Archive for the ‘Popular Culture’ Category

19 June, 2009

Desi Writers Reflected in the Bean

chicagobeanIt’s been a week since I’ve been back from Chicago where I experienced a range of emotions. I got to be intensely frustrated, for instance, by having to look for a table as though we were trying to birth Jesus in a manger, and then having to wait an hour for no more than a pizza. I go to be bemused by my own interest in photographing my fellow-diners and myself as we were reflected in Anish Kapoor’s “bean” – more reverently named ‘Cloud Gate,’ – the giant polished steel-plated sculpture in Millennium Park that is like solid liquid mercury if such a thing is possible. I got to experience the happy oddness of being on a panel on politics which consisted of no less than four Sri Lankan (born in/affiliated) authors. More on that in another post, perhaps.

I got to watch one of my favorite things: a writer (in this case, Romesh Gunasekara), go from his ordinary life as an unassuming, gracious and quiet human being to embodying his art and electrifying his audience. romeshIt was too bad that I had to duck out after his first short story, set on a street in London where two men meet and are transported to the serendipity that might await them in an new life on Sri Lanka’s Northern shores. It was a marvelous picture-in-words of the possibilities people hold on to, whose very non-materialization is as important a part of their hold on us as is the prospect of making dreams come true. Romesh’s latest book is The Match.

I also had the good fortune of having deeply personal conversations with my host, Mridu Sekhar, who had opened her doors to me without ever having met me before; access to her food and room with a spectacular view and her lushly sweet and naughty grandchildren were add-ons. Mridu and I listened to Buddhist chants late into the night, and talked until 2 a.m. about the damage that can be done by kindness, the lasting hold that parents have on their children – she speaking of her father’s death, I of my habit of scolding my own for calling me every day, and about the way strangers meet and lift each other up.

bapsiprettyI have always been drawn to people who are several decades older than I am, particularly women – the more decades, the better! They ease my mind with their words and deeds, making me feel that I am not carrying some monumental burden on my own, that the world is being held up by someone with greater wisdom than I possess. Perhaps that is why my favorite festival moments were with Bapsi Sidhwa, who combines charm and wit and sagacity in a wonderful bouquet. I look forward to re-reading Cracking India now that I have heard it in her voice.

Meeting and listening to Amitava Kumar was also a sheer delight. He is one of those people who can be entertaining without being obnoxious, self-effacing without being condescending, and…there’s a third thing here since all things must come in threes, but I can’t find it. Suffice to say that his reading of The Immortals by Amit Chaudhuri accomplished the difficult task of amitavaadmiring a fellow-writer with the kind of clarity that serves as a guidepost to other readers, as well as an insight into his, Amitava’s, world view. I also enjoyed, for obvious reasons, his decision to read his essay on parenting his daughter, Ila. Having said all this, I was also acutely aware that he is not the sort of person to be a boor to an aspiring author, or anybody, really, but that he would not mince his words if he hated what you wrote. Which can be very funny, if it is not your own – bad – work he’s contemplating. Lord, may this not be my lot in life!! Before I go, and on that note, here is a clip of Bapsi speaking about forgiveness in her novels (this is the first youtube video I’ve uploaded!), and although it isn’t complete, it gives you a flavor of what she is like in person:

Overall it was great to meet all the South Asian writers, to share our experiences and grind our various axes. But it is always the conversations that stay on my mind. I’ll post on that soon.

23 May, 2009

From a Distance

I have been away from the blog for a few days now – more on all that, I’m sure, at some later date when I have figured out how to talk about the latest discoveries of my life!

Meanwhile, I wanted to share this aerial view of Sri Lanka. I had never seen it before this and it is truly spectacular. It is true that, from a distance, everything in the natural world looks amazingly beautiful, and from an every greater distance, no one part of the earth looks better or worse than any other. So while I post the video, I also want to post the well-known reflection by Carl Sagan, excerpted from a commencement address he delivered on May 11th, in 1996. These thoughts are expanded upon in his book, Pale Blue Dot. View, read, tell me what you think. Alas, I seem to be unable to embed this media try as I might. I’m giving up and just posting the link here.

“(Look) at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity — in all this vastness — there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

4 May, 2009

Ailey II, Philadanco, Bliss

A few years ago I found myself in a packed theater in a small town in Maine. The Waterville Opera House is one of those gems that we want to keep close; complete with scrolled sides and ornately framed, curving proscenium, an orchestra pit, and sloped seating. Not to mention people with the arts in their veins. On that particular evening, the Opera House was playing host to Ailey II, the brainchild of Alvin Ailey who began the ensemble in 1974 by gathering together the most promising scholarship students from the Ailey School to study, perform and teach.

There is something hungry about the Ailey II dancers. Most of them are, by the very nature of the program, brand new and eager. They can do what most dancers in major companies can do, but they are still “en route.” That makes all the difference. Their potential sparks off their bodies, their dreams of success, within their grasp but just beyond, ignite the air. Their movements are, therefore, full of the quality that makes dance joyful. It pours off the stage and picks up the audience and makes us all, even the hardiest hardy-Mainer leap to his feet. During that particular performance, mistakes were made, entrances botched. At least one dancer’s legs trembled as his partner flew through the air to brief safety in his arms. But being able to see the human, his frailty, his vulnerabilities, underneath the awe-inspiring virility of the dancer, is what makes that kind of performance memorable, and other, more perfect, ones, utterly forgettable. Their grand finale, a completely exhilarating, defiant and sexy interpretation – complete with some pursed mouths and neck action – of the spiritual, ‘Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham,’ was the perfect ending.

Last night I was reminded of that performance when I went to see Philadanco at the Perelman Theater here in Philly. The program, New Faces, showcased the work of four young choreographers working with the talented ensemble. Again, the most striking of the performances were not the ones that were most technically perfect. The somber, controlled and well executed Red Envelope (Zane Booker, World Premiere) had less to offer than the story-told vibe of Be Ye Not (Hope Boykin, World Premiere) which was both moving in its depiction of the desperation of staying out/fitting in, as it was exuberant in the way it dramatized that tension with one just-short-of-perfect dancer and the shoal like symmetry of the rest of the troupe. And while Rapture (Tony Powell, Company Premiere)was beautiful to watch and uplifting, with its theme of the ebb and flow of emotional and spiritual being, its very fluidity lulled the mind. On the other hand, Those Who See Light (Camille A. Brown, World Premiere) which consisted of all the dancers moving now together, now apart in a sort of crazy-making, syncopated urgency which brought to mind mysterious worker bees striving at some unending task in a different corner of the planet, had the edgy, street-creds of using every part of the dancer including and most specially, their stomach muscles heaving rhythmically with the music, to draw us in. Having made those distinctions, however, I also have to say that they are negligible on the strength of the work of the choreographers themselves who have created something well outside the scope of the ordinary.

Both these things, the youth and future-focus of the Waterville performance and the creative spirit of the Philly show seem to have been captured in the latest experiment in happy ingenuity set to sweep the nation or, in this case, the world. Watch, listen, enjoy. The fact that the “starter version” of the track was done by the now deceased Roger Ridley just adds to what is left behind. Click for an unforgettable rendition of ‘Stand By Me.’

23 April, 2009

A Song

I am rushing off to catch various modes of transport to head to Washington, DC, but I wanted to share this beautiful song that I heard this morning. It is a song called ‘It Wont Be Like This For a Long Time.

I guess these are the thoughts that come to mind when leaving home.

22 April, 2009

Writing like The Wire

In an article in the NY Observer, Leon Neyfakh poses this question: ‘Should Literary Novels Be More Like The Wire?’ First of all, let me say that I am a devotee of the now safely in TV history series, The Wire, a world that was made available to me through access to Netflix, since access to Cable has been scorned within these four falls by all its inhabitants including myself and we are now too invested in the point to be made by this to turn back. For a terrific essay on the thinking behind the show, please read Margaret Talbot’s ‘Stealing Life’ in the New Yorker (10/22/07) which describes the genius of David Simon, its creator. It is Simon’s way of ‘storying’ actual events that is being celebrated in the NYO article. Here is the beginning:

“Walter Benn Michaels, the punchy professor of American literature and theory at the University of Illinois at Chicago, came to New York last week and delivered an emphatic message to novelists: Please start writing more about class issues and the social order of contemporary life! It was a rainy evening, and Mr. Michaels spoke as part of a panel at the New York Public Library. At the center of the evening’s discussion was a brief, polemical essay that Mr. Michaels had recently published in BookForum in which he argued that the leading voices in American letters had, in their work, rendered “the reality of our social arrangements invisible.”

In his essay, Mr. Michaels implicated three groups of writers: those who traffic narcissistically in memoir and self-examination; those who write fiction about past horrors like the Holocaust and slavery; and those who focus in their work on the tribulations of individual characters while ignoring the societal pressures that determine those characters’ lives.

None of them, Mr. Michaels argued, would ever produce great art unless they reversed course. What novelists need to do, he said, is take a cue from David Simon, the creator of the The Wire, a show that portrayed over the course of five seasons the inner workings of Baltimore.”

Frank Sobotka
The article goes on to quote others who neither agree or disagree but who each speak, in essence, about their personal need to create timeless stories whether they are based in fact of – sorry – fiction. But ‘The Wire’ does much more than make a story out of fact. It does what Toni Morrison does in Tar Baby and Vikram Seth does in An Equal Music. It puts us in mind of each of its many characters, even the vilest of them (I have a particular loathing for Stringer Bell), and makes us believe in their necessary viability, and champion their particular – often vile, in the case of ‘The Wire’ – cause, vice, or mission. In fact, it persuades us to do this even when cheering for or believing in any one of these people is a mutually exclusive proposition. The gift of Morrison, Seth and Simon lie in the fact that we are taken through that intellectual discombobulation with effortless ease, such that we can convince ourselves that every character is both deserving of their own truth as they are right, and that all these people can be true and right at the same time. It is precisely the sort of hastily assembled but weirdly harmonious chorus of voices we choose not to hear in our own lives. (Unless we’re Quakers.And, if you are one, I salute you. If you aren’t, I urge you to try it. I aspire but will fall short, I fear, forever.).

But back to the blog. The stocky but strangely elven Frank Sobotka, secretary-treasurer of the longshoreman’s union of checkers (a lead in Season Two, picture above), is a terrific example of the kind of unsung flawed hero that gets unglued from the script and creeps under your skin. We become invested in a visceral way in the trivial urgencies and unnecessary deaths that are being depicted and the violence (and hard-earned speedily dispensed with sex) never seems overdone or gratuitous; it is simply the unfortunate grist of these lives as they are conducted, the way in which the terms of existence are negotiated and the form in which each individual story must end whether that end is psychological, spiritual or corporeal.

The topic of exploring the reason for narrative and the forms it takes must be in the air. Ana Menéndez, who wrote The Last War, quotes Umberto Eco in an essay in this month’s Poets & Writers entitled, ‘The Future of Narrative: Storytelling in the Internet Age.’ The story is about a linguist, Thomas A. Sebeok, who is hired to transmit, for the ages, the fact that the radioactive waste that was being disposed of by the US govt. was dangerous. The struggle? How do we retain the viability of the term ‘danger’ when all such meanings are ridden with the virus of cultural historical context?

In a review of Tar Baby, John Irving quotes this section from the book:

”At some point in life the world’s beauty becomes enough. You don’t need to photograph, paint or even remember it. It is enough. No record of it needs to be kept and you don’t need someone to share it with or tell it to. When that happens -that letting go – you let go because you can. The world will always be there – while you sleep it will be there – when you wake it will be there as well. So you can sleep and there is reason to wake. A dead hydrangea is as intricate and lovely as one in bloom. Bleak sky is as seductive as sunshine, miniature orange trees without blossom or fruit are not defective; they are that. So the windows of the greenhouse can be opened and the weather let in. The latch on the door can be left unhooked, the muslin removed, for the soldier ants are beautiful too and whatever they do will be part of it.”

And perhaps that also is the goal of the literary writer: to blend human experience which is so often imagined – in the form of aspiration or desire or fantasy or escapism – not lived, and fact in the form of actual events, to create something that outlasts the conditions which created it including its author, and which retains the beauty of a truth that is independent of its form of expression.

12 April, 2009

New York, NY

I’ve been away from the blog for a few days on account of a last-minute rush to keep several fires going at the same time – the heart needs heat and sometimes that means more than one stove, apparently! Anyway, as I hopped on the Philly-NYC bolt bus for the sweet price of $10 and gathered my thoughts, I realized that they were barreling relentlessly toward the time when I used to work in the city and commuted in everyday from Northern NJ. It was much easier to be here then, and though I left in the aftermath of 9/11, heading toward the differently salubrious culture of Maine, it was still not quite such a challenge to get in and out of the city. But perhaps it is not the city that has changed, but me. I feel sheepish about my inability to stop a taxi – how is this a challenge for a Colombo-girl?! – and head to the managed-curb outside Penn Station to secure one, allowing the crackling voice and piercing whistle of the old man there to do what I was shying away from: flagging a quixotic driver.

I ride almost the entire journey in silence, re-imagining my old life here, but, almost at the end, I engage with the taxi driver, fresh here from Florida, accented like us all, less unhappy than happy about NY. “If you ask me, do I like, do I not like, I will have to say, I like NY,” he says, finishing and ending his sentence with me, but pausing in between to talk through glass to other, less patient, motorists around him. And I am reminded of a beautiful song, ‘Her Morning Elegance,’ beautifully articulated and magically illustrated, by Oren Lavie. If you are in NY, look out a window and listen. If you aren’t in NY, just listen.

8 April, 2009

If I hear the music…

Continuing the discussion on Hair, I post below an unabridged, uncensored anonymous guest comment from a good friend:

“Hair” opened on Broadway while I was in elementary school in New York City. It was a succes de scandale: naked women appeared in the finale (I heard at one of my parents’ parties) and they smoked joints on stage. It was the triumph of the hippies, the great unwashed. My parents, though they viewed themselves as bohemians, had no patience with “letting it all hang out”: they were old enough (and poor enough) to remember the ravages of parasites and venereal disease that have always accompanied free-for-alls.

The radio wouldn’t have been allowed to play the song which described (then often illegal) alternative sexual practices, but “Aquarius” played frequently, in the cool version of The Fifth Dimension, and we even learned it for chorus at school. “Harmony and Understanding…no more falsehoods or derisions”…that was certainly laudable. I am not so sure about the “mystic crystal revelations,” nor what exactly was meant by “the mind’s true liberation”, because everyone talking about this was stoned and not very coherent. I certainly wasn’t aware of it at the time, but this probably marked the point at which the public face of protest against the war switched from folk-singers to the acid powered. And then there was the endlessly rainy summer of Woodstock, where we returned, literally, to the primeval mud from which we emerged. The lean years followed.

I was in college when the movie musical came out and I went to see it with a group of friends. We were embarassed, not shocked, perhaps becauses it had been toned down a bit from the original, perhaps because times had changed. I remember thinking it was a reasonable summation of the senselessness of the ’60’s, but I also remember thinking how little I would have liked to have met any of the protagonists, even as portrayed by Treat Williams. They were too reminiscent of the stuporous teenagers and college students who had long roamed our neighborhood and the ones I met up with now that I was in college myself.

And, in case anybody wonders if this is the last word on the topic, pick up this week’s issue of the New Yorker and read Hilton Als (who writes the pithy, readable Et Als colums online for the New Yorker, and is the author of the memoir, The Women) His review ‘Not So Free Love,’ contains this observation with regard to the portrayal of blackness, particularly the stereotyping of Hud, the composite of the Militant Black Man:

“…In short, aside from the draft, all the “issues” in “Hair” seem to have to do with race, and the task of representing them falls on the overburdened black characters, who have to do almost everything here except tap-dance.”

I’d still like to go. As Shakima “Kima” Greggs says back in Season 2 of The Wire, “If I hear the music, I’m gonna dance.”

1 April, 2009

Hair: the Musical & Me

I am not sure how old I was when my older brothers and I, our lives unfolding in a still-quiet Sri Lanka, began singing “Good morning starshine, the earth says twinkle above us, we twinkle below…Good morning starshine, you lead us along…my love and me as we sing our early morning singing song.”

Actually, now that I think about it, that was my favorite. My brothers selected different themes. The one, still wrapped up in many iterations of the divine and distrustful, even fearful, of the righteous wrathful, sang “Manchester England England, across the Atlantic Sea…And I’m a genius genius…I believe in God…,” the look on his face a carbon – and genuine – impression of Treat Williams as he marches his sexy but raggedy-bottom toward the bowels of a plane headed for Vietnam. And the other brother, true to the heart-heavy activist he would become, sang thus: “We starve-look at one another short of breath/ Walking proudly in our winter coats/ Wearing smells from laboratories /Facing a dying nation of moving paper fantasy…”

All this came to mind this morning as I read the review of the latest production of Hair, which opened yesterday at the Al Hirschfield Theater.

As Ben Brantley puts it:

The kids of “Hair” are cuddly, sweet, madcap and ecstatic. They’re also angry, hostile, confused and scared as hell — and not just of the Vietnam War, which threatens to devour the male members of their tribe. They’re frightened of how the future is going to change them and of not knowing what comes next. Acting out the lives of the adults they disdain (a charade at which Andrew Kober, Theo Stockman and Megan Lawrence are particularly expert) becomes a cathartic ritual.

And these are universal themes. Back in a country where no snow fell, where none of us children had yet crossed the Atlantic or even the Indian Ocean, where pop movies like Grease would only make it to Sri Lanka several years after their release here, and where others such as Gone With The Wind had to be seen at special invitation-only screenings for the artsy few, a group to which my parents belonged, a movie whose socio-political implications we children missed entirely (more fascinated by the blue eyeshadow on a boy sitting behind us than by Scarlett’s waistline), Hair, the movie, was a gorgeous, liberating, belt-out-the-blues treat, the kind of wild disobedience your lungs spill out into the streets with gusto upon leaving the theatre. But more than that was the story my father told of seeing Hair “on Broadway,” something that seemed impossibly fortuitous. It was much later that I, a foreign student standing at the cross-streets, realized that “Broadway” was not a stage, but a street.

Again, Brantley:

But of course no stage can contain the hormone-stoked exuberance of those who inhabit it, whether they’re yipping, unzipping or tripping, both merrily and scarily. Know that you may find yourself in intimate contact with various dancing, cajoling tribe members. They may give you daisies or leaflets. They may even ask you to embrace them. Not that you haven’t already.

Which is to say that we three all-grown children-from-another-land still continue to sing,

When the moon is in the Seventh House
And Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars

as though it was written for us alone. Perhaps it was.

30 March, 2009

Facebook, Democracy & World Peace

So, on Saturday, Mark Zuckerberg and Chris Cox, who claim they are so not cool, but rather, nerdy and useful, were part of a NYT feature on the evolution and valuation of Facebook. One of the most interesting things mentioned in the article was about the recent changes that incited a near-mutiny aboard the good ship Facebook:

“The changes, Facebook executives say, are intended to make the act of sharing — not just information about themselves but what people are doing now — easier, faster and more urgent. Chris Cox, 26, Facebook’s director of products and a confidant of Mr. Zuckerberg, envisions users announcing where they are going to lunch as they leave their computers so friends can see the updates and join them.

“That is the kind of thing that is not meaningful when it is announced 40 minutes later,” he says.”

Which got me thinking about the whole “friending” thing again. Frankly, many of us don’t, really, want to wine, dine or even java with about 793 of our 817 friends. We also do not wish to be stalked by the fifty or so weirdos who friended us on Facebook. Do, say, Antonya Nelson, Cormac McCarthy, or Charles Baxter really want a mob of fledgling writers barging into their private lunch at Rouge in Philadelphia? Which is not to say they ever dined there together or apart. Or that I knew of it. Because I don’t.

The Sultans of Facebook also say that the conflict over the new design stems from the mad idea that we who helped build the site through our participation, imagine that we might have a say in its design. They respond thus:

“It’s not a democracy,” Mr. Cox says of his company’s relationship with users. “We are here to build an Internet medium for communicating and we think we have enough perspective to do that and be caretakers of that vision.”

Which is true. They do. But it is also true that true caretakers of a vision respond to the needs of its component parts. For the most part, Facebook has done a terrific job of enabling us to find our common threads and stitch ourselves cozy virtual social blankets. I have friends on Facebook who disagree strongly, to put it mildly, with my political opinions. I have friends who should be, if we went the usual route of only hanging around kindred spirits, enemies. But having found each other through our common interests or friends, we are still holding on because something probably tells us that the fuss and fury we exhibit about each others POV are really not as important as those other things that made us click “friend request” in the first place.

While they celebrate this fast and furious path to world peace through Facebook, though, Zuckerberg and Cox should keep in mind the fact that the desire for global human connections, which waits like a vast ocean at the end of our clicks and clacks, can find another river. The two and a half million souls who have joined the “Millions Against Facebook’s New Layout and Terms of Service” may not seem like much in the face of one hundred million users. But, as the saying goes, it only takes a small leak to sink a big ship.

And, for our part, those of us who wish to treat Facebook as the democracy it is, no matter what its founders would prefer it to be, should also have the intelligence to use its design – i.e. the reasonably creative privacy settings that can be fine-tuned to fit your fancy – to create a more perfect union.

25 March, 2009

This Blogging Business

I was most delighted to come across the beautiful Jason Schneiderman’s blog post on the Painted Bride Quarterly blog today. The post deals with the issue of what gives weight to our words, and whether anything in the blogosphere and, indeed, anything on the web, carries with it the same weight as the things we read in print.

I do believe that we still give more credence to what we purchase with “real” money, over what we access for “free.” And yet careers are made and broken online. While, as Jason says, card catalogs aren’t truly missed by anybody, we also don’t particularly want micro chips implanted in our brains that would enable us to simply plug ourselves into the nearest outlet and “update” the news. Okay, so we aren’t there yet. But I do feel we are hurtling, thoughtlessly, toward something that substitutes a feeding frenzy over speed for reasoning and quality and editorial oversight.

There was an earlier, more primal, national craze that lead to the current state of paralysis that grips most consumers in the supermarket; somewhere between having only one breakfast item called “Cornflakes” and having nine thousand breakfast cereals looming over us at the local store, was a happy medium we missed. And now, with regard to the online/print debate, we have another, swiftly closing window of opportunity to strike that happy medium. To get to that happy medium, we need a thinking human being. Could that person be me? Are we the ones we’ve been waiting for? Truly? I’m off to read something erudite. Probably online. And then, to purchase books at a book fair to be donated to a library where people still go to lurk, s.l.o.w.l.y, among words in surround-sound.

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.