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.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Pre-E Day free associating

For Election Day Eve, Maud Newton features a very interesting interview with Edwidge Danticat. Ms. Danticat, who lives in Miami, talks about counterrevolutionary Cubans mobilizing against Obama supporters (more on that here), and her concerns about whether African-American, Haitian, and other communities of color will actually get to vote and actually have their votes counted.

Since I closed my earlier post today by yearning for more "stories of workers and the poor" written by "writers of the communities instead of as translated by outsiders," this is a good chance to celebrate the work of this incredibly talented young writer. Her novels and, most recently, nonfiction are among the exceptions that do manage to make it to print, to bookshelves, to critical notice and acclaim. I haven't read all her work but I have read a couple of her novels and they richly deserve the praise they've garnered.

Edwidge Danticat also has a chapter in the book Haiti: A Slave Revolution, which was edited by comrades of mine and includes a foreword by my late beloved friend Pat Chin.

Meanwhile, Tony Christini at A Practical Policy picks up on a surprisingly acute observation on U.S. literature by Edmund White, who says that "the last great taboo in America is class."

Speaking of acute, here's some analysis from Cuba about tomorrow's U.S. election and what will follow.


This, though it comes soon after my last plaint about a much-praised novel that I found, well, not praiseworthy, won't become a habit, I promise, because I'd much rather point to the good stuff than rag about the bad. But after reading Netherland by Joseph O'Neill I've got to make a point or two. O'Neill's writing is, as all aver, fine, sometimes stunning, especially in his mastery of metaphor, though it is also sometimes, to my taste, overwrought. Regardless, it's the story that demands comment. This tale too has to do with immigrants, in this case in New York City. This novel too involves an immigrant's efforts to succeed in business; in this case the character is a Trinidadian, Chuck Ramkissoon, who wheels and deals toward the dream of building a world-class cricket center on the site of the old Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn out by Jamaica Bay. This, the usual focus on ye olde entrepeneurial dream as the immigrant story, is annoying, not least because it is nowhere near representative of the real stories of the mass of Caribbean immigrants to New York, most of whom work jobs like home health aide, livery driver, nanny, hospital orderly and so on. Still, sure, plenty of folks do dream this dream and some do find the cash and connections to make a small start toward it. So the tired old emphasis on small-businesshood isn't what ultimately turned me off to Netherland.

The point of view is what did that. This novel may be in part about Chuck Ramkissoon, but it is about Chuck Ramkissoon as an odd, exotic type and his Brooklyn immigrant world as an odd, exotic setting as seen through the eyes of the narrator who is a wealthy white market analyst in the banking industry. This banker is an immigrant, too, but he's Dutch by way of London, and he's so well off that he travels to London every other weekend to see his child and estranged wife throughout most of the book. Other weekends he plays cricket with a crew of Caribbean, Asian, African and other immigrant New Yorkers. The sole white on his team, he is befriended by them and by Ramkissoon, and through them he travels into what is presented in the novel as the "other" New York. Which means Brooklyn. In a series of set pieces situated mostly in Flatbush -- a citywide cricket banquet, driving through various neighborhoods, the Russian baths (OK, that's Brighton Beach), etc. -- the reader is presented with a wealthy white Manhattanite's take on the lives lived by immigrants of color in Brooklyn. Oh god. Will there ever be an end to these books? These books that are full of good will and friendly and compassionate as hell, sure, but that are nevertheless essentially travelogues, neocolonial excursions into the world of the other by the central figure in history, according to himself, European man.

The author even catches himself at it. About two-thirds of the way through the book there's a passage where the narrator, Hans, is telling his wife about Chuck Ramkissoon and his wife accuses him of just this, exoticizing his supposed friend. Hmm, Hans thinks, all earnest, all reasonableness, am I doing that? And no, he earnestly concludes, no I'm not.

But yes the author is doing exactly that. He means well, no doubt, and he is it seems trying to get at several complexities about identity and immigration and friendship and history with the novel's title, but it strikes me that what he's cooked up is more like Neverland, one more postcolonial fantasy of what life is like for those driven across the world by the crimes of colonialism--as told by the inheritor of the riches stolen from their forebears. There's a liberal smugness to it, or at least that's how it sits with me.

Book after book of this ilk. Will we ever get to welcome book after book, published and marketed and widely reviewed, in which the stories of the workers and poor are presented directly by writers of the communities instead of as translated by outsiders?

Hard Times

Hard Times are upon us again. Who will be the new chroniclers of their ravages, who will give voice to their victims, broadcast the calls to organize and resist that will surely arise?

Upon the death of Studs Terkel, I can't imagine a higher tribute than this, from an appreciation in the Chicago Tribune:

Few people realize it, but Terkel is the only white writer to be inducted into the International Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent at Chicago State University.

"He was not afraid of other cultures. He was comfortable among all cultures," said Haki Madhubuti, the groundbreaking African-American poet and founder of Third World Press on the South Side. It was Madhubuti who nominated Terkel for induction. The approval vote was unanimous.