11 November, 2016

Boston Globe/Javier Marías

I’m over at The Boston Globe reviewing the brilliant Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías. The full review is here.

Here is the opening:

If we deceive a beloved friend, lover, or country to love longer, is it betrayal? That question anchors a novel whose vision is fixed on Spain’s bloody civil war and its cultural history after the death of Francisco Franco whose brutal dictatorship lasted, aided by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, for three decades. As one of the main characters, Eduardo Muriel, says early in the book, “Almost everything has to do with the War.’’

7 October, 2016

NYTBR/Anuk Arudpragasam

I am over at the New York Times Book Review writing about Anuk Arudpragasam’s debut novel, The Story of a Brief Marriage. You can read the full review here.

Here is the opening:

War is a constant wellspring of literature, and the best of it looks not for the obvious and sensationally violent, but instead searches for the subtle ways that life unfolds regardless. While Sri Lankans writing in Sinhala and Tamil have long borne nuanced witness to the country’s three decades of civil war, writing in English has been much slower to respond. And too much of it has taken the easy route, giving a foreign readership what it desires: a voyeuristic, and ultimately unengaged, affirmation of what it believes is true of savage peoples in other countries.

5 August, 2016

Want a Third Party? Vote Hillary, Support Bernie

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.

1 February, 2016

A Fist to the Heart – on Sunil Yapa’s Debut

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.

23 January, 2016

David Bowie

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.

Sasha Hemon:
“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.”

Marie-Helen Bertino:
“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.”

Mine:
“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.

24 December, 2015

Christmas Angel Mother

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 SriLanka.08 1037nothing 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.

11 December, 2015

Ode To a Few Things

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.IMG_20151208_192152

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.

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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.

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And so, a poem.

Home
— 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.

4 December, 2015

Mondoweiss/Center for Fiction Coverage

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

3 November, 2015

Interview with the Middle East Monitor

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.”

13 May, 2015

The Charlie who “Threw Me Back”

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, Charlieand 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. Charlie3Someone 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.

Thank you and Happy Birthday to you, Charlie – from your very own starfish.

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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