Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Warm suns & new parties

I'm dying to read this new book, which by all accounts is a masterpiece, about the Great Migration, the mid-20th-century journey of millions of African Americans from the South to the North. The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, who spent some 20 years researching and writing this vital, epic story that had been left a mere footnote by white historians.

After reading several glowing pieces about it, I decided I can't wait to get it from the library, let alone till it comes out in paperback, so budget be damned, I'm buying this book now. Except, shoot, it doesn't seem to have even reached bookstores, online or brick-and-mortar, yet. So I'll have to wait another week or two till it arrives. I'm snatching it up, though, the moment I can.

In 2010, more than 50 years after the peak of the Great Migration, many of whose participants ended up in New York, the Democratic Party sees fit to run a statewide electoral slate that is all white. Cuomo for governor. Duffy for lieutenant governor. Di Napoli for controller. One of five primary candidates, all white, for attorney general. Gillibrand, who was appointed to fill Hillary Clinton's senate seat when she moved to the state department, in a special election to begin a full term. And Schumer for re-election to the senate. Not just all white, but all awful in a variety of ways, none of them in any way a friend to the oppressed or the working class as a whole.

It is the last straw after a long history of the Democrats relying on the votes and support of the Black and other communities of color, then betraying them again and again. So a new party has formed, and after a heroic grassroots effort to collect petition signatures, has won ballot status for the upcoming election. The Freedom Party of New York State is "a Black and Latino led political party open to people of all backgrounds." Its candidates: New York City Councilperson and former Black Panther Party member Charles Barron for governor, and for lieutenant governor and attorney general Buffalo activist Eva Doyle and lawyer-activist Ramon Jimenez of the Bronx. This will be the first time in many years--ever, come to think of it--that I'll be voting in the statewide election because it's the first time a slate committed to fighting for our class interests, a slate of longtime organizers and activists who are of and for the oppressed and exploited, has been on the ballot. What a welcome development.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

5 years after, who speaks for Katrina survivors?

It took five years for the establishment media to finally tiptoe toward acknowledging some of the worst of the horrors inflicted on the people of New Orleans--the workers and the poor, that is, above all the Black community--but they've finally begun to acknowledge what others have been saying all along. That the police in alliance with racist white vigilantes and business owners waged a terrorist campaign against the oppressed, murdering at will, shooting, beating, chasing, ousting and imprisoning African Americans whose crime was being alive in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. That the greatest part of the funds for rebuilding have gone toward those sectors that were already better off, in fact toward deepening the class and race divide, "refurbishing" New Orleans in the bourgeois white image deemed most conducive toward bringing in tourist spending. And that most African American New Orleanians have seen no part of the rebuilding largesse, either that funded by federal tax dollars or that driven by profit takers. Those who've managed to return find their lives as hard as and usually harder than before, and great numbers have never been able to return to their beloved hometown.
Tomorrow, August 29, the fifth anniversary of Katrina, solidarity events are scheduled around the country. Here in New York, the Brass Band of Harlem will lead a commemoration in Union Square, followed by a march to the Solidarity Center for a program and dinner to benefit survivors. Meanwhile, Malik Rahim, a longtime New Orleans community activist who has been tireless in his efforts to organize for justice and reparations, is on the last leg of a 1,500-mile Bike for the Gulf bicycle journey to Washington, D.C., where he will demand Congress take "real action to restore the Gulf from the devastating oil spill wreaking havoc throughout the region." I've heard Malik Rahim speak several times. He has a sharp leftist analysis of the class forces behind the devastation of the community at the time of Katrina, since, and, now, in the wake of the BP spill.

On the literary front, there have been more than a few books in the five years since the hurricane. I've blogged about a couple of them that I read: the nonfiction Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, about which I had mixed feelings, and the novel City of Refuge by Tom Piazza, which I liked a lot. But both Eggers and Piazza are white. How many African American writers have been able to get their books published? Let alone noticed and reviewed? Well, there's good news on this front: a number of Katrina books by Black writers are on their way. On her blog White Readers Meet Black Authors earlier this month, novelist Carleen Brice spotlighted a number of them. There's a children's book, Ninth Ward, by Jewell Parker Rhodes. There are two novels: Wading Home by Rosalyn Story and Southern Discomfort by LaTonya Jones. In non-fiction there are two that I've been hearing tremendous praise for and really want to read. One is Blood Dazzler, poetry by Patricia Smith, which is not new--it came out two years ago but unfortunately since I'm not very on top of developments in the poetry world I'm only now waking up to it--but which is about to reappear in a new form: as a play, at Harlem Stage, for four nights in September. The other is Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. It's by Natasha Trethewey, an acclaimed poet who here takes on the longterm damage to and history of the African American community of the region, including her own family. She was recently interviewed about the book on NPR.

On the issue of who speaks for the survivors--even who has the right to the survivors' words--thanks to poet Andrew Rihn for pointing me to a pair of postings on The Poetry Foundation website. "The Voices of Hurricane Katrina" Parts I and II. Part I is "What Are the Ethics of Poetic Appropriation" by Abe Louise Young. Here Young, a white poet and activist originally from New Orleans, discusses Alive in Truth: the New Orleans Disaster Oral History & Memory Project and how it sought, and seeks, to provide an outlet for the actual voices of those whose lives were uprooted by Hurricane Katrina. The idea, Young writes, is to record their testimony, thereby to "help restore authorship and narrative control to people who had been assaulted by media images of themselves as criminals." According to her essay, Young and the others involved in the project seek above all to honor the agency of the Katrina survivors, not substitute themselves for them. "Hurricane Katrina did not happen in a vacuum," she notes,
in America's imagination, to everyone, or in general. It happened in a particular geography, a history, an economy, and a field of race and power built to render certain people powerless. When a white person takes the voices of people of color for his own uses, without permission, in the aftermath of a racially charged national disaster, it is vulture work--worse than ventriloquism.
The white person Young accuses of this vulture ventriloquism is poet Raymond McDaniel, in his recent volume Saltwater Empire. In his book, it seems, McDaniel includes testimony of Katrina survivors, their words that he found on the Alive in Truth website, within the lines of what he presents as his own poetry. Young eviscerates this as cultural appropriation in the worst tradition of white entitlement. She says that she read some of it to one of the Alive in Truth participants, who, "after hearing the poems in which her voice is featured," told Young, "He used my life without giving me no credit! That hurts my heart, that's cold-blooded!"

McDaniel, for his part, responds, sort of, in "Reflections on Found Poetry and the Creative Process." It reads, to me, as a self-serving ramble that might have been better titled, "It's All About Me, You Nitwits, & P.S. Poetry Is Above the Fray." Together, the two essays have garnered 120 comments, which, of course, themselves run the gamut from thoughtful engagement with the very important issues about privilege and appropriation that Young raises all the way to unfortunate "stop picking on us misunderstood white people" whines.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

If not me, who? If not now, when?

This is one of those moments when a great and terrible storm is gathering--only, unlike actual meteorological storms, because this one is political it can be turned back. It can be stopped. In fact, it must be stopped.

This can only happen, however, if every person steps forward to join together and together we form a solid wall beyond which this storm of anti-Muslim racism will be unable to proceed.

How? United. When? Now. Where? Here.

The vicious, outrageous, racist campaign against an Islamic community center planned for lower Manhattan has now claimed its first victim. Last night in midtown, Ahmed H. Sharif, a cab driver, was attacked with a knife, slashed and stabbed repeatedly by a white passenger after he answered in the affirmative when the passenger asked if he was Muslim. Brother Sharif, thank goodness, survived. But we can expect, in fact, are already being treated to, all kinds of defenses and hand-wringing explanations about what accounts for the assault. The attacker was drunk, we hear. He's not really like that, we're told. The fact is that he unleashed a violent rage against a worker who is Muslim.

And that, a racist rage toward all Muslims, in fact toward everyone who has actual or imputed Middle Eastern or South Asian nationality or ancestry, is exactly the point of this whole repugnant war against what the reactionaries have dubbed "the ground zero mosque." To sow division, to foment racist rage, to scapegoat and isolate the Muslim communities--all of it a handy diversion from the real problems facing the workers of all nationalities, problems like soaring unemployment, endless wars and occupations, cutbacks in needed services, hospital closings, unfunded schools, etc. For none of which are Muslims in any way to blame. But hey, the bosses are past masters at deflecting attention from their own very real assaults on the masses of people, working hard to instead whip up racism and division and thereby block the unity necessary for an effective fightback against their assaults.
Here. Now. We must stand against this vile, transparent racist campaign.

Here, in New York City, and I'm talking to everyone who lives in the tri-state metropolitan area.

Now. Tomorrow, if at all possible, join brother Sharif and the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, immigrant and Muslim organizations to call for an end to this vicious campaign. Gather at Third Avenue and 40th Street, the site of Tuesday's attack, at 2:00 p.m. Thursday, August 26. On Saturday, September 11, also at 2:00, demonstrate in support of the Muslim communities and against the Tea Party, whose shock troops have announced plans for an openly racist anti-Muslim gathering at the World Trade Center construction site on that date.

Wherever else you live--for these racist winds are blowing throughout the country, with attacks on mosques and Muslims reported in many places--take your own actions, demonstrate your own solidarity with a community under siege.

Many well-meaning people who have expressed horror at the current anti-Muslim barrage say things like, "This is not the America I knew, " or "This is not what this country is all about." In fact,  this country has always been riddled with racism; its riches were built on the genocide of the Native population and the chattel slavery of African people; its ruling class has always used the tactic of whipping up racism to divide the working class and divert it away from unity and struggle against the oppressors and exploiters.

In this, "America" is no different than other capitalist countries. The statement announcing the September 11 demonstration puts it this way: "Like Hitler before them, the anti-Muslim bigots are seeking to whip up hatred against a religious minority in the midst of an economic crisis."

It's rare that I have occasion to quote a religious figure, but there are two whose words resonate here. The first is Pastor Martin Niemoller, whose famous 1946 statement was not originally an exhortation to correct action, although now we reasonably read it as such. It was actually a confession of his very incorrect action, how his bigotry, complacency and reluctance to rock the boat led him to side with Nazism, at least initially.
They came first for the communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up.
This is not metaphor. This is precisely what happened, and indeed when they came for Niemoller, they took him, in the end, to Dachau. His confession came after the camp was liberated.

The other religious figure whose words ring loud and clear in this moment is more ancient. Rabbi Hillel, who lived in Jerusalem in the first century BC. Hillel said: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?"

I recently read a book that takes part of Hillel's saying for its title. If I Am Not for Myself: Journey of an Anti-Zionist Jew by Mike Marqusee. I haven't had a chance yet to write about it and don't know when I will, but Marqusee's interpretation of the first part of the Hillel quote takes it to a less literal plane than the obvious. He writes, in one of the closing passages in the book: "'If I am not for myself...', then others will claim to be 'for me.' In the current climate, Zionists and Jewish leaders will claim to be for me, and in so doing will thwart and destroy what is precious to me."

Similarly, for me, the first part of this saying contains not only its most obvious meaning but a call to be true to your higher self. In a moment like this, especially here in New York but also throughout the country, there are perfidious forces at work trying to scare you, confuse you, entice you away from what you know to be true. What you know to be true is that solidarity with, not enmity toward, Muslims is the right thing to do. Those others, the Muslim bashers, the Tea Partiers, they are not for you--you must be for you, and for your brothers and sisters. We must all be for each other.

For, as Hillel also knew, it does no one any good to be only for yourself. Least of all to wait. If not now, when? Stand up for the Muslim communities.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Danny Glover as Ahab

Just in time for my resolution to avoid bedbug-ridden movie theaters, here comes another lit-linked movie, this one the kind you really want to see on the big screen. It's called Age of the Dragons and it is, it seems, an adaptation of Moby Dick only this time with a dragon instead of a whale, and it stars Danny Glover as the captain of a hunting vessel obsessed with finding and killing the creature that nearly killed him at their last encounter. Wow! Check it out.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Speaking of man-on-man action

I'm looking forward to the upcoming movie Howl, starring actor/artist/writer/soap-opera-weirdo James Franco. He plays poet Allen Ginsberg, and from the looks of the trailer, his portrayal appears spot-on. Looking forward, yet I'll probably wait for the DVD. NYC's bedbug crisis seems to be taking over movie theaters along with everywhere else. Like Bartleby, I prefer not to.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Our big gay M/M kerfuffle

That's male/male, as in male/male romance novels--but these are M/M romances written for women and mostly by women. Straight women. (Maybe.) It's a sub-genre I was barely aware of until several sources pointed me to this article in Out magazine, and, fast on its heels, this angry critique on the Lambda Literary Foundation website. Which in turn quickly resulted in a hot exchange of even angrier ripostes in the comments section.

Romance being so not my cup of tea, it took me until this eruption, now heading toward the vituperative, to catch on to the growing popularity of these M/M books, as well as to the obviously widely disparate reactions to them among LGBT readers and writers. In her LLF piece, lesbian novelist Victoria Brownworth characterizes M/M as "straight women fetishizing the lives of gay men." She places this phenomenon squarely in the camp of the privileged viewing the oppressed as other, as exotic, and at the same time claiming the right to speak for them, interpret their lives, appropriate their experiences and mold/distort/use them for their own purpose, in this case to titillate and entertain straight people.

Hold on, though, say some of the writers and their admirers. It may not be so clearcut a case as outsiders, as unoppressed, claiming to speak our truths. Perhaps there's a queer eye at work in M/M novels. What if a writer identifies as queer in one way or another? Which seems to be what some of these writers are saying, in the Out article and the comments.

Then there's Lizzy Shramko's slant in yet another LLF piece, to which Brownworth's is apparently at least in part a response. It's complicated, she says. But isn't it a good complicated if the straight-ish world turns out not to be quite so straight?

All of which in turn leads to more chewing over the issue of the recently revised criteria for eligibility for a Lambda Literary Award. This is the big annual prize that goes to LGBT books in various categories. All us LGBT writers dream of one day winning one. If I understand it correctly, until recently books could be nominated if they had LGBT content. This past year the gender orientation/identity of the author was added as a criterion--that is, no longer can it be a great gay story by a straight writer, it has to be a great gay story by a great gay. LLF explained this as serving its mission of supporting and advancing the work of LGBT writers.

Identity is such a fraught and complex question, oppression so painful and multidimensional (and, oy, the commentary is so riddled with academese--I mean, okay, I can figure out what "heteronormative" means but it's not a term you hear much out here in real-queer-world ), that these issues about who owns whose stories are necessarily difficult, and of course ours is by no means the only oppressed community whose writers and readers are grappling with them. I have no great wisdom of my own to add at the moment but will continue to follow the kerfuffle with interest, and report here on any further noteworthy developments.

Monday, August 16, 2010

You have been Franzenized

There's this coy authors-shouldn't-make-videos video, a "The Malthusian Candidate" of book promotion. There's his face as "the great American novelist" on the cover of Time magazine. There's a profile in Vogue. Today there's Michiko Kakutani's gush in the New York Times. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Franzenization of U.S. book culture. Again.

For yes, we've been here before. Jonathan Franzen is one of the literary establishment's darlings, one of that coterie of privileged middle-class white men deemed masters whose books get published by the big houses and promoted the hell out of as big. As in, this is a Big Book. Curiously, these Big Books always have a microscopic focus, as in Franzen's latest, Freedom, even if there's some sort of supposed backdrop that ostensibly takes in larger social issues.

If you suspect I'm of the party that still holds against Franzen his insulting, sexist, elitist repudiation of Oprah Winfrey's choice of his last Big Novel for her book club almost 10 years ago, you're right. Still, after that whole hubbub eventually died down, I did decide to give one of his books a try, and so I read his earlier novel The Twenty-Seventh City. I found it offensive on several levels, at least insensitive and probably racist. Sure, the writing was good. Sure, he's a more than adequate stylist with words. But I did not like one bit what he did with the words, what his words were saying, and knew I'd never want to read a book of his again.

He's since lived in a snarky snarly corner of my consciousness alongside his fellows Philip Roth, John Updike, the despicable Martin Amis, Ian MacEwan and others. The only one of these whose writing I haven't forced myself to give a shot is Amis. Are all of them skilled sentence crafters? Yeah. But the publishing industry would have us believe that they are uniquely so. To which I must reply: bullshit. There is much more at work here--and by here I mean the U.S. fiction publishing world, which time and again foists off on us the same stuff by the same guys as if it were the epitome, nay, the definition of fine literature--much more at work here than mere merit rising to the top. It's more like affirmative action for those already on top. As in the rest of this society.

All this raises again the issues I started this blog almost two years ago to address. Whose books get published and promoted? What do we get to read, who/what do we get to read about? What if anything can we do about it?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

40 years ago today: Huey P. Newton on women's & gay liberation

On August 15, 1970, Huey P. Newton, one of the founders and leaders of the Black Panther Party, gave a speech urging solidarity with the movements for women's and gay liberation. I think it's important to remember this speech because the Black liberation movement and even the Black community as a whole are so often slandered as though they're somehow more sexist and/or homophobic than other movements or other sectors of society, and here we have a great revolutionary leader speaking out just one year after the Stonewall Rebellion, far earlier than almost anyone else.
When we have revolutionary conferences, rallies and demonstrations, there should be full participation of the gay liberation movement and the women's liberation movement. ... The women's liberation front and gay liberation front are our friends, they are our potential allies ... . We should try to form a working coalition with the gay liberation and women's liberation groups.

You can read the full speech, and many other talks and writings, in The Huey P. Newton Reader.  It is available free and in full here, online, or here.

You can also read the full speech here, on Assata Shakur's website.
Interestingly, it seems to have been posted in the forums section by someone with the screen name Marsha P. Johnson. For those who don't know, Marsha was one of the original Stonewall warriors--she participated in the June 1969 Stonewall Rebellion--and a beloved activist in the LGBT movement here in New York. She cofounded STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) with Sylvia Rivera, another Stonewall rebel. Marsha was found dead in the Hudson River in 1992, and the NYPD refused to ever investigate what most in the community believe to have been a racist anti-trans murder.

I don't know whether Huey P. Newton and Marsha P. Johnson ever met but both lived lives of struggle and solidarity. I'm glad for the occasion to think about that.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Turn the beat around, she writes

Got to hear percussion!

Yesterday, my birthday, I posted a silly note on Facebook that the day's theme was "Hot Flash," which I imagined as a Junior Walker and the All Stars type of catchy little brassy number. Today, settling in to the still shocking and appalling reality that I've turned the corner of my 50s and am tumbling downhill toward 60, I'm singing a different tune. It's all bass and drums. Disco, baby! The music of my 20s, the days I spent driving bus and nights dancing under that glittering spinning silver ball. I've never stopped loving disco, and it's still the music most likely to get me up off my aged old butt and shaking my groove thing. OK, sorry, I'll stop ... although in general I feel you shouldn't stop till you get enough ... OK, there, now, I'm done, really.

Not only have I never ceased loving it, but I have also always felt that the backlash against disco that started in the 1980s and in certain circles has never since abated has a very strong racist and anti-gay subtext. So this past spring I was happy to hear about a new book that makes this case while also celebrating the glorious life-affirming joy of disco music. Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture by Alice Echols. I knew Alice for a little while back in the disco days when we both lived in Ann Arbor and I was a bus driver and she was a graduate student. She's also written a critically praised biography of Janis Joplin that I've long meant to read (obviously her academic career took, while my bus driving didn't), but I most love that she's taken on a defense of disco, a genre maligned by meanspirited, racist, homophobic commentators.

Photo by TheCuriousGnome
I didn't mean to write a paean to disco this morning. I meant merely to mention that for some reason the great old Vicki Sue Robinson number (no, not the counterrevolutionary Gloria Estafan's version, no thank you very much) "Turn the Beat Around" has been pumping at my brain since I woke up this morning, and to say that this seems to me to be a good sign. Assuming it's not some Oliver-Sachs-worthy symptom of brain dysfunction, I take it as my subconscious reassuring me that there's still some kick in the old girl yet. And that I should and can settle into the rhythm I've charted out for myself on re-entry after my vacation. 

Work. Write. Contribute, as best I can, to the class struggle. Eat right, exercise, sleep. Read, and that's correct, I list reading as the last priority, which probably doesn't mean I'll do it much less since I've still got my subway sessions every day but does mean I won't allow my reading to intervene in my writing or activist life. It won't be my default mode. Write: this is the bass line I wish to bring back to the fore from the hush to which it had faded.

I have two to three stories in completed or nearly completed draft form that I'm rushing to rewrite and finish. And then I'll be recommencing my great project, the novel I began two years ago at my Saltonstall Colony residency, on which I've worked only sporadically since then. A couple writers whose opinions I respect have read the opening 50-ish pages and seem to think they're pretty good and have been on my case to get to it and finish the damned thing. My first novel remains unpublished but that fact can't be permitted to block my progress on this second one anymore. And so I proceed.

Meanwhile, I've just joined the online women writers' community called She Writes. I have my doubts that it will prove useful or meaningful but we'll see. As far as I can tell, it's sort of like Facebook but specifically for and about women writers. Given that I'd drifted toward a reprehensible tendency to waste time on Facebook and have recently broken myself of that bad habit, I have no desire to replace it with another equally pointless diversion. As a full-time worker with very limited time and energy outside of work hours, and determined as I am at this post-vacation moment full of new-year-resolution earnestness to stick to a disciplined, productive writing regimen, I don't plan to start hanging out at a new social-networking site, albeit one with a she-writes angle. On the other hand, who knows. Perhaps there's more there than meets the eye. Perhaps I'll make some new virtual friends who will enrich my writing life in as yet unforeseeable ways. I'm willing to give it a try.

Withal, another year begun. Uptempo now. That's all she writes.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Wordstrike! Asian American Writers' Workshop builds the Arizona boycott

Last month I received a post from the Asian American Writers' Workshop announcing a new initiative in the struggle against Arizona's racist anti-immigrant law SB1070. This is not the first time writers have addressed this issue. Back in April, novelist Tayari Jones kicked things off with a wonderful post on her blog withdrawing from a scheduled appearance at an Arizona writers' conference. Writer and poet Rigoberto Gonzalez issued a strong, moving call to join the boycott. There's a vibrant Facebook group, Poets Responding to SB1070, which has been very active and where hundreds of poems have been posted. The Lambda Literary Foundation posted my call for LGBT writers to take a stand.

To my knowledge, though, this initiative by the Asian American Writers' Workshop is the first effort initiated and organized by a major national writers' organization to reach out to and enlist writers as partisans in defense of immigrant workers. As such, it is to be applauded. AAWW has given this effort the terrific name Wordstrike, which I love because it delineates this as a workers' issue. As of a July 29 press release announcing Wordstrike, many writers had signed on, and the list of signers includes many prominent authors in a beautiful display of multinational unity. They include Jessica Hagedorn, Victor Valle, Yusuf Komunyakaa, David Henry Hwang, Junot Díaz, Jhumpa Lahiri, Laila Lalami, Chris Abani, Maxine Hong Kingston, Wallace Shawn, John Waters and many others. I find this a great development and I hope more writers get on board with Wordstrike to join and build the boycott.

On the activist front, last night I attended a wonderful forum focused on the struggle to overturn SB1070. It was sponsored by the New York May 1 Coalition for Worker and Immigrant Rights. Carlos Canales, a day laborer organizer on Long Island, reported on his recent trip to Arizona. One very interesting facet he reported is the creation of neighborhood defense committees with which, block by block, immigrants are working together to watch out for and protect each other from the Nazi-like depredations of the police and sheriff's deputies. For those of us who follow and support the Cuban Revolution, the formulation "neighborhood defense committee" has a familiar and welcome ring and it was heartening to hear about it. We also heard, via a phone hookup from Tucscon, from Isabel Garcia, a key organizer of the resistance to SB1070 and leader of the Coalición de Derechos Humanos (Human Rights Coalition). She offered a sharp political analysis of what's behind the anti-immigrant offensive, talking about NAFTA and the destruction of Mexican agriculture, about joblessness, about the context for what drives migration, as well as about how false and hypocritical, what an exceedingly flimsy cover, is the claim that the Arizona law is tied to "national security."

Both Canales and Garcia also pointed out that the Arizona law is not an aberration. Similar measures are under consideration in many other states. Meanwhile, the Schumer bill, federal legislation introduced and backed by the Democrats, is a broad national attack on immigrant workers camouflaged under the rubric "comprehensive immigration reform." So the Arizona boycott and the fight to overturn SB1070 have to be seen as the foundation for a national struggle.

One other great thing about last night's forum: it was very well attended--the hall was packed--mostly by young people. Which is a prerequisite for any movement to grow and deepen. Among these young people were two to whom the coalition leaders presented an award in recognition of their bold act at the July 29 baseball game at Citi Field. On that evening, outside the Mets ballpark, hundreds of people were picketing to protest the Arizona Diamondbacks. Then word came that inside, these two brave young fellows had run onto the ballfield waving a Mexican flag.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Vacation summation: I love New York

It is perhaps a fitting denoument to my month of full retreat from real life: I just realized, 100 pages into the book I'd started reading yesterday, what was to be the last book of this vacation, that, gol darn it all, I've read this sucker before! Sheesh, I hate it when that happens. Especially when it takes this long, 100 pages or more, until the realization hits. Ah well. I shut the thing and pulled out another volume, which I may or may not get a chance to dive into today since I've got lots of practical stuff to attend to as well as my wits to gather in preparation for re-entry.

So there we have it: 10 books read, which averages out to one every three days, which is off the pace of previous years but reflects a nice balance of being out and about, so it's all cool. Here is the briefest of recaps.

The Passage--eh.
Sag Harbor--yay.
The Three Weissmanns of Westport--tee hee.
A Short History of Women--nah.
So Cold the River--yippee.
The Thing Around Your Neck--damn.
The Disinherited--wow.
The Song Is You--bleh.
I Am Not Sidney Poitier--oh my.
The Great Perhaps--okay.

I've already blogged about some of the out-and-aboutness of my time off. MOMA, the Morgan Library, South Street Seaport, Coney Island, the main library. I referred to but haven't yet written about my afternoon at P.S. 1 Museum of Contemporary Art; I will soon, I hope, because there was some standout work on display there in the Greater New York 2010 show. For now, a few other tidbits.

Last summer I found myself in Park Slope several times for some reason. This summer it was, again who knows why, Astoria. I spent parts of four or five days there. Strolling, eating, lolling, reading. Hanging out in Astoria Park and watching the East River flow. Shopping among the astonishingly many varieties of feta cheese, olives, Greek pastries and the like at Titan Foods (no, I don't tout for retail businesses here but yes, I love this store).

I also spent a nice long browsing (and, yes, buying) session at a great, relatively new bookstore on Broadway in Astoria, right across the street from one of our old favorite restaurants Uncle George's. Seaburn Books. It's a stuffed-to-the-rafters cornucopia of books, some new and slightly discounted but mostly used books in good condition and very cheap. This is the kind of wonderful bookshop where you can lose yourself for a good long time, reading in one of the old chairs, chatting with the owner Dr. Sam Chekwas, who also runs a small press that seems to publish a variety of books and that I intend to investigate further. Downstairs there's an event space where there are author readings and the like. This was a great find and I'm sure I'll find myself returning again and again.

Right in my own neighborhood of Woodside, a short block and a half from the train station, I made another new bookstore find, this one kind of kooky and quirky in a weirdly delightful way. Housed in a ramshackle, hot as hell tiny old garage at the absolute end of a dead end abutting on the Long Island Rail Road track, it's a funky little used book paradise. Only open weekday evenings from 6:30 to 8:00, and Saturdays from 11 to 4. Huh? I can't figure those hours out, but whatever; they buy books and they sell books, every one of them for $2, or three for $5. I went three times over these four weeks, motivated to cull my shelves a bit so I could sell some and then use that cash to buy some. There's no order, all the books just thrown onto the shelves in a haphazard mishmash, so you have to commit to standing there and sifting through all the dross in hopes of finding some gold. Which I did. It's worth the effort, because I was surprised at how many good books I found.

Best of all, though, was this. The first afternoon I was there, as I stood and browsed, a young woman came in and said to the proprietor, "Do you have any books by Tolstoy?" He replies, "Tolstoy? That's that philosopher, right?" I looked at the woman who was trying to keep a straight face as she said, "Um, well, sort of, he wrote a lot of books. Novels. I'm especially looking for one, Anna Karenina. Do you have a copy?" "Anna--um, Anna something, hmm, well, that doesn't ring a bell, but I'll keep an eye out for it." But wait, there's more. Yesterday I was hanging out with a friend and I told her about this place and suggested we go check it out together. As we walked there, I told her the "Tolstoy the philosopher" story. We were both chuckling about it as we entered the garage/bookstore. I said hi to the owner, who knows my face by now, and he starts telling me they've got a lot of great new books and how people have been telling him they keep finding unexpected stuff there. "For instance," he says, coming up to me and brandishing a copy of none other than Anna Karenina. "There's a lady who's been coming in every week asking if we have a copy of this ... this Anna Kuh-Kuh--Anna-Something-or-Other. And look, now we have it!"

I don't get it. The bookseller who doesn't know books. The bookshop that isn't open hardly ever. There's some sort of business model at work here but I'm the last one to figure it out. In any case, I hope it lasts because I'd like to keep stopping in, selling and buying and eavesdropping.

Why else do I love a New York vacation? Try this. After my lovely afternoon gazing at the water on a South Street Seaport lounge chair last week, I returned for more of the same, this time with my lover Teresa. I was afraid I'd hyped it too much, you know how that goes, but happily she loved it as much as I had. We stayed for several hours. And we had, in addition to the simple pleasure of sitting in the river's breeze, two grand new experiences.

First, after a good long time on the upper deck, we went down to the first level and sat on a bench for a final few minutes. After a while an elderly Chinese couple sat down next to us. Some employees of one of the tour boats that ply these waters came around handing out promotional fliers. The man sitting next to me on the bench took several, placed all but one aside and began doing something with the one, working with some delicacy and care on a series of intricate folds. I was trying not to stare but then he turned to me and said, "Chinese origami." Then Teresa and I watched as he created, with deft handwork that baffled me, a whale, a bird whose wings move up and down, and a frog that jumps. Created, and presented to us as gifts! It was a thrilling experience to watch his artistry and to be its beneficiary. All we could do was ooh and ah and thank him profusely and bask in one of those I Love New York moments.

Next came another. The highlight of my whole vacation, I do believe. We'd spent all that time watching various boats coming and going in the harbor, and we'd gotten curious. Many of them are tourist boats--dinner cruises, harbor tours and the like that charge an arm and a leg--but some of them seemed to be something else. So as we walked off, we stopped at one of the ticket kiosks and inquired. We found out that the next pier down, the Wall Street pier, a very short walk from the Seaport area, houses a scene that I never knew existed. A commuter ferry terminal, with boats that travel between various towns in Jersey (Hoboken, Weehauken, others) and Wall Street, between various points in Brooklyn and Wall Street, and between Queens and Wall Street. Who knew that hundreds if not thousands of workers from the financial district commute to and from work every day via boat? Well, it turned out that there was a 5:15 ferry due to leave for Hunters Point, Queens. We got to the pier in time to buy tickets, watch the bustling rush-hour scene, and board a boat for our home borough.

O.M.G. What a splendid, wondrous 20 minutes we then spent, gorgeous vista of the harbor opening up behind us, the city rising around us, sights of waterfront industry that you'd never otherwise see, but most of all the late-afternoon sun sparkling on the water like a million dancing diamonds and the sea breeze brushing our faces and blowing our hair. Utter joy.

Sure, Hunters Point, where we got off, is a godforsaken nowheresville and we had a long walk to a train station where we could enter the subway to get the rest of the way home, but it was worth it for that 20 minutes of bliss on the water.

I do love New York. Because, heat and stink and crowds and all, there are also quirky little book nooks and unexpected origami gifts and 20 varieties of feta cheese, and water all around.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

MOMA, how you've missed me

Some years ago, the Museum of Modern Art reopened after expanding and remodeling, and raised the entrance fee to $20. I was so pissed off I can't tell you--well, I can tell you, I was so pissed off that I actually wrote them a letter about how disgusting it was of this Rockefeller entity to close off access to its unparalleled collection to the working class of New York City. And vowed to never go again.

Flash forward to summer vacation 2010. One of the artsy happenings I wanted to check out during my time off was P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, which is here in Queens, not too terribly far from my house, and where I hadn't been in several years. When I got online to check its hours, etc., I found that admission costs $10, but is free if you've visited MOMA within the last month. Hmm, I says to myself, this means I could go to MOMA and P.S. 1 both for the price of a MOMA admission. Two for one, or half-price entry to MOMA. OK, this was something I could get behind. Vows be damned, on one of the hottest days in July I headed to MOMA for the first time in years and spent a cool afternoon reacquainting myself with its treasures; a few days later, I made it to the Greater New York show at P.S. 1. to get a look at what the art world powers that be consider the current cutting edge.

I confess not only that I went to MOMA, but that I loved it. I'd forgotten or suppressed the memory of what wonders it holds. Here are a few shots I took.

First, as soon as I stepped off the escalator onto one of the main painting and sculpture floors, I was greeted by this painting by Alice Neel, "Benny and Mary Ellen Andrews."
I was so happy and excited to see it, given that last year I'd screwed up and managed to miss a major Neel exhibition that passed through New York.

These two pictures by artists who were contemporaries and friends were very close to each other, which afforded what seemed to me an interesting contrast in their attitudes toward women. Does it matter that one was a woman represented here by a rubicund goddess painting and one a man whose painting fairly thrums with misogyny? Uh, yeah, think so. First: "Gaea" by Lee Krasner. Then: "Woman, 1" by Willem de Kooning.
Ah, but now comes an explicitly political piece that I found quite moving. Robert Motherwell's "Elegy to the Spanish Republic, 54."
The moment that it really hit home that I'd missed MOMA, that its having banished me and everyone else who can't afford the $20 admission fee not only angered me politically but hurt, was when I found myself in front of Vincent Van Gogh's "Starry Night."
Much as I hate to align myself with any opinion of the arts establishment, this is one knock-your-socks-off work of art. This photo doesn't come close to conveying the power, the bold crazy vibrant energy with which it reaches out and grabs you. I stood in front of it for an embarrassingly long time, I think. Couldn't tear myself away. For this alone, the chance to experience again this work of manic genius, let it wash over me, shake me up, I'm so glad I made it back to MOMA.

For many other reasons, too. In truth, I've always been in thrall to the period of the great explosion of modernism to which MOMA is devoted, so it was with great joy that I strolled among and reacquainted myself with the art of the pointillists, impressionists, Fauvists, walked among the cubists, dadaists, surrealists. There are tons of Picassos, and though I'm not a huge Picasso fan his work remains of interest. Especially "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," after my late-arrived-at realization last year that his work and that of many of his contemporaries arose from colonialism's larceny of the arts and cultures of Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean and the Pacific. As I walked on, I also enjoyed seeing some of Jackson Pollock's massive drip paintings and many works of the abstract expressionists, although I find them much less compelling than much of their predecessors' work, which seems to me to be filled with a rebellious spirit, even in some cases an explicitly politically informed one, that is missing from a lot of the efforts of those 50s folks.

I assume it's a given, but I don't want it to go without saying: MOMA's collection, like the Met's and those of most other major NYC museums, is extremely culturally biased. This is in fact a museum of art by white men to the near exclusion of everyone else--that is, of most of the world! The Neel and the Krasner are two of the very few works by women, and the paintings I'm going to close by mentioning below are some of the very few by anyone other than a white European or North American. So, as, sadly, is pretty much always the case, it's impossible to walk through the galleries and simply enjoy, because the eurocentrism, the sexism, the stench of cultural elitism--the rot, that is, of capitalist-imperialist culture--is a taint over the whole enterprise.

Let's end our visit, then, with some cleansing breaths. First, three paintings by the three giants of the Mexican revolutionary muralist movement.

"Zapatistas" by Jose Clemente Orozco.
Next, a closeup of a section of "Zapata" by Diego Rivera.
And last, a closeup of a section of "Collective Suicide" by David Alfaro Siqueiros.The painting's subject is the invasion of Mexico by the Spanish conquistadores and the response of vast numbers of indigenous Chichimec people: leaping from cliffs rather than be subjected to colonization.
Finally, placed in a sort of anteroom between two large galleries, guaranteed to be ignored by most people, which is exactly what I saw happening, is an extraordinary series of paintings by the African American artist Jacob Lawrence. "The Migration Series," created in 1940-1941, depicts the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the industrial North during the period between the two world wars. The entire series comprises 60 paintings, of which 30 are on display at MOMA. They are stunning. They show the South, the poverty, the lynchings, but also the rich family and community life; they show household and community and church meetings where the decision to leave is hashed out; and, as exemplified by the painting below, they show the journey itself.

Monday, August 2, 2010

He is Not Sidney Poitier

I've read nine books so far on this vacation, upon whose last week I am now launched. By the end the tally will probably be 10 or 11. That's less than last year if I remember right, but actually this is a good thing. It means I got off my butt and did a thing or two instead of just staying put and reading reading reading. So I'm content.

I'm more than content--I'm ecstatic--at my most recent read. I Am Not Sidney Poitier by the prodigiously talented and highly subsersive Percival Everett.

Subversive of what? Of literary convention, social boundaries, artistic sanctimony. This is one wild ride of a novel. Fall-out-of-your-chair funny, but then, while you're picking yourself up off the floor, you find yourself wading up through layers and layers of meaning and commentary. There are broad satire, harsh parody, wry sarcasm, anger, weariness, sadness, all conveyed on the same page, the same paragraph, even sometimes within the same sentence. There's in-your-face near-slapstick comedy wedded with hit-your-heart complex subtlety. How does he do it? I haven't a clue, but Everett, as we already knew, is a masterful writer. As well as a profound thinker about this society we live in, U.S. culture and history. Especially about race, racism, and, as he zeroes in on it here via the misadventures of his young protagonist whose name is Not Sidney Poitier, societal images and perceptions, portrayals and distortions of Black men.

Look, there's a hell of a lot going on in this novel, that's mostly what I want to convey here by way of urging to you to jump on and take the ride for yourself. You'll be surprised to find where it takes you. For me, and I felt something similar with some of Everett's previous work, including the incredible Erasure, there's so much going on that I'm afraid I might have missed some of it. One thing I did catch, and that flat-out wowed me, was the way Not Sidney seems to be living (and sometimes dreaming) his way through the filmography of the actor whose name he does not share. I fear I missed some of the movies covered, but the ones I recognized were "No Way Out," "The Defiant Ones," "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," "Lilies of the Field," "Buck and the Preacher," and "In the Heat of the Night."

If you follow this blog you'll know that I tend to eschew plot summaries when I write about books I've read, because the he-did-this-then-he-did-that seems to me to be the least important information to convey to potential readers. In the case of I Am Not Sidney Poitier, which if it were an ordinary book you might classify as a bildungsroman, the main character Not Sidney's journey, both literal as in from Los Angeles to Atlanta to D.C. to Alabama and so on, and surreal as in his journey through Sidney Poitier's film roles, is so interwoven with the book's thematic concerns that the only way to get a sense of it all, of the plot and the thick weave of meaning behind the plot, is to read it. So do. He is Not Sidney and you should read about his life.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Lolita Lebron presente! Que viva Puerto Rico libre!

Lolita Lebron, one of the great revolutionaries of our time, died today. She was 90. A long life of struggle, never bending on principle even at great personal sacrifice.

The principle: independence for Puerto Rico, which has been a U.S. colony since 1898. In 1954, when the independence struggle was at a high point, Lolita Lebron led a group of Puerto Rican independentistas in an armed attack on the political headquarters of the occupying power: the U.S. Congress. She served 25 years in U.S. prisons. During all that time, she rebuffed repeated efforts by the colonizers to get her to apologize. All she had to do was sign a statement, she was told, and she'd be released. She refused, as did her comrades Rafael Cancel Miranda, Irving Flores and Andres Figueroa Cordero. Ultimately, in the face of their steadfastness, they were let out, and all resumed the fight for the liberation of their country.

I heard Rafael Cancel Miranda speak several times in the 80s. Sadly, I never did get to see Lolita Lebron. Now she's gone but her life story will shine on as an example for all freedom fighters.