Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Defend Cynthia McKinney & the Spirit of Humanity

For immediate release
30 June 2009

[23 miles off the coast of Gaza, 15:30 p.m.] Today Israeli Occupation Forces attacked and boarded the Free Gaza Movement boat, the SPIRIT OF HUMANITY, abducting 21 human rights workers from 11 countries, including Nobel laureate Mairead Maguire and former U.S. Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney. The passengers and crew are being forcibly dragged toward Israel.

"This is an outrageous violation of international law against us. Our boat was not in Israeli waters, and we were on a human rights mission to the Gaza Strip," said Cynthia McKinney, a former U.S. Congresswoman and presidential candidate. "President Obama just told Israel to let in humanitarian and reconstruction supplies, and that's exactly what we tried to do. We're asking the international community to demand our release so we can resume our journey."

Read the rest of the press release here to find out what you can do to demand the release of the kidnapped human rights workers, the toys, medicine and olive trees.

UPDATE: An emergency demonstration "against Israeli piracy and kidnapping" has been called for tomorrow, Wednesday, July 1, from 4 to 6 p.m. outside the Israeli Mission to the UN, Second Avenue and 43d Street, here in NYC. Simultaneous protests will be taking place around the country, mostly at Israeli consulates.

On schedule, reading-wise

During my lunch hour today I finished reading Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. I'd made the decision to devote the month to it, started it in the beginning of June, and yay I finished it today right on schedule. Which is pure silliness, of course, caring about the calendar; still, I'm glad to have read it, glad to be done with it, ready to move on.

I may post some comments about this great fat classic novel. I also may not. A few semi-coherent thoughts are swimming around in my head, but at this point they don't feel urgent, original or necessary. At this point I'm still digesting the experience. If I feel I've got something to say that contributes a new idea, I'll post it.

For now, let Victor Hugo speak for himself:
I condemn slavery, I banish poverty, I teach ignorance, I treat disease, I lighten the night, and I hate hatred. That is what I am, and that is why I have written Les Miserables.

Monday, June 29, 2009

'It was good ... to slowly find my way'

Here's Part 2 of my interview with Vestal McIntyre, author of Lake Overturn.

Read Red: Lake Overturn seems to me to be quite a class-conscious book. By that I mean it doesn't assume the sort of bland, boring middle-class sameness that so many current novels seem to. It acknowledges that there are different classes, and places the characters within them. Why was it important for you to do this?

Vestal McIntyre: It would be hard for me to write about any characters without writing about class. Where we came from economically is so much a part of who we are, especially in how we compare ourselves to those around us. I grew up in a comfortable environment -- my dad was a doctor, my mom a nurse, and they had a private practice connected to our house in the country. My family had been relatively wealthy when my older siblings were growing up, much less so when I came around. This was partly because my parents were socially conscious, and never pressured people to pay if they couldn't. Also, they had a lot of people live with us for varying periods -- people who had nowhere else to go. So I got a lot of perspective on my own wealth growing up (because even the poorest doctor's kid is rich in the grand scheme of things). Then I went to college in the East and saw what real wealth was. All of this interests me, so I write about it.

RR: Your being awake to this helps account for much of the vitality of this book, I think. So now that you've spoken some about your background, which was the next thing I was going to ask, let me ask about the next steps you took that brought you to this point. You moved to the East Coast ... you came out ... did you move away from the strong religious views you had as a youth? Did you get involved at all in gay activism? At what point did you begin writing seriously?

VM: Around the time I left Idaho to go to college, I started having serious doubts about my Christianity. I was completely exhausted by the guilt associated with my sexuality. I'm prone to anxieties anyway, and I came to realize that's all Christianity was to me at that point -- a huge monolith of anxiety throwing a shadow over anything bright in my life. I was having a lot of doubt anyway. The style of Christianity practiced in Idaho sets itself up for complete ejection. It teaches, for example, that if you don't believe that God created the Heavens and the Earth in seven days, you may as well throw out the whole Bible and become a heathen. (Fundamentalism, basically.) So I did. I also had a lot of anxiety coming out, though. It took me a very long time to grow up. The writing, though, was a constant. I knew when I was nine or ten that I wanted to write books.

RR: Did that become something to believe in?

VM: Yes, I suppose it did. There are times I step back and realize how incredibly lucky I am, that I've had the peace of mind to focus on this goal and see it through.

RR: Well, we the readers are lucky too.

VM: That's very kind. In a way, a writer is a demanding type of artist. He asks for hours of undivided attention. I'm glad that for you it was time well spent.

RR: I've got a bit more to ask you about your writing career and your writing life, and then I'll let you go because you're well into the evening there in London.

One of the things I find refreshing about you, about your story, is that you didn't go the MFA route. No disrespect to those who do, and, as I've written about recently on my blog, I wish I could have, but it's nice to see that it's still possible for a writer to make his/her way without going through one of those programs. Did you consider it, though? Why didn't you do the MFA thing?

VM: I was accepted to an MFA program just a year after graduating college, and I almost went. My old writing teacher, Jonathan Strong, who's still a mentor to me, told me to consider how much I'd owe afterward, and how little my earning potential would have improved. He was of the school that writers should go live around non-writers. So I listened to him. It was very good for me to live in New York City and be a waiter for ten years and slowly find my way as a writer. I would have been easily bullied in an MFA program. I think that happens sometimes, students bully each other into sounding alike. MFA programs can be very enriching if you're immune to that type of bullying.

RR: Living around non-writers! And you even write about non-writers! Novel concepts.

And yes, the sounding alike. The sameness. I have my doubts about whether your own true voice, which seems to me to be strong and essential, could have been stomped down, but I can see how it might have been a struggle to defend it. How much more worthwhile to just live and write. I make these editorial comments because I work as a secretary and have for many years, and when I feel sorry for myself as I'm trying to find the time and energy to write, I do remind myself of just this, that my life experience in the real world is enriching in its own way.

VM: Rick Moody wrote a terrific essay about MFAs, the good and bad points. He sees a mentorship as a great plus, but the workshops as a drag. They round out edges in fiction that shouldn't be rounded out. Weird geniuses would get squashed in workshops into trying to sound like New Yorker stories.

RR: Rounding out the edges. Squashing weird geniuses. Yeah. I like that.

So you were working as a waiter and just writing away. And then at some point you started submitting your work to literary journals? I understand that you were sort of "discovered" when Open City editors found one of your stories in the slush pile and were overjoyed at this fresh new voice. Did it start getting easier, did you start getting published, after that?

VM: Yes, I suppose it did get easier after Open City. It's a wonderful magazine, very well respected in publishing. And it's a little family. I'm always in touch with Tom and Joanna, the editors. In fact, I'm in the current issue! But it takes incredible tenacity to get stories published. You have to submit and submit, until you're completely desensitized to rejection. I went on some residencies -- the Blue Mountain Center, Ucross, yaddo -- and those were boosts to my writing. Not only did my work change and grow, given uninterrupted time, but I got to really live as a writer for the first time (even though it was just for a few weeks). At dinner I talked about the progress of my writing. The other artists treated me like a real writer. This was all new and wonderful. I wrote most of my short story collection at those residencies.

RR: You Are Not the One, winner of the Lambda Literary Award. Which I'm sure you'll be in the running for again next year for Lake Overturn.

VM: Here's to hoping.

RR: I like hearing how the writing residencies nurtured you too. It's almost as if they're an alternative to MFA programs.

VM: I'd definitely say they are. With the added bonus of having painters and composers and performance artists around. You get to see their work, compare notes on process, and see how others are navigating the world.

RR: So fast forward to June 2009. You're living in London with your husband Tristan -- largely, as I understand it, because he can be your husband there, unlike here -- and you're working full-time, at a bookstore. Is that right?

VM: I'm working full-time at the moment, which is very bad for my writing. Hopefully that will change at some point soon. But yes, Tristan and I live here because U.S. law won't treat us like spouses. He can't immigrate. Meanwhile, the UK treats me exactly how it would a straight partner, and granted me a spouse's visa with no fuss. There's a law before the U.S. Congress now (Uniting American Families Act) that would change this, and allow citizens to sponsor their same-sex partners for immigration. If it passes, Tristan and I will be able to live in the USA.

RR: I assume you're not holding your breath ...

VM: It's got a lot of support, but, yes, I'd be surprised if it passed. Very pleasantly surprised.

RR: Sooner or later -- and in my opinion if you step back and look at how things have changed, 40 years after Stonewall, it's really amazing how fast things have moved. On the other hand, it's excruciatingly slow. My lover and I have been together 21 years and we've yet to be recognized legally or get the benefits.

VM: That's surprising, given that you work for _______.

RR: Okay, let me amend it. I meant we don't get any of the over 1000 federal benefits that married people get. She does get my health coverage. But even that's not equal, because under DOMA her medical coverage is reported and taxed as my income. So I end up paying for it. Which straight married employees don't.

But Vestal, your story, yours and Tristan's, is so romantic. I love how you found each other and found a way to be together. And how you've built a life, working and writing in London.

VM: It sounds pretty exotic, and it is wonderful. But it often is buttered noodles and Big Brother on telly the week before payday.

RR: Sounds lovely to me.

You said working full-time is rough for finding time to write. Are you working on any new stuff now? Can you give a hint?

VM: I'm writing short stories about New York. I think I might be halfway done with another collection. Also, I'm writing a novel about two brothers who work as bail bondsmen in contemporary Idaho.

RR: Wow. So much for no time to write.

VM: I try to squeeze in a few hours on my days off.

RR: Speaking of time, though, I think I should let you go. You've been very patient with my overlong statements/questions. Thank you so much for talking with me. Your generous spirit as a writer, which shines through in your novel, has made itself evident in the thoughts you've shared with me here today. I hope to hear you read next time you're in NYC. All the best to you. Now I hope you can get some relaxing hours in what's left of the night.

VM: It's been an absolute pleasure, Shelley.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Stonewall means fight back!

This weekend is the 40th anniversary of the magnificent Stonewall Rebellion, the 1969 Christopher Street uprising against the NYPD led by gay and trans people of color that gave rise to the modern gay liberation movement. Tomorrow, Sunday, is the annual march. I'll be there as always, stepping down Fifth Avenue alongside my comrades and my community--proud of our many amazing victories, most of all in changing mass consciousness over the course of these four brief decades, angry at the continuing attacks on our bodies and our rights, determined as ever to keep fighting for our liberation. At least one member of our contingent will be a Stonewall veteran, a participant in that grand street battle and still, 40 years later, a fighter. He's a bit worse for the wear, having had both a heart attack and a hip replacement in the past year, but he'll be there, and I'll be happy to push his wheelchair if that's what he needs to make his way down the avenue. On second thought, let some of the youngbloods do that, because oh yes, they will outnumber us creaksters and this is what makes me happiest of all.

Let me also take this occasion to call to your attention two important books that provide a communist perspective on the LGBT struggle. One is The Roots of Lesbian and Gay Oppression by Bob McCubbin. Originally published as The Gay Question in 1976 and reissued in 1993 in an expanded, updated and retitled edition, this book was the first and to my knowledge remains unique as a full-fledged Marxist analysis of the causes, history and development of LGBT oppression. I recommend it highly (and not just because I wrote the preface and afterword).

And now, hot off the presses any day now, comes Rainbow Solidarity in Defense of Cuba by Leslie Feinberg. This book "offers a factual vista on the trajectory of progress of the Cuban Revolution," detailing how Cuba "has worked to overturn prejudice against same-sex love." I read an early draft of this book and I heartily agree with the promotional blurb crediting Leslie with offering up keen insight on "the revolutionary process required to uproot prejudice." Leslie Feinberg is of course the author of the beloved novel Stone Butch Blues and many other books and winner of multiple Lambda Literary Awards, most recently Lambda's Pioneer Award for her body of work and lifetime of leadership both literary and activist.

In this week's Workers World there's more about Rainbow Solidarity, and also excerpts from a talk I recently gave that includes more about both Bob McCubbin's and Leslie Feinberg's contributions.

Come march with us tomorrow to remind the world that Stonewall means fight back! I'll be in the Bail Out the People/International Action Center contingent, gathering on 54th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues at 12 noon. This is one march that steps off on time, so don't be late!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Oh Michael. Oh no

I just heard, on the radio in a drugstore where I'd stopped on my way home to buy shampoo, of the death of Michael Jackson. I'm stunned. Stunned as well at my own tears, which immediately started flowing. But why wouldn't I cry? I make no claim to be above or live apart from pop culture. This artist's music was part of my life for well over 30 years. I've listened, and danced, and sung along, as has so much of the world.

This was a great great artist. This was a child of the working class -- from the battered old steel town of Gary, Indiana. This was a delicate soul -- and a tortured soul, tortured to what extent by his own demons no one can know, but tormented ever so much more by the relentless stream of racist, homophobic and transphobic invective and ridicule to which he was subjected for years and years on end.

I can think of no other musical artist who has ever been so beloved around the whole world. Who could sell out stadiums in Belgrade, Seoul, Johannesburg, Buenos Aires, as well as New York, Detroit, Los Angeles. With whom so many people of all ages and nationalities identified. Whose talent blazed so brightly on so many world stages.

This makes three times that I've cried at the deaths of musical artists. When John Lennon was assassinated. When George Harrison died. (The Beatles were so central to my youth and coming of age that of course their deaths hit me hard. Though "Sir" [doesn't that say it all, that he'd take this imperialist title] Paul's death won't bother me at all.) Also I've been worrying mightily about another giant whose contributions to culture are massive and who I adore beyond measure. Aretha, please take care of your health!

But this--unexpected, bitter, coming at a moment when this brilliant and still young artist was working on a comeback--is hard. Others will be more eloquent about the meaning of this loss. Those with more musical knowledge can comment on his gifts. I'm just one of millions whose lives he enriched. Who'll have to live on without the music he had yet to make.

'Like most writers, I'm overly empathetic': interview with a Lambda Award winner

I recently interviewed Vestal McIntyre, whose latest book and first novel, Lake Overturn, has been getting strong reviews (including from me, last month). He lives in London and I live in New York, so we did not meet face to face but rather Facebook to Facebook, which worked well. Except that I talked too much, for which I apologize. Anyway, I'm going to run the interview verbatim, in its entirety, in two or possibly three parts.

Read Red: First of all, congratulations on the glowing review of your new novel Lake Overturn in today's New York Times Book Review. I was so tickled when I came to it this morning. Of course, this is only the latest in a string of raves. I believe they're well deserved. I found your novel an engrossing read, a glowingly humane work especially notable for its compassion and empathy for an unusually wide range of characters. When I finished reading it, I found myself thinking of Dickens. How your book is similar to his work, not stylistically, but in the way that you bring to life a gamut of characters, and allot each one her or his full humanity.

I was very moved by this, this broad authorial embrace, which is unusual in contemporary U.S. fiction. At the same time, these characters are portrayed at a particular time and place, small-town Idaho during the Reagan 80s, and so your palette is at least implicitly political, it seems to me. This too reminds me of Dickens. Although your story is very specific and each character delineated very particularly, there's also a grand scale of social commentary at work here. How did you come to take on such an ambitious, and in so many ways Dickensian, project? What drove you to 1980s Eula, Idaho? What did you want to say about these intersecting lives, this place, that time?

Vestal McIntyre: I looked to Dickens while I was writing it. I love how he visits his characters at different points along in the story, and we get to see how they've changed in the meantime. And he's so generous to them--he's the most big-hearted writer I can think of, sometimes to a fault. It can go over a border into kitsch, I believe. He loses me then, but I still love him.

I never intended it to be "big" in this way when I first started out. I had a basic structure that revolved around Lina, Connie, and their boys. Other characters started to weave in and out. Then at a certain point it naturally began to embrace the town as a whole. That's when the voice--what I think of as the "Victorian Voice" really kicked in. I played around with the omniscience of the narrator. It was difficult to work out the rules: when to lean in to this character, lean away from that, and when to take a big step back and say, "Across town, this was happening."

Why 80's Eula? I guess it just came naturally because that was the Idaho I grew up in. I'm Gene & Enrique's age.

RR: You're their age--and yet I found this so different than so many first novelists' tendency toward solipsism. I want to ask you about this a little more, about the range of your characters, but since you brought up Gene and Enrique, let me stick with them for a minute. Because there is something so sweet and painful, raw and real about both of them. I guess a reader might assume there are aspects of yourself there, certainly in Enrique's grappling with coming to terms with his gayness, but there's also so much else about each character that seems, at least, to differ from your experience. Or no? Are these two the closest to you? Were they your starting point?

VM: Enrique is the character who has the most experiences that I had growing up. His negotiating of Junior High society, and his struggles with his own mind, are straight from my own experience--as is the way he's targeted as the "fag" at school. But he's a little more mercenary than I was at that age, and his relationships with his mother and brother are totally made up. Enrique was a starting point, but so was Connie. Connie's quest for sanctification is also straight from my growing up. I was very religious and very concerned with doing what I had to do to please God. I tell people I'm as much Connie as I am Enrique and people roll their eyes. Of course, all my characters are sides of me--means by which I try out different ideas, positions, experiences. But that's Lit 101.

RR: It may be Lit 101, but it's not easy to get an A. I'm intrigued by what you said earlier about how the story seemed to open itself up from the core of the two women and their sons, and how you were conscious of a Dickens-type approach. Far from straying into kitsch, it seems to me that you pulled off that sort of structure while also achieving what you call the big-heartedness of a Dickens tale, and I'd guess that's where your identification with Connie as much as Enrique kicks in.

For those who haven't yet read this novel, let me say that the central characters include a white woman who tries to leave behind drug use and a down-and-out life via a surrogate pregnancy for a yuppie-ish couple; a not-quite-autistic boy trapped in his oddness, his otherness; a Mexican-American woman who cleans well-off people's houses and finds herself in an affair with the man of one of them; a cancer-stricken woman who spends her last days carrying out a Mormon ritual to save the souls of dead people; and Connie, who you just mentioned, a white devout fundamentalist Christian trying to reconcile her loneliness and personal needs with her beliefs. If you tell me you are all of them, I believe you, because otherwise how the hell did you get so fully and effectively into the heads of these very diverse characters? How did you make them so vivid? Make us care about all of them so much?

These may be impossible questions, trying to get to the heart of the mystery of authorial empathy.

VM: You're right, that might be the one impossible question. I hope with all my strength that the characters ring true, and I tried my best to inhabit each when I was writing her or him. It's enormously gratifying that you think I succeeded. I'll try to get around to an answer by two routes and hopefully I won't sound like too much of a wanker. One, I was writing this book over a period of more than five years. The characters started off very small in certain ways, then grew. I visited them all as I was working, riding the subway. I was always thinking of little additions to add here and there, like little dabs on a huge painting. That might contribute to their feeling full. Secondly, I, like most writers, am overly empathetic. It's hard for me to hold my own in any argument, even with strangers, because I'm always taking the other side in a way. It makes life difficult and makes me shy. But I think it helps me in this type of multi-character writing.

RR: You're always occupying another point of view. Let me use that, the question of your perspective and your ability to see from various other perspectives, to shift to another aspect of the story and how you wrote it.

Coming soon, more of my interview with Vestal McIntyre: class, sexuality, the writing life.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

In with the in crowd (MFAs, part 3)

There's a whole other aspect to the university writing scene and in particular the world of the MFA program that was mostly not addressed in Louis Menand's piece in the June 8/15 New Yorker. I don't know whether Mark McGurl attends to it in his book The Program Era, whose publication occasioned the Menand essay. I can see why no one might want to bring it into the light of day. It's unseemly. Those on the inside, the MFA faculty and students, might feel squeamish or defensive about it, or just say it's a non-issue. Those on the outside don't want to come off all sour-grapes, resentful, whiny--don't want to come off as losers.

I'm talking about what just might be the biggest single advantage of studying in an MFA program and getting that degree. Bigger than all you might learn about the literary arts.

Connections. The doors the MFA opens.

I know it's not supposed to be this way. Literary journal editors are supposed to treat the slush pile as sacrosanct, a potential lode of undiscovered treasure. Publishers are supposed to be dying to find and bring to the world the next great novel written by an obscure unlettered wretch. Agents are supposed to take every query seriously, read every submission and take on clients based solely on the merit of their work.

Come on. Get real. This is not what's happening. I doubt that it ever was, but certainly in these times and for much of at least the last couple of decades, it is simply not true that doors are wide open for any and every writer of promise. As far as I can see, the opposite is true. Most doors are shut. If you don't have the credentials. More important, if you don't have the connections that come with the degree.

Now, I've had some recent good luck having my stories plucked from the slush pile. So on the level of the individual lit mag, I'm happy to testify that there are at least some where a nobody with no scholarly chops still has a chance at getting published. However, I also know that for every such journal there are several others where this is not the case. The policy is either explicit -- as with the interview with a top lit mag editor who said that if your cover letter says you have an MFA from a good school your submission goes to the top of the pile, other MFAs go in the middle, those recommended by a famous writer go on the top, those with neither MFA nor famous connection go in a separate pile altogether and may or may not ever eventually get read. This is not my paranoia; the guy said it. Or the policy is implicit: the journal's submissions policy says they love hearing from new, unknown, unconnected writers and give them all consideration, but then you look at who they publish, issue after issue, and there's not an MFA-less soul to be found.

Don't get me started on agents. Poets and Writers has been running a series of interviews with agents and editors for the last several issues. I've found the whole series tremendously discouraging. There are lots of reasons, but the clearest came through in the installment in May/June issue, which was a conversation with a number of prominent agents. In response to questions about how they find their clients, these agents to a person replied with every possible variant of "through connections" and made it clear that it is nearly unheard of for them to actually take a client who approached them via a blind query with no connections and no credentials. Mostly, they said, they get new clients via referral from other clients of theirs, from other authors, from editors. And from MFA programs. They said they love going to MFA programs and meeting the students and reading their work, and picking out the brightest prospects and signing them up, often well before they have anything close to a finished book ready yet.

In a sense all this makes me feel better. I tried very hard for several years to find an agent for my first novel, to no avail. Only one agent even read it. (Two others asked to read it, put me to the expense of printing and mailing it, but then never responded to it or to my meek, humble follow-up letters.) Tell me that it's the fault of my query letter: I don't buy it. Tell me it's because of the subject of my novel, and well, yes, that's much closer to the truth, perhaps most of it. But tell me that virtually no agents (and believe me, I approached just about all of the reputable ones) were interested in even reading my novel, even giving it a chance, largely because they're more interested in the non-political work of a bright blond young MFA and -- no, no, don't say it Shelley, you'll come across as just another talentless witless know-nothing flailing about for someone to blame for your own literary obscurity -- yes yes I've got to say it: I believe you're right.

But this is not a good kind of feeling better. Believe me, I would much much rather have these folks read my novel and reject it on its merits, tell me it stinks, that it's gobbage -- gobbage I say -- than to never get a shot at such rejection. So I have to confess that one of the reasons I did try a couple times to get into the MFA program here at the university where I work and where it would have been almost free is because I knew that, along with whatever I might learn about writing, being in that program would open doors in the literary world that are otherwise closed to me. Not that it's easy even for MFA folks to get published, I know. But being there, being part of that scene, does provide a step up. What's the point in denying it? The programs do a great job of trying to aid their students toward getting published, as well they should.

Look at any major MFA program's web site. You'll see that along with the craft classes, writing workshops, and so ons, there are also lots of other goodies. Literary agents come and meet with the students. Editors do too. The faculty, permanent and visiting, takes an interest in the students, introduces them to their own agents and editors. And so on. It's a way in. This is seems to me to be undeniable. The MFA program is not only about teaching. It's about entrée.

Where does this leave the rest of us? Knocking harder, I guess, and perhaps on less obvious doors.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Get with the program (or MFAs, part 2)

Like others, I found Louis Menand's June 8/15 New Yorker piece about university creative writing programs pretty interesting. What interested me may be a bit different than the points others have focused in on. Rather than going off on the million and one issues the article raised for me (yes, it was one of those pieces I found myself talking back to as I read it, really incisive, pithy ripostes like "oh yeah?" and "sez you"), I'm going to limit myself to a couple key issues. Or at least they strike me as key.

One is Menand's contention that
the fiction that comes out of creative-writing programs may appeal to readers because it rehearses topics--"Who am I?"--that are already part of their inner lives.
The second is his assertion that
university creative-writing courses situate writers in the world that most of their readers inhabit--the world of mass higher education and the white-collar workplace. ... Putting them in the ivory tower puts them in touch with real life.
Well now. As I noted in an earlier post prompted by this article, I have nothing against MFA programs. I would have liked to study in one myself. The question of whether writing can be taught doesn't exercise me. Nor does the question of what sort of writing is being taught in these programs, although comments made by others about the tendency to a sort of sameness ring at least partly true. To me, the important issues are what fiction is being written by the writers being trained in these programs, what topics these writers' fiction addresses, who their readership is, or who they think it is, or who it should be, who reads, who should read, who writes, who should write.

Menand's piece, as I think the two excerpts above show, works from the assumption that the world of writers and readers is uniform. Of what is this uniformity composed? Unsurprisingly, it is composed of a middle-class, mostly white, not necessarily mostly male but definitely male-dominated literary culture -- sort of like New Yorker readers (you and me excepted). Where he considers writers whose origins are in the working class or in people of color communities or from countries not in Europe or North America, he does it so as to place them too inside this frame. This box of writing about "who am I" where the I is either situated within the dominant culture or relating to the dominant culture, and in both cases thoroughly imbued with the dominant culture's consciousness and ideology. Who am I? I am just like you -- either because I am you, same life same background, or because, don't you see, we are all the same. It doesn't seem that there's any room left in the fiction Menand identifies as emerging from MFA programs, ostensibly in response to reader demand, for a very different answer to "who am I," an answer that requires the reader to move far, far outside her/his own experience, frame of reference, identity, culture -- to be challenged by the unfamiliar both literarily and politically/culturally, rather than writer and reader meeting on a safe, same middle ground.

Is there no other topic that fiction can and should address? Hello! What about work -- my god, the way most adult human beings spend most of their waking lives, working to try to bring in enough money to survive, is this not a topic of equal or greater interest than "who am I"? What about layoffs and unemployment, poverty, homelessness; what about health and illness and access or lack of it to medical care; what about strikes and boycotts, what about mine cave-ins and assembly-line injuries, what about immigrants suffocated to death hidden in the holds of ships or trunks of cars, what about rape and violence against women, what about gay-bashing and anti-trans violence; what about political struggles, revolutions, counter-revolutions, wars of national liberation, wars of colonial conquest, wars of imperialism such as the several the United States is currently carrying out? MFA program fiction is what appeals to readers? Because it focuses on "who am I"? Really? Or is it that the MFA system limits readers so that these "who am I" stories are the only ones available?

The second Menand assertion that I excerpted above makes it all explicit. And ugly. Smug. For here he comes full circle. He posits as a given that "the ivory tower" is the location of "real life" -- or at least, of the life lived by those who read and those who write. Is he kidding? It's hard to know what to say about his assumption that most readers live in "the world of mass higher education and the white-collar work place." That most, in other words, are like him, which means unlike most human beings on the planet. What a tiny, insular world is this literary land he imagines readers and writers together inhabit. I don't know whether he has market research to back up this remarkable idea. Or whether he's referring to readers in this country only. Or whether he's referring to readers of literary fiction only, which, face it, is not the kind of books that sell the most copies. Regardless -- facts aside, you know -- he does seem comfortable with this conception of his. This noxious notion that excludes most of humanity from the world of reading. Comfortable not only that it's true (which it isn't), but, even more remarkably, that it's okay. There's no concern about who should be reading and writing, who should get access to literature, whose ideas should get a chance for expression.

If you think that last issue, who gets the chance to write and publish, is unrelated to the whole topic of university writing programs and the MFA degree -- have I got an unpublished novel for you! More on this soon.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Oxford working-class book fair

Hey, this looks cool.
Readers of the world, unite! A spectre is haunting England -- the spectre of the first Oxford working-class book fair.
It's the first Oxford working-class book fair, taking place Saturday in Oxford, England
in solidarity with all wage slaves, unemployed workers and student militants in Oxford and everywhere.
Makes me wish I could hop across the ocean for the day.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Technical difficulties + coming attractions

I've been trying to post a Youtube videotape of a powerful statement and poem against Zionism by Judith Weisman of Toronto but something keeps going wrong, so instead I'll point to Philip Metres' blog Behind the Lines where you can watch it. I urge you to do so. She makes some sharp points about the essential racism of the Zionist ideology, and reads a hard-hitting poem, "Lamentation," that refers to or, as I'd prefer to see it, subverts the opening phrase "Hear O Israel" from the foundational prayer the Shema.

Postings will probably be sparse or non-existent for the next few days, as I have much on my plate and some deadlines by which to .. er ... eat it. (There, we see the limitations of the "much on my plate" metaphor.) Keep checking in next week, though, because I do have some good stuff in the works. It includes:
  • More on MFA programs and the recent New Yorker piece by Louis Menand
  • An interview with an award-winning novelist
  • A guest book review
And who can predict what the frak else?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

I find this exciting. Is that wrong of me?

Today, famously to the academy and unknown to pretty much the rest of everyone, is Bloomsday: the date -- June 16, in 1904 -- on which takes place the entirety of that great fathomless ocean Ulysses by James Joyce. Today, as every year on June 16, marathon readings are under way in Dublin, here in NYC, and no doubt in other cities too. Every year I wish I could skip work and go, which is not possible, so then I consider going after work for a few hours, and I never do. It's too intimidating. All those highly knowledgeable literary scholars, and then there'd be me, lonely, stupid, skulking in the back row, straining and probably failing to understand what the hell's going on.

OK. But. I'm not sure why, yet I remain drawn to Ulysses. I don't know a damned thing about it as a relic of class society; I should look into Marxist analyses of it. I don't know a damned thing about it from nearly any other perspective either. Understand me: this is not a brag, some kind of anti-intellectual reverse snobbery. On the contrary, this is a lament. I wish to know about this book. Most of all, I wish to know it. To read it. To find out for myself what the fuss is all about.

Now then. I did begin this project. Several years ago I bought and started reading Ulysses. Sure, I found it rough going. But I also found it full of surprises. It's funny as hell, for one thing. Who knew? A classic that's also a hoot? Bloom's Jewishness, and how it's woven throughout thematically, also caught me up short and intrigued me. Still, I'd be lying if I said I understood more than half of what I was reading. So I put it down, defeated, temporarily.

Then I picked it up and tried again. This time I did something wild: I found a Cliff's-Notes-type explication online, printed it, stuck it inside the book. As I read, I referred to this chapter-by-chapter plain-language translation of what's actually happening, the action of the book. It helped me feel less at sea. But it didn't smooth my passage through the pages enough to let me sail onward. Instead, for the last several years, I've picked it up, read 30 or 40 or 50 pages, then put it down again for a while. So the reading of Ulysses has turned out to be a years-long project. Which I'm at peace with. I know I'll keep returning. And I know I'll finish it one day.

Now I know that day will come sooner than I'd expected. Thanks to this: Ulysses "Seen": a graphic presentation of the novel "meant to be [a] mere companion piece" to the work itself. In other words, an entryway, for those like me who've had a hard time navigating the thicket ourselves, but who want to oh so much. I love what the folks at Throwaway Horse, the entity behind this project, have to say about what they're doing and why:
... by outfitting the reader with the familiar gear of the comic narrative and the progressive gear of web annotations, we hope that a tech-savvy new generation of readers will be able to cut through jungles of unfamiliar references and appreciate the subtlety and artistry of the original book ... . Ulysses is uniquely suited to this treatment. ... It kills us that it has gotten the reputation for being inaccessible to everyone besides the English professors who make their careers teaching the book to future English professors who will make their careers doing the same. 'Tweren't supposed to be that way. It is a funny, sometimes scatological, book about the triumphs and failures of hum-drum, everyday life. It makes heroes out of shlubs and cuts the epic down to size.
Wow. Am I ever on board with this. What a wonderful, and as far as I know unique, way to use the new technology in the service of literature, of making literature truly available to the masses of readers outside the highbrow elite. Now the only question is whether I'll be able to do anything else -- any of the many other things I'd planned on doing -- over my vacation, or spend the whole of it moving between Ulysses "Seen" online and Ulysses the book in my lap.

Monday, June 15, 2009

File under: things I don't heart about NYC

One of the little annoyances of life in the big city is having your perambulations obstructed by film crews shooting big Hollywood movies. In the neighborhood of my job this is a very frequent occurrence. In fact, two or three movies have set up shop in succession over the last few weeks. It's a major pain in the ass. They block access to the park. They park their humongous trailers all up and down all the side streets, with thick electronic cables snaking along the gutters and tripping me at the corners. They tell you where you can and can't walk. All this is irksome but you learn to live with it.

Today, though, things are of a higher magnitude. I've seen many stars in my years in NYC, both shooting movies, especially here in the neighborhood of my job, and also just walking on the streets. But I've never seen or heard a frenzy like the one to which I'm being subjected at this moment. Directly outside my window there's a massive and ever-growing crowd, mostly teenaged girls and young women. They arrived about a half hour ago, en masse, screaming and oh-my-god-ing at a high decibel, following the star who'd just shot a scene as he scurried into his trailer parked there below my window. Ever since, they've been standing there, a writhing, ever-expanding sea of idol-worshippers, and the number has now grown so big that the cops have set up barricades blocking the sidewalks. Meanwhile I'm working myself up into a frenzy of aggravation in anticipation of the difficulty I'll have simply stepping out of my building to go run my lunch-hour errands.

I couldn't see the star himself as he ducked into his trailer, so I got online, did a quick search and found which film started shooting outside my office this morning. Ah. Now I get it. The object of the fans' screams is vampirish pretty boy Robert Pattinson. Insert highfalutin state-of-capitalist-culture-and-besides-I-don't-watch-that-kind-of-trash grumble here.

More quickie links

This is a month old but I only got a chance to read it yesterday ... and oh baby is it ever a hoot. "The Read: A Short Story" by Keir Graff, published in the May 15 Booklist. This piece of deliciousness is at once a parody of Cormac McCarthy's The Road -- and oh my golly 'tis a spot-on parody indeed, had me already howling with laughter at the word "bookwrack" in the second sentence, and in the next line, better yet, the word "unadhorn," and don't even get me started on "a deep sound like the tearing in half of the telephonebook of the world" -- and also a wicked send-up of the literary world. Now at last I know why the shorthand LOL was coined.

Kites, hip-hop and borders: a report from Gaza via ElectronicIntifada.net.
A friend recently told me that the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish once said that every night before he fell asleep he would walk the streets of his stolen city of al-Birwa in his mind. Each night he would remember the door to every home, every sign, every detail of his lost neighborhood.
Read the rest.

The opening paragraphs of my story "All The Ashleys in the World," the writing and publication of which prompted last month's post about white writers and people of color protagonists, is up on the Nimrod website.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sunday linking to this 'n that

It was one of my best reads of 2008 and now Michael Thomas's very fine novel Man Gone Down has won the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. This is not only a big giant load of cash--100,000 Euros or about $140,000 -- for a deserving talent. It not only will, I hope, free him up to pursue his art. It's also a meaningful prize, because all the 145 nominations came from librarians around the world, and it is administered by the Dublin public library. I've read five of the eight books, including Thomas's, that made it to the short list. All are good and important works. And the judges chose well. Mr. Thomas doesn't need my congratulations, but he has them. I'm eager to read his next book.

Teresa and I are trying to pull together the ticket price to get to a play during our time off next month. One production that's high on our wish list is Things of Dry Hours, playwright Naomi Wallace's story about an African-American communist worker in 1930s Alabama starring the great actor Delroy Lindo. Reviews have ranged from so-so to full-on pans. Which was of course predictable. A highly political play with a communist protagonist! You know this one is not going to win any awards. One friend has seen it and says it's wonderful. True and deep. I only hope the reviews don't doom it to such a short run that we never get a chance to see it.

His painting of Fannie Lou Hamer hangs at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Social Change in Atlanta. His "free South Africa" image of two fists breaking chains was the symbol of the worldwide anti-apartheid movement. He was one of the artists whose giant billboard in support of the anti-fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War hung over Times Square in 1938. I helped carry his beautiful "Stonewall Means Fight Back" banner down Fifth Avenue at many a Lesbian & Gay Pride march in the 1980s. He was an anti-Zionist Jew, back in the days when such a specimen was exceedingly rare and it took great courage to speak out in support of Palestine. He's not famous. Now that he's died, though, on May 25 at age 94, he ought to be remembered. He was my comrade Irving Fierstein. He considered himself a "people's artist." That he was.

Sunday reading this 'n that

I've been spending most of this weekend taking care of household chores and, in the off time, reading, making notes, organizing my writing and other work for the weeks to come, which means I haven't the brain power left to offer up part two of my thoughts on recent writing about MFA programs. That'll come soon; in the meantime a bit of this and a bit of that.

For almost two weeks now I've been reading Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. If I get in another couple hours today I should hit the halfway mark, which means I'm more or less on schedule to finish it by the end of the month. I'm in no hurry, not itching to get to the end. This is one of those magnificent reads that you enter and live inside as if in a waking dream and so the feeling is as of life, that it just naturally proceeds. I'll put off any substantive comment until I've finished, and even then I don't know that I'll have anything original to add to the 140 years of commentary already in place. One thing I do want to note at this point is that as I read I feel more and more my ignorance about French history, especially the French Revolution but also the events of 1830, the revolution of 1848, and even the Paris Commune. I read about much of this many years ago but clearly it's time for a refresher. So last night when I put down the book for the evening I went to our shelves and pulled out The Civil War in France by Karl Marx. Of course I didn't stop there. Once I was in front of the Marxist books section one thing led to another and soon I'd also pulled these others, which I'd also like to read/reread in the coming period: Anti-Duhring by Frederick Engels, The Poverty of Philosophy by Marx, and Literature and Revolution by Leon Trotsky.

Not exactly light reading? Who cares? I hunger for so much from books, have so much to learn, to encounter, be challenged by, and so little time to waste. Which is why I've been bulking up my fiction pile in preparation for my July vacation. I need something meaty to chew on, preferably stories that take me to new places or introduce me to new outlooks or, best of all, shake me up and leave me changed in some small hard to articulate but lasting way. It's got to be a good read too. As I've reported before, I give up on more books than I finish, more and more in fact as the years proceed, because yes, style matters as well as content and no, I don't want to force myself through if the words themselves aren't pulling me along. This is why I get so crazy desperate to make sure I've got enough books on hand as time off approaches. There's no way to know which I'll actually sink into. So. Over the past couple weeks I finally finished using the bookstore gift certificate I'd received back in December -- this is an amazing record for me, stretching it out for half a year -- and picked up the final few books to add to the selection from which I'll make my vacation picks. Here's what I got: Like Trees Walking by Ravi Howard. Fugue by Olive Moore (actually, this one I found in a cheap used copy at the Strand; I think it's out of print). Ghosts by Cesar Aira. Into the Beautiful North by Luis Albert Urrea. OK. I can breathe. I think I've got a tall enough pile. Anyway, there's nothing to fear. With the luxury of free weekdays in the neighborhood, I'll always have the option of strolling to our local Queens branch library and grabbing what goodies are on hand there.

Friday, June 12, 2009

MFAs & the trough of despond

Like so many others who blog about books and literature, reading and writing, I read and feel compelled to comment about Louis Menand's piece about MFA programs in the June 8/15 issue of the New Yorker. Titled "Show or Tell: Should Creative Writing Be Taught," it's partly a review of the new book The Program Era by Mark McGurl, partly a mini-history of college writing programs in this country, and partly a consideration of the purpose and merit of such programs.

This won't be a rant. I have nothing against the MFA world. Except for how it's inaccessible for most of us. But that, inaccessibility, is not exclusive to writing programs. Higher education in general is exorbitantly expensive. It is not a right under capitalism. Simple as that. It is a privilege, attainable only at a cost that is unaffordable to many. The cost includes money, a lot of money, even at state schools, money that many people don't have and can't get even via student loans. The cost includes high test scores that for a myriad of reasons, not least that the public-education system in this country is so outrageously unequal, unequally funded above all, are also out of reach for many people. (For an education about the horrifically inequitable state of the U.S. public school system, I commend readers to the books of Jonathan Kozol, the dedicated, brave, compassionate, unwavering warrior who has spent his life fighting for and writing about the right to learn. I've read several of his books and recommend them all, especially Death at an Early Age, The Night Is Dark and I Am Far from Home, and his most recent, The Shame of the Nation, whose title pretty much says it all.) The cost also includes time, time that people who have to work for a living often can't afford; it's the rare program, undergraduate or graduate, that can accommodate the schedule of a full-time worker.

I hadn't intended to focus on this last point, the cost of education and in particular of MFA programs, because I have some things to say about the substance of Menand's piece, things that perhaps offer a different perspective than the other commentary thus far. Before I get to that, to what MFA programs are all about, what they do and don't do, it seems I've got to get my own brush with them off my chest. Warning: Skip what follows and wait for the next installment of what will probably turn out to be a several-part post on the MFA issue unless you feel like wading through my own personal sob story.

Twice within the last 10 years I made a pretty thorough investigation of the graduate writing programs in this country in hopes that I might find one at which I could study should they find my writing worthy and accept me. I failed. Some highlights (or low lights) of the tale:
  • The main issue was cost. Which turns out to be complicated. Sure, sky-high tuition prices rule out the crazy-expensive programs (which is most of them) that cost upwards of ten, twenty, thirty thousand dollars a year. It's not merely that I don't have that kind of money. It's also that even if by some miracle I could get approved for a student loan there's no way I could take on that kind of debt. For all their fellowships and awards, these go to only a small proportion of admitted students, and even for them amount only to a patchwork of aid supplementing the lion's share of costs that the students themselves have to pay. Only a few programs cover the full cost of tuition for all students. But even this isn't enough. Tuition is only one issue. What about paying the rent, buying groceries, what about transportation costs, health care and so on? How, in other words, to support yourself, even if tuition is covered? If a student doesn't have a trust fund (a concept I'd never even heard of before I started investigating MFA programs and how people pay for them) or parents to support her/him, the financial hurdles are far higher than mere tuition. I may be wrong about this, but to my knowledge there is only one program in the country that offers both free tuition and money to live on. That's the one at the University of Texas at Austin.
  • Even if unbelievable luck hit and I was one of the six or so per year that UT accepts, I'm not about to move to Texas. Not yet, anyway. My lover Teresa is from San Antonio and we've carried on a 21-year-long conversation about when/whether to move back there. The reality is that no move can happen except to a place where we can both make a living, have health benefits, and so on. Not to mention that I heart New York. (I mean, the other night I was changing trains at the Times Square subway station when I heard an angelic sound that pierced my heart. I found a crowd standing in a rapt circle around two young women who were singing opera. This is an art form I know nothing about. All I know is that the beauty they were creating stopped me in my tracks, and that all around me people likewise paralyzed were standing with tears rolling down their cheeks. How could I ever leave a town like this?) So, without moving, what possibilities were left?
  • Low-residency programs. Uh yup. If you have the kind of job that you can up and leave for two weeks twice a year. If you have the kind of money so that you can afford to travel across the country for the residencies twice a year. And if you can pay for the kind of -- yow! crazy high! -- tuition and residency fees these programs charge.
  • Ultimately, for me, the question came down to whether there was any MFA program in the NYC area that I might find my way toward. There were several that appealed to me. There are the CUNY programs, which are about the cheapest thing going and which I thought I might be able to beg borrow or steal enough money to manage. Hunter College, however, makes it very clear that it is a full-time day program. Scratch that. I daydreamed for months about studying writing at Brooklyn College with Sapphire, Michael Cunningham and others on the faculty at that time. My heart was broken when I took a train to the Brooklyn campus to meet with the program's acting director only to be told, in contradiction to the impression I'd gleaned from their website at the time, that theirs too is open only to those who can attend full-time during the day. Queens College was about to start their new MFA program. I had an exciting email correspondence with one of the founding faculty members, a gay novelist I admired and would have loved to work with, and he explicitly told me that yes, classes would be at night and yes, it would be possible to go slowly part-time through the program while working full-time during the day. Then, when the program actually opened for admissions and I checked in with its director while I was preparing my application, she told me that no, I had been misinformed and no, the program would only be open to those who could devote themselves full-time to the study of writing. I was so disappointed. And so angry. CUNY is supposed to be the school for the working class of New York City. Yet if you work for a living you cannot study writing at CUNY. There was one exception: the program at City College. I spoke with the director there and yes, it seemed that I could work full-time and go through the program part-time at night. I came very close to applying, but in the end did not. More on why in a minute.
  • Around the same time that the Queens College program was starting up, so too was a new MFA program at Rutgers University's Newark campus. I daydreamed for a good long while about that one as I had about Brooklyn's. The faculty is wonderful. The thrust is very much up my alley: their slogan is "real lives, real stories," and they're very clearly oriented toward writers from the working class and oppressed communities. Classes are at night. Alas, the Rutgers program's out-of-state (damn! just across the Hudson!) tuition, although nowhere near as exorbitant as that at many others, was still not within my reach and with my full-time job I'd be unable to try for a teaching assistantship to defray the expense. I gave up on Rutgers. But I've been cheering them on from afar. I was thrilled for the first group that just graduated with their MFA degrees and wish them every great writerly success.
  • Then there's the university where I work. My nemesis of over 25 years. Exploiter of my hourly labor, it did dangle the tantalizing potential benefit of nearly free tuition. It's one of the top programs, gets scads of applications, accepts few, but what the hell, I tried. Twice. After the first rejection I didn't plan to apply again, but a few years later when my MFA fantasies started up again I dove back in. I knew a recent graduate of the program who was also one of those who read the new applicants' writing samples. He kindly gave me some advice about my application, read some of my stories and suggested which one I should submit. He assured me that, with this story, I was a shoo-in for acceptance. He was wrong. Rejection #2. With that died forever my MFA dreams.
All avenues seemingly closed to me except City College, why did I ultimately opt out of trying that route? It was partly financial, because as low as CCNY's cost was it still would have been difficult and I was scared about how we'd swing it. It was partly fatigue. I'd sort of worn myself out with all this nutty mix of daydreaming, research, hope and hopes dashed, rejection, resentment, and through it all an ongoing internal debate about whether it made any sense for me anyway to try for an MFA. What was I seeking? What did I want from such a program? Could I get it any other way? It was also partly fear that prevented me from applying to CCNY. I was at that point in my early 50s, hadn't been in school for many years, got scared that I wouldn't be able to handle it, the pressure, the work, the balancing act. I also have to admit that it was in large part disaffection, loss of confidence about my writing and the future of my so-called writing career, a sinking into cynicism, even a dip in the trough of despond. As in: oh fuck, who'm I kidding? I'm not a part of that world and I never will be. They don't want me. I'm never getting published. My work will never be read.

If you have in fact slogged through the tale of my brush with MFA-dom to this point, I owe you an apology. When I set out to write about Menand's New Yorker piece it was not with the intention of talking about myself. It's been self-indulgent of me to do so but I seem to have needed to get it out of my system before climbing back up to higher ground, which I will do with the next installment. I also want to make clear that I'm aware my story is highly particular and not particularly representative. It took the whole stew of 50-odd years of my life, all my crazy-ass years of activism, work, inept money handling, activism, work, activism, etc., to trap me in that corner where I toyed with and then backed away from the MFA idea. All this is my responsibility. Those were my decisions all along the way.

There are working-class and oppressed people who are faced with much more difficult situations than I have ever been and who kick, punch and claw their way toward achieving their educational goals -- people for whom I have so much awe and admiration that I can't even begin to express it, how they inspire me -- and I have to close by sending them all the highest possible respect. Especially those who are making it through MFA programs and getting those writing degrees. They are strong and smart and talented and tough, and by breaking down the walls of a system that is constructed, whether by design or not, to keep them out, they are enlarging and enriching the future of literature. I salute them.

So how is the MFA system, broadly looked at as a whole, designed? What is its purpose, intentional and otherwise? Of what does it actually consist? Whose interests does it serve? And what about the writing that emerges from it? Soon I'll try to dish up some coherent thoughts about these questions, all of which Menand's New Yorker piece addresses, but mine will be from a red reader's perspective.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The right to read

This speaks for itself, so I'm just going to let it. Be sure to go to the website to learn more details, and when you do, click on the red link to the Right To Read books wish list to help out if you possibly can.
Education is a right. Yet throughout history, societies have used access to education as a weapon of oppression. We refuse to let Israel blockade our students' thirst for knowledge. We welcome working with Free Gaza and others to break this siege against our people's greatest resource.
--Dr. Haidar Eid, professor at Al-Aqsa University
In partnership with Al-Aqsa University, the Free Gaza movement is launching its "RIGHT TO READ" campaign which will use the FG boats to deliver textbooks and other educational supplies to universities throughout the occupied Gaza Strip.

This is not a charitable endeavor. Rather it is an act of solidarity and resistance to Israel's chokehold on Gaza and attempt to deny Palestinians education. According to UNWRA, Israel's blockade prevents ink, paper and other learning materials from entering Gaza.
This is not a cause the liberal "human rights advocates" in the U.S. are rallying around, surprise, surprise. For one example, I just went to the PEN website and searched the words "Gaza" and "Palestine." Nothing.

It's up to us. Let's do what we can to uphold our Palestinian sisters' and brothers' right to read.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Alice Walker in Gaza

Alice Walker recently traveled to Gaza to witness firsthand the devastating misery being endured by the Palestinian people. All this misery is courtesy of our U.S. tax dollars, which fund every Israeli bomb, every Israeli bullet, every brick in the apartheid wall, and every minute of the vicious, murderous blockade of desperately needed supplies, including food, drink, medicine, and all the basics of life now being denied to the people of Gaza. A videotaped interview of Ms. Walker is up in three parts on Youtube. I haven't actually had time to watch the full interview myself yet, but I know that the great author has a quite different take than mine. For instance, according to this posting at Behind the Lines, she doesn't acknowledge the Palestinians' right to wage an armed liberation struggle. She also declines to support the Boycott/Divest/Sanctions movement. Yet by going to Gaza she has shown courage. It takes guts for a U.S. author to do so. She's done something similar in the past for Cuba, traveling there and speaking out against the U.S. blockade of that country, but Palestine is an even harder issue given how vitally important the maintenance of the Israeli garrison state is for continued U.S.-imperialist control of Middle East oil. I hope to get the time to watch this interview with my best attention soon.

Meanwhile, radical member of the British parliament George Galloway and Vietnam War veteran Ron Kovic, author of Born on the Fourth of July, are traveling the U.S. raising money for the Viva Palestina convoy to Gaza. This project aims for as many people as possible to join Galloway and Kovic in bringing 500 trucks full of desperately needed humanitarian supplies to Gaza. Here's Galloway at last month's fundraising event in Brooklyn, which brought in over $75,000.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Another Sunday ruined

Not really. It's an exaggeration to allot the New York Times Book Review that much power over my precious Sundays. But damn that rag infuriates me. Nearly every week. So why keep reading it? It's one of several sources for news of new books--albeit, books within a very limited range, those that are of interest to the petit-bourgeois literati and, more to the point, deemed worthy of comment according to the lights of the NYTBR's editors, above all the avowed right winger Sam Tanenhaus, he of William-Buckley-adoration-and-biography-writing fame. It's important for a leftist reader and writer to know what books this crowd is pushing, I think. It's also useful to keep up with their literary and political analysis, within limits, the limits being what I can stomach. (I probably should read the New York Review of Books for the same reason, in its case to keep up with the liberal commentariat ... but jeez, the difference is minute, NYRB positioning itself perhaps a half-inch to the left of NYTBR, and there's only so much a gal can stand.) Withal the torture of sifting through the Tanenhaus slant, when I read the NYTBR I do once in a while hear of a volume possibly worth pursuing, and they do let through a mildly enlightened voice on rare occasion. And so I slog through, Sunday by Sunday.

But Jesus H. Christ. It may be time to reassess. I pick up the rag for free every week at the university bookstore. Even that price may be too high.

Without shifting the torture onto you with a review-by-review list of horrors of the last few weeks, let me just mention a couple of the most recent front-page reviews. First, two weeks ago, there was a celebration of Doug Stanton's book Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of U.S. Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan. One need barely comment, hey? A celebration of a celebration of a vile, bloody, murderous imperialist invasion that is still marauding through that country massacreing civilians by the thousands, boosted by an increase in U.S. occupation forces under the current administration. On this book's Simon & Schuster web page, the publisher crows that "Doug Stanton received unprecedented cooperation from the U.S. Army's Special Forces soldiers and Special Operations helicopter pilots ... ." Yep, I bet he did. And the Army in turn received blathering adoration from NYTBR reviewer Bruce Barcot.

Then today we're treated to Paul Berman's review of a new biography of Gabrial Garcia Marquez by Gerald Martin. Paul Berman is a prominent anti-communist and liberal anti-leftist, one of the crew of supposed 60s radicals (though for most of them their claim to 60s activism is dubious and I often suspect concocted to create their credentials as crossovers to the other side, the current era's equivalent of the neocons, some of whom began as 30s leftists) who now make a living renouncing and denouncing the left quest for peace and social justice. A strong supporter of the war in Iraq, of Zionism, a rabid enemy of revolutionary Cuba: this is the guy to whom Tanenhaus turns to take on the life of one of the greatest living novelists. Guess what? Berman crafts not a review of a biography but a reactionary analysis of Garcia Marquez, not only his work but his life. About a page worth of this, all leading up to, guess what? A full column--nearly one-quarter of the entire "review"--devoted to a full-on reactionary diatribe against Fidel Castro, the Cuban Revolution, and Garcia Marquez for his friendship with and support of both. Berman calls the author Fidel's "lackey" and "flunky." You can almost hear him snorting with glee at what he must imagine to be his own great neolib-lit-crit wit, smacking his lips at his triumphant takedown of--hey, a twofer!--the "great novelist," as he fairly well sneers at the end about Garcia Marquez, and the "monomaniacal dictator," as he arrogantly, utterly inaccurately, and (yawn) unsurprisingly calls the most beloved living figure in the world today. (Go ahead, travel the world, check it out, see if I'm right. Not in the salons of the rich and powerful. In the slums, the factories, the fields, schools, hospitals. Go to Ramallah, Johannesburg, Cebu City, Lima, Nairobi, Mumbai, Managua, Jakarta, Tunis; go even to Europe, to Liverpool or Lyons, Athens or Barcelona. Ask the world's toiling masses what they think of Fidel. This is not an exercise a Paul Berman could or would undertake.) And with what does the NYTBR illustrate Berman's anti-left essay posing as a literary review? A 1976 photo of Gabriel Garcia Marquez sporting a shiner over his left eye "courtesy," as the caption puts it, "of Mario Vargas Llosa." Vargas Llosa, of course, is the reigning right-wing Latin American novelist and thus a favorite of Berman, Tanenhaus and their ilk. How they must have chuckled at their cleverness, punctuating the written takedown with its visual counterpart, flattering themselves, perhaps, that today's piece amounts to a good hard right jab dealing another well-earned bruising to the sneer-sneer great novelist.

And yet Garcia Marquez lives, and writes, and, for that matter, so does Fidel. Both are old. Neither will live and write much longer. But it will be their contributions, the one literary and the other world-historically revolutionary, that are celebrated far into the future. The sniveling gripes of a minor anticommunist academic, in contrast, will be quickly forgotten. Which certainty enables me to shrug off this latest NYTBR insult, brew up another cup of coffee, and get on with what's left of my Sunday before heading back for another week of wage labor.

Friday, June 5, 2009

U.S. to water-giver: you're a criminal

This is the sort of everyday outrage that punctuates life in the USofA, that brings me up short, stunned and trembling with fury. Yesterday in Tucson, Arizona, Walt Staton was found guilty in federal court on charges that carry a possible sentence of up to one year in prison. His crime? Leaving jugs full of water in the desert wilderness of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. The water is for the desperate, brave people who cross that landscape without immigration documents--driven to do so because there are no jobs, there is no way to survive in their home countries thanks to NAFTA and other crimes of capitalism.

In the last eight months, 79 human beings have died crossing that desert. Staton and other volunteers with the organization No More Deaths/No Más Muertas leave jugs of water in hopes that the water will save some lives. (They also pick up the empty jugs, take them home and refill them.) They are angels of mercy. For this they are prosecuted and face imprisonment. And you ask why we need a revolution?

A year ago I attended a screening of the movie Crossing Arizona, which documents the situation in the Arizona desert, and includes a fair amount of footage of some of the folks who spend their days providing water. I was so moved by their kindness and decency, and so disgusted at the racism of the anti-immigrant forces of the Minutemen who spend their time hunting down the crossers as if they were animals.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Rushing to relax links

For the past couple weeks the literary blogosphere has been alight with coverage of BookExpoAmerica, the big annual publishing industry confab that recently took place at the Javits Center here in NYC, and with endless considerations and reconsiderations of Amazon's Kindle, the rise of e-reading and the demise of books as physical objects, which latter was of course a central concern at the BEA, which led in turn to yet more articles and essays, this time not merely about e-books but about the publishing industry's response. The Times did its thing: Charles McGrath singing his body electrified since he is after all the typical book reader what with golf trips to South Carolina and monthlong excursions to China and zing! zing! zing! ordering up book after book for his Kindle 'cause they're so gosh-darned cheap and $9.99 per adds up to, what, nothing; and then Motoko Rich reporting the BEA frenzy to figure out a way for the conglomerates that own most of the publishing industry to adapt to the e-book takeover and get rich off it.

I've been trying to work up a meaningful response of my own to post here, but what with being swamped at work in this last month before vacation, running around taking care of household responsibilities on my lunch hour, and overwhelmed with writing tasks and deadlines to deal with evenings and weekends, while trying to fulfill at least a tiny bit of my political responsibilities as a supposed revolutionary socialist activist ... what was I saying? Oh yeah, what with life, I haven't been able to give this whole issue of books and e-books the attention I'd like to. Not to worry, however. Yesterday's MobyLives has a pretty good rundown, especially on Sherman Alexie's terrific comments at the BEA and since. I offered some thoughts, shorthand version of what I'd wanted to do here but haven't, in the comments section, so should anyone be interested please head over to MobyLives to check it out.

Fiction writers will also want to check out Tayari Jones' post about how she tackled writing a particular passage in the novel she's working on. She says she's generally reluctant to put this sort of thing on her blog, but I'm glad she did. It's a lesson in subtlety. In how to take the oblique rather than the head-on approach. My writing tends to be short on subtlety. I'm working on it. I just might print Tayari's post and tack it up over my desk. It just might help.

I mentioned my coming vacation. For reasons (1) financial and (2) personal (I didn't apply to any writing residencies for this summer after leaving my loved one alone for a month last year; our agreement is that I won't do it two years in a row), this year it'll be a staying-in-NYC rest break. The F train to Coney Island! Free concerts in Central Park! And so on and so forth; before the end of June I'll put together a list of all the free or cheap things to do. There's no place better for it. (It's slightly possible that some time during July Teresa and I will take a day trip to Connecticut and get married but it's unlikely for reason 1 above. If we do, and probably even if we don't, one of these days I'll write something for this blog about why we would. Why communists would do such a thing. Hint: It's not about renouncing Frederick E.'s analysis or embracing bourgeois institutions. It's about equity.) Overall, the vacation plan breaks down into the following delightful blocks. A.M.: Write. P.M.: Vacate. That's it. Can't wait.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Adding to my impossibly long to-read list

The Lambda Literary Awards took place here in NYC last week. You can check out the winners in all 22 categories here. I'm so pleased to see that Judy Grahn's book love belongs to those who do the feeling won for poetry, and I'm going to get it as soon as I can. Judy Grahn's work meant a lot to me in my dykeling days, the early coming-out years, 18, 19, 20, when I was searching, hungry, for words by and about my kind. Her wonderful The Common Woman Poems affected me deeply, as did She Who, and also, though it's not poetry, Another Mother Tongue. She has an orientation toward womanist spirituality that for a minute or two back 35 years ago appealed to me but I was already turning decisively toward Marxism; nevertheless, her writing resonated for me and I suspect this latest poetry still will.

Back on the materialist side, the side of getting at the truth and using it to serve the class struggle, I'm dying to dig into Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture by Chris Knight, thanks to an email from Richard Crary, who pointed me to a 2007 posting he wrote about this book on his blog The Existence Machine. It sounds fascinating, as does Knight's whole body of work, about which he was interviewed at ReadySteadyBlog in 2006. A taste:

RSB: Your political commitment is obvious from your work and from this interview. Has your work had any direct influence on your political activity?

CK: I would say my political activity has been entirely dependent on my work. To begin with, during my early twenties at Sussex University, I was quite slow to commit to the cause of revolutionary Marxism. In fact, I made the decision only once I knew in my own mind what the revolution was. It was bigger than the French revolution, bigger than the Russian revolution. The cause I eventually committed to was the human revolution. I reasoned that this wasn't just a hope or dream situated somewhere in the future. The very fact that we have language and consciousness tells us that, deep down, we have won the revolution already: it is part of what we are. The task is to work out how we won the revolution so as to be able to do it again.

So this in turn influenced the way I thought about political activism. My theory specifies that language, ritual and culture can be traced back to the world's first picket line.
That's just a sort of random sound bite. There's much here to chew on. Earlier in the interview, Knight muses about Noam Chomsky and his refusal to recognize that science is political.
Chomsky is the most virulent imaginable opponent of social science in general and of Marxism in particular. Since the late 1950s, bourgeois hostility toward Marxism in western intellectual life has found its most extreme and articulate champion in Noam Chomsky.
There is a whole huge swath of the left that regards itself as anarchist-socialist or left-libertarian or some such oxymoron. Chomsky, Knight notes, is a towering figure to them. His exceedingly unscientific view of science and society as two unrelated fields does a disservice to the class struggle.

Surprisingly, I somehow do have a little left -- two books' worth, if I'm lucky -- on the bookstore gift certificate a faculty committee here on the job gave me last holiday season. So I'm hoping I can pick these two up that way. Otherwise I'll have to take them out of the library, and they both seem like books I'd like to own.

Long live Dr. George Tiller!

Five women who worked with Dr. George Tiller--the principled, courageous gynecologist who refused to be scared off from providing full medical services to women, including abortions which all women have every right to, and who was murdered for it yesterday--speak on Democracy Now! this morning about his life and death. George Tiller presente!