Archive for January, 2015

30 January, 2015

Let’s Carpe the $#@! Out of This Diem!

There’s been a spate of articles about who funds our writing, and the glorious writing life (which always includes publication), that might have awaited if only money had not been the object. Most people fall somewhere between Bauer and what, in the American literary world, is apparently considered the hard-knock life.

I am reminded often of the simple wisdom of the ‘Dear Sugar’ colums of yore (now revived in podcasts by Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed), when a woman who grew up with an outdoor toilet and student debt she was sure she would be saddled with until the age of 46, dispensed advice to the young, the old, the weary, and the marvelously misguided. Reading the outpouring of agreement with the idea that somehow we have to have cushy lives, wealthy benefactors, trust-funds, or connections in order to succeed as writers, I am reminded most of all of these words from Column #91 The Big Life

I’m a socialist at heart, but when it comes to the actual, individual way we live our lives, I adhere to an entirely pull-oneself-up-by-one’s-bootstraps creed. Nobody’s going to do your life for you. You have to do it yourself, whether you’re rich or poor, out of money or raking it in, the beneficiary of ridiculous fortune or terrible injustice. And you have to do it no matter what is true. No matter what is hard. No matter what unjust, sad, sucky things have befallen you. Self-pity is a dead end road. You make the choice to drive down it. It’s up to you to decide to stay parked there or to turn around and drive out.

I am, like Cheryl, a socialist at heart. Like her, I’ve always loved pretty things, and the occasional pedicure. Like her, I’ve dreamed huge and wide, batting in a dream world where I’m the center, I’m the queen, I’m the winner. There were books written by me, issues of social-justice solved by me, people brought together by me, and they were always there, those fantasies, firing up my heart and soul. When I decided to try and run a 5K (I am no runner), I called myself “The Legend” and pretended right up to the finish line that I was blazing back from past glory. I pretended even when I actually came one before the last, and that last person was walking. There were witnesses, and they were cheering me on with banners that said “The Legend Strikes Again.” I was not embarassed. What was there to be embarassed by? That I didn’t get a medal? That I didn’t win a prize? I was euphoric! I had run the whole way!

Like Cheryl, I grew up without money. The ticket my parents bought their only daughter to the U.S. was one-way, though they fully expected that I would return. How I would return? They didn’t know, neither did I, but neither they nor I were going to squander the opportunity of a lifetime with a full-scholarship to an American college (when all the universities in Sri Lanka were closed, young people were being murdered, and there was a war going on), by dwelling on the what-ifs and the problems that were still somewhere off in the future. They taught me something with that attitude. They taught me what some brilliant publisher put on their give-away tote-bag during BEA 2014: “Let’s carpe the fuck out of this diem!”

I never attended any event where I thought to put myself down. I never stood in a gathering where I felt less than anybody else. I never let the notion that if I asked for something from someone, anyone!, the answer would be no, stop me from asking. What was the point? There were, and are, surely enough jackasses in the world, fools without a modicum of decency who are ready and willing to do that for me – why do it to myself? You don’t show up for a job interview as a legal aide looking like you need someone to take you on as a client, do you? So why show up to anything looking like you were headed elsewhere and just got lost? Why show up for your life acting like you aren’t a writer, you have nothing to say, and someone ought to feel sorry for you?

Yes, there are vast injustices in the world. Yes, connections matter. Yes, there are MFAs that you and I cannot afford, and a system of education that priviledges the priviledged.
But is there only one narrow and burdened path to living a creative life? Doesn’t it seem just a trifle mad that we think financial security is the path to literary success? Have we forgotten Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, Ursula K. Le Guin, and yeah, Cheryl Strayed?

Some of the most successful people in this country did not attend Harvard, Princeton, or Yale. In fact they barely attended college. Andrew Carnegie dropped out of elementary school, Ansel Adams didn’t finish high school, Frank Lloyd Wright didn’t even bother to attend, and Steve Madden kicked college out the window with, probaby, one of his self-designed shoes. Chances are, even if they had jumped through all the academic hoops, they’d still have gone on to succeed in what they took on, because they weren’t relying on “the proper training,” or waiting for someone to give them permission to do what it was inside them to do.

Have all my dreams come true? Hell no! But have I done things that I’ve wanted to do with all my heart, and put my ability to write to the best possible use even when it didn’t involve jacket covers with my name in flowing script and an embossed seal of approval from the powers that be? Damn straight I have. I have a husband whose daily grind lightens my financial load. I don’t take that as an invitation to sit on my arse and wait for the muse to knock on my door. I take it as an invitation to fill up my plate so high I can barely see around it, and give this world and this life that I have, and the people in it, no matter how close or distant, the absolute best of everything that I can possibly give, promise even more, and then kill myself trying. You’ll never hear me whining that I didn’t get this or that grant, or prize, or begrudging the success of some fellow writer. I’ve often “lost” in those big games, but that doesn’t make me a loser. It just makes me someone who is willing to give her all to the game and take it in stride. We’ve all grown up. Let’s move on from days-of-the-week to some real lingerie.

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21 January, 2015

The Jaipur Literary Festival

I’m over at the Huffington Post, with an interview with the redoubtable Willy Darlymple on the Jaipur Literary Festival which began today. Here’s an excerpt. The full interview can be found here.

A few days ago, William Dalrymple, famed architect of the Zee Jaipur Literary Festival which opened today, posted the following status update with a few significant details:

“Over the next six days we will be deploying at Jaipur:
– 240 speakers
– Over 2,000 workers to ready the venue
– Over 500 crew and volunteers
– Authors & Musicians from nearly 60 countries representing 22 languagesJLF2015– well over 2 lakh footfalls of visitors at Diggi Palace over 5 days
– a whole village has been imported to cook 15,000 plus hot meals for authors, press and delegates
– 940 lights will be erected across all venues in the 14-acre site at Diggi Palace
– 8 venues (6 at Diggi Palace, one each at Amer Fort, Hawa Mahal)
– 1,800 rooms plus rooms booked at Jaipur hotels for visiting speakers
– Over 2,30,000 sq ft of cloth used to decorate the Festival site
– Over 1,80,000 decorative hangings will adorn the venue”

It sounds both outrageous and delightful. The fact that several hundreds of those who will be speaking at the festival mingle, and refresh themselves in between sessions in a very small courtyard equipped with one small room for resting, is part of the charm of the world’s most popular literary festival.

I sat in that room – the room where Jhumpa Lahiri might go to speak to an interviewer, where Gloria Steinem might go to powder her nose, and where more than one author goes to lie down for a few minutes in between sessions, and where, surely, V. S. Naipaul and Paul Theroux will exchange a few private words this year – and speak with William Dalrymple. As we conversed, a young man walked in and asked why Dalrymple wants to live in India. “Only Indians ask me that,” Dalrymple quipped, harkening back to the idea that none of us appreciate our own homelands, whose many graces are shrouded by the black curtain of our familiarity. Perhaps it is the more hopeful and forgiving eye of the foreigner that has helped Dalrymple to conceive of a festival like this. There is a palpable energy and excitement at this particular celebration of literature that unfolds among and within the palaces of Rajasthan’s capital city, bolstered by the fluidity of the masses of volunteers who supply everything from a ballpoint pen to a train to the Taj Mahal without ruffle, an equanimity only matched by the even bigger masses flowing through the festival grounds. Between the blur of moderating and speaking on several panels, Dalrymple paused to discuss the thinking behind the creation of what is now the largest entirely free literary festival in the world

8 January, 2015

Je suis et je ne suis pas Charlie Hebdo

I had grand plans this morning. I was going to open up my various pieces of writing and send them off to sundry recepients from my agent to editors at journals near and far. Instead I’m sitting here feeling slightly paralyzed by my feelings about the attacks in Paris, and the response that has followed.

I come from a family of gadflies who never seem to shirk from being contrary and annoying the powers that be if such is called for. We have, in whole or part, lost jobs, resigned jobs, taken jobs, been slandered in public fora, incarcerated, and received death threats for our points of view. And we are all writers. While we have cautioned each other to, maybe, “tone it down,” “be careful,” “watch your back,” or “trust nobody,” we have each steadfastly refused to take this advice.

You can imagine, then, that the notion that ten writers and two body-guards could be shot to death during an editorial meeting, does not sit well with someone like me. I do not believe that murdering people, even those whom we consider to be foolish, lacking in judgement, and irrelevant to human progress (people who aren’t dissimilar to Fred Phelps and those within the Westboro Baptist Church), is a fair response to the incitement caused by their use of pen, pencils, and paper.

Last evening, I joined my fellow writers in signing PEN America’s condemnation of the attack on Charlie Hebdo. I did so even though I have been dismayed by the refusal of PEN America to make any statement about the conditions forced upon writers in Palestine, as they live under the yoke of occupation. I did so even though I disagreed with one part of the statement because in the end, I agree wholeheartedly with the idea that a punishment, or revenge, or any other human response, ought to be equal to the crime or offense.

This is the sentence: “The right to satirize, to question, to expose, to mock, even when offensive to some, is a bulwark of a free society.”

I do not pray to the god of the French, and much of America, whose devotees value a “free society” over human decency. I do not support the ALCU because I do not believe that the right to free speech on the part of one person overrides the right to grief and mourning on the part of another. The Westboro Baptist Church is simply wrong. And so is the ACLU for supporting it. The French Republic is founded on the guiding principle of laïcité (“freedom of conscience”), an idea that has seen an effective seperation of church and state. But look at that word, “conscience.” Conscience = a set of ethical and moral principles that controls or inhibits the actions or thoughts of an individual. As such, our conscience – whether it prompts us to attend church or mosque, or whether it urges us to stay away from such places of worship – defines our religion. France is no less dogmatic about its religion of “free speech” than is Catholicism about the ten commandments, or Islam about its One God.

As I followed coverage last night, I became steadily more unhappy with the American take on the attack, even on the more left-leaning programs, such as the Rachel Maddow Show. Yes, the attack was vile, yes, nobody should be murdered for drawing cartoons, but no, thousands of people of the Muslim faith aren’t religious fundamentalists and zealots for marching in nations around the world, peacefully protesting the denigration of their faith. And no, seriously, no, lampooning your own politicians and dress-designers is not the same as expressing obscenities about someone else’s religion.

We define what is considered criminal based on our own set of ideas, whatever our own culture has taught us to believe. Thousands of Muslims were outraged by the way Charlie Hebdo portrayed their faith and their God, and they were justified in their rage. Thousands in France and abroad were equally outraged by the outrage of the Muslims, and they, too, were justified in their rage. Each had offended the others religion. The protests that followed the satirical cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in Charlie Hebdo in 2012 were an appropriate response. Intelligent people (both Muslim and otherwise), should have taken it further and exerted other pressures (diplomatic, cultural, conomic), in order to mitigate the fallout from the offense, had they felt it necessary to do so. Instead, one side picked up weapons, the other side claimed that “l’Amour plus fort que la haine,” but really practiced the opposite.

It is tasteless to speak ill of the dead, but the anti-Muslim cartoons that made Charlie Hebdo infamous were similarly tasteless. They were designed to harrass, not educate. They were, in essence, cowardly, and masturbatory. No more elegant than men getting off on exposing themselves to children in public playgrounds. They were unnecessary, and made no contribution to civil society, to cultural understanding, or a collective human good. Cartoonist Stéphane Charbonnier incurred a great deal of hatred in his four years as Editor-in-Chief. And if he had not been killed so mercilessly, I would still be hard-pressed to imagine those four years as having been lived with genuine purpose. As the saying goes, we are put upon this earth to see each other through, not to see through each other. Charbonnier made it a goal in life to purloin the freedom of the press to report, and misused it to ridicule, malign, and nourish antagonism in a flammable world.

I wish that the response on the part of the French to the bafflement and subsequent anger on the part of so many Muslims, had not been euphoria and condescension. I wish it had simply been an equally forceful ridiculing of an editorial vision that ran counter to creating a better, more peaceful world. I wish that goodwill and decency, not to be equated with censorship, had been considered an option.

I sit here therefore, considering something both complex and simple. I wish for a world that understands that concession wins more ground than mockery. But I also wish that all of those people, including Stéphane Charbonnier had been given the time to do something different with their lives. Because the right to journey through life, to evolve, to realize the potential to do good in the world, is sacred.

No resolution to be had, only thoughts and more thoughts. The pen truly is mightier than the sword. I wish for a better world, one in which people recognize and harness the power of that fact. Screen shot 2015-01-08 at 12.00.46 PM

The Books:

The Books:

On Sal Mal Lane

In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war.

A Disobedient Girl

A Disobedient Girl is a compelling map of womanhood, its desires and loyalties, set against the backdrop of beautiful, politically turbulent, Sri Lanka.


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