29 January 2007

Powerful Silence, Powerful Sound

Alex Ross on Toru Takemitsu:
Takemitsu’s career, like that of many a twentieth-century composer, took the form of an outward journey and an eventual homecoming. What’s notable is that along the way he rediscovered his identity as a Japanese artist, having initially rejected tradition out of disgust with the hyper-nationalism of imperial Japan. Above all, he prized the concept of ma--the "powerful silence," as he defined it, which is set in relief by a single, equally powerful sound. Most of his mature works begin with a tone materializing from silence, and end with a dematerialization toward silence again.

Demon Theory Week at the LBC

Over at the LitBlog Co-op, it's Demon Theory Week. This book didn't do much for me, but that may have as much to do with me as it, so don't stay away, because the discussion has already gotten interesting.

28 January 2007

Roving Thoughts on Apocalpyse

There's some discussion going around the blogosphere of apocalypse and related issues. A post by Joseph Kugelmass at The Valve offers all sorts of interesting ideas, and promises to be the first part of a consideration of the role of poetry and apocalypse, particularly as it derives from the question of what Frank O'Hara has to do with global warming -- or, more accurately, isn't "personal" poetry trivial in a world faced with various threats of destruction?

[Update 1/29: The second post, with reference to the movie Children of Men and to O'Hara's concept of "personism" is now available.]

(Speaking of global warming and apocalypse, as somebody points out in the comments to Kugelmass's post, Bruce Sterling has declared that the Viridian Design movement is winning.)

I fear the discussion of poetry in a world of apocalyptic climate change will devolve into the old arguments about whether writers have to be "engaged" or not, and it's a discussion I find tiresome for all sorts of different reasons, among them that it tends to lead to people advocating for writers to create propaganda, and to tedious discussions of what it means to be moral. Bleccch. On the other hand, I hope the discussion rises beyond that, because the question of how writing reflects particular realities, and how writers choose to represent their perception of the world, can be a thoughtful and valuable one.

In response to, or perhaps out of a desire for, a perceived apocalpyse of poetic expression, Kenneth Goldsmith advocates "conceptual writing" and "uncreativity". The Poetry Foundation, publishers of the venerable and generally somewhat staid Poetry magazine, made Goldsmith a blogger for a week, and the results were provocative and, I found, fascinating. I don't know if the permalink to the discussion will work later (it doesn't right now), but you can also find the posts at the front page for the blog.

I first learned of Goldsmith through Ron Silliman, and have completely mixed feelings about it all, because I'm really rather fond of the traditional old ideas of what reading is and what writing is, and yet while I ultimately reject the results of Goldsmith's ideas, I nonetheless love watching the process of coming up with them, justifying them, arguing them -- it's some of the most lively writing about writing and reading that I've encountered in quite some time. For instance, the opening paragraphs of the Thursday post at the Poetry Foundation:

I am the most boring writer that has ever lived. If there were an Olympic sport for extreme boredom, I would get a gold medal. My books are impossible to read straight through. In fact, every time I have to proofread them before sending them off to the publisher, I fall asleep repeatedly. You really don’t need to read my books to get the idea of what they’re like; you just need to know the general concept.

Over the past 10 years, my practice today has boiled down to simply retyping existing texts. I’ve thought about my practice in relation to Borges’s Pierre Menard, but even Menard was more original than I am: he, independent of any knowledge of Don Quixote, reinvented Cervantes’ masterpiece word for word. By contrast, I don’t invent anything. I just keep rewriting the same book.

What can you say to that? It's not so much Goldsmith's practice that I find so appealing (almost charming), but his way of explaining himself. The ideas aren't too far from Dada or even Gertrude Stein, but the puckish glee, the skirting and skating of irony, the embracing of the most contrary views available -- that's refreshing. So many other manifestos and movements have based themselves on an oppositional anger, trying to create generational and factional skuffles, and I don't see that as much in Goldsmith, which perhaps is why I like his proclamations and analyses so much: I don't feel compelled to accept them. In his Tuesday post on "Uncreative Writing", Goldsmith says:
At the start of each semester, I ask my students to simply suspend their disbelief for the duration of the class and to fully buy into uncreative writing. I tell them that one good thing that can come out of the class is that they completely reject this way of working. At least their own conservative positions becomes fortified and accountable; they are able to claim that they have spent time with these attitudes for a prolonged period of time and quite frankly, they’ve found them to be a load of crap. Another fine result is that the uncreative writing exercises become yet another tool in their writing toolbox, upon which they will draw from for the rest of their careers. Of course, the very best result--and the unlikeliest one--is that they dedicate their life to uncreative writing.
This sounds like a class I'd like to take, even though I think it's unlikely I would devote my life to uncreative writing. (I enjoy the other kind too much.) Nonetheless, I feel no hostility toward the concept of uncreative writing, and I like the idea of it as a tool in the toolbox -- I've always been attracted to collage, which is a sort of half-creative half-uncreative sort of art. I enjoy seemingly pointless, even arbitrary, allusions and structures. I like to see what happens to things ripped from their contexts and wrenched from their environments. It's not all I want in art, but it's certainly a type I enjoy.

The apocalypse of any art lies in the triumph of only one type over all the others -- the destruction of diversity. Manifestos of all sorts can be interesting because of their energy, but when they declare the death of everything other than themselves, I find them unappealing, because eclecticism is the antidote to sterility.

In a universe where Goldsmith's idea of uncreative art somehow managed to overwhelm every other type, it would turn the previous day's or week's or month's or year's uncreative art into a sort of creative art, because there would be nothing else to pillage, no other raw material -- the uncreative would be based on the uncreative, and the degrees of uncreativity would create a fractal explosion of discombobulated expression, a new language of unlimited nonsense.

Such an apocalypse is certainly not desirable, at least for a conservative like me who still enjoys the old ways of reading and writing, but I don't doubt it would be, for a few minutes at least, interesting to behold.

26 January 2007


There are so many good things about Babel, so many moments that held me transfixed as I watched, that I am reluctant to say what I really think: That it doesn't add up to much. This is not to say it's a bad movie -- it's vastly better than much of what's out there -- but it sets expectations so high that only a perfect mix of luck and genius could create anything to meet them, and the luck and genius of Babel lie scattered (plentifully, but still scattered) through various scenes and strands of story.

The first expectations I had for Babel were the expectations created by the director's (Alejandro González Iñárritu) and writer's (Guillermo Arriaga) previous movies, Amores Perros and 21 Grams. I recognize that it's perhaps unfair to judge a work by its creator's previous works, but I can't help it -- watching Amores Perros was an extraordinary experience, and 21 Grams, though certainly inferior, was nonetheless interesting and powerful. Babel, too, is interesting and powerful at times, but much as 21 Grams was a better experience in the moment than on reflection, Babel dissipates after further thought.

While watching Babel, I was transfixed. Iñárritu has become a slicker filmmaker than he was with Amores Perros, and he sets up heart-stopping situations and paces them brilliantly, alternating slow and thoughtful moments with explosions of suspense, tension, and action. From long, slow close-ups on faces, allowing actors to suggest depths and contradictions of character, we move to sharp, jostled, ragged, frenetically-edited scenes of movement, confusion, panic, terror. Amores Perros contained all the same elements, but they were put together differently, more languidly, in a way that was somehow less manipulative, less determined, and, for me at least, while on the whole less gripping, vastly more satisfying.

Immediately after leaving the theatre, I began to wonder about the movie. I couldn't deny how much I had enjoyed it, how moved I had been in the moment of watching. Most movies, even ones that I like very much, do not have that effect on me, and I didn't want, and don't want, to discount it.

And yet I began to wonder: Did we really need the story of Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett's children and the nanny/maid who inadvertently gets them into so much trouble? It wasn't the ridiculous coincidence of it all that bothered me -- many of my favorite movies and plays and books would not exist without ridiculous coincidences in their plots -- but rather that the coincidences didn't add much to the movie. In King Lear, it's pretty hard to believe that all of the outcast characters would meet at the blasted heath during a storm, but I am perfectly happy to cut Shakespeare some slack in the realism department because that scene is so rich and beautiful, so who cares about realism? I fall back on realism and plausibility only when there's nothing else to grab, or when I feel the creator is being manipulative or arbitrary. The California/Mexico strand of the movie feels both manipulative and arbitrary, and as well acted and filmed as that section is, I couldn't escape the feeling that the movie would have been more effective without it.

A day later, I have begun to wonder other things. Do the stories add up to anything other than a plea for recognition of the commonalities between people? Oddly enough, while watching the film I never thought it was about commonalities, though now that theme seems obvious to me. Connections, certainly, I recognized those right off, but the connections between events sand characters seemed to be simply a convenient way for Iñárritu and Arriaga to link up some different stories, a way that they have used before and seem comfortable with. The movie was most compelling for me when it was showing people at extremes, showing people pushed toward impossible decisions in awful situations. It is in those moments that it becomes most emotionally devastating.

Now I think Iñárritu missed a great opportunity, that he should have pushed it all further somehow, dug deeper, and not settled for so much comfort, so much clarity. He takes characters to extremes only to make it all okay in the end. A better movie might have been the sequel -- how do the characters deal with life after their crises? What becomes of them now that they've reached the edge and climbed back? At least we could have been left with some doubt about circumstances and realities, some ambiguity, some space for possibility and raggedness and truth. We leave the movie knowing too much of what is what, and so the world gets shrunk to the size of a few stories, instead of the stories expanding to hint at the size of the world.

JPK Speculates

James Patrick Kelly is touring New Hampshire at the moment as part of the NH Humanities Council's year-long Speculate program, and I went to his presentation at the Pease Public Library in my hometown of Plymouth.

Jim, Meghan McCarron, and I went out for dinner beforehand so that we could be geeky and talk sci-fi. (Meghan and I had, earlier that day, caused a slight scene in the dining hall of the school where we work, because we were discussing some writer or another, book deals, sub-subgenres, conventions, etc. all in the space of about a minute and a half, because we share common reference points and can thus speak in what sounds to everyone else like a different dialect. We stopped when we realized everybody around us was silent and staring at us in bemused horror.) It was a marvelous dinner, and Meghan didn't insult New Hampshire, the state Jim and I have lived in for much of our lives, too vociferously, which disappointed us somewhat, because there is nothing a true New Hampshire-ite likes more than for somebody to proclaim the state impossible to live in -- it makes us lifers feel hardy.

Meghan then had to return to work for dorm duty, and I led Jim to the library, where about twenty people were waiting to hear him read and listen to him talk about whatever he was going to talk about. He began by reading his story "Unique Visitors", which proved a fun warm-up, and then he discussed The Singularity. This was not a discussion that people who have been familiar with the concept for a long time would have found to be a revelation -- although Jim's presentation style is so engaging that it would nevertheless be fun -- but was, instead, intended to let an audience know about some of the things that contemporary science fiction writers think about. It was a big hit, and the audience seemed both inspired and enthralled. Jim even got into an extended discussion of the Metaverse. As we say around here, great fun was had by all.

25 January 2007

Going Down River Road by Meja Mwangi

Baby should not have drunk coffee. He urinated all of it during the night and now the smell lay thick and throat-catching, overcoming even the perfume of his mother's bed across the room. In the bed Ben lay with the boy's mother curled in his large arms, warm and soft and fast asleep. But Ben was not asleep anymore. The pungent baby urine stink had awakened him long before his usual waking up time. He released the woman, turned and reached on the bedside table for a cigarette to combat the musty smell from the baby's bed. There were no cigarettes in the packet. He lit a half-smoked one from the ash-tray and lay smoking in the early morning gloom. Wini breathed soft and low by his side. Her nude body lay stretched out against his, her hand resting on the inside of his hairy thigh. She would be waking up soon to make his breakfast. He did not stir her. She had her own clockwork system that first turned her over once or twice before she opened her eyes to complain about the shortness of the past night. In another half hour he would be on his way to work.
And so we are welcomed into the world of Meja Mwangi's Going Down River Road, first published in 1976. In Urban Obsessions, Urban Fears: The Postcolonial Kenyan Novel, J. Roger Kurtz says Mwangi's "urban novels remain the paradigmatic and in many ways most interesting examples of the urban genre from Kenya," and he calls Going Down River Road "the Nairobi novel par excellence".

I do not have the knowledge or background to judge how accurate Kurtz's perception of the novel's importance is, but it was recommended to me strongly enough that it become the object of a quest I and some friends went on when we were in Nairobi. A Kenyan had told us that the book is a fine example of how to write about a particular place and time, and that it evoked a lost Nairobi that was nonetheless familiar enough. The book was described with such passion that we became determined to find copies for ourselves. We went from one bookstore to another, but though they all had books by Mwangi (he's a prolific writer), they did not have Going Down River Road. The afternoon turned to evening and all the shops in the city center closed. We asked around, and someone told us that if anybody would have copies of the book, it would be a bookstore over in a mall in Westlands, and so we got into a taxi and sped off in search of the book -- and lo and behold, we found a pile of them. One for each of us.

It amuses and disturbs me to think that I bought Going Down River Road in a mall in one of the richer areas of Nairobi, because the book itself is so much about the traps and travails of utter poverty. It tells the story of Ben, who works at a construction job and spends most of the little bit of money he makes on alcohol and prostitutes, until one day his (ex-prostitute) girlfriend leaves him with her young son (known only as Baby) and never returns. Ben is often miserable, and just as often he is an observer of worse misery than his own. Becoming the caretaker for Baby does not turn him into some sort of saint -- he only barely takes care of the boy, though eventually he does pay his school fees and make sure he goes to school.

Ben is vehemently misogynistic, and after Wini abandons him, his misogyny becomes worse than it ever has been. He is not an appealing character, and yet Mwangi writes about him in such a way that we can feel some sympathy, and so we care about his fate. I found myself becoming frustrated with him in the way I would become frustrated with a friend whose opinions seemed ridiculous to me and whose actions even more so, but who nonetheless possessed enough elements of goodness to make me want to remain in his company for at least a short time. Mwangi avoids both cliche and sentimentality by making Ben such a difficult character to like, and yet there is enough to like -- an intelligence that gets fiercely beaten down but won't disappear completely -- that the book doesn't slide into frigid cynicism. Though the narrative verges on fetishizing the squalor and reveling in the misery, it never quite descends to that (in my eyes, at least) because Ben's intelligence does occasionally prevail, and he recognizes not just the pain he feels himself, but the pain of other people -- including pain he causes. He is incapable of escaping this world for himself, but he holds out hope that Baby might, and he tries as best he can to maintain the friendship most important to him so that he doesn't sink into a bleaker world of his own making, a world of only himself.

Going Down River Road is, indeed, a good example of a novel that is as much about its setting as its characters, because the characters are so inextricable from the setting, so entwined with it. The book grows repetitive at times, perhaps to indicate the borders of the life Ben has made for himself. The writing varies in quality from sometimes breezy and a bit thin to evocative in its descriptions of physical sensations -- at its best, this is a novel that assaults all the senses.

There is a political element to the book, too, as Ben watches people try to solve problems around him and address the political situation of Kenya. The book does not offer much hope here, as in this passage twenty pages from the end:
There are many things Ben knows that Bhai will never understand. Machore can never raise the necessary deposit to register as a candidate. And even if he could raise the money he would then have to find a consituency to contest and convince the constituents to vote for him. And who would listen to him? Only the labourers, and only at lunch time when there is nothing else to do. And he would still have a certain amount of trouble. The labourers are a tired hungry people. They don't believe in anybody or anything anymore. They do not even believe in the building anymore. Now they know. Just as a man will turn his back to you, a building gets completed and leaves you unoccupied. The hands just do not believe. If he bought them beer, Machore might convince the hands to listen to his promises. But they would still not vote if they got up with a terrible hangover or the weather became lousy on polling day or the queue got too long or something. To the hands it makes little difference: just another name in the newspapers, another face in the headlines, a voice on the radio, more promises...
We are left to decide for ourselves what such feelings amount to. Ben, clearly, has not been helped by politicians, and his growth, such as it is, is from leave-me-alone individualism to a recognition of his need for something other than himself, even if everything else -- the government, Baby, his friends, his employers -- seems to be an impediment or a threat. The novel ends with a small moment of connection, a moment that shatters the profound and futile loneliness the city instills. The ambiguity of this moment, its inability to be summed up as a simple moral and its many implications within the context of the story, makes Going Down River Road so much more than a simple portrait of a particular time or group of people -- it is a scream against the waste that life allows.

22 January 2007

Seven Loves at the LBC

It's Seven Loves week at the LitBlog Co-op, and I highly recommend stopping by now and then this week, because Valerie Trueblood's novel is absolutely beautiful -- lyrical, affecting, complex, and entrancing (any other quarter, it probably would have been my first pick, but I couldn't help but fall hopelessly in love with Wizard of the Crow). I'm hoping to do a bit of posting about it later in the week, but some unexpected events at work have knocked me a bit behind on things.

16 January 2007

Rain Taxi: The Auction

The great and glorious Rain Taxi is having an auction, which is good news for anybody who likes interesting books. Even before I started writing for them, Rain Taxi was -- both in print and online -- the place I most frequently discovered great books I'd never heard of. Their interviews are often marvelous, too -- see, for instance, the recent ones with Neil Gaiman, Ben Fountain, and Clare Dudman. (Note to Gaiman fans: there's a bunch of signed and rare stuff at the auction.)

The auction ends this coming Sunday, January 21.

LBC Winter Selection, etc.

Over at the LitBlog Co-op is an annoucement of this quarter's Read This! selection, a book that I utterly adore. (And I just about utterly adore one of the other nominees, too, so it seemed to me like one of the stronger quarters the LBC has had in a while. I'll have a lot more to say later.)

Things are likely to be slow here this week (as if they haven't been for the past few weeks...) because we're finishing up work on Best American Fantasy, which is shaping up to be a pretty durn interesting anthology, methinks, and one unlike any other out there. (Not that I'm biased or anything.)

Speaking of BAF, Jeff VanderMeer (who also recommends the LBC pick) has posted his thoughts on some of what we've encountered while reading. I'm still thinking about all this, trying to have something resembling a coherent thought after reading and discussing piles of stories, so I'm going to refrain from saying anything for right now other than that basically I concur with Jeff.

15 January 2007

"The Reasons for the Science Fiction Fad"

From Time magazine, May 1949:

There has been some speculation about the reasons for the science-fiction fad. The Saturday Review of Literature's Harrison Smith has speculated about the relation of the "age of anxiety" to the "scientific fantasy story" as "a buffer against known and more conceivable terrors." Publishers' Weekly finds that the appeal of these stories lies "in their free flight of [imagination] . . . uninhibited by present reality, yet sometimes terrifyingly close to the advanced discoveries of modern science."

The reader who reads science fiction dispassionately is likely to be struck by how closely the human imagination is tied to reality, even when it deliberately sets out to violate it. Stanley Weinbaum's loonies and slinkers have been seen before. The shapes may be different, but his dream-beasts come startlingly close to what the human race has been running across, for a good many years, in its childish nightmares.

12 January 2007

No Better Time to Buy Books from Small Presses

What with the bankruptcy of AMS/PGW -- a major distributor of books from independent presses -- many publishers of books and authors we all know and love are struggling to stay afloat themselves.

Things sound particularly scary for McSweeney's, publishers of this year's Mumpsimus Award winner, Here They Come by Yannick Murphy:
For McSweeney's, the timing of AMS's filing could not have been worse: A large portion of the revenues from the publisher's new Dave Eggers novel, What is the What -- a percentage of which were to be donated to the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation to aid the Sudanese in America and the Sudan -- is now tied up in the bankruptcy. "We shipped 60,000 copies during that period and the proceeds are not here yet," said Horowitz.
Among the many quirky and wondrous McSweeney's books, I'm still reading and enjoying -- loving, actually -- The Children's Hospital by Chris Adrian, a very big book that I am reading very, very slowly.

Plenty of other publishers have been affected by the bankruptcy, too, including Soft Skull Press, publisher of Nick Mamatas's new novel, Under My Roof as well as H2O by Mark Schwartz, which I know Jeff VanderMeer liked, and the upcoming Jamestown by Matthew Sharpe, which back in March Richard Nash was already telling me I would love, and African Psycho by Alain Mabanckou, which looks like it's quite something (I've only had time to read the first couple pages so far). And one of the many books I've felt guilty for not having read yet, Choir Boy by Charlie Anders. And one of my particular favorites of the last few years, Oh Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet. And-- and-- and--

For a full list of publishers that will be affected in some way or another by the bankruptcy (along with links to their websites), see the PGW site. For news and info about the fallout, keep your eyes on Galleycat and Radio Free PGW.

Update (1/13): For anyone wondering if buying books through the publisher's website is a good idea, in general it is, even regardless of a distributor's bankruptcy, because buying direct can provide vastly more revenue and profits for the publisher. The problem at the moment, Richard Nash told me, is primarily for publishers who provided lots of stock in the fall. Current stock they're getting some money for on a weekly basis, so buying in any way is helpful, but if you can do it via the publisher, then do that.

11 January 2007

Coming to Birth by Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye

While at the SLS/Kwani? conference in Kenya, I was in a workshop led by M.G. Vassanji, and one day when we had some extra time, he walked with a group of us to the city center in Nairobi. Our first stop was Prestige Book-sellers on Mama Ngina Street, because it was, we were told, a good source of fiction and poetry published in Kenya. As we were looking through the books, someone in the group noticed that Marjorie Macgoye had come into the store. "I'm just here to get some Christmas presents," she said.

I was, I think, the only one of the Americans in the group who knew who she was -- I had begun reading her second novel, Coming to Birth just before I left for Kenya, but I hadn't had time to finish it, and it was a library book, so I just figured it was something I would eventually get back to on my return.

I grabbed a copy of the East African Education Publishers' edition of the book from the shelf, quickly paid for it, and brought it to Mrs. Macgoye, who seemed quite amused to find a bunch of writers randomly hanging out in downtown Nairobi, led there by Vassanji. I asked her if she would mind commemorating the moment for me by signing the book. "Oh," she said, "but I don't have my glasses!" I said I'm not an autograph hound of any sort, and rarely ask for books to be signed, so it didn't really matter to me if it were legible -- this just seemed like such an odd and wonderful moment that I wanted some sort of tangible proof of it. She chuckled and signed the book for me, in perfectly legible print, while I held it in my hands.

I decided not to finish reading Coming to Birth until I got back, though, because for reasons that continue to be somewhat mysterious to me, I didn't want to read any African literature while I was in Africa. Books were the only souvenirs I bought, and I bought a lot of them, but it felt somehow wrong, somehow self-conscious, somehow pretentious and precious to read them while there. (Or maybe I just wanted to save them as special objects and aids to memory.)

In any case, I have now read Coming to Birth, and I've also read the critical, biographical, and historical material included in the library copy I have, published in 2000 by The Feminist Press as part of their "Women Writing Africa" series (a series that includes another Macgoye novel, The Present Moment, as well as a favorite of mine, the sublime You Can't Get Lost in Cape Town by Zoe Wicomb). In a review for the Village Voice, Thomas McGonigle said the ancillary materials "bloated up" the books:
The publishers insist on [the novels'] political and social significance, treating them like textbook descriptions of the social and political life of Kenya. Africa is far too often seen as just a case study in hopelessness, and freighting the novels in this way threatens to sap the pleasure in reading these works.
I haven't looked at The Present Moment yet, but I appreciated the afterword by J. Roger Kurtz for its detailed biography of Macgoye and its careful critical reading of the book. Kurtz is the author of Urban Obsessions, Urban Fears: The Postcolonial Kenyan Novel, a good survey that reveals how much more breadth and depth there is to fiction in Kenya than someone from outside the country, or even inside, might suspect. He knows his subject matter, and he does not try to pigeonhole Macgoye's work in the way McGonigle suggests. The historical essay by Jean Hay is short and basic, but it helps contextualize some of the events that might be otherwise difficult for most readers to learn about. Historical context is important to Coming to Birth, because it is a novel about both an ordinary woman and about Kenya over the course of nearly forty years. Indeed, how Macgoye uses historical details is one of the most interesting elements of the book. You don't need to know the history to appreciate the book on a first reading, but it certainly helps, particularly with one of the most important moments in the protagonist's life, which is confusing if you don't understand the clues that suggest the event it is part of.

The novel primarily tells the story of Paulina, a young Luo woman who is sent from her village to Nairobi to live with her husband, Martin. The novel follows her through the next few decades, as her relationship with Martin changes, as her conception of herself changes, and as Kenya gains independence from Britain and lives through Jomo Kenyatta's reign and then the first couple years of Moi. (The initial circumstances of the story, and some of the plot's progression, reminded me of Buchi Emecheta's The Joys of Motherhood, but Coming to Birth is less bleak and much less painfully ironic.)

Macgoye's technique is to use a generally free-floating point-of-view to move from characters' actions and thoughts to almost journalistic notes on major events. For instance, a conversation between Martin and an old friend ends:
Amina promised to call at the shop next day and by the end of the month it was all settled. She didn't exactly get anything out of it but she enjoyed pulling strings and getting to know other people's business.

By this time man had actually landed on the moon. The landing took place ten days after Tom's funeral and few Kenyans had any thoughts to spare for it, although President Nixon declared, in a record that was soon selling cheap in Nairobi's supermarkets, that eyes and hearts all over the world were directed to that spectacular feat. Perhaps he was already more nearly tuned into the launching pad than to minds and hearts. A lot of the world still saw the USA as a land of gadgetry where you could watch a president's assassination on TV without being able to do anything about it. A week later the papers were reporting the death of Mary Jo Kopechne in Edward Kennedy's car.
The Tom whose funeral is mentioned is Tom Mboya, an assassinated political leader, and he is only one of the actual people woven into the narrative. The mix of real people with fictional characters could have felt awkward or clumsy, but Macgoye gets away with it (at least for me) because Paulina is such an unprepossessing woman. She's no Forrest Gump, but she travels through various environments, and the people who are mentioned in passing in the story are people who seem natural to those environments -- of course if she is working in the home of a member of the new Kenyan parliament, she's going to encounter some actual politicians, and she's going to be aware of some of the major political events of the time. There is an off-handedness to the presentation of these "major moments" that gives them credibility -- they are among the things the characters are aware of while we are observing their thoughts.

Though Coming to Birth is very much concerned with who does what when, such details are elements of the plot structure, and what meaning the book conveys comes more vividly through the characters' perceptions. Indeed, it is the changes in their perceptions, offered alongside the changes in Kenya's society, that provide the most sustained interest, and the most lasting insight.

Though I don't think biographical material is at all necessary to an appreciation of Coming to Birth, it is nonetheless interesting, because Macgoye has led a fascinating life. She was born in England, went to Kenya in 1954 to work for the Church Missionary Society, then six years later married a Luo medical officer, Daniel Oludhe Macgoye. Aside from four years working in Tanzania, she has lived in Kenya since first moving there. "Because of this background," Kurtz says, "Macgoye is an unusual, perhaps even unique, figure in the literature of Kenya and of Africa."
She certainly does not fit any of the typical categories of African writers. She is naturalized rather than native-born, so that while she is undoubtably Kenyan, and while her marriage into a Luo family gives her special insight into that community's experience and sensibility, Macgoye clearly occupies a position very different from that of Kenya's indigenous black writers. At the same time, while there is a large community of white Kenyans -- many of them former settlers or their descendants -- this category seems even less apt, if only because Macgoye has consistently rejected the privileges that go along with being white in a place like Kenya. Writers from this group, who produce what is referred to in Kenya as "expatriate literature," include Elspeth Huxley, whose work describes growing up in a settler community in central Kenya, and Isak Dinesen, the pseudonym for Karen Blixen, whose book about her experience as an unsuccessful coffee farmer outside of Nairobi was made into the popular film of the same name, Out of Africa. Literature of the type produced by Huxley and Blixen is written from an outsider's point of view, with outsiders' concerns in mind, and it displays a consciousness of being part of a European colonial diaspora. Macgoye, by contrast, writes from a fundamentally different point of view and with radically different ends in mind. As a result, she is a Kenyan writer, but sui generis.
Macgoye began as a poet, and when she moved to Tanzania she found herself received somewhat differently than she had been in Kenya, for, as Kurtz writes, "In Kenya, Macgoye's poetry had at times been criticized for being too political; in this more radical climate it was deemed insufficiently committed to a progressive political agenda." Such a reception seems to me enviable -- too political for some, not political enough for others -- and it is one I expect Macgoye's novels have encountered as well. (Indeed, Kurtz does a good job in his afterword of showing Macgoye's uncomfortable relationship with the term "feminist" -- she writes books that can easily be seen as espousing a feminist viewpoint, but seems to desire no label for herself other than "writer".)

Macgoye is not always a graceful writer -- even Kurtz admits that dialogue is not one of her strengths -- but there are moments of tremendous grace in Coming to Birth, scenes of unsentimental and complex humanity, moments of lyricism. I'll end with a passage I particularly liked from the final chapter, where syntax and tense seem to struggle to reconcile memory and present life:
Paulina had spent years enough alone not to be worried by silence. She hugged her thoughts to herself. She was at home now. And at home, though news comes to you of meetings and proclamations, of trials and conflict and achievement, home does not change for that, Nairobi does not change for that, whisper, whisper, whisper, the hum of traffic and the undertones of bargaining, the quick breath of pushing carts and the slow breath of sleep, the unbroken round of terms, of seasons, of fashions, of celebrations. There is always something to do, always something to talk about, if you gave yourself time to learn, always something to depend on too and to live by.

08 January 2007

"For the Angels to Read"

John Leonard on Tillie Olson:
There are some stories that don't translate into any other medium. They should stay in their books to surprise us, leaping from ambush. When she wrote Tell Me a Riddle, Tillie Olsen, like William Blake, covered paper with words "for the angels to read."

At the time, I was too young to know anything important about poor people, black people, women or history. But we enter into books as if into a conspiracy: for company, of course, and narrative, and romance; for advice on how to be decent and brave; for a slice of the strange, the shock of the Other, the witness not yet heard from, archaeologies forgotten, ignored or despised; and also for radiance and transcendence, that radioactive glow of genius in the dark. How dark it was, how dark. I could feel the darkness with my hands.... and as I journeyed upward after him, it seemed I heard a mourning: "Mama Mama you must help carry the world." The rise and fall of nations I saw. And the voice called again Alva Alva, and I flew into a world of light, multitudes singing, Free, free, I am go glad. Suddenly, we hear a different music.

05 January 2007

Some Thoughts on Kwani? LitFest from Beverley Nambozo

I asked fellow Kwani? LitFest/SLS 2006 participant Beverley Nambozo for some thoughts on the experience, and she provided the following...

The performance poetry class began like a secondary school literature lesson. Thankfully, it escalated to a mature discourse. The students did not get the opportunity to perform before others but it was a good learning ground. There was genuine enthusiasm in the class and some students also had a chance to visit other workshops. With more training material and a stronger communication network, much more work can be covered for next year. The Heron Hotel: Stiff necked writers, editors and librarians concealing their huge breakfasts with manuscripts, note pads and journals. Hmph! Timid students milling around the Tin House editor, Farafina Magazine editor, Sable litmag editor and Kwani? editor wondering if their works had hopes of existing off their worn out looking manuscripts into the above mentioned finer established magazines. An orderly disorderliness marked the routine at the Heron Hotel. Meals, workshops, meals, bus trips, payments, checking in and checking out, busy lobby, intellectual interaction. In the dining area, the literary fanatics would ogle the damsels from other continents wondering if they should ask if she could share her manuscript with them or share her body with them. Biding their time, they waited and waited and waited…

Human beings are incapable of such equanimity. The wonders lay in the sand. Numerous. Each grain a potion to feed the egos of lustful tourists, idlers and children. The winders lie within the Muslim prayers echoing with comic earnestness. I was hypnotised. I was enchanted. I walked into Lamu at night blindfolded as the beach boys led me through the alleys whose stone walls veiled the secrets of the coastal girls. I held on. Trusting. Running. The blindfolds came off and danced before my eyes tempting me to dance with them. Standing in the ocean, the fluorescent algae swam around me daring me to join them in their aquatic frenzy. I plunged in washing away my urban burdens. Time, urgency and promptness are but luxuries in Lamu. With extended breakfasts, exaggerated desires to swim and sluggish exits from the hotels, Lamu is an island that detaches itself from international dialogue, reason and common sense which is why it is the most imperfect place for writers who need to exist in a real world. In Lamu, the best way to engage with the Island is to talk and watch. Talk to the island folk, talk to the squeaky voiced henna artists, talk to the red skinned tourists, talk to the orange and black haired beach boys, talk to the ocean, talk to the donkeys.. and when the conversations end…(which they never do) go back to your hole called home and write. I am wary of writers who go to far away islands to write. They are just show offs who are suffering from identity crisis and so need to pollute an island with ink from pens that never dry.

Beverley Nambozo is a Ugandan writer born in 1976. She has been a member of Uganda Women Writers’ Association (Femrite) since 2000. She is currently working on a collection of erotic poetry and a novel, Two Lives. She has also written a few academic papers on gender, media and literature.

Beverley has worked as a radio show morning host of two years at 104.1 Power FM in Kampala. She also served as an Audience Relations Manager, conducting regular market surveys. Before that she was a teacher and dance instructor at Rainbow International School in Kampala. Since 1999, she has been in an active dance group that usually holds concerts in and around church and the community. Beverley has also been involved in several HIV/AIDS sensitization campaigns amongst youth in secondary schools and universities.

04 January 2007

Tillie Olsen and Donald M. Murray

Earlier this week, I wanted to say something about the death of Tillie Olsen, but I couldn't think of much of anything to say other than, "If you haven't read her work, do."

And now I have discovered that Donald Murray has also died. There is, as far as I know, no link between Olsen and Murray, but I discovered them both at roughly the same time, and both had a profound influence on me when I was quite young.

The first writing workshop I ever attended was one for kids who were identified as "gifted and talented" in some area. I attended the workshop for two or three weeks at a college in Pennsylvania the summer between seventh and eighth grades, the first time I had been away from home for more than a couple nights. One of the textbooks we used was Murray's Write to Learn, a book I highlighted so much that entire pages seemed to have been painted bright yellow. It was the first time I'd ever encountered truly helpful writing advice. It seemed, to my seventh-grade self, to contain all The Secrets.

It was at the same workshop that I first read "I Stand Here Ironing" by Tillie Olsen. I thought it was boring. I couldn't make heads or tails of it. But there was something about the voice, something about the way the sentences fit together, that stuck in my memory. I went back to the story again and again, and eventually I got a copy of Tell Me a Riddle and read the rest of Olsen's stories. And then read them again. I wanted to figure out how she did it, how she created such rich and powerful voices. I still want to figure it out. Later, I read Silences -- read it so much, in fact, that my copy of it is now held together by a rubber band.

I haven't read anything by either Olsen or Murray in quite a while. I last paid close attention to both of them in my first few years of teaching, when "I Stand Here Ironing" was a story I taught every year (until I realized that I couldn't figure out a way to convey its power to my students, who inevitably thought it was what I had thought it was when I first read it: boring) and when I used Murray's The Craft of Revision for a few classes (until the publisher decided to replace the affordable original edition with a ridiculously overpriced textbook edition).

I never got to meet Tillie Olsen, but I met Donald Murray once. It was in an office at the University of New Hampshire. I was visiting a friend who knew Murray well, and as she and I were talking, he came into the office to drop something off for her. She introduced us, and I could barely speak. I had met far more famous people by that point, but it wasn't his fame that intimidated me -- it was that I had too much to thank him for. I still have the more-highlighted-than-not copy of Write to Learn that I virtually memorized that magical summer when it seemed like the Secrets of Writing had been dropped into my hands, and it remains one of my most cherished books.

Olsen and Murray both lived long lives, lives filled with experience and joy and great sadness. It's strange to begin a new year by thinking that neither one of them is out there anymore, but the gifts of insight and inspiration they gave to me and generations of other readers remain.

Answering Questions

I've wanted to write about Kenya, but haven't known quite what to do -- I don't really want to write only about who I saw and what I did, because that feels very limited, yet I'm wary of writing about all the things I'm thinking about in terms of Kenya, writing, writers, and publishing, because I don't feel the authority to be able to write about those things in a way that would be useful to somebody other than me. I haven't really adjusted to being back in the U.S. and doing all the stuff I was doing before Kenya. I don't want to make the trip out to be some sort of grandly illuminating and life-changing thing, the tale so often told by colonialists and racists (often with the best of intentions and biggest of ignorances) of the rich white guy with existentialist qualms going off to the dark continent and discovering A.) his humanity; or B.) the inhumanity of the "primitive" world. It was an illuminating trip; it was life-changing, but I don't know how to convey why and how yet. It may take years.

In the meantime, I have a few things planned. First, I'm inviting some Africans to write about whatever they want here, because one thing I think we all need is more access to African writing, and since I've got this here weblog thingy and an audience, the least I can do is offer some of the writers I met the opportunity to meet this audience. We'll start things off tomorrow with a post by Beverley Nambozo.

Right now, though, I thought I'd give you some of the answers I have been offering to people who ask about the trip.

Q: How was Kenya?
A: Warm, Kenya. Well, Nairobi was warm but not exactly hot. Lamu, an island off the coast, was very hot. I was swimming in the Indian Ocean on Christmas Day.

Q: How long was the flight?
A: I spent about 18 hours in the air, plus time in various airports.

Q: Was there running water in your hotel?
A: Yes. I've been less comfortable staying in a village in France than I was in Kenya. Nairobi may be a bit dirty and not exactly safe at night, but it's a city. Lamu is quite different, being a small island, but it's an extraordinary place. What I got tired of there were the constant attention from people offering rides on donkeys or dhows, and the inescapable smell of donkey shit.

Q: Were there any cannibals? [Yes, I've been asked this question.]
A: No. I know it's hard to believe, but Africa is not a Tarzan movie.

Q: What did you eat?
A: I stopped being vegetarian a month or so before I left, because multiple people told me it would be difficult to get much purely vegetarian fare in Kenya. This was only partly true. I had friends who remained vegetarian there and had only a bit of trouble in Nairobi, but found the choices on Lamu pretty limited. I embraced my newfound carnivorousness wholeheartedly and sampled such things as goat and ostrich. The barbecued goat I had was similar to what I imagine a shoe might taste like, but the ostrich was a tender dark meat, and quite good. Mostly, though, I ate chicken, fish, vegetables, rice, and fruit. The fruit juices were particularly extraordinary.

Q: Did you get any writing done?
A: A little bit. I started a new story that I'm not sure I'll ever finish. Wrote a lot of journal entries.

Q: What was your best experience?
A: There were many great experiences, actually. The experience of hanging out with so many talented writers from all over the world was the greatest benefit of the trip. The best day, though, was when Njihia Mbitiru's father and mother drove me all around Nairobi and then to various towns and sites outside the city. They were determined to show me all the different levels and iterations of Kenyan society, and the stories they told of various places and people helped me get a sense of where I was in a way that nothing else during the trip did.

Q: Would you go back?
A: Given the opportunity, sure. I hope to visit Nairobi again, certainly, and there are lots of places throughout the continent I would like to see. There are people I very much hope to meet again, as well.

02 January 2007

"Exploding Wildly Outward"

From Black Sunlight by Dambudzo Marechera:
"You know about changelings? I feel them all the time. As though we were all changelings and not exactly what we appear to be. That's what I was trying to sing to Nicola. There's so much missing inside where things ought not to be missing. As if something indefinable was taken out of us long long ago. Don't you feel that sometimes?"

I could have said I felt like that all the time. I could have said that's how everything seems to be. Most of the time. The ghastly emptiness that was always there. The feeling of having died and yet not really died, of how one had been subtracted from all that makes life a living experience. I could have said it was the fear inside me of a world whose changes would never include a change for the better. Like hearing in the middle of the night some phantom figure moving about hammering nails into all the things one had learnt to take for granted. Discovering how infinitely a human condition despair was. Hammering nails into a coffin in which the image of a whole historical notion lay with its arms crossed over its breast. Hammering nails into the dog-gnawed palm of Jezebel's hand. And the blood streaming eternally in the firmament, with not a single drop to save Faustus from the hour at hand. All this which was happening out there in the grim outside of our thoughts and emotions was finally approaching nearer and nearer to the unrefusing mortality of our blood. I could no more have convinced myself that it was nothing to do with us than have hypnotized myself into believing that every ache out there was my ache and every bayonet flashing in the sun my bayonet. I could have thrown up my hands in disbelief, parried all questions and happenings with Pilate's question: What is truth? These incredible situations which this impossible creation makes possible. But all this had nothing to do with the small lightning that flashed suddenly from the touch of Susan's hand on my index finger. And there was the thunder incredibly uncoiling and uncoiling down to the last tendril in the innermost cellular world. Matthew Arnold's still sad music seems to have ceased utterly, leaving us the sole inheritors of a silence-divining wasteland. Here was no pilgrim's progress, no mythical Sisyphus bound forever to push his rock, no Prometheus hurling defiance at Zeus even as he watches the vultures engorge themselves on his chained body. [...] We had I suppose talked and behaved ourselves into a mood whose shadow would always outgrow us. No longer could we register the temperature of the blood in ourselves. The reading of the instincts and archetypal triggers. We had so given ourselves up for lost that there was only a meaninglessness which perhaps cybernetics could trace on a graph. At the same time the thoughts that controlled our feelings were not those of where straightlines come from nor where they go. There was no centre either, no circumference, but as it were spiralling nebulae, galaxies beyond galaxies, exploding wildly outward, hurling away toward the incredible infinite that lay beyond the bounderies in which we had lingered.

01 January 2007

New Layout for the New Year

I've been working with the template manager for the new version of Blogger, so the layout here is now new -- not unfamiliar, I hope, but there are some changes to colors and shapes and content.

There are limits to what I can do without going in and editing the HTML code itself, which I'll probably do eventually, because there are some things from the previous layout that I like but that the template manager doesn't allow me to fiddle with (such as the sidebar font size differentiated from the post text size). The greatest benefit so far is that the three-and-a-half-year-old code, a Frankenstein monster built from an old template and adjusted by me using an ancient edition of Dreamweaver, is now gone and replaced with something much cleaner, which will make future edits easier and should make the page load more quickly and coherently. We'll see. A work in progress...

Happy new year everybody!

Juliet Ulman: The Outtake

I interviewed Bantam Senior Editor Juliet Ulman for Fantasy Magazine recently, and Juliet kindly let me save one of her responses for a bonus feature here. Thus, the question I know you all have wanted to ask her, but that only I was brave enough to pose:
MC: If you were a character from "The Muppets", which character would you want to be?

JU: This has changed at various points over the years. I remember having a real fondness for Gonzo, among others, but these days, I definitely dig the grumpy guys in the box seat -- Statler and Waldorf. I never liked Kermit.