Sunday, May 31, 2009

Guest blogger Sandy Church on the working-class artist's life

Sandy Church and I met and became friends almost 35 years ago when we were both very young in Ann Arbor, Michigan. By the end of the 70s we lost touch. I was happy to hear from her again a few years back and now we email.

Sandy lives in Farmington, Michigan. She works full-time at a supermarket. She paints. A daughter of the working class, Sandy is a gifted artist who has always had to work for a wage, who's had some rough breaks and tough times and through it all has kept painting, producing fresh, original, inspired art. She's also a butch lesbian which means she's endured mistreatment and discrimination all her life. If there were any justice she'd be a famous artist doing her art full-time. I believe there are many people like Sandy, deeply talented artists whose work, because of the conditions of class society, does not get the recognition it deserves.

This is not to say that there are not also working-class painters and sculptors, photographers, poets and writers who do make a career of it, whose work does win recognition and earn them a living, and it is not at all to belittle these artists' accomplishments. They deserve every respect. I celebrate them. It's just that I'm convinced that for every one of those who somehow break through, there are five, 20, 100 others who never can, whose work the world never gets to see, whose gift we are deprived of by class society.

I recently asked Sandy if she'd like to share some thoughts about all this with Read Red. The following is the first installment of what I'm hoping will be several posts about the life of a working-class artist, in her own words:

Right now everything I'm going to write is in my head. I'm thinking about it today as I paint and listen to the TV in the other room with Barack Obama talking about memorial day stuff.

One thing that made me think about is the military. Out of pure frustration I joined the Army and didn't tell anyone I did until I had signed up because I didn't want to be talked out of it!

What was frustrating me was not having money to go to the design school I had just been accepted to. Back then (the 80's) it seems like every job I had went under or was taken over by some other company and then they fired everyone when they did (think it's called a hostile takeover). So I never had any money and whatever asshole President was in office at the time made sure no one could even get a student loan.

When I joined the Army to get some money to go to school here's what I thought, that I probably wouldn't like it but to get what I wanted I'd have to do something I didn't like. I thought of what a prostitute friend of mine told me, "that we all have to prostitute ourselves in some way," so I did.

Anyway, I knew a lot of my friends wouldn't understand my reasons for joining the military but then I thought about how people were always asking me why I didn't go to school to study art. They usually happened to be University of Michigan students that didn't have a clue about the working class. I was a janitor at the U of M and that was the closest way I thought I'd ever be a part of that school. Wow I got to clean their toilets!

The ironic thing I thought, and felt, was that every time someone looked at my art and couldn't understand why I didn't just walk right down to the U of M admissions office and enroll in their art program made me realize that for them to think I could meant we didn't live or come from the same world or maybe even planet!

See Shelley, I've been thinking class, like my whole life maybe.

So I grew up in Ann Arbor with parents that didn't have degrees and even told me, in case I didn't know, that you're not a part of that. There wasn't talk about what college I would go to when I finished high school, they never even asked me if I had homework the entire time I went to school. Guess the flip side of that is I didn't have any pressure about my future or that I had to "be something" when I went grew up.

That's some stuff I think about but there's a lot more in this brain of mine. Mostly I just want you to know that I'm not blowing you off but just taking the time to gather my (very crazy at times) thoughts.

I hope you're having a good day and don't have to work!
Peace out-

Oh, here's something you might like. I remember it from an old movie. I think it was Edgar "G." that said, "We take your money, we do your work, because we're afraid to starve!" Ain't that the truth!

Friday, May 29, 2009

Reading, writing, & fighting for rights links

Actor Cynthia Nixon, writer/poet Maya Angelou and others are calling New York state senators to try to persuade them to vote for the same-sex marriage bill. Angelou told the New York Times:
I would ask every man and every woman who's had the blessing of having children, 'Would you deny your son or your daughter the ecstasy of finding someone to love?' ... To love someone takes a lot of courage. So how much more is one challenged when the love is of the same sex and the laws say, 'I forbid you from loving this person'?
Saturday and Sunday, May 30-31, are the annual NYC Lit Mag Marathon Weekend, sponsored by the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses. The marathon part is Saturday--or rather, the Magathon, a lineup of readings from some two dozen literary magazines. I probably won't get to that, but I'm going to try my damnedest to get to part two, the literary magazine fair on Sunday at the Housing Works Bookstore in Soho. The big draw is an array of lit mags from around the country, every copy on sale for only $2. I've gone several times and always lose all control, leaving with a big bag full of lit journals. It's a weird experience for me, because it's absolutely packed with people and everyone seems to be having a grand time and know everyone else and be engaged in witty conversation full of high-culture fabulousness, while I know no one and feel all awkward and lonely and sore-thumbish, and just dart from table to table grabbing lit mags and then get the hell out of there and drag my bag home to Queens. But it's worth the social discomfort to get my hands on the loot. If you're going, get there early--it starts at noon--because those $2 copies disappear fast. Also, if you have more nerve than me, are better at shmoozing, or simply know how to start conversations with strangers, lots of journal editors are on hand to talk to.

This I find thrilling. I printed it out a couple weeks ago but only got a chance to read a couple days ago. When I did I began trembling with excitement. A chemist has found, it seems, through a series of relatively straightforward laboratory experiments, how, 3.8 billion years ago, some chemicals might have come together naturally and accidentally to create a new chemical compound: the first living cells. The origin of life on Earth. Wow.

I watched the documentary on the History Channel last weekend. Now will I buy the book The Link? On the one hand, why bother since the TV show was a predigested version? On the other hand, what am I saying? The book is undoubtedly richer, fuller, more interesting and complex. Just because it's a book and the TV show was fairly well dumbed down. I do love reading about evolution. And I've read previous works by Colin Tudge, who's a good writer. And this is a fascinating story, about the discovery and study of a 47-million-old unprecedentedly complete mammalian fossil that, after many years of study, scientists have now concluded is that of an ancestral primate species from before the great apes and the lemur family lines split. Our ancestor, in other words. So yeah, this one's made its way onto my to-read list.

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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Zionism is racism--against literature too

U.S. politicians always refer to Israel as "the only democracy in the Mideast." As if more evidence of what a hypocritical lie this is were needed, the Zionist apartheid state whose very essence is racism has now tried to shut down the Palestine Festival of Literature--twice!

Israeli soldiers block the entrance to the Palestine National Theater in East Jerusalem on May 23. (Photo from the Alternative Information Center)

On opening night, May 23, and now again on the festival's closing night, May 28, Israeli troops moved to bar the scheduled literary events from taking place and to silence the voices of the participating writers.

Court order banning literary festival posted on door. (Photo from Palfest website)

The Palestinian people, however, have long experience at this sort of thing, and both times the festival's organizers were able to quickly move to a new venue and carry on.

Thanks to Behind the Lines for posting the alert to this Israeli assault on artistic freedom.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


My long weekend stretched into an unexpected fourth day because the hot water heater for our building died. I couldn't go to work Tuesday because (1) I had to stay home and wait for the repair people and (2) after three days without access to hot water I wasn't fit for human society. In the afternoon, after the new hot water heater had been installed and we'd each finally had a real shower and the day had subsided into a misty drizzle outside, Teresa and I decided to snuggle up on the couch and watch a pay-per-view movie. We selected Baz Luhrmann's 2008 film Australia.

The story takes place in northern Australia in 1939-1941. Brandon Walters, left, stars alongside Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman. Some of the plot revolves around his character Nullah, an Aboriginal child whom white governmental authorities want to forcibly remove from his ancestral land and place in a boarding school to train as a servant. This policy was in place until the 1970s. The Australian government only finally apologized to the Aboriginal people last year. The stolen children are now known as "the stolen generations." The 2002 film Rabbit-Proof Fence took on this colonialist crime much more directly.

After watching the Luhrmann film, we wondered what Aboriginal viewers thought of it, so we got online and found a review by Amy McQuire on the website of The National Indigenous Times.
Luhrmann should be congratulated for trying to put the Stolen Generations issue on the agenda, but it adds nothing to the debate. ... For one point, it is overwhelmingly anti-racist - Hugh Jackman’s character The Drover advocates for the right for his Aboriginal mate to drink in a Darwin pub - and yet we still are left praising the triumphs of the white heroes.
Read McQuire's entire review here.

While we're on the topic of Australia, I've got to take this opportunity to comment on one of the best books I've read in the last 20 years, a book I've repeatedly recommended to anyone who asks for a reading suggestion. Death of a River Guide by Richard Flanagan. This novel is in a way everything Luhrmann's film, however well-meaning, isn't. Subtle, surprising, profound. It is a work of high art that is also a deeply political meditation on colonialism, racism, history. Reading Death of a River Guide was one of those times that I learned more truth from a work of fiction than I had from all my previous reading of history. Not that I'd till then read all that much about Australia, but with this novel I realized that I knew next to nothing. I knew that what we Marxists call the national question is central to that land's history, but from Flanagan's novel I began to get a glimpse of how incredibly complex it is. This book took me by the shoulders and shook me, and it's had a grip on me ever since.

I realize I've spoken mostly in generalities in this post. As to the movie, my best advice is to read the McQuire review I've linked to above. As to the novel, I don't want to get any more specific because readers should experience it whole, but my best advice is: read it.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Class & love in fiction

In the two most recent novels I've read, class issues are front and center. Both derive a depth and richness from this. Of course it doesn't hurt that both are beautifully written, that both authors are talented, that both approach story with a sweep both capacious and compassionate. What's rare here is a class-conscious vision, a way of looking at interlocking lives that acknowledges the reality so often ignored in contemporary fiction, at least contemporary fiction available in English in this country: this is a class society, and every life is lived within that framework.

While most readily available fiction ignores class altogether, there are certain popular alternatives. A character's life might be defined by the attempt to ignore class boundaries. Or to cross them. Or it might trace an upward or downward course, rags to riches or the reverse. Or two lives might meet across the class divide. All these are old stories, popular and oft told. Especially the last, love between rich and poor. Love conquering all, all in this case being snobbery, misunderstanding, prejudice, material disadvantage, etc. Love as the great leveler. Manse on the hill, wrong side of the tracks, the stark contrast dissolving, dismantled by love.

Uh huh. Not in real life. And not in novels more interested in truth than gooey fantasy.

Sarah Waters, the wondrous brilliant weaver of literary lesbian tales, has told the class truth in her previous four books--I remember my glee when, toward the end of reading her first novel, Tipping the Velvet, I came to scenes of the protagonist meeting and attending political meetings with Eleanor Marx--and in her latest the question of class is if anything even more directly the theme. The Little Stranger is many things. A ghost story. A haunted house story. A love story, thwarted. A meditation on time and change, war, history, progress. A sad consideration of class strictures, class division, class attitudes, of the immutability of class, and of the wreckage, the damage done. This is Britain, Waters seems to say. Read it and weep. (Then get out there and fight for a new system. OK, that's me.)

Vestal McIntyre's Lake Overturn is less ethereally lyrical, but we're in Idaho now, not the drippy, misty precincts whose Heathcliffs and Catherines are being superseded, book by book, by the divine Sarah Waters' creations. We're in sere 1980s Idaho--every bit as haunted, but by Reaganism, by racism, by religious fundamentalism, by conformity, by homophobia. Above all, by class. This is a book of grand ambition, encompassing many characters most of whom the author does a good job of bringing to life, all these lives moving along tracks laid down by class. There are struggles here: to survive day to day, paycheck to paycheck; to raise kids halfway successfully yet also find some sort of fulfillment, some identity beyond parenting; to endure the humiliations of poverty, adolescence, love. There are friendships built and broken, there are faith and illusion lost and found. I found the most affecting moments in the relationships, within and between classes. To some extent McIntyre toys with and subverts the hoary old love-transcending-class trope. There are characters who try and fail. There are also characters who, we are left to suspect at the novel's close, just might manage the trick. The former--the falling back into the confines defined by class--I found more satisfyingly realistic, bitter, even tragic, as it in some cases is. The latter--the couple that just might make it despite having met in circumstances that are practically a textbook illustration of characters of starkly different classes--I found less likely, and for that matter, from my point of view, not a particularly appealing plot turn. But hey, that's just me. I'd rather fight for and force the boss to fork over better wages than marry the boss. Another reader might find this a perfectly satisfying resolution. In any case, over all McIntyre goes a good deal further down the road of class honesty, I'd say, than many U.S. authors.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Hooray-for-three-days-at-home links

The university closes at 4:00 today, and then I get to head home on the International Express, aka the #7 train, to the fabulous borough of Queens. Our household's scheduled highlights for the three-day weekend include massive bouts of desperately needed spring cleaning interspersed with obsessively extensive sessions of Battlestar Galactica watching (we're now up to the second half of season two and full-on addicted), and, oh yeah, perhaps the occasional outdoor excursion. Till next week, then, some links:

The Indigenous Human Rights Film Festival began earlier this week and is continuing through this weekend and into next week. Next up tomorrow: "Indigenous Voices of the 21st Century" and "America's Secret Chernobyl" at the International Action Center at 4:00; and "Blood Money and the World Bank" and "Palabra India" at Bluestockings at 7:00.

Tuesday evening at the Widi Catering Hall in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, George Galloway, fiery left-wing member of the British parliament, and Vietnam veteran and anti-war activist Ron Kovic are the featured guests at an evening in solidarity with the people of Gaza sponsored by Al-Awda New York. The event is a fundraiser for the Break the Siege on Gaza Caravan.

What of those men arrested in a supposed plot to bomb a Bronx synagogue? It's an FBI entrapment production from start to finish. If anything, the FBI itself should be on trial since it's the FBI's personnel who created the plan, lured the men into it, provided the fake explosives, and so on. There was no plot before the FBI fabricated one. Louis Proyect reviews the list of government-concocted "terror plots" since September 11.

I'm not a fan of the late David Foster Wallace's magnum opus Infinite Jest, which I forced myself to read a couple years ago and, well, loathed for reasons both artistic and political. But some people I respect adore that book and, who knows, maybe my reaction was way off. For those ready to dive in and decide for themselves, there's Infinite Summer, a twittering, facebooking reading group that kicks off June 21. Thanks to Blographia Literaria for the link.

Did you know Reynolds Price is gay? Me neither. Now everyone does, thanks to his new memoir, which feels like "a boisterous coming-out party," according to Gay Book Blog.

Finally, I want to thank novelist Tayari Jones, who's Vineyarding for a month of writing solitude, for taking the time to read my post of yesterday about white writers and people of color characters and commenting on it on her blog, a comment that included calling me out for sort of hiding behind or using Teresa to justify myself on this subject. Point taken. The grappling continues.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

What do white writers have the right to write?

It's a tongue twister, this question--but more important, it's a challenging dilemma. An artistic, cultural, political, even moral dilemma. One that all white writers of conscience come up against, it seems to me, sooner or later. And have to grapple with as seriously and honestly as possible if they care to claim any social relevance for their fiction.

I'm talking about the issue of how, when, whether white writers can/can't/should/shouldn't/must/mustn't create characters of color. I've thought about this a lot. I've read quite a few opinions on the subject. I've spoken to quite a few writers and readers. And I've changed my mind--sort of, maybe, uneasily, worriedly.

This is particularly pertinent to me right now because my story "All the Ashleys in the World" has just been published in the Spring/Summer 2009 issue of Nimrod International Journal. This is the first story I've written with people of color as the main characters. It's about a 12-year-old girl in Queens whose mother, an undocumented Mexican immigrant, is arrested in an ICE raid on her work place and is being held in a detention center.When I started writing fiction, 10 years ago now, it seemed to me that for a white writer to write the stories of Black or Latino/a or other people of color characters was an arrogant presumption, even a kind of theft. That it amounted to an expropriation--a taking of something I as a white writer have no right to take, that is, the experience of life as it is lived by people of color in this society, or, and this is really the point, I think, the expression of that experience. The right to tell the story, the stories. Who am I to claim that right? A right that writers from the oppressed communities have fought hard to claim for themselves. And even if it were somehow okay to try, what white writer could even come close to getting it right? How can anyone who grew up white in this country possibly understand the experience of people of color? Experiences, rather, plural--and there's another issue, for the range of experiences and issues is vast and complex, people of color are not some monolithic entity, not some singular Other defined purely in relation to the white majority, no, of course not. For a white writer to skirt the issue of racism, how large it looms in the lives of people of color, would be a cop-out. On the other hand, to define characters of color singularly as creations of racism, solely as oppressed and not as multidimensional people encompassing the whole gamut of human experience, would be terribly wrong, offensive, shallow and insensitive. Yet isn't it enormously presumptuous for a white writer to feel entitled to make just these sorts of creative decisions in crafting characters of color?

So the bottom-line questions for white writers, I think, are: Can we write characters of color who are authentic? Can we write characters of color in a way that is not insensitive? And, even if we think the answers to these two questions are yes, still, are we writing about lives that are not ours to write about?

For a long time I worried that I'd be fooling myself if I thought I could write authentically and sensitively about characters of color. Regardless, it seemed to me that it was not my place to try. I read pieces by Black and Latino writers who made the case strongly that white writers should not write Black or Latino/a lives, and it seemed to me that I ought to defer to their view. Then I began coming across other opinions from other Black and Latino/a writers who had the other view, some who even challenged white writers to demonstrate the reach of their imaginative empathy by creating living, breathing--real, not symbolic, full, not flat--believable and sensitively wrought characters of color. Then, as I moved further into the writing world, attended conferences, made friends, I started meeting more writers of color who held this position very strongly. Do we not exist, they asked. Do we not have a place in your stories? How dare you write a world without us. Sure, it's hard to get it right, but you damned well better try. Now I saw (duh) that there is no uniform view, that people of color have as many nuances of opinion about this topic as about any other. Which meant I'd have to decide for myself.

All my fiction--I have now written one novel, about a dozen short stories, and the first 75 pages of a second novel--is to one extent or another political. Sometimes directly, other times more subtly. In one way or another, all of it addresses social issues, including racism. All of it includes characters of various nationalities, and gay and straight, and women and men. In my first novel there are two important Black characters. Both are close friends of the two protagonists. But in that novel, as in most of my early stories, the protagonists themselves are white. As I read and listened to the divergent viewpoints about this question of who has the right to write what, it dawned on me one day that, oh crap, I was falling into the "gay best friend" trap, only in my case with Black characters. I think the characters were true and real and well written, but they were not the pivot point of the tales. I began to feel that if a story came to me in which people of color were central, that I ought to try to tell it, in a way that would be as true as possible to the lived experience of the characters. Maybe I wasn't a good enough writer. Maybe I was too trapped in my own white experience. But I hoped that wasn't so. And I began to think that I should not shy away from the attempt.

Around the same time I started thinking about the issue in this light, a little girl started stalking my imagination. A kid of about 12, standing alone on the edge of Union Square listening intently to the speakers at an immigrant-rights demonstration. Sad and angry, confused and determined, and all alone. She staked out space in my subconscious and wouldn't leave, emerging more and more frequently up into the realm of conscious thought. Then I started hearing her voice, feeling her pain, worrying about her, dreaming her, until finally, with much trepidation and self-doubt but feeling as if I had no choice, that I couldn't run away from her any longer, I started writing her story.

The writing itself went fast. The story took a few unexpected turns--the scene I'd originally seen, of the child, Ashley, at Union Square, did not end up in the story at all--but they felt right. The editing and revision process was slow and methodical. The consultation was more thorough and complete than any I'd before undertaken. Several people were kind enough to read drafts and help me correct and polish. That includes several Latino/a friends who graciously found and fixed my many errors in the Spanish that is sprinkled throughout the story. And my lover Teresa Gutierrez, who has strong views on cultural appropriation, weighed in and critiqued it. (Note that this last sentence is revised from what I originally wrote here; in that original version I sort of hid behind Teresa or used her approval to kind of cover myself or lend legitimacy to my writing this story, which was wrong and a cop-out.)

Now it's been published, in a special issue about Mexico in which most of the other writing is by Mexicans and people of Mexican ancestry. This is an honor, as well as awfully humbling. I hope I did justice to my characters and their story. I think it was right to try.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

By any means necessary

Today, May 19, is the anniversary of the birth of two great leaders in the modern struggle of the workers and oppressed: Ho Chi Minh and Malcolm X.

Ho Chi Minh, born on this date in 1890, was the leader of the Vietnam revolution, a brilliant Marxist thinker and consummate Leninist strategist. The Vietnamese people waged a grueling, bitter, hard, long but ultimately successful struggle for national liberation, first from French colonialism and then from U.S. imperialism, with Ho at the head of the fight. Vietnam is marking his birthday with many tributes and ceremonies. But the remembrances aren't limited to Southeast Asia. There are few more beloved figures in the history of the class struggle. For Comrade Ho Chi Minh cut down the colossus. With him providing political guidance and the great Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap (still alive and active at age 98) leading the military, the impoverished masses of Vietnam did what was supposed to be impossible: defeated the biggest, most technologically advanced, best funded imperial war machine in history. For this, Ho Chi Minh is honored by workers and oppressed people the world round, because his lesson provides hope that we can in fact win.

Youth Against War and Fascism, the youth arm of Workers World Party, held the first-ever protest against the U.S. war in Vietnam, in New York in August 1962. It was a small picket of perhaps two dozen people. Comrade Ho heard, and told an interviewer, "We appreciate such actions. ... Such activities are known here and greatly hearten our people."

Since this is a blog about books and reading, I'll close my note about Ho Chi Minh by mentioning Monique Truong's very fine novel The Book of Salt. This is a subtly written, finely wrought story about a gay Vietnamese man who works as the chef for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in France in, if I remember right, the 1930s. Among the themes Truong explores are the toll of colonialism on the individual psyche. She also manages to work in a cameo appearance by Ho himself.

Malcolm X would have been 84 today. He was cut down by an assassin on February 21, 1965. Just one week earlier, his home in Queens had been firebombed. That same night he was speaking at Ford Auditorium in Detroit. One of the things he said there was that the oppressed have the right to fight back "by any means necessary" against the oppressor. This is the complete text of that Detroit speech. Here is a video excerpt.

There is an event honoring Malcolm X tonight at the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Center in Washington Heights. And for anyone who has not read it, The Autobiography of Malcolm X remains indispensable as an introduction to the life and thought of this great rebel against racism and imperialism, this soldier for international liberation.

Malcolm X's exhortation to battle on "by any means necessary" has become in the decades since his death a clarion call echoed time and time again in this country and around the world, by people of every nationality. It resonates and will continue to, I think, just as Ho Chi Minh's example of fighting on against seemingly impossible odds continues to inspire. Leaders like these are uncommon. Their legacy is inextinguishable.

Monday, May 18, 2009

NY Loves Mountains Festival

I've written before about the horrors of mountaintop removal, the coal industry's current profit-taking weapon of choice against the people and environment of Appalachia. I was brought to consciousness about this outrage by Ann Pancake's wonderful novel Strange as this Weather Has Been, which tells the story of a West Virginia family and community whose lives are devastated by the wreckage of mountaintop removal.
Photo courtesy of Appalachian Voices

Now my friend the West Virginian novelist Meredith Sue Willis has sent me a heads-up about the upcoming second annual New York Loves Mountains Festival.

The festival takes place May 29-31 at various sites in Manhattan and Brooklyn. It features theater, music, readings and a rally. Among those taking part will be authors Silas House and Jeff Biggers, playwright Sarah Moon and cellist Ben Sollee with surprise musical guests. The whole thing is presented by Headwaters Productions; this is from artistic director Stephanie Pistello's news release:
New York's connection between Appalachia and the Catskills dates back to Washington Irving's 1819 classic, Rip Van Winkle. ... In the spirit of Irving's great tale, the NY Loves Mountains Festival features the first national-touring original production based on a mountaintop removal family saga and Thomas Edison's first coal-fired plant in New York City.
Get all the details here.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Ghassan Kanafani & Gaza

One corner of that vast expanse occupied by the areas of my ignorance is Arab literature. I've been trying to adddress this, slowly, book by book. Now comes this in Granta, which has made me very keen to read work by Ghassan Kanafani. He was a Palestinian writer. A very political one. A member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, with which I have a strong affinity. He is also a martyr for the Palestinian struggle, assassinated by the Zionist terror police Mossad.
A few of Kanafani's novels and short story collections are available in English. I'm going to look for them.

The Granta piece itself, by Hisham Matar, is interesting in its own right for his points about Israel's propaganda during and after its Gaza atrocities. Link thanks to Laila Lalami.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Artists for Workers' Choice

Here's an AFL-CIO video in which members of various actors' unions speak out in favor of the Employee Free Choice Act. Unless the majority party--the party that got in to power on the basis of workers' votes and union money and that pretends to represent workers, the party that currently shows every sign of preparing for a cowardly, craven cave-in on EFCA--unless the Democrats use their majority vote to finally, finally pass this law to defend workers' rights to organize into unions, there is going to be a lot of righteous anger in the working class.

I find the video notable for how many times the word "worker" is used. You don't hear that word very often in this country. (Sadly, though, the apostrophe is missing from the word workers'. Sigh.)

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

No accounting for taste + no laughing matter

I have a friend, a young comrade in the struggle for socialism, who is simply brilliant. He is I believe likely to be one of the key leaders in this country's revolution when it comes. He's got a keen grasp of Marxist theory and a sharp grip on Leninist tactics. He is a person of integrity and courage as well as a fine speaker and writer. In addition to his full-time activism he writes fiction (and was once briefly enrolled in an MFA program), so I feel a kinship with him on creative grounds as well as political camaraderie.

Get the picture? Now add this: he is a huge fan of the zombie genre. In fact, he asserts that virtually any movie, especially serious classics, could be improved by adding zombies. Is this a riot, or what? Who says communists don't have senses of humor, or, perhaps more to the point, quirks of taste all over the map?

I'm hoping his view on the cinema arts extends to books. Yesterday I made another bookstore run and bought him a little gift. That's right, what else but the runaway bestseller Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith. I can't stop laughing at this from the back cover:
Complete with romance, heartbreak, swordfights, cannibalism, and thousands of rotting corpses, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies transforms a masterpiece of world literature into something you'd actually want to read.
About the authors:
Jane Austen is the author of Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, Mansfield Park, and other masterpieces of English literature. Seth Grahame-Smith once took a class in English literature.
Oh man oh man, I can't wait to give it to him.

This, on the other hand, is no laughing matter. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is trying to push through 22% budget cuts for the city's three public library systems. This stinking billionaire who bought his way into two terms in office, then strong-armed a change in the law so that he can run for a third and is now spending tens of millions of dollars buying another four years, has the nerve to demand that the workers and poor shoulder the burden of paying for his Wall Street buddies' thievery by enduring enormous cuts in services along with city employee layoffs. These include jobs of librarians, clerks and other library staffers, and drastic reductions in hours. Hours that are already ridiculously skimpy.

I love my neighborhood Queens library branch. It's physically tiny yet it has a pretty decent fiction selection. The second floor is filled with books in Spanish, Korean and Chinese. It's always jam-packed with people, especially lots and lots of kids.

As for hours, the weekday schedule is so tight that it's almost impossible for me to ever get there. For most of my years in the neighborhood it had no weekend hours, then finally a few years back it started opening for part of Saturday. Now this looks to go the way of the $2 transit fare. And oy, don't get me started on that outrage.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

My mother the reader

She'd be 87 if she were alive. She died, too young, at 65. I miss her every day. Which is not to say that ours was a smooth relationship. Oh no. We had one of those complex, maddening, mutually crazy-making mother-daughter bonds. Lots of love and resentment and guilt and anger and love. But a bond it was, not fully broken even by death. To this day, almost 22 years on, I still slip up sometimes, usually on a Sunday, and reach for the phone to call her. Then I catch myself--I remember she doesn't exist--and I have to sit and steady my breath. Not today, though. Mother's Day seems designed to remind the motherless of what is gone from our lives.

Most people say the loss of a child is the hardest to survive. Ayelet Waldman provoked such pitiless rage when she wrote in an essay few years back that she'd rather one of her children die than her husband Michael Chabon that now she's written a whole book titled Bad Mother, its publication date cannily timed for maximum publicity to coincide with, yep, you know what day. Me, I don't know, I guess everyone's different, and anyway you can't quantify something as subjective as the loss of a loved one, but it's hard for me to imagine another absence as definitive as the absence of your mother. She (at least if you're lucky enough to have had your mother with you, mothering you, from the start and assuming she wasn't an out-and-out horror show) is part of the landscape of your life from the moment of your first breath. Part of it? She is the landscape. Or she's oxygen. Or water. She's your skin. Choose your metaphor; the point is that unlike friends and lovers and even children, all these characters who are added on to the narrative as your life progresses, your mother was always there. So that when, ultimately, she's not there anymore, the hole is enormous. Never to be filled.

So today let me pay tribute to my mother in a way I know would please her, even though there's no her anymore and this is really for myself. For myself, then, let me say how happy I am that she was a reader, and how grateful that she turned me into one, right from the start.

Mom was a schoolteacher. She'd worked her way through college at Wayne State University in the 1930s, and started out in the 1940s teaching English and drama at a Detroit high school. She took some years off in the 1950s when she had her two kids, then went back to work and spent the rest of her long career teaching elementary school. She was a great teacher, one of those whose former students came back to visit her for years afterward, who credited her with instilling a love of learning, who were always hugging her and giving her gifts. Away from the classroom, at home, when she wasn't grading papers or preparing lesson plans or cooking, she was reading.

With me on her lap, also reading. I know that my love of books started as a toddler with her reading to me, lots of Dr. Seuss above all. But as soon as I learned how to read myself--in first grade, for this was long before the current pressure for kids as young as 2 to start reading kicked in--we were off and running, Mom and me, as a reading team. We'd go to the library together and take out books and head home and snuggle up in the big brown easy chair and open our books and sit there, the two of us, reading. For hours and hours. Within a few years we were reading the same books. I remember an Agatha Christie kick we got onto together. We read Christie's entire Hercule Poirot oeuvre, Mom reading one, me on her lap reading another, then swapping, over the course of several months until we'd read every single one. She read James Michener's Hawaii, and passed it on to me. And Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk. I read Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, and passed it on to her. And so it went.

She spent way too many hours in that chair reading. If she'd have moved her body around a bit she'd no doubt have lived longer. Since I've gained a lot of weight in middle age--Mom, you wouldn't know your skinny-as-a-katydid daughter these days--I'm lately trying to be conscious about forcing myself to spend some of my precious reading time not-reading, exercising instead, so as to ensure the maximum possible reading years ahead. It's hard, though. There's nothing like a book. For all the obvious reasons. All the wonders contained therein. And for another reason more specific to me. Books=Mom. I believe they always will.

Now I'm going to go have a cup of coffee and read for a while. Her name, by the way, was Elaine.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

John Brown's body

What's left of his bones lie a-mouldering in the grave, but his beautiful beautiful spirit--that is, the spirit of struggle against racism, for justice and equality--does indeed go marching on. Today is the anniversary of the birth of John Brown on May 9, 1800. He was murdered by the U.S. government on December 2, 1859, for the "crime" of attempting to lead an uprising against slavery. The troops who carried out his hanging were under the command of Gen. Robert E. Lee, soon to lead the Confederate army in the Civil War; one of the soldiers who walked Brown to the gallows was John Wilkes Booth, later to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.

Brown is generally portrayed, when he is remembered at all, as a wild-eyed lunatic. Of course. For otherwise the truth would have to be acknowledged. The truth is that it was not insanity for a white person in the pre-Civil-War era to devote his life to the fight to abolish slavery. It was commitment to the cause, a cause worth dying for: to end racism. And he was in fact thoroughly anti-racist, unlike most of the Boston eminences in the abolitionist movement who were against slavery yet quite racist but whose names have not been slandered the way John Brown's has.

He founded the first fully integrated community in the United States, in North Elba, NY, where Black and white families lived and farmed together, and which also functioned as an Underground Railway station from which he guided escaped slaves north to Canada. This is now the location of his gravesite (photo at left). Brown led the decisive battles in Bloody Kansas that ensured that state's entry into the union as a free state. He studied and learned from Toussaint L'Ouverture and the Maroons of Jamaica. He collaborated closely with Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, and it was he who dubbed her "General" and deferred to her experience and tactical guidance. In the organizing for the raid on Harper's Ferry he recognized the leadership of the Black participants; had the plans for the raid and its aftermath succeeded, the state structure that would have been set up would have had at its head Black and white, women and men.

Consider this: In 1912, many years after John Brown was hanged and a year before she herself would die, Harriet Tubman said John Brown had been "my dearest friend." And this: W.E.B. Du Bois wrote a biography of John Brown. These two facts alone speak volumes about who this soldier for freedom actually was, giving the lie to the smears against him, spread to this day by the ruling powers in this country.

The 150th anniversary of Brown's valiant raid on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry is coming up, in October of this year. I'll no doubt have more to say then.

As to books, I've referred before several times to the Du Bois biography and the recent one by David S. Reynolds, both of which are well worth reading. As is the wonderful novel Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks. (Links in the books list at right.) But I'd be remiss if I didn't also urge everyone to read the one first-person account of the daring effort for which Brown and 16 others gave their lives in 1859. It is A Voice from Harper's Ferry by Osborne P. Anderson. Anderson was one of five participants who escaped and lived, and I believe he was the only Black survivor.

John Brown presente!

Friday, May 8, 2009

War in Pakistan: made in USA

I just received an announcement about a demonstration that's been called for this Sunday, May 10, to protest Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari's visit to NYC, which "comes as the U.S. government is escalating the war against the people of Afghanistan and increasing attacks against the people of Pakistan," according to the call from the Pakistan-USA Freedom Forum. It continues:
Rather than ending the war for oil and conquest, Washington is launching new attacks--in the last few days, U.S. bombs have killed more than 100 civilians in Afghanistan, and Pakistan is facing a growing barrage of attacks by U.S. bombers, drones, missiles and Special Forces. President Zardari and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai were brought to Washington this week to build support for increased military action and to shore up support for the $94 billion "supplemental" bill to pay for the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Pakistan.
A Workers World editorial puts it this way: "More and more, U.S. imperialism is making Pakistan a battleground in its ugly war to achieve unchallenged control of western Asia." Ugly is right. Yesterday, angry marchers in Herat, Afghanistan, chanted, "Death to America" after U.S. air strikes killed 147 civilians and injured many more.

Sunday's action starts at 2:30 at 45th Street and Madison Avenue in Manhattan.

Pakistan is certainly not an area of expertise for me, beyond some broad outlines of its history from the time of the Partition on, but for anyone looking to learn more from an anti-imperialist perspective, some of Tariq Ali's books aren't a bad place to start. His 2008 book The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power sounds on target. A few years ago I read The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity, and found it useful.

As to fiction, a few months ago I read Mohammed Hanif's novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes, which builds an intriguing argument for a U.S. role in the 1988 assassination of Pakistan's head of state at that time, General Zia.

Nine days of rain

Sounds like the title of a horror movie. Or perhaps a biblical prophecy. But nah, it's just a description of life in New York so far this May. Seven straight rainy days as of yesterday, and more is forecast for today and tomorrow. Enough already!

If it weren't enough, there's this: yesterday the university administration announced that they will definitely begin layoffs shortly. No one knows where the axe will fall, or when, and we're all very nervous. If I stay rational I ought to be able to stay calm, because I have pretty decent seniority and our union contract has good layoff language, which means that I should be able to keep my job. Or a job, anyway; even if the bosses decide to slash my job, even if they dump this whole department, which after all makes them no real money, according to the contract language I should still be able to shift into some other position at no loss in pay. That's the theory. The practice, who knows. Companies everywhere are swatting union contracts aside like gnats, and unfortunately my local's leadership is of the sell-out accommodationist variety and would no doubt happily agree to a contract reopener and/or just let the language slide in the interests of "labor peace." Oy. Well, we shall see.

In the meantime ... when the going gets tough, the tough go--book shopping! Yes, my response to the stress of layoff fear was to spend yesterday's lunch hour on one of my manic rounds of libraries and bookstores to gather up reading material. I spent almost nothing, finding some wondrous picks on the $1 shelves outside the Strand, using my still-extant Xmas gift certificate at Shakespeare & Co. for more freebies, and checking out armloads on library loan. Now I've got a great grand tottering pile sitting here on my office windowsill at work, and will tote them home one by one over the next weeks.

I don't know why it comforts me so to have a huge and varied stock of available reading on hand. You can't eat books. They won't pay the rent. My parents were children of the Great Depression, and I grew up being constantly admonished to turn off lights, eat everything on my plate, re-use, conserve, etc. Some of it took, some of it didn't, but I suspect that this compulsion to gather and hoard books, this horror at the prospect that I might ever be without a tall, meaty to-read stack, somehow has its roots in that old Depression training. Now that the new Depression is upon us, we'll get through it together, me and my books.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Palestine Festival of Literature

The 2009 Palestine Festival of Literature will run from May 23 to 28.
Because of the difficulties Palestinians face under military occupation in traveling around their own country,
this festival differs from all others. It is not located in one spot. It is mobile. Book lovers don't go to the festival since the apartheid conditions imposed by the Zionist occupiers make that impossible--so the festival goes to them. It will begin and end in Jerusalem, and in between it will travel to Ramallah, Jenin, and al-Khalil/Hebron.

I hope it's a smashing success. And I salute the fortitude of the organizers and participants, carrying on with the work in defiance of the occupation.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Aw, who'm I kidding?

Wait two months till I'm on vacation? Yeah, right.

I've been staring at and fondling the shiny smooth cover of my copy of Sarah Waters' new novel The Little Stranger. And I just read several reviews of it, all glowing. And I've loaded it into my backpack for transport to my to-read pile at home. And it'll go on top. I don't know who I thought I was kidding but there's no way I can wait much longer.

I feel a bit sad to learn that there are no lesbian characters in this book. But I don't hold it against Waters. She has the right to write straight characters if those are the characters asking to be written. I have faith in her. I'll follow her anywhere, even into what from all accounts is a very scary haunted house.

Monday, May 4, 2009

29 years on: Kent State & Jackson State

Murdered for protesting. Never forget. Never stop protesting until the crimes of capitalism are stopped for good.

Looking-forward-to-it links

The Bay Area Reporter gives a rave review to Vestal McIntyre's Lake Overturn. If I remember correctly, this author was more or less discovered when the editors of Open City found a story of his in their slush pile a few years back and went crazy over it. I'm looking forward to reading this first novel by one of our new gay literary stars.

The Slate Gallery in Brooklyn has a show of recent paintings by Dorothy Robinson coming up. Come join me at the opening reception this Friday, May 8, from 6 to 9 p.m. to check out the work of this gifted artist. I met Dorothy last summer when we both spent a month at an arts colony. Her painting "Continental Drift," which will be part of the Slate Gallery show, is a product of her time there.

A play about Harry Hay and Rudy Gernreich and how they founded the Mattachine Society: The Temperamentals, now playing at the Studio Theater. I'd like to go; going to see if I can swing it.

Nabbed it! I got a review copy of Sarah Waters' new novel The Little Stranger at the Strand last week, a month before the official publication date. But now I can't decide if I should dive in ... or save it for a more leisurely savor during my vacation two months from now. Hmm.

May Day music & dance

The May Day 2009 rally and march here in NYC on Friday was a sopping, soaking, sloshing success, with not a spirit dampened despite a near-constant downpour. The single most striking note, it seemed to me, was unity, with immigrants from every continent and those born here joining together to demand full rights for all workers.

As the rally at Union Square ended, the band Kofre pumped everybody up as we marched off down Broadway toward Federal Plaza.
Additional delight was provided by this adorable troupe of little dancers.