Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Bergman & Antonioni RIP

I know it sounds macabre, but yesterday evening, after hearing that Ingmar Bergman had passed away at 89, I googled Michelangelo Antonioni with the thought that he must be approaching 100 and would be one of the last living figures from one of the extraordinary eras of international filmmaking. (Jean-Luc Godard would be another.) Then I saw today that Antonioni had passed away as well, at 94. What a tremendous double loss for cinema, and for filmgoers everywhere. Bergman's genius extended for nearly half a century, from the early 1950s all the way to his last film, 2003's TV film Sarabande, while Antonioni's greatest works appeared in a single decade and a half (1960-1975), yet both artists left bodies of work that deeply marked their art, and which their successors must reckon with. Though different stylistically, tonally, compositionally, both Bergman and Antonioni were concerned with the complex contours of human relationships, with people's moral compasses (or lack thereof) in the face of modernity, and with the landscape of spiritual and emotional suffering. The austere vistas and interiors in Bergman's films, matched by his often seething, sometimes raging characters, are hallmarks of his work, especially from the mid-1960s on, but Antonioni's modernist and post-modernist cityscapes, his exquisitely composed interiors, like his sometimes blank but arrestingly beautiful characters in long-shot, could project an equivalent coldness and torment. As with the greatest of their peers, Bergman and Antonioni not only captured, but shaped one of the primary modes of representation of their--our--age. We are lucky that we'll be able to watch their films for years to come.

Whenever I think of Ingmar Bergman, the first film that comes to mind--it's perhaps my favorite, though I can only bear to watch it after I've steeled myself--is Autumn Sonata (1978), which I know is not considered one of his "best" films--formally, thematically, or otherwise--but which includes two of the finest performances I've ever seen on film. For those unfamiliar with the movie, it stars Ingrid Bergman in her final big-screen performance and only one for Ingmar Bergman, as a brilliant pianist and forbidding, distant mother, and Liv Ullmann as her psychologically and physically damaged daughter. Bergman draws such lacerating performances out of both actors--he had done this more than once with Ullmann, in Persona (1966), Cries and Whispers (1972), Scenes from a Marriage (1973), each of which ranks among his greatest achievements--that you can almost miss the film's other virtues, which include superb cinematography, deft compositions, and an imaginative use of color. As one of the later chamber works, Autumn Sonata can seem like an almost minor recreation of so many of the films that proceeded it, but it distills so much of what Bergman was exploring, with different actors and scenarios, in earlier films, into one question: what is the true toll of imperfect, often fraught personal relationships, especially familial ones, in contemporary society? The answer with this film was "shattering," but one of the great aspects of Bergman's filmmaking is that while his range of subject matter isn't great, the changes he rings on it are; in his large body of work, there are quite lighthearted films, like the jaunty and sexy Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) or his adaptation of The Magic Flute (1975), as well as ones like The Secret (1963), which still possess the power to shock. In almost every case, the emotional resonances are palpable. Woody Allen, in his important 1978 filmic homage, Interiors (which was one of many), literalizes the metaphor (and approaches but does not approximate the mastery) at the core of Bergman's art--the exploration of interiors, in terms the home, community, and society in the smaller sense, as well as our metaphorically and metonymically related emotional and philosophical interiors. Bergman was close to peerless in this milieu.


The acrobatic dancers, in La Notte

Michelangelo Antonioni was another of the greatest cinematic explorers, a lyric imagist who, to use the phrase that was cast appropriately for Andrei Tarkovsky, sculpted in time. Antonioni's astonishing, elusive early 1960s trilogy--L'Avventura, La Notte, L'Eclisse--represent for me one of the pinnacles of late 20th century filmmaking. I reviewed the third film here several years ago, and to this day, its images, like those of L'Avventura, are touchstones. Both films provided many revelations, and made me understand why people like Susan Sontag, to take one example, held him in highest esteem and considered him one of the avatars of his art. Antonioni was fascinated by the effects of the modern world on humans and human relationships, our mores, our ethics, our perceptions of each other and misperceptions--but he was also interested in externalizing these perceptions in physically and temporally abstract, visual form, thus the final lyrical passage of the inanimate yet vivid world in L'Eclisse, which must be seen to be fully appreciated. Gilles Deleuze devoted a great deal of his two books on film to Antonioni's poetries of time, so I'll step back and say that for me, his concretization of time's passage, but not in the usual prose sense, but in the sense of the unfolding of desire, or its partner, alienation, is one of his greatest achievements. There is also the almost dreamlike fusion of acting and painterly composition in these works that arrest the heart and eye simultaneously. The scene in L'Eclisse at the Rome Stock Market is a tour-de-force of this combination, but then so is the concert of trees and metal posts when Monica Vitti goes out at night to search for the dog that has run away. The film's final marvelous and enigmatic passage is like a mirror held up to modern society, or a concrete depiction of Heidegger's "thingness of things," loosed from his ponderous and overdetermined neo-existentialism. I used to think that Antonioni probably could not have pulled off this fusion without an actress of Vitti's caliber, but in Blow Up (1966), another landmark work and his most popular, he demonstrates that he can do so with very different actors (David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave), in a very different landscape (London, as opposed to Italy). I must add that despite his movement away from the neorealist tradition, in several of his films he probes issues of colonialism (see the image above) and the problems of capitalism and class relations, particularly among the leisured classes, but filtered through a highly poetic, almost stunned sensibility. The financial debacle of the student revolt film Zabriskie Point effectively ended his brilliant run, but he did produce one final masterpiece, 1975's The Passenger, starring Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider. Its final, remarkable scene is yet another piece of movie magic that film students still study today, and a reminder of what set Antonioni apart.

From Roger Ebert's blog, here are comments on Ingmar Bergman by some notable writers and directors.

From the New York Times, here are: Stephen Holden's encomium to Antonioni, Mervyn Rothstein's obituary for Bergman, and A. O. Scott's thoughtful tribute to both.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Race Hate in Louisiana: Support the Jena 6

One of my former students, Eileen, forwarded me this email from a friend of hers on a subject I've been meaning to post about, the horrible situation of the Jena 6 of Jena, Louisiana (at right, Jesse Rae Beard, one of the students on trial). If you aren't familiar with the case, here's a BBC report from May, and here's a brief description of it, from While Seated:

06.27.07
()
See this photo on flickr

In September 2006, a group of African American high school students in Jena, Louisiana, asked the school for permission to sit beneath a "whites only" shade tree. There was an unwritten rule that blacks couldn't sit beneath the tree. The school said they didn't care where students sat. The next day, students arrived at school to see three nooses (in school colors) hanging from the tree.

The boys who hung the nooses were suspended from school for a few days. The school administration chalked it up as a harmless prank, but Jena's black population didn't take it so lightly. Fights and unrest started breaking out at school. The District Attorney, Reed Walters, was called in to directly address black students at the school and told them all he could "end their life with a stroke of the pen."

Black students were assaulted at white parties. A white man drew a loaded rifle on three black teens at a local convenience store. (They wrestled it from him and ran away.) Someone tried to burn down the school, and on December 4th, a fight broke out that led to six black students being charged with attempted murder. To his word, the D.A. pushed for maximum charges, which carry sentences of eighty years. Four of the six are being tried as adults (ages 17 & 18) and two are juveniles.

Yesterday, I was in Jena for the first day of the trial for Mychal Bell, one of the Jena Six. The D.A., perhaps in response to public pressure, tried to get Bell to cop a plea. Bell refused, and today, jury selection began. After today, we'll know whether or not the case will be tried in front of an all-white jury. Jena's 85-percent white, and it remains to be seen whether or not the six can get a fair trial.

Both off-the-record and on, Jena residents told me racism is alive and well in Louisiana, and this is a case where it rose above the levee, so to speak.

In the next few days, I'll be posting a few photos from Jena that are related to the case, as well as linking to a multimedia piece I'm working on. CNN began reporting on the story today, following the lead of the BBC, who crafted an excellent hour-long documentary that can be found on P2P networks.

Update: Mychal Bell, the first of the Jena Six to face trial, was found guilty of aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy to commit the same on June 28th. A comprehensive look at the case, the trial and the verdict was published on July 2nd at friendsofjustice. Plus, Democracy Now did a full story. To send a letter to Governor Blanco, please visit Color of Change.



And from Eileen's friend, Matthew Olson:

Lately I've started a blog about my work in New Orleans and other musing about the city or things I read.

More importantly, however, is that I'm devoting a lot of time, research and writing to civil rights infringements happening in a rural town in Louisiana. I'll be heading up to Jena (about 4 hours away) on Tuesday for a march as part of the New Orleans Jena 6 Support Group.

If you're unfamiliar with what's going on in Jena, Louisiana--where six black teens are being charged with attempted murder (and life in prison) for a fist fight in which only one punch was thrown--then check out the timeline I pieced together to give some context to the issue: Jena 6 Timeline.

this is such a clear act of discrimination at every turn, which is why everyone should get behind this effort for justice!

for actions to take SEE BELOW!

hope everyone is doing well and keep in touch with me through the blog if you want or by email! here's to hoping i see some of your beautiful faces before an awkward class reunion.

peace, matt

* here is an email update from Jordan Flaherty, a respected journalist-activist who lives in New Orleans and broke the story of the Jena 6 to the national scene.

Friends and Allies,

Many of you have asked for updates on The Jena Six case, a major injustice unfolding in Jena, Louisiana, where six Black youths who stood up to racism are facing a lifetime in prison.

On June 28, 2007, Mychal Bell, the first defendant, was convicted by an all-white jury of aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated second-degree battery. Bell, a high school student, faces up to 22 years in prison for a schoolyard fight. The fight was initiated by white students, who hung three nooses in a tree at the high school courtyard, to warn black students not to sit there. After this hate crime was dismissed as a harmless prank by the school administration, black students protested under the tree. The local District Attorney was called in to warn the black students that he could take their life away with the stroke of a pen. After authority figures refused to take a stand against racism, the noose incident led to a series of fights between white and black students. After these fights, only the black students were charged–with attempted murder. The prosecutor has refused to back down in prosecuting these young men, or to admit that hanging nooses is a hate crime.

Mychal Bell's sentencing was originally scheduled for next Tuesday, July 31, and a mass protest was scheduled for 9:00am on that date. The sentencing has been rescheduled to September 20, but the July 31 protest will still happen. Hundreds of people from around the US have expressed interest in coming, including national civil rights leaders, as well as large delegations from Houston, New Orleans, and other cities. A petition, signed by tens of thousands of people from around the world, will be delivered to Lasalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters on that day.

Below are some resources for information and action.

For background on the case, see:
http://www.leftturn.org/
http://friendsofjustice.wordpress.com/
http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=07/07/10/1413220

Take Action:
Sign the petition at http://www.colorofchange.org/jena/

Throw a benefit to support the Jena 6!

Then donate online at: https://secure.colorofchange.org/jena_fund/

Or mail donations to:
Jena 6 Defense Committee
PO BOX 2798
Jena, LA 71342

If you are planning to come to Jena to join the July 31 protest, email jena@colorofchange.org .

If you are coming from New Orleans and can either offer a ride, or if you need a ride, email asiancajunandy@gmail.com.
If you are coming from Houston, and want to join a caravan coming from there, call Bro. Garnet at 832.258.2480.

To ask specific questions, or to keep updated, please email: jena6defense@gmail.com.



Both sites offer links to send emails, money, and express your support for these young people who have been ensnared in the jaws of American racist injustice. Technorati also features a series of links as well. If you can, please lend them your support.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Translation: Paulo Leminski

LeminskiHere is another translation, by a poet little known in the US, I imagine, but highly regarded in his native Brazil, the late Paulo Leminski Filho (1944-1989, at left, from Alguma Poesia). Hailing from Curitiba in Brazil's south, Leminski was extraordinarily prolific, publishing poetry, fiction, biographies, criticism, journalistic pieces, translations, children's literature, performance scores, song lyrics, and photographs, before cirrhosis of the liver cut his life short. He also found time to become a martial arts master!

One of his biographies focused on João da Cruz e Sousa (1861-1898), a central figure in Brazilian Symbolism and pioneering writer of African descent. (Cruz e Sousa was born in slavery in Desterro, now the stunningly beautiful state capital city of Florianópolis, and died an impoverished victim of racism and tuberculosis in Sítio, Minas Gerais state.) The biography's full title, João Cruz: o negro branco [which translates as the Black White Man or the White Black Man], like its choice of subjects was significant; in looking at Cruz e Sousa's life, Leminski also explores the contours of his own experiences as a person of mixed ancestry (Polish and Black in his case) and as a self-declared Afro-Brazilian. Though his work did not really treat racial themes or subjects, like Cruz e Sousa's, Leminski's work also did not meet with disdain and incomprehension, but widespread acclaim.

A good deal of Leminski's best known poetry is brief and linguistically playful, almost defying translation; a poem like "Ali," which turns on the Portuguese word for "there" and homonyms formed through verb juxtaposition while also referring to and riffing off the name of his second wife, "Alice," loses most of its zip in English. He also like forms such as the hakai and Leminski's work also shows affinities with the Concrete work of his good friends Haroldo (1929-2003) and Augusto de Campos (1931-). One of the best sites for translations is Edson Froes's Kamiquase: p. leminski, which features translations by Michael Palmer, Chris Daniels, and others.

I've taken this short poem from Christian Rocha's Gropius page, featuring 50 of Leminski's poems. The title is a playful geneology:

Rosa Rilke Raimundo Correia

Uma pálpebra,
Mais uma, mais outras,
Enfim, dezenas
De pálpebras sobre pálpebras
Tentando fazer
Das minhas trevas
Alguma coisa a mais
Que lágrimas

Rosa Rilke Raimundo Correia

One eyelid,
Plus one, still others
Finally, tens
Of eyelids upon eyelids
Trying to make
From my darknesses
Something more
Than tears

An alternative translation, based on my exchange with Kai (thank you!) in the comments section:

One eyelid,
Then one more, then others
Ultimately many, tens
Of eyelids upon eyelids
Trying to fashion
From my dark moments
Something more
Than tears

Copyright © Paulo Leminski, 1989, 2007. Translation by John Keene

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

2007 Pan-American Games in Rio

Although Anthony did note that the 2007 Pan-American Games were underway in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on his Monaga blog last week, I haven't seen much coverage of them on other blogs and sports sites I check out, or in the US mainstream TV and online newsmedia and its various offshoots. I can't find the games online; perhaps they're being broadcast on a cable channel we don't have. In terms of online coverage, the US version of Yahoo! Sports doesn't even include a link for them on its "Other Sports" page; you have to go to one of the other national pages (like Brazil's, for example) to pull it up, under "Olympics." The New York Times links to AP articles, but has no individual section for them, while SI.com (Sports Illustrated) posts individual writeups on different athletes, such as the rare boxing shutout by American Demetrius Andrade, but has no dedicated section. Why the whiteout?

Perhaps I'm misrecalling the situation four years ago, when the games were in the Dominican Republic, but wasn't there more coverage then? Did the US media expend all their interest in the run-up to the games, when there was serious concern that the Rio city and state and Brazilian federal governments, having missed some early targets (like extending subway lines), would not finish the facilities in time or be able to prevent the kinds of eruptions of organized gang violence that have plagued the Rio metro area--and other urban parts of Brazil--over the last few years? Fortunately for the participants and spectators, all the necessary event sites were completed in time, nor have there been any violent episodes (except between the Cuban and Brazilian delegations over a sketchy ruling in a judo contest). It should come as no surprise that the US is dominating in the medal count, with 177 total medals (75 gold, 67 silver and 35 bronze). Brazil is second with 105 medals (35 golds), Canada third with 88 (23 golds), and Cuba fourth with 82 medals (35 golds). Over half of the participating countries, however, have earned at least one medal.

Here are just a few games photos from Yahoo! Sports, which I found after a little search.

Puerto Rico's Jose Juan Barea (L) fights for the ball with Canada's Ryan Bell during their basketball match at the Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro July 25, 2007. REUTERS/Caetano Barreira

Darvis Doc Patton, from the U.S., center, slips after winning the silver medal during the men's 100 meters at the Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro, Tuesday, July 24, 2007. At right is Churandy Martina, from the Netherland Antilles, who won the gold medal and at left is Brendan Christian, from Antigua, who arrived third. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

U.S. Demetrius Andrade, right, wins the fight against Argentina's Diego Chavez, left, during the Pan American Games welter 69kg boxing competition in Rio de Janeiro, Tuesday, July 24, 2007. Andrade advanced to the final. (AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)

Mikele Barber, from the United States, wins the Women's 100 mt race of the Pan American Games Athletics, in Rio de Janeiro,Tuesday July 24, 2007. Mechelle Llewis, on lane 3, also from the U.S., finished second and Chandra Sturrup, on lane 5, from the Bahamas, was third. (AP Photo/Armando Franca)


USA basketball team players celebrate after defeating Brazil in the women basketball final match during the XV Pan American Games Rio 2007 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 24 July 2007. USA won 77-69 and got the Gold. (OMAR TORRES/AFP/Getty Images)

Argentina's Fernando Scursoni (bottom) figths for the ball with Canada's Nathaniel Miller (top) during their Rio 2007 XV Pan American Games waterpolo match, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 23 July 2007. Canada defeated Argentina 19-8. AFP PHOTO/Mauricio LIMA (Photo credit should read MAURICIO LIMA/AFP/Getty Images)

Cuba's Julio Herrera and Yosmany Poll celebrate after winning the gold medal for the men's team sprint cycling at the Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro, Thursday, July 19, 2007.(AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)

Canada's Michel Boulos, left, battles USA's James Williams in the men's team sabre event at the Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro on Saturday, July 21, 2007. USA won gold and Canada silver.(AP Photo/Andrew Vaughan, CP)

Dominican Wendy Cruz, right, celebrates after winning the gold medal in the men's road 156 Km cycling race of the Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro, Saturday, July 21, 2007. Brazil's Luciano Pagliarini, left, won the bronze medal.(AP Photo/Martin Mejia)

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Sekou Sundiata RIP

SundiataThis past Tuesday I got word that poet Sekou Sundiata (1948-2007) had passed. Many poets and activists I know revere him and his work; I must admit that though I'm personally familiar with only a little of his work, mainly from Russell Simmons's Def Poetry. Over the last two decades, although I've heard many (but not all, certainly) of the important African-American poets of the two or three generations preceding mine read and perform their work live, I never had the opportunity to do so with Sundiata. I do know that he was one of the polestars for contemporary performance (though he did not consider himself a "performance poet") and Spoken Word poetry, and that two of his works in particular, The Blue Oneness of Dreams and longstoryshort, had a particularly powerful influence through their skillful, soul-filled melding of various musics, lyric and narrative poetry, and staged performance. Over the years, he toured with musicians such as Nona Hendryx, David Murray, and Craig Harris; one of his students who went on to great frame and recorded with him was Ani DiFranco. At the time of his death, Sundiata, a Harlem native who was a professor in the writing program at Eugene Lang College of New School University, in New York, had launched his newest work, the 51st (dream) state, a multimedia project that addressed the question of Americanness in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Here's the Academy of American Poets' obituary of Sundiata.

Here's a YouTube example of Sundiata reading one of his poems.


This upcoming Saturday, July 28, the Bowery Poetry Club will host a Sekou Praise Day. From their site:

Saturday, July 28 2007
3:00pm - 5:00pm
Sekou Sundiata Praise Day-“shortstorylong”

Gather to praise share further remember forget bring up stories recite poems perform dreams discover new loves energize yourself continue invent greet tolerate lie dance

We’ll play Sekou’s CDs and watch his videos, and there will be as many poems for him as there is room for.

Donations may be made in the name of Sekou Sundiata to the New York Organ Donor Network or to the National Kidney Foundation.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Translation (Updated): Severo Sarduy

SarduyIt's been a while since I published any poetry translations, so here's a rough attempt one by the extraordinarily inventive and innovative critic, poet and fiction writer Severo Sarduy's (1937-1993). It's the last of six from his "Páginas en blanco" series, "Cuadros de Franz Kline." It refers, I believe, to the drawing below (1954, 12 7/16 x 9 7/8 in., at the Pierpont Morgan Library, from ArtNet.com's site) and related paintings of this title by Kline, and entails considerable difficulty, because of its intricate linguistic shifts and wordplay. In it Sarduy writes in four different languages, English, French, Spanish, and Italian, and several of the words straddle two languages ("batello," "Salute"), while another, "monte," has two dissimilar meanings (mountain, woodland); yet another, "pájaro," has a particularly salient slang meaning for Sarduy, who was a gay man. (He was, fittingly, a member of the Tel Quel clique.) Let me not forget "pase," which functions as two different parts of speech--a verb and a noun, linked closely in etymology and connotation, or the French phrase "il fait beau," which is the usual statement one makes of good weather, "it's nice out," though here it takes on a somewhat different valence based on the source image. Then there is the title, which plays not only on Kline's painting, but on a persistent or fixed (fijo) theme of Sarduy's, which is difference, and in particular, racial difference; Sarduy was, among other things, an Afro-Cuban. Let me not even venture into the hurdles created by ekphrasis based on abstract work(s).... All of which make the poem untranslatable as such, and a reason for me to try.

Update: based on Kai's compelling argument about the valences of the Spanish verb "estar" versus "ser," both of which mean "to be," but the former of which connotes conditionality, impermanence, movement or spatial location, as opposed to the essentiality, permanence and transitive properties of the latter, I decided to add the "there," which also completes the music of the final stanza. Other thoughts?

Black and White

BLACK AND WHITE

La raya negra y el batello,
el monte siamo tutti,
el barco blanco sobre el agua blanca
y la fijeza
de los pájaros sobre la Salute.
Pase,
il fait beau del otro lado
del otro lado, digo,
del río.
Estamos todos

BLACK AND WHITE

The black line and the little skiff
the mountain-woodlands we all are
the white boat on the white water
and the insistence
of the birds on the Salute.
Go on,
it's lovely from the other side
of the other side, I say,
of the river.
We all are there

Copyright © Severo Sarduy, 2007; translation by John Keene, 2007.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Review: SiCKO + Charles on Harry Potter + Baldwin Hills

The other day, C and I went to see Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Michael Moore's new cinematic polemic, SiCKO. Having seen all of Moore's major documentaries--from 1989's Roger and Me to the pre-2004 election jawdropper Fahrenheit 911--I already possessed a strong idea of how Moore was going to present his argument formally and thematically, yet I was eager to see specifically what he devised. Despite the occasionally shopworn feel of Moore's shtick, SiCKO is a compelling and at times wrenching film; it's also a necessary addition to the public discourse both about our health care system and about our democracy more broadly. It succeeds in showing, with convincing accuracy (according to several independent reviews I've read), how abysmal--which is putting it mildly--the American private health care system is for those who have health care, but who aren't among the rich or well-covered by government health care plans. Moore very well could have focused on the 50 million or so who have no health care, a population larger than Spain, Canada or Australia, but instead, he looked at the system that the current administration, our Congress, and the insurance and pharmaceutical industry, along with right-wing ideologues and far too many "centrists" not directly attached to any of these institutions, are so determined to keep in place. Moore shows repeatedly how the US's intricate profit-driven health system, whose specific origins he locates at one point in a deal Richard Nixon cooked up after chatting with Edgar Kaiser of the Kaiser Permanente HMO conglomerate, and the decisions such a system entails, conflict, horribly in so many cases, with the ostensible goals of the medical profession and of a self-sustaining, healthy and caring society. Whether it's denying sick patients service because they're "out of network" (somtimes resulting in the patients' death), or trying to game and con and fend them off with the hope that they'll die before they figure out what's going on, or hiding options with the aim that they won't be used, or dumping ill people on the street to save money and then lying about doing so, Moore portrays the ethical rot, duplicity and inhumanity that are endemic, all in the name of funneling more dollars into corporate health care titans', shareholders' and their Congressional lackeys' pockets.

Using his typical set pieces, Moore contrasts the American system with those in Canada, the UK, France, and, to the consternation of those on the right and a number of mainstream media critics, Cuba, to show that in wealthy peer countries, as well as in the small, extremely poor, Caribbean nation, people not only receive equal or better treatment than our far more costly, often inadequate offerings, but pay little to nothing in direct fees, either for treatment or for medicine. In the case of Canada or Britain, the often decried waiting periods, Moore suggests, are no longer than many patients experience in the US, and in the case of France, which has one of the best health care systems in the world, the added benefits are so extensive that they may lead some to book a one-way ticket for Paris when they leave the theater. Moore does engage in a stunt when he takes several former 9/11 responders to the gates of Guantánamo Naval Base to see if he can get the same free, allegedly excellent treatment for them as the prisoners interned there, but this bit ends quickly and doesn't detract from the overall film; instead, it poses the absurd question of why people who have been (falsely in far too many cases) been deemed by W to be "the worst of the worst" terrorists we face are receiving medical care superior not only to "heroes," but to millions of Americans.

There was little in terms of the film's content, both horror stories and the positive aspects of the foreign health care systems, that I wasn't already familiar with, save the extent of France's social benefits, which verged at points on the fantastic--someone to do your laundry while you're out on maternity leave? That didn't blunt the cumulative effect of seeing so much easily preventable suffering and inhumanity. Why should citizens (or anyone) living in the richest country on earth have to choose which finger to have reattached or plead to have an ill child seen by a competent physician or lose their home and become penniless because of an illness? Why should 50 million people have almost no options whatsoever? Moore's film ultimately underlines how unconscionable and untenable our current system is, and how radically it needs to be changed. A fully funded single-payer system that emphasized prevention, and in which people could also purchase private care, seems to be the best option. But we can't have anything like it if we keep allowing our representatives to enable disastrous policies like the Iraq War.

In terms of specific criticisms, I wish that Moore had featured the experiences of people living medium-sized cities and rural areas in the foreign countries he visited. London and Paris are national capitals, and Toronto is Canada's largest city (though he did venture out to London, Ontario), but what would sorts of services and amenities would be available to people in Blackpool, Toulon, or Saskatoon? In terms of Cuba, would the kinds of excellent, free service Moore's troop received be an option for any non-Cuban? And what about in the even poorer parts of the country outside the capital city, Havana? I also wish he'd featured a few more comparison-style charts to make some of his points as clear as possible, and even incorporated a short debate between a proponent of our current broken system and someone who was advocating something better, fairer and more humane. Finally, Moore presented no solutions--except through implication--and the fact remains that each of the competing foreign systems he cites has its pros and cons, the major con being the kinds of higher taxes that a portion of this country's opinion makers congenitally rail against. (Unless, of course, they're paid by the lower middle and working classes.) Those critiques aside, SiCKO is one of the more powerful rhetorical weapons in the battle to improve our health care system; it will not be simple, because the opponents have both the money and the power, but it must and eventually will be done.

Addendum: Princeton economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman once again clearly lays out the problems today.

==

I'm going to confess that I have not finished even one of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books. I attempted to read the first one some years after C, who's read all of them, was starting on the fourth or fifth one, but I think I just wasn't in the right mood or mode. Though I rarely read young adult fiction, the narrative itself was enjoyable enough. But I only made minimal progress before putting it down and picking up--who knows what? A large percentage--a majority?--of my students have read all of them, however, so I consider my having not finished even the first to be a bit of a lacuna. (A year and half ago I completed Susanna Clarke's huge and deeply magical Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, and earlier this month I finished Philip Pullman's superb His Dark Materials trilogy, which several students had been touting, earlier this month, but neither Clarke's magicians nor Pullman's "new Eve" Lyra Belacqua is the beloved teen wizard Harry Potter.) I still, however, believe that Rowling's series is a major achievement, and one of these days, I will get around to it (just as I will read more of Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu beyond Swann's Way (A Côté Chez Swann), for example). Everyone I know who has read the books rhapsodizes about them--well, everyone except my former prof Harold Bloom, who went into extreme contrarian mode about the texts, though he exacted no damage to Rowling.

Bloom, it appears, is not alone. As the fifth installment of the film series (most of which I've seen and enjoyed) dominates box offices and the seventh and final (?) volume is set to appear this upcoming week, Washington Post critic Ron Charles issues a note of dissent, entitled "Harry Potter and the Death of Reading." He has tired of the novels and is glad that his daughter has too. He also sounds off about the saddening state--well, for writers, readers and lovers of the literary arts--of the blockbuster book business in this country, lamenting that the series have hardly succeeded in cultivating reading, not only among children, as various people have claimed since the first volume appeared, but among the series' many adult readers.

To quote Charles:

In "The Long Tail," Wired editor Chris Anderson suggested that new methods of distribution would shatter the grip of blockbusters. Niche markets would evolve and thrive as never before, creating a long, vital line of products from small producers who never could have profited in the past. It's a cheering notion, but alas, the big head still pretty much overrules the long tail. Like the basilisk that terrorized students at Hogwarts in Book II, "Harry Potter" and a few other much-hyped books devour everyone's attention, leaving most readers paralyzed in praise, apparently incapable of reading much else.

According to a study by Alan Sorensen at Stanford University, "In 1994, over 70 percent of total fiction sales were accounted for by a mere five authors." There's not much reason to think that things have changed. As Albert Greco of the Institute for Publishing Research puts it: "People who read fiction want to read hits written by known authors who are there year after year."

So we're experiencing the literary equivalent of a loss of biodiversity. All those people carrying around an 800-page novel looks like a great thing for American literacy, but it's as ominous as a Forbidden Forest with only one species of tree. Since Harry Potter first Apparated into our lives a decade ago, the number of stand-alone book sections in major metropolitan newspapers has decreased by half -- silencing critical voices that once helped a wide variety of authors around the country get noticed.


That's only a snippet; do check out the entire article.

Update: Audiologo, in the comments section, pointed out this Motoko Rich NY Times piece about Harry Potter's limited effect on children's reading.

==

After years of drifting by mostly on toxic videos, Comic View, a handful of films, recycled news, infomercials, and a few series (like College Hill), Black Entertainment Television (BET), now part of the Viacom behemoth, is set to introduce a host of new shows, according to its entertainment president, filmmaker Reginald Hudlin. (One that has yet to appear, Hot Ghetto Mess, is already provoking a media firestorm, with sponsors pulling out and critics decrying what they see as yet another opportunity for negative stereotypes and portrayals.) We caught one of the first offerings, Baldwin Hills, a new reality show set in Los Angeles's eponymous, upper-middle-class Black neighborhood. For whatever reason--skimming, rather than reading the New York Times article, most likely--I thought the show was going to be a dramatic series covering a wide range of characters, but in fact it focuses on a cohort of very attractive teenagers and young adults primarily from Baldwin Hills, along with one or two from the nearby, rougher neighborhood of Crenshaw, whose lives intersect with the Baldwin Hillites. The young people's parents make brief appearances, but the emphasis is on the 18-to-20 somethings.

All of the participants, who fill out the usual reality show "types," are appealing, have good heads on their shoulders (to trot out that tiresome cliché) and, as far as I can tell, none appears headed for the kinds of violence-laden drama that has become a feature of College Hill. We see generous dollops of real bourginess (one young woman, Garnette, I automatically labeled a future head of Jack and Jill), but given the usual representations of Black people, particularly Black youth, on TV, I'm not complaining. What I most liked about the show, which I may or may not watch again, is how self-conscious everyone--except actress Vanessa Bell Calloway, mother of one of the young women--is before the camera. These young folks, as much as they've grown up in a media-saturated environment, still make it clear, through awkward pauses, self-monitored statements, and so on, that they know the world is watching. And as young Black middle and upper-middle-class people, no matter how much they refer to "pimping" (which one character, thankfully, described as a negative thing) or sass back at their parents (and there's a surprising, at least for me, amount of that), they still are aware of the need to act like they have home trainingand good sense. I.e., respectable. Everything changes, but at least among these denizens of Baldwin Hills, less so than the media might lead us to believe.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Bastille Day: Peskine at MoCADA + Phillies' Folly + 10 Years of Blogs

Since it's Bastille Day, here's info about something French--at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA), in Brooklyn, from a press release I received (I'll get over there one of these days soon):

The French Evolution: Race, Politics & the French Riots
Works by Alexis Peskine
Curated by Kimberli E. Gant
May 25-September 9, 2007

The Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) is pleased to present The French Evolution: Race, Politics & Riots. The museum premier of this provocative exhibition features approximately fifteen multimedia images informed and inspired by the 2005 riots that rocked Peskine’s native Paris, and explores the social and political climate sustained by the uneasy truce that continues today. The exhibition will open with a reception on May 25th, and be on view through September 9th. Several educational programs have been created to complement the exhibition.

The twenty-seven-year-old Peskine, a Howard University and Maryland Institute College of Art alum and Fulbright scholar, is an emerging artist who has gained considerable recognition with his provocative interpretations on social inequality. Set against the backdrop of a global consciousness with strong influences of the worldwide hip-hop movement, Peskine’s work is informed by his experiences growing up with his peers of African, Arab and Caribbean descent in Paris, where random ID checks, joblessness, and racial and religious discrimination are an everyday reality. His images in video, photography and mixed media using wood, nails, canvas and installations reflect his graphic and bold approach to social, religious and political commentary through art.

Take that, Sarko!

+++

I have complained at times about the Saint Louis Cardinals, who're having a lackluster 2007 season (though they're not at the bottom of their weak division). At the same time, I'm quite aware that historically speaking, they have had their share of successes, to the extent that they're second only to the New York Yankees in total World Series wins, and managed to pull off a shocker last year after dragging themselves across the finish line into the playoffs.

Tonight, the Cardinals had their hand in a bit of infamy: they helped the Philadelphia Phillies notch their 10,000th loss. That is the most in Major League Baseball. Not even the Chicago Cubs, a study in futility, have as many losses. Nor do the Boston Red Sox, the Baltimore Orioles (once the hapless Saint Louis Browns), the Chicago White Sox...you get the picture.

I only know the Phillies as having middling teams, sometimes good ones. Their roster included the nutty Hall of Famer Steve Carlton and the great Mike Schmidt, a prototypical third baseman, and they won the World Series in 1980, when I was in high school. That counts for something--the win, I mean. People with longer memories or a better handle on stats, however, know that they have had many, many bad seasons, from 1883 on. Some were awful, or worse. 1964 is particularly notorious, in that they fell out of first place with a 10-game losing streak or something to that effect, permitting the Cardinals--oh the ignominy!--to leap in, win the pennant, and defeat the Yankees, in the process showcasing several future Hall of Famers, including Bob Gibson and Lou Brock.

So my thoughts are with Phillies fans tonight. At least for a little while. Just think, it's a record, even if a humiliating one, and no other team will be able to say they got there first.

+++

It's also the 10th anniversary of the blogosphere. The Wall Street Journal's Tunku Vadarajan writes an article about this rather unheralded birthday, "Happy Blogiversary." For some reason I thought they were around a little bit longer, but then I can recall when cell phones were uncommon and C and another friend were among the very few people I knew who had them. But then that was before Craigslist, social networking sites, or Netscape's apogee and disappearance....

Anyways, Vadarajan asks some NOT VERY DIVERSE notables about their favorite blogs and gets an array of responses, including this one from that conservative bombast Tom Wolfe:

And there you have blogs. The universe of blogs is a universe of rumors, and the tribe likes it that way.

Blogs are an advance guard to the rear. For example, only a primitive would believe a word of Wikipedia (which, though not strictly a blog, shares the characteristics of the genre). The entry under my name says that in 2003 "major news media" broadcast reports of my death and that I telephoned Larry King and said, "I ain't dead yet, give me a little more time and no doubt it will become true."
And people actually thought this man had even a passable grasp on today's undergraduates? At least he did label his last volume of claptrap fiction....

Friday, July 13, 2007

The Color Line + Death Note @ NY Asian Film Festival

I actually did catch the opening of curator Odili Donald Odita's The Color Line exhibit at the Jack Shainman Gallery--well, the very tail end of that line--last Saturday, and got a chance to say hello to artist Carl Pope, one of the participants, who was chilling outside. My walkthrough was really a race-through, so I need to go back and look at the work at length, and write a mini-review. Here are a few photos from the exhibit (my photo of Carl's posters did not come out well, unfortunately):

Nick Cave's Soundsuit (2007)

Part of Stephen Hobbs & Marcus Neustetter/The Trinity Session's multimedia piece

Christian Bastiaan's "Körper zur Beobachterstation" (2004), mixed media on Hahnemuhle paper

Some of the attendees outside after the exhibit closed

***

Afterwards, I actually did race in a taxi up to the beautiful interior of the Japan Society, where the second half of the New York Asian Film Festival's movies were playing. I met up with my friend David to see, and after being told there were no more tickets we were still able to get in to catch Shusuke Kaneko's 2006 film version of the (apparently extremely) popular manga metaphysical thriller Death Note. (The sequel, Death Note: The Last Name, also from 2006, played the next day, but neither David nor I caught it.)

I wasn't sure what to expect, but Kaneko's film was thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining, and posed serious questions about ethics, power, and evil so effortlessly that one could easily have missed them. The plot in short involves a sharp young law student, Light Yagami (Tatsuya Fujiwara, below at right), who finds a magical notebook in the street. What he soon realizes is that if he writes a person's name in it and visualizes her or his face while doing so, that person will die within a short period of time. Swept up by utopian dreams of peace, he decides to write the name of criminals in the book, and swiftly begins to eliminate not only Japan's most notorious outlaws, but also newsworthy criminals around the globe. Death NoteLight is the son of the local police chief, Souichiro Yagami (Takeshi Kaga), who, like his colleagues, becomes alarmed that someone is secretly and efficiently enacting vigilante justice, and enlists the power of the reclusive and hilarious superdetective L (Kenichi Matsuyama), a junkfood afficionado whose brilliance only barely outstrips his strangeness. The challenge thus begins: will the detectives, including Souichiro, catch Light, who takes matters of life and death in his hands, and stop him? Will Light outsmart them, especially L? And isn't it disturbing that Light's vigilante justice, under the pseudonym Kira, makes him a hero among the nation's youth? The narrative becomes increasingly complex and thrilling, in part because of the presence of the CGI-created "God of Death," Ryuuk, who lost the notebook and is now powerless to halt Light's perverse form of justice. Only someone who touches the Death Notebook can see the apple-devouring Ryuuk, and this fact plays a part in the first of a series of elaborate and devious schemes Light launches, schemes so devious that even the God of Death himself becomes disheartened. For in keying Light into some of the "rules" of the Death Notebook, Ryuuk realizes he has fostered the creation of an anti-god--an anti-god of amorality. To say any more would be to reveal too much, but it should suffice to say that by the end of this film, the plot was pointing to the sequel.

I was totally unfamiliar with Tsugumi Obâ's and Takeshi Obata's popular mangas from which this story was drawn, but it was clear during the question and answer session with director Kaneko (at center in the photo at left) that followed the screening that many in the audience were. In fact, Kaneko, who had made his reputation by updating the stockGamera series of fantasy films during the 1990s, repeatedly stressed how faithfully he tried to adhere to the original stories and how upset fans were that he changed even just a few details for the purposes of creating a successful film. In one case, in the manga a detective who dies originally had a French-sounding last name, but Kaneko didn't think it would work for the purposes of the movie, so he gave the Japanese character a Japanese last name, and some fans were outraged. Of the handfull of questions that audience members asked, several specifically addressed the director's approach to elements in the original manga. Despite his changes, the films still drew huge crowds and were among the most popular films in Japan last year. I recommend the first and can't wait to see the second; given their popularity, I hope both will be out on DVD or on TV (Sundance channel?) soon.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Moore on CNN + Murakami's Jazz + Audiologo on BGMLF(iction)

A few short hits: I've yet to catch Michael Moore's extensively heralded and praised new film, Sicko, but since I watch far too much (local) TV I have seen more than one backhanded review of it. (Intuition tells me it's even better than Fahrenheit 911.) One of the things that I like about Michael Moore is that when he's dealing with media hacks, he stands up for himself and challenges their premises and frames. In fact, in this recent CNN appearance, he strips the guff from Wolf Blitzer like turpentine on old varnish. At one point Blitzer, who gallantly defends CNN "fact-checker" Dr. Sanjay Gupta against Moore's criticisms, does concede that CNN has not answered for its deplorable journalism, or lack up it, leading up to the Iraq War. Maybe we can pen Sickoin for this weekend--or very soon at least.

***

Over the last few years, one of the writers who's become a constant in my advanced and graduate fiction writing curricula is Haruki Murakami. For a while I was using just one story, "The Elephant Vanishes" (one of my all-time favorites), and then I incorporated the eponymous short fiction collection in my undergraduate theory and practice course and some of his New Yorker stories in my graduate classes. (In both cases, I gathered that the students enjoyed his work tremendously and found it helpful in undertaking their own narrative experiments.) This past academic year I incorporated several of the long, strange and enthralling stories from After the Quake, the 2002 collection that takes the devastating 1995 Kobe earthquake as a guiding theme, trope and metaphor. I've never had the opportunity to teach one or more of his novels, though if I could, I'd probably contrast a straightforward realist one like the charming, romantic Norwegian Wood with the far more complex and dazzling quasi-fantastic yet politically engaged construction, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (whose origins lie in a story of almost the same name that first appears in The Elephant Vanishes and Other Stories). In so much of Murakami's work, the narrative progression, in terms of the plot, of characterizations, of incident, of even time itself, feels improvisatory, yet rightly so; he is usually able to make even the most bizarre scenarios (little people living under a house, people robbing a fast-food restaurant, elephants completely vanishing, giant frogs appearing out of nowhere, etc.) work, while also juxtaposing them with scenes of plangent, mimetic emotional resonance. His touch is often so deft that if you're analyzing the text you have to carefully retrace sentence by sentence, or figure by figure, to pinpoint out how he pulled it off. "Ruby, My Dear," indeed.

It's no wonder, then, that jazz is a great influence on his work, and in this past Sunday's New York Times, he published an article about this influence, entitled "Jazz Messenger." It's worth checking out. Here's a snippet:

Whether in music or in fiction, the most basic thing is rhythm. Your style needs to have good, natural, steady rhythm, or people won’t keep reading your work. I learned the importance of rhythm from music — and mainly from jazz. Next comes melody — which, in literature, means the appropriate arrangement of the words to match the rhythm. If the way the words fit the rhythm is smooth and beautiful, you can’t ask for anything more. Next is harmony — the internal mental sounds that support the words. Then comes the part I like best: free improvisation. Through some special channel, the story comes welling out freely from inside. All I have to do is get into the flow. Finally comes what may be the most important thing: that high you experience upon completing a work — upon ending your “performance” and feeling you have succeeded in reaching a place that is new and meaningful. And if all goes well, you get to share that sense of elevation with your readers (your audience). That is a marvelous culmination that can be achieved in no other way.

***

I love it that some civil rights folks are engaging our communities in relevant conceptual practice. I'd have loved to have caught this ceremony in Detroit. Did any J's Theater readers stage their own burials? If the word's still so vibrant, though, isn't that called vivisepulture? (And haven't we also learned enough by now about the return of the repressed to perhaps try a different strategy?)

***

Finally, here's a brilliant reply that Audiologo sent a few days ago concerning the prior posts on Black gay male literary fiction. She's given me permission to post it. Thoughts?


I thought about your comments on the Southgate article. I've heard a few odd things about sistergirl in relationship to racial dynamics and publishing, so it was interesting to read her article and its focus on "chocolate in the buttermilk." My thoughts ended up being kind of long for a blog comment; I thought I'd send you an email to read instead if you have the time.

I too wondered about her assessment of those publishing parties, and was glad to read your experiences have been different.

My sense of the lack of literary fiction from black gay men, as someone who became acquainted with writers from Other Countries while in college: hmm, my first thought was to ask how much different was it from women who stole bits of time to write poetry, and found that bits of time were more conducive to writing poetry than longer forms such as short stories and novels. There is so arguably much more to understand about the work of fiction, in order to write it, than poetry. I say that advisedly because I know that poetry has considerably more distinct forms than narrative fiction for a writer to explore. But with fiction one needs to be able to create a narrative arc, understand about character development, creating dialogue, chosing narrative voice (omiscient, 3rd person, first person, etc), chosing the tense, creating tension and using narrative devices--without understanding those (whether you use them or subvert them) you can't write a novel. I think this is why memoir is so popular. The story is already there, and the job is to whittle it down or flesh it out, not build it from scratch.

But for the aspiring writer who doesn't know about meter, or the sonnet, acrostic, ballad/e, quatrain, sestina, villanelle, etc and looks at a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, Kevin Young, or A. Van Jordan, Ed Roberson (admittedly more difficult), Sonia Sanchez, Essex Hemphill, or Craig Harris, the realization of similar work may seem possible. If people look at Seismosis or other examples of black gay experimental work, that's when questions of form become more tangible, and I would posit that is also when the medium can become less accessible. The reason for this is not the inaccessibility of the work, because of its intellectual sophistication. Frankly I find "woman womb, waves splashing, my sister, my sister" poems inaccessible because of their unmitigated celebration of a myopic view of black (queer) womanhood. They are dissonant to my sense of the real, and as a result don't feed me and strike me as only celebrating an inverted (shameful) silence (but that's another story).

The experimental becomes inaccessible because of the larger issue of educational lack in this country. I would not wholly agree with Kai in NYC's assertion that there is a pervasive belief that writing a novel is something that "any bloke off the street can do." I think there is a general lack of reading in this culture, that coupled with a burning desire to "tell, tell, tell it on the mountain" means that some people are making an uninformed choice between the time it takes to become well-read and the time it takes to write--not understanding that the former directly informs the latter.

I also wonder at how solitary novel writing is. Arguably, for some people, especially those with an eye towards performance, writing poetry, at least the end result, offers the possibility of sharing the work in public with greater frequency, and as a consequence creating community.

When I was writing what I thought was going to be a novel, I never read it out except when I was participating in the Voices of All Our Nations Arts Workshops. That was once a year. When I joined a writing group my work was read by other black women every other month until those groups dissipated, which each of them sadly has. If, as Southgate has argued in her addendum, writing itself is a brave act for the heterosexual, though unnamed as such, black writer, how difficult is it for the queer man of of African descent to write as who he is? I don't mean to take the tortured soul route of interpretation, but I keep thinking of Richard Rodriguez' Hunger of Memory, how seemingly in the brave act of writing he actually reinscribed his own silence as a gay Chicano man, and in so doing prescribed a parallel silence for first and second generation Mexican American children in the U.S. public school system. That's fear made manifest.

Both the movement towards performance poetry, and the rush to "share it on the mountain" before the story has been determined to have legs, stems, I think, from an urgency to be seen, to heard, and to be affirmed. (I've been thinking about HIV/AIDS and black folks recently, and have been seeing parallels to questions of communication, self-love, consciousness, prioritization.) It's possible to be a writer because one is compelled to bear witness, and be witnessed doing do, just as it is possible to pursue this vocation because of a love of literature and the craft of creating it. Those two impetuses may overlap, but I sense one may be stronger than the other.

It is also my sense that, ironically, it may be easier for those who have a burning passion to "tell it" to finish a novel (though they may--like filmmaker Matty Rich--have only one tale in them), than for those who love the literary form to give themselves permission to consistently devote the substantive time to writing (and revising) that work. For those in the latter group, to take themselves seriously, to be willing to prioritize their craft, and to take time from other aspects of their life (job, relationship/marriage, family, childrearing, friends, sleep) to manifest that work may be considerably more daunting. Then to blindly feel one's way into a world, publishing, about which one knows little or nothing except that it's predominantly white, and it's unlikely anyone will be waiting to great you at the door. One has to keep committing to the importance of that work, and
negotiate whatever unease may accompany that pursuit in the present U.S. literary arena. (see Sarah Schulman & Bridgett Davis' comments re: Martha Southgate's addendum on Tayari Jones' blog).

I remember the deep unease of colleagues of color in graduate school who worried about the value of their scholarly work to their families--would their parents be able to understand it, would they feel abandonned by it? And I think some of my colleagues wondered if they would finish in time to save enough money to take care of parents when that was needed (dang, should've become a lawyer). And that's a field that back in the day, kinda like the army, was supposed to guarantee you a job after you finished your training.

OK, that may have sounded cynical, but that wasn't my intention. I greatly admire the black folk who create in the literary field. I do think institutionalized spaces and legacies such as Cave Canem are the future. I wish there was a similar place for those who are not working within poetry. However, I do wonder if poetry had the publishing cachet of literary fiction if the U.S. literary arena would be as comfortable with Cave Canem's ascendency.

Just my $.02

Peace, audiologo

Friday, July 06, 2007

The Color Line + More On Black Gay Male Fiction

I just received the following invite to what looks to be an amazing summer art exhibit at New York's Jack Shainman Gallery. Carl Pope is a friend of mine, and I've written on this blog about J'Un Ulrick Desert. I've also eagerly followed the careers of Kerry James Marshall, one of the important contemporary American artists, as well as Radcliffe Bailey, Olu Oguibe, Nzingah Mohammad, Nick Cave, Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, and Mario Cravo Neto. The exhibit runs through August 3, 2007, so catch it if you can!

***

I received two responses on my previous post on Black gay literary fiction, so I'm posting them with some responses.

Here's the first response, from Kai:

Through highschool and college and for a couple years afterward, I read literally every work of fiction even rumored to have been written by a gay black man (I came across Annotations during this time, by the by). These days, many books pass me by, but I still read at least five a year, especially if I hear they have literary pretensions. I should say that I'm frustrated by the quality of much of what sees print: some of the authors (I won't name names) I've met during their writing processes and, when asked "Who do you read? Who do you like?" I'm met with blank looks, which stay blank as I suggest various (man!) names of writers I like. I definitely get the sense that there's a pervasive sense in the culture that "writing a novel" is something any bloke off the street can do, regardless of talent, mastery of basic grammer, or even literary interest; all that's involved, essentially, is the tenacity to fill approximately 300 pages with words. The lack of literature (written by black gay men) which even pretends to the literary breaks my heart constantly, when I pour over the shelves at B&N or browse Amazon. Occasionaly I come across a novel (I'm thinking particularly of one set in Ohio, a man goes home after a long time, a church scandal, a former lover--name's not coming to me) which seems to have enormous potential, which (in my mind at least) an excellent editor might have guided to a high polish of accomplishment; but all to clearly the hand of this hypotethical editor was lacking. Also heart breaking. Did you read Delany's most recent "Dark Reflections"? In fictional terms, he explores most of these very issues.


I really appreciate your reminding me about Samuel R. Delany's Dark Reflections, which I'd mentioned when I blogged about Perseus's purchase of Avalon, which led to the destruction of Carroll & Graf, which published Delany's novel. I picked it up today.

You're right that there are many people who think that "anyone" can write a novel. (I am of the mind that everyone has a story to tell.) As to anyone writing even a good novel, that's another issue altogether, and the difficulty that many people have even completing and revising a short story, let alone a longer work, points to how difficult novel writing really is. On the other hand, as the bookstalls all over New York testify, many people do manage to put enough sentences together to make a book, some of which are quite interesting in terms of content, even if not well written.

With regard to the comment about editing, that's another issue; I see it as an effect of the current publishing environment, which over the last 25 or so years has led a dwindling of editorial positions and the retirement or dismissal of some of the best, most experienced editors at a number of publishing houses. Just a month ago, Daniel Garner mentioned in his New York Times "Paper Cuts" blog that acclaimed editor Daniel Menaker was leaving Random House, which caused somewhat of a brouhaha, but this was only one of several such resignations at that time. I know that Janet Hill of Harlem Moon, a Doubleday (Bertelsmann?) imprint, carefully edits several notable Black gay male writers, but between agents and editors, it may be the case that some writers, like the one you point to, aren't receiving the editorial attention they might once have.

Then Keguro wrote:

I go back and forth on the "problem" of "black gay fiction." On the one hand, as Kai says, the quality of some very unedited, very unstructured, and downright bad novels, so bad that even my pomo-queer readings can't rescue them, makes me believe there's some merit to the old argument that writing "gay" or "homosexual" work might be a terrible strategy. But then I catch myself and wonder if I'm imputing an ideological tag to what might more properly be called an issue of craft.


I hear you, though I was speaking specifically of Black gay male literary fiction, which is to say, work that foregrounds, in some way, its "literariness" (a problematic category), as opposed to the broader grouping of Black gay male writing, or Black LGBT and queer writing (which would include lesbian, bi, trans and other queer writing). Most of these works--the few of them that are out there--are not, as far as I can tell, as ineptly written as you describe, but then my knowledge isn't that exhaustive. I do think you may be attaching a particularly ideological reading to an aesthetic issue; of course all aesthetics are ideologically informed, but craft and technique as a measure of quality is only one aspect of a possible aesthetic understanding of a given work, right?

I will admit, though, I'm not the best audience for black gay work, especially not fiction. My favorite reads over the years have more often than not troubled categories of race and sexuality instead of affirming them. And I read essays more than anything else right now.
But we might also think about the international scope of black gay writing. Just as rap has become international (my local station was playing Kenyan rap the other day, to my delighted shock), it might be we need to think about black gay diasporic writing, a category to which, arguably, Thomas Glave belongs. Sorry for the rambling. My sentences are on leave.


Keguro, your sentences are fine. Part of the problem may be the line I'm trying to draw between "literary" fiction and popular fiction, which entails a category distinction that doesn't exist (any more? did it ever?) in rap, a local and global Black product. I agree with you on broadening the notion of "Blackness" to "Diasporic," but the described set, nevertheless, remains small, and I was talking specifically about the relative paucity of US Black gay male literary production. It is interesting to think of it in light of the global circulation of other aspects of Black cultural production, and also in light of specifically Black gay popular culture. Certainly Glave would fit both the US and Diasporic categories, as well as others (Jamaican, Caribbean, etc.). In terms of Black Diasporic gay male literary works of fiction, there still aren't many; a few people who come to mind are Colombian-American author Jaime Manrique; K. Sello Duiker of South Africa (he died just a few years ago); Jean Wyllys of Brazil (I'm translating one of his works now); and a few other current writers. From an earlier generation, there were people like the great Cuban writer Severo Sarduy, who theorized racial and sexual multiplicity through his works. (And then there were closeted writers, like South Africa's Richard Rive--but I think I also am trying to focus on works that narratively depict same-sexual desire and relationships, as well as ones in which African, African-American and African Diasporic people are at the narrative's center.) I also keep in mind that it's a dicey proposition out there for many LGBT folks in many parts of the Diaspora, and then there's the issue of literary production as well. My colleague Evan Mwangi has written and spoken about Anglophone African works that treat sexual difference and homosexuality in various ways, so I should probably query him for the names of some of the authors who fit this category. In any case, there aren't many. But your point is a great one.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

W Commutes Libby's Sentence + Southgate on Black Fiction Writers + Black Gay Male Literary Fiction

After a few days of joyful rusticating with C's extended family down South, I returned to hear the scrofulous news of W's commutation of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's sentence. (I'll say more about the attacks in Britain, right-wing SCOTUS, the campaign to bomb Iran, and more one of these days soon.)

This disgraceful president--who has used his pardon and commutation power more sparingly than any of his recent predecessors, Republican or Democratic; who not only signed off on the killing of 150+ Death Row inmates while Texas governor, but also mocked a woman, Karla Faye Tucker, who had undergone a marked psychological and spiritual rehabilitation before he presided over her execution; and who in early June promulgated a policy to challenge the Supreme Court's ruling that permitted judges some leeway in sentencing--felt that he was running too great a risk in permitting Libby to serve even a day of his sentence, because he just might start singing like a nightingale. Now, Libby will serve no time, he'll have only a fine to pay ($250,000, which will easily be covered by his multimillion dollar Defense Fund), and he'll still be able to invoke the Fifth Amendment, thus protecting his former overlords, and in particular, Cheney.

I have not spent an hour in anyone's law school, but a number of bloggers have, and some have suggested that Bush might be engaging in a form of obstruction of justice. The sheer outrageousness of this action led both C and I to call once again for the Democrats to impeach him and Cheney, but Digby muses that it might be more trouble than it's worth if the Democrats cannot come up with a simple, ironclad charge to demonstrate at least one of the many traducements (from dereliction of duty before 9/11 to lying us into the Iraq War to warrantless wiretapping and spying on American citizens/FISA violations to contravention of international treaties and conventions on human rights and torture to manipulation of the voting system and politicization of the Department of Justice to corruption of some sort involving Jack Abramoff to defiance and contempt of Congress, etc.), particularly something involving this commutation, the outing of the covert CIA agent Valerie Plame, the misuse of that forged Niger memo--something!--there is no way the Senate Republicans, most of them anyway, will vote impeach and remove Cheney and W.

What exactly can regular citizens do? It's clear that W, with an approval rating lower than the magma layer, is going to continue to do whatever he wants until he's out of office. He's in a hard bubble, cushioned by "God," his wacko ideology, and who knows what else (liquor? drugs? you tell me). It's also clear that the Justice Department is in a state of default and in no way capable of holding W accountable. One option might be to appoint an independent prosecutor, but I doubt that's going to happen, especially since Congress let the statute run out several years ago. Not all, but far too many Congressional Democrats continue to hedge and hem, as if their own shadows were going to challenge them to a mixed-martial arts battle royale. (Why on earth are they not shouting from the rooftops about the Republicans' constant use of the filibuster? Why are they so timorous and so silent all the damned time?) The Congressional Republican Party, whose fortunes have sunk like a scuttled ship in a deep harbor, are still going to protect their horribly damaged standard bearer to some extent, and so will continue to gum up the Democrats' attempts to pass legislation and hold W accountable. So what can the people do? Is it possible to force the Democrats' hands and demand impeachment, and if so, what would the risks be? Is there any act by the citizens of this country that might clarify for W how beyond fed up the overwhelming majority of us are?

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Yesterday Reggie sent the link via email, but I didn't get an opportunity to read Martha Southgate's June 1, 2007 New York Times Book Review article, "Writers Like Me" (subscription required), and then happened upon it again this morning. On several points, it clearly captures aspects of the experiences of so many writers I know, especially fiction writers, and mirrors some of my own feelings about writing and the publishing industry, as well as the undiminished sense, even in academe, that what I and others that I know are up to and against doesn't ever fully register. In essence, Southgate talks about the place of African-American "literary" fiction writers--as opposed to writers of popular fiction or Black writers in the US more generally, a category that would now include a significant number of Caribbean, African, European, and Afro-Latino writers--in the larger American literary world, and ponders in particular the factors that making the writing life a challenge and that might diminish productivity. I read her suggesting that money, resources, racism, and other elements all play a role, that certain dream projects and works have been ditched because of the difficulties that Black writers have faced, and that while things have improved, there are still problems. On the whole, I think she's right.

If I have any quibbles with Southgate's argument, they're that she doesn't discuss more extensively some of the challenges Black writers--and writers of color in general--face with regard to the various apparatuses of the publishing industry. In particular, what sorts of themes, topics and approaches many--but thankfully not all--are agents, editors and publishers--including Black agents, editors and publishers, wary of taking on, and why? To what extent do standing aesthetic and political expectations, racism, and economics play a role? To take up a thread of Southgate's argument, it strikes me that nowadays, it is easier for most Black writers and writers of color in general to get into print, especially if they are writing racially or ethnically inflected, formally conventional prose fiction, nonfiction and poetry. The publishing industry realizes that there are any number of niche markets, and that certain works--such as the difficult and complex Beloved or Edwidge Danticat's luminous Breath, Eyes, Memory--though initially targeted to specific audiences may have unexpected crossover appeal, so they have become more expansive in what they buy and publish than in the past. Also, the rise of easy and economical self-publishing has had a salutory effect on the mainstream publishing industry's approach to Black popular fiction, with a number of books beginning as self-published texts only to spark interest, because of their sales potential, among the larger publishers.

She also mentions the virtual absence of folks at "the parties," but it seems to me that in 2007 this might be far less important than it once was; isn't the chief goal to get the writing out there? The "parties" of course are a signifier of the personal literary networks that can mean jobs and other kinds of possibilities for writers, so I'm not dismissing them by any means, but I do believe that having books in bookstores and on the Web, and making sure that Black writers have opportunities to read and sell their work everywhere is the more important issue.

Another point that struck me--though I realize it's really a function of her article's direction and implicit in the network she reaches out to in her argument--concerns the development of autonomous Black literary communities, that have provided and are providing support and encouragement for Black writers. (The same goes for writers of other races and ethnic groups.) She says little about these communities and their relation to the larger literary world, but when I think of an organization like Cave Canem, its effects both for Black writers specifically, and for poetry more broadly, are quite evident. My compatriot Thomas Sayers Ellis used to talk about the Dark Room Collective bumrushing the show, but I think of Cave Canem, to give one example, as creating a range of new scenes altogether. Though the Hurston-Wright Foundation does great work, I'm not sure there's a comparable organization for fiction writing, which in any cases involves a different economic model as well. But I do think that three quarters of a century after the Harlem Renaissance and 40 years after the appearance of the Black Arts Movement and parallel groups, it's necessary to consider the intraaswell as inter and extra frameworks in which we exist.

Finally, I was a little surprised that these days she's not running into other Black "literary" writers at non-Black/Diasporic literary conferences; my personal experience has been quite different, whether I consider the old mid-to-late 1990s OutWrite conferences (where I first met writer Reginald Shepherd in person) or the AWP (which now features a Cave Canem reading every year) or the MLA (where creative writers and scholars of color are present) or regional conferences, like the NEMLA, or even literary workshop-type conference like the Indiana Writers Conference or Bread Loaf. Even at the last highly topic-focused conference I attended, in Iowa City, other Black writers, including several longtime acquaintances, were there, so I'm curious to know which conferences she's been hitting.

But back to Southgate's article, here's a snippet:

Things are tough all over, but arguably tougher for some. For many black writers, a writing life very rarely unfolds the way it does for so many white writers you could name: know you want to be a writer from the age of 10, get your first book published at 26, go on to produce slowly but steadily over a lengthy career. Even Morrison didn’t follow that timeline: her first novel wasn’t published until she was nearly 40 and had worked for a number of years as a teacher and then an editor at Random House. And she didn’t quit that day job until urged to do so by Gottlieb in the mid-1970s, after “Sula” was published.

So what’s holding us up? Sometimes it’s just the ordinary difficulty of juggling family, writing and earning a living. But African-American writers also speak of a larger problem of what I’d call internal or cultural permission. It’s just plain harder to decide to be a writer if you don’t have a financial cushion or a long cultural tradition of people going out on that bohemian limb. Consider the case of Edward P. Jones. He published his first book, “Lost in the City,” in 1992 (he was 41 at the time) to much critical acclaim and a number of significant honors, if not huge sales. He returned to his day job at Tax Notes magazine, where he remained until he was laid off 10 years later. He then wrote “The Known World” in about six months — though he told me he’d been thinking about it nearly those whole 10 years. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize.

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Southgate's essay reminds me of something I've been mulling about for some time. Recently I came across a Gay Community News article from the late 1980s by the Boston-based writer and scholar Charles Shively that Reggie sent me many years ago, around the time we first met, concerning the difficulties, in terms of aesthetics and subject matter, audiences and reception, and the publishing industry, that Black gay writers faced. (Of course now I cannot recall where I stashed it away!) Shively was praising the emergence of what would become the Black Gay Male Literary Renaissance, a loosely affiliated group of writers, some of them members of the New York based collective Other Countries, that appeared during the years I was in college (the mid-to-late 1980s). This work was often politically engaged and frequently addressed the topics of racism and self-love and fashioning, homophobia, the social conservatism of the late 1980s, and the ravages of the HIV-AIDS pandemic. A great deal of it incorporated vernacular and Black gay cultural discourse and references, and outside of Dixon, many of the writers' works appeared in small-press or self-published editions and small literary periodicals. As I've stated before on this blog, a large number of these writers, including Melvin Dixon (who preceded them in age by about a decade), Essex Hemphill, Assotto Saint, Craig Harris, Donald Woods, and Roy Gonsalves, Steven Corbin, to name just a few, were silenced by the HIV-AIDS pandemic. Reggie knew some of these writers, as did I, and I will continue to assert that their deaths led to an incalculable loss to American, African-American, LGBT/Queer and Black LGBT/Queer literature.

When I think now about the work of these writers, one thing that stands out is the relative absence of novels; many of the writers were poets, though even these poets did work in multiple genres, including drama and performance, but Dixon and Corbin, of the people I listed above, published novels or books of short stories. There were, obviously, some Black gay male novelists who preceded them: James Baldwin, of course, and Samuel R. Delany, who continues to publish, like Baldwin, not only fiction but nonfiction as well. A few other Black gay fiction writers, like Larry Duplechan, or contemporaries of the late 1980s-early 1990s cohort, like Don Belton and Randall Kenan, both of whom are still writing and publishing, also produced works during this period. (I realize I am leaving out authors, like Sterling Houston or Canaan Parker, but I am not trying to be exhaustive.) It was shortly thereafter, however, that E. Lynn Harris self-published Invisible Life, and James Earl Hardy began publishing his B-Boy Blues series of novels, with both projects effectively bridging the literary and popular and opening up a space in which a number of Black queer popular novels and collections of short stories, and fewer but noteworthy literary works of fiction, like Thomas Glave's collection Whose Song? and Other Stories, to give one example, have appeared. (Though I began publishing around 1990, I include my own longer work in this matrix.)

That said, Black gay literary novels and collections of stories--and literary works of fiction, whatever the topic, by Black gay male writers, remain relatively scarce, and few contemporary Black gay male writers have produced anything close to the extensive fiction catalogue of the very prodigious Baldwin or Delany. While the situation doesn't approach what Jewelle Gomez explored in her essay on the virtual invisibility of works of contemporary Black American lesbian fiction in Black Queer Studies, I think it's an issue worth raising. What are the reasons for the relative scarcity?

Southgate's article, which cites Randall, offers some possible answers. I would add that writing fiction requires patience and the time to develop one's talent and ideas, which is to say mature, as well as the time to complete a long work of prose. (Although we require our undergraduate fiction majors to write a novella in about three and a half months, it's certainly the case that most novellas take considerably longer.) Additionally, I return to the conundrum that Shively discussed, which was the twinned issues of racism and homphobia/heterosexism. He noted, as others certainly have, that Black gay male writers faced--and still face--racism as Black people, and homophobia not only from Whites, but from within our own Black communities. As I read his argument, this twinned problematic made and makes the production and marketing of Black queer male literary work more difficult, and it also raises, as I continue to believe, questions of audience and the marketplace and reception. Who are the target audiences for these works and are the major publishers, or even many of the smaller ones (excepting, of course, Black queer publishers), capable of getting the work to them? Are they interested and how effective are they in doing so? How much do the writers take into account questions of audience, reception and economics when writing their works? (A good friend has said many times that he actively considers publishers' expectations, the market and the necessity of appealing to a broad array of readers.) How do such considerations shape the Black queer male fiction writer's imaginary? To what extent do queer fictional literary works whose narratives revolve around the experiences only of Black or people of color face a tougher time that interracial ones? Other questions that come to mind are, how do these works relate to Black gay popular literary production, and are publishers more interested in those works that in more strictly literary ones? What about the issue of bookstores and marketing, reviewing, and so on? In there past there was no infrastructure or support system for such works (and I would cite Fire & Ink, for example, as exemplary in this regard), and is there one now?

These are only a few of the questions I've asked myself or posed to others, and that I now put forward to others out there. I'm curious to hear your thoughts, and I hope to explore any responses I get down the road.