupation, against racism, in defense of the Muslim community, for women's and LGBTQ liberation. Ultimately the corrosive divisive destructive ideologies engendered by capitalism will only be fully destroyed when capitalism itself is. That's the goal we've got to work toward.

For members of oppressed groups, oppression—as my night in Texas, the Stanford rape, the Pulse massacre, the Charleston massacre, the mosque bombings force to the front of my consciousness—is a way of life. It shapes and shadows your every moment. You can never just be.

We've got to fight to fix that. Fight for a world where it's no longer true. Fight hard, united, inspired by the brave, bold young activists and organizers, the queer, the trans, the people of color, who will lead us forward.

I'm a writer, but I was first and will always foremost be an activist. For the beloved Pulse martyrs—and that's what they are, killed for joyously defying oppression—I can promise no less.

Monday, May 16, 2016

The despicable Gay Talese will make lots of money from his forthcoming book

The book, officially out in July, is titled The Voyeur's Motel. I recently read the lengthy excerpt from The Voyeur's Motel that was published in the April 11 issue of the New Yorker. After taking the requisite while to recover from my rage and disgust, I decided to comment here.

The overall takeaway from this article: the celebrated writer Gay Talese is despicable.

Yes of course his subject, the retired Colorado motel owner who spent decades hidden above his motel guests' rooms spying on them, most especially watching their sexual activities, is a disgusting creep of the highest order, a deeply committed misogynist guilty of criminal violation of, apparently, hundreds if not thousands of people. His crimes even extend beyond his decades of peeping tom-ism, for he also witnessed a murderous assault and left the assaulted woman, who was alive and might have been saved had he done anything, to die.

Remarkably, that's almost all anyone is writing about in the many articles and commentaries that have run since Talese's New Yorker piece was published. They're talking about the Colorado violator (he prefers what he apparently believes to be the more elegant term voyeur so I won't use it), about his pathology, his delusions, and, to some extent but not nearly as much or as outragedly as they ought, about his crimes.

They're talking very little about Talese and his crimes. For me, this is the news about the New Yorker piece. There's lots to be said, but it boils down to four things:
  1. Talese joined the motel owner up in his secret aerie above the motel and watched two people have sex. Talese did it. He committed the crime, even if not thousands of times (at least he only reports this one time.) Repeat: Talese climbed up there and watched through the screened peephole at least once.
  2. Talese knew for many years that the motel owner was doing it. He never tried to stop him, and he never reported the crime this pig was committing.
  3. Talese also knew, based on the motel owner's own written report, about his having witnessed the assault and left the woman to die. He did nothing about this either, neither trying to urge the guy to report what had happened, nor reporting it himself.
  4. Throughout this long piece, and assuming it's representative throughout the whole book, Talese's tone is basically sympathetic toward the criminal motel owner who violated the right to privacy of so  many people. He wonders about why the guy is the way he is, he points out the guy's inconsistencies in reporting, his grandiosity and narcissism, but he evinces no horror, no revulsion. He becomes for all intents and purposes the guy's friend. By my read, Talese is troubled so little by the guy's actions as to amount to not at all. Nor, and of course this is the point,is he troubled in the least by his own, Talese's, complicity. And he is complicit, through and through, for years and years. Every few pages he throws in a phrase or a sentence to the effect of, hmm, I stayed awake worrying about whether I was doing the right thing, but it's so obviously pro forma as to be laughable. Talese has no compunction about any of it. The grand old man of "the new journalism" will no doubt have a grand old time on the book tour.
What we have here is a fine example of bourgeois morals. Most of the commentary about Talese's article consists of musing about journalistic ethics, and while some mildly question whether he didn't go too far in pursuit of a damned good story, most are barely bothered. Talese is after all famous. He's published lots of books and made lots of money. The New Yorker is a fine magazine and would never publish something tainted or questionable. The story is shocking--shocking, I tell you!--but the storyteller is more or less above rebuke. He, the publisher Grove Press, and the criminal motelier who sold his many pages of records of his crimes for I'm guessing a tidy sum, will all make big bucks on what is probably going to be a bestseller. The movie rights have already been sold, to Dreamworks, for six figures.

And that--its profitability--is what makes this book unimpeachable. In the publishing marketplace it's gold. Profit is the highest standard of morality in this stinking capitalist sinkhole of a country.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Jaguar's Children

I just read an extrarodinarily good book, and I had to head right over here to Read Red to offer a heads-up: read it!

The book is The Jaguar's Children, a novel by John Vaillant. It gripped me from the first sentence, and as is so rarely the case (you'd be amazed how many books I start and stop, deeply disappointed, initial pages' promise betrayed soon enough), it never let go. So yes, this is a page turner, a very fine one, and purely in terms of its writerly quality it deserves praise. But it is much more than a well-written, well crafted story.

It is in a sense a horror story, the most horrifying kind, rooted in reality. Most important, and the reason my reaction lands here on Read Red rather than meriting just a five-star rating in my Goodreads account, The Jaguar's Children is a political novel that takes on a very important issue, or really two important issues.
  •  The plight of undocumented Central American migrants trying to reach the United States
  • The conditions at home that drive them to the desperate decision to migrate
With the first, Vaillant makes a needed contribution. At this moment in the U.S. presidential election campaign season, the leading Republican has made anti-immigrant demagoguery, specifically anti-Mexican racist demagoguery, the centerpiece of his candidacy. The leading Democrat mouths soothing platitudes but her record as secretary of state bulges with crimes including support of the right-wing coup in Honduras and subsequent death-squad reign of terror, invasion and virtual destruction of Libya, endless drone-bomb murders in Pakistan and the region, and of course working hand in hand with the chief executive deporter-in-chief in vicious, cruel, racist mass deportations of adults and children to Central America in unprecedented numbers.

The way Vaillant depicts the situation is simple and devastating. He takes us inside a truck, a sealed water tanker, that has driven across the border from Mexico into the U.S. The truck blows a tire in the Arizona desert. The truck's driver and the coyote who has charged exorbitant fees to the dozens of people hidden and sealed in the empty water tank abandon the vehicle along with the human beings trapped within. We are inside with them via the voice of one of them: Hector, who uses his friend Cesar's phone to dial the only U.S. number on the phone and leaves a series of voicemail messages to seek help, to narrate the experience in the truck as hour by hour hope trickles away, and to tell how he and Cesar came to be there.

It's this last, the back story, that provides the novel's political heft. In fact it's a beautiful example of the way fiction can, by telling one or two characters' individual tales, explicate and illuminate large, broad swaths of history, of political developments, of the class struggle, of the national question, of imperialism. Vaillant does so here, with great skill and sensitivity, and with full depth of feeling, full dimension allotted to the characters. The reader learns much about Mexico over the last century and more, and about what has happened to the lives of the Indigenous peoples in that country. Finally, and this for me is the key to how beautifully this novel accomplishes what I always yearn for a novel to do, the story comes full circle as the flashbacks build to a climax and we learn why Cesar had to flee. The villains: NAFTA, U.S.-based agribusiness, and their Mexican comprador-bourgeois accomplices. There's a lot packed in here, and, miraculously, it works.

If you google the phrase "Mexican immigrants die in truck" you'll come up with roughly 16 million results. The heart breaks. As it will reading this book. Which is good, for the world's workers--especially the tens of millions on the move, forced to migrate by U.S.-imperialist bombs and invasions and wars and occupations, U.S.-imperialist trade and agricultural wars, and the worldwide U.S. and other imperialist exploitation of resources and labor--need and deserve the fellow feeling of those of us who live in the U.S. and other imperialist centers. But it's nowhere near good enough if you close a book like this, your heart broken, and that's that. The ultimate worth of this kind of novel is measured by the action it arouses. In this case, it's a call to stand in solidarity with migrant workers, to fight the fascist Trump movement, to act against the deportations.

How? It's a no-brainer. May Day is coming up, and May Day 2016 is the tenth anniversary of the great national uprising that was May Day 2006, a.k.a. A Day Without Immigrants, when much of this country was virtually shut down by an immigrant workers' general strike. Here's the poster for this year's action in New York City. New Yorkers, I'll see you there. Everyone else, check out your city's event.


Monday, April 11, 2016

Have they run out of insensitive racist idiocy yet? Well no

I'm a few days late noting this because I was out of town--in San Antonio, doing a novel reading--but now that I've seen it I have to take it up. You see, Calvin Trillin, longtime New Yorker food writer as well as novelist and doggerelist, wrote a poem. Of sorts. A two-stanza verse that he obviously thought was all in darned good fun, with which misjudgment the magazine's editors apparently concurred, for they published it in the April 4 issue.

The title: "Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?" The conceit, such as it is: a U.S. gourmand ruminates about Chinese food. The result, in the words of Paula Young Lee writing in Salon: "a racist nursery rhyme." 

I can do nothing better than point you to Lee's piece for a fine takedown of Trillin and his casually white-North-American-bourgie-foodie-centric "humor." And to suggest that you also follow some of her links, as I did, to a number of terrific takedowns of Trillin and his ilk, including these two brilliant ones:

You can also check out "The World Is Our Oyster Sauce--A Twitter Poem Inspired by Calvin Trillin."

And finally, this from the Asian American Writers' Workshop: "We're in the Room, Calvin Trillin."

Saturday, April 9, 2016

PEN's latest odious offense

I'm no fan of PEN America, an organization of the U.S. corporate publishing establishment that purports to champion literary liberty but actually operates for the most part as a  bourgeois-liberal mouthpiece of U.S. imperialism. Wielding its heartiest denunciations against socialist countries. Aligning itself with vile racist anti-Muslim journalism. Generally letting U.S. and allied political imprisonment off the hook. I've written about this several times in earlier years on this blog. Most recently here, and here, in 2013, when misogynist extraordinaire Philip Roth was awarded for his aid to counterrevolution in Czechoslovakia.

So count me as unsurprised, though nonetheless appalled, at PEN's latest offense. The organization lists the Embassy of Israel as one of the "champions"--a level of sponsorship, no doubt financial--of the upcoming 2016 incarnation of its annual World Voices Festival. The apartheid state's embassy appears on the festival program a second time as "sponsor" of one of the author panels.

This outrage--featuring as a sponsor, which is in effect a promotion or advertisement, the U.S. representative of a government whose hallmarks are racism, torture, political imprisonment, denial of all basic human rights to the indigenous Palestinian nation, an apartheid settler state, a government that is in its very essense everything this fake-pro-freedom organization claims to oppose--has been noted. A few days ago a letter headlined "Don't Partner with the Israeli Government: Israeli Government Is No 'Champion' of Freedom of Expression" was sent to the PEN American Center. The letter calls on PEN to "reject support from the Embassy of Israel," and goes on to list some of the Zionist state's offenses.
 Join Alice Walker and Sign This Letter
Besides Alice Walker, long a strong supporter of the Palestinian struggle, signers include acclaimed Palestinian author Susan Abulhawa, Junot Diaz, Angela Davis, Max Blumenthal, Hari Kunzru, Sarah Schulman, China Mieville, Kamila Shamsie, Randa Jarrar, Richard Ford, Marilyn Hacker and many other writers and poets. More names are being added daily. I signed. Writers: add your name as well. Here's the letter, with info about signing on.
 

Friday, March 18, 2016

Harper Lee's first/last novel

I just read Go Set a Watchman, the lost/found first/last best/worst novel by Harper Lee, who died last month at 89. I hadn't partaken in the national fever to read it when it was published in July 2015, but last week I came across it in the library and decided to borrow it. Now that I've finished it, I have no huge deep meaningful pronouncements to make...but I guess that's sort of the point, sort of why I bother commenting here at all.

The novel's back story, as I recall from all the publication-date publicity, is that it was actually Lee's first. That when she submitted it, her editor said Watchman's most resonant passages were the flashbacks to Jean Louise's childhood as Scout, and suggested she write a new book telling the Scout story. She took the advice. She wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, won the Pulitzer Prize and many more awards down through the years during which she never wrote (or at least never published) another book, and finally, the year before her death, agreed to let her first work be published. Watchman received mixed reviews. Some found it lacking the artistic finesse of Mockingbird and wished it had been left in a drawer. Others admired Watchman's head-on tackling of the burning issues of 1950s small-town Alabama, that is, the Klan, White Citizens' Councils, the civil-rights struggle. Many were shocked at what had become of their beloved Gregory-Peck-inflected Atticus Finch, here aligning directly with the forces of racist reaction.

Me, I think Go Set a Watchman is purely of a piece with To Kill a Mockingbird. Well written, with a smooth conversational flow, it is a work of utter liberalism. By which I mean this: both are novels focused on the issue of racism yet in which the only Black characters are barely present and definitely not fully dimensional people, novels in which everything is seen through the filter of a white Southern sensibility with same as our hero/protagonist. Novels in which moderation is presented as the finest, best position as opposed to the extremism of both sides--and yes, in Watchman, the virtuous Atticus's view, for one, is that the NAACP is way too radical, equated with, for example, the KKK. Oy vey.

Indeed, in Watchman, Lee has Atticus say truly reprehensible things--bizarre things, really, like his rather benign and wholly inaccurate characterization of the history of the Klan--and she has his daughter, an adult Jean Louise who now lives in New York and is on her annual visit home, grope her way through an agonized disillusionment with him. If Lee had taken this further, if the book had followed through with real, honest grappling with the vital questions, if Jean Louise had actually made the break she threatens, and above all if there were any Black characters directly engaging, it would have accomplished something beyond liberalism. As it is, there are indeed some passages where Jean Louise argues--with her friend, father and uncle--and denounces them, and is horrified with which side they appear to be on. But then. It's all laid to rest in a rather hasty, clunkily constructed, condescending (and violent--her wonderful uncle has to slap her hard, nearly knocking her out, to bring her round to reason, and well he's just torn up about it but it had to be done!) denouement in which she (and the reader) is made to see that all this hullaballoo, all her ranting and raving, was a sort of immature extremism through which she had to wade as a necessary coming of age in order to step ashore on the other side, the other side being a quintessentially liberal coming to terms with the realities of home, the prime reality being the need for a slow sober approach to social change.


Friday, March 4, 2016

Catching up on some good books

In the long lag during which this blog lay dormant, I did of course read lots of books. Some of which I would have written about here had I been writing about books here. I didn't because I wasn't...but I do want to at least list a few of the books I read recently and do recommend. Check them out:

How to Be Both by Ali Smith
The Residue Years by Mitchell S. Jackson
H Is for Hawk
by Helen MacDonald
Driving the King by Ravi Howard
Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera
The Blue Between Sky and Water by Susan Abulhawa
The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar
The Turner House by Angela Flournoy
Jam on the Vine by LaShonda Katrice Barnett
Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast
Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald
Song of the Shank by Jeffrey Renard Allen
Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine