Saturday, August 29, 2009

Let's get personal, or memoir and its limitations

First, upfront, some face-saving apologies for my analytical deficiencies: my thoughts on this topic are not fully formed. I'm going to share them anyway, in hopes you'll forgive me any inconsistencies and/or gaps in logic as I use this space to do some mulling. This won't be my most elegantly written post either. Plus it's too long by half. Sorry about all that. I'm still going to post it and hope that all these various faults in the paragraphs to come will be forgiven.

The topic is memoir, and why my relationship with this, the most popular of all genres among U.S. readers, is at best ambivalent. More, why most of the time memoir, including highly acclaimed work, leaves me cold. The mulling was occasioned, as I noted briefly yesterday, by reading Mary Gaitskill's memoir-essay "Lost Cat" in the latest issue of Granta. This essay seems to be leaving all its readers weeping and sniffly. All its readers except me, and so I've been wondering why it left me unmoved.

There's no doubt some unpinpointable element of subjectivity to my reaction, as there is in every reader's every reading experience. Composed of, who knows, my own history with and feelings about cats, and fathers who fought in World War II, and siblings, and Italian villas to which I have mysteriously not been invited to spend a luxurious month writing, and travels in Europe which I have never been able to afford, and the Fresh Air Fund and East New York and immigrant workers and the New York public schools and private schools and poverty and racism ... Well, maybe it's not so unpinpointable, since this list that started with the more or less personal seems to have swiftly shifted toward the clearly political. And isn't that the whole point? Still, I want to acknowledge that there's probably some fuzzy emotional personal stuff that played some role in holding me back from the lachrymose plunge Gaitskill's piece seems to have prompted in everyone else who read it, before moving on to the more specific issues I can indeed identify.

In "Lost Cat," Gaitskill weaves together several narratives. One is about the sick puny stray kitten she fell in love with while at aforementioned Italian villa, and brought back home, and a few months later lost when the now nearly grown cat apparently strayed from her backyard; and it's about her long, futile search for the cat; and about her wrenching, overwhelming feelings of abject grief as well as guilt at the loss of the cat. Another strand is about her family--her father and the hardships in his past, about her and her father, about her sisters and her and her sisters and their difficult relationships with her, with each other, with their father. Another is about how Gaitskill and her husband signed up to be a Fresh Air Fund family that takes in children from impoverished New York City households so the kids can spend part of the summer outside of the city, and about the complications that ensued, and about the relationship they developed with one child and then his sister and their family, and the confusing, complex web of relationships that developed, and the hopes and dashed hopes, about ambivalence, best intentions, failed efforts, frustration, understanding and misunderstanding, confusion, guilt.

Overall, if I got it and I think I did at least to some extent, "Lost Cat" is a brief memoir about the necessity and pain of love. The complications of love. The wreckage wrought by love. Mistakes made in the name of love. Love's great ambitions, and its shortcomings. Gaitskill sets out to explore why the loss of the cat from Italy so gutted her emotionally, and it's the quest to understand this that she maps in the Granta piece. As I think back to the steps of this quest as she illustrates it in this essay, I begin to see why I didn't connect with it, and in turn something starts to come at least a little clearer about why I rarely connect with this sort of writing.

It boils down to two things. One is that love, I think, is not as inherently interesting a standalone topic as many writers seem to think. Or at least so it seems to me. Why didn't I relate to Gaitskill's painful tale of the gnarly twisty way love rampaged through her life? I've certainly felt love in my life, and pain, loss, various permutations of rejection and sorrow along with joy and fulfillment. I would maintain that I have no shortage of empathy. And it's not as though Gaitskill is some horrid specimen of ruling-class awfulness, not at all. She's a writer of working-class origins, I believe, and from the evidence of her essay her family remains not exactly well off, and if she has risen slightly to the point where she has a solid academic job with benefits that doesn't make her some kind of bourgie horror show. So we're not talking about, say, Christopher Buckley's memoir of his rich, reactionary parents, a book that got gorgeous reviews as if all families are the same and all books about family feelings are equally relate-able, yecch.

But. Although there's no reason to have a beef with this writer herself or her current life of relative privilege, what the writer has written here is the latest in an endless parade of memoirs by many writers, book-length or brief, all of which engage in endless cogitation about love and relationships, more specifically the writer's own loves and relationships--and it's this endless cogitation about these writers' love and relationships that turns me off, and here's why: it's a luxury peculiar to petit-bourgeois life in the imperialist countries. Who else, where else can writers devote their time and creative energy to conducting such in-depth examinations of themselves, their own lives? Who else, where else can writers expend such effort and artistry at plumbing their own fascinating depths and, unfailingly finding there deep universal truths, bring them forth for the edification of humankind? Not just can do so but would ever think of doing so? I mean, I just glanced at my bookshelves and what I see there in the way of memoir includes a book by a Sandinista about the years in the mountains fighting for revolution in Nicaragua, a book by a famous progressive lawyer who devoted his life to defending the victims of political reaction, a book by a great singer who writes about his confrontations with racism. All of them write about their personal lives, their loves, their joys and sorrows, but about much more too. Unfortunately, most memoirists in this country write the other kind of memoir. It seems to me that these writers, whatever their own class origins may be, are thoroughly in the grip of bourgeois consciousness (a topic I wrote about at some length in a series of posts earlier this year). Why else would they believe that these stories that are only about themselves are actually about everyone, much less that they make a meaningful cultural contribution?

That's still not sharp enough, I know; I'm sure I'll revisit this point in the future and I hope I can get closer to a cogent point. I'll add this for now. Thinking about Gaitskill's essay and the question of the proliferation of memoir, especially the particular type of memoir that proliferates in this country, reminded me of The Kiss, Kathryn Harrison's famous 1998 book about the sexual relationship she had with her father as a young woman. I actually got sucked in by the hype at the time, and read Harrison's memoir. Much has been written about this book's creepiness. Much was also written expressing compassion for what she went through. I remember that my main reaction was: why did she write, or rather, why did she publish this book? It's the same question I have about many many memoirs. What drives people to tell these stories? Aside from whatever personal psychological need publication fulfills, the motivation often seems to be some feeling that their story is universal; that they have something to say that the world -- no, not the world, the U.S. book-buying public -- must hear; most of all, ostensibly, anyway, that they have some wisdom to share that will help said public.

Really, though? What makes these memoirists think they're all that deep? Rarely do they have anything to say about the factory closings in their Midwest hometowns. Or the epidemic of rapes on nearby Army bases. Or the latest wave of immigrants from whichever country the U.S. had invaded and was occupying during the memoirist's teenage years. Or how all the abortion clinics in a five-state radius had closed down; or the rise in college tuition rates and long lines at the unemployment offices; or the lynchings that drove most of the African-Americans out of their county in the decade of their birth. Do they not believe all of this is the context for all that stuff that went on in their families, all these emotions they feel, all this love and hate and complication they've experienced and that they're convinced are relevant to everybody else? Some of them do, of course, and theirs are the memoirs that feel worthwhile to me. But the context -- by which I mean of course the class struggle, which is everywhere and ongoing and is the context for everything, on the grandest scale as well as the most intimate -- is what I find to be missing in most of the memoir genre. It's this absence of social context that leaches the meaning out of all that blather about love.

Many paragraphs ago I said my inability to connect to the sort of memoir of which "Lost Cat" is an example boils down to two things. This -- the question of social and political context -- is the second. Now, let me make clear that, as mainstream writers go, Gaitskill is far from clueless. The parts of the piece that are about her relationship with the two Latino children from Brooklyn fairly crackle with her awareness of the contradictions involved in that relationship. As she becomes more and more involved in their lives, as she and her husband aid them financially, educationally, socially, and as none of it goes smoothly, as their best efforts frequently backfire, as problems pile upon problems, she is well aware of at least part of the broader picture, and equally aware of the personal, social, cultural and financial pitfalls for her husband and herself, two white middle-class professionals trying in their own well-meaning way to help two impoverished children of color, and especially of the pitfalls for the children themselves. Well aware? Well, not quite, not by my read, and here's where the limitations of bourgeois consciousness intrude. Where the blinders of the memoirist honing in on what she believes to be some deeply meaningful episodes in her own life without stepping back and widening the focus to take in the broader context end up narrowing the relevance of the memoir.

This then, I believe, is why I did not cry. In my opinion, Gaitskill's brief memoir--which sort of ends up equating the two children with the lost cat in terms of her feelings and her faulty efforts to save them, save the cat from straydom and save the children (yeah, I know,) from poverty, drugs, crappy housing, schools, etc.--fails because it doesn't look at the big picture, about the children, who I hope are meant to be the most important part of the story though the cat gets the title, in any meaningful way. The children's mother, for example, while initially portrayed with some slight sympathy, comes off as the villain of the piece. She's violent, emotionally and materially unreliable, and so on. The schools, the social service agencies, the summer camps, the courts, all the structures with which Gaitskill interacts as she tries to be a positive force in the children's lives, all of course fail to provide a way forward for the children. But none of it gets more than cursory treatment of the things-are-awful-in-the-inner-city sort. Why does the children's mother behave as she does? She's an immigrant, though we're not told from which Latin American country--well, what brought her here? NAFTA and the consequent destruction of the Mexican economy? Or desperate conditions in the Dominican Republic, where the U.S. invaded and ousted the progressive elected government in 1964? Or Puerto Rico, held as a colony for over 100 years? What kind of desperation, loneliness, racism does she endure? Especially important, is she undocumented? As for the New York public schools, how can anyone write about their failings without addressing the unbelievably, criminally unequal funding that basically throws the children of the poor onto the educational junk heap? That's the context for what happens to the kids Gaitskill is writing about; without addressing it the story stays on the level of individual sad stories that leave everyone feeling hopeless and impotent. Again, I'm not accusing Gaitskill of any kind of terrible right-wing hardheartedness, and I suppose I can't require that every book explicitly advocate for political struggle on a mass scale, but I am arguing, I guess, that a wider scope, a fuller field of vision would have been necessary to have lifted the story of her relationship with these two Brooklyn kids to the level of social relevance I'd wish for.

A political consciousness, in other words, extending beyond the petit-bourgeois norm. That's what makes a memoir move me. And what this one lacked, hemmed in as it is by the limits of liberalism. Which is why I didn't cry.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Honduras, Katrina & a lost kitten

Today after work I'll head up to midtown to join the national solidarity march against the coup d'état in Honduras. Although you wouldn't know it from the media silence in this country, the workers and students of Honduras have been carrying out a strong, steady, courageous campaign of resistance against the coup for every day, every moment, of the now two months since the fascist military takeover in that Central American country--a takeover that began with the middle-of-the-night kidnaping of the democratically elected president José Manuel Zelaya, who was taken to a U.S. air base (yes, right, a U.S. airbase in Honduras!) and from there forcibly flown out of his country. There can be no question that the Honduran golpistas could not stay in power another day if their U.S. overlords exerted any real effort against them and in support of the return to office of President Zelaya. The Honduran people need a strong, loud movement in this country to back up their struggle to restore democracy.

Then tomorrow I hope to make it to a benefit for and remembrance by Hurricane Katrina survivors. The horrors facing great numbers of working-class and poor people, the vast majority of them African American, who lost everything, even including their right to return to and live in their home city, have not abated. The drive to remake New Orleans into a Disneyfied, majority white model of gentrification in which its displaced former residents are unwelcome has got to be exposed and resisted, and anyone with a heart should sign on to this cause.

These issues and more came to mind as I read Mary Gaitskill's mini-memoir "Lost Cat" in the latest issue of Granta. I found my way to this piece earlier this week after finding references to it on two, three, four or more literary sites. Everyone wrote about how "Lost Cat" made them cry, and some pondered why. I read "Lost Cat" and I did not cry. And I have been pondering why. How come they all cried and I didn't? I'm a sentimental sap. Lots of stuff makes me cry. Why not this? I hope to find time to try to answer a bit more fully in another post when I have a bit more time, but the short version is because, for all its beauty and depth from a certain angle, when read from another angle, that is, through a class-struggle lens, it has no resonance. For all the painful material Gaitskill weaves together with the tale of her loved and lost kitten, material that includes an honest consideration of her fraught relationship with two Latino children from New York City, the essay never rises above the level of the individual, never takes in the context for all that she addresses, never, by my read, acknowledges the wider world, not in any meaningful way that would broaden and deepen what she's grappling with. Ultimately, I'd say, this piece is a good illustration of the limits of liberalism. Which I mean not in a snarky way -- Gaitskill is, as all aver, a good writer, and no doubt a good person with a tender heart -- but as a way of trying to get at why a beautifully written piece about the imperfection, the damage, the complications of love might fall short for a red reader.

As I said, I'll try to touch on this a bit more fully soon.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Fighting my failings as a reader

Earlier this week I heard about a novel that I immediately felt compelled to get into my hands. I checked online and found a copy available at a nearby New York Public Library branch. I ran over there on my lunch hour and checked it out. I began reading.

I'm now almost 150 pages into it. And I'm finding it hard going. A couple times when I noticed myself reading a magazine article or going online instead of rushing back to the book, which are my usual cues that perhaps this book isn't working for me, I've considered stopping. I have not stopped reading and I don't think I'm going to. But I feel ashamed at the difficulty I'm having finding my way in to what is a manifestly important, and not coincidentally a widely acclaimed, work of fiction.

The novel is Carpentaria. The author is Alexis Wright, a writer, activist and member of the Waanyi nation. The book won Australia's premier literary award, making Wright, if I'm not mistaken, the first author of Aboriginal origin to win it. The story goes to the heart of the national question in Australia, that is, what the white settler invasion and occupation of that continent did and continues to do to its native inhabitants.

Carpentaria is, then, a political novel. It concerns itself with matters of the utmost importance. As for Wright's writing, it is beautiful--lyrical, even transporting, utterly original, constantly surprising. So why have I not fallen into this book the way I want to? What the hell is wrong with me?

I do think this is an occasion of my failure as a reader. I do believe it has a lot to do with my cultural training, my literary habits that, despite my conscious intent otherwise, my constant efforts to break through, are still to a fair extent circumscribed by that Western bourgeois training. In this case, Wright's novel is not only about Aboriginal life, the clash of white settler and Aboriginal society, the deep deep oppression of Aboriginal peoples and near-genocidal suppression of their history and their way of life. The novel is not only "about" all this but its structure, architecture, rhythm, motion, its words and what is unspoken--all of these and much more that is ineffable, that is, the novel's very essence--arise from, are an expression of Aboriginal perspective. Why would Carpentaria hew to the sort of linearity of plot or even the supposed rules of characterization with which most North American readers are comfortable? Why the hell should it? There is an entirely different experience being brought to life in these pages. So who cares if I'm comfortable? If I have to work harder than I usually do? I consider it a privilege to have the chance to move through these pages, to enter these lives, to access to the extent to which I'm capable this rich and painful story. I'm pretty sure that once I reach the end I will feel grateful to have made the journey.

UPDATE: It's a couple days later and I'm another 150 pages in, and, as I expected I would be, I'm awfully glad I committed to following this story wherever it was going to take me, in whatever manner Wright was going to take me there. It keeps unfolding in new directions and exponentially expanding dimensions, all the while engaging the reader ever more deeply in following the plot and caring about the characters. There is something profound about the experience of reading this book. What a contribution it is.

Monday, August 24, 2009

WILA & other possibilities

About three weeks ago I started seeing postings here and there, on blogs, on Facebook, about an initiative begun by a couple of young writing professors. It arose out of frustration with the limitations of the annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs--more than frustration, something more like anger, specifically at AWP's failings, shortcomings, slights and offenses vis-a-vis women. One too many proposed panels focusing on issues relevant to women writers were rejected. And so these two, Erin Belieu and Cate Marvin, decided it was time for a new conference. Thus was born the now three-week-old effort to organize a Women in Literary Arts conference.

Interestingly, once a Facebook group was set up, it took off like crazy. Something over 4,000 women signed on in just a few days. Less interestingly, for me, it became evident pretty quickly that this conference won't be hugely different than AWP itself. It's a progressive development, sure, it's always a progressive development when women strike off on their own to organize around their own interests. But the class and national character of the entity that has become WILA is pretty clearly going to be like the class and national character of the entity from which it is a breakaway. One obvious clue to this came last week, when the WILA organizers sent all 4,000-plus members of its Facebook group a link to this piece of neocolonial, paternalistic, we-the-chosen-ones-must-save-and-enlighten-the-women-of-the-brutish-backward-Third- World offensiveness. I immediately deleted the email, so I'm not sure, but I think its heading was "Why we're doing this," so apparently they're doing this, organizing a women writers' conference in the U.S., in order to somehow save the poor, ignorant, incapable-of-speaking-for-themselves women of Asia and Africa. Via capitalism, of course, heroic benevolent capitalism of the mini-entrepeneurial variety, or at least that's the route to salvation espoused in the article which all of us WILA Facebookers were sent. Oh my. Of course, I shouldn't have just deleted the email, I should have responded, I shirked my duty by not doing that, which was brought home to me once a woman of South Asian descent on the WILA list posted an angry response. The organizers' aligning themselves with the likes of Nicholas Kristof does leave one with let's say not the highest possible hopes for this WILA business.

Wouldn't it be lovely to attend a writers' conference that really met our needs ... That was affordable first and foremost. That was not exclusively or even primarily oriented toward the academy. That took into account the real lives of women who work for a wage and contort themselves to find time and psychic space to write. It's not an impossible dream, for once upon a time there was such a conference, and I was lucky enough to attend. It was called Flanked. It took place over an all too brief summer weekend three years ago in Washington, D.C. The whole extraordinary confab was conceived and funded by Andria Nacina Cole, a terrific writer who had at that time recently won a Maryland arts grant--and took the inconceivable step of using it to put on the Flanked conference instead of keeping the money for herself.

It was obvious to me and everyone else who was there that Andria and the others with whom she worked to put on the Flanked conference had given a great deal of thought and put in a great deal of effort to shape the gathering in a particular way, a way that was very different than conferences like AWP or like I'm afraid this WILA thing is going to turn out, with their majority-white, majority-university-affiliated, middle-class, etc., conferees. Flanked was not like that. It felt so alive, so affirming. I learned a lot. And I made a good friend, with whom I've gotten closer over the ensuing years.

There are, then, other possibilities. Other ways for women writers to gather, read, write, talk, learn, than AWP, or even alt-AWP. It happened at least once. Although I highly doubt WILA will be the way, I hope it will one day happen again.

UPDATE: WILA's Erin Belieu wrote a Facebook note in response to the criticism of the link to the Times article. I'm posting it here with her permission and without any comment of my own.
Thank you for your good feedback on the link I sent out. And I mean it when I say thank you--this kind of constructive criticism is going to be very important to Cate and me as we shape WILA to be an organization that functions transparently, thoughtfully and fairly for ALL women who wish to be a part of it. We know we have a whole lot to learn from our potential members and have already had some of our basic assumptions challenged in ways that she and I genuinely welcome. That's actually part of the pleasure in taking on this project. We don't claim to know everything and we're going to learn as we go. This is all still in a very nascent stage of development. But we will always be forthright with those of you who care enough to give us feedback about what WILA is doing and why.

Right now we're trying to understand what (if any) direct advocacy role WILA might have to play eventually. But the greatest and most immediate part of our mission will be to bring critical attention to the excellent work being done by women who write and to provide an intellectually exciting and safe environment for discussions of that work.

Finally, I should have been clearer and thought more about context when I sent that link. I didn't mean to imply that I put the stories repeated there on par with the average struggles of women writing in America. I can now see how that seemed disproportionate in the extreme. I thinnk what I was getting at is how that mainstream article--for all its thorny political slant--underscores the fact that women everywhere still struggle to be treated as first class human beings and that we as women do have great affinity with each other beyond our differences. I hope that maybe those of you who wrote and I will have the chance to talk about this in more detail. As I said, there was a great amount for me to consider in your responses. I'll look forward to the day when we can actually talk about it in person.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Everyone reads a different story

One of the best online resources for literary news and info, if not the best, is I often look at their blog, check their calls for submissions, and so on. They also run reviews of literary magazines. For the first time ever I, or rather something I wrote, made it into one of their reviews. The latest set of reviews, posted yesterday, includes the most recent issue of Nimrod. And the Nimrod review features one whole entire big meaty paragraph about my story "All the Ashleys in the World." How cool is that?

In addition to the thrill of it, it's interesting to see someone else's take on something I wrote. As I've discovered before in conversation with people after they've read a story of mine, what the writer writes is by no means what the reader reads. Did that make any sense? I mean everyone reads a different story. Everyone goes at it from a different angle--necessarily, the angle being the life perspective that is uniquely theirs--and, apparently as an inevitable result, everyone gets from it something different.

The newpages reviewer, Shane Jiménez, brings this home to me again when he poses the theme of the story thus: "Ultimately, the story is about how the past exists within the lives of those it has produced--and how those individuals have to forge ahead with the uncertain knowledge of their own unsteady identities." Hmm. At first I thought, really? That's not what I think the story is about. But then I reread the sentence and thought some more and came to see, well, yes, that is one good way of reading this story. It's not how I would have articulated what I set out to do with this story. But it is a valid, in fact even an insightful, interpretation. I'm intrigued that this is what the reviewer took from it. It is a literary interpretation that assigns a more universal meaning to my story than I was aware of weighting it with. I would have expected a more political interpretation, along the lines of "the story brings home the horrors of the U.S. war on undocumented immigrants by focusing on how it affects the life of one child." Which, truthfully, is how I would have described it. But there's no contradiction between the two--in fact, my version is more simplistic, and I'm happy to know that, if reviewer Jiménez is to be believed, I managed despite myself to strike some broader, grander note than I was aware of.

I've found this before. Never in a public review--I've never had one before!--but lots of times in emails and conversations after someone's read one of my stories. It's not just that every reader reads a different story. It's also that the writer sometimes, and in my case frequently, writes a different story than she knows she's writing. Readers find symbolism of all sorts that I didn't know I'd included, metaphors that I managed to craft without even realizing it, and so on. I suspect this is more the case for me than with more schooled, better trained writers, writers who are well educated literarily, which I'm not. I kind of jump off the high board and land in the water and my fingertips touch bottom and when I come up for air someone who was watching tells me it was quite a serviceable dive at which I'm astounded since I don't know how to dive. Ach, what a crappy metaphor. Don't judge me for it. I just mean that I never think my writing achieves much depth but then somehow, it seems, sometimes it does. Or at least someone reads something into it, something that I didn't know I'd managed to work into it. Which speaks to the unconscious processes at play in writing. Which I should be doing instead of blogging. Bye.

Who cares if it plays in Peoria?

Regarding new National Endowment for the Arts head Rocco Landesman and the displeasure in some quarters at some of his comments in an Aug. 8 New York Times interview, I have to say I actually liked much of his thrust. He was forthright about how disgusting the lack of federal arts funding is, and how he wants to change that. The new slogan he wants the NEA to adopt is "Art Works," and, wow, he actually does seem to mean to highlight artists as workers. Mind you, this nice talk about the artist as worker comes from a longtime theater producer who I have no doubt did his part in Broadway's sad slide over the last three decades into an elitist island where relentless union-busting campaigns have decimated the rights, jobs and living standards of backstage, onstage and front-of-house workers while astronomical ticket prices keep all but rich tourists from ever getting to see the plays and musicals whose typical cost is now $100 a seat. Nevertheless, when he says something like, "The subtext [of right wingers targeting arts funding] is that it is elitist, left wing, maybe even a little gay," I give him credit for his forthrightness and who knows, maybe in this new position where his job isn't to make himself a profit he'll do something decent. His thoughts about where to direct funding without hewing to geographical equality didn't seem too sharp to me, but frankly how they play in Peoria ought not to be of great concern. I spent some time in Peoria, and nearby Decatur, Illinois, in the mid-1990s when the pivotal UAW strike against Caterpillar was raging, and at the same time a strike against Goodyear and a bitterly fought lockout at the A.E. Staley corn-sugar-processing plant. It was, in other words, ground zero for the labor movement at that time. During my visit, which combined solidarity work with reporting, I got a rather, um, negative impression of Peoria in particular. Why mince words? What a hellhole. And under Caterpillar control, lock and key. It's all I can ever think about when I see any news item relating even peripherally to Peoria, how that town's bourgeoisie and its bought-and-paid-for local officialdom did their all to crush the Caterpillar workers and destroy their union. It'd be hard for me to believe that whatever local theater company they've got is in any meaningful way independent from the Peoria power structure or accessible to the ever more impoverished workers and oppressed people of that terrible town. Maybe I'm wrong. That would be nice. It would mean that there is life, and art, and the possibility of creative expression, even under the thumb of one of the scummiest corporations on earth.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Hot Sunday #2: reading Urrea

Besides writing, my other assignment this weekend is lots of household chores and they can't be postponed because we have an out of town guest coming to stay with us. So somehow, despite the heat, I've had to go to the laundromat, the grocery store, the greengrocer etc. Non-New-Yorkers, please note that automobiles are not involved in performing these tasks. It's all about shlepping under the hot sun. And here, inside our even hotter apartment, I've got to clean the bathroom, change the linens and take care of other assorted odds and ends. Ah the glamorous life of the unknown writer. Feel sorry for me?

Hey, don't. Because in between all the shlepping and sweating, I'm taking little breaks, ducking into the bedroom, aka the air-conditioned sanctuary, and reading another chapter in the wonderful novel in which I'm currently engrossed: Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea. A few years back I read Urrea's first novel, The Hummingbird's Daughter, and liked it a lot, and my lover Teresa read this new one last month and raved about it, so I'm not surprised that it has such a grip on me. Delighted even so. I'm about two-thirds of the way through and it's probably premature to say much, but I couldn't wait to comment on it because Urrea does something in this novel that is extremely hard to pull off and I admire him for it a great deal. He takes on a grim, difficult, serious topic -- what NAFTA has done to Mexico, what the resultant realities of life are for the mass of Mexicans, and especially, for Mexican migrants to the U.S. -- and brings it to stirring, funny, heartfelt life. He tells a very particular, very imaginative and original story, tells it with the lightest touch, with lots of humor and oh so much humanity. There is a sweetness running through this novel, not treacly but genuine and touching. I love the characters. I'm smitten with them, and with Urrea for what he's done here.

He is perhaps best known for his fine works of nonfiction about the horrors faced by the masses of Mexican workers who undertake the nearly impossible effort to get across the border, driven by hunger and desperation and love for their suffering families. Two especially are much acclaimed: Across the Wire and The Devil's Highway. I need to read them both. Teresa, who spends her days as an immigrant-rights organizer, read Across the Wire and tells me it is an extremely painful, truthful book.

Hot Sunday #1: get me rewrite!

I've had an unusually productive weekend, the kind that I hope won't be unusual anymore. Up and at the keyboard writing first thing in the morning both yesterday and today. Something clicked with the story I'm working on and it finally started showing itself to me. Till now it had mostly been scaring me. This is the most radical rewrite of an existing draft I've ever tackled, really a total revamp, a whole new story more or less with only the kernelist kernel of its core idea and perhaps some aspects of its main character surviving the slash. It's this, the looming, daunting prospect of starting more or less from scratch on a piece of work I'd much rather have to merely revise sentence by sentence than toss and concoct anew, that had me avoiding the blank screen. Now that I've forced myself to sit down and stare at it, hurrah hurrah the necessary words have begun to appear.

The story, which has to do with a Jewish woman who supports the Palestinian struggle and the resultant conflicts with her family, has been kicking around for several years now. I wrote it, rewrote it, rewrote it again. Showed it to my writing friend, took it to my writing group, all weighed in, I wrote it again ... And it's never quite worked. There are, I believe, some stretches of pretty good writing in it but as a story it had such major problems that I was finally able to acknowledge that its whole architecture was too flawed to sustain the whole. So I tore it down. And now I'm building it back up starting at the bottom. And it's interesting, and fun, and getting less scary by the hour.

As the hours advanced toward midday, however, the temperature rose into the 90s and I had to abandon my post. I'm satisfied, though. And relieved, as I always am when after a fallow period I get back to work and find that the words still flow.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Ethylene, steel bright

As no one can avoid being reminded of repeatedly at the moment, tomorrow is the 40th anniversary of the start of the Woodstock Festival. I haven't found any particularly original, meaningful or, heaven forfend, class-conscious commentary amid the current round of prattle. Nor do I have any to offer myself. But I am a product of the 60s. And I do remember Woodstock, very well. I was 15, too young to get my parents' permission to go and not quite rebellious enough yet to take off without their permission, but my friends and I kept close track of the events as best we could. The brother of one of my best friends was a few years older than us and he did go, and we descended on him upon his return to Detroit and dragged from him every detail that could be dredged from his stoned, smudged memory. I was crazy about Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Sly and the Family Stone, still am, come to think of it, not to mention Country Joe and the Fish and their terrific "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die Rag," which I still often sing and should be sung constantly still, with "Iraq" and/or "Afghanistan" substituted for "Vietnam." This evening, then, I'll go home after work, Teresa and I will have some dinner, and then we'll turn on VH1 to watch Barbara Kopple's new documentary about Woodstock. Bathe in a bit of nostalgia, wonder where the years went -- this seems to be the week for it -- and bundle ourselves off to bed with the well-loved soundtrack of our youth echoing in our heads.

Then it's back to today's reality. Like the ongoing horrors being endured by the people of Gaza. Writers Alice Walker, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn and Naomi Klein are among the endorsers of an important new initiative, the Gaza Freedom March, which will culminate on January 1, 2010, with an international delegation breaking the Israeli apartheid state's blockade against the Palestinians. I'll write more about this crucial effort as the time approaches.

Coming up much sooner--later this month--are actions in support of the people of Honduras who continue to battle against the murderous military coup d'etat that ousted democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya to stop his progressive agenda from proceeding. The National Days of Action in Solidarity with the People of Honduras will see various forms of protest in cities across the United States. The White House, despite occasional pro forma denunciations of the coup, has made no real move against it. Mass anger is on the agenda. Where to express it? In the streets.

Today's blog title is an anagram for my full name, which I got from one of those sites folks are forwarding around on Facebook. I like it rather a lot. Ethylene, steel bright. Well alrighty. I'll try to live up to it. The site cooked up an even better, and I must say incredibly apt, anagram for my lover's name: Zestier, true rage. I'll say! I'll be back next week with links leaning more toward the literary side, but this next is more important.

True rage continues to be the reasonable and righteous response to both last month's Cambridge, Mass., arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates and the ensuing propaganda campaign designed to blame the victim and/or distort this blatantly racist incident into its opposite, as Gore Vidal and other liberal darlings have been doing with bizarrely contorted commentary masquerading as class analysis. I attended a meeting last Saturday where my comrade Larry Hales cut through the nonsense and told some truth. I'm having some trouble getting the video to show up here, so I urge you to go here and hear what he had to say.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

It's my birthday & I'll blog if I want to

I just read a very good novel: In the Kitchen by Monica Ali. The story is grounded in reality yet transcends plot to reach a higher plane of truth telling. In other words, Ali's book succeeds where last year's deeply disappointing, mendacious and therefore award-winning The Road Home by Rose Tremain failed. Like Tremain's, Ali's book is populated mostly by immigrant workers and set in London, in the hotel/restaurant world where so many of them work. In other loci of exploitation and the traffic in human labor, too, like the sex trade and the agricultural fields. Ali doesn't sugarcoat what's happening to immigrant workers in England. There's no fake happy ending via small-business-ownership here. Not even for the main character, a white English chef of working-class origin who at the start of the story has hopes of opening his own restaurant. It's interesting that she chose him as the protagonist. This was a risky approach, I think, and one that pays off. Through his perspective as he deals with a crisis point in his life, the reader discovers, bit by bit, some of what is happening to immigrant workers and to the working class as a whole. Most reviews, of course, criticized Ali for writing too political a novel, praising her writing but carping at her going on and on about all this icky stuff about the horrors of the workers' lives. From my viewpoint, her take on the issue is quite mild; nevertheless, the fact that she takes it on at all, and honestly, is refreshing. This is one I do recommend.

Speaking of kitchens, last weekend I saw the movie Julie and Julia. It was entertaining, in a forgettable way. The scenes with Julia Child and her husband Paul in postwar Paris put a nice liberal gloss on the fact that during World War II they served with William Donovan's OSS, precursor to the CIA, and that Paul then moved on to a career in the Foreign Service which is a euphemism for CIA. Which means that his cultural-attaché postings in various European cities in the 40s and 50s would have seen him at the front line of the anti-Soviet propaganda war. In the movie there's a moment when he's brought in for questioning by the McCarthyite purgers at the State Department; we're meant to breathe a sigh of relief when he sails through but given how many were indeed purged at that time this scene left me supposing that he either cooperated with them or was so clearly on their side that the witchhunters approved. Who knows. I guess I should focus on the boeuf bourguignon.

No, better not. I've developed some digestive issues and am having to be very careful about what I eat, especially avoiding rich, fatty foods. Ah, the wonders of aging. Today is my 55th birthday, about which I'm not at all happy. Maybe I should give a skim to Julie and Julia writer/director Nora Ephron's book I Feel Bad About My Neck for a laugh or two about women and aging. But nah, I doubt that she, with her middle-class straight take on the subject, has much to say to me. Shallow though my kicking-and-screaming-at-being-dragged-down-toward-ack!-60 concerns may be, looks are the least of my worries. It's partly about health, given minor yet aggregating complaints, but even this is not a big deal since I'm basically okay, even improving, having just lost 30 pounds and expecting to hit 50 by year's end. No, the corner this birthday finds me feeling backed into is about options closing off. All my life I've daydreamed about doing this and that, taking off in new directions, working at a different kind of job, living somewhere entirely different, studying, turning, recommencing. Anything and everything has always set me off on reveries about what if this, what if that: a "help wanted" sign, a glimpse through the picture window of a house on a country road, a book about a voyage, a city, an adventure. Now, this crazy high number looms like a Stop sign in my consciousness (and my subconscious--I had a dream about this very issue last night), telling me, no, that's not an option, no, that door is closed, no, sorry, it's getting to be too late, you didn't do any of that when you had the chance so just settle in because where you are is where you're going to stay.

A bunch of self-pitying crap, I know. Snap out of it, I shall. Over the last week I have gotten myself back into writing mode, blogging less, reading less, trying to concentrate more on the work that I want to do from here on out, which is writing fiction that contributes at least a little to the class struggle. I let myself blog here today as a birthday present, and I'll come back once again later this week to post some links, but mostly I'm trying to do my best to do the work. On which Julie and Julia's Julie Powell, of all irrelevant people, actually has some decent advice today. Which reminds me of one other point about the movie. All the critics said the Julia Child scenes were great and you just sat through the Julie Powell scenes waiting to get back to Julia--but I didn't feel that way. The reason, I think, is because I identified with her to some extent. An office worker during the day, blogger on her own time, at heart a writer but with no connections and little hope of publication ... Of course, she had a shtick. A blog about cooking a year's worth of Julia Child recipes! And it was on Salon, and she developed a following, et voila, she's featured in the New York Times and her answering machine fills with calls from agents and editors and she's on her way! My shtick? Blogging about literature from a communist perspective. Not quite the same. Not likely to land me in the big bucks, or my books--the one I've written, the ones I've yet to write--on the bestseller list.

But that's not what it's about. Not my life, not my writing, my reading, my real dreams, the ones that really matter. What it's all about is hope. The idea that we can build a better world. The effort to find the words to help us get there. I'll keep trying. For many more years, if I'm lucky.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The worst act of terrorism in history

Today is the 64th anniversary of the single worst act of terrorism in the history of the world: the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, by the United States. The bomb killed 140,000 people. Three days later came the second-worst act of terrorism in history, second because the bombing of Nagasaki "only" killed some 80,000 people. Many tens of thousands more deaths came in the ensuing years.

No one has ever been tried, convicted or punished for these monumental acts of mass murder. But the United States government and the capitalist class on whose behalf it acts are guilty. Never forget, and never forgive, and keep fighting to overturn this system so that it can never happen again.

I've read one novel about the bombing of Hiroshima. It is H: A Hiroshima Novel by Makoto Oda. It is remarkable. I highly recommend it. I've also long intended to read John Hersey's Hiroshima.

The M word

The latest bourgie-lit-crowd uproar is over yesterday's Newsweek piece by Jennie Yabroff headlined "Is Author Richard Russo a Misogynist?" and subheaded "He might have won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction but his female characters are flat, contrived, and maybe even insulting." A number of bloggers quickly took up the cause of defending Russo, as did a swiftly organized Twitter campaign. I've had time to only skim Yabroff's piece but my initial take is that she makes an interesting case for Russo's sexism and androcentrism (I'd certainly add heterosexism too, but she's apparently not concerned with that) but an insufficent case that his work rises (or plunges) to the level of misogyny. What's weird is that she opens by contrasting him with Roth and Updike. Really? In my book, Roth's entire oeuvre oozes with misogyny; his whole reason for writing, it has sometimes seemed to me, is to express his woman-hating. As for Russo, I've only read a couple of his books. The last was the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Empire Falls, after which I've had no interest in reading more. Not because it struck me as misogynist but because it struck me as mediocre, the sort of novel I'd have loved in eighth grade (no offense to eighth graders). And, yes, it was utterly male-centered, but since I don't know whether this is the case for all his novels I can't draw any broad conclusions about that. I will note that, while Russo is generally considered a writer who is aware of the issue of class, writes at least some working-class characters, and writes at least some about the impact of plant closings and the like, in Empire Falls, if I'm remembering right, all that is more or less peripheral and the protagonist is or is striving to be a small-business owner. Ah yes, once again, the petit-bourgeois solution. Yecch.

Anyway, back to the M word. Whether or not Yabroff is accurate in painting Russo as misogynist, the fast and furious response is interesting. It's as if the M word is out of bounds. As if it's not, hmm, gentlemanly to say such a thing. As if the accusation itself is unfair, distasteful -- as if speaking it is in and of itself a horrific crime. To me, this shows how thoroughly bourgeois reaction forms the foundation of all U.S. capitalist culture at this juncture. Not merely bourgeois ideology, but full-on reaction, which has been on the march since the late 1970s and has so effectively flipped things around after the brief flowering of efforts toward cultural liberation that arose in the 1960s and early 1970s that what you have to answer for now is not misogyny but, gasp, accusing someone of it!

Of course, this same thing is true, multiplied a millionfold, about the R word. Heaven help the public figure -- all the way up to the president of the United States -- who even comes close to identifying some person or institution, or some person's or institution's act, as racist. If it looks like racism and acts like racism and talks like racism -- and yes of course I'm talking to you, Sgt. Crowley, Camridge police, Harvard police, all U.S. police forces, all of whose operations revolve around racism, as witness the U.S. prison population -- it is racism.

Although what's going on in with misogyny is not precisely the same as the way racist forces have tried to virtually criminalize the R word, there are some similarities, I think. We've only just this week had an example. If it looks like misogyny, acts like misogyny and talks like misogyny -- and yes of course I'm talking about this week's massacre at a Pittsburgh women's gym, not only the act but the lack of mass national outrage at it -- it is misogyny. And yet no one seems to be using the word.

Is Richard Russo a misogynist writer? I can't say for sure, haven't read enough of his work, though my sense is it's male-centered but not anti-woman. What I can say is that the question ought not to be off limits, and that the immediate furious reaction to a woman daring to ask it is sadly telling about the state of literary culture.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Let me say this about that

Oops, sorry, that sounded positively Nixonian. Damn. No doubt the result of having recently watched the movie Frost/Nixon. Which I've got to say I found to be a downright reprehensible piece of revisionist sympathy-mongering for one of U.S. history's true monsters. The movie manipulates the audience -- as I assume the play it's based on did too but no doubt the movie director Ron Howard ratcheted up the simplistic we're-all-human-all-too-human quotient considerably -- manipulates the audience into, by the end, feeling deep sympathy for Nixon. Your heart is supposed to go out to him. Jesus H. Christ! Your heart go out to this butcher, this racist dog, this anticommunist witch hunter, this thief, this war criminal? Not mine. No way. It's a little scary, though, to think about all the folks who didn't live through the Nixon years who might well be swayed by Opie's opus.

Anyway, I'd really just popped in here to report that:
  1. my final tally of books read during my four weeks of vacation was 15, and
  2. my first two days back at work have been crazy busy, and sandwiched between hours of lots more busyness, so that even if I weren't sticking to my new resolve to blog less and use more non-wage-work hours to write I wouldn't have time or opportunity to blog. But I am sticking to my resolve! Which is a happy surprise given past performance. And I'm determined to keep sticking to it. So. I'll be back when I feel compelled to say something literary or political or both, or point to something literary or political or both. In the meantime I'll be here in the world, doing something -- ye gods, actually doing something -- literary or political or both. Cheers.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Mainstay Press

For some time now I've been meaning to write about Mainstay Press, and I have to apologize for taking so long to get to it because as far as I can tell this is a unique publisher whose mission should be of interest to red readers and writers. That mission, as I understand it, is to publish explicitly political left fiction that speaks to the here and now, that is, the issues and struggles, the challenges and responsibilities, that constitute the context of our daily lives. For the most obvious example, the Iraq war, in which almost no mainstream publishers seem to be interested. Mainstay, in contrast, has published Homefront by Tony Christini, which is the first of a projected trilogy.Mainstay has published three other books. Two novels: Short Order Frame Up by Ron Jacobs, blurbed by Dave Zirin, author of A People's History of Sports in the United States, as "a great anti-racist novel," and Point of No Return by Andre Vltchek, the story of a war correspondent's perspective about "the pitiful state of today's world." And one non-fiction book, also by Vltchek: Western Terror--from Potosi to Baghdad.

Vltchek and Christini co-founded Mainstay in 2005. My guess is that, as has been the case at so many independents, the original impetus was to get their own work into print, in this case after having no doubt found most doors closed to them as political writers. That they've managed to keep the press going, and in fact branched out a bit, is amazing given all the obstacles, financial and otherwise, that I'm sure they've faced.

In addition to book publishing, since 2007 Mainstay has also put out Liberation Lit, an online journal. There you'll find work by an impressive roster of artists, including Arundhati Roy, Adetokunbo Abiola, Marge Piercy, Margaret Randall, Adrienne Rich, and an amazing array of international talent unlike anything I've seen anywhere else. A print anthology is in the works. The sweep is stunning. I'm looking forward to holding this volume in my hands. (I've had the privilege of seeing the list of contributors because I'm one of them!)

Mainstay's Tony Christini also has a blog called A Practical Policy that's worth visiting. It's an unusual mix of links, political commentary, literary analysis, and occasional short fiction, often of a satiric bent. And it ranges the world, the so-called Third World in particular, which I very much appreciate, and which is rare in U.S. lit blogging.

All in all, there is good work being done here. How refreshing.