Monday, November 14, 2016

Random Photos

A few recent random photos. Enjoy!

Chinelo Okparanta & Robin Coste Lewis
answering questions after their
superb reading at Rutgers-Newark
A subway rat (do you see it?) 
Evie Shockley introducing Mendi+Keith
Obadike at Penn State Conference
on African American Literature and Language

Mendi+Keith Obadike presenting
their work at CAALL
A musician in Washington Square Park
Painting wrought iron in the West Village
Décollage, SoHo 
With Carter Mathes (left) and Evie Shockley (right)
at the Ark of Bones event at Gallery Aferro
in Newark

My colleague Mark Krasovic, an unidentified woman,
Mrs. Loretta Dumas, Henry Dumas's widow,
and my colleague Christina Strasburger
at Gallery Aferro 
Scarlet and Black: The newly issued
scholarly anthology about Rutgers University's
historical involvement with slavery 
College Avenue, Rutgers (New Brunswick)
At the Westside Theater, before the
start of Othello: The Remix 
Mosaic mural featuring Frederick Douglass
quotation, Midtown 
Post-election Grief & Supportive Post-Its,
Union Square Station tunnel, Manhattan
Those Post-Its
Subway performers 
The Strand Bookstore's last copy (for now)
of Counternarratives; they once had over
100+ copies of the hardcover AND the
paperback. Thank you, readers!
Subway rider, with his 40
Rehab work at the Blue Man Group's
 theater, Astor Place
Cooper Square 
Workers at the increasingly
privatized, zombie urban
hot spot, Astor Place
The famous Alamo Cube, cordoned off
(and now longer movable by passersby)
Bikes and skateboards now
forbidden at the branded, neoliberalized
Astor Place

Friday, November 11, 2016

Counternarratives on Belgian Radio, in a French Journal, and on a British Prize Longlist

A few weeks ago, sound engineer and radio host Alain Cabaux spoke with Emmanuel Requette, from Brussel's Librairie Ptyx (Ptyx Bookstore), hosted a lively, enthusiastic conversation about the French edition of Counternarratives on Radio Campus, based at the Université Libre du Bruxelles.

It would take a while to translate the entire thing and they unfortunately do not provide a written transcript, but it was clear that both Cabaux and Requette enjoyed the book and were sparked to think quite a bit about it, even broaching a few topics that haven't received much discussion in US reviews, on topics such as religion.

If you speak French, you can hear the entire conversation here, as well as music by Matana Roberts and the great Bluesman Robert Johnson. Many thanks to both of them and to my brilliant translator, Bernard Hoepffner and publisher, Éditions Cambourakis, because of whom the book is on Librairie Ptyx's bookshelves. Enjoy! (H/t to James Oscar for telling me about meeting Mr. Cabaux, and his kind comments on the book, too.)


Also, in the French journal En Attendant Nadeau, Claude Grimal pens a throrough, praiseworthy review of Contrenarrations, titling it "Sujétion, Liberté et Imagination" (Subjection, Liberty, and Imagination), with the summary that "Le romancier américain John Keene fait preuve dans son Contrenarrations de beaucoup d’ambition, d’érudition et de talent. La force épique de son livre et l’extrême attention qu’il porte à l’écriture sont la preuve d’une foi énergique en la littérature." (Translation: "The American novelist John Keene show evidence of great ambition, erudition and talent in his book Counternarratives. The epic force of his book and his extreme attention to writing are evidence of an energetic faith in literature.")

The review continues in that very positive.  He concludes the review by saying:

L’auteur, qui dote ses personnages d’une remarquable imagination afin de montrer qu’elle est en elle même émancipatrice, est pourvu comme eux de ce don. Il faudrait adapter pour lui les pensées qu’il attribue à Melle LaLa, flottant au dessus du sol, reliée par la bouche à son fil : « je voudrais suspendre la ville entière de Paris ou même la France elle-même à mes lèvres… je cherche à dépasser les limites imposées à moins que je ne les aies placées là, car c’est à cela que je pense quand je pense à la liberté ». Penser à la liberté est un chemin pour les écrivains, autant que pour les assujettis comme le montre, avec un brio acrobatique, les histoires de Contrenarrations.

(The author, who endows his characters with a remarkable imagination in order to show that it is in itself emancipatory, is provided like them with this gift. It would be necessary to adapt for him the thoughts he attributes to Miss LaLa, floating above the ground, connected by her mouth to her wire: "I want to suspend the entire city of Paris or even France itself from my lips...I aim to exceed every limit placed on me unless I place it there, because that is what I think of when I think of freedom." Thinking about freedom is a way for writers, as much as their subjects, as Counternarratives' stories show, with an acrobatic brio.)
Many thanks to Mr. Grimal for this reading, to En Attendant Nadeau for publishing it, and of course, to Bernard Hoepffner and Éditions Cambourakis.


Finally, on the other side of the English Channel, or La Manche, depending upon your perspective, a new prize, The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses, has named Counternarratives to its Longlist! What's the rationale behind this prize? Here's what writer and publisher Neil Griffiths, its founder, has to say.
The winner will be chosen based on two criteria, perfectly expressed on the Galley Beggar website as ‘hardcore literary fiction and gorgeous prose’. 
Eligible publishers will have a maximum of five fulltime paid people working for them. The prize is open to UK and Irish publishers. 
One novel or single author collection of short stories per publisher can be summited in the calendar year. With one wild card entry per judge.
The Times Literary Supplement wrote about this prize, quoting Griffiths:
"Whatever one thinks about awards in the arts, they do tend to attract attention, boost sales, and provide a little momentum – which is always a good thing. And even though the money won’t be Booker or Costa levels, any money is always welcome. And if the prize can include the independent bookshops – as judges and points of sale – then everyone wins".
It also noted that the 9 judges are "Griffiths, his co-chair Marcus Wright, and the booksellers Sam Fisher (Burley Fisher Books, London) Gary Perry (Foyles, London) Anna Dreda (Wenlock Books, Shropshire) Helen Stanton (Forum Books, Northumberland) Lyndsy Kirkman (Chapter One Books, Manchester), Emma Corfield (Book-ish, Crickhowell, Wales) and Gillian Robertson (Looking Glass Books, Fife, Scotland)." The The Guardian wrote about it also.

Originally, the Longlist wasn't to be announced until November 30, but it appears to have been moved up. The Shortlist won't be determined until next January, and the prize won't be awarded until March 2017. At the Review 31 site, Mr. Griffiths elaborates on the prize, and writes blurbs about each of the book. Here's the marvelous summary he wrote about Counternarratives, which is the kind of comment you can't pay for!

Fitzcarraldo Editions for Counternarratives by John Keene

Counternarratives is a work of great distinction, a once in a generation addition to short form fiction. It moves the form on; it deepens it. Few works of fiction operate on this kind of intellectual and textural level and still remain rooted in the human experience. Spanning four centuries, many countries, using different narrative forms as inspiration, each story unfolds with a control and wisdom that is startling. When compared to this, most other prose seems oddly ingratiating, as if Keene has decided that to ask for our indulgence is to undermine some fundamental truth being enacted in the stories. Few novels are works of art and few works of art are moral acts – this is one of them. And what’s more it’s a pleasure to read. That this set of stories and novellas has not made every shortlist its eligible for is a travesty.

Here's Mr. Griffith's announcement of the prize:

Whatever happens, it's wonderful for the book and its British publisher to receive some recognition, and many thanks to Mr. Griffiths, his committee, and Fitzcarraldo Editions!

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

A Brief Note On the Election

The results of yesterday's election, in which Republicans Donald J. Trump and Michael Pence defeated Democrats Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine by winning a majority of Electoral College votes (about 290 so far) versus 230 and despite losing the popular vote, was a difficult day for so many of us. Making it even worse, the obstructionist GOP caucus also retained control of the US Senate and House, and will now have the power to give President Trump whatever he asks for--or they can convince him wants, including a far-right jurist to fill the seat of the late Antonin Scalia. As I told a friend and colleague, we've lived through times as tough as these and worse, and we'll get through it if we stick together, though we'll suffer along the way.

 The first step, though, is acknowledge that Trump's victory occurred, recognizing the many people and things that made it possible, and then not throwing up our hands in sorrow, anger and apathy, and allowing him to steamroll over everyone and everything.

This election reminds me a lot of 2000, only torqued up a few hundred notches. That one also included a Democratic duo winning the popular vote yet losing to the Republican ticket, after over a year of grotesque media malpractice, and lots of liberal handwringing about how the successor of a popular president could lose. Republicans and the media salivated over having an allegedly "compassionate conservative" "businessman" take over the reins of government, promising us reform and a new path. Most voters then, as now, and particularly African American and Latinx voters, rejected it. The true outcome, however, would become clear shortly thereafter when the US suffered through rolling blackouts, the beginnings of warantless wiretapping, a major trading firm (Enron) collapse, and finally, in spite of warnings and red flags, the worst terrorist attacks on US soil on September 11, 2001. I hope and pray that horrors of this magnitude do not befall us under Trump and Pence, though after the experience of that earlier election, I am trying to steel myself for whatever may unfold, and remind myself, organization, coalition-building, dialogue, and resistance, in every way are key.

There were some bright spots in yesterday's election, however: The US Senate will now have the most women of color in its history, with the election of Kamala Harris (CA), Tammy Duckworth (IL), and Catherine Cortez Masto (NV) joining Mazie Hirono (HI), all of whom are progressive Democrats. Also, the Democrat Maggie Hassan eked out a win for the New Hampshire Senate seat, so the Democrats will have 48 votes (46 + Bernie Sanders and Angus King), meaning they'll be able to provide some semblance of a check on Trump, McConnell and Ryan. I'm holding on to this, and to the knowledge that we won't give up, because we cannot, and will keep fighting for a better future for all of us. That's what my ancestors did, what my parents did, and that's what we must do.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Photos: American Book Awards

Here a few photos from the 2016 American Book Awards ceremony, which was held at the San Francisco Jazz Center. The highlight of the event for me was meeting all of the other honorees--congratulations to ALL of them, those present and those unable to be there--and hearing the extraordinary, often deeply moving speeches. Thanks once again to the Before Columbus Foundation and its board, Justin Desmangles, Ishmael Reed, and everyone who makes the foundation, the awards, the event, and all the important work BCF does in the world possible! (All photos are by C (thank you!).)

With THE Beefeater,
in front of the Sir Francis Drake
Hotel, Union Square
C & I before the event 
Chatting with my Rutgers-Newark
colleague Lyra Monteiro 
Meeting ABA winner Jesús Salvador Treviño,
author of Return to Arroyo Grande 
The façade of jazz greats across the
street from SFJazz Center 
Justin Desmangles, radio host, writer,
and MC for American Book Awards 
ABA winner Lauret Savoy, author of Trace:
Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape
Poet Laura Da', author
of Tributaries and ABA winner
Jesús Salvador Treviño 
ABA winner Susan Muaddi Darraj, author
of Curious Land: Stories from Home 
ABA winner Deepa Iyer, author
of We Too Sing America:
South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Sikh Immigrants
Shape Our Multiracial Future
Before Columbus Foundation and American
Book Awards founder Ishmael Reed,
introducing the Lowenfels Award for
Criticism, which went to Lyra Monteiro
and Nancy Isenberg
Lyra Monteiro, accepting her award
Washington University professor Bill Maxwell,
speaking after receiving his American Book
Award for his study F. B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover's
Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, accepting ABAs for
Ned Sublette and Constance Sublette,
authors of The American Slave Coast: A History
of the Slave-Breeding Industry
The mother and sister of college student
Chiitaanibah Johnson, who received the
Andrew Hope Award for her activism
Lyra speaking and breaking it down
Yours truly, giving my speech
A group photo
Lyra and I

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Paul Beatty Wins Man Booker Prize

(Photo by John Phillips/Pool photo via AP)
Congratulations to Paul Beatty, winner of the 2016 Man Booker Prize, for his novel The Sellout! Paul is the first Americanever to receive this prize, which the Booker Prize organization opened up in 2014 to all novelists writing in English, and is the second black writer in a row to receive the award, after Marlon James, who received it for his volume A Brief History of Seven Killings, and the third over all, with Ben Okri, the first black writer to receive the Booker back in 1991 for The Famished Road. Paul's novel is a hard-hitting, sometimes harsh satire about the United States, American history, slavery, segregation, and racism, and hardly relents from its blistering opening pages to its conclusion. 

I first met Paul over 25 years ago when he was among the initial readers at the Dark Room Writers Collective. He had just published his first book of poems, Big Bank Take Little Bank, and had recently won the Nuyorican Poets Cafe poetry slam. Each of the poems in that has narrative force, but it wasn't until Paul published his acclaimed novel White Boy Shuffle (1996) that the world, I included, realized he was not only a poet of originality and talent but a fiction writer to reckon with. He has since published another volume of poetry, Joker Joker Deuce (1994), as well as two more novels, Tuff  (2000) and Slumberland (2008), and as befits a master of satire, he edited Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor, in 2006. 

Congratulations again to Paul, and a hat tip to the Man Booker Prize jury for its excellent and unanimous decision!

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Alexander Kluge & Ben Lerner at Goethe-Institut

Alexander Kluge
Pioneering author, critical theorist, New German cinema writer and director, and TV pioneer Alexander Kluge is 84. The last time I found out he was going to be in New York, I was in Chicago and Evanston, teaching and so had to miss his events. I am a huge fan of Kluge's work, especially his fiction and films, and have posted about his work many times on this blog, including my translations of his prose, the New York Review of Books' translations of his writing, quotes by him, and more. His work has never ceased to intrigue me.

Kluge recently returned to participate in a series of events, running from October 21 through the 24th,  that were sponsored by the Goethe-Institut USA and titled "Alexander Kluge in New York." They included a film series at the Anthology Film Archives and an evening with Kluge at the Museum of Modern Art. I decided to see Kluge and Ben Lerner in conversation on Sunday at a "soiree," which Kluge ensured that the evening became. I had imagined a joint reading, followed by a conversation, which is the US standard, but instead we got a fantasia of sorts: Kluge and Lerner did read, primarily from Kluge's newest book, The Great Hour of Kong (Kongs Große Stunde, Suhrkamp 2015), and only in English, but interspersed amidst the texts were Kluge's digressions, film clips, and a live pianist's accompaniment.

Lerner, the translator, and Kluge
Kluge reading 
In addition, there was a translator (whose name I missed), who didn't have that much to do; Kluge's English was quite strong, and only a few times did he turn to her for assistance. Instead, he tossed out pithy phrase after phrase, talking of the affinities he felt with Lerner's poetry, which he thought achieved what he was trying at times to convey, which was "knowledge without a subject." Other subjects included outer space, the bombing of Halberstadt, Hitler's death, and Ladino-speaking Sephardim who were able to escape the Holocaust--and fortunately, very little Kong. Throughout, Lerner was game--he read along, offer thoughts where needed, and kept the show rollicking along.

Here are some of the quotes I wrote down:

"We have inside an antirealism of feeling."
"The search for safe space is the beginning of philosophy."
"Life is richer than experience."
"Never wake a collective subject." - A quote from one of Lerner's poems, which he repeated and expatiated on.
"Narration saves life."
"Absolute design equals absolute poetry."
"We are all nobleman...descended from 18,000 people who came out of Africa."

The pianist played music by Offenbach and Verdi, and the films, some of which unfolded like Kluge's microstories, included one using a Luigi Nono composition, which made me think of Nono's father-in-law Arnold Schönberg, though his name was never mentioned (I think), and Schönberg's star pupil Anton Webern (him neither), whose extremely distilled compositions struck me as models, but with a much more playful underpinning, for Kluge's films. Eventually, the piano playing turned into a brief accompaniment, with the accented English sounding almost like a counterpoint to the keys' melodies. Kluge concluded the evening by having not just he and Lerner reading in unison, which they did several times, but invited the translator to join them. It was an apt conclusion to an unusual and refreshing literary evening, giving "soiree" a new meaning and creating an invigorating model for future events, I hope.

Lerner and Kluge reading in unison
Lerner, the translator and Kluge concluding
with a piece read in unison