Saturday, December 31, 2005


Asamov: This Florida-based hiphop group may be familiar to lots of folks, but I just learned about them. They have a page at MySpace where you can listen to some of their songs and preview their CD, And Now, which debuted on October 18 this year. You can also download a free mixtape, which is pretty good.

Something new to groove to in the new year....

Friday, December 30, 2005

Novels vs. Films: What Happens in the Translation?

Thane Rosenbaum, in his Forward essay, "Yeah, But the Book Is Better," poses some interesting questions concerning the relationship between works of fiction, primarily novels, and their film versions. What provoked his inquiry in this short essay was that his 1999 novel, Second Hand Smoke (which I've never read), was being turned into an independent film, and Rosenbaum was asked to adapt it into screenplay form. He notes that the process proved very instructive, and the essay offers some of his conclusions about how prose fiction differs from its cinematic versions, and why translations of certain texts, such as Kafka's brilliant stories and novels, don't and probably can't work.

(For years I thought and repeated that Toni Morrison's dense, lyrical novels would prove untranslatable into film under any circumstances, but Oprah Winfrey dared to do so anyways with Beloved, and I now think that the right director--someone with a truly idiosyncratic style, perhaps on the order of a Michelangelo Antonioni or Julie Dash, who'd be willing to radically adapt a work like Jazz or Love--could create a marvelous piece out of one of her texts. Still, there are fiction authors like Wilson Harris, Julian Ríos, Juan Goytisolo, or Leslie Scalapino or M. Nourbese Philip works in general and individually still strike me as untranslatable, in part because of their texts' sheer conceptual and linguistic density and because of the nature of their narratives/narration.)

Rosenbaum isn't the first person to explore this topic, of course; literary, film and narrative theorists, aestheticians, filmmakers, fiction writers, journalists and others all have explored the relationship between prose fiction and film at various points. One of the most famous essays that immediately comes to mind is Seymour Chatman's Critical Inquiry essay, "What Novels Can Do That Films Can't (and Vice Versa)." It later appeared in the still useful volume of Critical Inquiry essays and responses, by the likes of Hayden White, Jacques Derrida, Paul Ricoeur, and Barbara Herrnstein Smith, that W. J. T. Mitchell edited in 1981, On Narrative (Univ. of Chicago Press). Chatman's short essay, which draws from his larger, invaluable study Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film (Cornell University Press, 1980), analyzes the relationship between story and discourse, pointing out the differing temporalities in prose and cinema, the use of visual imagery, which is absolutely necessary in film but not in prose, the role of prose texture, and so on. In the essay (and the book), Chatman draws examples from classic European and American films, which I was unfamiliar with (and which I'd assume most contemporary readers would be), but you could update his examples, I think, with more recent and apt examples and still make similar points. Rosenbaum captures a bit of Chatman's article, but he's more categorical in his statements and misses some of the nuance.

Rosenbaum says:

With a novel, the author forms an implicit partnership with his audience. He provides the story and its voice, but the reader adds the visuals. The power of a novel's description is often tempered by sketchy details. Much is left out in order to leave something to the imagination. The reader is free to conjure the characters in his own way, to picture how they look, because the mind's eye has a way of assembling an image that is quite different from how a character might appear on screen. In the end, the novelist surrenders his book to his readers. Thereafter it becomes theirs, and his proprietary interest ceases.
He goes on to say that films are more "controlled" by the director (and I'd add the film editor, as well as the studio), and that the camera controls the point of view.

This is true, to some degree. But I would add that the comparison isn't that simple or dichotomous. Some authors--especially some of the greatest ones--create indelible portraits of characters that, though never accompanied by a visual image, are nearly as strong and prevent us from ever yielding to the cinematic version if we read the novel first (can any filmic Holden Caulfield or Jay Gatsby compare to the novelistic version if you've read the respective novels first?), or engrave on our consciousness a voice that echoes for years in our heads that the film version creates only a vague or discordant echo of, or, in other cases, leave us afloat in language itself, with few images and only a vague "contract" of sorts, while still carefully guiding our mental activity and emotional registers.

He also says:

[In a novel], not everything needs to be resolved, not every loose end must be tied up for the novel to be satisfying. Ambiguity is tolerated much more readily; the impulse toward linearity — the beginning, middle and end of a story — is almost nonexistent in modern fiction.

This might have been true of Modernist fiction, or even much post-Modernist fiction, but I can think of at least twenty major novels of the last 10 years--by the likes of Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, Edwidge Danticat, Danzy Senna, Margaret Atwood, Philip Roth, Jonathan Lethem, Patricia Powell, Chang-Rae Lee, Jhumpa Lahiri, Colson Whitehead, etc.--that all hew to the "impulse to linearity," and all have received critical acclaim and achieved commercial success. (In fact, for an American novel to be commercially viable nowadays, it almost has to be linear, or if non-linear, then in a fashion that is ultimately propulsive towards a narrative climax (and perhaps denouement)). At the same time, feature films are capable of tremendous ambiguity, even when rich with images, and which despite the camera's guiding "point of view" still leave ample room for and power in the viewer's perspective. Above I mentioned Antonioni; a while back I wrote a review of his masterpiece L'Eclisse (1962), which really has no plot at all, and is so ambiguous as to force the viewer to create meaning in the viewing. Antonioni's deft handling of structure, imagery, editing, as well as the acting, which is literally breathtaking at points, all guide our sense of perspective, and yet the viewer must ultimately assemble the movie, create coherence. This is especially true given the final scene, which approximates a poetic epilogue whose relation to the film is, as philosopher Paul Ricoeur suggests in his essay "Narrative Time," purely associative--and very much like the kind of digressive passages or interludes in a novel that Rosenbaum describes at another point in his essay.

Another director who falls into this category is Wong Kar-Wai; if you want a great deal of ambiguity--almost complete ambiguity--and eschew plot or take a very broad view of what narrative is, then his recent, remarkable film 2046 would have to be exemplary (I actually like the plangently desire-ridden In the Mood for Love a bit more). It is almost all imagery, structure, mood, music, acting--but again, also so ambiguous and open as to leave the construction of any set meaning, as we usually think of it, to the viewer.

Two things that I would add are first that ambiguity and cinematic lyricism need not preclude plot and vice versa; a very good example of a feature film director whose work melds the two is David Lynch. I can recall going to see Blue Velvet (1986) and being astonished to the point of enthrallment; there is a discernible plot in that film, but the point really is something else, as in most of Lynch's films, including the superb Mulholland Drive (2001). The point is the ambiguity of the assemblage, to a great degree, and the irony produced by the act and process of the cinematic narration. Narrative binds everything together and the oulines of the plot initially bid to explain the strange and perverse truths of the story, but the real truth is that in Blue Velvet we're never really sure whose ear Kyle MacLachlan finds, or what exactly is going on with Dennis Hopper, Isabella Rossellini, Dean Stockwell, or the rest of this bizarre underworld.

I'd also say that although I would agree to some extent with Rosenbaum's statement that "dark psychological complexity is not particularly well suited to cinema, which is why Fyodor Dostoevsky's novels have not been successfully adapted," there have been some notable films that challenge this notion; for example, Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion (1941), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960), Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter (1955, above, at right), Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976), István Szábo's Mephisto (1981), or Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Lars von Trier's Dogville (2003), anything by Michael Hanneke, etc., all come to mind.

Finally, I continue to believe that filmmakers can make great films out of bad or at least middling novels or short stories more easily than out of great ones. One reason may be that the director feels less fidelity to a weaker text and may seek to improve it filmically. Another may be that the weaker work leaves more options for adaptation. Still another is that the best novels not only bear the strong imprint of their authors, but also display the sort of directorial control--in terms of style, narration, and so on--that Rosenbaum attributes to directors, in addition to those features that are constitutive of prose fictional narration. But, with the right director and work, anything is possible, I think. So when is Lynne Cheney's lesbian-tinged novel Sisters going to hit the big screen?

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Visited Countries/Visited States

Visited Countries

Borrowed from Soucouyant's site, countries I've visited. No places yet in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, or the South Pacific, though I have dreams of specific countries and regions (and C and I almost went to Turkey a few years ago)....

create your own visited countries map

Visited States

So far I've visited 31 states, or almost a third. (A few, like West Virginia and Delaware, I've only driven or ridden through, though several times with each). Oddly, I can't remember if I've ever been to New Hampshire. The only two Southern states I've never visited are Alabama and South Carolina. I was just in Florida two weeks ago (briefly) and DC last week. Such a pretty city! And it was the first place I ever visited by airplane, when I was 4 years old. There's always a conference that takes place in Hawai'i, and I always end up not having anything to speak about that would justify attending. I'll have to think of something. Soon. Very soon.

create your own visited states map

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

B(l)ack to Africa (Ghana)?

A reposting of a lost entry: in yesterday's New York Times, Lydia Polgreen reported on Ghana's "Uneasy Embrace of Slavery's Diaspora." The article discusses how the West African nation of 21 million people has, for economic development and ideological reasons, decided to become an African "Israel." It will offer lifetime visas for all descendents of slaves (and not just those who can prove direct ancestral, genetic and historical links to the various groups or territories that once constituted Britain's Gold Coast colony and Elmina, or to the millions of enslaved people from the region who passed through the Cape Castle slave ports) now living outside Ghana. Ghana will also "relax citizenship requirements so that descendants of slaves can receive Ghanaian passports" and "is...starting an advertising campaign to persuade Ghanaians to treat African-Americans more like long-lost relatives than as rich tourists." In other words, as Ghana's first president after its independence, Kwame Nkrumah once hoped, the aim is to draw African-descended peoples and their resources from across the Diaspora (back) to the continent, to effect truly pan-African-Diasporic reverse migration and settlement.

According to the article, the tourism minister J. Otanka Obetsebi-Lamptey put it in very intimate terms: "We hope we can help bring the African family back together again." So far several thousand African-Americans live there at least part of the year, according to the article, and Ghana hopes to lure many more.

The Ghanaian government, a constitutional democracy headed by Joseph Kufuor, is planning to implement these policies within the next few years. They will coincide, as Polgreen points out, with Ghana's plans to commemorate the jubilee year of its independence (1957-2007), which also coincides with the 200th anniversary of former colonial master Britain's official ending of the slave trade (1807). Yet in its independence celebrations Ghana won't simply be commemorating its place as the pathblazer in post-World War II sub-Saharan liberation movements or its subsequent history--which has had some very rough patches, including Nkrumah's being deposed and a coup in the 1980s--but it will also honor major figures from the Diaspora like Martin Luther King Jr., and W.E.B. DuBois, one of the greatest figures in African-American and Diasporic history, who spent his final years in Ghana. Part of this appears to be a genuine attempt to formally connect with the Diaspora, and part of it appears to be a bit of salesmanship that certainly will bring in tourists, particularly from the US and Caribbean.

Polgreen's article does point out that while Ghana's idealistic plans sound appealing, there are some serious problems on the ground. First, non-Ghanaian Blacks from the West, including African-Americans, continue to be seen by many people as "obruni," or "White foreigner." Despite the cosmpolitanism of the capital, Accra, the long history of cultural circulation, and the pan-African consciousness espoused or at least acknowledged by some of Ghana's political elites, their westernness and foreignness on Diasporic Blacks still trumps ancestral connections among many locals. Then there is the issue of Ghana's economy, which once was quite strong because of the country's abundant commodities, but which has faltered in recent years as cocoa prices in particular have plummeted. It will need tremendous upgrades in infrastructure and physical development to accommodate masses of newcomers. Then there is the point that as Ghana is trying to attract Blacks from Diaspora, it is losing its own people to emigration, and in particular, the article notes, to the US, where Ghanaians are the second-largest West African immigrant group after Nigerians (another country whose regions supplied large numbers of people for the slave trade). I would imagine another problem would be resentment, after a fashion, if lots of Blacks with means moved to Ghana, started opening businesses and creating a parallel culture, yet didn't find ways to incorporate as many of the country's citizenry as possible. Polgreen doesn't mention the example of South Africa at all, nor does she compare the historical situations of Liberia and Sierra Leone, where political and social elites consisting of descendents of Diasporic Blacks ruled over and encountered tremendous tensions with the indigenous Blacks, with civil war resulting in both nations.

All in all, though, the questions and possibilities that Ghana's proposed policies present are pretty exciting, and I am curious to hear what others think about the "Door of No Return" becoming the "Door of Return." Would you immigrate, and if so, why? If not, why not?

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Chappelle Knuckled Under?

So you think you know why comedian Dave Chappelle decided not to complete filming the third season of his highly successful show? Think again. The Chappelle Theory website gives another, darker take on the series of events that drove one of the funniest people on TV off the air and to South Africa. (Although Chappelle supposedly is making the rounds of comedy clubs and universities, he's ruled out finishing filming and taping for the third season. Comedy Central nevertheless is planning to air the material they already have.)

Read all the way to the final page, for the kicker....

(Thanks to Ryan C. for sending this my way.)

Monday, December 26, 2005

Nothing to say + Casa New Yorker

Today is one of those blogging days when I feel I have nothing intelligent to say and am feeling too lazy to post links to other sites. Actually I'd earlier identified some news articles I wanted to link to but the day is now mostly over and tomorrow I head to a conference for work--and not the fun kind--so I'll end by mentioning that among the people we met this past week are Scotch Wilks and Byron James, who're planning to open a hotel-guest house, the Casa New Yorker (at left, and pictured right to left are Scotch, C., Byron, and I), in Santo Domingo early next year. Scotch and Byron gave C. and me a tour of the premises, which used to be the old Casa Monaga--the new Monaga Apartments are just a few blocks away--and looks like it'll be one of many fine lodging options if you head to DR.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Happy Holidays!

A Merry Christmas, Blessed Kwanzaa and Happy Hanukkah to all!

I wish all my blog visitors and everyone else the best for the holidays. I also wish everyone a safe and joyful transition into 2006.

(The Crucifix sculpture is by Dominican artist Juan Carlos Mella.)

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Shout Outs + GWB Airport? + Poem: Carlos Rodríguez

We're back safe and sound from a wonderful trip. I want to give shout outs to Anthony, Bernard, Ruskin, Scotch & Byron, Bettye, Judy, Kenny, César, Wendell, Maripoli, David, Gerardo, Jerry, Miguel, Miguel Ángel, Amauri, Aneudy, Miguel, Michael, Ramón, Arturo, Juan-Daniel, Daniel, Manny, Carlos, Chino, Chachita, and all our other wonderful friends and acquaintances.

Thanks for a great time!


Mini-rant: About 15 years ago, I reached a conclusion that has only strengthened since then: New York City's John F. Kennedy International Airport is the absolute worst airport ever. It's the worst I've ever had to fly into or out of, by every measure. The worst. In fact, it should be shut down completely until the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the State of New York, the City of New York, and the MTA can completely reconfigure it and all the roads leading to and through it so that it's not such an utter transportation nightmare. (The resultant air traffic flightmare would, of course, be a huge problem.) I have previously spoken ill of O'Hare, Chicago's major airport (the other one being Midway, which distinguished itself by having an airplane run off the runway and crash into traffic, injuring more than a dozen people and killing a child). I also am no great fan of New York's LaGuardia, or Washington's Dulles airport, which is actually miles away from Washington, DC, or Miami International, which always appears to be "under construction" and has some of the ugliest interiors known to humankind. I haven't flown into or out of that many foreign airports, but all of them (whether in Britain, Canada, Brazil, or elsewhere) all are easier to get to, get around, and leave than JFK. It's confusingly vast and feels thrown together, has no comprehensible system of roadways, is grossly expensive to park at (and don't use Avistar, which instead of being cheaper than long-term parking, is more expensive, was far more difficult to find, and took forever to pick us up), is full of preoccupied, surly employees* (except the custom officials, oddly enough!), and always leaves me saying, "I'm never going to fly out of here again!" By comparison, O'Horror is like Six Flags.

(It didn't help that we flew on American Airlines, which has gone from being a premiere carrier to something approaching a semi-defunct bus line. The plane for the initial leg of our trip was incredibly filthy, with garbage and crumbs strewn everywhere, and on our return, we had to pay extortion fees to ship an "oversized" parcel. In addition, though the plane was half empty, they refused to do upgrades, and admitted, once we were in the air that despite the fact that most of the flyers were native Spanish speakers, the movie was only in English and French. The meal--can you believe there was a meal?--wasn't bad, though. When I have to fly this airline from Chicago to Newark, I always cringe, because I know that the flight is always going to overbooked and that there'll be at least 2-3 people looking panicked because they've been bumped or can't get a standby under any circumstances. American, please get it together!)

Since JFK is such an awful airport, I think some smart Republican should propose that instead of dishonoring our 35th president by attaching his name to it, New York City rename it in favor of the worst president ever, that is, the one currently in office, until it's fixed. Then the US can rename the former Washington National Airport, which is now Washington Reagan, after Kennedy, and be done with it. Reagan's name can grace the airport that may go up in the cornfields of Peotone, Illinois, if Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. has his way and Mayor Richard Daley doesn't. Reagan was from downstate Illinois anyway, wasn't he?


One of the books I picked up while away was a posthumous double collection, El West End Bar y Otros Poemas & Volutas de Invierno (Ediciones Ferilibro, 2005) by Carlos Rodríguez (photo at right), a Dominican native (b. 1951) who lived in the US for many years and published only one volume of poems, the award-winning El ojo y otras clasificaciones de la magia (1995) before his early death in 2001.

Here's one of the shorter poems I translated the other day from his heretofore unpublished second collection, Volutas de Invierno (Winter Volutions). Does anyone know if any English-language volumes of Rodríguez's poems have been published? Has anyone translated his work before? From what I've found on the Web, it appears some of the poems may have appeared in a. It also appears that a Biblioteca Carlos Rodríguez was reinaugurated this past November on New York's Upper West Side.


I offer a little wine to my companion
at the table.
Benny Goodman makes his entrance.
The jazz, the glasses tinkle the night.
There are no clocks, no neural delays,
only an image, piano keys, erotic riffs
explode in chords that we, settled in, are listening to.
We're the ear and the drunken rapture.
Partners embrace and kiss each other, you, he…
I search in the fainting spell of my hands and celebrate quietly
from every which angle.
I lift my cup and toast the gods of wine
(understanding such an atmosphere's utter desolation).

The original:


Ofrezco un poco vino al compañero
de la mesa.
Benny Goodman hace su entrada.
El jazz, las copas picotean la noche.
No hay relojes, esperas en nervio,
solo imagen, teclas, un escala erotica
estalla en acordes que sentados escuchamos.
Somos el oído y la embriaguez.
La parejas se abrazan y se besan, tú, él…
Yo busco en el vahído de mis manos y celebro quedo
desde un ángulo cualquiera.
Levanto mi copa y brindo por los dioses del vino
(entiendo la desolación del tal atmósfera).

Copyright © Carlos Rodríguez, 2005.

Any suggestions are welcome! (Thanks, Kai from NYC!)

Friday, December 23, 2005

Photo: Late Night Procession

Imagine Christmas caroling, but instead of a band of singers, you're strolling down a main street with several trucks blaring the holy songs from massive speakers, at such high decibels that windows and walls tremble with excitement, at well past midnight. As you walk and dance and sing, people along the route, including a rum-fueled woman who has decided to start screaming out "Che Guevara" at steady intervals, join you, and soon you've awoken everyone in the area, except those who are so dead-tired or smart enough to wear earplugs that they don't hear you. But even the people who hear you are cheered by your merriment and can't stay upset longer than a few seconds. They come out of their rooms, peek at you, debate whether to get dressed and come along for a little bit, then decide they'll go back to sleep, but with brief memories of how much fun you were obviously having and how much they had before only traces of your melodies lingered and you and the fellow processionists were already several blocks on.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Photo: Man on Bench

Sometimes you just feel it. One afternoon you're sitting outside in the middle of a well-traversed public walkway on a wooden benchand before you know it, you're basically wrapping yourself around it. Or at least that was the case with this gentleman, whose creative aproach to passing the time caught my eye (as did his stylish boots). Other than thoughts of boredom, I wonder what else he was thinking.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Photo: Chess During a Blackout

Two guys were sitting playing chess under a tent at the edge of a park just up the hill from Santo Domingo's Malecón. Everything else in the area, including the restaurant we went to, Bahia, pretty much lay shrouded in darkness broken by intermittent candlelight. I should have asked who was winning, but I was trying not to trip and fall into one of the deep gutters.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The Poetic + Photo

Thanks to everyone for posting so many great responses to my initial post about the "poetic." When I'm back and have a moment I'll post something longer, but one pointed I wanted to answer, since it was on the top of my head, has to do with Keguro's question about the denial or movement away from the body, which is a consistent theme in many writings on the poetic and the aesthetic. I immediately thought of what I'd grappled with for two straight falls with my undergraduates in my aesthetics class. We always began with Plato's many discourses on beauty, in the Republic, in which he states that what is beautiful is what's true, and what's true is what's virtuous and derives from the gods. The beautiful object or thing always has its source in an ideal form, which is non-sensuous and never fully apprehensible by humans. He goes on to say that art is a mirror of nature and that the artist is nothing better than a second-order creator--the artisan selects the ideal form and translates it into something material, whereas for Plato the artist translates the material thing into words, language, images--defers the ideal yet one more step. For Plato this is highly problematic, but just as problematic is the power that the artist has--through language alone she or he can move poeople to question or mock the gods, to challenge the ruling ethos, to immerse oneself in the physical, the sensual, the real. Plato develops this strain to the extent that by the famous Diotima section of the Symposium, he expresses a form of connection with the gods, an apprehension of the beautiful, which fully and powerfully separates itself--it is a real aspiration--from the sensual and sensuous. It isn't to much to suggest that this idea carries through well into 19th century though--it is in part a feature of such major aestheticians as Aristotle, Plotinus, Aquinas, Winckelmann, Shaftesbury and the other Renaissance era neo-Platonists, Schiller, and of course, Immanuel Kant, whose notion of the aesthetic in part brackets off the primacy of the physical, the sensual, the sensory to a great degree. The aesthetic for Kant, if I might simply, constitutes and is constituted by its own system and a priori understandings that, while related, are different from the realms of the physical or of reason. Kant, like others before him (Longinus, etc.), proposes the notion of the sublime, which is that experience which so overwhelms us, through immensity, horror, or some other primal sensation, that we eventually are provoked into reason. But the sublime exceeds the poetic, and ultimately reason triumphs--control over emotion, over the senses, and so on. Kant is significant in that he is the first major figure among the ones in the European geneology listed above to decouple the aesthetic from God, or the gods, but the residue remains, with the gods, the Godly, being ineffable, beyond our full corporeal grasp. The poetic for Plato has this aspect of the false, something excessive, something never fully material, and yet at the same time, also possessed of a dangerous power that Plato saw in part as part of the process of its coming into being, and which Nietzsche later champions as central to what he calls the Dionysian, that originary state that all humans have lost touch with. Of course there are many other figures whose ideas come into play, and as someone--Keguro?--noted, Benjamin and Adorno make endlessly clear that alongside the autonomy of the formal, of the artwork itself, the artifact is socially grounded and mediated--it never exists out of time or place or context, no matter what the artist or viewer thinks or wants. It is always a social fact. So notions of the poetic that fail to take this into account are highly problematic, but I guess those of us who love poetry and write poetry (or try to do so) would still identify certain things, certain formal aspects, certain responses we have, to what we deem the poetic. Often these are highly corporeal, bodily, grounded. As I've told Reggie H. more than once, I almost tear up at times when I start to recite the lines to Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays," which Michael Harper made me memorize several years ago at CC. Why? It is both the unique and indelible music Hayden's lines create, their unforgettable formal achievement which is both incredibly simple and yet complex, as well as the picture of the hardworking father who is "never thanked," who was Hayden's father and so many fathers, so many men and women, and the plaintive voice of the son who remembers, who invokes into being this tribute through his sincere and stunning quasi-sonnet-like song. At a certain point the feeling of this fusion of form and message, the statement, approaches the spiritual, but the body--the effects of the poetic language and images strike me deeply in body and mind. Here then might be one way to situate the poetic...but I'll return to this when I have the chance.


And now for the body, an artist/artisan, with his "second-order" artworks on display. Music began pumping up the street, and the man got so excited he couldn't stay still, he started dancing. You know the feeling. And it's often poetic, and spiritual....

Monday, December 19, 2005

Photo: SDQ

This is just a test remote blogging message. Instead of an entry, I´m posting a photo of baseball player Miguel Alfonseca and me in the airport. I´m not sure what team he plays for or if he´s in the minor leagues. At first I thought he was Aramis Ramirez but when I asked, he said his name was "Miguel." I then asked if he spoke English. He said no. So then I asked him his surname, and he said "Alfonseca." I repeated "Miguel Alfonseca" and he nodded, so I´m going to go with that. If anyone knows what team he´s with, let me know in the comment section!

Update: No luck on who "Miguel Alfonseca" is, but I learned in the publication listings of one of the books I bought today that there's an annual Joven Miguel Alfonseca literary prize, oddly enough. None of the authors whose works I'd purchased--Andrés Mateo, Carlos Rodríguez, and a third whose name now escapes me--had won it. ¿Miguel Alfonseca, quién eres?

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Photo: Boy Drawing "Hombre Clássico"

At an outdoor Christmas Arts Fair (Feria Artesanal Navideño), I came across this young guy drawing a stall. When I asked what he was working on, he first said it was a "hombre griego," then when I said "Greek?" in English, he said "clássico," to which I nodded, and then he added "antigo." He had no live models in front of him, so I figured he was drawing from memory or a mental image.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Photo: Anthony's 41st Birthday

Tonight C and I had a great time celebrating the 41st birthday of Anthony Montgomery (at left), the founder and head of Monaga Corporation. In addition to being a lovely person, an amazing, tenacious businessman and must-read blogger, Anthony is one of the best and funniest raconteurs I've come across in years. I took this photo (an almost identical one appears on Anthony's site) of him and Jerry Gibbs, the owner of Jay-Dee's Bar and Café Ecléctico, at his birthday dinner. Anthony has lots more photos and comments on his blog, so check them out.

Friday, December 16, 2005


I'm off for some badly needed R&R (though I will have work to do on the trip). Here's wishing Happy Holidays (Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Christmas, Festivus, or if you celebrate none of these, just the holiness or wholeness of every day) to all!

(I do hope to post a few times while away.)

Thursday, December 15, 2005

What Is "Poetic"?

This is (part of) a question Mendi L O asked on the CC listserve. Specifically she asked "a musing, a question" (which I quote below):

i've been teaching a course in intermedia art in which half of the students are poets and we've been throwing around the word "poetic" as we talk about what we desire in and for our work. i'm wondering what you all think it means to say that something is poetic.

someone asked toni morrison about people calling her work poetic when she gave the keynote at the romare bearden conference in new york a while ago. she said she didn't like it because there was an inherent assumption that prose wasn't supposed to be beautiful. there was more to it than that, but i've been mulling over the idea that the 'poetic' doesn't really say what you like or want from something even as i have the desire to use it. so, like when bell hooks used to have to say "the diverse black community" every time she (or someone else) might have just said "the black community", i've started to write and say "if you'll allow me to overuse the word, poetic" in places where people might just write or say "poetic", but that's really just a temporary strategy, and not a true landing place.

i think when i say that something is "poetic", i mean to get at a certain kind of clarity, elegance, simplicity (and at the same time complexity, directness, fogginess) that i find hard to name.

what is poetic to you all?
There were a lot of great answers. Two I want to highlight were by R Erica D, who wrote:

what is important about this question? useful? why do we care about the answers? are we trying to explain or work to others or to ourselves when we do this? are we trying to talk/think about other people's work?

Mendi wrote (was it in advance of or response to Erica's comment--I think it came just before):

i'm trying to figure out what it is i'm doing when i'm writing a poem, whether it's always the same thing (say, when i write a narrative poem and when i make a concrete one), and whether my making poems is connected to what i'm saying when i'm saying something that is not poetry is poetic.

My response(s):

I'd add, what about poetry that isn't "poetic"? What does that kind of poetry look like? Why is certain kinds of poetry (in general, as we saw with the critique of June Jordan) called non-poetic or less poetic than other kinds? Or what about poetry that conversely is criticized for being excessively poetic (that was used against Derek Walcott in that same rag.) What role does the lyric play in the poetic? What is "the lyric" or "the lyrical"? Whose definition of these terms matters? Is any universal, non-material understanding of "the poetic" possible? Is the poetic "violence done to everyday language" as Jakobson said, or "the asseveration of being," as Howard suggests, or are these understandings of poetry obsolete or were they never valid? Does it depend upon language--phonemic relations and play, aspects of rhetoric, particular categorically grounded forms or modes of expression, etc.--or is it something broader, such as social and political contexts, and ultimately is it possible to reduce "the poetic" to either? Must "the poetic" be special or beautiful? Does the poetic always create a surplus, or contain condensation of meaning? Does the poetic have to be memorable, as some critics have suggested? Must it provoke some emotion, whether delight or disgust? How does it differ from "the prosaic"?

Does Morrison's reaction to the idea of her work being "poetic" depend in part on a longstanding Anglo-American criticism of and sometimes disdain for those elements of the poetic, particularly beyond a certain limit, in literary prose, whether fictional or nonfictional? What about when we say that oral, nontextual forms and modes are "poetic"--that African/American/Diasporic speech and expressivity are inherently "poetic"? (I'm thinking of Erica's performance our first year at CC--the narrative that was "poetic" on so many levels. Or the stories that other CC people would tell. Or our conversations outdoors and in the hallways and dining hall at Mt. Esopus. Etc.) Like when we hear our grandmother just talking about what happened yesterday, or just consider it (as Elizabeth did with her poem that was on the New York subway and always brought a smile to my lips) and we think, "That's poetry."

What is "poetic" to you? What is important about this question? What is poetry? Why does it matter?

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Swenkas + Cuchifritos Exhibit + Jeff Allen Reading

SwenkasVia one of my former students, the dandy Andy, I learned about a recent South African film, The Swenkas, that briefly screened last month at New York's Film Forum. The Village Voice's Michael Atkinson described it like this:

The authentic nature of the post-apartheid state in either case is merely background, but in [Danish director's] Jeppe Rønde's The Swenkas, the odd escapist subculture explored is almost by definition a reaction to political powerlessness. Apparently, for generations, rural laborers that come to Johannesburg for work have been indulging in "swenking": spending a portion of their hard-earned wages on designer suits, silk ties, and top-of-the-line shoes and competing in public (and often semi-public) style-maven contests every weekend. Cash prizes are at stake, and over the decades these mime battles of double-breasted panache have taken on a distinctive performance quality, inciting the various Zulu men to vogue, fox-trot, solo-tango, prance, display their outfits' materials like game show hostesses, and generally attempt to wordlessly impress upon the judges (who are they?) that a cresting degree of macho chic has been achieved.

SwenkasHe adds that the director doesn't probe swenking's ethnographic roots, nor does it contextualize or explain the ritual sufficiently (does the name come from the English word "swank" or "swanky"?), but he does stress that this "peculiar and sweet" film is worth seeing. Though I haven't seen the film I immediately thought of Black LGBT ball culture; based on his descriptions the parallels sound obvious. Have any of you readers seen this movie? What was your take?


From poet Gina D. I received the following invite:

"Being There"

William Cordova, Leslie Hewitt and Wardell Milan

Curated by Omar Lopez-Chahoud

Opening: Saturday, December 17, 4:00-6:00pm

December 17 2005 - February 4, 2006

CUCHIFRITOS art gallery/project space.

120 Essex St.
between Delancey and Rivington
New York City, NY 10002
(Inside the Essex St. food Market South end of the building)

Open daily, Monday through Saturday 12:00 noon to 5:30pm

212.598.4124 Gallery

For more information please contact: Omar Lopez-Chahoud,

I won't be able to attend, but back in April I posted links to Wardell Milan's at PS 1. It looked great, so if you're in NYC, do check it out!


AllenTomorrow, writer extraordinaire Jeffrey Renard Allen will be reading with students from his fall Cave Canem New York workshop on myth and poetry at Poets House.

The reading takes place at 7 pm, and is free of charge.

Poets House's address:
72 Spring Street, Second Floor | New York, N.Y. 10012
(212) 431-7920 |

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Tuesday Corral

MillerIn today's Huffingtonpost, Mark Cesca interviews Mark Crispin Miller (at left, photo from, the media critic par excellence who for years taught at Johns Hopkins University and now is on the faculty at NYU. Miller has repeatedly written about the threats the right wing poses to our democracy, and focused on vote fraud in a great August Harper's article. In this interview he discusses the vote fraud and anomalies of 2004 that our mainstream media have dismissed as "conspiracy" fantasies and so on, but which really should concern all of us, no matter what our political perspectives (unless, of course, you're a fascist and could care less about even the semblance of democratic principles and the republican system enshrined in the Constitution). One quote on the hapless Democrats:

Why do they keep fleeing the issue? Unless the Democrats get into it, they'll simply vanish as a party, just as Paul Weyrich and Grover Norquist and Karl Rove intend. The reason why the Democrats avoid the issue, even though the party's very existence is at stake, appears to be a bone-deep inability to face the very frightening implications of what really happened in 2004. The Democrats don't want to know that the United States is clearly not a democratic country, or that the Bush Republicans are dangerous extremists, intent on building a one-party theocratic state-so that the opposition now must go beyond the usual horse-race strategizing, and get re-acquainted with this nation's revolutionary heritage. Which means, I reckon, that the opposition has to move beyond the Democratic Party.

And of course the Democrats don't want to go there. The problem is compounded by the press, which has consistently sidestepped the issue, or even ridiculed those who have tried to talk about it. And by "the press," I mean not just the likes of CNN and Newsweek and the New York Times, but even the left/liberal and progressive media, which, by and large, have also basically concurred with the Republicans in claiming that last year's election
was essentially legitimate.

And talk about prescience! No sooner did Cesca post his interview than voting machine company Diebold head Wally O'Dell, a Republican supporter who once said he'd ensure a win for W (and did!) resigned effective immediately as his company faces class action securities fraud charges. Now if only more people would wake up about Diebold's voting machines....


Molly Ivins writes one of her usual great columns, this time concerning the homeless problem in the US, which has completely fallen off the media's radar and out of public discourse. Today it reached the high 20s in New York, which, as Ivins points out, has an estimated 50,000 homeless people, and similarly chilly temperatures are forecast for much of the rest of this week. There's been so much hysteria of late, whipped up by right wingers and their opportunist friends like hypocrite and liar Bill O'Reilly, about the nonsectarian greeting "Happy Holidays" being a war on Christmas. This campaign, as Steve Gilliard and others have pointed out, carries more than a whiff of anti-Semitism--but I have to wonder why all these "Christian" blowhards don't pay more attention to the Gospels their Holy Book, which is pretty clear on how to treat those who have no home (or food or job, etc.). Yep, I know. Like they even give half a damn...


Marlo ThomasSo some of the "white" Australians rioters have said that the Lebanese in Australia (or some peole of Lebanese ancestry in Australia) aren't "white" and, as part of their rampaging, call for an Australia for white Australians. Interesting to compare the US perspective, in which, according to our historical process of racial construction and formation, Lebanese-Americans are considered "white." I assume they consider themselves white as well. Some famous Lebanese-Americans: Danny Thomas, Marlo Thomas, Senator George Mitchell, John Elway, Doug Flutie, Jeff George, Ralph Nader, Donna Shalala, Helen Thomas, Governor John Sununu, Senator James Sununu, Senator Spencer Abraham, Neil Sedaka, Casey Kasem, Kathy Najimy, Frank Zappa, Paul Anka, Kristy McNichol, Jimmy McNichol, Yasime Bleeth, Sammy Haggar, the Maloof brothers, Harold Ramis, Tony Shalhoub, and Tiffany? Marlo Thomas, who as the star of "That Girl" was an icon of a certain kind of liberated (white) American femininity in the early 1970s. Also, Salma Hayek, from Mexico, has a Lebanese father, and singer Shakira is a Lebanese-Colombian. In those cases, the "Latina" or "Hispanic" and "national" affiliation (Mexican, Colombian) seem to trump all else. How do we establish hierarchies of race and ethnicity? How does Australia? Who's going to tell John Elway he's no longer white?


Finally, a few days ago, Shankar Vendantam penned a Washington Post article on whether "extreme bias" might be considered a psychological illness. Duh! But seriously, the article is pretty fascinating, with arguments on behalf of this proposal as well as skeptical views on the attempts to classify as a coherent, systemic diagnostic disorder the behavior of some of the individuals profiled. One of the nuts, er, people discussed feared that Jewish people "were diseased and would infect her," while another, a waiter, was "so hostile to black people that he flung plates on the table when he served black patrons and got fired from multiple jobs." The article says very little about societal contexts and social relations, and nothing about white supremacy; the races of the individuals described are not mentioned, but as I stated in a prior post, since "white" is normative, I assumed all were white. So what role did white supremacy and prevailing views of race and power relations play in these individual's psyches with regard to particular groups? Perhaps I'll write Vendantam to inquire about a follow-up piece.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Tookie Williams to Die

WilliamsCalifornia Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger will not be honoring a clemency recommendation to commute the sentence of Stanley "Tookie" Williams. He also rejected a stay of execution based on a last-minute claim of innocence. Schwarzenegger dismissed arguments that Williams, one of the founders of the Crips criminal gang, was wrongly convicted of murder and and that his many good works since his incarceration are proof of his redemption. The actor-governor's decision means that Williams death sentence is sealed; at 12:01 AM Pacific Standard Time (3 AM EST), the State of California will execute him by lethal injection.

Although Williams's lawyers presented new accounts from witnesses in making the clemency and stay requests, Schwarzenegger cited prior court rulings upholding Williams's 1981 death sentence and conviction for four 1979 Los Angeles murders and graphically described the killings, which occurred during one of the worst periods of gang-related crime in that city and region. He also cited the oft-stated remark that Williams had not apologized and thus not atoned for the crimes, and thus had not been redeemed, though Williams has maintained his innocence and stuck true to the principle that he shouldn't apologize for crimes he steadfastly claims he didn't commit.

Numerous celebrities, including the Reverend Jessie Jackson and actors Mike Farrell and Jamie Foxx, who'd starred as Williams in the 2004 TV movie Redemption, as well as hundreds of grass-roots anti-death penalty activists, had rallied to Williams's defense, based in large part on his condemnation and renunciation of gang violence, as well as his speeches, books and lectures to steer young people away from lives of crime. It's inarguable that Williams's community work has had a positive effect in defusing potential criminals, or at least in raising awareness among young people drawn, for whatever reasons, to crime. He has repeatedly been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

I've personally thought that with Republican Schwarzenegger as governor, there was no hope of a commutation or stay for Williams. The action-fim star turned politician, who entered office via a sham recall election, has demonstrated few to no principles or mettle since taking office. Instead, he's turned like a weathervane depending upon the political context, operating less as a pragmatist than as an opportunist. In this regard, he's followed the trend of his party. After the blistering defeat of four ballot measures he'd championed while under the sway of authoritarian-minded right-wingers, he promptly rushed out and hired not a moderate but a liberal lesbian from Northern California as his chief of staff. Conservative Republicans immediately started screaming like babies, and with minimal support from Democrats and abysmal ratings among independent voters, Schwarzenegger again took the expedient route, appearing to look tough while in essence playing God, as if in one of his movies. The result is that instead of an actor playing dead in one of his films, yet another living human being will die. For a second I considered that Schwarzenegger's acknowledged Roman Catholicism (and the beliefs and influence of his wife, former telejournalist and Kennedy family member Maria Shriver) might play a role, because Catholic doctrine is explicitly against the death penalty. But neither church teachings nor the compassionate example of former Illinois governor George Ryan, also Catholic I believe, swayed Schwarzenegger in the least. For the sake of politics he decided to have the true stench of death on his hands. In terms of the church's reponse, though, I doubt that the governor (or any other Catholic politicians, for that matter) would face any religious sanctions for permitting the state killing as he might for his pro-choice (and pro-abortion) stance.

The racial disparities in legal and judicial treatment, the roster of faulty, botched or fixed investigations that have contributed to death convictions, and the preponderance of black and brown men on death row or killed under the death penalty statutes are immediate reasons for again terminating the death penalty. The thought that even one innocent person could be killed, just as innocent people have been killed and severely maimed in the crimes for which the penalty was handed down is another reason for it to be abolished. Yet I'd think that most Christians, no matter how "righteous" they consider themselves, would recognize the inherent cruelty and lack of mercy in effecting this ultimate sanction against another human and how much the death penalty contravenes the teachings of Jesus Christ Himself.

For I was hungry and you gave me no food,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
a stranger and you gave me no welcome,
naked and you gave me no clothing,
ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’
Then they will answer and say,
'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty
or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison,
and not minister to your needs?’
He will answer them, 'Amen, I say to you,
what you did not do for one of these least ones,
you did not do for me.’ (Matthew 25:31-45)

Yet some of the most avid supporters of the death penalty, cruelty to those in prison, torture, demonizers of the poor, women, homosexuals, etc. are self-proclaimed Christians, so evidently their "faith" has no bearing, or they simply overlook this passage in Matthew, as well as others in the New Testament Gospels and go on their merry way.

In the mid-1970s, the Supreme Court went to so far as to impose a moratorium on the dealth penalty in the US. But once that ruling was revisited in the 1980s and states could again reinstitute the death penalty, 1,000 people have died, as part of a so-called system of "justice"--what gives any person the right to condemn any other to death?--some of them wrongly so (as advances in DNA and genomic testing and a posteriori examinations of biased trials have shown). Supposedly anywhere from 20 to 120 people have been wrongly sentenced to death and killed, but even one such death is wrong.

While I cannot say whether Williams has been wrongly convicted or if the prosecutors used racist tactics in acquiring an all-white jury to convict Williams, I do not believe he should be killed. I do not believe in the death penalty at all. It is not a deterrant, nor does the taking of a criminal's life ever balance out the murders--however horrific--of his or her victims, no matter whether there were mitigating circumstances. I praise Williams' good works since his imprisonment, but mourn the losses of those who are said to have been his victims. As a co-founder of the Crips, one of the most violent gangs in recent history, he is to blame in some part, I believe, for a good deal of the widespread criminally-related violence and suffering that the Crips and other street gangs have inflicted primarily on other black people across this country.

But I still disagree with his execution, particularly at the levers of the state. Schwarzenegger could have done the simple and merciful thing, and commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. Prison life, particularly for men like Williams, is seldom enjoyable, despite what snarl-mouthed, perpetually angry Nancy Grace or ash-voiced ditz Rita Cosby have to say (have either of them been in maximum security confinement, or placed or death row? I think not). Imprisonment ultimately means and enforces severe constraints on freedom and the constant threat of extreme violence, so Williams wouldn't be spending the rest of his days in camp. And if were not killed, he could have spent the ends of his days spreading a word of peace. Wouldn't that have been the Christian thing to do--particularly for a self-proclaimed Christian like Schwarzenegger?

Oz Race Riots (Thoughts) + Monaga on Belafonte's Pad

Race and nation, nation and race: human history is a minefield full of the horrors of this particular nexus, particularly since the era of the European Enlightenment. While Nazi Germany is the worst example most people would immediately cite, the nationalism and racial segregation of the pre-Civil War and Jim Crow US, apartheid South Africa, the post-Yugoslavia southern Balkans, the Armenian genocide in Turkey and mass slaughters in Rwanda also provide negative examples.

One more recent example not involving slaughter but the alienation and isolation of a large minority defined as somehow not being part of the situation in France, to give one very recent example, has returned to a low boil, Australia, which has its own very troubled history of racism, racial segregation and white supremacy, now finds itself on the front burner as racially and nationalistically inflected riots have hit the Cronulla Beach area of south Sydney.

According to a BBC News report, "Racial Violence Erupts in Sydney," a week ago, several young men of "Arabic and Mediterranean backgrounds," a truly vague description if there ever was one--who may or may not have been part of a gang--were playing sports on the beach, and when some locals at Cronulla Beach complained to volunteer lifeguards, who then intervened, the "Arabic and Mediterranean" men "assaulted" them. Newscasters, on the TV and radio supposedly then whipped up latent nationalistic and racist fervor among white residents (which I gather do not include people of European Mediterranean ancestry, such as Greeks, Italians, Albanians, etc.) of the area and other parts of the Sydney region for a good week; at the same time, some white protesters supposedly also used cellphones and text messaging technology to organize mobs. In response, thousands of white youths, some of them intoxicated (with alcohol, not just racist animus and nationalist pride), converged on Cronulla and began violently attacking people--anyone--of apparent Arab, Middle-Eastern and Mediterranean backgrounds.

The white rioters, who included some Neo-Nazi and white nationalist supremacist elements, pelted police with beer cans and bottles, injuring several people. Later the violence spread to other areas: in South Sydney a man was stabbed in the back, while in Maroubra, men armed with baseball bats attacked cars. (The BBC News report doesn't give racial breakdowns on who attacked whom, though I understand the absence of referents to be an example of normative journalistic practices, wherein "white" isn't mentioned since it's presumed or assumed; meanwhile the Australian papers indicate the opposing groups of Lebanese and white rioters were involved in the second night of conflicts.) Unsurprisingly, local authorities considered the attacks to be isolated and extraordinary, not "Australian":

Police Assistant Commissioner Mark Goodwin said innocent people had been targeted.

"The behaviour that's been seen down here at Cronulla today is nothing short of disgusting and disgraceful," he said. "It's certainly not the Australian way."

The area's Mayor, Kevin Schreiber, accused the mob of looking for a fight.

"As mayor and as a resident of Cronulla, I'm devastated by what has occurred on our beachfront," he said.

"It is the actions of a few, but let's not kid ourselves that people didn't come from far and wide to participate."

Keysar Trad, Islamic Friendship Association of Australia noted that "sections of the media took this issue far too far, and one can only surmise that the way these issues was dealt with on talk-back radio amounts to incitement." Sound familiar?

The police, who were able to get some of the people being attacked to safety or to medical facilities, made scores of arrests.

This wasn't the end of the situation, however. Riots occurred again last night, with more rampaging youths from outside the Cronulla area arriving and destroying cars and local shops. Nearby areas such as Caringbah and Brighton-le-Sands (which could be the name of a Paris suburb) also were the sites of vandalism and violence. In response, police in the area stepped up their patrols, and were carefully watching massing groups in other neighboring districts. Australia's rightist Prime Minister, John Howard, finally spoke out, condemning the violence. Despite evidence to the contrary, he duly pointed out that Australians were not racist. Interestingly enough, in the second BBC News article, the "Arabic and Mediterranean" young men whose actions allegedly set off the social tinderbox were now described as being of "Middle Eastern origin," betraying a rather larger conceptual slippage (and a longstanding Western European-North European and British racial and ethnic bias).

At the heart of the matter, it seems that the sorts of social and political disaffection that are so apparent among Arab and non-Arab African native and immigrant young people in France and other countries also are at issue in Australia. Although the country's history and decades of socialist government and secularism have inculcated most Australians with a progressive views on economic issues and social views often to the left of the United States, and although the country has, like Canada, become increasingly racially and ethnically diverse over the last quarter-century, the critical issues of nationalism and racism, which have been features of Australian history since the country's founding, endure. As is well known, Australia, in its process of nation-building, instituted some of the most severe racially supremacist social policies of any of Britain's colonies; Australia officially had a White Australia immigration policy in effect until 1973. The white ruler's social and cultural attacks, amounting at times to crimes against humanity, against indigenous Aboriginal populations for hundreds of years. Aborigines saw their land seized, were slaughtered and segregated, while Aboriginal children were abducted from their families and raised by whites. The Australian government did finally include Aborigines as members of the nation in 1967, and many years later apologized for its crimes, but the cultural and psychic trauma were tremendous and still resonate throughout the society.

The historical echoes and residue of Australia's racial-nationalist project obviously continue. On Steve Gilliard's News Blog, in a post entitled "White Australia Returns," an Australian commentator, One Salient Oversight, discusses and contextualizes the furor, addressing the failed process of multicultural exchange and education, which he attributes in part to the shift in government priorities and ideology when the Howard government took over and in part to a certain kind of liberal societal myopia, particular among the governing classes in Australia (which is far more economically and socially progressive than the United States in many ways), for the problems now besetting south Sydney.

Sydney's Morning Herald and Melbourne's The Age newspaper discuss the violence and societal crisis at length. Among the articles are fuller coverage of the second day of riots; witnesses' accounts of the attackers; the Australian Patriot League's racist nationalism; radio shock jock Alan Jones's glee in helping to stir up the trouble; white nationalists' pride in their role in the maelstrom; attempts to make sense, unironically I suppose, of a "black day"; the roles that 9/11, the Bali bombing and "Tampa" may have played in the attacks; the (often racist) commentary of Cronulla locals; Lebanese-Australians' expressions of alienation and rage; and Melbourne's own concerns about similar potential problems.

Additional thoughts: When I was growing up, I went to Catholic school with a few people of Lebanese ancestry--or they were of mixed Lebanese and European ancestry. As far as I remember, they considered themselves "white," at least as far as I could tell. I don't recall whether they thought of themselves as white "ethnics"--even though all people are "ethnics" of some sort. Perhaps they thought of themselves as white given the racial contexts of the particular place where I grew up (the Midwest), where racial issues were often binaristic and polarized (so that Asians and Latinos often had to choose sides) and the century-long history of Lebanese immigration and assimilation. But perhaps my perspective was skewed, and perhaps most Lebanese or other Arabs in St. Louis or elsewhere didn't think of themselves as "white." Did St. Louis native Naomi Shihab Nye's father, who was Palestinian, think of himself as white? (I know that in her poem "Blood," he evokes him speaking of how an "Arab" acted.) Did he live as a white person in St. Louis, at a time when the city's facilities were racially segregated? Did she, growing up?

I do know that the history of racial and racial identity formation in the US and elsewhere is complex, and that, as I note above, Lebanese--and other Arab--immigration to America began more than century ago. In fact, in some places the Lebanese served as racial "middlemen," so to speak, between Anglo whites and black people. This was the case in Washington, DC, in parts of the South (like New Orleans), in Chicago, and elsewhere. Writer Breena Clarke, for example, includes a Lebanese vendor in her tragic, beautiful novel of early 20th century Black DC, River, Cross My Heart. Lebanese immigrants have occupied a similar economic and political role across the globe; I'm familiar with similar scenarios in parts of Latin America (especially Brazil, Ecuador, Argentina, etc.) and Africa (Liberia, for example). Do Lebanese-Brazilians consider themselves "white"? Do the majority in countries like Ecuador or Mexico consider themselves "white"? (Several of Mexico's richest people are of Lebanese ancestry, I believe.) How much do longstanding racial hierarchies, ideologies of whiteness, and structures and practices of white supremacy in these countries, as in the US or Australia, factor in?

I'm not especially familiar with the history of Lebanese and other Arab ethnic-national groups' self-identification and possible politicization as "Arab" in the US, though I wonder whether this increased after the 1967 (?) changes in the immigration laws, the Civil Rights push of the 1950s and 1960s, and the late 60s Black Power and Black Pride movements, which led to greater ethnic and nationalist self-awareness, pride and identification among white Americans. I also wonder when large-scale Lebanese immigration to Australia began. The reports from Australia make it seem as if the Lebanese and other Middle Easterners were not assimilated or even integrated, really; is this mostly the case in Australia? Thinking about the recent uprisings in France, and the historical links between that country and Lebanon, my impression is that people of Lebanese ancestry in France, especially the Christians, would not feel isolated and marginalized in the same ways as the immigrants from and native-born children of immigrants from France's former colonies in Africa, such as Algeria, Tunisia, Senegal, Mali, and so on. But is this the case?

MaloufThere are probably very good books on this topic, so if anyone can recommend them, I'd love to check them out. I also just remembered that one of Australia's major writers, and a perennial Nobel candidate, is David Malouf, whose name bears witness to the fact that he's of Arab ancestry. I believe his father was Lebanese. I assume he's an assimilated Australian--though I have no idea about his self-described racial or ethnic identity or identifications. Is he product of prior generations of Lebanese-descended Australians who did integrate and assimilate? What has changed? What was lost? I've only read a few of Malouf's works (An Imaginary Life, about Ovid; The Great World, about Australians imprisoned by the Japanese; and the magisterial Remembering Babylon, about Scottish immigrants in North Australia who must deal with a new arrival). From what I recall they didn't especially focus on Lebanese-Australians or Arab-Australians. Are there other writers, peers of his or younger writers, who've focused on this community?

As has been asked in the last few weeks of France, where does Australia go from here?


Monaga's Blog features a short entry on the pending sale of artist and activist Harry Belafonte's multimillion-dollar Upper West Side apartment and how it's linked to one of the most important, notorious, and notoriously racist figures in Dominican history. As often with the great posts on Monaga, many of the comments are worth checking out too.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Sunday Quote: Toufic Farroukh

Farroukh"...I am not a nostalgic man, but I do have a long-range memory. At times my topics come from sitting on the street. The road has an echo of freedom regardless of how crowded it is with people. In it, I feel loneliness. The road is not my inspiration, but the freedom given to me by the road is my road to the idea--the idea loaded with transitory images, transitory scents."
--musician and composer Toufic Farroukh, from "Toufic Faroukh on Jazz, Saxophone, and Memory," an interview with AlJadid: A Review & Record of Arab Culture and Arts

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Pryor RIP + McCarthy RIP + Shattuck RIP

Perhaps other readers of this blog had a similar experience, but one of the things I remember vividly from childhood was when my parents would have friends over for a little get-together or to play cards, and they'd put Richard Pryor records on between R&B albums. Although we kids regularly heard adults cursing and knew the rough outlines of sex (or at least what it was), we usually were supposed to upstairs in bed, or at least in our rooms (especially if cousins came over) when the Richard Pryor record came on. But since the adults were downstairs having a good time, nobody was really watching us. When Richard Pryor's voice, as the preacher or the drunk or just as Pryor himself, would start booming from the stereo, we'd perch at the top of stairs, making sure we couldn't be seen, and then listen, laughing even at stuff we didn't fully understand. The adults would laughing so hard they'd be in tears.

In particular I recall overhearing Pryor's This Nigger's Crazy and ....Is it Something I Said?, and Bicentennial Nigger. If it wasn't at my parents house, then we'd listen to them at my godparents' or aunt's house. More than Pryor's use of the "n" word, which I always thought he pronounced like someone who wasn't from the city, was his use of "motherfucker"; the epithet rolled off his tongue like a praiseword, though with that same Peoria flavor (or flava). In fact, that was one of the reasons Richard Pryor was also a big deal. He was sort of a local person, coming from Illinois, which was just across the river (though Peoria is closer to Chicago than St. Louis). It was also a huge deal when he went to Africa (as many black celebrities were), especially after Alex Haley's novel and the subsequent miniseries versions of Roots came out and really got many Black people thinking again about their ancestry and African heritage, and said he wasn't going to use the "n" word anymore. Not that that stopped any number of other comics or anybody else.

Alongside the "dirty" Richard Pryor, as some people labeled the comedy albums, there was the Richard Pryor who appeared in moves like Lady Sings the Blues, The Mack, Uptown Saturday Night (a movie that's lost none of its hilarity), Silver Streak (which also had Gene Wilder in a marvelously comical role), Car Wash, Which Way Is Up?, and The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (starring the pretty Billy Dee Williams). He was also in California Suite, one of Neil Simon's less inspired ensemble pieces, which Maggie Smith turns out, though Richard Pryor's performance, as one of the two bickering black couples from Chicago, is memorable. Last, but not least, he also appeared in movie version of the musical The Wiz, which was one of the entertainment events of that year. (I like it much more now than I did then.) I barely remember his TV show, which lasted for only four shows, but then I was too transfixed by Laverne and Shirley and Happy Days, which were its direct competition.

When he nearly torched himself freebasing in 1980, I remember praying that he'd be okay. I also remember getting a little lecture from my parents about how this was one likely outcome of drug use--and also a reminder of how people with so much going for them could sometimes self-destruct, throw it all away, letting their livelihoods and successes and lives, even, literally go up in smoke. Pryor did return to the stage and screen after he recovered, starring in his Live on the Sunset Strip documentary as well as more films with Gene Wilder, and even made an autobiographical movie, Jo-Jo Dancer, This Is Your Life, about his personal experiences. But it seemed he never fully recovered, and by 1986, he announced he'd been diagnosed with MS. Pryor actually continued to act in films well into the mid-1990s, including a small role in David Lynch's bizarre The Lost Highway, but his last recorded stage album came out in in 1983.

PryorNow that I'm older I realize what a pioneering talent and role model he was. His comedy, which initially was closer to that of another pioneer, Bill Cosby, took a turn in the late 1960s, and, like predecessors such as Moms Mabley, Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory, opened up a vista of possibilities for addressing issue of race, sex, class, and politics. Often holding himself up to ridicule, never shying away from the most painful and ridiculous aspects of life, particularly Black life under racism, speaking directly in the language of the street, Richard Pryor could make you laugh your drawers off. Nothing was sacred with and for him. His influence is evident in a wide range of comedians who've followed him, including Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Sinbad, Sandra Bernhardt, Margaret Cho, George Lopez, Eddie Griffin, Dave Chappelle, most of the comedians on BET's Comic View, and many others. I can only see his influence continuing, given the state of the world and society we live in; we need humor like his, deeply personal and profoundly humane, but also unsurpassingly raw, vernacular humor--without laughter, especially the kind of laughter he drew so often out of us, how could we possibly keep on going some of the time?

Richard Pryor died yesterday of a heart attack, supposedly with a smile on his face. He was 65 years old.


I also want to note the passing of two other major figures, former Minnesota Democratic Senator Eugene McCarthy, who in 1968 ran as the anti-war candidate in the New Hampshire primary and whose 42% second-place finish effected incumbent Lyndon Johnson's withdrawal from the presidential race, and Roger Shattuck, the prolific and polymathic scholar, whose landmark study The Banquet Years was and remains a touchstone in my education on the arts of the early 20th century.

In his later years McCarthy, who eventually lost the primary momentum to Robert F. Kennedy, and then the nomination to Vice President (and former fellow Minnesota Senator) Hubert H. Humphrey, continued to serve as a contrarian, running repeatedly for the presidency yet slamming the two-party system, and going so far as to support Ronald Raygun over Jimmy Carter in 1980. Despite his political progressiveness (he had supported integration while a professor at the University of Texas in the 1960s), Shattuck's ideological opposition to the new French theoretical avant-garde (DeMan, Derrida, Althusser, Foucault, Deleuze, Lacan, etc.) in the 1970s led him to help establish the conservative Association of Literary Scholars and Critics and to dismiss some very valid scholarship that was, in its own way, in conversation with his.

McCarthy, however, remains the emblem of a particular historical and political moment; though Richard Nixon went on to win in 1968 and with Henry Kissinger extended the war 7 more years, bombing Cambodia and Laos and contributing to the death of 25,000 servicepeople, I cannot forget the Minnesota Senator's courage in challenging the sitting president, from his own party, the profound political statement, if ultimately ineffective at the time, that he engraved upon his time. Shattuck's genius, despite his later conservatism, was to open up new understandings, through truly comparative readings, history, biography, and analysis, of the turn of the century experimentalists who've since become canonical--as have the theorists he abhorred. Satie, Jarry, Apollinaire, Proust, and the other subjects of his studies, including Sade, whom he argued might have gone too far--and this was the theme of one of Elizabeth Costello's latter essay-stories in Coetzee's brilliant, eponymous novel--could have done worse than have Shattuck's critiques bring what was fresh and innovative in French and European Belle Époque artistic culture not only to fellow scholars, but to several generations of students, among them many artists who've taken the examples to heart.

McCarthy, who passed away in Washington, DC, was 89. Shattuck, who died in Vermont, was 82.