Posts Tagged ‘Rick Simonson’

11 February, 2018

I Woke Up Like This

This is a story in two parts. And this picture has nothing to do with it, but it’s a cool photograph. Because even though I grew up in a place where a leather jacket would be truly odd to own and even odder to don, I think it’s kind of cool. 
 
1.
Four years ago, I met a man at the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival. His name is Sumeet Shetty. We had good conversation and wrote briefly to each other after I left. Two days ago I got an email from Sumeet, and we re-connected to talk about books, about the possibility of my being a part of his book initiatives in Bangalore, and a mutual friend, Rick Simonson, whom he had seen again at JLF this year. Summit also sent along a link to a fairly recent video about his work.
 
2.
Sometimes our family’s idea of light easy Sunday brunch conversation is to run through unpronounceable words, declaiming the importance of knowing them, which leads to the importance of reading and, at least one mention of the New Yorker, (yes, I’m an Eagles fan), and also scrutinizing each others foibles. Mine, I’m told, is that I just can’t stop analyzing America. American media, in particular. Today it was about what passes for journalism when Otto Warmbier’s father is made part of the American delegation to the Olympics, and who is on national TV asking “what kind of country tortures people,” and Lester Holt does not have the cojones to say, “ours.”
 
It is true. I have a predilection to tell it straight. It is not because I hate America or Americans, but that circumstances have aligned my life and the lives of many people I love here and abroad (and that includes a lot of people who don’t vote the way I would), with what is done in this country. I consider it unconscionable (for me) to simply acquiesce to the status quo in this country, and to remain silent in the face of things, even if I frequently feel that it is hopeless to attempt to change anything. I chip away at what I can change, and the rest of the time I refuse to let my guard down, I refuse to shut up or, rather, stuff my mouth with enough white bread to cover up the fact that it is still a shit sandwich thereby setting up an alibi for my silence.
 
Off I went, mulling and reeling a little bit (yes, indeed, contrary to all appearances certain things do make me reel though they will never make me not rally and fight another day). I went and read email, that reliable antidote to ones own preoccupations. That’s when I came across this video that Sumeet sent me. I am not from Bangalore, but I am South Asian in every way. I am also, perhaps, Middle Eastern in my heart and mind. I could be mediterranean in my constitution. But I am a product of my culture and upbringing, which is South Asian, Sri Lankan in particular. That is what keeps my mind agile, and my heart compassionate and hopeful and looking for the fun of things.
 
In an article I wrote for Electric Literature, ‘Pineapple & Roasted Nuts,’ which later appeared in the UK Guardian, I spoke about the way I grew up, revering words and books, and that neither was considered the special prerogative of a select class or people, that some of the biggest champions of books in Sri Lanka were people associated with corporate life. Summit’s video took me right back to that essay. There’s a reason why we people raised in other places, who come to build America – because America is nothing if it isn’t what is being created of its constituent parts which includes the outcome of its atrocities, a point made beautifully by Elaine Castillo in an essay for LitHub – there’s a reason why we can’t claim to be able to kick butt while simultaneously shutting up and sitting down. We say things out loud because we were taught how. We talk because we learned to read, not because what was in a book was appearing on a test but because we understood the importance of inhabiting other realities, other lives, to value them as being as precious as our own.
 
Take the two minutes it will take to watch this  video. I think you might understand where I’m coming from.
 
Come to think of it, that picture has everything to do with this post. I wasn’t raised in a place where I would want to own or even wear such a jacket, but if I find myself in a place where it made sense to borrow one and put it on, I’m going to rock the look. #immigrants #wegetthejobdone #wokeuplikethis
 
 

28 August, 2013

Rick Simonson: 10 Years Old in 1963

I have been listening to the run up to the celebrations of this day, and of course the speeches made today at the Lincoln Memorial. It is strange that the first time I heard about that memorial, it was through my mother and father speaking to me about Marian Anderson. My mother had heard her sing at the Peradeniya University where they, my parents, were students, a performance broadcast to the standing-outside multitudes via loudspeakers. Neither of them have ever spoken of any other voice with quite the same reverence. Through her recollections, I heard of this voice that had rung over the assembled in a city called Washington DC in a country called America. Much later I learned to sing ‘A Church is Burning,’ as one among our repertoire for an entry to a national festival of ballads. I’d heard of Birmingham, but I didn’t really know what any of this truly meant. It came to me in music that I could sing with heart, but not in history that I could actually see in my heart. It happened before I was born, in a country I wouldn’t really know until I was a college student, and not very well until many years after, when living here had become what I would choose to do, when colour became more complicated than saying someone was “fair” or “dark,” the only words I’d ever used before to describe complexion, when the word “colour” became, by itself, no longer a descriptor but an unwieldly, shape-shifting misnomer.

And so, to today, when I found myself watching and listening, but as a bystander rather than a participant. I know what I have come to know, and witness, and speak out on behalf of, but this is a struggle whose roots go back to a place of origin that I can only glimpse. I was delighted, therefore, to receive this note from a friend, someone who had been “here when,” whose life was transformed by the events of this day, fifty years ago, and by that speech. A speech whose candence and words would have made a deep impact on someone who would dedicate their own life to the celebration of words. It gave me a chance to relive this day as it might have seemed to me if I had been not a still unborn future hyphenated dual citizen, but rather a boy growing up in Nebraska.

Thinking this morning of how old I was, fifty years ago. I had just turned ten. Getting ready for fifth grade. Mrs Armstrong, Calvert School. A bored, end of summer day on my hands. I had two best friends then – they lived on our street – Bill and Mike. Neither must have been about, so on my own I went into our basement where we had the tv to see what was on. Then it was about three or four channels that gave you what you might get., I don’t know if I tried changing channels, if what I was ran on all three or not, but what I saw was so spellbinding that I found myself riveted – and watched for however many hours I did.

First, this incredible marching, assembling crowd. I had never seen as many people thronging about like this – walking, these signs … I hadn’t been to Washington, DC, but had seen photographs – the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial, all of that, all usually depicted with these park-like swaths of open grounds around them, that long reflecting pool. Here were all these people. I knew what they were about, what the march was about., There had been so many stories in the news – both on tv, and in the weekly magazines that came to our house – Time, Life (lots of photos), Look (ditto). I knew (then) this was about the South – where slavery had been, where basic rights were denied now.

But that this was a coming together – a demonstration (it must have been a new word to me) in Washington. I was trying to comprehend, I suspect, what this was, what was intended, how it related to what was happening in the South. A demonstration … Commentators must have helped with some of that. The sight of all these people – Negroes, as it was couched then, and white people. So many. With signs which said things that made impressions.

At some point the moving, the marching must have stopped, for a program with speakers was then shown. There wasn’t a lot of moving camera work. I remember a pretty fixed shot close to the speakers’ podium. I then remember various people speaking. This – all in black and white – must have been the first time I remember little white captions, words on the screen saying who people sometimes were. Roy Wilkens of the NAACP seemed to moderate, or at least was there talking a lot. I felt like he was introducing and/or making announcements. There was also Bayard Rustin – I remember the name ‘Bayard’ being unusual and that he was from the porters’ union – one of the most powerful organized groups of Negroes, a labor union of train attendants (I had to figure out what a porter was). There were famous people there, actors – Harry Belafonte. Probably Sidney Poitier and I think, Sammy Davis, Jr. That would have been about it for people I would have known. A James Baldwin would have been lost on me. People who sang there – The Freedom Singers, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan (at age 22,, I would later figure) would have been lost on me.

Whatever I knew of him before – I knew some things – by the time he was done speaking, Martin Luther King, Jr. was not lost on me. Not to go into all of what he said. I doubt I remembered much on the spot. But the long, slow, deliberate pace and weight with which he spoke (he who was only 34). The rising, peak and valley crescendo of talk came at the end, the part that short clips all play, but those really got their soaring, wave-like power from the slow buildup that preceded it. I remember all of that pouring right into me, including that at the end.

And then it must have been over. I must have climbed the stairs out of the dark basement (it was like coming out of a cave), I must have stepped back out into the late afternoon … and resumed whatever was up, seen if Bill or Mike was home yet, heard what our own house’s schedule was like (when Dad would be home, what time dinner, what dinner might be) … I don’t think I felt like I could really talk about what I’d seen, at least not to the places in me it went. Even as I was going about my 10-year-old daily business, something in me felt deeply altered.

How wonderful to think of the way that moments change our lives, particuarly the lives of children. I think about all that this boy would go on to do, the words of relevant people ushered forth, not simply what is deemed famous or fashionable, but what is good and important and life-altering.

Today is a good day to remember these things. To remember, also, that odd-sounding name, Bayard Rustin, opined upon today in the Wall Street Journal, a central figure without whom no march might have taken place, a gay man whose personal life was reviled in public by many who also participated in that march. To place that bit of information next to this other remembrence today: this day on which we mourn a young transgendered woman, Islan Nettles, murdered in Harlem because of her sexual preferences. And to remember what we choose to say and do when we are given the opportunity. A good day to remember exactly which anthem Marian Anderson chose to sing on that long ago day, and why she might have done so.

Here she is.

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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