Monday, December 29, 2008

A poem for Palestine

From all accounts yesterday's New York demonstration in solidarity with the people of Gaza against the murderous Israeli bombing assault was, although called at the last minute and held without a permit, strong and spirited, drawing 3,000 to 4,000 people to stand with Palestine. Now a new coalition of New York/New Jersey groups has been created. It's the Break the Siege on Gaza Coalition, and it has announced plans for another, bigger demonstration this coming Saturday, January 3. I'm hoping I'll be well enough by then to go. I feel awful about missing yesterday's protest. In the meantime, here's a statement by the youth group FIST on the Gaza crisis. And here's one from the International Action Center.

For a more literary take on the Palestinian struggle, check out the recent anthology Poets for Palestine. There's also the Arab-American literary journal Mizna.

Probably the greatest honor so far in my writing life is that Mizna published a poem of mine a few years ago. In lieu of my physical presence at the protests until I get over this flu, I'm reprinting it here, dedicated to the memory of the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who died this past summer and whose voice is sorely missed at this moment.


This is the Palestine poem I've needed to write for 30 years
to atone for cheering for Israel, '67, age 13. These are the lines
where I finally come clean: how I swallowed the tripe, even
as I grew, once I saw, I learned, once I'd heard about Deir Yassin.
I was scared to move, to cross the boundary from family, home,
all I knew, all they'd taught me it meant to be a Jew. That land
is ours, Mom said, given by God (in whom we don't believe);
it's safety, we need it, said Dad, after what we've been through,
it's ours by right, it's a guarantee. You can't change sides. They
threatened. They cried. They thundered: you'll kill us. You
won't be forgiven, they warned, you'll have torn us apart.
They said it would be a sort of suicide, a death of the self,
but they lied, and this is the poem where I tell the truth: that
massacre and theft disgrace my roots, that I claimed my future
by taking my stand with Palestine.

So this is the poem I owe--for the stolen land, for the
bulldozed homes, shattered bones, a nation scattered but
undiminished despite the blows. For Dearborn diaspora's rage,
for Right Bank slingshots, for elders who cling to keys
and dream of houses they were ousted from. For the
uprooted olive trees. This is the poem I have to write--
after curfews, checkpoints, the odious wall, after worst jobs,
insults, racist abuse, the buried babies and shortened lives--
these are the lines of sorrow and shame at the crimes that are
carried out in my name. This is the poem for Yafa, Ramallah,
Jerusalem, Jenin, for Nablus, Samakh, the towns that were
razed and those that remain. For these are the words of a
wandering Jew who dwells in the promise, the oath, the pledge,
the fist raised for the right of return, the shoulder against soldiers
rifles tanks. And this is my hand, my heart, my voice, the way
I chose and will never regret. And this is my vow to the cousins
who yearn for the beloved, unforgotten, unrelinquished place.
For the day that will come. For the great wrong reversed.
Yes, this is my duty. Yes, this is the poem it's an honor to write.
Yes, this is my love for Palestine.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Gaza & the weapon of literature

Stand with Gaza
Having barely emerged from my sickbed over the last few days I decided to check in on the world, only to discover the sickening, horrific news that today the Israeli settler state launched a series of murderous attacks on the Palestinian nation, bombing over 100 sites in Gaza. The initial death toll, mostly civilian, is 200, with 600 wounded. The massacre has of course generated immediate outrage--and rage--worldwide, and an upswelling of sympathy and solidarity for the suffering people of Palestine, who had already been enduring a brutal blockade in Gaza. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine has called for protest actions; I'm sure these will break out quickly. I'm sorry I'm too sick to attend the demonstration that will no doubt be called in New York, because I feel a special obligation as Jew to always disassociate myself from the criminal Zionist state and reiterate my loyalty to the oppressed people struggling for self-determination. Long live Palestine!

Update: Subsequent posts about Gaza and Palestine can be found here and here and here.

Christini on Winterson and Ngugi
In response to an item I posted last week about Jeanette Winterson, Tony Christini of A Practical Policy emailed me the following note, which I post with his permission:
Per usual, I've been continuing to keep up with your thoughtful weblog. Just wanted to note that while the Winterson quote is wonderful, litblog co-op has equally pithy quotes by Ngugi wa Thiong'o that go much further, in my view.

I really appreciated Winterson's novel The Passion, far and away her best fiction, to me, though I haven't read her recent fiction.

Ngugi's accurately self-described global epic novel from Africa, Wizard of the Crow (2006), is easily among the very best, most vital, most important works of contemporary fiction, rare, seems to me. As one Amazon reviewer noted, accurately I think, we would be lucky to have such a work from the U.S. I've written just a little about it thus far (some of which I may be reincorporating soon on my weblog). Such a work from the U.S. (or one that goes farther sociopolitically) would have to be fought for, I think, in a variety of ways.
Tony points us to his lengthy piece "Fiction Gutted: The Establishment and the Novel" for more of his thoughts on this.

Ngugi on the responsibility of literature
That Litblog Co-op item Tony referenced above includes a series of fascinating quotations from Ngugi wa Thiong'o. Here are two that really speak to me:
Fiction cannot be the agent of change. The people are the agent of change. All writers can do is really try to point out where things went wrong. They can do no more than that. But fiction should be firmly on the side of the oppressed. Fiction should firmly embody the aspirations and hopes of the majority--of the peasants and workers.


Literature is indeed a powerful weapon. I believe that we in Africa or anywhere else for that matter have to use literature deliberately and consciously as a weapon of struggle in two ways: 1) first, by trying as much as possible to correctly reflect the world of struggle in all its stark reality, and b) secondly, by weighting our sympathies on the side of those forces struggling against national and class oppression and exploitation, say, against the entire system of imperialism in the world today. I believe that the more conscious a writer is about the social forces at work in his society and in the world, the more effective he or she is likely to be as a writer. We writers must reject the bourgeois image of a writer as a mindless genius.

Thursday, December 25, 2008


Yesterday, the first day of my wintry week and a half off of work, I woke up sick. Goddammit! I'm all achey and fevery and congested, good for nothing but lying on the couch watching TV. What a way to waste my first few days off. My best friend, who's an elementary school teacher, told me she was sick last week for the start of her winter break too. It's famous, she said, that we in the education field get sick over the holidays. It's as if our bodies were holding out to the bitter end, then collapse as soon as they can. Well okay, sure, fine, but must I be included as "in the education field"? I'm a university secretary, not a teacher. The worst part is that I'd planned to start reading Toni Morrison's A Mercy. Now I have to put it off. I have to be alert and clearheaded to enter those pages.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Reminder: read African-American authors

Earlier this month I plugged "National Buy a Book by a Black Author and Give It to Somebody Not Black Month," the sort of tongue-in-cheek but mostly serious and definitely needed campaign initiated by author Carleen Brice. This is the final reminder. Go do it.

I will, except that the "somebody not Black" I'll be buying the books for is me. There are also a number of works by Latin@, Arab, Asian and African authors on my to-read list. Especially since it seems that the last couple books I've read were by whites, I'll be looking beyond the mirror as I head to the bookstore.

Bookstores, that is! Between my bosses and my family, this holiday season I snagged a major, major trove of bookstore gift certificates. When I close up the office this afternoon and begin my 12-day winter vacation (one of the few perks of working for a university), my first stop will be to start using them up. Then it's home to read.

To read! The other big gift I got from my job this year--presented with much hoopla at their annual holiday banquet--is a Palm Pilot. I've spent the last couple weekends entering data, trying to reorganize my life from datebook, phonebook, notepads, sticky notes, miscellaneous slips of paper, etc., consolidating it all in one centralized gadget. It's working, I think. Perhaps the most radical revision is my to-read list. It has now morphed from several crazily typed-and-scribbled-upon folded and refolded sheets of paper that I carry on my person at all times to a clean, neat and easily updated list that I still carry on my person at all times but can now call up, consult, revise with a touch to the screen. You can't read the titles because the cell-phone photo is fuzzy but this is a section of my to-read list pictured here.

Which I'd all along planned to post today, but now feels a little copy-catty because Maud Newton also has a photo of a reading-related gadget posted on her blog, though naturally hers is a sharper photo and a much more snazzy and expensive piece of technology. Her post is about reading novels on an I-Phone.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The inaugural poet

My ignorance about poetry is vast though I am trying bit by bit to correct that. In the meantime I must admit that I have not read any of the poetry of Elizabeth Alexander, who will read a specially written new poem at the inauguration of President Obama. I'm intrigued to see that one of her books of poetry is titled The Venus Hottentot, especially because Barbara Chase-Riboud's novel Hottentot Venus was one of the best books I read in 2008. The story of Sarah Baartman is excruciatingly sad, epitomizing much of the pain and horror of European colonialism in and racism toward the nations of Africa. I'm interested to read it through the prism of poetry.

As to her inaugural assignment, Ms. Alexander says:
This is a powerful moment in our history. The joy I feel is sober and profound because so much struggle and sacrifice have brought us to this day. And there is so much work to be done ahead of us. Poetry is not meant to cheer; rather, poetry challenges, and moves us toward transformation. Language distilled and artfully arranged shifts our experience of the words--and the worldviews--we live in.

Two from Tayari

Yesterday Tayari Jones posted a thoughtful piece headed "Time to Break the Mirror" on her blog. It's well worth reading for what she has to say about who reads what, who should read what, to whom books are marketed, to whom books should be marketed, all this with particular regard to literature by African American and women authors. Her take on these issues really resonates. I would so much rather be stretched, challenged, taken to new places, and, most of all, learn at least a little bit about what the world looks like and feels like to someone with a very different life experience than mine, than read something that merely reflects back my own limited consciousness. I agree with Tayari: reading should not be about looking in the mirror.

Speaking of mirrors: yikes! Thanks also to Tayari, I now realize how much what I see there has changed over the years. Here's my high school graduation photo, from 1972.
Embarrassing as it is to share this picture, it's for a good cause, rising to the challenge Tayari has posed to bloggers to support Girls Write Now! This organization pairs New York City high school girls with writing mentors. So here's a wee bit to help, across the miles and years from a nerdy hippie Detroiter of yesterday to hip New York writers in the making of today. Thank you, Tayari, for your generosity. I hope to help more with my own donation soon. Right now things are rough.

My employer is about to hit us with a new round of health benefit takebacks as of the new year; as one who's 36, going on 37, years past high school graduation I find myself awash in medical bills lately. My job is secure, I think, which is a lucky break in these tough times. If I can only keep my body functioning all will be well. As for you fresh young talents of Girls Write Now: write well! Write on!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A few words from Jeanette Winterson

As far as I can tell, this isn't posted online so I can't link to it, but in today's New York Times Book Review the "Up Front" piece focuses on Jeanette Winterson, who reviews a novel in this issue. I like what she has to say about art and creativity and class.
Art is central to all our lives, not just the better-off and educated. I know that from my own story, and from the evidence of every child ever born--they all want to hear and to tell stories, to sing, to make music, to act out little dramas, to paint pictures, to make sculptures. This is born in and we breed it out. And then, when we have bred it out, we say that art is elitist, and at the same time we either fetishize art--the high prices, the jargon, the inaccessibility--or we ignore it. The truth is, artist or not, we are all born on the creative continuum, and that is a heritage and a birthright of all our lives."
Her review is wonderfully written, too. Time for me to revisit her novels. I've tried twice and somehow haven't been able to connect with her writing, bad lesbian reader though that makes me. Perhaps the third try will be the charm. I really really want to join the ranks of fans of her books.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Man, I'm sick of this

One of my unending and probably hopeless quests is to understand more about the natural world. From time to time I read a book that, in language supposed to be comprehensible by non-scientists, promises to teach me something about material reality. Physics, astronomy, geology, biology. The degree of success--that is, how much I actually do understand and, more important, retain--varies. When it comes to astrophysics, I sometimes get what I'm reading while I'm reading it, as with Simon Singh's very good book Big Bang, but a week or two after finishing the book I'm hard pressed to be able to explain much that I thought I'd learned. My best success comes in reading about evolution, which, not coincidentally, is the topic I find most fascinating of all. For the most part I really do get it (I think!). I thoroughly enjoy reading about it, and have for many years, from the days of the Leakeys' books about their work in the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania and Donald Johanson's books about the discovery of the 3-million-year-old hominid mother of us all whom he and his team dubbed Lucy (that's her below), to more

recent works including Richard Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale (except for the disgusting anti-affirmative-action rant he felt compelled to include). Two summers ago I went back to the big daddy of them all, Charles Darwin, and read The Origin of Species, which to my surprise I found to be completely accessible, an extremely enjoyable, engrossing read.


With rare exceptions, science writers still refer to homo sapiens as "man." And so, even as I feel my mind expanding as I read these books, I'm also seething, cursing, gritting my teeth page by page. And I'm not just talking about old papa Darwin, writing 150 years ago. I'm talking, for example, about a book I just read, The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. Is there any excuse for a book published in the year 2007 to characterize a species that consists of two sexes--that in fact is majority female--to call that species "man"? Hell no, there is not. What is wrong with these people?

Not all these people, thank goodness. Some writers of popular science books do nod to reality by referring to humans or people instead of man, and by not using male pronouns exclusively as a generic stand-in for our mostly female species. Best of all is the secular saint Natalie Angier, my favorite contemporary writer about the workings of the natural world. Ms. Angier is a science writer for the New York Times; whenever I see her byline, usually on a Tuesday in the Science Times section, I print out the story and take it home to savor over the weekend. I've read and loved two of her books, Woman: An Intimate Geography and The Canon. I find the way she thinks about and explains science very winning. Man, that's no lie.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Crab-Canning Ship Redux

Of the 70 posts thus far on my still quite new blog, the one that has generated the most hits is this one, from October, about the reviving popularity of the Japanese book The Crab-Canning Ship by communist author Takiji Kobayashi (seen at left), who was killed by the imperial government in the 1920s. Not only is Kobayashi's novel now a bestseller in Japan, but there is burgeoning worldwide interest. People from many countries have found their way to my blog after googling the book's title.

To all of you Nigerians, Koreans, Brazilians, Danes, Australians, etc., who are interested in reading this book, I have two words: me too! I've been having a hard time getting my hands on the English-language edition. It's long out of print, as far as I can tell. There's one used copy being offered online, but it costs $48 and that's out of my league. I thought the university library here had it, but when I found the book listed, it's actually not quite the same. This one is called The Cannery Boat By Takiji Kobayashi and Other Japanese Short Stories. Thoroughly perplexed now--is the short story that opens a collection some condensed version of the novel or what?--I went back into the library's online listings and discovered that this university does not in fact own a copy of the novel I'd been looking for, the edition published by UNESCO and the University of Tokyo Press. But I may be able to get my hands on it via inter-library loan from whichever other school does have it. I've put in my request. Now the wait.

If any of you others have any information on how to get the English edition of The Crab-Canning Ship, preferably how to buy it but not at exorbitant prices, please drop me an email at shelleyettinger AT yahoo DOT com and let me know. In turn I'll share whatever I hear here on the blog. Better yet, some smart indy press ought to come out with a new edition for the new era of working-class struggle that's in its opening stages.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Check 'em out

Here's a crop of zooming-toward-year's-end links:
  • Short fiction published online will now be eligible for inclusion in the annual Best American Short Stories. My first few years of publication were all online, including what I think is one of my best stories. I was too scared to submit to fancy-shmancy print journals. Actually, some of the online journals are very very good, have stringent editorial processes, and publish fine work, so this is a long overdue step. Now if only they'd change the title of the series--people from Caribbean, Central and South American nations consider it the worst kind of chauvinism when U.S. entities use the word "American" in an exclusive sense. The news on the BASS change came from Practicing Writing.
  • "Why are most of your stories so lifeless and irrelevant?" "Why do you mostly publish fiction by men?" "When you do occasionally publish something by a writer of color, why is it always accompanied by some weirdly exoticizing illustration?" Hey, these are just some examples off the top of my head. I'm sure you can come up with better questions for New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman. Go here to send them.
  • Finally, check out the lament of an "oilan," a sharp dig at U.S. imperialism by Tony Christini at A Pragmatic Policy. And while you're at it, go sign the petition demanding that the "Iraqi government"* set Muntader al-Zaidi, the shoe-throwing journalist, free.
*"Iraqi government" is so-called because Iraq is an occupied nation with a puppet apparatus fronting for the real rulers, the U.S. military.

Monday, December 15, 2008

José Sucuzhanay presente!

Because I was under the weather over the weekend, I didn't make it to yesterday's demonstration in Bushwick, Brooklyn, about the December 7 beating death of José Sucuzhanay by a group of men shouting anti-gay and anti-Latino slurs. Teresa went. She reports that a couple thousand people marched. It was less than a month ago that she went to Long Island for another march about another Ecuadoran immigrant who was beaten to death by a gang of youths.In his blog, poet Eduardo C. Corral points to a poem by C. Dale Young in the Spring 2004 Virginia Quarterly. The title is "Torn."

Farewell gift to a mass murderer

I am in awe at the courage of Iraqi journalist Muntadar al-Zaidi, who threw two shoes at George W. Bush at a Baghdad news conference yesterday. With the first throw he yelled, "This is a gift from the Iraqis; this is a farewell kiss, you dog!" With the second, "This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq!"

Brother al-Zaidi is no doubt being tortured at this moment and we shouldn't be surprised if we soon hear he's dead. In contrast, the butcher of Baghdad (and before that, of Black and Latino prisoners on Texas' death row) will soon slink off to a cozy retirement. That's for now. The long view shows an accounting coming, down the road.

In the meantime, the shoe thrower's bravery has prompted an outpouring of anger at the continued U.S. occupation of Iraq throughout that country.

Friday, December 12, 2008

My year's best

I'm not very good at keeping up my books list over at -- I often forget to record books I've read, and I usually forget to note when I've read them or else enter the dates wrong -- so looking over my list of books there is a wholly unreliable way of finding out what I actually did read in 2008. Nevertheless I gave it a once-over, and it appears that I've read about 40 books so far this year. That's well below my usual. The shortfall is due to the nearly two months I mostly couldn't read after my cataract surgeries. What's not recorded is the depressing number of books that I start reading but don't finish. I think I'm getting harder to please as I get older, or maybe less patient, I don't know, but I do believe that on average I start and stop two to three books for every book I finish nowadays. (One result is that my books-read list on goodreads looks crazily skewed toward four- and three-star reviews; that's what happens when you only read through to the end if you're loving it or darned near.) Just these last two weeks I've already started and stopped three books, while I finished just one. I just can't force-read anymore. Lately my rule has become rather harsh: if I don't wake up first thing in the morning dying to get back to the book I was reading the night before, it's not worth returning to. Too cranky, right? But there are so many books and I've no time to waste on any that don't enthrall me.

Posting this is a bit premature as I can expect, barring some disaster, to read several more books this month, especially during the holiday break, and chances are high, I think, that a certain one of them will turn out to be the best book I read this year. I feel like doing this now, though, so here are my favorites among the books I think I read so far this year.

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. I: The Pox Party by M.T. Anderson
Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra
Hottentot Venus by Barbara Chase-Riboud
The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich
Wild Nights! by Joyce Carol Oates
Strange As This Weather Has Been by Ann Pancake
The Age of Dreaming by Nina Revoyr
Man Gone Down by Michael Thomas

The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science by Natalie Angier
My Life by Fidel Castro
Low-Wage Capitalism by Fred Goldstein

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Read Black, red readers!

Novelist Carleen Brice, whose book Orange Mint and Honey is on my to-read list, has been running a brilliant campaign calling on readers who are not Black to buy books by Black authors. She's dubbed December "National Buy a Book by a Black Author and Give It to Somebody Not Black Month." Now comes the video, which is funny and gently biting. Check it out, and then get to the bookstore and buy books by Black writers for all the readers on your gift list this holiday season.

Thank you to novelist Tayari Jones for reminding us, especially us whites, to get on board with this. It's something no red reader should need a nudge about, but consider this your nudge just in case.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

How cool is this!

I just bought Toni Morrison's new novel. I hadn't rushed to get it because I knew I wouldn't be able to read it until at least the holiday break, but today I just couldn't wait any longer so I went and got it on my lunch hour. And wow! Lookee here! Okay, I know it's a horribly fuzzy cell phone picture, but that's Toni Morrison's autograph on the inside cover! I somehow lucked out and got a copy that she'd signed!

(I took off the book jacket and laid it on top of the opened book for authenticity or something. Never said I had any visual design sense.)

Three for four

A short story of mine was just accepted for publication by Nimrod International Journal of Prose and Poetry. I'm very happy, both to be published in a lit mag of this caliber, and because that makes three story acceptances this year, all by high quality journals. In fact, this means that three out of the four stories I sent out this year are in the pipeline for publication, with only one still dangling. Nice.

The story Nimrod will publish was a risky one for me to write, a real stretch. When the publication date approaches I'll go into more detail about how and why.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The start of something big

My attention is naturally drawn from fiction to the real world when sisters and brothers like these take action to rewrite the plot dictated by the banks and corporations. As most people know by now, the mostly Latin@ workers at Republic Windows and Doors have been occupying their Chicago workplace since Friday night in a fight to defend their jobs and wages against the company and its backer, Bank of America, which would together have summarily shut the plant and stolen the wages and benefits due. Company after company simply ignores the federal law requiring 60 days' notice before a plant closing. This time the workers, members of UE Local 1110, decided to enforce the law themselves.

For ongoing updates as this struggle unfolds, check out this UE site. For information about nationwide demonstrations against Bank of America set for tomorrow, December 10, go here.

A book I recently read and have plugged several times here, Low-Wage Capitalism, has a whole section about the tactics that are necessary in this period, and prime among them are sit-down strikes and plant occupations of the sort we haven't seen since the 1930s--until now. Workers owe a big thank you to the women and men who have led the way by taking over Republic Windows. This could be the start of something big!

Meanwhile, a broader news watch is in order, too. The governor of Illinois has been arrested for corruption. Irrespective of the substance of the case, can the timing possibly be unrelated to the Republic plant occupation? He was arrested immediately after taking a surprisingly strong stand in support of the workers and announcing that he was canceling all state of Illinois business with Bank of America.

Monday, December 8, 2008

"You were always among us"

This past Friday evening I was walking up Fifth Avenue just above 14th Street when I recognized Sean Ono Lennon as he walked past me, talking on a cell phone. I was immediately transported to memories of my youth, much of which I lived to the soundtrack of his father's--and his mother's--music and words. He looks so much like his father it's uncanny. And now today, December 8, is the 28th anniversary of the killing of John Lennon.

My story "John and Yoko and Rowena and Me" is due to be published any day now in the Fall 2008 issue of Cream City Review. It's a first-person fiction but, although it's set in Detroit and later New York and although the main characters are my age, it is not autobiographical. Unlike the main character of this story, who has moved to New York and rushes up to the Dakota to stand vigil the night John dies, I was a bus driver in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I remember that I worked an afternoon run that day and I didn't get home until after 11 p.m. Almost as soon as I walked in the door, the phone rang -- remember, no cell phones back then so you weren't in constant contact with everyone the way you are now -- and it was my best friend telling me that John was dead. I remember being surprised at how upset I was.

There is what from all accounts is a lovely spot called John Lennon Park in Havana, Cuba, where folks sit with this statue. At the dedication ceremony in 2000, Cuban National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon gave a touching speech about the hopes and dreams of the 60s generation. "Dear John," he said, "you were always among us."

A working-class hero is something to be.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Mountaintop removal & publishing consolidation

Pretty soon I may post a list of my favorite books of the year. By which I mean my year, the books I read in 2008, not books published this year. Between waiting for them to become available at the library and/or waiting for them to come out in paperback, it's rare that I get to read a book hot off the press. Anyway, one of my absolute top reads this year was Strange As This Weather Has Been by Ann Pancake.

I was reminded of this wonderful novel by an alarming story in yesterday's New York Times. It seems that the horror show of last-minute rule changes the Bush administration is rushing to add to its eight-year-long list of atrocities includes a rule that, according to the Times, "gives coal companies a legal right to do what, in the past, they could do only in exceptional circumstances." The rule will facilitate and encourage the coal industry's horrific move toward wholesale mountaintop removal--that's right, mountaintop removal, where coal companies simply blast off the entire top of a mountain to get at the coal underneath--by permitting the resultant toxic runoff to bury valleys and destroy rivers and streams.

Pancake's novel is a wonderful example of how fiction can raise readers' consciousness and even, one hopes, move them to action. It's about a family in the West Virginia coal country whose lives are disrupted, devastated, by mountaintop removal. The wrenching story opened my eyes about how people's health and the beautiful green hills are being destroyed and moved me to learn more about the ongoing struggle to stop Big Coal. The novel is an example of something else, too: how political fiction can rise to the absolute highest reaches of art. What Ann Pancake does with language is a new and beautiful thing.

For more about how communities are organizing against mountaintop removal, this website is a start.

Meanwhile, in Manhattan...

The landscape may be the glass canyons of New York, not the mountains of Appalachia, but there's plenty of wreckage draining down the city's streets this week in the wake of an orgy of restructuring in the publishing industry. For a blow-by-blow of at least the most evident of the carnage--editors sacked, imprints erased, authors in limbo--the blogs Moby Lives and MediaBistro/Galleycat are good starting places. It's not easy, however, to find the true extent of the bloodletting, by which I mean the layoffs and wage cuts and benefit takebacks affecting the thousandfold work force that includes not only those who sit at desks in the skyscrapers but also those who manufacture and distribute and sell the books and for that matter those who cut the trees and process the paper and also all the related low-wage high-tech workers in cities like Bangalore and Manila to whom much of the labor is no doubt being shifted. Yet it's not hard to see what's happening. This is an industry that had already spent much of the last two decades consolidating. Hence company names like Houghton Miflin Harcourt. Hence every imprint from Doubleday to Knopf to Crown to Shocken actually being part of the monster that is Random House. Hence every previous wave of layoffs and cuts.

The only raison d'etre for any capitalist enterprise is profit. The only means to profit is by exploiting labor. In a time of financial crisis brought about by overproduction, in publishing as in every other industry, the only option to maintain profitability is to ramp up the level of exploitation. Fewer workers doing more. Squeeze 'em for every penny.

The spectacle du jour is the Big Three auto CEOs (with their loyal lackey Ron Gettelfinger at their sides) demanding their due on Capitol Hill. Tomorrow, who knows, it might be the book biz's biggies. If he were still alive, would the sainted Bennett Cerf be dancing to big money's tune? He'd have to, or be out of a job.

We've lost another giant

Odetta, one of the great political artists of our time, has died.

A comrade reminds me that in early 1981 she performed at a benefit at the Village Gate to raise funds for the first mobilization against the Reagan presidency, the May 3 march on the Pentagon against U.S. intervention in El Salvador and to defend Atlanta's children. She also supported the protests against the first Iraq war in 1990-91. Those of course are just two in a lifetime of contributions to the cause of freedom and justice, from championing the blues as the musical expression of the African American experience to leafletting to defend the Rosenbergs to performing at the 1963 March on Washington for civil rights to singing with Paul Robeson.

Thank you, sister Odetta, for your life well lived.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Blogging is weird

If this were a more elegant (meaning not free) blog, there'd no doubt be a better way to design it, but as it is, with the latest entry piggybacking on top of the previous one, the effect is that whoever comes at it reads from the top down. Which makes for some weird mood swings, doesn't it? I guess I'm noting this here because I just looked at it and it appeared to me that I must be the most frivolous person in the world, first writing about possibly the most serious topic, AIDS, and then, tra-la-la, following with a goofy post about a goofy gift item. Of course that's not how it went at all, chronologically speaking. I wrote the goofy post late last night and the serious one this afternoon. (I could include the time of postings but that creeps me out like some stranger out there is tracking my every move.) But there it is. Insert here some profound comment about life's extremes.

World AIDS Day

I haven't read it carefully yet, but this looks like an interesting and possibly worthwhile article about the state of the AIDS crisis and of AIDS activism, 20 years after the first World AIDS Day. I remember walking down Christopher Street holding candles that first December 1, thinking about Bill and Marshall who were, if I'm remembering right, at that point the only friends of mine who'd died of AIDS. By a couple years later the number had multiplied and the struggle had intensified. By now, 20 years later, AIDS has killed more than 25 million people, somewhere around 35 million people are living with HIV/AIDS, and in Africa, hardest hit of all, there are now 11.6 million AIDS orphans.

Remember, this is a preventable disease, and, increasingly a treatable one for those with access to lifesaving drugs--meaning those who can afford them. In Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribean (except Cuba, where there's free quality health care for all, and where a scientifically sound, nondiscrimatory policy instituted back in the early days made it the only country where the epidemic never got a foothold), and in the U.S. as well, especially in communities of color, approximately 6.7 million people are at imminent risk of death if they can't get treatment.

More than ever, the whole world round, the demand has to be: Make the greedy pharmaceutical companies free up the drugs! Make the Pentagon pay! Money to fight AIDS, not for imperialist wars!

(Statistics from UNAIDS/WHO as of July 2008)

How about them "apples"?

Speaking of how capitalism pushes commodities nobody needs and convinces everyone they need them: I can't decide if this is incredibly cheesy or something I simply must have.

elegant A Life Well Read “box set”

Yes I can. It's cheesy. It's not for me. And yet ... I'm drawn to it like gravy to mashed potatoes. It isn't even practical. My reading life is too messy, too sprawing and uncontainable for a container such as this. More to the point, let me be honest, I'm far too highminded a literary snob for the likes of this item, which is so so wrong in so many ways. And yet ... and yet ... something about it calls out to my inner 10-year-old madly pasting book stickers onto the library's summer reading contest log form.

Bottom line: the marketers have shot themselves in the foot. I will never respond to an ad that includes "box set." First of all, it's boxed, not box. And second, who are they quoting? Or are those ironical quotation marks, like, yeah, right, so-called box set. Methinks not. Worst of all, later on in the promotion, this item is dubbed "truly unique." Oh dear. Now they've really ticked me off.

For yes, I am the daughter of an English teacher, and yes I refuse to buy apples in the supermarket if the sign says "apples," and yes I cringe when anyone uses a modifier with the word unique, and yes I admit again I'm a book snob and no I'm not proud of it and no I don't think I'm better than anyone who will buy this product and still no I won't buy and yet no I won't refuse it if some misguided but loving family member gives it to me as an Xmas present and yes I'll smile and utter sincere thanks and yes my inner summer-reading-contest-winner might just jump for joy.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Another victim of capitalism

If this doesn't speak volumes about the state of this society, I don't know what does. Early this morning a worker at the Wal-Mart in Valley Stream, Long Island, was trampled to death as he opened the stoor's doors and the waiting crowd of 2,000 people rushed in. The worker, whose name has not been released, lived in Queens. Perhaps he was a neighbor of mine. Most likely he was an immigrant as are a majority of Queens residents. We know he made terribly low wages and had virtually no benefits, and no union representation. That's a given since he was a Wal-Mart employee. We also know he was forced to come to work absurdly early this morning--many stores in the area were opening as early as 2 a.m. for their heavily advertised day-after-"Thanksgiving" sales--and that the shoppers who surged over him in a fatal frenzy were in the grip of a desperation to buy reduced-priced goods at this time of economic crisis. No doubt many of them face layoffs and evictions, and are drowning in credit card debt, but still are under relentless pressure to keep consuming the crap commodities produced for no purpose but parasitic profit and also do need to buy the basic goods that are impossibly overpriced yet necessary for their families' survival.

We know, in other words, that capitalism killed this brother. None of the rest of us in his class should rest, there should be no peace, until this murderous system is gone for good.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Mumbai's voices

The news of yesterday's series of armed attacks in Mumbai is impossible to assess as long as its only sources are the Western bourgeois media. Who did it? Why? What will be the effects, short- and long-term? Mumbai is a great city in the world's second most populous country, a city and a country of massive resources, a gigantic working class, and profound poverty and human suffering, the latter ever increasing as global capital extends its tentacles ever deeper. There are no doubt class causes of these bloody events, and there will be no doubt class effects. I'm waiting to read analysis from the several huge Indian communist parties. That will be much more illuminating than hours and hours spent watching CNN.

Last spring I read Vikram Chandra's marvelous novel Sacred Games, which is as much a literary portrait of the city of Mumbai as it is a detective/gangster/political thriller. I've read a number of other fine novels by Indian authors in recent years, including Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard and The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai, The Impressionist and Transmission by Hari Kunzru, and The Death of Vishnu and The Age of Shiva by Manil Suri. Recent Booker Prize winner The White Tiger by Aravand Adiga is on my to-read list. However, as important as the current wave of English-language books by Indian authors is, and as insightfully as some of them, especially Desai's, Kunzru's and Chandra's, examine questions of class, colonialism and neocolonialism, it would be naive to read these novels as the most reliable representations of the current state of the class struggle in India. This raises the perpetual, and perpetually vexing, question of who will tell the stories of subjugated nations. When it's nearly impossible for the poorest, the most oppressed, to get access to education, let alone to publication, let alone translation, will their voices always be silenced? Or, at best, interpreted by sympathizers from the more privileged middle classes? I don't know how far I have the right to delve into this issue as a white writer/reader in the leading imperialist country but I do think it's right to remain conscious of how limited is the access of readers in this country, even red readers, to the authentic voices of the workers of the world.

NYTBR's unoriginal sin

I've had this upcoming Sunday's (Nov. 30) New York Times Book Review in my possession since Monday but I can't yet bring myself to read the cover review, and don't know if I ever will. The rightist rag finally sees fit to comment, three weeks after publication, on Toni Morrison's new novel A Mercy. A quick sideways skim, all I can bear, reveals that:
  1. The review is less than half as along as the recent front-page extravaganza of reminiscence about George Plimpton.
  2. The entire front-page portion, and well on into the page 10 continuation, of the review consists of blather about the so-called pastoral form, with reference to Fenimore Cooper, Hawthorne, Cheever, Saunders, Burroughs, McInerney, Milton--a kitchen sink of dead and living white men who it's apparently necessary to invoke before finally, well into page 10, mentioning the name Toni Morrison.
  3. There's a glib, cheeky tone at the opening that may or may not carry through the whole, short as it is, review.
Enough to warn me away, at least until I feel like approaching, if ever, this review, which is headlined "Original Sins" although there's nothing original here, just the same old same old for the NYTBR.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The company or the union?

I've been a trade unionist for over 30 years. I've been on strike with my own union three times, I've walked uncounted picket lines to support other unions, I've traveled across the country to take part in solidarity actions, and I wrote a weekly column about strikes and other union struggles for 15 years. So I've seen a lot. This period has been marked mostly by setbacks for labor. Yet I've witnessed countless instances of rank-and-file courage, valor, sacrifice and determination as workers fight back to defend their jobs, wages, benefits, communities.

Sadly, I, we all, have also seen far too many occasions when the labor officialdom let the workers down, to put it mildly. For all these disappointments, however, I don't think I've ever before seen anything as awful as this:

Last night UAW President Ron Gettelfinger was a guest on MSNBC's "Rachel Maddow Show." Despite repeated attempts by Ms. Maddow to prompt him to talk like a trade unionist, despite question after question phrased in the most pro-union manner nearly begging him to stand up for the workers against the recent attempts to scapegoat them for the auto companies' greed, Gettelfinger dodged every opportunity to represent his membership and instead touted for GM. He was like a shill for the Big Three, even going so far, despite Maddow's gentle nudges in the other direction, as bragging about all the contractual givebacks he's handed over to the bosses.

The Company and the Union, William Serrin's 1973 book, came out a full five years before the concessionary contract era started in auto, but its portrayal of the relationship between the UAW and GM remains instructive. Especially after Gettelfinger's craven performance last night. The sole consolation is that the only possible direction from here for the UAW and the labor movement is up.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

And I don't feel guilty ...

... about my fiction hoarding, because I just read a serious work of non-fiction. Tore through it, more like. Low-Wage Capitalism by Fred Goldstein. I'll resist the impulse to rave at length, but I will say that not only does it seem to me to be the book we've been waiting for in terms of clarity at this moment of capitalist crisis, but it also is the book we may not have realized we'd been waiting for in its analysis of the concrete effects of the fall of the Soviet Union. That is, it examines and lays bare the impact of the USSR's demise (as well as that of China's increasing capitalization and concomitant developments in India) on the the relationship of class forces, numerically in terms of the worldwide labor force available for exploitation, and more broadly in terms of the dynamic of the global struggle. What a contribution to the fight for a socialist future.


My heart is pounding. My biceps quiver. I can't catch my breath. Oy.

Have I mentioned that I suffer from chronic bibliomania? I know I'm not alone in the compulsion to read but sometimes I wonder about my particular version. Perhaps it should be termed more negatively. Not so much an obsession with books as an aversion to, a fear and loathing of, being without them. Abibliophobia or something of the sort. A mortal dread of being stuck without a book (or 20 or 30).

I sit here waiting for my heart to slow down because I just came from the university library. It's only two short blocks from my office, but I barely made it carrying 10 hardcover books. Why was I carrying 10 books? Because I'm about to have a few days off and succumbed to my usual panic about not having enough books to read, or, really, to choose among. So I checked my to-read list--have I mentioned that I carry with me at all times a crazily scribbled and constantly updated list of books I want to read? You know, just in case I run into Santa on the street?--and I checked online for what was available at the library and I went and took them out. I'm very happy that almost none of them has ever been checked out before, which means they'll all be pristine and fully readable; so many times I've taken out books only to be horrified at how thoroughly the students have marked them up and ruined them.

So. Now all I have to do is shlep them on the subway and the long walk from the subway. To my home--where I already have towering to-read piles, so it's not as though I would have had no alternatives if I hadn't checked these out. Still. I am a person with certain needs. Ever replenished reading options prime among them. The craving is soothed. Calm descends. Pages await.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Thursday is National Day of Mourning

Last week I finished reading Louise Erdrich's fine new novel The Plague of Doves. The story is really several intertwining stories all linked to a racist lynching of three Native men in the early 20th century. The perpetrators were never brought to justice and their atrocity reverberates down the generations. Erdrich's book, in fact her whole body of work, brings home how some world-historic crimes are so massive that not only are their repercussions unending, but in a very real sense they happened only yesterday, only a moment ago, for all the millions of individuals still every day affected and whole societies forever misshapen by them. The two prime instances are the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the system of chattel slavery on which the wealth of the U.S. and much of the European ruling classes rests, and the theft of the Americas and near-total genocide of their indigenous peoples. Literature can play a unique role in illuminating all this. We readers are indebted to writers like Erdrich who tell these stories. It must be such hard work. It must take a toll to plumb such mournful depths. Here is the artist as witness, as truth-teller, as conveyor of bitter unforgettable memories, as resister to silence.

This is a week for mourning, for telling truths, for naming the dead and honoring them. While we're encouraged to eat gluttonous portions of turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes and pie, some spend the day another way. Every year since 1970, Native people and supporters of their ongoing struggle for justice in the face of hundreds of broken treaties have gone to Plymouth, Mass., for a march and rally marking the National Day of Mourning.

The National Day of Mourning is sponsored by United American Indians of New England. This year, UAINE calls on supporters to gather Thursday at 12 noon at Coles Hill in Plymouth to speak and hear some truth about crimes long ago and ongoing.

Monday miscellany

  • "... it would be better if the computer said: 'If you like Gone with the Wind, you need to read Beloved.' " That's Tayari Jones on Amazon's witless automated books-you'll-like suggestions.
  • "I often bless all novelists." That's Charles Darwin on his artistic tastes later in life, from an interesting post about Darwin, brain plasticity and aging at Alvaro Fernandez's site Sharp Brains. The heads-up on this came via Moby Lives.
  • Also from Moby Lives comes word that "a group of writers including Russell Banks, Chris Hedges, Francine Prose, Robert Haas and Mark Kurlansky have drafted a letter they hope to place as an ad in The New York Review of Books and The Nation" calling on President-elect Obama to reverse his campaign position on the war in Afghanistan and instead withdraw all U.S. troops.
  • Finally, from a mass message to the journal's email list calling for entries to its annual contest and announcing the imminent publication of its Fall 2008 issue, Cream City Review notes that the new issue will feature "poems from Jennifer Perinne, BJ Best and Gary Soto; fiction from Shelley Ettinger and Susan Robison; comics from David King and an interview with Kevin Brockmeier." OK, call me self-serving for noting this but it would be more accurate to say I'm flattered and surprised that my name got included in an advertising blurb alongside some well known writers. Cool.

Friday, November 21, 2008

NY writers: apply!

The time has come. Writers who live in New York state: I urge you to apply for a monthlong Summer 2009 residency at the Saltonstall colony in Ithaca. Applications are now available. They're due January 15. If you can manage a month away from your real life--and now they're offering a small stipend to all fellows to make it easier--give Saltonstall a shot. I was extremely lucky to have been there in July 2008 working on my second novel so I can vouch for it. It's a wonderful place. Here's the view out my studio window.

Summer Fellowships
available to Artists and Writers of New York State

All artists and writers who live in New York State are invited to apply for month-long summer residencies at the Saltonstall Foundation Arts Colony in Ithaca, New York. There will be 4 sessions in 2009, accommodating 5 artists in each session. Artists chosen for the Summer Fellowships will each receive a stipend of $250.00.

The Saltonstall Arts Colony is situated on 200 beautiful and pristine acres in Ithaca, New York, in the heart of the Finger Lakes region.

Each artist has a private bath and apartment, with ample work space; including large studios for visual artists, and a black & white darkroom for photographers. All apartments have a private balcony or patio. Our colony chef serves delicious vegetarian meals on weeknights and the kitchen is well-stocked with basic supplies so residents may make other meals for themselves.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Serb's story

The second noteworthy book reviewed in last Sunday's New York Times Book Review is The Delivery Room by Sylvia Brownrigg. Why is it noteworthy? As usual, not because of the review itself, but because of what a careful red reader can glean from it. The novel's main character, it seems, is a Serb. Not only a Serb, but a politically and historically conscious Serb who sharply opposes the U.S./NATO breakup of Yugoslavia and the imperialists' 1999 bombing war against her country. Dare I hope? Can it be: a fiction that rejects all the outrageous U.S. lies about Serbia, Bosnia and Kosovo that have been served up to justify the Clinton administration/Pentagon/Nato criminal war of aggression? I won't know for sure until I read it. But reading between the lines of this lukewarm and ultimately politically hostile review, hope swells.

I have read one earlier novel by this author: Pages for You, which I liked and which was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award.

Back to Yugoslavia. Some years ago I read a fine novella that gives a feel for how that country's many nationalities were brought together under Tito's leadership into one united socialist country that succeeded in breaking down divisions of religion, language and so on. Reviving the old divisions, fomenting racism and national hatred while tearing down the accomplishments of united Yugoslavia are in my opinion the central crimes of Clinton's 1999 war, crimes that were chronicled at a June 2000 War Crimes Tribunal. Anyway, that novella is Shadow Partisan by Nadja Tesich. Tesich is a Yugoslav Serbian writer and was a fierce opponent of the U.S./NATO war. Her brother was the Academy-Award-winning screenwriter Steve Tesich, and she writes movingly on her website about how he came to become more politically aware and how, despite his Oscar, he could not get any of his more political work published.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Joe Hill & Paul Robeson

The following is lifted almost verbatim from a note from my comrade Bryan. I'm sure he won't mind.

November 19 is the anniversary of the murder of the great labor organizer and people's singer-songwriter Joe Hill by the capitalist robber barons' firing squad in Utah in 1915. Joe Hill's last written words were in a letter to Big Bill Haywood: "Goodbye Bill. I die like a true rebel. Don't waste any time mourning--organize!"

At a 1934 rally in support of the anti-fascist forces then fighting in the Spanish Civil War, the brilliant Paul Robeson, perhaps the most famous singer of the song "Joe Hill," declared: "The artist must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative."

Long live the words and spirit of two great artists in the struggle for justice and liberation, Joe Hill and Paul Robeson!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A new James Kelman novel

Lest I feed into the perception of red readers as a churlish bunch, here's a happy note. I said there were a couple good moments in the most recent New York Times Book Review and this is one: There's a new James Kelman novel out. Hooray!

Kelman is a Scottish writer with a good strong socialist bent and, hallelujah, his writing channels it beautifully. His novels and short stories are mostly set in the world of his upbringing--that is, among the workers and poor in Scotland--and when they travel elsewhere they're still inhabited mainly by Scottish working-class characters. They are written in Scots English and often directly address the issue of the destruction of the original language resulting from British occupation of Kelman's country.

I've read two Kelman novels: How Late It Was, How Late and You Have to Be Careful in the Land of the Free. I loved them both. Another, Translated Accounts, has been on my night table pile for a while. Now I'll add this new one, Kieron Smith, Boy to the to-read list. Sunday's NYTBR review by Marcel Theroux was lukewarm--filled with damning-with-faint-praise formulations like "Still, this isn't a bad book"--but that doesn't deter me at all. I'm glad for the review because it alerted me about the book and, well, that's about the extent of its use.

There's something unique in my relationship with Kelman's writing. His are the first and only novels written by a man in which the protagonists consistently use the "c" word and it doesn't make me toss the book away in disgust. This is because this word, the epitome of misogyny in every other context I've ever seen, becomes in Kelman's books merely a catch-all swear word that characters like these, men beaten down by poverty, by the British occupation, by life under capitalism, must use if there's to be any verisimilitude. Granted, the fact that the ultimate anti-woman word is the basic, ubiquitous epithet is itself a telling societal marker, but when I read these stories somehow I don't hold that against characters who use it. It's just how they talk. If you want to hear them talk you've got to get used to it. I never thought I'd make such an allowance but in the case of Kelman and his ever so sympathetic male protagonists, I do, willingly. Also, I should note, these characters, especially the lead in You Have to Be Careful in the Land of the Free, are aware of and actually struggle with their sexism, something you rarely see in fiction by male writers. I must also say that You Have to Be Careful has many moments of humor. Its main recommendation, though, along with the wonderful writing and rip-roaring story, is that it is a lacerating, vituperative, no-holds-barred indictment of U.S. society--written in the wake of September 11, 2001, no less, when everyone else was busy sympathizing with the imperialist homeland. Which makes Kelman a courageous artist, and me eager to read his latest.

Monday, November 17, 2008

I've been remiss

A happy couple
Originally uploaded by Shelley E
All the talk about Prop 8 and same-sex marriage reminds me that I never posted the link to photos from the party we had last month for the 20th anniversary of my own same-sex not-allowed-to-be-a-marriage. Click on the photo for the Flickr pix.

Sing to the tune of "We Love You Conrad" from Bye Bye Birdie

We love you Wanda
Oh yes we do
We always loved you
We always knew
And now your bravery, your truth
Oh Wanda we love you!

From Wanda Sykes' wonderful speech at the Nov. 15 Las Vegas rally against the passage of California's Proposition 8: "They pissed off the wrong group of people. They have galvanized a community. ... Now we won't settle for less. Instead of having gay marriage in California, we've got to have it throughout the country. ... I am proud to be a woman, I'm proud to be a Black woman, I'm proud to be gay."

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The phrase "charming rich white man" ...

... is an oxymoron as far as I'm concerned. Which means I'm not among the supposed legion of admirers of George Plimpton. Nor was I charmed by the lead in today's New York Times Book Review, about the new book George, Being George, a compendium of lauds about Plimpton by a few of that legion. The review, by Graydon Carter, a Plimpton type himself, is a solid three pages of drooling adulation for the late writer and editor whose delightful habits included telling Paris Review interns to "bring a pretty girl" to his parties. Ugh.

But hark! There was a bright light or two among this week's reviews. I'll get to them soon.

Word workers of the workers' world

Most of the Nov. 15-16 weekend I was at the School of the Future--how apt is that?-- in Manhattan attending the 2008 national conference of Workers World Party. It was wonderful in many ways. The political analysis, the organizing, the strategizing, the talk formal and informal about how to move forward with the class struggle. Seeing old friends and comrades from around the country, and meeting new ones, especially the many young people who've been joining up.

This, though, is a lit blog, so I want to say something about the literary culture at a conference of revolutionary socialists. Many might think there's no such thing. Ah but there is. This weekend it included:
  • spoken-word performances that opened and closed the conference. The poets in question, Miya and Mike, are some seriously talented word workers. They work those words in remarkably original, creative, politically sharp and delightfully outrageous ways. The piece that Miya performed Saturday morning was structured as a dialogue with Langston Hughes' 1938 poem "Let America Be America Again." Mike's closing piece Sunday afternoon was sort of a catalogue of the life of a young revolutionary. Both were very much of the here and now yet also very much aware of what has come before and what's ahead. It was a conversation between two young activists/artists of color and history. I felt privileged to listen in. (That's Miya at the podium and Mike right behind her.)
  • talk of books about the German revolutionary movement of the early 20th century. I was told about what sounds like a fascinating memoir by a woman who participated in that movement. Perhaps the friend who just read this book will follow through on his threat--I mean offer--to write something about it for this blog. Hearing about it reminded me of a book I read some years ago: 1918, a magnificent novel about the failed German revolution by Alfred Doblin, who also wrote the better-known Berlin Alexanderplatz, later (1980) made into a film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
  • conversation about literary magazines based in university writing programs and how, unknown to most of us, some of them are partially funded by grants from reactionary foundations. I'm still mulling over what this means and whether it has any bearing on how the journals function, whether it puts a chill on their artistic choices. My initial thought is that a grant of this sort is more about making the foundation look good--look as if it's a supporter of the arts, which to most people equates with some sort of progressivism, so that it's effective PR for the foundation and diverts attention away from its fundamental loathsomeness--rather than serving as a means for direct right-wing intervention in the arts. I'm sure they also do that, intervene directly, but probably in other settings.
  • lots more, including tables brimming over with sale offerings from, which I unfortunately had to pass up as I had no spare cash.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Home to red reading

Tipped toward pontificating ... must find way back to book world ...

Ah. There. Here I am.

It's been a while since I've had that ooh yeah this is the stuff feeling but the book I'm currently reading, The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich, is giving it to me. What a writer she is. It's funny, I haven't read one of Ms. Erdrich's novels in some time and I have no idea why. I read her first few novels and loved them and then, what, I lost track of her? Forgot about her? Who knows but thank heaven I've found her again. This is just what I love when I love fiction: stories that are engaged with the real world, told with a language of beauty and precision. I feel like I've come home.

Prop 8 & the elections

This evening here in New York, and Saturday all over the country, there will be more demonstrations protesting the passage of California's Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriage. While of course outraged at the California vote, I've also been very heartened at the depth of anger about it.

I've been active in the LGBT movement for 35 years, since I came out of the closet at age 19. Cesar Chavez and I were the labor speakers at the huge October 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights and Action on AIDS. I've been arrested three times at gay and AIDs protests. Having thus established my credentials, let me share some perspective. One: To this day there is no national law banning anti-gay discrimination in employment, housing, etc.; in most states such discrimination is still perfectly legal. Two: I suspect that most people don't realize this, that most people believe that, broadly speaking, LGBT rights are established in this country. Three: The fact that the issue at hand at the moment is the right to same-sex marriage--a "right" that only a few short years ago was barely dreamed of*--shows the astoundingly rapid advance of our struggle, and the astonishing leaps in consciousness that have swept this country and the world since the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion. Given that strong majorities of younger people support this right, I have no doubt that it will be won in the foreseeable future. Four: At the same time, LGBT people still get bashed, LGBT youth still get thrown out of their homes, and so on. And, as we saw last week in Los Angeles, LGBT people, especially LGBT people of color, get beaten by police when we take to the streets to demand equality.

What it all shows is that with the LGBT movement as with any movement for rights, the struggle advances in starts and stops, but overall the direction is forward. I have no doubt of that.

I also have no doubt of the depth of the alliance between the LGBT movement and the Black civil rights movement. Anyone who thinks otherwise is falling for the right wing's cynical efforts to promote division and disunity. For many years now, every major national civil rights leader and organization has stood strongly for LGBT rights. If anything, this alliance only strengthened during the course of the latest election campaign.

The bottom line is that no one who stands for class unity will subscribe to the patently phony, divisive comparison between the results of the presidential election and the Prop 8 vote, or pit the Black and LGBT movements against each other, or sound any note of negativity to detract from the deeply felt elation at the Obama victory. I want the legal right to marry--believe me, I want it, because my employer reports the money it pays for my domestic-partner benefit coverage as if it were my income and I am taxed on an extra $5000 a year for it compared to married employees whose coverage of husbands and wives is free and untaxed--but I reject any effort to pose this struggle as some kind of challenge to or test of the Black community, particularly at this moment of jubilation at a momentous step forward in the struggle against racism.

In case it needs to be said more plainly: the culprit here is no one else but the organized right wing. Religious reaction in particular. The racist, sexist, anti-gay Mormon church more in particular. And most particularly of all the ruling class because it is the ruling class that stands to gain the most from these attempts to pit communities against each other. Don't fall for it! In case even that needs to be said even more plainly, I'm saying to white LGBT people that this is the time to express stronger than ever our solidarity with the Black community and to tell the racist, anti-gay forces aligned against us that we will not be fooled by their manipulations and we will not be their pawns.

Finally, the Prop 8 vote clearly demonstrated the limitations of bourgeois democracy. Matters of civil rights should not be up for vote. They should be basic and ineradicable. This is one more reason why a sweeping federal LGBT rights law is needed. And why we've got to stay in the streets, because that, not the voting booth, is where rights are ultimately won.

*A historical note: I was one of the co-founders, in 1986, of the Lesbian and Gay Labor Network, a precursor to what became the AFL-CIO's official LGBT constituency organization, Pride At Work. At the June 1986 lesbian and gay pride march in New York, we in the LGLN contingent coined and chanted a new slogan: "Get your lover covered! Equal benefits now!" I believe this was the first of the demands that can now be seen as laying the basis for the same-sex marriage fight, which after all is about simple legal equality.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Write or die!

I'm going to try this over the four-day weekend later this month.

Good news

Yesterday the grant-making organization USA Artists announced its 2008 fellowship awards to 50 artists in eight different disciplines. They include nine in literature, and from what I can tell it's a pretty worthy group. First and foremost, from my viewpoint, is Tayari Jones. Congratulations Tayari! This is richly, richly deserved, for a fine body of work (I've read both of Tayari's terrific novels, Leaving Atlanta and The Untelling, and look forward to her upcoming one, The Silver Girl) as well as her work as a teacher and supporter of aspiring writers.

Of the other awardees, I've only read work by Jeff Chang and Joy Harjo so I'm not competent to comment more generally. But overall the fellows do look like an interesting--and, thank goodness, not monochromatic--bunch.

In this country where artists are left to fend for themselves and it's so hard for people from the working-class and oppressed communities to break through, this kind of recognition and, let's face it, money, can make all the difference to a cultural worker.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Kristallnacht anniversary

Yesterday and today are the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht, also known as the Night of the Broken Glass. It was a national pogrom against the Jews of Germany, sort of the official opening of the sweeping, years-long genocidal international pogrom that would come in retrospect to be known as the Nazi holocaust. On the night of November 9-10, 1938, homes, stores, synagogues and other sites were attacked, about a hundred Jews were killed, and some 30,000 were rounded up for deportation to concentration camps. It must always be noted, too, that trade unionists, socialists and other progressives, as well as gay men, were among the first, indeed were crucial, targets of the Nazi regime as the fascist state tried to wipe out the working-class revolutionary current that had such deep roots in Germany.

Part of my background, one-quarter, the Ettingers, were German Jews, but my paternal grandfather had emigrated from Germany well before Hitler's rise. My other three grandparents came here around the turn of the century from Lithuania and Russia as part of the great wave fleeing the pogroms of the 1890s and 1900s. They all came to New York and New Jersey but none of them, I'm sorry to say, became socialists or trade unionists or any kind of progressive activist as did so many others of their generation of Jewish immigrants. (Many books, fiction and nonfiction, cover this ground. One of the more recent, which I've been meaning to read for some time, is A Fire in Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York.)

It seems to have skipped a generation or two in my family, but I'm proud to have stepped forward to uphold the fine Jewish tradition of revolutionary class struggle. Cue soundtrack. While we're still in election week, I've got to also say I'm so happy that the Jewish vote resisted the racist appeals against Obama.

And finally, to restate as well my unwavering solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for self-determination and disassociate myself from the Zionists' phony claim that somehow the crimes the Jews endured under the Nazis justify the theft of Palestine and the horrific terror campaign against the Palestinian people. The wonderful book Our Roots Are Still Alive lays out the history masterfully.

Miriam Makeba

The great Miriam Makeba has died. Here she is singing in Italy just before her fatal cardiac arrest.

In a statement of condolence to her family, the African National Congress Women's League "salutes this heroine of our revolution because Mama Africa had never abandoned the cause of liberation of our people."

She was an exemplar of the politically engaged artist. Like Victor Jara and other singers of freedom songs, she now joins the pantheon of people's culture.

Miriam Makeba presente!

Zine scene

Here's a contradiction. I claim to be all about words, all about political words, that is, or the politics of words, and yet my reading and writing life is spent mostly aboveground. Which is to say, I know next to nothing about the zine scene. Of course, the areas of my ignorance are vast and extend well beyond zines. They also include manga, graphic fiction, and other newer, edgier, more marginalized forms. Whether I can find my way toward an understanding or at least appreciation of them is yet to be seen. But I do want to try.

Which brings me to the new zine Absent Cause, edited by my friend Greg Butterfield. The first, glowing, review is out and posted on Greg's blog, also called Absent Cause (which phrase Greg explains here). I'm intrigued. And I'm going to give it a read.

Politics & words

My posts for the last week or so have been mostly about the political developments which I admit I've been obsessing about. Who hasn't? Things will tip back to the literary side soon. In the meantime, here, and here, you'll find some commentary about the presidential election that's so on-target and sharply written that, well, if it isn't art it's damned close.

Last week I nabbed one of the first copies, hot off the press and with a lovely inscription from the author to Teresa and me, of the new book from Worldview Publishers, Low Wage Capitalism: Colossus with Feet of Clay by Fred Goldstein. It was already a must-read, but in the wake of both the election and the massive job losses just announced -- with October's figures 2008 layoffs have already hit 1.2 million -- it feels even more urgent to read this. (Full disclosure: I'm named in the acknowledgments, which really wasn't necessary, for the very slight suggestion or two I made after reading the draft chapter on women and the LGBT community.)

A pause, after and before

As I write this on Saturday, November 8, I’m simultaneously joining Facebook. Since this is the weekend and I’m home, online via our excruciatingly slow Verizon DSL, I have to sit and wait for pages to load so there’s lots of time to shoot back here and compose this blog posting.

It’s a slow, rainy Saturday and I’ve been crashing, exhausted from this exciting week and its late late nights. I’d hoped to get some writing done this weekend but I fear ‘tis not to be. In fact, I have basically not written anything since my Saltonstall residency ended in late July. There are some good excuses, like back injuries and eye surgeries, but still I know this is awful. I can also admit that, even when I don’t have a ridiculously long hiatus like this, I’m generally not very disciplined, hewing to nowhere near the every-day routine all the writing experts counsel. For many reasons – menopause-induced sleep problems combined with full-time work creating ongoing fatigue plus general busyness primary among them – I have never been able to do the hour-a-day thing. Over the years, however, I’ve relaxed about it. I’ve come to trust that, even when it’s uneven and comes in spurts and starts, my writing time will be productive. If I’m awake and alert and relaxed, if I have quiet and calm, the words will come, even if I haven’t tried to summon them for quite some while.

So I’m not going to freak out about the fact that, no, it looks like I won’t recommence the writing this weekend after all. Nor next, because next weekend is the very important national conference of Workers World Party. The party conference is always important, of course, but especially at this critical juncture, right after the historic presidential election and right as the economy crashes ever deeper. Anyone interested in discussion and analysis of where we go from here should consider coming to the conference.

And afterward? It doesn't take a crystal ball to know that I'll be energized politically and reawakened artistically. The combination should result in a ramping up of my lagging activism and, at the same time, a revitalization of my writing. Ideas will flow and the keyboard will take a pounding. I'm looking forward to it.

Today's low energy was matched (or was it induced?) by my read of tomorrow's New York Times Book Review. One of the more boring editions in recent memory. That includes the interminable cover review of the most recently translated final novel by the late Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño. The review, by Jonathan Lethem, did nothing to reawaken my interest in Bolaño after having read his The Savage Detectives last year. The U.S. bourgeois literary establishment has lionized Bolaño's work, which is itself a clue about its political character. His novel, far from being an incisive or moving cri de coeur from the broken heart of fascist-Pinochet's Chile, underwhelmed me. I found in it no genuine emotion and little political relevance. Now, reading Lethem's comparison of Bolaño to David Foster Wallace, whose Infinite Jest evoked an almost identical reaction in me, I get a clearer view of why Bolaño is so championed here. And why I can’t connect with his work. All this raises once again the question of who gets published and especially who gets translated into English and published in this country. There can be no doubt that there are genuine voices of the working-class struggle in Latin America and everywhere who are writing fiction that truly speaks of and to that struggle, but it's so difficult for readers here to find our way to what they have to say.