31 December 2006

And We're Back

I am now home, having returned safely from two weeks in Kenya. My friends up here in New Hampshire very kindly ordered a big snow storm for my return -- a few days ago, I was in the intense equatorial heat of Lamu Island, and yesterday I drove up from Boston and saw one car after another off the road, felled by snow and ice. (Indeed, a friend of mine was in a big pile-up that closed a section of the highway for two hours. He's not hurt, but his car was totalled.)

I've been trying to figure out how to write about all I did and saw and learned in Kenya, but right now it's such an undigested mass of experience in my head that I distrust much of anything I might say about it all, for fear of generalizing too much, for fear of blathering on, for fear of ranting. I've been dreading the inevitable questions such as, "How was your trip?" because there is no way to sum it up succinctly. The best thing to come up with is to say that if I were able to go back in a time machine and tell my earlier self if it was worth the time, expense, and anxiety, then I would certainly tell myself yes, go for it, do this. I would certainly warn myself of a few things, though -- be ready to be more outgoing than you are normally comfortable being, be ready for many hidden expenses, don't expect too much from the organized events (because "organized" is not what most of them were, and the best experiences were the most spontaneous, anyway), be prepared to be suspicious of everything anybody says, and though you won't regret not going on safari you may want to limit your time on Lamu more (the smell of donkey shit will become tiresome, as will the constant attention from locals wanting to offer their services for one thing or another -- they are friendly in a way that, for a lifelong New Englander, is both amazing and wearying).

I came home with a pile of books and magazines, and will report on them as much as I can, because one of the things I would like to do is find ways to bring more attention to some of the African literature that is difficult to find outside of Africa. A consortium of literary journals from Africa, the U.S., and elsewhere are working now to create ways to bring more of what has been published from Africa to readers throughout the world, and I hope be to be able to help bring more attention to these efforts as they progress.

Meanwhile, I have hundreds of emails to catch up with, various writing assignments to complete, jet-lag to get over, and that full-time teaching thing that I'm also supposed to be doing...

I'll be posting some links to various things that appeared while I was away, and I'm also moving this blog to the new version of Blogger -- no change in address or anything, but there will be some tweaks to the template and functions, and inevitably I'm sure there will be some moments when things look a little weird or out of place.

20 December 2006

Ships in High Transit

Below is a discussion by Njihia Mbitiru of "Ships in High Transit" by Binyavanga Wainaina.

Thank you to everyone who so kindly wrote of their anticipation of the following:

Around the age of twelve I took a highly significant shit. The actual shitting was not that special; what gave this otherwise banal episode an aura of importance was what happened after: as I pushed down the handle, I noticed for the first time, painted on the side of the porcelain tank in faded bold print: Made in Sussex.
That same evening I told my father of my discovery, expecting as children typically do that parental enthusiasm for the banal would be equal to or greater than their own, not understanding that by the time older folk have started having kids, the exotic origins of the downstairs crapper are as banal as the shit they were made to move.
Matano's boss may very well have his toilets made in Sussex and shipped to Kenya and all parts of the Commonwealth. I went on to peg most every toilet I saw and used with identical features as of British origin. Though I can’t fairly say I make a conscious association, hydraulic disposal of personal waste has an air of Albion stronger than say, wearing shirts and pants my ancestors would not consider proper clothing.
How interesting then, to read this excellent story, which extends the metaphoric potential of waste production and disposal into a meditation on history, identity, and the vagaries of negotiating both. (Spoilers start here).

Armitage Shanks, one of that class of not-quite Brits, has decided he should perhaps aspire to the “heroism” of his ancestors, of shipping "heavy ceramic water closets around the world".

So he decides to make shit up (Note: I can't promise I'll stay away from all the easy excremental puns--please bear with my enthusiasm). Enter the Maa, a piece of fakery both rank and grandiloquent.
The story of the Maa People niftily synthesizes the most common stereotypical narratives about Africa, and draws on that reliable saw of everyone from Edgar Rice Burroughs and Rider Haggard (whose brother, by the way, was for a time a colonial District Officer stationed in Kenya) to Leo Frobenius: a group of isolated primitives is somehow in possession of ancient wisdom, which they have intuitive (and therefore degenerate and inferior) access to. Typically there's a pile of old stuff to go along with this mystical power, tied to it in some ineffable way. While this intuition is beyond the pale, so to speak, simply unacceptable as the route to that legacy, it takes the right person to come along and use his superior faculties in claiming that antediluvian prize.
It's also this apparently innate superiority that turns primitive intuition, itself a mask placed on the "Other", into a non-threatening artifact (Matano’s astute disappointment with the desire of Westerners to turn a person into an index of exotic features, for example). And the story is full of these ostensibly non-threatening artifacts, like Matano, Abdullahi, Otieno a.k.a Ole Lenana, and the "Maa" women arrayed in the hotel courtyard to sing for Armitage--I mean Ole um Shambalaa's guests.

All involved in the local end of the charade understand, like um Shambalaa, that making shit up pays. And all are prepared to go to the necessary lengths (i.e. “making a white man your pussy” as Otieno does, getting in business with Nigerians— Matano’s secret sex tape) in order to realize profits.

No desires—especially the sexual kind—are ever anything but part of a sales pitch. Everything is a hustle. Everything has a price, and the rapacious hunger for profit is only successful in the degree to which it identifies and secures an equally rapacious desire for what is on offer.

I’m thinking of the pitches in the story, first Shanks, then that of Prescott and Jean Paul (as seen through Matano’s eyes), Abdullahi’s, the anonymous panting-into-the-receiver monologue for the “SugarOhHoneyHoneyMommy” in Germany, and the unwittingly self-parodying macho bluster of the beach boy. The story could even be seen as a parody of a sales pitch, pointed bitingly at its own absurd debasing premise. Everyone has something to sell. The goods are a body and history is a marketing strategy.

On the other end are the Jean-Paul and Prescotts, themselves in search of an angle, of something to sell and a way to sell it, and the working class European tourists taking a vacation from twelve months spent in “some air-conditioned industrial plant”, availing themselves of the pleasures their history has prepared them to seek after, again and again, and that the locals are working overtime to convince them is really their hearts’ desire.

There is plenty in this single story to think over, and it’s a testament to Wainaina’s acuity and skill that he is able to suggest in just a single story about tourism the devastation wrought on a whole continent by the relentless application of the pernicious logic underlying this sad business.

Earlier I told a story about my early experience with a toilet, and if I may, I’d like to take a cue from Wainaina and, at the risk of being excessive, tie that encounter more firmly to the story.

The promises and injunctions of colonialism are those of the toilet. With independence came the realization that, in fact, both the revamped toilet and the shit it was supposed to disappear could still provide an entertaining spectacle (the secret raison d‘etre of tourism?), if only because the nation-state-toilet was now a caricature of its former pure, guided-by-the-enlightened-European self, a thing now made of shit. Shit disappearing more shit; developed, highly industrialized others may come attend the museal proceedings, and for a hefty price, extracted by the locals with cynical resignation, indulge in purging themselves into various flavors of delight.

Shanks’ efforts are ironic in their production of the very thing his family devoted itself to making disappear. His desire to sanitize his past is simply more bullshit proffered in the hopes of making money. Matano and the rest chase that money, and find themselves laboring to produce shit facsimiles of their history, their selves, for the pleasure of others. It is still possible to do things like provide for one’s own, to make sure that “things will appear in the household” and “school fees…mysteriously paid”, but these minor victories cannot be weighed decisively against the logic to which all efforts are finally bent.

And so the wheel turns as before, a sad dirty secondhand joke laughing mirthlessly at itself. For money.

Topical exegesis aside, the story is put together well enough, and I’m looking forward to that promised novel. I suspect Wainaina’s will find the novel a more amenable form than the short story.

I do wish the story were leaner. There are extraneous bits whose variant repetition of thematic concerns does not seem to add to the story. For example, the paragraph about the village is a distraction and should have been left out. Same goes for the one featuring the Texan.

Otieno is an interesting character, particularly in the context of an aggressively homophobic society, who should’ve had more space in the story. The lamentably common stereotype of coast-dweller as more susceptible to the foreigner-introduced “perversion” of homosexuality receives comparatively little treatment for a story so deftly concerned with the production of stereotypes. Wainaina could have gone further.

Jean Paul’s view of the proceedings would have made for a satisfying counterpoint to the well-handled treatment of Sixty Minute Lady. I also wanted to hear more from the “Maa” women, who always appear as a group. Why not as individuals? Isn’t there one local woman—Giriama femme to Matano’s homme—who might have featured with the same prominence as the other more visible characters? I’m not interested in the reproduction of social inequities in the structure of a story purportedly about those inequities; I am unlikely to learn anything interesting if this is the case.

In this sense the writer appears to share the blind spot of his main protagonist. This is less a negative criticism than the recognition by an artist that one is always working within the parameters of a received discursive imperative, and whether or not we hew to the injunction that we must obey this imperative, I find the most rewarding literary experiences (reading, writing, and discussion) come from an investigation of the marginal and “distasteful”.

Some little things, such as a Swedish man named Jean Paul, I found mildly distressing.

Marechera references are always a plus, and I encourage those unfamiliar with this extraordinary Zimbabwean writer to read Black Sunlight, from which the line “ and the mirror reveals me, a naked and vulnerable fact” is taken, as well as House of Hunger, The Black Insider, and Cemetery of Mind, all of which are readily available in the US. For those in Zim, send me a copy of Mindblast!

This is a longer post than I intended, but honestly it doesn’t feel long enough. I hope this story receives the attention it deserves, for its merits as a fine piece of fiction that is part of what Borges might have called our universal patrimony, and also as one of the best short stories to have been written by a Kenyan in a long time.

19 December 2006

A Few Resources

I'm here in Nairobi, having an amazing time with all sorts of writers from around the world, learning so much that it's going to take me weeks and months and years to sort through it all. For now, though, and while Njihia formulates his next guest post, I thought I'd share a few resources from people who are here, are associated with the Kwani LitFest, or are just particularly interesting:That's all I have time for at the moment. Once I get back to the States at the end of December, I'll have much, much more.

15 December 2006

Thanks to Matt

Hello all. I didn't realize that Matt's never done this before--had a guest blogger--something he failed to mention when he suggested I try it...
I apologize for having kept you all waiting--I realize Matt meant for this to come on sooner, but I've been having cold feet.
But, I'm very excited and grateful to Matt for the opportunity. He and I had dinner the week before his departure, and our conversation has stayed in my mind. The prospect of his visiting my hometown had the curious effect of making me feel as though I had just arrived in the US, as opposed to having lived here for several years.
I also realized, with pleasure, the swarm of connections that each person has the ability to make by simply leaving one place and going to another. Perhaps there will be time to talk in some detail about these connections in my entries. I feel in this moment generous enough to make a number of philosophical remarks about chance and fate and so forth, but as my papa says, this would be just "winetalk".
I'm simply happy that a friend of mine has the chance to see the place where I'm from, a chance so few of my friends here have. I'm also happy that SLS is providing a much needed fulcrum for the literary efforts in Kenya and in the region, efforts which a change in the political climate has allowed to thrive.
That there are now, in Kenya, not just Nairobi I hope, fifteen year olds writing bad poetry and nursing the stirrings of literary ambition who have the opportunity to know of such an event as SLS, let alone attend or be close to it in some way, is itself a watershed.
I look forward to the emergence of an open, vibrant literary culture. I want those same people, my neighbours, my relatives, my friends, who fed me with all sorts of books, with the skiffy that made me want to become, well, a skiffie, to see "local produce" on their shelves.
With that in mind, let me say that the next entry will be on "local produce", so to speak. I'll be talking about Binyavanga Wainaina's "Ships in High Transit", which Matt mentioned.

11 December 2006

Guest Blogger: Njihia Mbitiru

I'm getting packed up and ready to head to Kenya for a couple weeks, and while I'm gone I will try to post an occasional update, but I also thought it would be fun to try something I've never tried around here -- a guest blogger.

And it only makes sense that while I'm in Kenya the first Mumpsimus guest blogger should be Njihia Mbitiru, who is in the same masters degree program as I am in at Dartmouth, is a Clarion Workshop graduate, and is originally from Kenya. In fact, my participation in SLS Kenya owes a lot to him, because he stopped me one day at the Dartmouth library and said he'd just read an amazing Kenyan story -- "Ships in High Transit" by Binyavanga Wainaina. That put Wainaina's name into my head, I read up on his literary organization Kwani, and started paying more attention to Kenyan writers. When I chanced upon a reference to SLS Kenya somewhere, I was intrigued, and when I saw Wainaina was involved, I decided to apply.

So please be nice to Njihia while I'm gone -- this is his first time blogging, so any encouragement is welcome. His first post should appear sometime in the next day or so, if all goes well...

07 December 2006

"Words Can Mean Anything"


Orpheus never liked words. He had his music. He would get a funny look on his face and I would say what are you thinking about and he would always be thinking about music.

If we were in a restaurant, sometimes I would get embarrassed because Orpheus looked sullen and wouldn't talk to me and I thought people felt sorry for me. I should have realized that women envied me. Their husbands talked too much.

But I wanted to talk to him about my notions. I was working on a new philosophical system. It involved hats.

This is what it is to love an artist: The moon is always rising above your house. The houses of your neighbors look dull and lacking in moonlight. But he is always going away from you. Inside his head there is always something more beautiful.

Orpheus said the mind is a slide ruler. It can fit around anything. Words can mean anything. Show me your body, he said. It only means one thing.

(She looks at her father, embarrassed for revealing too much.)

Or maybe two or three things. But only one thing at a time.
--Sarah Ruhl,

05 December 2006

Duotrope's Digest

Via a discussion at the Metaxucafe Forums, I discovered an amazing tool: Duotrope's Digest, which bills itself as "Markets for Writers", but I can also see it as a useful tool for readers who are curious to find magazines, journals, and publishers they haven't encountered before.

For writers, indeed, this is a treasure-trove, providing detailed information on a stunning variety of publications. It's also got a great search engine that lets you filter results by all sorts of different criteria, including genre, length, media, payscale, submission type, country, theme issues, and even what awards the publisher nominates for. The site claims to update daily, with every market checked at least once a week.

The White Diamond

After reading Tom Bissell's appreciation of the films of Werner Herzog in the December Harper's, I decided to use the wonders of Netflix to catch up with Herzog's documentaries, because though I revere many of his feature films, of the documentaries I had only seen Grizzly Man and My Best Fiend: Klaus Kinski.

Now I have added The White Diamond to that list. It is an astounding film, strange and powerful, filled with rich imagery and immense, subtle depths of emotion and philosophy. It presents many of Herzog's favorite themes and character types, making it feel like a cousin to Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo, but it is a gentler film, more hopeful and less corruscating in tone, but no less powerful in its portrayal of obsession, vision, and nature.

The White Diamond tells the story of Dr. Graham Dorrington, a British aerospace engineer who created an airship to fly over the canopy of the rainforest in Guyana -- rainforest canopies have been mostly unexplored territory, and are thought to be places of tremendous biodiversity. Herzog explores Dorrington's reasons for taking on the project, which stem from his association with Dieter Plage, a wildlife filmmaker who died in 1993 in Sumatra while flying above the rainforest in a craft Dorrington had built for him. Herzog shapes the story to portray Dorrington's quest as the dream of an obsessed man, the sort of dream common to many Herzog protagonists.

Of course, any story leaves things out and trims ragged edges into cleaner cause and effect relationships -- reality contains too many details to be reduced to anything other than itself -- but Herzog is particularly known for sculpting his documentaries, and in a BBC interview, Dorrington addresses how that tendency affected The White Diamond:
BBC Four: Herzog is famous for fabricating certain elements in his documentaries. Did you experience any of that?

Graham Dorrington: As the film went on I did repeat phrases that Werner used. I balked at one point when he wanted me to talk about curses, but he would often insist on a particular wording. For instance, the scene with the champagne bottle at the falls was all his language although the idea was mine. Also, some things were acted. The argument with Herzog in the film is completely fake -- pure acting. Why did I do it? Because I said to Werner that if I was going to do the film then we'd have to do it 100% his way; it would be no good for him to tell me how to design an airship and I couldn't tell him how to direct a film. So the argument was set up, but it did underline the feelings of a lot of people about who was really in control. On the other hand, there is a scene at the end where I had to think very intensely about Dieter Plage which brought back a lot of sadness and was very genuine.
This is a different approach from the cinema verite style of many documentarians -- filmmakers who would be horrified to stage any scene -- but it highlights the difference between journalism and art. Journalism seeks a mythical objectivity, with journalistic documentaries pretending their severe selection of materials to be somehow beyond the influence of any particular point of view, while art is (I'm tempted to say by definition) raw material shaped by perception. (I don't mean to denigrate journalism here -- just because absolute objectivity is impossible doesn't make it a bad ideal to strive toward.)

Herzog's mastery is shown in his ability to distinguish between good material that is raw and good material that needs to be shaped. The staged argument is convincing, and as Dorrington says, it efficiently conveys a conflict of ideas that, in the messier reality outside the film, would have come out in more fragmentary, less open ways. It helps viewers discern the characters' motivations and priorities. The scene where Dorrington talks about Plage's death is left raw, mostly a single shot with very few edits, because part of the film has been building up, through careful hints and shards of information, to that climactic moment, and it is as powerful a monologue as I've ever seen on film, an agonizing and cathartic moment of shared, tortured humanity.

And then there is the beauty. Herzog has not made a nature documentary. With The White Diamond, the place he depicts is intimately connected -- indeed, interpreted -- by the people who are a part of the story. We see the rainforest through their differing perceptions of it. By the time we are released into our own consciousnesses and given imagery without commentary, we glimpse the animals, the plants, the trees, the water through many different points of view -- through the view of personal, natural, and cultural histories, none of them complete, all of them full of possibility. The White Diamond is certainly an incomplete and perhaps even misleading portrayal of the "real" Dorrington, but it is much more than merely a portrait of a person -- it is an evocation of the mysteries Herzog has himself been obsessed with for his entire career, the unsolveable, fascinating mysteries of desire, dreams, and nature.

02 December 2006

Quarterly Conversation

My essay "What is Appropriate", about literature and high school and sex, is now live at The Quarterly Conversation, where lots of other interesting stuff is also available -- despite my appearance there, it has become quite a strong webzine, a place for enlivening and enlightening discussion of books and writers, as well as various other cultural arts and artifacts.

01 December 2006

Katherine Min at The Happy Booker

Here at Mumpsimus Central, we love it when our friends hang out together, and so we're having a little party* to celebrate Friend of the Mumpsimus Katherine Min guest-blogging for Friend of the Mumpsimus The Happy Booker. As Hero to the Mumpsimus Col. John "Hannibal" Smith used to say, we love it when a plan comes together. Or something like that...

In any case, we loved in particular these sentences of Katherine's:
I come to fiction from the premise that reality isn't so great. Reality is what we're stuck with. Fiction is compelling precisely because it takes us beyond what is merely real.
*What is a little party at Mumpsimus Central? All I'll admit is that it usually involves archaic words, obscure books, and shotgun shells.

Salon Fantastique Giveaway

Update 12/2/06: The contest is now closed, because we have three winners: Aaron Hughes, Livia Llewellyn, and Mario Milosevic! Many thanks to everybody who responded. I have appended the correct answer to the question below.

I have come upon some extra copies of the new anthology Salon Fantastique edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, and so it's time for a giveaway.

The first three people who email me the correct answer to the following question will receive a free copy of Salon Fantastique:
Who established the salon at the Hotel Rambouillet?

Answer: Catherine de Vivonne, Marquise de Rambouillet
Here's the table of contents for the book:
"La Fee Verte" by Delia Sherman
"Dust Devil on a Quiet Street" by Richard Bowes
"To Measure the Earth" by Jedediah Berry
"A Grey and Soundless Tide" by Catherynne M. Valente
"Concealment Shoes" by Marly Youmans
"The Guardian of the Egg" by Christopher Barzak
"My Travels With Al-Qaeda" by Lavie Tidhar
"Chandail" by Peter S. Beagle
"Down the Wall" by Greer Gilman
"Femaville 29" by Paul Di Filippo
"Nottamun Town" by Gregory Maguire
"Yours, Etc." by Gavin Grant
"The Mask of ’67" by David Prill
"The Night Whiskey" by Jeffrey Ford
"The Lepidopterist" by Lucius Shepard