Monday, August 22, 2016

The Rio Olympics Won (Or Did They?)

Jamaica's Usain Bolt, the greatest sprinter of
all time, winning his 200m final race
with ease over France's Christophe Lemaître,
who received the bronze.
(Wally Skalij/LA Times)

Yesterday marked the final day of the two-week 2016 version of the summer Olympic Games, held this year for the first time in Latin America, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil's second largest city. On many levels, the Rio Olympics succeeded; despite concerns before the games began of the federal political crisis marring the global spectacle, the spread of the zika virus, inadequate preparation and shoddy construction, the potential for international terrorism and domestic crime, grave health threats from Rio's extremely polluted bodies of water, and financial constraints so severe that the surrounding Rio de Janeiro State declared it was out of money and could not fund basic functions, the games took place, with only a few obvious hitches. Rio residents' and international critics' concerns, which included public protests about gentrification and displacement; police and state violence; fiscal waste, misuse of funds and corruption; and so much more, received flashes of coverage before the games began, but mostly vanished, particularly on NBC, which mostly limited its focus to shots of Rio's breathtaking landscape, coverage of half a dozen sports--including swimming, diving, beach volleyball, athletic gymnastics, track and field, and synchronized swimming--, treacly redemptive stories about athletes's backgrounds, and events in or near the bustling Olympic village. Thankfully NBC's streaming options were numerous and, though intercut with commercials, mostly fail-safe.

Americans Tianna Bartoletta, English Gardner,
Tori Bowie, and Allyson Felix celebrating
after winning the gold in the women's 4x100 relay
(Wally Skalij/LA Times)

Despite multiple tocsins before the games began, the Olympic events unrolled in a nearly flawless fashion, barring the weather, when and where scheduled. There was no domestic or international terrorism, and crime against visitors, which received some coverage, though it occurred, was nowhere near predicted. Outside of a few reported illnesses during the games, no athletes grew as ill as envisioned based on testing of Rio's toxic waterways. The Opening Ceremonies lacked some of the pyrotechnic dazzle of prior Olympic welcomes, but the skillful use of visual projections, coupled with Brazil's decision to highlight its rich history and  diverse cultural traditions, made up for the technological squeeze. Amidst the usual display of music and dancing, historical pageantry, national chauvinism, and the parade of athletic beauty, viewers encountered the special treat of Tongan flag bearer and taekwondo participant Pita Taufotatua, shirtless and sporting a sheen of coconut oil; unsurprisingly, he created an international sensation, even if he did not win a medal a week later. Brazil's acting president, Michel Temer, earned boos opening night, but he and the country's political situation mostly remained hidden, even if intrepid local and international reporters did not slack on keeping anyone interested knowledgeable about the impeachment proceedings against elected President Dilma Rousseff.

There were a few incidents that represented cause for alarm. One example was the bullets piercing a tent at the equestrian eventing headquarters during the cross country races, though no one was injured; neither the military nor local police could ascertain or explain where the fusillade came from. A man attempting to run onto the women's marathon course was stopped before he could create havoc. There also were robberies on and around various beaches and in the athletes' village, including the theft of the Australian delegation's electronic equipment and some of its mascot-bearing shirts, right before the games began. The most outrageous imbroglio resulted not from imagined threats, however, but from lies told by American swimmer Ryan Lochte and three fellow swimming teammates, who participated early one morning in an act of vandalism at a Brazilian gas station, after which Lochte repeatedly and publicly lied about it. Claiming he and his teammates had been held up at gunpoint and stripped of their wallets and other goods, he sent a chill through the media about participants' safety. Security camera footage, scanning technology and eyewitness testimony revealed Lochte's tale to be just that. Before he could be questioned he fled the country, and now faces criminal charges.
Multiple medal winner Simone Biles carries
the US flag into the Olympic Stadium during
the Closing Ceremonies
(Wally Skalij/LA Times)

The ongoing problem of doping, which had been in the news before the Olympics started, popped up occasionally. A Kyrgyzstan weightlifter was stripped of his bronze medal after tests revealed the presence of strychnine in his system, while athletes from India, Moldova, China and host Brazil were disqualified because of pre-games tests or challenges. Most in the performance enhancing drug spotlight was Russia, whose athletes on prior Olympic and world championship teams had had their reliance of PEDs exposed by a whistleblower earlier this year, and thus sent a reduced squad to Rio, yet still finished fourth in the medal total. Throughout the two week span, The 2008 host, China, finished second in total medals, and the 2012 host, the UK, though still dealing with the aftermath of its withdrawal from the European Union, finished third.

Team USA led all countries with 121 medals, including 46 golds, for which praise must go to US's women athletes, who were pacesetters in a number of sports. The first medal, a gold, of the games, came at the gun of Virginia Thrasher, who won in the women's 10m air rifle. In total, US women won 61 medals, which, if they were there own country, would have placed them fourth. Gold medalists earning praise included the women's gymnastics team, which finished their routines nearly 2 points ahead of competitors, and which included all around champion Simone Biles, who earned 5 medals in total, 4 of them gold (though hateful social media attacks on London all around gold medalist Gabby Douglas's hair and stance during the team medal ceremony marred what would been a coronation for the women tumblers); swimmer Katie Ledecky, who won three individual goals, as well as team gold; swimmer Simone Manuel, who became the first African American woman ever to win an individual Olympic gold in her sport; the US women's basketball team, which dominated, as did the US women's  water polo and eight rowing team; women's freestyle wrestler Helen Maroulis, who finished first in the 117 lbs category; triathlete Gwen Jorgensen, who like all her fellow competitors deserved multiple medals for swimming in the stew of Rio's Guanabara Bay; and 165 lb boxer Claressa Shields, who repeated her pugilistic wins four years after her victory in London.
The US men's 4x400m team, which won the gold:
LaShawn Merritt, Gil Roberts, Tony McQuay,
and Arman Hall (David Verburg ran in
the qualifying heats as well.
(NBC streaming screen capture)

In other sports, although they did not win golds, US women still made a mark. New Jersey-based fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad became the first woman ever to compete in Olympic fencing wearing a hijab. She and her teammates would go on to win a bronze in team sabre competition.  US cyclist Sarah Hammer won a silver in the women's omnium race, an event I'd never watched before but found enthralling, and Alise Post won a silver in the women's cycling BMX race, which was as wild and rugged as it promised. In some cases, US women's teams or athletes who had dominated in prior years faced stiffer competition this year, but still took home medals; this was the case for the US women's beach volleyball duo, indoor volleyball team, and some of the swimmers, though in the pool the US women and men repeatedly set the pace. (And yes, Michael Phelps, that natatory Methuselah, won two individual goals, one silver, and three relay golds, in his fourth straight Olympics, to raise his all-time total to an astonishing 23 gold medals, three silvers, and two bronzes, making him the most decorated Olympic athlete ever.)

In track and field, the US women shone like supernovas. Dalilah Muhammad became the first US woman ever to win the 400m hurdles, and her teammate Ashley Spencer earned bronze. In the 100m hurdles,  Brianna Rollins, Nia Ali, and Kristi Castlin swept all three medals. The 4x100m and 4x400m teams also won, with the former successfully protesting interference during a heat, which required them to re-run the race all by themselves on the track. They produced the fastest time among the semifinalists. US women won on the field, and their victory in the relay finale allowed Allyson Felix to win her 9th track and field medal, tying her with Jamaican sprinter Merlene Ottey, while also handing her the sixth and most gold medals of any competing women track athlete in history. On the opening night of the track events, Michelle Carter became the first American woman ever to win the gold in the women's shot put (and followed in the footsteps of her father, Michael Carter, a silver medalist in the same event at the LA Olympics in 1984). A few days later, in the women's long jump, Tianna Bartoletta and Brittney Reese finished first and second. Where they did not win gold, the American women nabbed silvers and bronzes in a number of events (100m, 400m, pole vault, 1500m, etc.).
US swimmer Katie Ledecky, outpacing
the field in her 800m race, in which she
set a new world record.
(Robert Gauthier/LA Times)

One of the pole stars of this year's track and field races, and of the entire games, was Jamaica'Usain Bolt, who won his third consecutive golds, almost effortlessly, in the 100m, 200m, and 4x100m races. In fact, Bolt looked so dominant that the seemed never to be breaking a sweat. He will easily go down as the greatest sprinter of all time, a runner of power and panache, who reset the template for what was possible. Watching him, it struck me that if he decided to continue competing, rather than retiring, he might even trounce competitors in Tokyo 4 years from now. His fellow sprinters, including several young Jamaicans, Americans, and Bahamians, will thank the gods every day if he holds to his promise to speed off into the horizon. Jamaica's dominance in the sprints was evident as well in the figure of Elaine Thompson, who won the 100m and 200m, with a smile, dethroning her countrywoman Shelly-Ann Fraser-Price, the incumbent 100m champion, who took bronze. A third Jamaican, Omar Price, won the men's 110m hurdles, and was met, unfortunately, with homophobic commentary on social media back home. With the long distance races, Kenya again showed its mastery. Kenyan men and women medaled in the women's & men's marathon (both gold), women's & men's 10,000m (both silver), women's (gold and & silver) 5000m, women's (silver) and men's (gold) 3,000m steeplechase, women's 1500m (gold), women's (bronze) and men's 800m (gold), and, a first, the men's 400m (silver) and javelin (silver).

There were many great stories across a number of the competitions, perhaps beginning with host Brazil's Rafaela Silva, a native of the local favelas and an out lesbian, who received her country's first gold of the games in judo. Silva had competed in London, lost and received a bombardment of racist hate online, causing her to fall into a deep depression. She fortunately did not give up hope or determination, and ended up anchoring the 19 medals Brazil ultimately won. Another remarkable local story was that of Bahian canoer Isaquias Queiroz, known to Brazilians as "Sem Rim" (Without a Kidney). Queiroz won 3 medals, two silvers and a bronze, despite competing with only one kidney, and having triumphed over near-death three times, which included being kidnapped and trafficked and falling hard on a rock, splitting one of his kidneys in half, before he was 10 years old.  Brazilians also won golds in the pole vault, women's volleyball, men's beach volleyball, boxing, sailing, and, to national relief, men's soccer. To make it even sweeter, they defeated Germany, which had humiliated their hosts 7-1 in an elimination match at the 2014 World Cup.

USA's Kevin Durant and Jimmy Butler
celebrate after winning the gold medal
match. (Wally Skalij/LA Times)

Puerto Rico, facing one of the greatest social and economic trials in its recent history, was able to celebrate tennis player Mónica Puig, who defeated a raft of highly ranked competitors to take the women's individual gold medal, her country's sole prize in Rio. In the first Olympic appearance of rugby sevens, one of my favorites this time around, Fiji, which also won no other medals, finished first, with the inventor of the game, the UK, taking the silver, and a spunky South African side winning bronze. A black Ukrainian* Greco-Roman wrestler, Zhan Beleniuk, took the silver in the men's 85 kg competition. There was also the moving story of the Independent Olympic Athletes, who competed under no flag; one, Fehaid Aldeehani, won gold in the men's shooting double trap competition, while another, Abdullah Alrashidi, took bronze in men's skeet. Also moving was witnessing what might have been the final Olympic appearance of former gold medal winner Venus Williams, who did not advance in the individual competition or in doubles with her sister Serena, fresh off her Wimbledon victory, but did win a silver medal with mixed-doubles partner Rajeev Ram, losing to another US pair, Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Jack Sock.

(*Who knew there were black people in Ukraine? And they don't have an easy time of it, unsurprisingly.)

These games featured 53 out LGBTQ athletes, the most ever. Some, like British diver Tom Daley and US basketball star Brittney Griner, were famous as out gay pathblazers. Others, like her teammate Elena Delle Dona, came out publicly right before heading to Rio. 47% of the out gay athletes actually earned medals, and several, including British boxer Nicola Adams, won gold. Still others, who were not out, however, were nearly exposed, with dangerous consequences, when a British Daily Beast reporter decided to masquerade as a gay man, trawl for hookups, and then wrote a snarky, homophobic article that gave clues to the closeted and DL men he had connected with. After being widely denounced, he publicly apologized, and was eventually recalled home early.


When Rio and Brazil won the opportunity to host the games eight years ago, the region's and nation's economies appeared to be on the upswing. Two economically vibrant, though corruption-ridden terms by Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva, Brazil's first Leftist president since its return to democracy, led to the easy election of his chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff, a former revolutionary turned technocrat, and under both, Brazil saw a sizable increase in its middle and working classes, aided in part by "Bolsa Familia" and other programs that Lula, Dilma and their Congressional allies implemented. The Olympics, like the 2014 FIFA World Cup tournament, held across Brazil, were to be crowning events to Brazil's ascension to the first rank of the global community.

Though Brazil's leaders, and admittedly a great many people all over the world, including the US administration of George W. Bush, did not fully grasp what was underway, the ground, however, was about to fall out beneath them. 2007 through 2009 marked the worst of the global financial crisis and recession, which Brazil initially weathered, but the collapse of commodity prices, inadequate monetary policies, and Rousseff's and the Brazilian Congress's failure to trim spending--not slash, but readjust--sent Brazil careening towards a cliff off which it has since plunged. Inflation and now deflation, fiscal contraction, and a dense and intricate tapestry of corruption investigations, ensnaring politicians and business people from the acting president down to local officials, are today's baselines across South America's largest economy.
Brazilian canoeists Erlon de Souza and
Isaquias Queiroz, after their silver medal
race in the 1000m pairs

None of this boded well for a country, state and city that had agreed to spend billions to host the Olympics, which are a financial drain even under the best of circumstances. In the run-up to the Rio games, the governor of Rio State, facing a funding emergency, even appealed to the nation for money; the state, he claimed, was unable to pay for basic services, and needed help even finishing the Olympic projects underway. Additionally, right before the games started, policemen protested with signs warning visitors about the tenuousness of their safety, saying they were entering "Hell." In response, Rio and Brasília found a bit more money, and the city was able to deploy  85,000 security officers, who included federal military service people. Questions arise about what will happen now that the Olympics--and soon the Paralympics--have ended. Where will the funds for Rio State's necessary expenditures come from now? And what effect did the redeployment of military officials have on crime in locales away from the Olympic events? Given the horrendous pre-Olympics track record of police murdering Brazil's poor, particular Afro-Brazilian youth, how will these empowered state forces interact with Rio's impoverished communities once the international media are gone?

Rio's mayor Eduardo Paeswas quite pleased, however,  with how things turned out. A member of the centrist-conservative PMDB party, home also to acting president Temer, Paes has stated that the Olympics allowed Rio to push through infrastructure projects that would have taken decades or which would never have been realized otherwise. The new subway line to the city's southern edges, the enhanced network of bus lanes and routes, and the Olympic Village itself are among the projects that Paes can tout as proof that Rio dig gain something beyond fourteen days of visitors, exciting races and bouts, and international attention. In fact, the Olympics' apparent success will probably serve as the launching pad for Paes' presidential run, after a year's sabbatical at Columbia University though he may need to switch parties (as he's done repeatedly) if Temer and other PMDB politicians remain deeply unpopular. That most of these new structures, facilities and renovated areas will primarily benefit Rio's wealthiest residents and future tourists far more than the majority of the city's working class and poor was part of his and other organizers' vision.
Ukrainian wrestler Zhan Beleniuk
(NBC Streaming screen capture)
Authorities forcibly displaced favela residents from their homes and razed portions of certain neighborhoods, such as Vila Autódromo, in the southern sector of Rio. For the Olympics Media Village, developers utilized public land near Olympic Park that had long been the ancestral home of Afro-brazilians fighting for decades to claim it as a quilombo, and thus their own. The condominium built on this spot, Grand Club Verdant, will be sold to private buyers once the games end. The Athletes' Village, also constructed on public land, is slated to become luxury housing rather than lodgings for Rio's middle and working class residents. Organizers also filled in protected public wetlands to build the golf course, but once the games conclude nearby Cariocas who aren't rich will not have access to it. With regard to the billions of dollars that vanished on their way to rectifying Rio's waste disposal and water pollution crisis, no one can account for them. There will, however, be a new museum downtown highlighting Rio's role as a major slave port; when building the new port, construction workers discovered remnants of the original port, graves and artifacts dating to Rio's early history, and have grasped the potential touristic and historical value of creating an exhibit around them.

Rio's experience is only the most recent example of the International Olympic Committee's flawed approach to staging games that, at this point, very few countries can afford. For two weeks of athletic competition--providing thrills for viewers, a bit of pride for participating countries, future employment for physicians, chiropractors, and physical therapists, and new entries for the record books--host nations are expected to indebt themselves. In the case of the UK and China, the strain was great but not insurmountable; with Russia and the Sochi Winter Games, we may not learn for years what this exacted on the host nation's still staggering economy, or its politics and society, though it did give Vladimir Putin an electoral boost. As the host 30 years ago, Montreal, could attest, however, along with more recent host Athens, sometimes the costs are too high to bear.
US freestyle wrestler Helen Maroulis, winning the
gold medal by defeating Japan's Saori
Yoshida in the women's freestyle 53kg final.
(Robert Gauthier/LA Times)

Perhaps the answer is not to end the Olympics, despite their long history of cozying up to anti-democratic autocrats and greedy corporations, but rather to figure out another approach that will aid the cause of athletic, cultural and global engagement. One option I have seen suggested is to distribute the games across the globe, using sites already built; a virtual Olympics seems eminently doable. Countries with team handball arenas can vie for those contests; baseball, if it returns, could be staged in nations that play it. More people would be able to attend Olympic events as a result, and rather than having to build billions of dollars of new facilities, countries could spend far less to upgrade existing ones, but only if needed.

Another option that I also saw suggested recently would be to have a given country that agrees to host the Olympics do so for several repeated cycles. So Rio would again host the Olympics in 2020 and 2024. Or perhaps in round robin fashion. This does eliminate the challenge of a new country building all new facilities every four years, but it does not address the large-scale costs that the host would have to bear over a dozen years. Not only would Rio or any country have to keep the facilities it built open and functioning optimally for twelve years, but it would again have to find money for security, further extensive infrastructure upgrades, and so on.
US gymnast Danell Leyva, in his
silver medal performance on the men's
horizontal bar final. (Robert Gauthier/LA Times)
So post-Rio Olympics, I will be keeping an eye on Rio, and Brazil, to see what the hangover and recovery periods bring. Beyond Brazil, I will be curious to know whether the debates that always arise around the Olympics and their future go beyond the theoretical stage. If things run as smoothly as I imagine they will in Pyeongchang in 2018 and Tokyo in 2020, any serious talk of reforming the Olympics will be placed on the backburner for decades to come. That is, if the IOC can find anyone to host the 2024 Summer games and Beijing doesn't decide, given its economic struggles and the environmental toll more building will require, that the Winter Games in 2022 are not such a good idea.

Rio Olympic Village, with the nearly
completely razed Vila Autódromo immediately
to its left

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Counternarratives Wins an American Book Award

I am elated to announce that Counternarratives has received a 2016 American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation (BCF).  When I remember this book's long journey to publication, and meditate on the aims of this vitally important literary and cultural organization and all the books and authors it has honored in the past, including my MFA colleague, poet, memoirist, fiction writer, and critic Rigoberto González, I consider this be one of the highest honors possible.

Congratulations also go to all of this year's other recipients, and an especial congrats to two other honorees affiliated with Rutgers-Newark: my colleague Lyra Monteiro, an assistant professor of history, who received the Walter and Lillian Lowenfels Prize for Criticism for her essay on the play Hamilton, and journalist Nick Turse, author of Tomorrow's Battlefield: US Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa (Haymarket Books), who received an MA in history from RU-N in 1999. 

About the three of us, BCF chairman Justin Desmangles said:
“We are proud to honor the work of John Keene, whom we regard as among the most innovative and exciting writers in America today. The richness and fertility of his imagination coupled with the elegance of his prose produce a unique literary experience. In addition, we consider Lyra Montiero's critical perspectives to be both vital and courageous. Her rigorous, inventive, and powerfully deciphering analysis of “Hamilton,” the musical, was a much-needed antidote to the toxic commercial hyperbole. Finally, Nick Turse's efforts to expose secret U.S. military operations in Africa should be regarded as heroic. At BCF, we consider Turse to be in the tradition of the greatest journalists, penetrating the subterfuge and excavating information and perspectives otherwise missing or ignored.
Below is the official announcement from the Before Columbus Foundation.

Again, many thanks to them, and to everyone who helped make this book possible!

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Yves Bonnefoy (1923-2016) + Translation

Yves Bonnefoy at the Collège de France in 2001
(The Telegraph/AP/Getty)

On July 1 of this year, one of the most important--arguably the most important--late 20th century poets of the French language, Yves Bonnefoy--passed away in Paris. Bonnefoy remains little known in the US, I would venture from anecdotal evidence, even though he spent significant amounts of time here, even teaching for a while at a number of universities, including Brandeis, Johns Hopkins, Connecticut, Yale, Williams, and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York; unlike a number of his Francophone contemporaries, his poems are fairly accessible, if quite distinctive from the mainstream of Anglo-American poetics, and most can be found in translation too. In 1981, he was awarded the chair in poetry at the august Collège de France, and taught there for the remainder of his career.

A native of Tours, Indre-et-Loire, France, and an associate of the Surrealists, Bonnefoy might be thought of as the second generation of that movement, though he declined to sign one of their manifestos in 1947, and his poetry stands as testimony to a rather different approach to composition and image-making, even if the Surrealist and prior French influences, including Symbolism, are evident in it. Bonnefoy was not just a major poet, however; he published copiously, creating an imporessive oeuvre that includes criticism, biography, and fiction. One of his chief foci was art history. His book-length prose works include biographies of Alberto Giacometti and Francisco Goya. He also was a translator, primarily of Shakespeare's plays, as well as notable poets including John Donne and W. B. Yeats.

Bonnefoy's first book, Du mouvement et de l'immobilité de Douve, usually translated as On the Motion and Immobility of Douve, though I like the English cognate "movement" better, heralded his entry into the world of letters. It is, like all of his work more or less, a series of highly lyrical, often haunting appeals, alternating between abstract and concrete language, that when read aloud possesses the air of song. Even the book's title is melodic, rhyming, consonant: Bonnefoy signals Douve's presence before calling her name forth in that initial "Du [m]ouve[ment]." I find that so much of his poetry carries this linguistic-semantic resonance, so that even at its most abstract, it is still conveying, in indirect ways, a surplus of meaning.

Nevertheless, Bonnefoy's poetry may puzzle people grounded in the English and American traditions of poetry that is almost always about someone, something, some place, using specific, non-abstract language. This is, in fact, one of many an introductory poetry class will warn budding poets against; alluring as the examples of a Mallarmé or Supervielle--to pick a different generation of poetry--may be, too much abstraction does not a good poem make, even though there are traditions within US poetry in which abstraction flourishes. Bonnefoy's poems often charge the abstraction with a background conflict--a quest, a battle, loss--and dream-like movement, giving them inherent drama that keeps the reader engaged. With Douve, one of the most basic questions is, who is this person to whom the poetic speaker is writing? Who or what is a "Douve"? That alone made me want to read and decipher that text.

8 years ago I had the pleasure of translating a short catalogue essay, on the work of my dear friend J. Eric Hamel, by Bonnefoy, but I have never translated his poetry before. Here, therefore, is my rough translation of my favorite poems of his, "Vrai nom," from his first book. If you read French, you can both see and hear the music, but even if not, try the words and listen to what you hear.  Please forgive any felicities, and do offer your thoughts if you'd like. In tribute, RIP, Yves Bonnefoy!


I will name desert this castle that you were,
Night that voice, absence your face,
And when you fall in the barren earth
I will name nothingness the lightning that bore you.

Dying is a country that you loved. I come
But eternally by your dark roads.
I destroy your desire, your form, your memory,
I am your pitiless enemy.

I will name you war and will take
for myself war's liberties and will hold
in my hands your obscure and well-traveled face,
In my heart this country which illuminates the storm.

To appear the deep light requires
an earth profligate and broken by the night.
From a shadowy wood the flame grows bright.
The word itself needs substance,

An inert shoreline beyond all song.
You must overcome death so that you can live,
Blood spilled is the purest presence.

Copyright © John Keene, all rights reserved.

And the original French:


Je nommerai désert ce château que tu fus,
Nuit cette voix, absence ton visage,
Et quand tu tomberas dans la terre stérile
Je nommerai néant l'éclair qui t'a porté.

Mourir est un pays que tu aimais.
Je viens
Mais éternellement par tes sombres chemins.
Je détruis ton désir, ta forme, ta mémoire,
Je suis ton ennemi qui n'aura de pitié.

Je te nommerai guerre et je prendrai
Sur toi les libertés de la guerre et j'aurai
Dans mes mains ton visage obscur et traversé,
Dans mon cœur ce pays qu'illumine l'orage.

La lumière profonde a besoin pour paraître
D'une terre rouée et craquante de nuit.
C'est d'un bois ténébreux que la flamme s'exalte.
Il faut à la parole même une matière.

Un inerte rivage au delà de tout chant.
Il te faudra franchir la mort pour que tu vives,
La plus pure présence est un sang répandu.

Copyright © the estate of Yves Bonnefoy, 2016. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Counternarratives' TLS Trifecta + Cosmonauts Avenue Review

In its British version Counternarratives continues to earn reviews, and I am very happy to report a rare trifecta in the Times Literary Supplement. (I say this not to humblebrag but out of real astonishment; other than the Wall Street Journal, not a single major US newspaper save the Wall Street Journal reviewed Counternarratives, though thankfully many magazines, journals and independent reviews more than made up for the big press's silence.) To the TLS, I say thank you, and thanks again!

First, critic Kate Webb published the longest, most rhapsodic and perspicacious of the three, entitled "Exceed Every Limit." It was one of the best reviews the book has received so far. Here is one quote I particularly enjoy, as she identifies one of my key intellectual-genealogical through-lines, via the greats Edward Said and Paul Gilroy. She also teaches me a new word, "polytych":

As its title suggests, Counternarratives contains “writing back” of the kind Edward Said once proposed; its stories are imbued with potent dialectical energy, bringing to mind Paul Gilroy’s key idea of the “Black Atlantic as a counte­­r­­culture of modernity”. Keene is not simply an oppositional writer, however: in his richly detailed accounts of black lives through history, dividing lines are continually crossed. So there are escapologists and prophets, motifs of cultural appropriation, false consciousness, prohibited desire, illicit knowledge, forbidden artistry, and everywhere the struggle for transcendence. Counternarratives consists of thirteen individual fictions – some of flashing brevity, others the length and intricacy of a novella. Together they act like a polytych: each story has its own integrity but an underlying intellectual coherence allows the reader to intimate their author’s power and purpose, and to identify the arrival of a writer who, like one of his own characters, has “a will of lead and a satin tongue”.

Another very positive TLS notice came from fiction editor Toby Lichtig, who decided to create his own alternative Man Booker Prize longlist of the "top thirteen novels from the past year," and placing Counternarratives on it, with in the aim in part to include "a little bit more experimental writing" than this year's Man Booker Prize committee did. He mentions Kate Webb's review specifically in his comments:

Our [TLS] reviewer...was hugely impressed by this dazzling retelling of colonial history in the Americas, a "writing back" inspired by writers from Jean Rhys to Edward Said but achieved with a unique vision that is all the author's own. "We have", wrote Webb, "become accustomed in recent years to the revisionary spirit of much postcolonial fiction, but the ambition, erudition and epic sweep of John Keene’s remarkable new collection of stories, travelling from the beginnings of modernity to modernism, place it in a class of its own."

Lastly, as I mentioned a few posts ago, in TLS's suggested summer reading list, critic and author Ben Eastham placed it "at the summit" of his book stack, adding:

Keene is among the contemporary American writers pushing at the boundaries of fiction, his angry, exhilarating stories about race and American history another counter-example (if it were needed) to the lazy assumption that literary innovation should be confined to the ivory tower.
To Webb, Lichtig and Eastham, and to the TLS I offer my heartfelt thanks!


I am always surprised when people ask me if it is OK to conduct an interview, because until Counternarratives I had participated in so few, and I relish opportunities to answer questions, no matter how challenging, about my work.  For me these interviews are always conversations, and if they bring more readers to my writing or to that of the interviewer or interviewers, or to any of the people I mention in passing, so much the better.

One fruit of such a conversation recently appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue, which published a chat I had with one of my and our brilliant Rutgers-Newark MFA students, Soili Smith, who when she's not producing writing of impressive depth and philosophical heft, is supervising tree planting in British Columbia. It was a joy to speak with Soili, and I hope readers found something interesting in the interview, which actually covers some new ground, I think!

A long quote, about novellas--we can never have enough of that form, can we?:
SS: I know I’ve asked you about this before, but I want to discuss novellas. I find in the world of literary journals and magazines, especially in the age of prolific digital publication, the novella is becoming a bit of a dirty word. I’ve heard it said that some publishers find novellas unmarketable to broad audiences. Counternarratives contains a number of stories that the book itself claims as novellas. What do you think the place for the novella is in literature? What’s its importance in your book?

JK: That’s a great question. Obviously there’s a long tradition of novella writing. Some of the greatest works, including in American literature, could be considered novellas. And it’s so bizarre to me, at a time when people express, in every venue you can think of, how much of a premium their time is, that there is this resistance to a form that is, of course, bigger than a short story, but is shorter than a 400 page novel. I love novels, and even did a sort of unconventional thing by writing a condensed 81 page novel [Annotations, New Directions Paperback]. But with [Counternarratives], well I’ll say this: part of the reason there are novellas in this book is that I used to teach an undergraduate Creative Writing course at Northwestern in which we required—for the Fiction majors—that in the first half of the year they write three or four short stories that they revised, and then in the second half we had this insane but wonderful requirement that they write a novella. I used to tell people about this and they would say, John you’re making this up, because it’s so improbable. But the students did it! Year after year, and it was invigorating but also brutal, because when you’ve got fifteen to seventeen students writing novellas, you have to read all those novellas. And you don’t just have to read one draft, you read multiple drafts. There was one point where I taught this class and I really thought I was going blind. Later on I realized, okay, I’m asking these students to do this, I read novellas all the time, why don’t I try to do this? What is it to write a novella? And it was exhilarating. There are several in the book: “Our Lady of Sorrows,” I think “The Aeronauts” could be one, and then “A Letter on the Trials of the Counterreformation in New Lisbon.” I feel like what those do in the space of this book, is they kind of press the limits of form and contemporary American storytelling. Just as those very brief, almost poetic, lyrical pieces suggest the possibilities of condensation, the novellas demonstrate the possibilities of expansion. So without writing a full novel, what might you do with this form? What’s possible? Can we write an epic in short fiction? And because all of these stories speak to each other, you have the lyric brevity and narrative density and expansion in conversation in interesting ways. I highly encourage [novella writing], but I will say publishers in general, I mean New Directions does publish a certain number of novellas every year. Melville House does as well, and Nightboat Books too, just to name a few publishers, but in general, there is a real hesitancy about it, which I personally don’t understand. I think a lot of it has to do, again, with conventions in American literary life, publishing culture, commercial culture. If you look at a book like Seize the Day by Saul Bellow, which is a remarkable book, it’s hilarious, devastating, and it’s a novella. And Henry James wrote novellas. I mean…