Thursday, March 19, 2009

Mr. Monceaux in NY Times + Gays In Jamaica + Obits (Richardson, Purdy, Updike)

A few brief thoughts in the midst of endless end-of-quarter reading:

Morgan Monceaux
Chris Hartlove for The New York Times

About two years ago around this time, as I was sunk deep into one of my usual brutal quarters, I posted a little squib on a friend, Morgan Monceaux/Sir Nagrom, a brilliant artist I first met in Providence back in 2001. That mini-piece discussed a show he was participating in at that time, and today's New York Times offers a fuller portrait of Nagrom, focusing on his many series, some of the many vicissitudes he's faced, and a little of the acclaim he's finally receiving, at age 62, for his art. (The "primitive" bit, along with the "living in a shack," miss the mark, but we are talking about the NY Times, which loves its romantic narratives.) If you happen to be anywhere near Baltimore, check out his "Divas" show at the New Door Creative gallery. It runs through May. (H/t to Geoffrey Jacques!)


Another squib from that same post focused on the anti-gay violence taking place in Jamaica. I noted that link, sent by Thomas Glave, as I thought about this recent post I came across on Michael Petrelis's blog, which links to the 2008 US State Department report on human rights in Jamaica. In its section on LGBTQs and people with HIV and AIDS, it notes that the anti-gay violence in Jamaica and the government's approach to it have not improved; the report points out that "target shootings" of gays and lesbians are occurring, attacks on Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG), the primary gay rights group in Jamaica, continue, and that the situation is also grave for people with HIV and AIDS. To quote the report (as Petrelis does):

The Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All Sexuals, and Gays (J-FLAG) continued to report human rights abuses, including arbitrary detention, mob attacks, stabbings, harassment of homosexual patients by hospital and prison staff, and targeted shootings of homosexuals. Police often did not investigate such incidents.

J-FLAG members also suffered attacks on their property, home intrusions as people demanded to know the number of persons and beds in a home, and in one instance, a fire bombing at the home of two men that left one of them with burns on more than 60 percent of his body. In addition homosexuals faced death and arson threats, with some of these directed at the J-FLAG offices. J-FLAG did not publicize its location due to such threats, and its officials reported feeling unsafe having meetings with clients at the organization's office.

In February a mob broke into the home of four presumed homosexual men, killing three of them. The fourth was missing and presumed dead. The men had reported being harassed for their perceived sexual orientation prior to the fatal attack. Police made some inquiries in the case but did not conduct a full investigation or make any arrests by year's end.

The trial of six suspects arrested for the 2005 robbery and murder of Lenford "Steve" Harvey, initially begun and then postponed in 2007, was scheduled to recommence in January 2009.

And there's more. Petrelis argues for a boycott of Jamaican products, but I would urge that people contact the Jamaican Embassy in Washington, by letter and telephone, and urge them to become proactive in addressing this constellation of crises. Thinking about the situation in Jamaica also reminds me that many friends and correspondents have written me asking my thoughts about President Obama's decision to sign onto the United Nations gay rights decree, a decided shift from the prior administration. I do think it's a great move, but other issues, such as federal support for partner benefits, ending the failed Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, and so on, still loom, and I am hoping that Obama doesn't try to slink away from his campaign promises when it comes to LGBTQ issues.


I was sorry to hear about the freak tragic death of actress Natasha Richardson at age 45. I never saw her act on stage, for which she received ample praise, but I thought she shone on screen in a number of roles, including in The Comfort of Strangers (1990) and the film adaptation of Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale (1990). The circumstances surrounding her death are particular sad; a fall on a downhill baby slope at a Québec ski resort led to a subdural hematoma and swelling of the brain, yet she thought she was okay and refused more extensive treatment at first until she became severely ill 4 hours later. (I've tried nordic skiing, but alpine skiing, which I love watching, terrifies me to no end.) She leaves her husband, actor Liam Neeson, two sons, her mother, the extraordinary figure Vanessa Redgrave; a sister, actress Joely Richardson; and a half-sister, among other family members.

Also passing away recently was author James Purdy, at age 94. This is a slightly expanded version of what I wrote to Reggie H. about Purdy's passing:

Years ago I engaged in a little spat with him, in the then-titled Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review, based on a racist (and anti-Semitic) comment he made after [Toni] Morrison won the Nobel Prize. [He something to the effect that now mainly Blacks and Jews were winning it.] I did like some of his books, though, particularly In a Shallow Grave [which was made into a 1988 film starring a very young Michael Beach and Patrick Dempsey], Malcolm, and Eustace Chisholm and the Works. Garments The Living Wear, the AIDS novel, was a disaster, I thought, rambling, failing in its ironies, verging on incoherent. He, like Coleman Dowell and a few others, was ahead of his time, at least in aesthetic terms.
I do give Purdy--a native West Virginia and longtime Chicago and New York resident who drew upon both cities in his work, and whose combination of raw sexuality and violence always struck me as fitting for our society--credit for having stuck to his vision, even when it meant obscurity; his four novels of the 1970s and 1980s perhaps sank his reputation with the New York publishing industry at a time when that really was the kiss of death.

Some time back, during one of my periods deep in the paper pit, reader Kai had written to ask my thoughts about the passing at age 76 of John Updike, one of the most prodigious and acclaimed writers in contemporary American literature. Reggie H. and I naturally exchanged emails about Updike's death, and I wrote to him:

Wow! He was one of the writers (authors, poets, nontheoretical critics, etc.) who towered over the last 50 years, pretty much from the time he graduated from college. It's strange to think that he's not with us. I had many quarrels with him, his work, his racism or racial [and gender] limitations [and in particular, his sorry excuse for a novel titled Brazil, which led me to write a letter to the newspaper in protest], and so on, but at the same, he was a remarkable figure and often superb writer with greater syntactic and figurative facility than nearly all his peers. His stories again and again show an innate and assured grasp of structure that would take a lifetime to learn. Rabbit At Rest is one of my favorite books, and the first of that tetralogy, Rabbit, Run, is a landmark work of 20th century American literature. [Like perhaps many students over the past four decades, I had to read the book in high school, and found it intermittently enthralling and so tedious I had to force myself to finish it so that I could write a paper on it.] I almost can't believe he's dead, even though I'm typing this.
I used to find it almost unbearable to read his work, since it was so highly extolled during my high school and colleague years (his fiction, that is; I don't think I ever heard much praise for his poetry, and a colleague, one of the major poets out there, recently assessed it as "awful"); its fluency and capacity for almost the most infinitesimal shadings of description and detail were so daunting; and its focus, after the earliest works, on such a narrow stratum of American life, middle-and-upper-middle-class suburban white Northeasterners, was so relentless, but I have cut him some slack over the years, and though I haven't taught an Updike story or novel ever, I do find the novel Memories of the Ford Years, and many of the short stories, such as "A&P" (one of his most famous), "Snowing in Greenwich Village," "The Hermit," "The Killing," and "Playing With Dynamite," among many others, to be exceptional. And they remain, though he's gone.


  1. hi john,

    thanks noticing and linking to my blog post. sorry you don't support the boycott of jamaican rum and red stripe beer, but we'll have to agree to disagree.

    i see you are asking folks to call the jamaican embassy in DC, and idea i support.

    i am wondering if you have the name and title of one person at the embassy who handles human rights concerns.

    maybe we can work together to have people boycott, if they so choose, AND also contact the embassy.

    i think it would be great if we all were sending note and leaving messages for a specific person at the embassy.

    lemme know who i should contact there. thanks.

    michael petrelis

  2. Hi Michael, I'll ask Thomas Glave if he knows who might be the person to contact.

  3. In connection with Updike's death, did you see this poem, which he released shortly before his death?

  4. Aaaaand I just used the word "death" twice in a sentence. Way to go, writing major.

  5. Miriam, always defer to Tolstoy and Stein when issues of repetition arise.... I hadn't seen that Updike poem, but it's uncanny how he writes his epitaph, though also not surprising, because he was always determined to get the last word in, at least in print. (There's a Dick Cavett interview featuring John Cheever and him, and he does hold his tongue in favor of allowing Cheever, who was the senior figure, to speak.)