Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Wednesday Rambles

I want to begin this post by thanking everyone who's visited Jstheater. I noticed yesterday that I'd passed 20,000 page hits, which utterly amazes me! Despite the frequently recondite nature of my posts, the near absence of memes, and the only ghostly presences of American and global celebrity culture, I've averaged about 61 page hits per day (20,200/329 total posts). As I've said before, I also appreciate the comments, which are often provocative and informative, and have led me to rethink my assumptions on many points. My original goal was to post on a daily basis for a year or 365 straight posts, whichever came first, and I'm rapidly approaching that marker. I'm not sure if I'll continue after the blogaversary, since it's extremely difficult to balance home life, writing, work responsibilities, commuting, and everything else, but we'll see.

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BuckhanonYesterday I had the pleasure of lunch with Kalisha Buckhanon, a sparkling young woman whose first novel, Upstate (St. Martin's Press) appeared last year to strong reviews. Upstate, which I've only had an opportunity to browse, successfully portrays in epistolary form the developing relationship between a Black male and female in Harlem; when the novel begins, the young man is imprisoned in Upstate New York. Kalisha was on campus, as a guest of the Kaplan Center for the Humanities, to conduct a workshop and give a talk, which I had to miss because of my evening class, entitled "Loving Our 'Best Things'; Black Women (Re)Write Family and Reproductive Politics." As she recounted her interest on the topic, she'd originally begun to think about the ways in which Black women had tell the stories of their own and other Black women's lives and the legal and political, economic and social constraints placed upon them after thinking about the miniseries version and original novelistic versions of Gloria Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place, as well as Sapphire's novel PUSH. I enjoyed our discussion quite a bit, and not only look forward to reading her novel, but also the paper she delivered. I hope this blossoms into a study, though I also gathered that in the best artistic fashion, many of her critical interventions will be woven into the text of her forthcoming novel, which I believe is titled Conception.

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I've been wanting to jot a few lines about how exhilarating last weekend's Black Queer Studies conference was. Although I wasn't able to attend every panel because of previously scheduled duties, I did get to hear parts of superb papers by Kevin Mumford on Joseph Beam's activism, Devon Carbado on rethinking approaches to identitarian rights, biologistic versus performative constructions, and antidiscrimination law, and Natasha Tinsley on reframing and resituating Black queer studies within a diasporic framework. Their colleagues, graduate students and conference attendees offered challenging responses to their talks. Natasha's paper in particular really sparked a number of things for me, not least because she referenced the work of a writer I greatly admire, Dominican-American novelist and activist Ana Lara, and used Ana's forthcoming novel as a methodological tool to under diasporic pathways, notions of fluidity and circulation, and unexplored subjectivies and identity formations, in order to expand the analytical and theoretical possibilities of what is an exciting and developing field. My wonderful department-mate Jennifer Brody briefly and thoroughly wrapped up of the proceedings, and the marvelous and generous imprint of Dwight McBride, who heads the African American Studies program, was evident throughout. One of my favorite experiences at conferences like this is the informal conversations that occur over lunch, during breaks, and at dinner. There really are too many people to give shout outs to, especially since Chicago has become one of the key sites for Black LGBT/sgl/queer intellectual work and practice, but I did want to say that I especially enjoyed finally meeting Dr. Mae Henderson, whom I'd only interacted with phone many years ago. The volume she edited with another of my wonderful colleagues, E. Patrick Johnson, is sure to go down as a landmark contribution to this important field.

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BarrusStranger than fiction: if you thought the Frey affair, which continues to suffer aftershocks, were the final word on the serious problems with memoir as a genre, think again. The most recent case, it appears, involves Nasdijj, a self-styled half-Navajo, half-White abuse survivor, single parent and award-winning Native American author who, it turns out something else altogether. As reporter Matthew Fleischer details in his current LA Weekly article "Navahoax," Nasdijj is really a 56-year-old White Lansing, Michigan native, born Timothy Barrus, who played an important role in what Barrus named--and what is now known as--"leather lit." Fleischer gives all the details and really breaks down the un/truth(s) about Barrus, who also styled himself a Vietnam veteran, who recently offloaded his rant-laden blog (when you get into trouble, you can always go after Jews or Blacks or both), and whom renowned Native American author Sherman Alexie even accused of plagiarism. Fleischer also links Barrus's problematic identity performances, which the American publishing industry lapped up, to other figures such as Ward Churchill and, going further back, Ku Klux Klansman-turned Native Asa Earl Carter.

One quote:

Indeed, in the long history of Indian appropriation by whites, the Navajo have become the primary target. Of particular ire to the Navajo is mystery writer Tony Hillerman. For the past several decades Hillerman has written detective stories from the perspective of his Navajo protagonists, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. Though not actually claiming Navajo ancestry, Hillerman infuses healthy doses of Navajo spirituality into the story through his characters — sometimes accurately, sometimes not. Hillerman’s appropriation is well known and disliked across tribal lines and was the subject of parody in Sherman Alexie’s book Indian Killer. But despite the criticism from Alexie and other Native writers, Hillerman’s success has sparked imitators. So much so that Morris claims the existence of at least 14 white authors living in nearby Gallup, New Mexico, writing Navajo murder mysteries.

Having tracked down the elusive Nasdijj (sound familiar?), Fleischer closes the piece with down the author's strange and pathetic (non-)response.
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Field's BookYet another book I plan to add to my booklist is poet Edward Field's The Man Who Would Marry Susan Sontag: And Other Intimate Portraits of the Bohemian Era (Wisconsin, 2006). San Francisco Chronicle reviewer Joy Parks describes the book by noting that Field's "unflinching--and sometimes outright nasty--portraits of a generation of literary geniuses is [sic] wonderfully entertaining." In addition to Sontag and Alfred Chester, whose life and work Field is an authority on, the book also presents lively--and according to Parks, sometimes vicious--portraits of other figures of that era, including May Swenson, Paul and Jane Bowles, and Alma Routsong (Isabel Miller). Parks also suggests that one of the most interesting aspects of Field's book is one of his premises: that gay liberation may have destroyed the closed, bohemian space that had developed in post-World War II Greenwich Village. Now that's a supposition worthy of quite a few books. I also am curious to read Field's prose voice. I've always liked his singular, fresh poetry (Variety Photoplays, with its evocation of a late 1950s and early 1960s New York demimonde, is the first book that comes to mind), and I also recall writer Lisa Glatt telling me how delightful and open Field was when she got to know him.

12 comments:

  1. Please, please, please don't end and leave me high and dry.... I look forward to peering into the nooks, crannies and corners of the mind of John whenever I can....

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  2. I'm sure that Tim Barrus is Satan himself, etc., but I just wanted to say that his novel Anywhere, Anywhere (which he presents as a memoir of his experiences as a Vietnam vet) was one of the most affecting, romantic books I've ever read. It stings to hear that the author of that book is a racist pig. But, gosh, I loved (and can't help but still feel affection for) that book. The ongoing difficulties of separating author from work... (sigh)


    Kai in NYC

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  3. This is my first time visiting your blog and I enjoyed this post. Great information that I want to delve deeper into. Oprah is having James Frey back on her show today to answer her "million little questions" should be interesting...

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  4. I'm back again, restless and heartsore over this Nasdijj/Tim Barrus thing. I read the LA Weekly article; this guy is even worse than I thought! But I will admit to a perverse desire to run out, immediately, for the three Nasdijj books, not so much because of the scandal, but because of all the (sheepish? ingenuous?) praise for the work, and my own memory of the writing in Anywhere, Anywhere (this "Nasdijj" never even pinged my radar till now). I definitely have no arguements with anyone who asserts, at the very least, that Barrus was all wrong to present the material as memoir rather than fiction; and yet . . . I guess years of practice and theory and reading brilliant creeps (e.g., Updike, Pound) make it pretty easy to separate author from work. But I wonder if it's because these instances (J.T. Leroy and Tim Barrus) are relatively removed from my experience makes it easier for me to swallow? What if Richard Price, say (who is the single white author for whom I never have to suspend disbelief when reading his black characters, because I don't have any) had written "memoirs" as a "black" author--would I be frothing at the mouth right now? Hmmm....

    Kai in NYC

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  5. Blackgriot, thanks for the affirmation!

    Kai, I haven't read any of Barrus's/Nasdijj's books, so I can't really comment either way. The Vietnam vet book you mention appears to have been a harbinger of things to come; he never went to Vietnam (unlike Tim O'Brien, Yusef Komunyakaa, etc.), yet for whatever reason maintained/maintains that he did. As I broached with JT Leroy, what's fascinating to me is the author's identity performance--an elaborately staged one--accompanied by books/texts/a life narrative that aims to authenticate this performance, and that the publishing industry promotes, and the public accepts, as a powerful representation of a certain kind of authenticity, realness. A "real" Indian's suffering, a "real" Navajo redemption tale, etc. I hear you about separating the author from the book, but in the memoir, it becomes much more difficult, because the work constitutively is about the author's *real* life--remembered, filtered through emotion and writerly strategies, etc., but the point at bottom is verifiable truth, to some (great) degree. With Updike's fiction, or Pound's poetry, the artifice of the genre and forms necessitates that we make a break. Does that make sense?

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  6. Yes, there's the principle of the thing, John, but you must admit that part of you is rolling your eyes over all this incredulous shock everyone professes that these "memoirs" aren't "true". What is all this naive faith in "truth"??? A grain of salt? I've readeverything (autobiography, history and memoirs include) with at least a tablespoonful of salt since I was 10 years old. Truth? What truth?

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  7. John,

    Like blackgriot I'll be quite sad if you decide to depart after the 365 mark. I gain so much from your thoughtful thoroughly engaged writing. I had often wondered how you had the energy to plumb the complexities of such a wide variety of topics, find such great photos to reproduce, and still work on your own writing and teaching. But nevertheless, I can't help but hope you will stay.

    I missed most of the James Frey confession on Oprah. What I saw was a humbled, well... shamed, and contrite James Frey. This was interesting given the prior arrogance in evidence when the book first came out. The show seemed to be almost equally about Oprah's willingness to admit she was wrong for defending Frey in a call she made to Larry King Live while Frey was still in "spin" mode. Somehow I'm not surprised about Nasdijj, I haven't read the book, but struck me as off for some reason when I first heard about it. I don't miss the days when people dismissively referred to autobiography and/or memoir. I do miss the days when creativity and imagination was more valued in writing in areas other than children's fiction.

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  8. I forgot to ask about where Kalisha Buckhanon's paper "Loving Our 'Best Things'; Black Women (Re)Write Family and Reproductive Politics" is going to be published. I'm teaching on Black women and aesthetics this semester, just a concern of mine anyway, and I just have this vibe that there would be a connection.

    Thanks!

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  9. Hi Paddi! xoxo

    Anonymous, I'm not rolling my eyes only because while I agree that one should approach every work that purports to a verifiable/empirical truth-standard with skepticism (and in some professions, like professional history and historiography, transgressions such as outright lies, misstatements of archival material, plagarism, etc. are dealt with quite seriously), I think many readers really do believe in the literal truth of a text like Frey's or Nasdijj's (or in a direct biographical correspondence with someone like LeRoy). Many feel this way about fiction; some years ago, I remember some of my high school students thinking almost any book was a novel. There's something revolutionary about that, but also something disturbing. Once we pinned the genres down, they still wanted to call certain texts novels, but also read them as if they were literal truth statements. Explaining the qualitative and substantive genre (or generic) differences between DOWN THESE MEAN STREETS and IN THE TIME OF BUTTERFLIES was a real challenge. They got that Shakespeare was probably really writing to a young man but that was less of an issue--the formal play of those sonnets fascinated them. That's a problem in part with the readers, but I don't think it's that uncommon.

    Audiologo, it sounds like Oprah was trying to shame him; he not only messed his own sh*t up, but messed up hers (with her complicity, of course) too. So she had to take the switch to his ass! LOL I agree with you about the devaluation of creativity and imagination. Some people no longer want to think--too hard. In terms of Kalisha's text, I'm not sure when it's going to published. I need to drop her an email to inquire about that. She has her own Website at kalisha.com I think.

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  10. I guess I'm just harsh that way (it was me above too): caveat lector

    Kai in NYC

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  11. Kai, you're right though, and not being harsh. I mean, people--we all--should be a bit less credulous about anything that purports to be "true" or "authentic"--and yet...taking to this end, we end up with situations like our current "truthiness" moment, with a return to a pre-Enlightenment belief in faith over reason and facts, and the case, for some people, of rejecting the facticity of our symbiotic material world altogether--except as *they* see or believe it.... Some of these crazy people are running our federal government, as you know....

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