Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Here's a better, truer image of Latinas

On New Year's Day, the new president of Brazil will be inaugurated. Her name is Dilma Roussef. She is a leftist and a former political prisoner.

She also, obviously, has some great ideas about her own safety. Check her out in the photo below, in a recent motorcade, surrounded by an all-female security detail.

Now that's the kind of image of--and the truth about--women that we like to see.

A dirty rotten shame

That's the best way to describe what Hollywood is doing to Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez's best-selling 2003 novel The Dirty Girls Social Club.The novel is a fast fun read, a delightful, funny but also sharp and poignant story of six Latina friends who first meet in college and stay close in the years after as each goes her own way. It takes on a lot of issues, including racism, class questions, homophobia and more, all the while remaining fully entertaining. I read it after my lover Teresa, who is Chicana, recommended it. We've loaned it to a lot of friends over the years too. And we've always wondered when it would be made into a movie, the way Waiting to Exhale, to which it has often been compared, so successfully was. It seemed a natural for Hollywood.

Well. We were right, Hollywood did take notice, but oh damn, to no good end, it appears. In a series of furiously righteous posts on her blog in recent days, Valdes-Rodriguez has blown the whistle on the producers and writers who are putting together an NBC-TV series called Dirty Girls based on her novel, having bought the rights from her a while back. Anyone who's interested in being enlightened about not only the horror that the bottom line can do to literature, but, most important, the absolutely disgusting pandering to racist stereotyping of Latinas that is, based on the evidence Valdes-Rodriguez presents, the essence of the TV show being developed, should spend some time reading her blog posts from the last week.

These posts start with "Afro-dectomies and other Hollywood secrets," and "Every Latina a slut, and other Hollywood secrets revealed," followed by the author's ideas about how she would have, how the producers ought to have, adapted the novel for TV--and then comes news that she's been slapped with a cease and desist order, and that CAA has dumped her as a client. Valdes-Rodriguez is fearless, however. She won't shut up! Other posts take on the twisted distortions the studio has wrought on her book's characters, including "From a powerful columnist to fired, unemployed drunk living in a residential hotel" and "How my normal lesbian character was made pathological for Hollywood."

Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez has been wronged. She deserves great respect for blowing the whistle on the culprits. But the wrong goes far beyond the damage and pain to her as an author, as she well knows and expounds upon in her blog posts. This is about U.S. culture and cultural stereotypes and how (now this is me talking) capitalism distorts and destroys art in its drive for profit, how the profit drive dictates defaulting to the cheapest, sleaziest, shallowest, most racist and sexist norms in place of anything approaching art, any depth or dimension or truth. It's another cultural crime. I salute this courageous author for refusing to keep silent about it. And if this show does indeed make it onto the NBC lineup--which would come as no surprise from the folks who gave us the Seinfeld episode about setting fire to the Puerto Rican flag--we'll all have to step up and do our part to support the protests that will undoubtedly ensue.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Toward a new year of the three Rs

That's reading, writing and revolution.

Till then, though, there's nothing like stating the obvious: blog posts are slowing down bigtime as this old gal slides toward winter-holiday-hibernation mode. I have a week off but I'm still at work today and tomorrow, in fact working hard for my piddling wage as deadlines loom, but that's about as far as I'm able to tax my brain at this point. I have read several books since last I wrote about one and if I had it in me I'd comment on them here, but sorry, no can do. Let me offer a little of this and a little of that in lieu of substantive original content.
  • Six books are on the shortlist for the Prize for Arabic Fiction 2011. I'm not knowledgeable enough to assess anything about them, in particular about their class character which is what interests me most, nor about the judges or the character of the prize. My best bet, I believe, is to search out which, if any, have been translated into English and read them. 
  • Here's an interesting online lit mag that originates from Australia: Polari--An International Queer Creative Writing Journal.
This last offering is a couple weeks old but it still pops to mind and makes me burst out laughing at odd moments. It's from the TV show Raising Hope--I really need to blog about the TV I watch, in particular these shows that purport to be about working-class folks, so yes let's put that on the to-do list, shall we?--and the actor uttering the immortal line here, in case you don't recognize her, is Cloris Leachman. Here's wishing sound sleep and slow times for you and me in the coming days.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Oh joy

Hey guess what? That faculty committee that's in the process of disbanding did one last good deed and gave me a nice big bookstore gift certificate after all, for the fifth year in a row. Oh joy oh gladness, and oh boy oh boy now I can look forward to months of obsessive strategizing about how to spend it. Fiction? But I'm so often let down, it's much safer to borrow novels from the library. Non-fiction? But I read so little of it, proportionately, wouldn't this be kind of a waste? Fancy-shmancy coffeetable books of the sort I could never otherwise afford? Mmm I dunno, really? Gifts? Yeah, that's what I should do. What I would do if I were the kind of person I aspire to be, theoretically.

Meanwhile my library shenanigans proceed apace. Last week's pile has already shrunk. I've read two, both good. Started two that I quickly gave up on. Took those four back and picked up four more. This time I'm not going to list them; looking at last week's list I'm a bit embarrassed. I mean, Rick Moody? What was I thinking? Yes, that's one that I returned after an ever so brief stab at reading it.

So look, here's the thing. I'm just hanging on for seven more days, till I get to head home and crash for 11 days. I might be coming down with a cold--which actually would be a good development, to get sick before the holiday break instead of during it as I usually do. Or maybe I'm just too pooped to participate. The thing is, I read too damned much. I never thought I'd say such a thing, but it just might be true. It looks like I might hit 80 books read by year's end. Which means I just might have tipped over into, if not crazy-cat-lady land, at least the realm of get-a-grip-get-a-life-before-it's-too-late. For, no matter how much I love to read, it's really not worth dying for, and if I don't get my wobbly mass up out of a chair and move it about a bit, these books might kill me. No, I have no serious health problems, but yes I'm in that age where people suddenly croak from heart attacks for which there was no warning. I don't want to be one of those people. I can just picture the sad, shaking heads, the clicking tongues: "If only she'd taken a walk instead of reading that 80th book."

So. One goal for my holidays is to get into an exercise mode, even if ever so modestly. Another is to think about this blog, and where it ought to go from here on out. I have been thinking again about some of the questions I used to raise a lot and lately not so much, about the uses of literature in relation to the class struggle. Maybe if I can lift my eyes from the page, and lift my butt from the couch, and raise mine eyes to the skies, a cogent thought or two will make itself known. If it does, you'll be the first to know.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

My Year's Best

That's my year, not the year. For although I did read a few 2010 books in 2010 and in fact one of them was my absolute best read (really of the last several years), this list reaches back as far as 1941. 

Of the 76 books I've read so far this year, then, here are the ones that lit up my life.

Best book
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

Other non-fiction
Genesis by Eduardo Galeano
Faces and Masks by Eduardo Galeano
Footnotes in Gaza by Joe Sacco

Blood Dazzler by Patricia Smith

After Tupac and D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson
Blood on the Forge by William Attaway
The Disinherited by Han Ong
Fanon by John Edgar Wideman
Erasure by Percival Everett
Fire on the Mountain by Terry Bisson
I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett
Palestine's Children by Ghassan Kanafani
Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead
Shadow Country by Peter Mathiessen
The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Adichie
A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

Friday, December 10, 2010

My holiday break book hoarding frenzy has begun

Not that my holiday break has begun, no, that's still two weeks away. And when it comes it will only last 10 days. There's no rational explanation for my annual panicky rush to amass piles of books at home before the break starts. Like clockwork the craziness has begun.

I just came back from the university library, where I picked up:

Bitter in the Mouth by Monique Truong
Daughters of the Stone by Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa
The Four Fingers of Death by Rick Moody
A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines by Janna Levin
My Hollywood by Mona Simpson
The Nobodies Album by Carolyn Parkhurst
Some Sing, Some Cry by Ntozake Shange & Ilfa Bayeza

I'd checked online before heading to the library, and so had also planned to get these two books which supposedly were on the shelf: Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans and How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu. However, they were not in fact on the shelf. Most likely they were still in the back room where new titles rest; I started to go there to find them but then realized I could barely carry the pile I had, so I let it go for today. I shall return, though, in hopes of snagging these two before the break.

No doubt I'll find myself at several other libraries too, before these two weeks are through. Probably won't do any buying. The faculty committee that had set me up with a hefty bookstore gift certificate for these last several years has deliberated itself out of existence and with it vanishes, lamentably, my main source of book-buying funds. Ah well, our employee benefits continue to shrink--among other takebacks, the portion of health-insurance premiums I have to pay is rising again as of the new year--so I guess hanging on to this sweet books perk would have been too good to be true.

Here's a mood booster for ye

All hail the student protesters of London! Here's hoping inspiration crosses the ocean.

 More lit talk soon. Cheerio!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

It was 30 years ago today

So far it's been a crappy New York morning. Not one but two nasty screaming people on the trains. Not one but three trains not running or delayed or otherwise screwed up. Angry impatient crowds crowding each other. Me all the while uptight about running late because there's a new regime at work clocking my arrival to the minute. Just what I need, on top of all my ongoing complaints. I'm tired. I'm not eating right or exercising and as a consequence my body's in awful shape. I'm not getting much writing work done, I'm not doing my part in the struggle very well.

And John is dead.

No, it's not new news. Yes, he's been dead for 30 years today. Yet even after three decades, on this anniversary of the murder of John Lennon, I can still call up the feelings from that night, the awful knowledge that Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play nevermore. Two years ago on this same anniversary I wrote about how I heard that night, when I got home from work after the late shift as a city bus driver in Ann Arbor. In that post I also mentioned my story "John and Yoko and Rowena and Me," published in Cream City Review. I wish it were online to link to, because I'm fond of it and would like to share it. While it's of course fictional, it does call up some of the feel of those days. Maybe I'll figure out a way to make it available, says I, as if someone other than me is clamoring for it.

John was no saint. He was at his death rich as Croesus; it's nice to think that if he'd lived he would have shared the wealth, but who knows. He was guilty, by his own admission, of violence against women. His politics were an odd amalgam of anarchism/pacifism/socialism/yippie/performance art. They're easy to dismiss as unserious. On the other hand, he was really committed to his anti-war principles--and did pay a price for that, having to wage a years-long battle against the U.S. government's efforts to deport him. He was working hard at raising his feminist consciousness. He and Yoko brought Bobby Seale onto the Mike Douglas Show, and sang their great song "Attica State" in solidarity with the prisoners who'd risen up and been slaughtered at NY Gov. Nelson Rockefeller's orders. There's fair cause, then, I think, for this wistful pit-of-the-stomach sadness that lingers 30 years on. It's all the what might have beens. He was a great artist. His music is magnificent, and he did contribute in his way to the struggle for peace and justice. What more might he have done?

If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend the movie The U.S. vs. John Lennon for a pretty decent introduction to all this. Plus, I like to think that you can hear my 17-year-old voice shouting during the footage from the December 10, 1971 Free John Sinclair concert.

Friday, December 3, 2010

After Tupac and D Foster

I have a new author crush. Jacqueline Woodson. Swoon. Earlier this week I read her Young Adult novel After Tupac and D Foster. I really really loved it. So then I cyberstalked her for a day or so, reading various online interviews with her and pieces by her, and as a result I really really love her. She is an African American lesbian who's committed to creating fiction that speaks to and about young people, especially young people of color, honestly as well as hopefully. Honesty and hope are in my opinion two crucial facets of meaningful, relevant fiction, YA or otherwise. In this, the first work of Woodson's that I've read, both shine through.

It's amazing how much she packs into this novel. It is a lovely, touching story of friendship and a coming-of-age story. At the same time it takes in, takes on many issues, including police racism and brutality and targeting of young Black men and false arrests and the prison system, homophobia and anti-gay violence, community and its many meanings and manifestations, families, the foster care system, and more. Through her exploration of how important Tupac Shakur is to the main characters, the impact of his work, of his life and death, Woodson does an amazing job of evoking the yearning vulnerability of these three girls on the cusp of adolescence. Not to get sappy, but there's a lot of love in these pages, family love, friend love, writerly love for these characters the author brings so glowingly to life. I found myself quite caught up in it all.

From time to time I've noted here that I want to try to read more YA fiction, and I have in fact been doing that over the last few months. To tell the truth, it hadn't gone all that swimmingly until I got to Woodson's book. Several titles I didn't make it through because they just didn't grab me, didn't sustain my interest. Several others I did finish and did like to varying degrees but none stirred me the way I wished. I'd begun to conclude, ridiculously wrongly I now realize, that perhaps I just couldn't find my way into the world of YA lit, probably because I'm, well, not a YA to say the least. I didn't think it was a matter of the fictional focus or topics but I wondered whether it was about pacing, vocabulary, structure. Then I read After Tupac and D Foster, and all that gets swept away and I see that, as with any other genre of literature, it was just a matter of not yet having found the one I was waiting for. Now I'm looking forward to reading more of Woodson's work, and I'm happily reassured that other great YA books also await.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

World AIDS Day

Today, as a storm howls and rain and wind lash the last remaining leaves off the trees, I'm thinking about my comrades who died of AIDS.

Bill Haislip. Marshall Yates. Rafael Ramos. William Mena. Albert Ramos. Michael Davidson. Steve Schultz.

And of other friends, and folks I knew and worked with in the early ACT UP years (and was arrested with at the first big Wall Street protest in Spring 1987, and then again at the Supreme Court that October), all of them killed as much by capitalism as by this disease. Keith. David. Mike. Mark. Rob. Many more.

I'm thinking too of friends and comrades now living with AIDS/HIV, some of them for years now, the lucky ones who have medical coverage and all the various types of support it takes to survive. Which necessarily leads to thinking about everyone else, about the ongoing global toll and what kind of struggle it will take to end its ravages.

Of the roughly 33 million people worldwide now living with HIV, some 68 percent are in sub-Saharan Africa. It's no surprise that the region most robbed, exploited, devastated by capitalism, colonialism and the slave trade, and thus left the most impoverished, now bears the brunt of this epidemic. Women and children are hit hardest of all. A recent book edited by Professor Ezekiel Kalipeni—Strong Women, Dangerous Times: Gender and HIV/AIDS in Africa—looks like an important contribution to a socially conscious understanding of this development, as is Kalipeni's earlier book HIV and AIDS in Africa: Beyond Epidemiology.

As to older works about the early years of the AIDS crisis here in the U.S., two I remember reading and can recommend are And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts and Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir by Paul Monette. The best recommendation, though, is to keep fighting, for full worldwide funding for research, treatment, care and prevention. And for socialism, a system in which every possible resource will be directed toward all the needs of our billionfold humankind instead of stolen and hoarded by a tiny crew of thieving criminals.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Kugel & books

I had a wonderful time off, visiting with my best friend who came from San Francisco to stay with Teresa and me for a week. We packed in a lot of fun and interesting New York stuff, from the food-oriented (Yonah Shimmel's knishery, Russ & Daughters Appetizing, Essex Street Market, Carnegie Deli, Veselka, De Mole, La Flor, an all-macaroni-and-cheese restaurant, plus home-cooked feasting) to the historic (the Tenement Museum,where I'd never before gone and now will go again as it was considerably better, by which I mean more honest and accurate, than I'd expected), to the cultural (Complexions Contemporary Ballet, an amazing company that we were thrilled to see at the Joyce Theater, and also a silly/fun backstage tour of Radio City Music Hall), to the tried and true like Central Park, the Strand bookstore, the garment district, and lots and lots of walking in Queens and Manhattan.

I read hardly at all while Rosemary was here because we had too damned much to say. Time together is precious since we generally only see each other every few years; although we talk on the phone a lot, and I mean a lot, the in-person experience is a whole other thing. So I didn't finish the book I'd been reading until after she left. And then I started a new one this morning: Mary Ann in Autumn by Armistead Maupin. Rose and I bought it together last week at the Strand. She read it while she was here, each night at bedtime, which was time enough, for as anyone who's read the Tales of the City series knows, these books are extremely fast reads. Then she left it for me, and now I'm already almost halfway through it. It was kind of perfect for her as one of the series' original followers and for its San Francisco-ness, and now it's kind of perfect for me as a sort of immediate memento of her visit. When I finish I'll pass it along to Teresa.

Rose had brought another book as a present for me, and I hope to get to it soon: Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary by Monica Nolan. How yummy does this look?!

I, a lesbian secretary, hope I like it because I'd love to move on to Nolan's other titles: Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher and The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories.

So now it's back to the grind, and I have a grinding week ahead of me. Work, including overtime; an unavoidable dental appointment; some editorial work. Which means I may not have time to get right back into a blogging groove. But I'll try to soon.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

28 years later

It's a busy time for me at work, which means I have less brain power than usual outside of work, and I'm in a bad sleep cycle, which means I have less brain power period in addition to being tired and cranky and whining about it as much as possible … therefore sorry, blogiverse, expect no substantive contributions from me for now. Instead, in brief:

Literacy, the brain power thief—I'm always fascinated by new findings about the brain and literacy. We did not evolve to read, which of course is why human beings have to learn this skill anew, not a single baby being born with reading an inbred function. This latest study hones in on which brain structures are used for reading—and which other more natural functions suffer as a result when the brain areas that evolved for those functions are co-opted instead for reading. Of course, it's not quite that simple, but still. I'm not too bad with faces, contrary to what these findings might suggest. I am, however, truly terrible at spatial relations—I flunked geometry in junior high, can't do puzzles for shit, and if there's ever a household task that requires anything to be eyed and moved about or fitted together in any way, I'm hopeless—so unless I'm extrapolating completely wrongly from this article, it seems that my early and ever intensifying involvement in reading might have something to do with this.

Rise like lions after slumber—Earlier this month students in London took some righteous and oh so welcome action against the reactionary British government's moves against social benefits, and to mark the occasion Rust Belt Radical reprinted a 1992 Paul Foot essay on poet Percy Byshe Shelley, commenting that it's "easy to imagine him among the throngs of young people who marched for their future. He might have written a few stanzas on the occupation of Tory headquarters had he witnessed it. Hell, he might have broken a window or two himself." Read the Foot essay.

Freedom's just another word—Check out this fantastic piece by novelist Percival Everett about sexism against women authors. If a woman had written the book Jonathan Franzen just did, it would be considered a domestic family saga and never considered anything close to, you should excuse the expression, the Great American Novel.

Point of personal privilege—Tomorrow my best friend arrives from San Francisco for a weeklong visit, her first to New York in many years. Having tacked some vacation days on to next week's four-day "holiday" weekend so we can spend some good quality time together, I'll be doing just that, starting tomorrow night, for the next week or so. I don't expect to blog at all. When I get back online, I will have passed a landmark of sorts. I'll have now lived in New York for 28 years. I was 28 when I moved here, so I've now lived half my life here and am as much a New Yorker as a Michigander—more, I think, for though I was formed there I've done most of my adult living here. Here's how I moved: the evening after "Thanksgiving," with $20 in my pocket, personal items crammed into a small backpack and a few clothes stuffed into a shopping bag, I boarded and rode a bus filled with Palestinian sisters and brothers, all of us headed overnight from Detroit to Washington for a demonstration the next day; there we marched and got tear-gassed; then I boarded a different bus, this one taking demonstrators from New York back home and me with them to my new home. Maybe I'll write more about all that, but for now I'll just say from this vantage point, 28 years later, that I made the right decision with that move—and that the best decision for any of us next week is, if possible, to march with United American Indians of New England to mark the National Day of Mourning, and if we can't get to Plymouth then at least to take whatever action we can in solidarity with the ongoing struggles of Native nations whose lands were stolen and civilizations decimated by the European invasion the turkey holiday celebrates.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Autumn in the city

A tall building. A road. A car. A tree or three, showing their colors. This is Queens. 

I am deep. And need some sleep, in case it isn't obvious. As bloggish as it gets today.

Friday, November 12, 2010

'All belongs to all!' Against Veterans' Day, with Eduardo Galeano

Last month I happened to finish reading Genesis by Eduardo Galeano just in time for Columbus Day, the celebration of the European invasion of and genocide in the Americas. Now, again by happenstance, I finished reading Faces & Masks—the second book in Galeano's Memory of Fire trilogy, a sweeping, literarily gripping history of the Western Hemisphere presented in brief vignettes based on voluminous research—just in time for yesterday's repugnant national adoration of imperialist war known as Veterans' Day. Faces & Masks, like Genesis, is a stunningly written (and beautifully translated, an acknowledgment I too often forget to make but must here for the translator, Cedric Belfrage, is a gifted artist) exegesis of the whole record of the years 1700-1900 and what befell the peoples of the Americas in those two centuries. Unending horrors against the indigenous peoples. Slavery and the slave trade, across oceans and continents. The crimes of the church. The sacking of natural riches. Wars, wars, wars, over territory, resources, trade routes, labor. Wars, above all, that is, over ownership and control of capital and commodities driven by the quest for profit. As with the first volume, much of what Galeano presents is terrible—awful, painful, almost unbearable to face. And much is inspiring—stories of courage, humanity, struggle. All is moving. And all, each brief entry, is so packed with information, ideas and emotion that the reader has to stop and think about and recover from each one before moving on, which is why it takes a full week to read this relatively short book. Or at least that was my experience, now with the first and second volumes of the trilogy.

If Genesis tells the truth of invasion and colonialism, and boy does it ever, and is therefore a great antidote to the lies of Columbus Day, Faces & Masks tells the truth about what came next, the passage into imperialism, leading up to and ending with the bloodbath birth of U.S. imperialism at the turn of the last century, and so it is a great antidote to the lies of Veterans' Day.

Here are some excerpts. This first one struck me because last April tens of thousands of people gathered in Cochabamba, Bolivia, for the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. I have to admit I'd never heard of Cochabamba before then, but as I read about and watched videos from this event, and then heard about it directly from people who'd gone including my lover Teresa, what stood out most was the leadership of the indigenous women of that region. So when I came across this passage in Galeano's book, it sent a shiver through me; it made me feel as if the echoes of the war cries of the brave martyred women in their last stand against the Spaniard despoilers almost 200 years earlier had reverberated at the April conference.
1812: Cochabamba—Women
From Cochabamba, many men have fled. Not one woman. On the hillside, a great clamor. Cochabamba's plebeian women, at bay, fight from the center of a circle of fire.

Surrounded by five thousand Spaniards, they resist with battered tin guns and a few arquebuses; and they fight to the last yell, whose echoes will resound throughout the long war for independence. Whenever his army weakens, General Manuel Belgrano will shout those words which never fail to restore courage and spark anger. The general will ask his vacillating soldiers: Are the women of Cochabamba present?
One of the recurring themes in Faces & Masks is how European and North American capital impoverished the rich lands of the Americas—not only directly, by expropriating the lands and resources and enslaving millions and super-exploiting the nominally free labor force, but by imposing unfair trade measures that made the market economy anything but free and equal. Today's equivalent is NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, which since its imposition in 1994 has devastated the Mexican economy and fueled massive migration of Mexicans to the U.S. forced by the collapse of agriculture and related industries; because of NAFTA, corn imported from the U.S. has driven Mexican-grown corn out of the market and deprived untold numbers of campesinos of their livelihoods. I learned from this book that NAFTA is only the latest expression of a two-century-long pattern of trade wars. Here's an example, and there are many others throughout the book.
1826: Buenos Aires—Rivadavia
On the crest of the River Plata ravines, above the muddy bank of the river, lies the port that usurps the wealth of the whole country. …

From the Thames flows the torrent of merchandise manufactured, to Argentine specifications, in Yorkshire and Lancashire. In Birmingham they imitate to the last detail the traditional copper boiler that heats water for maté, and they produce exact replicas of the wooden stirrups, bolas, and lassos used in this country. Workshops and textile mills in the provinces have scarcely a chance of resisting the assault. A single ship brings twenty thousand pairs of boots at bargain prices and a Liverpool poncho costs five times less than one from Catamarca.

Argentine banknotes are printed in London and the National Bank, with a majority of British shareholders, monopolizes their emission. …
Then there's this. I've written before about the wonderful essay "The Right to Be Lazy" by Paul Lafargue. I knew Lafargue was Karl Marx's son-in-law. I did not know he was Cuban, of African and Native heritage. Check it out:
1869: London—Lafargue
When Paul Lafargue began laying siege to Laura Marx, the founder of scientific socialism was finishing the correction of the first volume of Capital. Karl Marx took a dim view of the Cuban's ardent assaults, and told him to court his green-eyed daughter with quieter English manners. He also asked him for economic guarantees. Ousted from Germany, France, and Belgium, Marx has gone through hard times in London, devoured by debt, sometimes without a penny to buy a newspaper. The miseries of exile have killed three of his children.

But he cannot scare off Lafargue. He always knew he couldn't. Lafargue was very young when he and Marx began to fight and to love each other. And now Marx's first grandson is born of the Cuban mestizo, great-grandson of a Haitian mulatta and an Indian from Jamaica.
Finally, as the book closes at the start of the 20th century, Galeano brings onto the page the brothers Flores Magón—Jesús, Ricardo and Enrique. Actually, we were briefly introduced to them earlier, as children, when their father Teodoro Flores, a Native man whose every breath rebelled against all that the colonial invasion and occupation had done to his land, inculcated them with an egalitarian ethos, making them repeat day and night the principle "all belongs to all." Now they are grown, and actively rebelling, and will soon become leading lights of the Mexican revolution.
1900: Mexico City—The Flores Magón Brothers
…This is the day of Our Lady of the Angels, which in Mexico lasts for a week of balls; and on the margin of the violent joy of people, as if wishing to merit it, a new newspaper is born. It is called Regeneration. It inherits the enthusiasm and debts of The Democrat, closed down by the dictatorship [of Porfirio Diaz]. Jesús, Ricardo, and Enrique Flores Magón write it, publish it, and sell it.

The Flores Magón brothers grow with punishment. Since their father died, they have taken turns between jail, law studies, occasional small jobs, combative journalism, and stones-against-bullets street demonstrations.

All belongs to all, they had been told by their father, the Indian Teodoro Flores, that bony face now up among the stars. A thousand times he had told them: Repeat that!
All belongs to all!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Shelve under: crime

There's a move afoot to encourage people to re-shelve George W. Bush's memoir when it hits bookstores tomorrow, November 9. The guy is, above all, a war criminal. He is directly responsible for the murders of over 100,000 people in Iraq and Afghanistan. He can also be fairly held accountable for thousands of deaths in New Orleans after the levees broke, based on his failure to order immediate effective emergency action to save lives. Go down the line--social service cutbacks, school and hospital closings, the destruction of affirmative action, bank bailouts, the foreclosure crisis, union busting, the war on women's reproductive choice and on LGBT rights--and you can tote up how every part of his record led to death and devastation. Of course, to varying extents you can say the same of every U.S. president, Democrat or Republican. But the special animus that so many hold against GWB is well earned, I'd say.

So tomorrow, go ahead and do it. If you can stomach even touching the thing, pick up his book. Saunter about the bookstore. Find yourself in the Crime section. Leave it there.

There's even a Facebook group promoting this mild bit of subversive rebranding. From its statement: "Be part of a literary movement. Literally. They did this to Tony Blair's book and I think we should do the same here. ... Make bookshops think twice about where they categorize our generation's greatest war criminals."

I must add that Bush had already established himself as a serial killer well before he moved into the White House. As governor of Texas he presided over 152 executions. That's more than any other governor in U.S. history. Texas is well known as the headquarters of the racist death penalty in this country, and for its outrageously unjust courts and abysmally inhuman prisons. Bush personifies the worst of this.

Go ahead, put him where he belongs.

Friday, November 5, 2010

93rd anniversary of the Russian Revolution

Sunday, November 7, is the 93rd anniversary of one of the greatest events in all of human history, the coming to power of the Russian Revolution led by V.I. Lenin. (Also known as the Glorious October Revolution, the actual date falls in November on the modern calendar.)  Read Red has been getting more and more visits from people in the countries of the former USSR and the former Soviet bloc--hello Romania! hi there Bulgaria! howdy Kazakhstan! and of course welcome welcome welcome my dear comrades in Russia, ever devoted as you are to overturning the counterrevolution that has led to such devastation in your country, devastation that includes increased infant mortality, lowered life expectancy, high unemployment, and above all a calamitous plunge in the conditions for the female including the horrific rise of the traffic in women and girls. I can't let this occasion pass without noting it and paying tribute to all that the peoples of Eastern Europe and Central Asia accomplished in the 73 years between the triumph of the Revolution and the U.S.-funded, CIA-engineered counterrevolution--all the strides made toward building democratic, equitable societies with decent living standards, and all the heroic sacrifices made in the battle to defeat fascism.

There is a fashion in the U.S. and Europe among those who style themselves as some sort of progressive and/or appropriate the label "socialist." This fashion, which definitely plays out in the literary arts, is to pretend to be for socialism but to reject and denounce anyone anywhere who actually fights for socialism in the living struggle, to tar any socialist movement that actually manages to take state power as faulty and not worthy of support or solidarity. Those who take this stance, and they are legion, the critics of Revolutionary Cuba, for example, the ridiculers of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the opponents of the FARC of Colombia or the PFLP of Palestine, are in my opinion piss-poor sorry shadows of what a revolutionary socialist should be, and they are objectively siding with imperialism. The comrades with whom I feel the closest political affinity take the opposite approach. We support any and every revolutionary socialist movement. We hail and stand in solidarity with any and every communist party in power. This is not because we have stars in our eyes. No movement or government appears to me to be perfect. But we don't place ourselves above the masses of workers and oppressed of any country as if we somehow have the right to be the arbiter of their worthiness or the correctness or incorrectness of their theory or revolutionary practice. We apply no litmus test. If you are fighting the capitalists and imperialists, we are with you, no matter the details of any disagreement we might have. It's as simple as that old coal strikers' song: which side are you on? Me, I'm with the working class and oppressed peoples.

And so it is with the Russian Revolution. Was it perfect? We all know it wasn't. Was it a huge step, a 73-year-long series of huge steps, toward building the kind of society we all want, the kind of society that the whole planet needs if it and we are to survive? It most certainly was.

That's why I'll be there with you in spirit, my sisters and brothers in Moscow who do not give up the fight, on Sunday, the 93rd anniversary of the Revolution, when you gather on Tver Street between Pushkin Square and B. Gnezdnikovsky Lane at 11:30 and march to a rally and concert at Theater Square. (Thanks to Fuck Yeah Marxism-Leninism for this info.) If I find any photos of the demonstration, I'll post them next week. Update: lots of photos, from both now and then, at my comrade Greg's site Fuck Yeah Marxism Leninism.

My solidarity with everyone trying to build socialism is also why I like this video. It's obviously sort of a promotional piece, propaganda on behalf of the DPRK. And that's great! I use the word propaganda here in its best non-pejorative sense, and I use it as someone who has written my fair share of propaganda over the years. It is the use of words and images to convey the message of our side and win over adherents and allies. In the case of North Korea, such pro-DPRK propaganda is badly needed, for in this country we're subjected to an endless barrage of anti-DPRK propaganda. Much of it is it amazingly crude and vapid, like the constant ridicule of Kim Jong-Il's haircut, of all inane things. Much of it is out and out lies, about famine and police state repression and so on--but since the United States maintains an illegal, murderous blockade against the DPRK that makes it almost impossible for U.S. residents to travel there and see the reality for themselves and also blocks any pro-DPRK material from reaching people here, this campaign of smears steamrolls ever forward. (See last week's New Yorker for an unbelievably long article filled with same.) So. Don't dismiss this (especially not the singing, for everyone I know who's been to the DPRK raves about how central singing is to the culture, how everyone sings together all the time and it is the most joyous communal expression of the human spirit)--don't dismiss this as a puff piece. Sure, its purpose is to counter the relentless wave of slander. Good! What's wrong with that? Keep this in mind: It is also a message from the descendants of the great revolutionary generation that, led by Kim Il Sung, rose up against poverty and oppression and nearly took back their country, against which revolution the U.S. invaded and slaughtered millions of Koreans. At the end of that war, the revolution had held on to the north but imperialism occupied the south--and does to this day, to the tune of some 30,000 occupying U.S. troops. Let's welcome, then, this message from the young generation of socialist Korea.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The art of colluding with reaction: Lost City Radio

That book I just read? You know, the one whose author is one of the 20 Under 40 recently celebrated by the New Yorker and whose recognition and success are offered up as proof of how U.S. publishing is becoming less narrow, more inclusive? That book set in Latin America, which is also a credit to the industry, in this case one of the big houses, Harper Collins, that they are finally taking a look at the rest of the world? The one with the beautiful writing and the subtle, complex consideration of the human stories behind the blood-and-conflict-filled news headlines?

I started that book, Lost City Radio by Daniel Alarcón, last week, and finished it earlier this week. My feelings about it changed from appreciation of fine writing and an openhearted hope about where this read would take me, to disappointment and feelings of betrayal as it took me deeper and deeper into the same muddy old bog. The empty heart of the anti-struggle liberal intelligentsia's favorite dogma: that the left and right are equally bad, their actions equally evil, that they equally harm average individual human beings haplessly caught in the crossfire. Fascism is equated with people's revolution. When the two sides clash, and especially when fascism wins as it does in the unnamed country where this novel is set—this fable whose moral after all is that fascism will always win, that there is no point to the struggle, and that revolutionary leaders are soul-less lovers of violence who care nothing about the masses and their misery—the inevitable result is shattered lives, lost love, loneliness hopelessness ruin wreckage.

As I read on, getting toward the end of the book where this slant became clearer and clearer, I started marking the passages that ticked me off. There are too many to include in this post. Here are two to give a flavor of the whole. This passage is about the young villagers recruited into the guerrilla force:
We'll take the capital, the commanders said, and the boys repeated it to Rey, and he could tell they believed it. Meanwhile, they practiced making bombs in the jungle. None had even the cloudiest sense of what the war was about, and none had ever asked. They were happy to be out of their homes. Once a month, they marched into some town to kill a priest or burn a flag fluttering above a police outpost.
Then there's this, in an internal monologue by one of the main characters, a sympathizer and sometime collaborator with the rebels who was once captured and horribly tortured by the fascist government yet who ultimately is presented as proof of the wrongheadedness and futility of the class struggle:
Consider the improbability of it: that the multiple complaints of a people could somehow coalesce and find expression in an act—in any act—of violence. What does a car bomb say about poverty, or the execution of a rural mayor explain about disenfranchisement? Yet Rey had been a party to this for nine years. The war had become, if it wasn't from the very beginning, an indecipherable text. The country had slipped, fallen into a nightmare, now horrifying, now comic, and in the city, there was only a sense of dismay at the inexplicability of it. Had it begun with a voided election? Or the murder of a popular senator? Who could remember now? They had all been student protesters, had felt the startling power of a mob, shouting as one chorus of voices—but that was years ago, and times had changed. No one still believed all that, did they?
OK, we get it already. Violence is bad. Any and all violence is equally bad and its perpetrators equally evil, or maybe, probably, those fighting the status quo are worse, more to blame, because if they'd just lay down their weapons the fascist state could stop slaughtering people and things might achieve at least a semblance of normalcy. Whooey—that's some slippery slope the author is skidding down. That's liberalism. Ostensibly opposing political reaction while objectively enabling its continuance by siding with the status quo as opposed to actual action in struggle against it. Liberal, too, is the depiction of revolutionary warfare as aimless random terrorism, of its soldiers as clueless ignorant delusional saps, of its activists and partisans as a misled misguided hypnotized mob. There is no place in this model for an honest depiction of guerrilla warfare as something other than crazed meaningless violence, or of the armies that successfully took power after strategically waged revolutionary wars based on profound popular support like those led by Fidel and Che, or Mao, or Ho Chi Minh, or Leon Trotsky; or those like the FMLN in El Salvador, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the New People's Army of the Philippines, the fighters in Guatemala, in Puerto Rico, everywhere people have taken up arms against neocolonial repression. There is certainly and absolutely no acknowledgment of the U.S. role in the mass misery—deep poverty, lack of potable water, decent housing, education, health care—that is engendered by imperialism and upheld by the comprador bourgeoisie in these countries.

Have I said oy yet?

When I started reading Lost City Radio, I thought I was entering a thoughtful fictional treatment of recent history in Argentina and the Dirty War in which tens of thousands were disappeared by the fascists, or perhaps Chile where the Pinochet coup assassinated an elected president and also killed and disappeared tens of thousands, or Peru where the Fujimori government waged war against the Shining Path people's army, or Colombia where the FARC is up against government by death squad—in each case, again, the ever-increasing poverty and ever-worsening overall conditions of life caused by capitalism, by U.S. imperialism in particular—but no. I was entering instead that territory most beloved by literary commentators in this country, in thrall as they all are to bourgeois consciousness. It is called by various names. "Subtle." "Complex." "Humane." "Chaotic." It is a landscape devoid of political consciousness or artistic responsibility to the reality of the raging class struggle, substituting instead a cynical rejection of the possibility of revolutionary change. This default to support for the status quo is couched, swathed, smothered in beautiful writing, in lovely language conveying the pain and suffering of various characters. We are meant to feel these characters' individual pain and suffering as at once more important than the pain and suffering of the vast masses from whose numbers are drawn the ranks of revolutionary warriors, and at the same time as symptomatic, emblematic, of the rank wrongness of the revolutionary project. There is not one sentence's acknowledgment that all this pain and suffering is caused by a particular system and that it takes a struggle for revolutionary change to overturn that system and replace it with one that is just and equitable and might end the pain.

I've written before on this blog about a genre of U.S. fiction I think of as "the madness of the 60s" novels, books that portray the great struggles of that time as crazy and misguided and powered mostly by white middle-class youthful drugged self-centered idiots. I've also complained about that vastly populated category, the counter-revolutionary emigrant's tale, which most often takes the form of a screed against the Chinese or Cuban Revolution. This novel I just read falls in yet another category: the fictionalized polemic against revolutionary struggles in progress. All three types (and they're not the only three in the bourgeoisie's endless artistic arsenal) so starkly give the lie to the "literature shouldn't be political" cant chanted ceaselessly by the literary powers that be in this country that you'd think it'd be put to rest for once and for all. Or at least that they'd admit what they really mean is "literature must not be allied with the workers and oppressed."

I am sorry to say all this. I wanted to like this novel. But because it takes sides against the revolutionary struggles that are currently on the rise in Latin America, I couldn't. Once again, then, we who long for fiction that stands with the workers and oppressed and tells their true stories are left in the lurch. And here's the thing: those stories are out there. I never doubt this. Is there a great novelist in the Colombian jungles camping with the FARC? I know there is. Are there wondrous political poets locked in the stinking jails of Peru? No doubt. But theirs is not the work we get. What we get is this, and, as I write this, a month after the Nobel ascension of Mario Vargas Llosa, I know I shouldn't be surprised. The search continues, for the words of our side.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Cop-out though it is ...

... and date me though using "cop-out" does, I'm going to go with what I've got. And what I've got is a hodge-podge. To whit:

I haven't read any of the books, but this piece about three Young Adult novels with trans teenaged characters is important. Although I haven't been blogging about it consistently, by no means have I dropped my interest in learning more about YA literature in general and in particular YA literature that features characters of color and/or LGBT characters. I've got several on my pile, and I've lately read several. When and if I've got something new or worthwhile to say about them I'll do so. In the meantime, these titles are added to my to-read list.

For 10 years or so I've been on an occasional drive to read "classics" that I'd never read. By classics I mean, yes, books considered central to "the canon" by the literary establishment, mostly Dead White Men stuff. I went to a hippie college in the early 1970s and was able to study what I wanted with few requirements, which is why I never read many of these volumes, and on through the years what I've read for my own pleasure has, as will be obvious to anyone who follows this blog or even looks at its name, not been the roster of DWMs. But for some time, a decade or more, I have been reading, or trying to read, some of them because it became frustrating reading book reviews or other literary commentary when so many of these make reference in one way or another to the "standards" and I couldn't fully get the reference. So. I've read a fair number of Shakespeare's plays. I tried reading Henry James until that proved almost fatal as the boredom damned near killed me. I finally read The Great Gatsby. And so on. All of which is my long-winded way of noting this news about another volume that, sorry all you book clubbers, I found impossible to read since I'm unable to read when I'm asleep.

This news is over a month old, but I'm still pissed off about it. I don't know why anyone should be surprised that there's a move to privatize the public libraries since the public education system is under the same attack. Good to see that there's some effort at fighting back.

A couple weeks ago I said I wanted to read a new book about the brain-cancer threat from cell phones. I'm happy to say that good science indicates there is no such threat. So that's one less book I've got to read.

I've got more. There's always more. Maybe later. For now, check out what looks like a great site, Poets for Living Waters, which describes itself as "a poetry action in response to the BP Gulf oil disaster of April 20, 2010." I'm not sure how I feel about that formulation "a poetry action." On the one hand, poetry is not the same as action, and action, mass militant united action on so many fronts, is desperately needed at this time of unemployment, murderous imperialist wars and invasions, and the ever-emboldened march of reaction (to which I simply must add a big Fuck You to Jon Stewart who's getting mighty rich off of fronting for the capitalist system's status quo as in his insipid speech at his anti-struggle Washington rally equating working-class organizing with neo-fascist mobs). On the other hand, I certainly do believe in, spend most of my words on this blog arguing for, partisan political poetry and fiction, which I think can aid the struggle in several ways. So it's always good to see these sorts of efforts to collect and promote it. I hope to spend some time reading the poems here. One I already have, and I commend you to it: "The Day We Added Ecocide to Our Vocabulary" by Andrew Rihn.

Friday, October 29, 2010

This week

  • I worked too damned hard and
  • I slept too damned little and
  • I started and stopped too many disappointing books and
  • I wrote not one sentence and
  • I contributed not one whit to the class struggle
all of which have something to do with not blogging. I'm not in a fugue state or anything, but it's just been one of those weeks when getting to work and back is pretty much all I could manage. I've been collecting stuff for this blog, though, wisps of this and wonders of that, so I should be back soon with some substantive words.

Speaking of words and what I haven't done, I believe something else happened this week. I can't quite be sure, for who knows, I may yet flare back into rage and resistance, but I think I entered the last stage of the mourning process over not getting my novel published. Acceptance, or something like it. Something finally clicked, it seems, and I recognized this is one dream, the dearest dream I've ever dared, at least on the puny level of my own little life, that's dead. I'm nearly ready to make my peace with this, it seems. I'll never know why I failed, I'll never know if it's all about the market and the industry and all the changes and so on and I would have succeeded had this book been written 10 years ago, or if it's simply not good enough for any bookshelf. No way to know. So frustrating. In my long, initially enthused and energetic and ultimately sporadic, pessimistic and doomed effort to find a route to publication for this novel into which I poured so much of my heart and soul, I mostly found firmly closed doors--but I also had enough responses of the "it's not for me but it's great and I'm sure it'll find a home" variety that I kept slogging onward, kept holding onto hope, probably much longer than I should have. If the hope, better recognized as delusion, has at last slipped out of my grip it's a good thing, I think, a relief, to finally put the sucker away and shut that drawer. Who knows, maybe I'll open it again some day after I finish the second novel I'm now writing.

That kind of week, right? And to top it off, the travesty of all travesties came last night on Project Runway when the awful, hypocritical, pinched, smug, myopic, uncreative, anti-innovation, bourgeois judges snatched victory away from the miraculous Mondo Guerra, who'd clearly earned it. This is the second season in a row that the obviously superior designer was passed over for the PR prize and the obviously superior designer was Latino. Last year it was Emilio Sosa. Nor can we forget how Korto Momolu was robbed a few seasons back. In fact, only once has a person of color won PR. In the thousands of tweets, blog entries, columns and commentaries that you can find today on the PR finale, 99 percent of them horrified laments at the outcome, quite a few characterize this and past decisions as racist. It's hard to argue with that interpretation.

Next week: next week!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Howl & how not to hear poetry

Last night I watched the movie Howl. It's still showing in theaters but cheaper to see via cable's movies on demand gizmo that also keeps me home, which is where I mostly prefer to be and which I might add is, unlike movie theaters, guaranteed (so far at least) to be bedbug-free. But I digress. Howl. James Franco was great as the young Allen Ginsberg. Much of the movie consists of Franco, as Ginsberg, talking to an unseen interviewer about poetry, about the poetic process, himself as a poet, his life and its connection to his poetry, and about his great poem Howl. I found these segments riveting. I'd have happily sat through two hours of just this. There are also courtroom scenes, from the 1957 obscenity trial in San Francisco where the state tried to ban the City Lights publication of Howl in book form. While not fascinating the way Ginsberg talking about poetry was, these segments are interesting too. Interspersed with both are scenes of Ginsberg reading the poem in, I assume, San Francisco, in 1955. I very much liked this too, Franco's bravura capture of Ginsberg's unique persona.

What I did not like one bit were the animated sequences. These are literal, if whimsical, depictions of various passages from the poem that take over the screen enacting the words that we hear in voiceover. For me, they damned near ruined the movie. I can only guess that the filmmakers worried they would not hold an audience's interest with only the scenes of Ginsberg talking, Ginsberg reading his poem, and testimony at the obscenity trial, that they had to insert some visually arresting element. Well. I think it would have worked if the visual element had been abstract, suggestive, evocative, something to simply capture the eye, perhaps hypnotize us further into the poetic dream as the words washed over us aurally. Instead what we get is an interruption, a barging in on our attention to the poem's words, rhythms, layers of meaning, a most unwelcome assault on our ability to take in the poetry. An intrusion! I wanted to scream and throw something at the screen every time the animations appeared.

The problem, for me at least--and I know this sounds odd and contradictory but it isn't really--is that literature is not a literal art form. Poetry least of all. Yet with these animations in which the "story" of Howl is acted out, Ginsberg's creation is removed from the ineffable realm of imagination and yanked back down to earth, reduced to a matter of plot and character and this and that. To me this feels like a sad disservice to a great poet and a great poem.

I've read Howl twice (and now definitely want to read it again). There's no way I came close, in either of those readings, to truly understanding it. But, as with any quality literature, poetry or fiction, reading it was an intereactive experience between the words and me, between the mind of the poet and the mind of the reader, with me, the reader, my reading brain, creating images, ideas, feelings from the words created by the writer. As any writer knows, book, story, or poem, no reader reads the same thing. The words may be the same in every edition, yet every reader's brain makes of the writer's words something else. Even with fiction, even with the most straightforward conventionally written plot-driven story or novel, the act of reading is an imaginative, creative act--what each reader sees in her mind's eye is her own translation of the writer's words. This is what I mean when I say literature is not a literal art form--although on one level there is nothing more precise than words, on another, the most meaningful level, I think, the words serve as merely a sort of gateway, opening up worlds that the reader enters and creates as she reads. This is the interactive alliance between writer and reader. This is why reading, at least when the material you're reading is at the level of art, is a thrilling and creative act.

It's also why I generally feel that movies aren't the sublime art form that literature is, a view that I know opens me to all sorts of attack and that, truthfuly, I probably can't defend terribly articulately and am even willing to allow might turn out to be harebrained once someone argues me out of it. Till then, though, I can't help but feel that because movies depict everything right there on the screen, show every character's facial expressions, broadcast every character's voice, breathing, tone, tears, display brick buildings, green fields, bullets, blood, and so on--because, that is, they leave little or nothing to the viewer's imagination, they can't and don't achieve what books can. I think this is why film adaptations of books almost always disappoint. It's not just that Hollywood's crass profit-driven aesthetic sabotages any hope of capturing the depth and beauty of a great novel. It's that, just by the act of taking all those words that had been left to the reader's imagination to conjure into images and ideas each inside her own mind, taking those words, stripping them of multiple levels of meaning and alternate interpretations and transforming them into one inescapable literal depiction, the movie by definition destroys, subverts, dumbs down, dare I say erases the art from, the novel, story or poem.

To me, that's what the animation does in this movie. Otherwise, it would have been an intelligent, interesting consideration of art, the artistic process, the clash of art and commerce, censorship, gay oppression, all spiced with enough exciting readings of parts of Howl to entice viewers to read, or reread, Ginsberg's masterpiece. It's still that, but just barely, because, for this viewer at least, the animation sequences deny me entry into the heart of the poem and the mind of the poet.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Mountains That Take Wing

Here's a new movie, over a decade in the making as I understand it, coming soon to cities around the country. Mountains That Take Wing centers on a series of conversations between Angela Davis and Yuri Kochiyama, two women who have loomed large in the struggles of the last 40-50 years in this country, and so of course is also about those struggles. Davis is widely known in and out of the movement. Kochiyama is less so to those who haven't themselves been involved, yet she is a true hero and it's great that she's getting this spotlight now, as this wonderful sister is in failing health as she nears 90. Among other things, she held Malcolm X in her arms as he lay dying after the assassin's bullets struck him in 1965. But the reason she was there, how she came to be there, and where she went from there, this larger story is, I hope, what the movie shows.

I want to see this film.

Poesia, Reading & Depth

This is NYC Latin@ Pride Week 2010, sponsored by Unid@s, the national organization for LGBT Latin@s. The week includes many events by, for and about the vibrant LGBT Latino community of this city.

Last night, thanks to the kind invitation of a friend, I attended Sin Fronteras: A Night of Poesia, Reading & Depth at the Phoenix Bar on the lower east side.
It was great to get a chance to hear these writers and poets read, several I've heard of and several whose names were new to me. I was particularly taken with the work of Brandon Lacy Campos--with him, as he was a charming host/M.C., and especially with his poetry, which was indeed fierce and deep. Check out his blog My Feet Only Walk Forward. The latest post is his newest poem "H-I-ME," which he read last night.

It was good to get out and listen to some young writers' work. It reminded me that I need to do this more often.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Bravo Leigh, bravo Abulhawa

Bravo to Mike Leigh, the great British film director, for canceling his plans to teach in Israel. In a letter made public last week, Leigh labeled his earlier reluctance to take a stand "cowardice." Now, he says, given everything--given Gaza, given the attack on the Freedom Flotilla, given the loyalty oath legislation--he cannot go to Israel, does not want to go, will not go.

Leigh, who is Jewish (original family name: Lieberman), is now of course taking terrible heat from the Zionist state's supporters. Those for self-determination for Palestine are relieved that he corrected his initial error. I'm of course in the latter group, as well as a great admirer of the work of this artist of the cinema, work that has been unfailingly class-conscious, so I find this welcome news.

Meanwhile, here in the States, this past Saturday Palestinian-American novelist Susan Abulhawa took the stage with rabid Zionist Alan Dershowitz at a Harvard University literary forum. Abulhawa, whose wonderful novel Mornings in Jenin I read and wrote about in early 2009, was sharp and winning while Dershowitz, pushing his new novel The Trials of Zion, was in typical racist bullying form. Bravo to Abulhawa for her guts and grit in speaking truth to power. Watch it here.

Friday, October 15, 2010

My Princess Boy

As the quest for more books to counter the bashers and bulliers continues, here comes this: My Princess Boy by Cheryl Kilodavis. This is a picture book about "how to accept young boys who might cross traditional gender line clothing expectations" and the need to "accept and support youth for whoever they are and however they wish to look."

Kilodavis wrote the book based on the experiences of her family and her young son who likes to dress up like a princess. It looks like a great contribution, from a beautiful family. Here they are recently on a Seattle morning show.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Four points

1. Fragments, a book of "poems, intimate notes and letters" by Marilyn Monroe, is just out.
I'm interested in reading it. For many reasons, related to Joyce Carol Oates, to Monroe the serious reader (which I've blogged about, a post I can't seem to find), to ephemeral other points of departure.

2. This too interests me. Disconnect by Devra Davis. Almost as much as it terrifies me. The terror? Perhaps the book's subtitle will provide a clue: The Truth About Cell Phone Radiation, What the Industry Has Done to Hide It, and How to Protect Your Family. Should you see fit to join me in fearville, check out this interview with the author at Yikes! Not that I talk on my cell phone much, hardly at all in fact. Still I'm sticking to my yikes.

3. Over three weeks since I finished reading The Warmth of Other Suns, I haven't stopped thinking about it. Every day something brings it to mind, or rather some point or passage from the book rises in my mind and something I've seen or heard gets refracted through it. It is an indispensable trove of information, insight and analysis. How pissed off have I been, then, since yesterday's announcement of this year's National Book Award nominations? Very pissed off. It seems impossible that Isabel Wilkerson's masterwork was passed over. Patti Smith's memoir? OK, yeah, sure, we all love Patti Smith, nice that she got the nod, but jeez, it's as if a culinary award went to a single lovely quirky grain of rice while a great brilliant magnificently complex risotto was ignored. WTF?! And yes fine it's inconsistent to complain, or even care, given all I know, all I've ranted about, regarding the character of these establishment literary awards. Doesn't it say a lot, though, that the literary establishment can't bring itself to acknowledge a book like Wilkerson's?

4. I also can't stop thinking about the ongoing rash of suicides by lesbian and gay youths. Today, happily, a couple items that point in a more positive direction. This editorial in Workers World, about the role of the struggle. And this, finally: a youngster who's been the victim of anti-gay bullying launches a protest. Marco Melgoza, our hero!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Against Columbus Day, with Eduardo Galeano

Last week I read Genesis, the first book in the Memory of Fire trilogy about the history of the Americas by Eduardo Galeano. I'd been looking for this book, for all three books, for a while, but they seemed to be out of print and I was even having trouble finding them in any library. Now, though, no doubt because of the resurgence of interest in Galeano's work thanks to Venezuela President Hugo Chavez presenting U.S. President Barack Obama with Open Veins of Latin America at a summit last year, the trilogy has been reissued in a new edition by Nation Books.

This first volume, Genesis, starts with the pre-invasion era and ends at about 1700. It is devastating. History as I have never before read it. In language so finely crafted that for the first hundred pages or so I was reading under the misapprehension that this is a novel. Creatively, originally, imaginitively as Galeano tells it, however, this is not fiction. Every word is true. On every page, a revelation. Even if you have long since been disencumbered of the lies about Columbus as courageous explorer, conquistadors as dashing heroes, invasion and occupation and genocide and chattel slavery as manifest destiny--there is much to learn in these pages. Much horror, pain, evil; also much courage, resistance, beauty. Here it is, laid out for us by Galeano, here it is just as it happened. It is our duty, I think, especially those of us who support the struggles of indigenous peoples, of people of African descent, and of the Latin American left, to face it, know it, arm ourselves with it, so that we can be better, truer fighters.

What a wonderful counter, then, to the imperialist holiday honoring the racist colonizers. Read Genesis--read it and weep, read it and be inspired, read it and re-enter the struggle filled anew with righteous anger. I'm looking forward to the next two volumes. From Galeano to the genocidal invaders: take that, Columbus!

Here's an excerpt from the opening section of Genesis, which consists of creation myths and other lore from various of the original nations of the Americas. This one, in a way harsh yet at the same time whimsical, offers an explanation of how patriarchy began:
In remote times women sat in the bow of the canoe and men in the stern. It was the women who hunted and fished. They left the villages and returned when they could or wanted. The men built the huts, prepared the meals, kept the fires burning against the cold, minded the children, and tanned skins for clothes.
Such was life for the Ona and Yagan Indians in Tierra del Fuego, until the day the men killed all the women and put on the masks that the women had invented to scare them.
Only newly born girls were spared extermination. While they grew up, the murderers kept repeating to them that serving men was their destiny. They believed it. Their daughters believed it, too, likewise the daughters of their daughters.
Most of the rest of the book tells bitter bitter truths from the days after the Europeans arrived. What they did is unspeakable. What their inheritors still do carries on their crimes. A reckoning will come. Read Genesis yourself, to remind yourself of why.Today of all days.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

John Brown's Body

One week from today is the 151st anniversary of the raid on Harper's Ferry led by one of the great heroes of U.S. history, the anti-slavery warrior John Brown. I've written about Brown before here at Read Red. I've also written about him for Workers World newspaper, a 2006 piece about his great military campaigns in Kansas and one last year about Harper's Ferry. You'll find several books about Brown in my list of recommended titles at right, and this is a good moment to mention again some of the best: A Voice From Harper's Ferry by Osborne P. Anderson, John Brown by W.E.B. Du Bois, John Brown, Abolitionist by David Reynolds, and the novel Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks.

So yeah, you get it: I've got a thing for John Brown. Now I've got a brand new thing, about John Brown, new to me, that is, and my favorite kind of thing at that.

 A book! Not just any book. A beautiful book, a kind, generous and unexpected gift from a friend of Read Red. This is John Brown's Body, a book-length poem by Stephen Vincent Benet. Originally published to great acclaim in 1928, this edition was issued by the Book of the Month Club in 1954, and it's in excellent condition, a tiny tad tattered but basically well preserved (a fair description of book and me, both the same age).

This is an epic of the Civil War. It ranges widely over it and deeply into it, or at least this is my impression from a couple weeks of sort of sniffing my way around it. Its politics won't come clear for me, I don't think, until I can actually sit down and read through the whole thing, but I'm guessing Benet's take won't entirely please me; he was on the right side, it seems, but it also seems that he tried in the poem to be "fair" to the wrong side too, not a stance with which I sympathize.

The main thing, though, is Brown. I can't wait to see his treatment of Brown. The poem is not "about" John Brown--it's about the big issue, about slavery, about the war it took to end the system of human chattel labor--but the title Benet gave it shows that he saw the giant shadow Brown cast. I'm eager to see what he has to say about that, and about him.

I have snuck some peeks at the end, which do come back to Brown, and more, and will close with a bit of it:
He was a stone, this man who lies so still,
A stone flung from a sling against a wall,
A sacrificial instrument of kill,
A cold prayer hardened to a musket-ball;
And yet, he knew the uses of a hill,
And he must have his justice, after all.
He was a lover of certain pastoral things,
He had the shepherd's gift.
When he walked at peace, when he drank from the watersprings,
His eyes would lift
To see God, robed in a glory, but sometimes, too
Merely the sky,
Untroubled by wrath or angels, vacant and blue,
Vacant and high.
He knew not only doom but the shape of the land,
Reaping and sowing,
He could take a lump of any earth in his hand
And feel the growing.
He was a farmer, he didn't think much of towns,
The wheels, the vastness.
He liked the wide fields, the yellows, the lonely browns,
The black ewe's fastness.
Out of his body grows revolving steel,
Out of his body grows the spinning wheel
Made up of wheels, the new, mechanic birth,
No longer bound by toil
To the unsparing soil
Or the old furrow-line,
The great, metallic beast
Expanding Westg and East,
His heart a spinning coil,
His juice burning oil,
His body serpentine.
Out of John Brown's strong sinews the tall skyscrapers grew,
Out of his heart the chanting buildings rise,
River and girder, motor and dynamo,
Pillar of smoke by day and fire by night,
The steel-faced cities reaching at the skies,
The whole enormous and rotating cage
Hung with hard jewels of electric light,
Smoky with sorrow, black with splendor, dyed
Whiter than damask for a crystal bride
With metal suns, the engine-handed Age,
The genie we have raised to rule the earth,
Obsequious to our will
But servant-master still,
The tireless serf already half a god