Sunday, February 28, 2010

Art & books & dinner & talk oh my!

Last night Teresa and I had a grand evening out, one of those perfect melds of great food, good sociable fun, art and politics and music and dance and talk with delightful friends and comrades. Dinner at the home of Lucy Pagoada and Roberto Quesada, two leading lights of the Honduran left in the U.S., steadfast fighters against last June's coup and the subsequent repression that has gripped their homeland.

Lucy is president of Honduras USA Resistencia, a tireless organizer, a teacher--and a fantastic cook, OMG, we were barely able to roll our distended bodies out the door at evening's end, so fully had we fallen in thrall to her delicious Honduran tacos, very different than any Mexican taco I've had, and to her impossibly scrumptious arroz con leche dessert.

Roberto is a journalist, counsellor to the Honduran mission to the UN--and, most relevant for this blog, he is one of Honduras' most celebrated writers. Roberto Quesada's novels are praised for their incisive mix of political commentary, wit, humor and compassion. His books that have been translated and published in English include The Ships, Never in Miami, and The Big Banana. So forgive me if I got a little star-struck and got Teresa to take a picture of me with the acclaimed author.

Lucy and Roberto's home is filled with magnificent art--a number of paintings mostly by Honduran artists, many other interesting pieces including a bust of Neruda that I was much taken with, posters and other artifacts of the struggles in Latin America--and with music from many countries and books in at least two languages. There is a wall of photographs of Roberto with other writers, among them Kurt Vonnegut and Isabel Allende. From their coffee table I picked up the book Botero: Abu Graib and spent some time taking in these powerful images by the Colombian artist famous for his paintings and sculptures of large-bodied people.

I can't end without including a shout-out to Lucy and Roberto's 5-year-old son Robertito, who gave me a splendid tour of their house and throughout the evening regaled us with his prodigious knowledge of airplanes, airports and aeronautics. We had a lively little debate about Jet Blue airlines--I arguing against flying a non-union carrier, he countering with the wonders of Jet Blue's apparently extra-big jumbo jets--which I only mention to give an indication of how smart this fellow is, that I could have such a dispute with a 5-year-old.

Have I mentioned that, wonder of wonders, hallelujah of hallelujahs, the university was closed on Friday so I got a full snow day at home in my pajamas? Which means this has been an unexpected three-day weekend. Today it's back to the tasks (writing, household, political) list. After all, there's no excuse for not getting back to work, well fed and well rested as I am. Thank you to Lucy, Roberto and Robertito for being a big part of that boost.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Black History Month: Fanon

By coincidence as Black History Month drew to a close I finished reading Fanon by John Edgar Wideman. This is a miracle of a book. My critical capacities fall far short of what would be required to give this book its due, in a blog posting, an essay, hell, another entire book which is what it might take to approach it from every necessary angle and convey an adequate sense of its depth. With that apology up front, then, these few words will have to do, and the first of them is simply to urge you to read this vital book by this masterful writer.

Don't approach Fanon expecting a biographical or historical novel about the great revolutionary, theoretician, writer and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon. What Wideman is up to here is much more complex than that; of course it is, for, as anyone who has read any of his stories or other novels knows, his is never a linear approach. By which I don't mean that here he ignores Fanon or treats him with anything less than his due--in fact on one level, one strand of the book is a sort of love letter to Fanon, a heartfelt call to the world to remember and pay tribute to this hero of the anti-colonial struggle, to all he did and tried to do and sacrificed--but that Fanon takes on even more. The book takes on, really, nothing less than the state of the world these nearly 50 years afer Fanon died of leukemia in a U.S. hospital. The state, especially, of the African American nation. These are pages shot through with pain and anger, with harsh truths, with bitter hopelessness and yet also tender love and even an iota of hope.

There aren't many pages. It's a slim book. Yet it took me a good two weeks to read where other books of this length have taken me a day or two. The reason is that it is extremely dense--I mean this in a good way--each word, each sentence, each paragraph and page packed with meaning, with literary, historical and political allusion, with often dazzling wordplay, so that the reader must pay very close attention. You can't rush through sentences like these.

There are many many riffs on all sorts of things that you wouldn't think are connected but that in Wideman's hands somehow come clear as all parts of the whole, the whole being this wretched racist society and culture. And there are passages that are straight from Wideman's own life, about his brother who is serving a 28-year prison sentence, his elderly and wheelchair-bound mother, his own often despairing quest to make meaning of it all as a writer. Yes, this, or much of it, is meta-fiction. I had to look that up to make sure I'd gotten the term right, and I think I have: Wideman breaks with and/or brings front and center to expose the conventions of fiction writing, for instance bringing himself, the author, in as a character.

These sorts of devices are usually not my cup of tea. Not because there's anything inherently wrong with them, but because in practice they're usually bound up in novels of utter irrelevance. Fanon is the exception. This book is all about the ills of this society. It is, unless I very badly misread it, a cri de coeur, a cry from the author's heart, to fix things before it's too late. It is an offering, a clear-eyed vision of the wreckage from a writer who is unable to look away and dares us to join him in confronting reality. This book wants, as Wideman writes in nearly so many words on one of the final pages, to save a life.

A couple weeks back I posted some thoughts and questions about left literature. What it ought to consist of, what it ought to aspire to, whether it can or ever does have any actual concrete effect in terms of the class struggle. I do intend to return to that subject as soon as I can for continued general consideration, but here now is a specific book to wonder at from the perspective of these questions. Wideman's Fanon raises provocative problems. If because of its stylistic approach a book might be difficult for many people to read, is it still useful or relevant? If a book is honest and angry but is hardly oriented toward struggle, is it still a contribution to the struggle? It's hardly my place to offer any firm answers in the case of this book but I can offer my strong suggestion that you read it, because I do feel on firm ground in saying that it is the work of a literary master. It gripped me. Shook me. Made me grateful to spend a couple weeks in the presence of a deep and brilliant mind.

It also made me want to go back and read more of Fanon's own work. I read The Wretched of the Earth many years ago, in high school or college. It's time to revisit it.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Back-and-forth-from-bleh-to-yeah links

So Susie Orbach, whose most recent book I called "breathtakingly heterosexist," is now lovers with Jeanette Winterson. They plan on a long lovely retirement together in Italy. Don't worry, though--neither one thinks of herself as a lesbian. Winterson is "beyond those descriptive constraints." Orbach is "post-heterosexual." Ecch. I mean, fine, sure, call yourself whatever you like or don't call yourself anything at all if you don't want to, but jeez I find this whole I'm-much-more-evolved-than-all-you-plain-old-dykes-and-your-oh-so-un-pomo-identities stance very annoying. Am I overreacting? Probably. Both these writers have done some good work, and Winterson especially has long been beloved by lesbian readers ... but so shouldn't they show a modicum of sensitivity at this juncture? Whatever. I hope they enjoy their sunset years in an Italian villa. My lesbian lover and I will be here, fighting for liberation, until we plotz.

It's enough to send me running into Tony Kushner's arms. I only recently heard of his new play with its great title: "The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures." It debuted last Spring at the Guthrie in Minneapolis, and he's now retooling it for an eventual New York run. Which I hope comes soon. It sounds fascinating. It sounds, dare I dream, like a meaty evening of social realism.

Back to the bleh side of things: here comes another "madness of the 60s" novel, updated for the aughts. Prepare for a deluge of rave reviews.

But then we return to hurraying, for there's this, just out from Norton and edited by Ray Gonzalez: Sudden Fiction Latino--Short-Shorts from the United States and Latin America. Featuring works, all 1500 words or less, by Sandra Cisneros, Julio Ortega, Gonzalez and others.

However, as Tayari Jones points out, Houghton Mifflin's 2010 lineup of Best American (short stories, etc.) books is notable for a "staggering lack of diversity" in editors. Over and over and over again the literary establishment thumbs its nose at the oppressed. This too just happened: Fred Viebahn, who is married to poet Rita Dove, wrote in an outraged open letter, "In the PSA [Poetry Society of America] vision of contemporary American poetry, African-American poets were simply invisible." He was reacting to an online feature of childhood photos of poets that included not a single photo of a Black poet. The society's Alice Quinn responded with a clueless 'but we have other stuff on Black poets here and there' letter, to which Viebahn replied, "I had hoped you'd be able to rise above the bunker mentality when your actions are challenged." You can read it all here.

Infuriated as we constantly find ourselves, where can we go to find comic relief? Why, Quirk Classics, of course, the fine folks who brought us Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, bless their perverse little hearts. Next up: Android Karenina. Yeah!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

I just ate blueberries ...

... and my tongue is dyed a deep purple. You're welcome.

Also I'm writing, a new story that came upon me as I woke up this morning as well as revisions on another that's almost done. Also lots of household chores this weekend, laundry, groceries, etc., and oh god the tax returns, so the comandante can be out in the world doing the important work of organizing the fight to fix it. All this is by way of saying don't expect much blog action, possibly for several days.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

For art that soars AND serves the revolution

The following excerpts from The Liberation of American Literature by V.F. Calverton, originally published in 1932, have now been presented as the opening to the new anthology Liberation Lit just published by Mainstay Press.

Revolutionary art has to be good art first before it can have deep meaning, just as apples in a revolutionary country as well as in a reactionary country have to be good apples before they can be eaten with enjoyment.

Most of the literature of the world has been propagandistic in one way or another. ... In a word, the revolutionary critic does not believe that we can have art without craftsmanship; what he does believe is that, granted the craftsmanship, our aim should be to make art serve man as a thing of action and not man serve art as a thing of escape.

That the attempt to be above the battle is evidence of a defense mechanism can scarcely be doubted. Only those who belong to the ruling class, in other words, only those who had already won the battle and acquired the spoils, could afford to be above the battle. Fiction which was propagandistic, that is, fiction which continued to participate in the battle, it naturally cultivated a distaste for, and eschewed. Fiction which was above the battle, that is fiction which concerned only the so-called absolutes and eternals, with the ultimate emotions and the perennial tragedies, but which offered no solutions, no panaceas--it was such fiction that won its adoration.

... Except in the United States, revolutionary critics have often been harder task masters from the point of literary quality than aesthetic critics
... .

The revolutionary critic should demand as much of the art he endorses as the reactionary ... [great revolutionary] films are great not because they are [only progressive in ideology] but because they are great first in their formal organization, and then greater still because of the social purpose which they serve.

The revolutionary ... critic does not aim to underestimate literary craftsmanship. What he contends is simply that literary craftsmanship is not enough. The craftsmanship must be utilized to create objects of revolutionary meaning. Only through this synthesis does the revolutionary critic believe that art can serve its most important purpose today. Revolutionary meanings without literary craftsmanship constitute as hopeless a combination from the point of view of the radical critic as literary craftsmanship without revolutionary purpose. ... Most of the literature of the world has been propagandistic in one way or another, including even that of William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw. ...

This much should be clear, however, and that is that [revolutionary] writers are not to be confused with literary rebels. Literary rebels believe in revolt in literature; left-wing ... writers believe in revolt in life ... [and] are more interested in social revolt than in literary revolt.

Unlike Ibsen, [revolutionary writers] do not ask questions and then refuse to answer them. Unlike the iconoclasts, they are not content to tear down the idols and stop there. Their aim is to answer questions as well as ask them, and to provide a new order to replace the old one. Their attitude, therefore, is a positive instead of a negative one.

I love this! (Except the male generic, but what are you going to do, have to bear it in a piece from that era.) I love the assertion that revolutionary art must be good art, and the assertion that it must be art that serves a purpose, both combining, by my read, to create the obvious conclusion that fine art that serves the cause of the class struggle is both possible and necessary. I also love Calverton's digs at the ruling class and its passion for fiction that purports to be above the fray.

Finally, I'm quite taken with the distinction he makes between literary and social revolt. It resonates with me since more and more I find myself alienated from not only the petty-bourgeois hipster establishment's latest literary idols whose work I find barren and irrelevant, the most recent and obvious example being BolaƱo, but also from the self-styled radical literati's focus on supposed innovation in form. They posture as if stylistic experimentation automatically equates to or is even necessarily allied with a revolutionary social orientation, as if supposedly radical departures from artistic norms aren't equally as tied to the status quo as the most stunted, stifling, tired old crap--unless they aren't, that is, unless they explicitly and purposely and serve-the-people aren't. Literary revolt can and sadly often is petty bourgeois to the max. Same soda, new bottle. Which is not, of course, me taking a stand against innovation. But let it be in the service of the masses, let it be for social change as the highest good. I think that's what Calverton's saying at the end there, and I'm with him all the way.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Black History Month: Langston Hughes & Stalingrad

Langston Hughes' poem "Good Morning Stalingrad" was published in his 1943 collection Jim Crow's Last Stand. Along with being Black History Month, February is also the month when, in that year of 1943, the Soviet people defeated the Nazis after a months-long battle and siege and at unbelievable sacrifice. The victory at Stalingrad was the beginning of the end for the fascist forces. Hughes' poem reminds us how workers and oppressed people worldwide hailed the Soviet Union for this heroic feat. Here's the poem.

Good Morning Stalingrad

Goodmorning, Stalingrad!
Lots of folks who don't like you
Had give you up for dead.
But you ain't dead!

Goodmorning, Stalingrad!
Where I live down in Dixie
Things is bad -
But they're not so bad
I still can't say
Goodmorning Stalingrad!
And I'm not so dumb
I still don't know
That as long as your red star
Lights the sky,
We won't die.

Goodmorning Stalingrad!
You're half a world away or more
But when your guns roar,
They roar for me -
And for everybody
Who want to be free.

Goodmorning Stalingrad!
Some folks try to tell me down this way
That you're our ally just for today.
That may be so - for those who want it so.
But as for me - you're my ally
Until we all free.

Goodmorning Stalingrad!
When crooks and klansmen
Lift their heads and things is bad,
I can look way across the sea
And see where simple working folks like me
Lift their heads, too, with gun in hand
To drive the fascists from the land.
You've stood between us well,
The folks who hate you'd
Done give you up for dead -
They were glad.
But you ain't dead!

And you won't be
As long as I am you
And you are me -
For you have allies everywhere,
All over the world, who care.
And they
Are with you more
Than just today.

Listen! I don't own no radio -
Can't send no messages through the air.
But I reckon you can hear me,
Anyhow, away off there.
And I know you know
I mean it when I say
(Maybe in a whisper
To keep the Klan away)
Goodmorning, Stalingrad!
I'm glad
You ain't dead!


Sunday, February 14, 2010

Lucille Clifton

Poet Lucille Clifton died yesterday. She meant a lot to a lot of people, including me. Her poetry was full of depth of feeling, and raw, real words, and it engaged the raw, real world. It was accessible in the best sense of the word--it meant something, something you could wrap your head around. It's awful news that she's gone, and so young, only 73. Here is one of my favorites.

i am accused of tending to the past

i am accused of tending to the past
as if i made it,
as if i sculpted it
with my own hands. i did not.
this past was waiting for me
when i came,
a monstrous unnamed baby,
and i with my mother's itch
took it to breast
and named it
she is more human now,
learning languages everyday,
remembering faces, names and dates.
when she is strong enough to travel
on her own, beware, she will.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Alternate history

A week or so ago I read Fire on the Mountain, Terry Bisson's thrilling alternate-history novel that answers the question: "What if John Brown had won at Harper's Ferry?" This book by the leftist speculative fiction writer Bisson was first published in 1988. PM Press issued it in a new edition last fall to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the raid on Harper's Ferry.

It's short -- all too short, more of a novella that sketches the outlines of the story than a fully formed exploration -- and thus it's tantalizing and at the same time a bit frustrating. On the other hand, there's something to be said for this approach. Basically it opens the reader's mind, leads her onto an imaginative pathway that is only partially lit, then leaves her to keep dreaming about the might-have-beens. Not only dreaming, though, for while it's true that there is there is an inescapably bittersweet quality to this exercise, Fire on the Mountain also functions, or at least it did for me, as a boost, a tonic, a balm. Ultimately, the reader is left not only to mourn what might have been but never was, she is turned not only backward in sadness--but the reader is reinvigorated to fight for what must be, she is turned forward toward a future of necessary struggle, certain of victories to come.

The introduction to the new PM Press edition is by Mumia Abu-Jamal, who informs us in the first line, "I am, by any measure, a sci-fi head." Who knew? Furthermore, writes Mumia:
I admit to more than being a sci-fihead. I'm hopelessly sentimental, so much so that to read Fire today wrings tears from me, not just at the sheer beauty of his prose, his fertile turn of phrase, but above all for his vision, one born in a revolutionary, and profoundly humanistic, consciousness. ... This is a splendid work of imagination, guaranteed to make your spine tingle.
It did just that for me.

Slavery was a mere moment ago in U.S. history. In a very real sense, in tangible, measurable ways, its effects are present in every aspect of the here and now. Conversely, then, it makes sense that if some key moments had turned out differently -- as here with Bisson's conceit of speculating about the effects of a victory for Tubman (for in his version she is not ill, does not miss the raid, which makes all the difference) and Brown -- everything that followed would be different too. Some of the most exhilarating moments in the book arrive when the reader comes up against some passage that depicts some of these stark differences. And not only in this country (two countries in the book). The whole world is different. Which makes perfect sense.

And reminds us that the whole world can -- and must, and will -- be different. That action, mass action by the workers and oppressed, can -- and must, and will -- change everything. It is in providing such a reminder, I think, that Bisson's book finds its highest worth.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Tomorrow in Philly for Mumia

Tomorrow afternoon --Saturday, Feb. 13, from noon to 5 p.m. -- at the Abiding Truth Ministries Church in Philadelphia, supporters of death-row political prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal will gather for a teach-in to take up the challenge of how to step up the campaign to save this precious brother's life. Philly is an easy car, bus or train ride from pretty much anywhere in the entire mid-Atlantic region and the NYC area. The task, in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision that could quickly result in the reinstatement of the death penalty and even the setting of a new execution date, is urgent.

More information here. And for any who haven't read it, do check out Mumia's book Live From Death Row, with an introduction by novelist John Edgar Wideman.

Where is the 'great Irish novel' of today?

Where, he asked, are the books dealing with the Irish experience over the last decade and a half? ... "You can't save the world with a novel, but it can put a tiny featherweight on the scales."
In the Feb. 11 Guardian, Irish writer Julian Gough slams current Irish fiction for social-political irrelevance. This caught my eye, especially given what I've been thinking about as outlined in yesterday's post.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Once more unto the breach

I've fulminated often enough here about the U.S. literary establishment's nonsensical dogma that true art can't be political. Anyone who believes that this cant itself is anything but pure politics, in ideological service to reaction, is naive to one extent or another. I don't mean that as an insult or taunt, because this particular type of naivety is practically bred into us as readers and writers brought up and schooled in this country, pounded in most of all to those who write, who study or want to study writing, so that it's very hard to shed it. And who wants to shed it? Who knows enough to even question it? Unless she's already oriented toward or searching for a political approach to art, or, even more radically, an artistic approach to political struggle.

I've been thinking about all this again, and about some specific questions the whole topic raises, because of some stuff I've read here and there lately. For one thing, I've been slowly making my way through the long, fascinating essay "Fiction Gutted" by Tony Christini in the new anthology Liberation Lit. This piece is, on one level, a carefully constructed response to the recent book How Fiction Works by critic James Wood. But it's much more than a polemic against Wood, it seems to me. In "Fiction Gutted," Christini tackles the whole edifice of establishment literary rules, standards, mores, idols, enemies, and exposes it for what it is: a supremely political structure resting on a reactionary, anti-struggle foundation. And this isn't merely one leftist's interpretation. There's ample evidence, for example, of how the ruling class, the government and especially the CIA intervened with all their might to effect the massive shift that changed the entire artistic scene in this country from what it was in the 1930s (pro-labor, pro-socialist, anti-racist, anti-imperialist, with many of the great artists of the time directly involved in and devoting their creativity to the great struggles of the day, including organizing their own unions) to what it became in the 1950s and under intense covert and overt pressure has remained to this day (pro-status quo, utterly captivated by bourgeois consciousness, thoroughly imbued with anti-communism).

I expect I'll return to "Fiction Gutted" with more comments, and excerpts from it too, in coming posts, because it's such a sharp retort to Wood et al. But there's a flip side that I want to at least start addressing. Because though the upholders of bourgeois artistic norms hold the reins of culture, there are others, on our side, who wish that another kind of art could break through. Art that explicitly sides with the workers and oppressed. Literature that speaks of, speaks to the great struggles. It's my understanding that FG's author and Liberation Lit editor Christini, for one, thinks that left writers should be writing fiction that is set in the here and now—about the war in Iraq and the fight to stop it, for instance, or about joblessness or people losing their homes or mountaintop removal or any of the other evils of this society that ought to be brought front and center to people's consciousness, all the wrongs against which we should be organizing. Other progressive writers and bloggers have been asking why there is so little if any fiction of that sort being published in this country, whether the only politically engaged fiction that stands a chance of publication is stories that take place in either another time or another country and therefore seem somehow safe to the powers that be in this country. Others ask whether any fiction, earnestly politically oriented or not, can ever have anything to do with the actual material struggles, can ever have any actual effect, move anyone to take action, effect any measurable shift in consciousness.

Must fiction locate itself in the here and now to be of use in the struggles of the here and now? Is there any contribution that historical or, say, speculative fiction can make? Can fiction that does engage with today's struggles find a way to publication? If so, can such books make any difference? Has any novel ever actually mattered in the real world of the class struggle, and can any novel matter for our struggles today—that is, can a novelist intervene, make a contribution, fight the good fight, via fiction?

Also, are there signs of any openings? Any cracks in the wall of reaction through which we might shove some politically conscious work?

These are questions I'm mulling. I hope to do some of the mulling here at Read Red soon.

Black History links

From Abayomi Azikiwe: "Carter G. Woodson & African-American History Month."

From Clara West: "Claudia Jones: A Life of Struggle & Exile." The book reviewed if you keep reading is Claudia Jones: A Life in Exile." I very much want to read it to learn more about this amazing woman.

Check out "Twenty-Eight Days Later: A Black History Month Celebration of Children's Literature" at the Brown Bookshelf.

Find more Black History Month book suggestions at The Divining Wand.

Today is the 20th anniversary of the day Nelson Mandela was freed from his long imprisonment by the apartheid state of South Africa. The title of his autobiography: Long Walk to Freedom. Four months later, in June 1990, he came to New York. I was among the throngs who filled Yankee Stadium to hear the great freedom fighter speak. What a memorable evening.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

oh good lord

I had to edit yesterday's post -- removed the references in the heading and text to the title of Isabella Rosselini's series on Sundance. Why? Because it seems that men (I believe I can safely assume) in countries around the world spend their time googling the word p---o, and some of them found their way here. Sorry you nasty people, what you seek is not on offer at Read Red. And I'll have to remember never to use that word again.

And yes, my snow day fantasy was indeed but a dream. As I expected, the overlords ordered us in to work today.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Snow Day dreaming

My employer, a huge private university, almost never closes for bad weather. However, in advance of the supposedly big snowstorm heading our way, New York City public schools have already announced a citywide shutdown for tomorrow. Now I can't get out of my head a vision of myself sipping coffee in my PJs tomorrow morning when I'd ordinarily be making my way in to Manhattan from Queens. Most likely reality will find me fighting my way through the whiteout, snarling, coughing, sniffling, cursing. Still, a girl can dream, can't she?

In that dreamy mode, there's this from that font of intellectual inquiry, Marie Claire magazine: reading is a great cure for stress.

What do New York subway riders, a fairly stressed-out group of people, read? Here's a kind of cool site where "a team of publishing nerds" reports on books spotted on the subway. Today it's an interesting mix, from Edwidge Danticat's Brother, I'm Dying to some kind of dragon-y thing called Eldest.

Speaking of New Yorkers and reading, yesterday I was at an old neighborhood diner and sitting in the booth next to me was the actor Isabella Rossellini. I've confessed here often enough that it should come as no surprise to anyone that I partake fairly fully in various aspects of pop culture, and I find these star sightings that happen frequently here in NYC as much fun as the next shnook. In fact, this one made me wonder how many of this specific sort--sitting next to actors at cheap old restaurants--I've had. I came up with six others that I can remember. Anyway, Rossellini had on a pair of those trendy big black eyeglasses and was reading a book. I got to wondering about her and what she's working on nowadays, especially because she's mostly taken on some pretty quirky projects in recent years, so later I got online to check. Turns out she's into the second season of writing and acting in a series for the Sundance Channel. Each brief episode focuses on some non-mammalian species and its sex and reproductive practices--and Rossellini plays the creature. Delightful! Here she is as an earthworm.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Liberation Lit!

What's Lib Lit? Library, map, lens, scalpel, compost, chisel, textbook, excavation: voices, images, wrestling, contradicting, confirming, the matter of resistant art and practice.
-Adrienne Rich
This is exciting.

Liberation Lit, just published by Mainstay Press, is a big, bold, unique anthology of voices and visuals from around the world, all united by what editors Tony Christini and Andre Vltchek call a "liberatory" stance. It's gorgeous, too, with a cover collage made up mainly of 1930s-era illustrations from the The Masses magazine and posters from the WPA Federal Theater Project.

In defiance of the conventional view, conventional in this country at least, that true art can't be political, here Christini and Vltchek have gathered the work of an impressive roster of writers and artists all of which takes a clear stand on the great issues of the day. (And of days past, with earlier voices, from Victor Hugo to Charlotte Perkins Gilman to W.E.B. DuBois, weighing in.)

Liberation Lit is 800-plus oversized pages, divided into several sections: Liberatory Fiction, Liberatory Fiction Past, Liberatory Visuals, Liberatory Poetry, Liberatory Focus on the U.S. in Iraq, Liberatory Focus on the Prisons, Liberatory Focus on Kenya, Essays Interviews & Blogs, and Liberatory Literary Criticism. There is so much here, enough to occupy the reader for a long time. This is a collection to hold close and delve into slowly and steadily, I think, which is how I intend to approach it, dipping in and out over the weeks and months ahead. I don't know that I'll love every page; I suspect I won't agree with every word; there will probably be work whose inclusion I'll question; I'll wish other work had been included. Which is to say this anthology is not perfect, nor is it the be-all and end-all of politically conscious literature. Fine. So what? Let it be a start--what a grand start it is. Let others take heart, and follow with more. For in a time and place where left political literature is nearly impossible to find, Liberation Lit is a huge--huge!--contribution to the cultural conversation, bringing to it voices that are usually silenced.

Here is writing from and/or about Nigeria, Mexico, Haiti, Ecuador, Japan, Bangladesh, India, East Timor, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Venezuela, Nigeria, and the United States. Work written in, from, or about war, invasion, occupation, repression, racism, sexism, oppression, prisons, environmental destruction, labor; work about the terrible wreckage of imperialism, the human toll of colonialism, the experience of exploitation; and work about uniting and organizing and fighting back. Work that will make you cry, laugh, and burn to sign up on the side of human liberation.

Here in these pages there are many writers who are not well known in this country. And here as well are better known names, a range gathered together I suspect for the first time, including Adetokunbo Abiola, Eduardo Galeano, Ishimure Michiko, Doreen Baingana, Marge Piercy, Arundhati Roy, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Dahr Jamail, Gloria Anzaldua, Audre Lorde, Edward Said. (Full disclosure: I'm in here too. There's no question that I'd be trumpeting this book even if I wasn't part of it, but I sure am glad to be a part of it.)

So shake off any remaining notions about the incompatability of political partisanship and literary accomplishment, and dive in to Liberation Lit with me. Here's the website, on which you can read many of the individual pieces. Here's the Amazon page, where you can buy the book.

I expect that I will return to this book and pipe up with blog posts about it again and again as I work my way through it, for there's much in it that's directly relevant to the focus of Read Red. Thank you to Mainstay Press for this unprecedented contribution to the effort to liberate art from the shackles imposed by the gatekeepers of bourgeois-imperialist culture.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Yesterday, today, tomorrow

Sometimes you don't have to be a card-carrying communist to qualify as a comrade in the struggle. My appreciation of Howard Zinn is up at Workers World.

Today is the 80th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of Vietnam. Earlier this week, CPV General Secretary Nong Duc Manh "affirmed the road to socialism in Vietnam."

Over a hundred years ago, there was another Asian war being carried out by U.S. imperialism, a war that today very few people in this country know about. This was the invasion and breathtakingly murderous occupation of the Philippines. Thank you to comrade Berna of Bayan USA for this link to a Black History tribute to David Fagen, "the most celebrated of a handful of African American soldiers who defected to the Filipino revolutionary army."

Every day in Palestine, the Israeli occupiers brutalize the people. Check out Behind the Lines for a heads-up on the book Breaking the Silence, in which Israeli soldiers tell the truth about the atrocities they've committed.

Mornings in Jenin. That's the title of the newly issued edition of the wonderful novel by Susan Abulhawa previously known as The Scar of David, which I read and blogged about a year ago. Get it! Read it! Long live Palestine!

Soon I'll be back to enthuse about some great new books that I just got into my hot little hands. Hint: check out what I'm reading now down at the bottom right.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Black History Month: Safiya Bukhari & The War Before

This book is just out from the Feminist Press. The War Before: The True Life Story of Becoming a Black Panther, Keeping the Faith in Prison, and Fighting for Those Left Behind. It is a collection of writings, speeches and other documents of the life of the brave soldier for freedom Safiya Bukhari. From her days in the Black Panther Party to her long imprisonment as a victim of COINTELPRO to her leadership of the movement to free death-row political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, this was a life of struggle and this book traces its course. It is edited by former political prisoner Laura Whitehorn; the foreword is by former political prisoner Angela Davis; the afterword is by Mumia; and the preface is by Wanda Jones, Safiya Bukhari's daughter.

I was lucky enough to meet and hear Safiya Bukhari speak several times in the last couple years of her life--she died at 2003 when she was only 53--which she devoted to fighting for Mumia. It was always an occasion of re-energizing and renewal to hear her sharp political take on the case and her strong call for action. She has been missed. Now this book looks to be a fine tribute to her work.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Links, literary and otherwise

Adoptees of color speak out against the rush to "save" the children of Haiti by removing them from their country. Cautions like this – in fact, alarms, outrage, action, worldwide solidarity in defense of the children of Haiti – are more than warranted. Terrible tales are emerging of the already brisk trafficking in Haitian children, whose lives are now valued at $50 each.

Read Andrea Shalal-Esa's take on "the pigeonholing of Arab-American writers" at Behind the Lines.

I just read the review of Louise Erdrich's new novel Shadow Tag in this coming Sunday's New York Times Book Review. The reviewer's repeated return to the question of whether the novel is Erdrich's fictionalizing of her own marriage to Michael Dorris annoyed the hell out of me, but then I got to the information that a key character in the novel is named Louise. Well. Regardless, it sounds like another winner from this fine writer.

"We're being political whether we like it or not." Courttia Newland on Black writers, interviewed in London's Catch A Vibe. (Link via Fledgeling.)

This looks like an important book. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Painful and infuriating, too, as so many important books are. There are echoes here, it seems to me, of the Tuskegee Experiment.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Obama one year later: Saturday in NYC

This Saturday at 4:00 at the Solidarity Center in Manhattan, Larry Holmes will be the main speaker at a Black History Month forum. His topic: "Obama One Year Later--A Critical Assessment from a Marxist Perspective."

If you're in the NYC area and you like many are wondering what now, I'd urge you to check out what Larry has to say. He's a fantastically exciting speaker and an incisive, astute political analyst.

Larry has been an indefatigable fighter in the working-class struggle for some 35 years now. He's also written some important work, including a 1970s pamphlet called "Weber Was Wrong, the Steel Workers Were Right" about the fight to defeat an anti-affirmative-action attack on the union.

Most important, this comrade offers a keen insight that hones in on the class truth and thus shines a light on the way forward.

Hope to see you Saturday.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Against forgiveness

"So all I have is the knowledge that I saw! That I saw without being afraid and without turning away, and that I didn't forgive the unforgiveable. Forgiveness is a reflex for when you can't stand what you know. I resisted that reflex. That's my sole, solitary, lonely accomplishment."

From A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley.

I'd meant to read this 1991 novel for a long time, and I finally just did. Wow. It is superb. I need to think some more about why, and I don't know that I'll be able to articulate my thoughts well enough to post them here, but I do want to say that I found this little speech, which comes right at the end from one of the main characters who's dying, to be very powerful. It refers on the most obvious level to what this character's, and her sister the narrator's, father did to them. But I believe it's meant to have broader resonance as well, and it certainly did for me. I felt such a strong boi-oi-oing effect as I read it, as if it were echoing off mountainsides and canyons and prison walls and factories, in Palestine and Haiti, Detroit and New Orleans, everywhere wrongs are done and the wrongdoers expect the oppressed to let them off the hook.

An update and a correction

This from Tayari Jones on today's anniversary, and what came before.

The novelist's point:
Resistance is always happening. It's just not always on the news.
Among other things that came before was a 1958 Oklahoma City lunch-counter sit-in. Tayari's mother, Barbara Ann Posey Jones, "was among these brave young people."

Also, I apologize for the typo in my earlier posting that for a while there had the Woolworth sit-in happening in 1950.

Black History Month: 50 years ago today

Ezell A. Blair Jr. David Leinhail Richmond. Joseph Alfred McNeil. Franklin Eugene McCain.

On this date in 1960*, these four incredibly courageous young college students sat down at a Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., and asked to be served. They were African American. The seats were designated for whites only.

The era of sit-ins for civil rights had begun.

By the next morning, these four were joined by 27 more. Within days, hundreds had joined the sit-in.

I will try over the course of this month to post recommendations for books about and by participants in the great civil rights movement of the 1950s, 1960s and onward to this moment when the struggle still very much continues. For today, I simply salute the Woolworth Four, 50 years on.

*I apologize for the typo in the original posting, which had 1960 as 1950.