Wednesday, June 29, 2011


No, the richest person in town, who by no coincidence at all is also mayor, hasn't managed to get the whole city named after him, not yet at least. What he and his class, the Wall Streeters who rule New York, have done is bit by bit, year by year, pushed through round after round of budget cuts, program closings, layoffs and other attacks on the working class and oppressed of this country's biggest city. They've just done it again, passing a so-called austerity budget that will make life harder for millions of people.

This time, though, they weren't able to duck and hide and finish their dirty work behind closed doors. This time there was Bloombergville.

For the last two weeks in June, through heat humidity and smog, through wind rain and chill, breathing an endless bouquet of auto and truck exhaust, harassed and moved from corner to corner by the cops, a hearty angry determined band of activists maintained a 24-hour encampment near City Hall to demand that City Council reject the Bloomberg/Wall Street/Democratic/Republican cuts—cuts to a budget that has a $3 billion surplus, in a city that routinely hands over billions of dollars in tax breaks to big business.

They called the encampment Bloombergville, an echo of the Hoovervilles that sprang up during the Great Depression of the 1930s. It was an exciting, vibrant phenomenon. Its population ranged from a few dozen at some points to several hundred at others. Many were young, high school and college age, but there were also many older folks, ranging up to veterans of the 1960s Freedom Rides now in their 70s and 80s. Union members along with the unorganized.

They organized themselves beautifully, in a fascinating demonstration of democracy in action, putting together committees to make sure everyone had food and water, to find area bathrooms, to furnish the sidewalk with yoga mats and sleeping bags and rotate lying-down time, to stay safe and secure. They made a lot of noise, too, banging buckets and beating drums and chanting and singing. Finally, last night, on the eve of the City Council vote, they marched around City Hall and demonstrated outside the bank building (!) where the Council's offices are—and went inside, where 13 protesters sat in and were promptly dragged off to jail.

Here are a few pictures I took last night with my camera phone. The first is one of my favorites. See how they created a real community, complete with a free library! Long live the spirit of Bloombergville! I'm sure many more will be sprouting up, here and around the country, in days to come.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

We the Animals

Last week I predicted that I'd tear through it and be blown away by it. Today I pronounce myself prescient. Didn't take much; anyone who's read any of his work knows going in that We the Animals is going to be a rare reading experience. And so it is. Justin Torres's writing is raw, piercing. It's unbearable yet un-put-down-able.

In a series of short takes, each scene unstitched with a surgical precision that leaves the reader stunned and short of breath, Justin lays bare the complex dynamic of pain, love, rage and laughter that is the family of the first-person narrator, a young boy, youngest of three brothers. These are rough waters. It seems at times it'll be a miracle if he makes it to shore. You so much want him to.
Along with the exquisite artistry of his writing, deep emotional insight, and profound humanity, Justin offers here something that I particularly value. In his depiction of what it would be too glib to label dysfunction in an oppressed working-class family barely getting by, he lays bare some of what this system does to those it exploits most. How the desperation of never having enough—money, respect, time, support—plays out in violence, drink, love expressed as its opposite, hurt all around.

Capitalism, it seems to me, gives love a hard go of it. I think there is an accurate reflection of this in We the Animals.

By the way, I've taken the liberty here of referring to the author by his first name because, as I've mentioned before, I know him a little, having spent a week with him a few years ago at a writing retreat. In an interview in the PR material, Justin makes the point, as so many authors must, that this is fiction, not memoir. It is nevertheless true, as he also says, that the book's framework—the family he portrays, its circumstances— is based on his family. He may not have lived through every story told in these pages, but he sure went through some stuff.

It reminds me again of how many wondrous talented writers and artists are out there who never get a chance to fulfill their potential. We are all so lucky that here, in Justin Torres, is one who made it to where he ought to be.

The book is out the first week in September, which is also when Justin's book tour starts. I've already marked my calendar for his first stop here in New York, at the New School on September 12. He'll also be going to San Francisco, Boston, D.C., Syracuse, Austin, Iowa City, Portland, and Los Angeles, so get yourself to hear him read if you can.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Now I can get married. No I do not thank Governor Cuomo

I'm writing this late Friday evening, an hour or so after the New York state legislature finally passed the marriage equality bill, legalizing same-sex marriage. This is a great victory--for which full credit goes to our community, to our 42-plus years of fighting, organizing, mass mobilizations, our struggling angry strong proud LGBTQ people. No credit is due to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. In fact, the way that this vile vicious union-busting anti-worker anti-poor program-cutting reactionary maneuvered his way into the position of appearing as the hero, the leader, the great man who handed us this law is in my view the most brazen display of demagoguery mounted by any politician in a long time. Here he is--one day after forcing the state employees' unions to sign off on a raft of terrible givebacks, in the throes of attacking the working-class students of  SUNY and CUNY by cutting budgets and raising tuition, here he is gutting social programs left and right, pushing the kind of assault against the working class of New York state that not even the last Republican governor could get away with--and lo and behold he gets to portray himself as the great liberator. What an act--hey everybody, says the guv, don't look at what I'm doing to wreck and ruin you, no, look over here, look at my beautiful rhetoric. I'm the guy who gave you gay marriage!

Well no he didn't. We won this with our many years of fighting. And we should none of us offer up any thanks to this demagogue, nor let this achievement distract us from all the evil he is doing. Let's celebrate tonight! Tomorrow let's get back to organizing to fight back against him!

That said, I want also to clarify why I do see this as a victory. It might seem surprising, coming from a revolutionary socialist. It's certainly true that as a communist I am no fan of the patriarchal institution of marriage, rooted as it is in class society, based as it is on the subjugation of women. I've never understood why any revolutionary would get married, except discreetly if they felt they had to for practical reasons like getting onto a spouse's health plan. However, this here is a different matter. This here is a matter of an oppressed group having been barred from access to a legal right. It is, simply, a matter of equality. Marriage may be an estate rooted in sexist society--but that's marriage as it traditionally was, heterosexual marriage whose essential purpose was to codify paternity, ensure patrilineal inheritance, and enforce male ownership of women. But marriage today is also a conferral of legal recognition--a conferral of over 1000 rights and privileges under the law. To be banned from access to that recognition and to those over 1000 rights and privileges is sheer discrimination. Which is why the fight to win same-sex marriage is a basic civil-rights struggle.

And why the passage of this law is something to celebrate. In fact, when I got home tonight after a meeting and turned on NY1 and watched live as the state senate acted on the bill, and I saw on the split screen that they were also covering the crowd that had gathered in Sheridan Square outside the Stonewall Inn, waiting to hear the news, I really regretted not realizing folks would be down there, not having gone down to the Village, not being there with my people cheering and dancing and singing and crying a little. No one should underestimate the very real joy so many people feel tonight. Finally, a measure of justice. Finally, some recognition of our relationships. Of our love.

On the other hand. Yeah, you're right if you say it's all symbolic. For it is--getting married in New York state carries with it precious few if any practical actual benefits. Not as long as the Defense of Marriage Act, signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996, remains federal law. DOMA means that even if same-sex couples get married in any one of the several states that now let them, the federal government will not recognize the marriage, and in fact the horribly onerous anti-gay tax penalty that now accrues to employees whose same-sex spouse is covered on their health plan will go on.

Thus, there is much more to this fight. Ultimately, this state-by-state nonsense must be transcended. No oppressed minority can win its rights this way. This is, and should be, a national fight. And marriage is, and should be, a federal right. As is the overall right to freedom from discrimination in housing, employment public accomodations, and so on -- that is, the basic right that we have been fighting for all these years and that we still lack in most of this country. There is still no federal law banning anti-LGBT discrimination.

So yeah, the fight goes on. It's fitting that we are now in the weekend of the annual LGBT Pride events here in New York, when we come out in our hundreds of thousands and mark the anniversary of the great 1969 Stonewall Rebellion. Sunday we'll march down Fifth Avenue as we always do, and we'll show our pride and joy and strength while we raise all our demands. Anger and celebration in equal measure: it will be a good day. We have a right to savor this small step forward.

As for me, I'll be heading down to City Hall with Teresa, my lover of 23 years, soon after the new law takes effect, some time this summer. We'd actually decided a while back to get married, and had been trying to plan a few days to take a quiet trip to Connecticut, the nearest state that allowed same-sex marriage. Now we don't have to go to all that trouble. Now we can just take the subway downtown. We're not going to make a big to-do out of it. We're both still too queasy about all that marriage has meant in its long history as an oppressive sexist institution. We both know we won't get any practical benefit from taking this step. But we decided that, as fighters for liberation, when the movement we've been a part of succeeds in breaking down even a small part of the social barriers, even if mostly, for now, symbolically, it is correct that we should step forward and claim this newly won right. We should take our place among our sisters and brothers saying this is ours, we've won it, we're taking it. It's a statement we've got to make.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Summer reading

It's been an up-and-down, mostly middling, first half of the year reading-wise. Now things are looking up.

I'm about to start reading Century of the Wind, the final book in Eduardo Galeano's Memory of Fire trilogy about the history of the Western Hemisphere. I happened to finish the first volume just before Columbus Day, and the second just before Veterans Day, and I'm guessing I'll finish this third in time to offer up its evidence against the celebration of imperialism and jingoism that is the Fourth of July. Sure looking forward to that.

When I finish the Galeano, I'll move on to another book that I'm looking forward to with wild thrilled anticipation, We the Animals, the first novel by Justin Torres. I'm ecstatic to have procured a review copy in advance of the September 6 publication date, and I expect to rip through its pages speedily and giddily. How can I be so confident? Well, I read several chapters in early draft form four years ago when Justin and I were both fellows at the first annual Lambda Literary Foundation LGBT writers' retreat in Los Angeles. Early draft? I remember that everyone in the workshop was hard pressed to offer any criticism or suggestions, the writing was so exquisitely fierce and stunning. I also loved Justin himself. He's a beautiful person. His has not been a life of middle-class white privilege as is the case with so many of the first-novelist products of the MFA factory to whom we're serially subjected, nor is he unconscious politically as they so generally are, and his fiction reflects this. I'm so happy he's getting the recognition he deserves, and so happy his book tops my to-read pile.

Congratulate me: I still haven't used up the bookstore gift certificate I got last holiday season. I did take a big chunk out of it this past week when I picked up A Moment in the Sun, the new novel by writer and filmmaker John Sayles. It's a big fat book--perfect for summer vacation, issued in a gorgeous edition by McSweeney's--that takes on the history of U.S. imperialism in the Philippines. I'm going on faith that Sayles, whose movies are all politically progressive and mostly pretty good, does justice to the topic. Hope I'm right; this will be some literally heavy lifting for naught if it turns out my faith is misplaced.

Speaking of vacation--yay! It looms! I've got about three more weeks to work, then I'll be off for three weeks. It may not be the reading-est vacation I've ever had, as I'll be visiting a friend on the West Coast for a hunk of it, but then again that may not interfere as she's a big reader too and we may spend nice chunks of time in quiet companionship reading poolside. Sounds like heaven, no? So here are some of the volumes, mostly fiction but some non, that I've amassed with my gift certificate and in my libraries rounds, from among which I'll be making my vacation reading selections. In no particular order except that first place must always go to genius:

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (I suddenly realized recently that I'd never read this, to my shame)
Caramba! by Nina Marie Martinez
Malinche's Children by Daniel Houston-Davila
The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt
Stonewall by Martin Duberman
Jamestown by Matthew Sharpe
The Famished Road by Ben Okri
L'Assommoir by Emile Zola
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
Parable of the Sower & Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler
Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne
Medical Apartheid by Harriet A. Washington
Cellophane by Marie Arana
Philadelphia Fire by John Edgar Wideman

Finally, a note about the novel I just read. Pym by Mat Johnson. Damn! This is one rollicking raging biting piercing angry hilarious book. It is about--well, the story itself is a wild quasi-spec-fic tale most of which takes place on Antarctica where an all-Black team has gone in quest of, variously, pure water, adventure, fame, fortune, love, revenge and the truth, but what it's about is Blackness and whiteness and the racism upon which this country was founded, built and currently rests. This is a work of high imagination, incredible invention, cutting humor, and most profound meditation on "race" and racism. You should read it.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Gaza: Symbol of Resistance

I referred to it earlier this year, in the context of the popular uprisings in Egypt and other Arab countries and the promise they hold for boosting the Palestinian struggle, but now that I actually have a published (as opposed to pre-publication proof) copy in my hands I want to draw attention to the new book Gaza: Symbol of Resistance, edited by the brilliant Joyce Chediac and issued by World View Forum.
This is an important book. This is a unique book. This is an informative book and this is one of those rare books that are intended to contribute to the struggle, and succeed in doing so. You should buy and read this book.

Why? Because the people of Gaza are suffering, they are suffering terribly, bombed, blockaded, consigned to terrible conditions without adequate food, water, means of sanitation, medicine--and because this suffering is sponsored by your tax dollars, which fully fund and sponsor the Zionist state's ongoing war against the Palestinian people, whose land it has occupied for 63 years.

Here is the truth, written by partisans for Palestine, about Israel's bombardment and occupation of Gaza in December 2008-January 2009, about what came before, about the endless vicious attacks since. Most important, two truths you'll never get from the bourgeois press: what's really behind this criminal campaign against the people of Gaza, and what the people of Gaza themselves are doing, saying, thinking. For me, it is the heroism of our Palestinian sisters and brothers in Gaza--their resistance, their defiance in the face of what would seem to be unbearable conditions and relentless pressure, their steadfast refusal to deny their own history or abandon their right to self-determination--that comes through strongest in these pages and is most inspiring. This is why the title is so apt.

There's another reason I'm so glad this book is out and why I hope it gets out to many readers, especially now as we approach the big LGBT Pride march here in New York City. Every year on the last Sunday in June, hundreds of thousands gather to commemorate the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion that gave rise to the modern gay movement. This year, spurred in large part by a political struggle that's broken out, a new contingent, organized by LGBT Palestine solidarity activists, will be marching: Queers Against Israeli Apartheid. QAIA has already marched this month, in the Queens and Brooklyn Pride parades, where they and their message urging our community to stand with our Palestinian sisters and brothers were well received. Now it's on to the big event next Sunday.

At Queens Pride
The political struggle I refer to is over the right of pro-Palestinian queer groups to meet at the LGBT Center on 13th Street in Manhattan. I blogged about this issue when it first broke out in early March. Sadly, since then the position of the Center's officialdom, after a number of flip-flops, has gone from bad to worse. Its latest and supposedly final edict was to permanently ban all groups having anything to do with "the Israel/Palestinian issue." This fake equating of "both sides" is of course patent nonsense--the ruling is nothing more or less than a racist attack against Palestinian queers and their supporters, and a craven cave-in to the most brazen reactionary forces who mobilized a racist pressure campaign on the Center's board and director, a campaign to whose every demand these sorry stooges have acquiesced. Well, the friends of Palestine know a thing or two about mobilizing themselves, and this struggle is far from over, won't end, in fact, until the Center is once again a free, open space for all of our community. For more on this whole matter, check out Queers for an Open LGBT Center. On their site, every step over the last few months is documented, allied groups are listed, and plans--including a protest at this Monday's annual fancy-shmancy Garden Party and then the contingent at next Sunday's big march--are offered.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Betwixt & between

The blogging slowdown continues, as is surely apparent. I've also recently closed my Facebook account, so my live-time online presence, such as it was, is shrinking. I never did tweet or follow anyone on Twitter—could there be anything more annoying, more pointless, trivial, hollow, time-wasting?—and although I was a more or less active Facebook user for the past couple of years, my engagement was always steeped in ambivalence. My FB postings were generally judicious, I think, not too crazy, impulsive, inappropriate or offensive--I am a highly flawed individual but I'm not a dickhead or a weiner (yeah, I went there)—but they always made me queasy nonetheless. Not only did it feel creepy to repair to this virtual lounge whenever I had something I wanted to express and express it to virtual people, especially for someone like me who's always been reserved in person with all but my closest friends (and yeah, to them I'm a wild, un-shut-uppable ranter), creepy so that I almost always regretted posting, always felt embarrassed or out of control, but more than that I could never quite figure out the answer to this question: Why bother? Why bother the couple hundred or so people I'd somehow accumulated as "friends" with my random effluvia? Why post or pass along endless news items, political analysis, Youtube videos and the like when there are plenty of other people doing it already? As for the flip side, reading all those other folks' equally random effluvia and/or endlessly repetitive news etc., logging onto FB and scrolling through the posts (and mind you, this was even after adjusting my settings so that many didn't show anyway) came to feel like punishment. Like slogging through a daily flogging to which I ultimately couldn't find a reason to keep subjecting myself. Important political news and developments? I'm on enough lists and read enough news that most things I should see make their way to me already. Personal info and updates? If we really know and care about each other, even virtually, you'll call or email me. Ultimately, I couldn't come up with any reason to keep returning to an imaginary land of irkdom and jerkdom except to spin my wheels when what they need is to stay in contact with the road and transport me forward.

So goodbye to all that. Not to all this, lit-blogging, yet, but who knows. The original impetus for starting Read Red, almost three years ago now, had to do with my frustration at the dearth of truly left literary news and analysis on the internet. This dearth remains in effect, to the best of my knowledge, at least in English. The ubiquity of bourgeois consciousness, unconscious though it generally is especially in the minds of good-hearted progressive-oriented commentators, bloggers, reviewers et al, remains unchanged. My frustration unabates. However, my need to comment, my desire to do what I can to carve out a class-struggle space in the literary blogosphere, no longer compels quite so compellingly as it did at the start. It might just be fatigue. I mean, how many times can I yelp and yowl about the endless assault of literary and other offenses? It might just be personal fatigue unrelated to matters literary or bloggish. Hell, it might just be that I need a vacation (one month till VDay).

It might also be—no, it definitely is—that I've got to knuckle down, as I've scolded myself so many times before, including publicly here on this blog, and get this damned novel finished. I've got to brush aside impediments. FB was one, an absurd time waster like online games used to be. Is Read Red another? Not if I maintain the slowed down pace I've reverted to this spring. As long as I only post here when I've actually got something halfway meaningful to contribute to the conversation, I think this blog justifies itself, both in a broad way in terms of fulfilling its charge of offering a communist take on literature and personally while not sucking my writing energy away from the story I'm trying to get onto the page.

So I'm here. I'll be back. As for all that other crap, if you need me you know where to find me.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Even the Rain

I saw a provocative and important movie this past weekend. Even the Rain, about a year old, available, at least on my cable system, on demand for five bucks. It's about a film crew that's come to Cochabamba, Bolivia, in the year 2000 to make a movie about the arrival and subsequent actions of Christopher Columbus and the Spanish colonizers in what are now the Americas. The movie they are making has a progressive slant; it shows the horrors inflicted on the Indigenous inhabitants by the invaders; it does not portray Columbus and the rest as heroes; it highlights the efforts of Bartolome de las Casas and the now lesser-known Antonio Montesinos against these horrors. And yet, for all their good intentions, the European director/writer, producer, crew and most of the actors, from the moment they arrive for the shoot, themselves engage in the same racism, exploitation and oppression that they're supposedly committed to exposing when it's safely 500 years in the past. Ironies abound, but really irony is the wrong word because there's a bourgeois disengagement to artistic irony, a trap into which Even the Rain does not fall. Rather, I should say that this film does a great job, careful but clear, of depicting a latter-day invasion—not physically cruel, brutal or violent but nevertheless oppressive and exploitive in many ways, and clueless about its oppressiveness, utterly insensitive—an invasion in this case by a moneyed force, that is, a movie production.

Although that alone would be interesting enough, there's much more. For the film crew arrives just as the great water wars of Cochabamba are hitting a fever pitch. No one—actors, director, producer, crew—remains untouched as the Bolivian peasants and workers organize, take to the streets, shut down the city, battle street by street to defend a most basic, precious right. The fulcrum of it all, of the struggle and of the movie and of the movie within the movie, is the character of Daniel. He and his daughter have been hired for the movie, he playing the pivotal role of Hatuey, the Taino rebel who led the resistance to the invaders and was crucified for it. At the same time, Daniel is a leader of the  actual real-life struggle to block imperialism (it was the U.S. company Bechtel) from stealing the people's water and forcing them to pay for it. This struggle coincides with and interrupts the shoot, and it forces the producer and director to make hard decisions about what matters most—a movie or a struggle for justice, an investment or a human being.

The acting in Even the Rain is very good, especially that of Juan Carlos Aduviri as Hatuey and Luis Tosar as Costa the producer. The director is Icíar Bollaín; I'm not familiar with her work but would gladly see more of her movies. The writer is Paul Laverty, who also wrote Bread and Roses about the Justice for Janitors strike in Los Angeles and the great great The Wind that Shakes the Barley about the Irish republican struggle. The movie is dedicated to Howard Zinn, a signal of the filmmakers' orientation toward truth telling.

A final note. I mused a bit after watching Even the Rain about why the filmmakers hadn't simply made a movie about the Cochabamba water wars and how the peasants and workers drove Bechtel out of Bolivia. Wouldn't that be a great, exciting, dramatic movie, and don't we desperately need movies that show the class struggle in action? So is this one more case of foregrounding European central characters (the Spanish moviemakers of the movie-within-the-movie) onto a story that is not theirs, of telling a story of Indigenous resistance through European eyes? In one way, yes it is, it's undeniable, that's what this film does. In another way, though, I think the artists behind Even the Rain deserve some leeway, some credit, even. I think they very consciously framed the story the way they did, not to provide some through-privileged-eyes surrogate viewpoint, but rather to make a particular point about how what Columbus started is still going on. How Europe (now joined by the U.S.) continues to rob the riches and resources of Latin America and the Caribbean (and Asia and Africa)—in the most pernicious, overt ways, as with Bechtel's water grab, and also in less obvious or extreme ways, as with the moviemakers-within-the-movie paying extras $2 a day, putting them through physical and psychological hardship, swooping in to spend the least possible money for the highest possible later profit, all the while trying desperately to ignore the class war swirling all around them.