Friday, January 28, 2011

The Internationale in Arabic

There's no real visual, but as the rebellions in Egypt intensify the sound alone is exciting: our sisters and brothers sing the great worldwide communist anthem The Internationale in Arabic. If this doesn't bring goosebumps of class-struggle excitement you haven't been watching Al Jazeera, so head on over there to witness the workers and youths taking history into their hands.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

As the Arab masses rise

These are exciting days as the masses of workers and the poor take to the streets in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and, most likely, soon, in other countries as the revolutionary fervor whose explosion has been building for so long spreads across national borders. Repressive regimes aligned with imperialism have held down the struggle in most countries of the Arab world for decades now. That situation, contrary to the fantasies of the ruling classes, both comprador and imperialist, was never going to hold forever. Now breaks the dam. There's no telling how far this will go.

One thing all the Arab masses hold in common is their devotion to the national liberation struggle of Palestine. There's no doubt that these current upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa are providing tremendous strength and encouragement to the Palestinian people—and fomenting equally tremendous fear and trepidation in Washington and Tel Aviv. It's a great time, then, to share the news of a new book that makes a significant contribution to building solidarity with Palestine inside the United States.

The book is Gaza: Symbol of Resistance. The editor and driving force behind the book is Joyce Chediac, a Lebanese-American and longtime Palestine solidarity activist and journalist who has traveled to and reported on Palestine and Lebanon. In Chediac's introduction and in articles by her and more than a dozen others—covering the 2008-2009 U.S.-backed Israeli war on Gaza, the aftermath and the current situation—the book documents Israel's war crimes in the Gaza Strip and narrates how Gazans withstood siege and war, refusing to give up the right to choose their own government.

The book is intended as an organizing tool, and, as noted on the back cover, it's special because:

• It gives a comprehensive and lively narrative of the recent history of the Gaza Strip which does not assume previous knowledge.
• It provides hard facts from the UN's Goldstone Report on Israel's 2008-9 war on Gaza.
• It contains eyewitness testimony from participants in three Viva Palestina humanitarian convoys, which broke the blockade of Gaza and delivered aid.
• It reviews a history of African-American solidarity with Palestine.
• It explains why the Egyptian government enforces the Israeli blockade of Gaza while the Egyptian people oppose it.
• It gives voice to Palestinian forces censored out of the establishment media, including Hamas, and Palestinian activist groups that explain how best to support their cause.
• It incorporates statements from Jewish people who oppose the torture of Gaza, including Israeli soldiers who fought in Gaza, Israeli military resisters and Jews from the U.S.
• It gives the facts on why the giant U.S. media conglomerates won't give the Palestinian people fair coverage and are actually tied in with arms makers who make huge profits off Israel's aggression.

It's a great book, the first of its kind. (Full disclosure: I helped a little with proofreading, and have a small piece in it, but if I hadn't I'd still be thrilled about its publication.) You can order it from, or on the book's own website, where you can also read more about it.

Long live Palestine! Victory to the Arab revolution!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Just to show I'm still here

It's another snowy (but never, dammit, a snow) day. Here's the view from my office windows as I contemplate heading back out into it to rustle up some lunch, which, like an idiot, I failed to pack today.

I'll be back here with something more substantive, books-wise, as soon as I can.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Mao Zedong on literature and the revolutionary class struggle

Some excerpts from Mao's talks at the May 1942 Yenan Forum:

"To defeat the enemy we must rely primarily on the army with guns. But this army alone is not enough; we must also have a cultural army, which is absolutely indispensable for uniting our own ranks and defeating the enemy. ...

"In the last analysis, what is the source of all literature and art? Works of literature and art, as ideological forms, are products of the reflection in the human brain of the life of a given society. Revolutionary literature and art are the products of the reflection of the life of the people in the brains of revolutionary writers and artists. The life of the people is always a mine of the raw materials for literature and art, materials in their natural form, materials that are crude, but most vital, rich and fundamental; they make all literature and art seem pallid by comparison; they provide literature and art with an inexhaustible source, their only source. They are the only source, for there can be no other. ...

"Although man's social life is the only source of literature and art and is incomparably livelier and richer in content, the people are not satisfied with life alone and demand literature and art as well. Why? Because, while both are beautiful, life as reflected in works of literature and art can and ought to be on a higher plane, more intense, more concentrated, more typical, nearer the ideal, and therefore more universal than actual everyday life. Revolutionary literature and art should create a variety of characters out of real life and help the masses to propel history forward. For example, there is suffering from hunger, cold and oppression on the one hand, and exploitation and oppression of man by man on the other. These facts exist everywhere and people look upon them as commonplace. Writers and artists concentrate such everyday phenomena, typify the contradictions and struggles within them and produce works which awaken the masses, fire them with enthusiasm and impel them to unite and struggle to transform their environment. Without such literature and art, this task could not be fulfilled, or at least not so effectively and speedily. ...

"In the world today all culture, all literature and art belong to definite classes and are geared to definite political lines. There is in fact no such thing as art for art's sake, art that stands above classes or art that is detached from or independent of politics. Proletarian literature and art are part of the whole proletarian revolutionary cause; they are, as Lenin said, cogs and wheels in the whole revolutionary machine."

Read the whole here. I'll be posting more on how literature can serve the class struggle as soon as I can.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Hubert Harrison

On Monday, Martin Luther King Day, there's an event scheduled at Left Bank Books in Manhattan that I can't but wish I could get to. It's a talk by author Jeffrey B. Perry on the life and work of Hubert Harrison.

Harrison, termed "a genius buried by history" in the event's title, was a leading leftist radical in the early 1900s, an intellectual and activist, an important figure in Harlem and beyond. I know of him because when I was writing my first (lamentably unpublished) novel, and was doing research for a chapter that takes place in 1913 and involves the great Paterson silk strike of that year, I came across his name. Harrison was one of the speakers at a major strike rally, and I ended up writing about that, and a bit about him, in that chapter.

Until I saw the flier for Monday's talk, I did not know of Jeffrey B. Perry's book Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918. I'm bummed that I can't get to his MLK Day talk but I'm so excited to learn about this book, and I'm going to get it and read it as soon as I can.

"While a hostile relative rewrites my life: 'Who is, and is not, my family'"

Earlier this month Leslie Feinberg, author of the beloved novel Stone Butch Blues and other works of fiction and non-fiction, pioneer of the transgender liberation movement, and, by the way, a comrade of mine for 30 years, issued a statement headed "While a hostile relative rewrites my life: 'Who is, and is not, my family.'"

Here are the opening paragraphs.

"In autumn 2010, Knopf published a 'transgender' themed young adult novel. The author, Catherine Ryan Hyde, is an estranged relative of mine.

"The analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of Hyde’s young adult fiction novel will come from those who are living the identities, and oppressions to which she has applied her imagination.

"However, as part of the media coverage and publicity tour for the release of the young adult novel, Hyde claims much of her expertise and authority for writing her 'transgender'-themed young adult novel as based on my life and identity.

"The author is a relative with an axe to grind. When she claims me as kin in order to counter-narrate my life, I am forced to get up out of a sick bed in order to respond in writing.

"Since I became acutely ill in October 2007, it has been very hard for me to write, or to speak. So it is opportunistic and unconscionable that a hostile relative would take this opportunity to re-tell my life in a way that changes my sex, mis-describes my gender expression, and closets my sexuality. Hyde also attempts to silence me politically as a revolutionary, reasserts the dominant legal control of the biological family, and ignores and disrespects my chosen family."

To read the entire statement, please click on this link.

Update: Please see Leslie's additional comment, headed "Free to narrate novels, but not to counter-narrate my actual life in publicity tours," which you can find here on the Lambda Literary Foundation website in the comments section below LLF's posting of Leslie's original statement.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Why I did not love Little Bee

I just read Little Bee by Chris Cleave. This book, which is now a couple of years old I believe, has received oodles of adulation. It's not a bad book, it's a decent book in many ways, but for me it fell short of the hype. For a number of reasons, but mostly these:

1. Although the story concerns a Nigerian woman who is an undocumented immigrant to England, a refugee from what the novel repeatedly refers to as "the oil wars," it is strangely apolitical. Yes, it is warmhearted and humane and yes, it implicitly rebukes the anti-immigrant campaigns and exposes their racism. These are not minor attributes, and so my comments are not meant as a big rant against a book that does more or less have its heart in the right place. But you finish reading this novel without a single piece of actual information about recent events in Nigeria, about the role of the oil companies in those events or for that matter which specific oil companies they are, or about what specifically these "oil wars" consist of beyond some vague narrative about villages being invaded and destroyed. It is such an invasion and such destruction from which the title character, Little Bee, has fled, but because the story is told from her individual perspective we are left without any broader context or understanding of the forces that have destroyed her life and her family's and her village's. Above all, how is British imperialism implicated? The reader has no idea. Certainly no idea of the long history of British colonialism in Nigeria or how British colonialism and its depredations led directly to Nigeria's current situation—nor, for that matter, do you really get a sense of what that situation is. You do get a very ugly picture of Nigerian soldiers. In fact, it is Africans who carry out the most terrible deeds depicted in this novel. The British who are portrayed negatively don't do or say anything nearly as terrible as the Africans.

2. Nor does any African (except dead ones, in Little Bee's memory) do or say anything fine and good to/for/about Little Bee as do the British characters, especially the main one, Sarah. This is a novel about human connection, about the coming together of, the coming of understanding and love between two women of different nationalities and classes and life stories, a petit-bourgeois white woman and an African refugee teenager who has lost everything, and about how the white woman's child is loved by both and serves sort of as the conduit between them. This is the level on which it reaches the reader, this is why, I think, so many people have loved it, and sure, that's all okay. Ultimately, though, especially at the novel's close, I was taken aback at how wholly this is the novel's message, this we-are-all-the-same-this-is-one-world message that is neither new nor unique nor informative nor challenging in any way, let alone any sort of contribution literarily or politically. Furthermore, the novel's final passages are troubling and, at least for me, leave an unpleasant taste. (Spoiler alert here.) At the end, Little Bee not only is going to lose her freedom and probably her life, and at the hands of Nigerians who, rather than the British imperialists, are the really bad bad guys in this novel, but she does so in the process of saving the little white child of the white woman who's tried to save her. Worst of all, Cleave has this young Nigerian woman, who has survived atrocities and witnessed the torture and murder of her beloved sister, invest the white child with all the hope and optimism and dreams of a better world:
I smiled down at Charlie, and I understood that he would be free now even if I would not. In this way the life that was in me would find its home in him now. … I smiled back at Charlie and I knew that the hopes of this whole human world could fit inside one soul.
Sigh. See what I'm saying here? What an ending, with the African woman sacrificing herself for the beloved white child who represents all that is pure and good, all hope for the future. (This in a scene on a beach that's filled with Nigerian children.) It's redolent of colonialist and orientalist and all that sort of literature, especially coming as it does as the coda that closes the story.

It's not inconceivable that a white British author could write a novel with an African protagonist that takes on globalization and migration and the wreckage wrought by imperialism and neocolonialism and make a real contribution with it. I just don't think Chris Cleave has done so with this novel. On the other hand, there are many fine fine Nigerian novelists who have told and are telling their own nation's stories. Readers looking for politically conscious, relevant fiction by and about Nigerians would do well to look to these artists, from the great, essential Chinua Achebe to younger voices like the terrifically talented Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Huck & Fagin, Twain & Dickens

I tried to write and post something here yesterday about the new edition of Huckleberry Finn being published by NewSouth and the storm of criticism it's aroused because of the publisher's decision to remove the word n----- from every page where it appears in Mark Twain's novel. But I decided to hold off as it became clearer to me just how complex this issue is. I still don't think it's about censorship. And I do think the editor's stated concerns, about teachers and students being put in the position of saying that horrid word when reading passages aloud, and about parents worrying about its effect on their children, merit grappling with. But as I read more and more reactions to the revision--including author Tayari Jones' comment on replacing that word with the word slave, "I find it peculiar that the concept of human chattel is not too harsh for young readers, but a six-letter word renders this work obscene"--one fact above all stood out. To a person, every African American writer commenting on the NewSouth revision opposes it. That, in my view, is decisive. This wave of commentary was for me educational and thought-provoking.

Then I started wondering whether there had been objections to Twain's language at the time of the book's original 1884 publication, or during his lifetime which lasted 26 more years. That was the time of Jim Crow, of the rise of the KKK, of lynch law terror in the South and racist riots in the North, and also of the founding of the NAACP, the anti-lynching crusades of Ida B. Wells, the activism and early writings of W.E.B. DuBois. Amid all this, did anyone challenge Twain on what he called the character of Jim in the book? And if so, how did he respond? While this current controversy plays itself out, who knows, maybe some literary scholar will pipe up with that information. Maybe not. But then I wonder: what about now? What if it wasn't a question of someone other than the author making a revision but the author himself, miraculously come back to life, having to respond to the various issues parents, teachers and children have raised about the book over the years? Would he even consider replacing that awful word? Would he apologize?

These might seem like silly questions, but they come to mind because, and this whole controversy reminds me that, over the holiday break I taped and watched the movie musical Oliver! Rather, I watched part of it. The character Fagin in that movie is such a broad stereotypical anti-Semitic caricature that I recoiled in horror and couldn't bring myself to keep watching after the first couple scenes with the Fagin character. I was shocked that as recently as 1968 a big-budget mainstream movie could get away with this flagrantly offensive portrayal. After I turned the movie off I got online and googled "Oliver Twist + Dickens + anti-Semitic" and spent about a half-hour reading some fascinating literary history having to do with a great author, a great novel and offensive epithets.

It seems that when Oliver Twist was first published in 1838, it drew almost immediate protests about the Fagin character from England's Jewish community and supportive progressives. Fagin is a lowlife London thief, a fence, a miser, and an exploiter of orphaned homeless children whom he employs as pickpockets. He is described as "disgusting" in the book, and in the movie musical he certainly is. He's dirty, with oily scraggly hair and beard, filthy clothes, etc., and just in case you don't get the point the actor Ron Moody invests him with a Yiddish accent during the song-and-dance numbers (though strangely not in dialogue). In the pages of Oliver Twist, this repulsive, greedy criminal is referred to sometimes by name but very often—over 250 times—as "the Jew." Hence the protests, by what was in those days in that place a very impoverished and oppressed community.

Now get this: Dickens responded! He was terribly upset at being called an anti-Semite. First he was defensive, writing a long letter that quite literally argued that some of his best friends were Jews. Then he got to work and revised the novel. In fact, he revised it time after time over the ensuing years, removing the anti-Jewish references and adjusting the Fagin depiction. He was at work on yet another revision at the time of his death.

Which version did I read in high school? I think it must have been the later revised one, for not only do I not recall Fagin being referred to as "the Jew," but I know no such novel would have been in my high school's curriculum. In fact I'm sure my mother would have objected and protested and demanded it be removed from the reading list, just as some parents now object to Huckleberry Finn. I somehow still knew that the Fagin character was a Jew, and that the portrayal was anti-Semitic even with all Dickens' clean-up work, and in fact it turns out that Oliver Twist is widely considered the most anti-Semitic work of literature in the English canon, with Fagin beating out even Shakespeare's Shylock for offensive stereotyping. The thing is, the book we read now, the edition we most all of us have read if we've read Oliver Twist, is not the original book as it was published. Nonetheless it somehow retains the original's essence literarily, culturally, politically, perhaps because it was the author himself who revisited and reworked it.

Let me be clear: I'm not drawing any direct comparison between the Twain book and the Dickens, or the words they utilized, what they meant and mean, and certainly not between Fagin, a vile character, and Jim, a fine one. Or for that matter between the writers and what they were trying to do. The one just reminded me of my recent brush up against the other. There's a whole other tangent, too, that I won't go off on now but might some other time. It made me doubly sad to have to turn off Oliver! because I so love musicals and I was so enjoying this one. "Food, Glorious Food," "Where Is Love," "As Long as He Needs Me," and many other great numbers. All destroyed, perverted by the Fagin nastiness. Stymied from enjoying it, I got to thinking about the musical theater, which arose in this country about a hundred years ago and might be fairly said to be a Black/Jewish/gay art form, and how it has been used and abused, its delights and offenses over the years. As I say, perhaps for another day.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Reading red in 2011

I've been threatening (promising?) for some time to slow down on blog postings and, as anyone who checks in here regularly will have noticed by now, it is coming to pass. This partly has to do with a more constrictive schedule that results in using my lunch hour for running around rather than blogging, but mostly it has to do with other variables. Like how much I look at other blogs (less than I used to), how much I read book reviews and other literary commentary from the standard bourgeois sources (much less than I used to), how much I follow literary/cultural news (much much less), and above all how much time I spend writing--much more, which is a very good thing, but as a result of which something's got to give and that something is Read Red.

This is not the end, I don't think. It's a turn, I think, and an acknowledgment as I lean into it. Gone are the days of several posts a week. I think. Who knows, as soon as I say it I might turn around and give the lie to it, but I don't think so, because my dear desire is to tune out a fair amount of what's been distracting me. I wrote most days during my winter work break. I regained a certain momentum. I don't want to lose it. So I'll be seeing you less than before.

The up side, blog-wise, I hope, is that when I do blog it will be because I have something substantive to say. Over the last few days I collected a handful of links, thinking, well at least I'll throw them up just to keep the blog alive, but that's pointless, is it not? Just passing along the same little news items, factoids, rants and outrages that everyone else is already passing along? Nah, I don't think I'll go that route for now. If there's a link or news to be shared it'll be because I've got something to say about it. Something red, which after all is the purpose of this blog. Otherwise it'll be commentary on books and other cultural and/or political matters and thoughts about same. Stick with me and together we'll see how it goes.