Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Here's a better, truer image of Latinas

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

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

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

A dirty rotten shame

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Toward a new year of the three Rs

That's reading, writing and revolution.

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

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Oh joy

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

My Year's Best

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

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

Best book
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

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

Blood Dazzler by Patricia Smith

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

Friday, December 10, 2010

My holiday break book hoarding frenzy has begun

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

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

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

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

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

Here's a mood booster for ye

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

 More lit talk soon. Cheerio!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

It was 30 years ago today

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

And John is dead.

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

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

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

Friday, December 3, 2010

After Tupac and D Foster

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

World AIDS Day

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

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

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

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

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

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