Over there on Huffington Post taking about the elections. You can read the full article here. Below, a taste.
Affecting change takes time and diligence and real effort. It takes discipline and thoughtfulness and a full on commitment to holding feet to fires and noses to grindstones. It doesn’t come from signing a single letter of protest or hootin’ and hollerin’ during a passing primary season. It doesn’t come at the hands of one Black man or a single White woman. For the first time in history, Bernie Sanders has transformed the political conversation so that we have a fighting chance to forge a movement that can effectively become a third party. This primary can be seen as the harbinger of change that can bring American democracy from the darkness into the light of widespread civic engagement and real choice, but only if we do our part. Only if we aren’t distracted by bemoaning what we have allowed to come to pass with a President Trump, floundering in regret at our own foolishness like the Brexit voters who, in the land of the Bard no less, do not even known enough to blame the stars.
I’m over at the Huffington Post with a review of Sunil Yapa’s new novel, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist. You can read the review here, the opening below:
In Colum McCann’s latest book, Thirteen Ways of Looking (Random House, 2015), a young soldier looks out over the Kerengal valley in Afghanistan, minding an outpost as the New Year dawns. The story carries echoes of Italo Calvino’s masterpiece, If On A Winter’s Night a Traveler (1979), where half the book is about a reader attempting to read the title story; in McCann’s version, the story is about an author attempting to write a story. It is brilliantly done, with all the questions that could be asked of a writer attempting to make a leap of imagination into unfamiliar–yet politically loaded–territory, being asked and answered by the writer himself. For example, this: “(Are there any female engagement teams in the Kerengal Valley?) (Is there even such a thing as a Browning M-57?)” Acknowledging a lack of familiarity is one way to fictionalize a place (there is a Korangal Valley in North Eastern Afghanistan), and a possible event.
I read the McCann in the wake of finishing his student, Sunil Yapa’s, Your Heart Is A Muscle The Size of a Fist, (Lee Boudreaux Books, 2016), a book inspired by the 1999 demonstrations against the meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in America’s single socialist-leaning city, Seattle. McCann’s gorgeous blurb on the cover (he calls the book “a literary molotov cocktail to light up the dark”), is justified: Yapa makes an important contribution toward documenting this moment in the overall history of activism in the United States, a service that it seems only literature is able to provide for this country. As pointed out in the closing pages of the novel itself, and in the many glowing reviews that have followed the publication of the novel–and in light of the undeniable energy of the prose, surely those are deserved– the WTO protests were not adequately covered in the media. This is no great surprise, of course, to those brave thousands who, inspired by the anti-austerity protests in Spain and initiated by the Canadian anti-consumerist group, Adbusters, occupied Zucotti Park in 2011. That is a tale still waiting to be written, though Molly Crabapple, it’s celebrated cartoon archivist has addressed some of it in her debut, Drawing Blood (Harper Collins, 2015).
Yet to write not of an imagined place and imagined events but rather a real place and an historic event, as McCann did in his masterpiece Transatlantic (2013) for instance, raises the stakes for any writer. Yapa’s novel chronicles the jittery political awakening of no fewer than seven major characters, six of whom represent the face of America’s difficulties and political upheavals: mixed-race marriages (Bishop, Chief of Police), the weather underground (Kingfisher, circa Earth Liberation Front), cultural appropriation (John Henry, circa Jim-Crow), race-riots (the Guatemalan Ju, circa Rodney King), police brutality and domestic terrorism (Officer Park, circa Oklahoma City), serial escapism (Victor, the pot-smoking accidental activist), and one singular representative of the “globe” in globalization, Charles Wickamasinghe, a well-meaning, earnest, mostly clueless, Sri Lankan Deputy Minister of Finance and Planning.
Electric Literature asked a few of us authors to write about the life of David Bowie. Here are a few samples from some of us (below). The full series can be read there.
“The greatest thing about Heroes was that I didn’t understand it; I couldn’t enter it to appropriate it. It was never going to be about me. Which is why it never got boring and I’ve never stopped listening to it. It became a presence in my life, a radiant influence. Because of its strangeness, I’m now aware, I started formulating to myself what a great work of art is and could be. I began understanding that Heroes is one of the twentieth century’s masterpieces, and that “Heroes” is the greatest song of all time. More importantly, I learned that a great work of art can never be spent, it never stops meaning, retaining a core that outlives the circumstances of its creation, constantly changing while always staying the same.”
“Unlike rock bands who can hide among their number, when David Bowie took the stage, he did so alone. All eyes on him. That he decided to place assumed personas between the audience and him makes sense to those of us who understand wanting to simultaneously shine and hide. Beautiful buffers. It’s no wonder that practitioners of the solitary art of writing palpably worship artists like him, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan… It’s no wonder that when one dies we feel like part of us dies. I’m writing this for Bowie because when we lose Bob Dylan you won’t be able to find me.”
“You know now that he believed singing to people he could not see moved him deeply and that he did not expect to be able to repeat the experience. You shrug and think that doing one brave and beautiful thing should be enough for any artist. You are sitting in a country far from the place where you were born, wrapped in a blanket and looking out on waters from the Pacific, thinking about compassion and literature, when you hear the news. You close your eyes and turn on “Rock ’N Roll Suicide,” all quiet in the inside of your head. You imagine hands reaching all the way across the world. Gimme your hands, you say, gimme your hands ‘cause you’re wonderful.
I’m Buddhist, and grew up that way, but with the lovely influence of other people’s religions pervading my life. A Roman Catholic Convent and a Christian Missionary School, many notations on a prayer book of novenas said at the All Saint’s Church in Borella as well as numerous coconuts split and baskets proffered at Hindu Temples, as well as the invocations to Lord Ganesh when things went missing in life. That is all in addition to the Buddhist temples we visited each Poya day, and the lamps lit at my grandmother’s home each evening, all things that appear and disappear in the books and stories I’ve written as an adult. But my belief in Christmas was something else altogether.
Christmas, was a time to wish the entire galaxy consisting of friends and family nothing less than a “Merry Christmas & A Happy New Year.” Always these words, always the same way. Nobody joined in the mayhem with as much enthusiasm as my mother, who took me to Missaka Poth Saappuwa (Missaka Book Store), to look through the baskets of cards to buy individually selected cards for each person on my list. My list was longer than the entire family’s combined. Meaning, the people my mother made sure the entire family wished, since my brothers did not buy or send cards, and were routinely bemused to find cards sent to each other signed by themselves when they neither recalled the purchase nor wrote the loving words inside!
Yeah, my list was long. It went from Angeline to Zainab and nobody could be left out. Not Marcel or Majella, Kamani/Kama (the cousins we always mentioned together) or Kumu, not Romola or Romaine, not Aruni or Anusha. Not anybody. I loved finding these cards and sending them and receiving cards in return. My mother, who hardly had much discretionary income, somehow always indulged this madness in me – as she indulged much else that was frivolous in me (love of shoes and clothes, parties, writing, all the things that still lighten the harsher aspects of my personality).
I miss her all year long, every day, many times a day. I wish her back here with me, but I also take comfort in how vividly she endures in my life because I know this is how we all endure in the lives of the people we take care of. I think of all the caring she did for me even as I do that same caring in different ways in this faraway country. I think of her voice when I hear a middle daughter squealing with delight when she hears ‘Whispering Hope,’ a song she associates with her mother, but which I associate with mine. Somewhere in the singing of remembered songs I am both listening to my mother and singing for my daughter, an unimaginably beautiful melding of generations passed on and those yet to come.
And at Christmas, I hear all the familiar songs as though she were here. In the first years of her passing I heard this particular hymn with deep sadness. It hit me hard that the words of this hymn consoled a very real pain, and that her yearning for rescue was heartfelt, a rescue that would also be a taking of leave from me, her daughter, and my non-card-sending brothers, and that all those sentiments somehow reflected poorly on the three of us, but most especially me.
You can’t take any of it back, of course, and it is something I sometimes accept. Mostly, it seems, at Christmas when something of the optimism and happiness that swept over her during this season seems to come unfiltered back to me. On those occasions I hear this version my mother loved so much, and a sweet peace descends on earth momentarily for me too.
It’s been seven months. Rats. But then again, Palestine, Paris, London, Sri Lanka, my college room-mate’s wedding, teaching in Colorado, a book launch and more travel, I’ve been a touch busy. Still, this struck me today, so this is a brief ode to a few things.
First, this: the last rose of summer. Which makes me want to sing in my mother’s voice, a song she loved so well.
The Last Rose of Summer was written by the Irish poet Thomas Moore in 1805 in Kilkenny, Ireland. It is set to a traditional tune called “Aislean an Oigfear” or “The Young Man’s Dream.” My mother didn’t sing it this high, but she sang it sweetly.
Second, if I am forced to, I can bake. And yes, it may have come out of a box — but honestly, if I’m not ploughing, sowing, and reaping, it’s all out of a box, right? — but it was good. And I used the handy tip, and they came out alright and the house smelled warm and lovely when the door bell rang. And the incredulous laughter at my effort and the result was genuine and I was perfect for an afternoon.
Finally, this came to an end. It was bought when I was still in college, and a wise landlady had told us that we should not be in a hurry to buy “stuff,” because it would all accumulate to no purpose soon enough. She approved of this purchase, for $5 at a flea market. It has traveled many distances, from apartments to owned homes (though if you’re killing yourself to claim “ownership,” it is good to consider who owns whom, right?) and campsites. It has fed all our friends, everyone in the immediate and extended family more than once, and its delights were appreciated by people in opposite parts of the world. It has been host to fish-based disasters, bacon galore, and thousands of pancakes. It was used by both an older and a younger generation. And now it is done. Goodbye old friend, and goodbye to a time when getting-by was good enough.
And so, a poem.
— Edgar Albert Guest
It takes a heap o’ livin’ in a house t’ make it home,
A heap o’ sun an’ shadder, an’ ye sometimes have t’ roam
Afore ye really ’preciate the things ye lef’ behind,
An’ hunger fer ’em somehow, with ’em allus on yer mind.
It don’t make any differunce how rich ye get t’ be,
How much yer chairs an’ tables cost, how great yer luxury;
It ain’t home t’ ye, though it be the palace of a king,
Until somehow yer soul is sort o’ wrapped round everything.
Home ain’t a place that gold can buy or get up in a minute;
Afore it’s home there’s got t’ be a heap o’ livin’ in it;
Within the walls there’s got t’ be some babies born, and then
Right there ye’ve got t’ bring ‘em up t’ women good, an’ men;
And gradjerly, as time goes on, ye find ye wouldn’t part
With anything they ever used—they’ve grown into yer heart:
The old high chairs, the playthings, too, the little shoes they wore
Ye hoard; an’ if ye could ye’d keep the thumbmarks on the door.
Ye’ve got t’ weep t’ make it home, ye’ve got t’ sit an’ sigh
An’ watch beside a loved one’s bed, an’ know that Death is nigh;
An’ in the stillness o’ the night t’ see Death’s angel come,
An’ close the eyes o’ her that smiled, an’ leave her sweet voice dumb.
Fer these are scenes that grip the heart, an’ when yer tears are dried,
Ye find the home is dearer than it was, an’ sanctified;
An’ tuggin’ at ye always are the pleasant memories
O’ her that was an’ is no more—ye can’t escape from these.
Ye’ve got t’ sing an’ dance fer years, ye’ve got t’ romp an’ play,
An’ learn t’ love the things ye have by usin’ ’em each day;
Even the roses ’round the porch must blossom year by year
Afore they ’come a part o’ ye, suggestin’ someone dear
Who used t’ love ’em long ago, an’ trained ’em jes’ t’ run
The way they do, so’s they would get the early mornin’ sun;
Ye’ve got t’ love each brick an’ stone from cellar up t’ dome:
It takes a heap o’ livin’ in a house t’ make it home.
Philip Weiss, who attended the launch of Extraordinary Rendition: (American) Writers on Palestine, at the Center for Fiction, covered the event for Mondoweiss. Here is an excerpt.
“In yet another sign that solidarity with Palestinians is now a central political value of liberal/left American culture, about 150 people jammed a room in the Center for Fiction in Manhattan a week ago to hear authors read from a new book, a literary collection called Extraordinary Rendition: (American) Writers on Palestine. Below you will see several videos I made of the writers.”
The Center for Fiction released the videos of the event. You can view them at these links:
Part 1 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NMTIwrc5EP4
Part 2 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d8vWvtjvRCE
The Middle East Monitor did a write-up of the anthology I edited, Extraordinary Rendition: (American) Writers on Palestine, which is up on their site. Here’s an excerpt:
“I didn’t want it to be for and against because frankly I don’t think it is against human beings anywhere even in Israel,” explains Freeman. “It is actually as human beings here saying this is inhumane treatment and we are going to write about what we see… it isn’t taking a side, it is speaking for humanity and I think there is a distinction there.”
Freeman does believe that it is a duty to write about those who have been deliberately silenced: “My goal is not to have a fight with every person who disagrees, but to gather the people who might feel differently and have them speak. I think that writers should speak because we expect this world to pay attention to the things we say so it might improve us to pay attention to the world also and to do for it what we can. I don’t by any means think this book is going to stop the demolishing of the Bedouin villages or the arrest of the children, but it is a way of changing a corner of the world where we have some power to change something and I believe it is the responsibility of every person to do that in whatever place they find themselves.”
Ten years ago, when I didn’t know narrative from Narrative Magazine, I sat at a dining table with Dimitri Kasaan, and another writer whose repute and influence was beyond my small understanding at the time. It was early and in my memory we were the only ones there. He was talking about writing, good and bad, Bread Loaf, and the experiences had, over a long career of teaching, with how best to help students along. Listening to this, I was seized by a sense of horror. What if I was guilty of producing bad (creative) writing? I knew my non-fiction/journalism had a purpose, and that the writing was good, but that did not necessarily translate into an ability to write good fiction after all. Hair stylists aren’t all versed in hair coloring, and a conductor may not always be brilliant at playing an instrument. But here before me was a man who sounded like he could tell the difference. A thoughtful man, who hadn’t made it his business to condemn the aspiring, willy-nilly, but was in full possession of the skills of discernment.
I don’t even know if we’d been properly introduced, and perhaps it is a testament to the absolute innocence with which I had set foot in that exalted place, but the words burst forth from me: Please, would you read a few pages of my work and tell me if I should just give up? I remember that he looked a little startled, but I pressed on. I would take your words to heart. I don’t mind if you said it was terrible, it would save me a great deal of time. I’d like to know. Perhaps it was the absolute earnestness of the request, perhaps he could tell I really did mean all that, but he agreed.
I ran away to the computer center and printed out the beginning to the first novel I ever wrote, and got the pages to him. We bumped into each other later that day at lunch, and he told me it was powerful work. Those words – they could have meant powerfully bad work, I suppose, but I took it to mean the opposite. Or if not the opposite, then at least work that was worth doing, or that there was something there that was important enough to be written down. It wasn’t a waste of paper or a waste of me.
I think so often about that moment. I can see it in detail. I can hear the noise of the writers around me, gathering after workshop for lunch, the constant clatter of food service, the voices pitched toward and away from each other, and the hum of excitement and energy that pervades the campus hovering above it all. Most of all I see him, this gracious human being who had no obligation at all to have read the work of someone he had only just met, someone so clearly out of her league in the conversations about creative writing. I see that moment in movement and sound, but also as a still photograph that is both the before and the after. If I had not felt that grace, would I have continued to write? Even after that “powerful” work went on to languish in the house, unpublished save for the shortest excerpt imaginable from a 487 page tome? Or would I have petered out, a memorable summer fading in time?
I can’t say. There were other people at Bread Loaf who nurtured me and held me up. Others who believed in me, and encouraged me, including Lynn Freed, my teacher – now mentor, and dear friend – who introduced me to Jill Bialosky (who later sent the entire 487 page tome back with the kindest of notes).
I only know that I can trace the thin red line at the feet of that particular writer, beyond which waited all the writing that I have done since. Someone who knew nothing about me, and had no reason to pay me the slightest heed, did. And it made all the difference. I kept on writing, and reading, and eventually publishing, and teaching, and doing a few good things in the world, all of which were invariably touched by that one conversation, those few pages, that one large-hearted human being. Over the years we’ve seen each other under other circumstances, in other cities, among other people: repeatedly at Bread Loaf, dancing in his white shirt in the old barn and in a tuxedo at the Cipriani Wall Street (#108 in that first batch of images) in quiet, over dinners and drinks and good conversations. I have had the deep privilege of having him in the audience when I read from my second novel both where it all began, at bread Loaf, and in his hometown of Minneapolis. Somewhere at the center of every meeting however is that snapshot from the past which made all those other gatherings possible, and which I can never forget.
I read a tweet yesterday that kind of broke my heart a little. Someone I know and like said they did not believe in boycotts because they had “fought too hard to be included.” The person in question was referring to the PEN controversy. My own feelings about the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, and therefore my reasons for taking a side on this issue, are covered elsewhere.
But I’ve been thinking about that statement since. What does it mean to “be included?” By whom? To what purpose, and to what end?
It made me think about the fight itself – for whom and what do we fight? When we fight for inclusion, is it just for ourselves? I, Ru Freeman, would like to “be included?” Where? At the PEN gala? I have been. I’ve been one of those table hosts, and I enjoyed it. Then, as on many other occasions, I’ve thought about where I came from, who I am, how much I enjoy the glamor and jazz of being in such places, but also about the immense loneliness I feel at such moments. The public person, the representative of my kind – South Asian, of colour, the international, the woman, the Sri Lankan – puts on both the ball gown and the star performance. But that same person understands that at all times I am but the face of all those other identities, and all the other people who look like me or talk like me or think like me or share my various parts and orientations. What I do does not impact me alone. And I am far too old and far too wise to believe that the fame of a NY minute is a rule meant only for other people. I’m far too old not to know that when the lights dim, I walk home as myself, a woman of many identities, and many complexities, not Ru Freeman the Table Host at the PEN Gala, circa. 2013.
Knowing these things, I have often advised people who have asked, that in the end what you are left with – what anybody is left with – is their integrity. The table at which I sat included some of New York’s finest philanthropists; I knew their work thanks to my own work in development and fundraising with major donors. The reward for their gift to PEN was being consumed as we talked, and I, good soldier that I am, changed seats through the various courses to make sure that I had a chance to make a pesonal connection with each one, to express – through some combination of charm and intelligence – that I valued their support on behalf of PEN. But I am not only the good soldier. And the glitz of the corporate presentation that year grated on my nerves. (There is a reason why I love the American Friends Service Committee – nobody there looks like they’re rolling out a multi-million dollar initiative for Nike, when they are raising money to help the poor in the most remote parts of Afghanistan). But that was not the place to express my small sentiment of dismay. It would have served no purpose. It could not have helped the people who were struggling under the weight of censorship across America or the world. It would have been a pointless and graceless gesture. And man, was I not enjoying my ballgown and my wine at my first black-tie gala?
But what would I have done if I had been asked to represent PEN during a ceremony that awarded a badge of courage to a group that denigrates most of the population of the world? Whose raison d’etre for being present at the gala was that they had persisted in ridiculing and taunting a marginalized and mostly misunderstood minority? Would this not have been the time to think about those other identities which I embody? If I had ever belonged to any group, of any size, which had been denied the respect and regard and rights accorded to everyone else, which had been brutalized and collectively dismissed at every turn, particularly in America, would not my conscience trouble me enough to stand with those who more closely embody the hardships I may have undergone? The answer would have been clear to me, forget the ballgown and the wine and the little table tents that tell the assembled all about myself and my literary achievements.
So what is belonging and inclusion? And in whose hands do we place the right to include us, and to stand in judgement about our merits?
I’ve been reading a lot of posts and interviews with the writers who chose to sign the letter of dissent – a letter of dissent is like the words penned by judges of the courts; it allows the majority ruling to go forward, but it articulates the reasons why the particular judge/s disagree. It has no teeth with regard to the particular ruling, but it informs the legal arguments yet to be made in other cases. In other words, as an organization like PEN ought to understand better than any other, a letter of dissent permits the freedom of speech and conscience. This particular letter of dissent expressed exactly that, and no more. The vilification of the six table hosts – and therefore the other signatories of whom I am one – permitted by PEN, and articulated in fact by some of PEN’s most recognized names, is the real blow to freedom of speech.
To claim that the award had nothing to do with the denigration of Muslims, while quoting Ayaan Hirsi Ali is like saying you aren’t racist but quoting Zimmerman.
What Ali said could have been said by anybody. That PEN chose to use her as a quotable human being at a gala where they have sworn they were making an award that has nothing to do with Islamaphobia, is nothing short of not just a bucket, but an entire dry oil well full of bovine excrement.
To return to this idea that crawling through the needle to be “included” requires the setting aside of ones conscience, or must silence the voice one possesses and can use to speak for the voiceless and the “unincluded” – a condition with which the freshly “included” must surely be familiar – I quote the writer Conner Habib: “I am not one of the widely celebrated writers on the list. I, like many of the 204 signatories, am not a household name. I am not wealthy or luxuriously free to sign petitions.” In other words, some writers choose to do what it is not easy to do because they value the tenor of our community more than they value the fleeting moment of “inclusion.”
Habib goes on to make several excellent points in his post about his decision to sign the letter of dissent or, as he puts it, more accurately, disassociation. As does Amitava Kumar, another writer who knows of what he speaks, in this conversation during The Takeaway with John Hockenberry.
Amitava takes on both the matter of PEN mobilizing its surrogates to attack the writers who wish to disassociate themselves from this award, and the matter of choosing to celebrate Charlie Hebdo while ignoring the murder, say, of Pakistani activist, Sabeen Mahmud, among other things. And he asks this question: “Does it take courage to stand up at a glittery gala in NYC and toast Charlie Hebdo? I don’t think it does. So what does it take more courage to stand up for today?”
At the end of the day, I look at the list of (thus far) 204 PEN members who had the courage to add their names to the letter of dissent and I realize how much regard I have for each of them. It is nice to look around and see that some people still choose the walk-on-part in the war over the lead role in a cage.
I was delighted to be sent the link to this wonderful review that focusses on the use of the omniscient voice in On Sal Mal Lane, by Michael Noll, for his “Learning to Write” series. Michael is the brains behind the site, Read to Write Stories. It came exactly as I was preparing a lecture on that particular topic for my students at the Loft Literary Mentor Series in Minneapolis. Here’s the beginning (below), and you can read the whole piece here. It seemed particularly serendipitous that this was posted on my father’s birthday, which also happens to be the date of the Sinhala and Tamil New Year in Sri Lanka, an event which is marked with great import in the novel itself.
One of the most tempting points of view for a novel is the omniscient, godlike POV. It’s also, perhaps, the most difficult to pull off. None of than the critic James Wood has called it almost impossible. Yet, it’s also the case that certain stories require a narrator who exists on a different plane than the characters, who can focus on a few of them for a while but can also speak authoritatively about very large groups of them (entire countries, even).
Not many novels actually attempt an omniscient point of view. One that does is Ru Freeman’s On Sal Mal Lane. It was published by Graywolf, and you can read an excerpt at that its website.
How the Novel Works
The novel is set in Sri Lanka, just before its recent civil war. Such a premise poses a particular challenge: the novel must focus on a few people who are affected by the war and also explain the origins, politics, and geography of the war. This can be difficult for any war but is especially difficult for a war that most Americans know little about. That ignorance is important because the novel is not a translation. Freeman was born in Sri Lanka but lives primarily in the U.S. and writes in English; the novel was published by an American independent press. So, how does Freeman convey the basic outline of the war? With an opening worthy of Star Wars.