Thursday, January 26, 2006

Meeting Nalo Hopkinson + Oprah on Frey + Gukira on W/Kibaki

HopkinsonYesterday, after a full day of student conferences, I hopped in my car and drove halfway down Chitown to DePaul University to meet Nalo Hopkinson (at left), a writer whose work I admire tremendously, and which I really enjoyed teaching last fall. She was reading and talking about her work at DePaul's Center for Diasporic Studies from 3-5 pm, but I wasn't able to get down to Lincoln Park until right around 4:50 pm or so, and anyone who knows crosstown traffic in this huge city understands that whether you take Sheridan Road to Lake Shore Drive south and cut east, or try one of the north-south arteries like Ashland or Western, it can be a trial.

Nevertheless I did make it in time (arriving at the same time as writer and scholar Rone Shavers) to introduce myself and chat with her briefly about one of her books, The Salt Roads, which I'd featured as my Recommended Book for November 2005. I can't speak highly enough about the imaginative and innovative formal and conceptual architecture of this work, which links storylines set in three distinct historical moments (Roman Alexandria, revolutionary Haiti, mid-19th century France) and featuring three different protagonists (one of whom is the Black Venus, Jeanne Duval, French poet and critic's Charles Baudelaire's great muse), through rich, convincing characterizations and dramatizations. The book is also notable for its Afro-futurist-feminist-inspired rethinking and rewriting of narratives of the self, the body, and subjectivity, of desire and sexuality, of identity, nation and home, and its approach to the concepts of diaspora, circulation, fluidity, and translation.

One of the most exciting aspects of the work is Hopkinson's use of the Haitian loa/lwa Erzulie/Ezili (in all her aspects), as a figure and trope, a symbol and spirit, and as a character herself/selves; Erzulie, always in motion, animates and moves in and out of time, across and through narratives, narrative spaces and places, in and out of bodies and minds, functioning as the interstices themselves, while breaking down and re-membering--in a manner that reminded me of the fractal poetics of Wilson Harris-- (Afro-)(Caribbean-)(Canadian-)(diasporic) novelistic discourse. Erzulie, as Freda, as Ge-Rouge, as La Siren, speaks/break-beats into being the novel's conceptual ground and its formal structure. When I mentioned some of this to Hopkinson, she told me how difficult the book had been to write, how she wasn't sure where she was going, but what she achieved, I think, is an artistic and culturally productive marvel.

I didn't get a chance to talk at length with her (though we did invoke Harris's name and she told me about a woman down South, I believe, who wanted the ban the book because of its candid sexual depictions--I think the woman only got to the midway point and couldn't go any further!), or even discuss her other wonderful books, like Brown Girl in the Ring, Midnight Robber, MOJO, or Skin Trade, the first two of which I suggested to a professor there who wasn't as familiar with her work as the texts to start out with. Meeting her provided a good spur to continue to bring her and others to the university, where I know they'll be enthusiastically received.


I only learned about Oprah Winfrey's live, public mea culpa and interrogation and dismissal of A Million Little Pieces fabulist James Frey, and his pompous editor, Nan Talese of Random House, after it had broadcast. Had I known about it in advance I'd have taped it for my class. (Did anyone out there tape it?) We nevertheless discussed the story and the most recent events a bit today. C. and I had agreed right after the story initially broke that Oprah (pictured above with Frey, photo George Burns/Harpo Productions, via Associated Press) should probably apologize for her role in promoting the runaway best-seller, especially given that, as it now turns out, her staff had been warned in advance that there were serious questions about the veracity of the text (though she claimed to have checked with Random House, who assured her there were no problems). Instead, she went ahead and trumpeted the fact that it was "very real" (nothing sells like authenticity and empathy, especially when championed by a cultural authority of her stature), and then made her dramatic show-ending call to Larry King Live, where she again defended Frey's tome of lies as providing the "essential truth."

At that point, however, it was clear that his story simply wasn't holding water, and despite his publishing house's continued support, the growing number of lawsuits against Frey and the new round of criticism and debunking by people associated with the Hazelden Foundation addiction treatment facilities in Minnesota, as well as the sustained criticism from Oprah's Book Club fans, may have led Oprah to conclude that only her live personal atonement and avowal of truth and honesty, as well as an excoriation of Frey and Talese, would stem any further damage to her reputation and powerful imprimatur. I know the publishing industry was holding its collective breath. At any rate, props to Oprah, I have to say--many figures of her stature couldn't be dragged kicking and screaming to an apology, let alone a direct and non-backhanded one, particularly one which represents a public--though temporary--loss of face.

Her second new-Book Club selection, Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel's acclaimed Holocaust survival "memoir" Night, has also been questioned in the past on various truth-claims grounds. Any bets on whether she'll ask him if he made up stuff, and what he might have exaggerated? She could also have a show featuring Frey, Leroy and Nasdijj, and really go to town. Perhaps it really is time for her to return to works of fiction that their authors call "fiction." I can think of several she might begin with (cf. above, first topic, or prior entries).


Today Gukira has an excellent post comparing the misrules of the "Smiling Texan" (our very own Warrantless Wiretapper, who in perfect Goebbelsian* fashion--because at this point the term and ideas embodied in "Orwellian" have become superannuated with WW and his crowd--continues to defend his illegal actions and state that they were legal, in yet another effort--which I hope for once fails--to talk lies into truth) and the "Muthaiga Golfer," who I believe is Mwai Kibaki, the president of Kenya.
*Or is it Goebbelsish (Goebbelsich?)


  1. John, yes, after I read some of the coverage of the Oprah show coupled with what I actually saw, I too thought James Frey had certainly been " 'buked" (by Oprah) "and scorned" (by her audience). Also, in the face of Oprah's (refreshingly) direct self-accounting Nan A. Talese's backpeddling just seemed pathetic. As someone on said, she should have just admitted that Frey had been shopping the work as both a novel and memoir and that the publisher wanted a memoir (= mo' $$$). Yes, I know that's unrealistic. But if publishers are going to continue to treat memoirs as cash cows (if the genre's saleability survives this controversy), at least take Richard Cohen's suggestion and hire a dedicated fact checker. So glad you mentioned the Night questions, I would be loathe to ask Wiesel such a thing, but given the current historical moment, and its prior "truth-claim" questioning (lately stoked further by comments in the publisher's teaching guide), how could you not? BTW there is an excerpt from Buckhanon's paper on her site (thanks).

  2. Audiologo, publishers may have gotten the scare of their lives, at least temporarily, with the spate of lawsuits and Oprah's public apology. I don't think Oprah will really press Wiesel, though. Do you? I agree that someone ought to ask him important questions about his memory and authenticable truth. But in a way, if an experience like (in addition to the event known as) the Holocaust is considered "unrepresentable," to what extent must truths, or Truth, be indexible to particular memories and experiences, to their representations? Does that make sense? Thanks also for the heads up on Kalisha's paper!