I'm reminded of David, an amazing 30-ish guy who escaped from his drowned hometown and made his way to the streets of Boston. He was living in homeless shelters, the streets, eating meals at Haley House and, being a gifted speaker, he gave us all a gut-wrenching personal take on what happened.
It was maybe 10 months--ten months--that David was living homeless before his girlfriend was able to make it to Boston, retrieve him, that they could try to return back to their decimated home. His girlfriend had taken dozens of hours of video footage of the hurricane and, mostly, its aftermath; she was intent on editing it and getting the story out into the world.
Because, if you're not there, if you don't have someone telling you their story, its easy to forget about, isn't it?
I'm not sure what happened to David and his girlfriend after that. I know for fact, though, how much he affected me and so many of us other community members, volunteers, and guests.
There's a lot of blame-the-victim rhetoric that comes up around Hurricane Katrina. People say that, essentially, if people are stupid enough to live in a city prone to hurricanes, they deserve to suffer.
Funny that nobody seems to say the same thing about San Francisco, a city on a fault line, or Kansas, which is in Tornado Alley, or the entire southwest of the U.S., which, being a desert, suffers from water shortages, or Iowa, which went through its own decimating flood this year.
Now, what could possibly be different about the City of New Orleans, to make people talk so dismissively about this most brutal of emergencies and imply that the city might be better off not existing in the first place?
Oh wait, now I remember ...
You've heard, no doubt, that today is the forty-fifth anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr's "I Have A Dream" speech during the 1963 March on Washington.
You know, also, that tonight, Barack Obama accepts the Democratic nomination for president, becoming the first person of color to be put forth by one of the two major parties for the highest office in the land.
Of course, the Obama campaign planned that quite intentionally, and I expect his speech tonight to bear that resonance of those who have come before him. That doesn't make me cynical, because it's a valid resonance: I really didn't expect to see a viable non-white candidate for president in my lifetime. And I certainly didn't expect that first candidate to be a Democrat, or to come from a mixed-race international legacy; none of his ancestors were American slaves.
To be sure, if the first non-white president were a conservative who I disagreed with vehemently, I would still be moved, even if I chose to cast my vote for someone else. Who couldn't be? My god, Black people have been two-thirds-of-a-person slaves on this land for far longer than they've been citizens with rights, and to see a Black man elevated to the role of president, with all the public support that represents, only 43-years since the Voting Rights Act was issued--a gal would have to be a monster to not get choked up.
I would be moved no matter who this person was. But I'm so glad it's Barack Obama (and Michelle Obama too; she's fantastic).
It's a year for surprises, even wonders. And it begins by putting yourself out there.
The thing is, Obama is not the only one who should take time to express gratitude for those who came before.
All of us live in a better world because of them: King, certainly, and Malcolm X, Barbara Jordan, Rosa Parks, Shirley Chisholm (another venerable presidential candidate), Harry Belafonte, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, John Lewis (the last man alive who spoke at the 1963 march, and in Denver today), Barbara Deming, Grace Lee Boggs, Jimmy Boggs, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, Frederick Douglas, Sojourner Truth, John Brown; among them are those honored reverently and those that Melissa Harris Lacewell calls in The Nation and on Democracy Now! "the lost prophets of American democracy." They are both must-reads/listens.
And absolutely, without a doubt, most especially: you and I live substantively better lives because of the hundreds of thousands of people whose names aren't remembered in history books, but who had the nerve to get up, get out, speak up, speak out, and damn well do something.
You see them in that historical March on Washington in 1963 (and the New York Times talks to several of those marchers today), but that's hardly all of them.
Hundreds of thousands of more were allied in other actions across the country--including the Great March to Freedom in Detroit, drawing 200,000 down Woodward Avenue in June 1963, where Martin Luther King, Jr. actually debuted an earlier version his "I Have a Dream" speech. That speech was actually Motown Records' first spoken-word album--and a very popular one at that.
In fact, today, Obama supporters in Detroit are recreating that civil rights walk tonight (and I plan to be there).
It's not over. It's not over. If Obama is elected president, our nation has taken a huge leap forward, but it's apparent that racism, and the systems of racism are still with us.
This week, after all, also marks the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and its ridiculous and terrifying aftermath. (By the way, if you haven't seen this yet, then drop everything you are doing and do so this minute. I'm serious).
The ugliness of the Jena 6 incidents ring in recent memory.
The recent untimely death of U.S. Rep. Stephanie Tubbs-Jones--a brilliant civil rights leader, five-term congresswoman and Black woman--was buried fifteen stories below “Distraught Elephant to Remain in Dallas” in the New York Times National News headlines.
Which is why we'd do well to not only feel appreciation for those who came before, but those who are with us right now; not only for those who make speeches at major rallies and conventions (though that too!), but also those whose names we'll never know, and those whose seemingly small daily actions--challenging racism at work, consciously raising children in an anti-racist way--move us all forward.
And let's take a moment today to invite ourselves into the movement, and to hold out our hand to actively invite another to join us.
We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. There is no time to engage int he luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug fo gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.
~ Martin Luther King, Jr., "I Have a Dream"
Why doesn't anybody talk about Alan Sillitoe these days? He's the author of "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner," which is one of my very favorite short stories--a miracle of tightly-wound sentences, of edgy contained emotion, of text heavy with inner-monologue that somehow moves the story incessantly forward (perhaps because it's so bound with the physicality of the narrator and the world he's in), and it has the best storytelling about honesty since The Catcher and the Rye. The 1950s working-class Brit slang slants funny at times, but it holds energy--the voice of the narrative beats in my mind.
I just found out that Sillitoe wrote the screenplay for a 1962 film version of this title story of one of his collections. I want to see it, and yet, I feel some trepidation about tainting my experience of the story. Something about the literal experience of reading it--solitary, silent, sitting still with the cool pages in my hand--heightens the story itself, even more with this one than most. I'm afraid the voices and faces and movement of the film might crowd out what I value about the act of reading this tale.
And the story--it helms a collection by the same name that seems to be on its way out of print, if not already there, perhaps overwhelmed by the 2004 release of New and Collected Stories by Sillitoe that happens to be what I'm reading from this time around; it pulls together five collections. Sillitoe, by the way, has published more than 50 books and 400 essays.
When New and Collected Stories was released, a Powell's Books review called Sillitoe a "criminally overlooked British writer."
What makes Sillitoe's writing crackle with life is the utter lack of pretense and sentimentality. This isn't a writer out to dazzle the reader with literary parlor tricks or stylistic pyrotechnics. Rather, Sillitoe uses the vernacular of the working class to express universal ideas of internal dislocation and bewilderment. It's as if Dostoyevsky's longing for connection was spliced with Hemingway's economy of language.
... New and Collected Stories performs the amazing task of making the medium vibrant again ...
Meanwhile, many of the book listings on Powell's Books misspells Sillitoe's name (it's "Alan," not "Allan"). And a quick internet browse found far more mentions of the "Long Distance Runner" film than the book or its author--and when they are mentioned, both the story's narrator and the author are usually and casually labeled Angry Young Men.
Or this (very good) 2004 profile in The Guardian:
Of course, the label is awfully limiting; it drags down the many resonances of emotion that I've found in Sillitoe's stories, and particularly in his flagship, "Long Distance Runner." What a tight spot: the fiction seems to have fallen off most people's radar, and when it is remembered, its commonly cited as just another entry in some sort of simplistic encyclopedic catagorization of Literature.
I first learned of the guy when a friend passed the story collection of "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" years ago in college, with a firm "you need to read this." The haunting title grabbed me. It's a joy, now, to return to the stories in that book, and to peruse Sillitoe's other works. Not all of them are particularly great. Some meander, some feel flat-lined. But those that transcend--my god, they're wonderful. Folks say his two-parted novel, Saturday Night, Sunday Morning is something to hold on to as well; I'm craving that one next.
And Alan Sillitoe is still plugging along at age 80. The Guardian wrote about him (in another great feature) just last May, upon the news that Sillitoe has taken up teaching at Ruskin College, "a college dedicated to giving working-class adults a second bite at education."
But he can make practical suggestions. His first is to read everything you can. The second is to read yet more. He spent five years in the early 50s devouring anything he could get his hands on, from Plato and Aristophanes up to Mailer and Salinger. "How else are you going to get a feeling for language?" he says. "And besides, you don't want to waste years writing War and Peace only to find it's already been written." For Sillitoe, these five years were a way of filling in the gaps in a formal education that had ended when he was 14 ...
And he's still writing; there's a novel in his desk drawer that he's working on. Which is lucky for all of us readers; we can add it to the TBR list along with all the rest of his work that's sitting right in front of us, just waiting for us to discover it.
You know, if we're not caught up re-reading "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" over and over.
Sillitoe Image Credit: The Guardian
Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
That's right: as of 88 years ago, I and every other of-age female can vote.
This is a good time to cheer not only for the suffragettes who fought for decades to make it happen, but for the bold women like Victoria Woodhull who had the nerve to run for president of the United States when they were many years away from even being allowed into a polling station.
What, by the way, do women voters want? Try this out.
The first time I voted? Election 2000. I filled out an absentee ballot in Hayden Room 126 in the University of Michigan's East Quad. And you know what? It was awesome. Of course, as the election proceeded, I and everyone else in the country got an unusual lesson on our national voting system. But that's another story.
Just a couple weeks ago, I voted in the primary election in Detroit, the first time I voted in a community that wasn't my hometown. I was struck by how powerful it was to make that shift; what a way to feel invested in a city you've chosen to live in, and to realize that your voice matters in that city. It's a moving thing, to take that leap from being a visitor/tourist, to being really part of it. That millage that passed overwhelmingly in three counties to support the Detroit Zoo? I get a thrill being one little piece of the big "Yes."
Narrative Magazine is one of the best online lit magazines out there, and with a website overhaul, it just got better. Besides checking out its improved use of visuals and layout, read and check out the dialogue on the works-in-progress from Stuart Dybeck, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Cynthia Ozick, Amy Bloom, Alicia Gifford, Ayelet Waldman, and many others.
And don't miss Elizabeth Bowen's piece on novelwriting, collected in the "3 Great Pieces on Writing" feature.
I actually have a running--and rather short, so far--list of books and essays on writing that are above and beyond, ones to return to, ones I'd recommend to anyone not just interested in writing, but to many voracious readers as well. While there's a lot of quality writing about craft out there, these are the ones that catalyzed a big leap forward in my writing and my thinking about writing, they are themselves beautifully written, and they are ones I return to.
Here's what I've got so far:
"Politics and the English Language," by George Orwell
The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King
"Dysfunctional Narratives; or, 'Mistakes Were Made,'" by Charles Baxter (collected in Burning Down the House)
The Flexible Lyric, by Ellen Bryant Voigt
Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer, by Peter Turchi
Best Words, Best Order, by Stephen Dobyns
Stephen King's acceptance speech for the National Book Foundation's "Distinguished Contribution to American Letters" award
William Faulkner's acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize
Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Nobel Prize lecture
And many of the lectures from the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers, including Eleanor Wilner's "Poetry in a Time of Atrocity," Maurice Manning's "Odes, Prodigals, and Pyres: Dark atter and Resurrection" and, especially, "Defending Poetry," C.J. Hribal's, "Vision and (Re)Vision, Robert Boswell's "On Omniscience," and Kevin McIlvoy's "Making, Masking, and Unmasking 'God' in Fiction."
Lucky for all of us, we can purchase audio recordings of those WWC classes.
What would you add to the list? What should I go looking for next?
In the Columbia Journalism Review, Jane Kim wonders what the heck Michiko Kakutani is doing writing a profile of Jon Stewart in the Sunday New York Times--especially when the man's been profiled so many times before in the Times and elsewhere.
Is it because Stewart is one of our two modern-day Mark Twains? Is Kakutani merely paying her respects to the continuation of a noble comic/literary tradition?
Kim is skeptical about it being anything so noble, or effective.
The infamous Times books critic depicted Stewart and The Daily Show in a way that seemed an attempt at an imprimatur, a High Brow Stamp of Approval from the diva of literary reviews. It’s an attempt that produced something of a non-result. ...
... Kakutani is a stranger to the world of comedy news shows, however, and while sending an outsider to report on an unfamiliar milieu can be a brilliant editorial strategy, it doesn’t work here. ... it’s not just that there’s little new about it (a legitimate and concrete gripe). There’s a more significant disconnect here, one caused by the inability of Kakutani As Critic to do what she does best. For once, her stamp of approval doesn’t really matter (and that’s what her well-honed thing is).
I'm not so much of a Kakutani-hater as many are, but I'm on Kim's side on this one.
It's a tripartite deal this time around in the Isak Book Giveaway, now going somewhat multimedia for the first time. Be the fifth person to email me at annaleighclark-at-yahoo-dot-com, and I'll be sending you all three of the following:
Last month, a New Pages review of Dzanc Books' Best of the Web 2008 anthology called the book "expansive"--and that rings right with my perusing of the eclectic book. Seems to me that the anthology's greatest strength is that it brings together fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and flash fiction; a lot of compelling voices brought to a common space and the juxtaposition among genres gives the book a dynamism that's missing from most "Best of" books.
I've been thinking a lot about the two introductions to this anthology from series editor Nathan Leslie and guest editor Steve Almond, where the pair explicitly acknowledge the skepticism with which many folks approach literary work that's published online. Print holds the literary prestige still today, in a digital age where so many of us are consuming a great deal of online news media. Leslie and Almond point to the great writing in Best of the Web 2008 and make the implication that this is writing that transcends its online medium, as if the internet is a neutral container for the writing that suffers merely from an uneven literary reputation.
While it's evident that wonderful literary writing appears online all the time, it's important to recognize how much the medium shapes the writing it holds, as every medium does. Whether its pages of a book or the website of a prestigious lit journal or a blog or a soup can, the medium isn't serving as the cold boundaries of the writing; it actively participates in creating it.
Michael Martone is renowned for exploring the dynamism between medium and content. Whether it's the series of "contributor's notes" that Martone initially wrangled to get lit journals to place in context of the actual contributor's notes, or the fictional travel pieces about Indiana that he published in newspapers where a reader could not be blamed for taking the piece in as nonfiction, Martone makes it apparent how medium and context shape the reading experience. (Both of those experiments were collected in Michael Martone and The Blue Guide to Indiana, respectively)
In an essay collected in another anthology--Martone's Unconventions: Attempting the Art of Craft and the Craft of Art--the writer discusses "framing the frame."
A frame, then, renders the story, in some ways, safe. We can read it as a story and not have to confront the content solely. We can read it as a confession of a rape and a pretend confession, for instance. Or another story presents us with an explanation of adultery and the awareness that it is a made-up explanation of adultery. The anxiety of the reader is relieved; a distance is created. The (student writing) workshop is very good at disarming or exposing the story's camouflage, so good that its function as a frame is rarely or never, I've found, discussed. The workshop proceeds as a given, and we are meant to forget its very complex function as context in which we read. By ignoring the workshop as a fictional frame, we miss teaching our students about the artistic manipulation of the frame. We concentrate on the object at the table, the stories, and ignore the table they are on.
... I am, after all, a fiction writer ... I am not simply the creator of objects but also the creator of the contexts in which these objects are created and displayed, in which they show forth and do work.
Just so, the frame of literary work appearing online contributes to meaning of that literary work. In Best of the Web 2008, Leslie and Almond needn't imply that the collected writing overcomes a medium that inherently breeds bad stories and poems. First of all, bad writing appears in all mediums; it's simply more accessible online. Second, the literary work of the anthology is great in part because of its online context; the introductions might've been a space to discuss how the meaning of the literary work shifted by moving from the web to a print anthology with the word "Best" in the title.
That all said: there is the book at hand.
A couple days ago, there was an online Best of the Web bonanza. TimeOutChicago has said the book "really cooks ... The Internet is built for this work: short and weird." That's about right: this is the perfect book for readers with high standards, many moods, and an itch that tends to keep them reading many books/stories/poems all at once (ahem.)
Special shout out to Amy Minton's story, "Overhanded." Collected in the anthology, it was published originally at Hobart. And it's real good. Lucky me, to be in a writing circle with her. Now, I just have to ride those coattails ...
Adam Thirlwell: The Delighted States: A Book of Novels, Romances, & Their Unknown Translators, Containing Ten Languages, Set on Four Continents, & Accompanied by ... Illustrations, & a Variety of Helpful Indexes
This nonfiction book of blinding brilliance and rare pleasures -- one that I will easily name as a favorite -- orients itself on questions of literature in translation. How does style translate, or not translate, across not only language, but also time and country, politics and personality? How does the map of the imagination match up with the map(s) of our literal world?
Read the review here.
Joe Kelly: I Kill Giants
Here it is: a compilation comic of striking artwork and an unnerving story of fantasy, monsters, and disaster. Barbara Thorson is the eccentric and geeky young girl of great confidence who guides us through the pages. I Kill Giants is a work of beauty.
Read my brief review here.
Bonnie Jo Campbell: American Salvage (Made in Michigan Writers Series)
These stories shake in the bones. Their telling is agile and nuanced; while concise, each story has a sort of lingering feel about it. One reads this book feeling as if we, like the characters peopling a post-industrial land, are on the edge--a way of life ended, or begun; the ground shaking beneath our feet; lives strained and transformed; the smallness and bigness of it all.
Read the review here.
Junot Diaz: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Yes, I hear you, I get it: I’m several years behind in joining the clamor of appreciation for Junot Díaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel – his only novel (so far) and the slow-coming follow-up to the magnetic story collection, Drown. All the same, reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao feels like a discovery. This is a wild, soaring, stylized, hilarious, heartbreaking, and highly-voiced novel, one that indulges in tale-telling and, in the ample footnotes, passionate essaying.
Read my review here.
Norman Mailer: Miami and the Siege of Chicago (New York Review Books Classics)
Let me be sure to not bury the lede: This book is a lit fire.
Read the review here.
Josh Neufeld: A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge
The author's passion for documenting these tales is evident, as is his honest concern for the failures that trapped citizens in a winless game of futility and danger. But I don't really like the book he made.
Read the review here.
Rainer Maria Rilke: Duino Elegies: A Bilingual Edition
Rainer Maria Rilke began writing Duino Elegies one hundred years ago this year while visiting -- I am not making this up -- a princess.
Read the review here.
Carla Speed McNeil: Finder: Voice
McNeil shifts between humor and the grotesque with unnerving dexterity. She plays with our expectations of gender. Class reigns heavily on the story. McNeil collects myth and futuristic technology, and collides them together in a way that dis-locates the reader.
Read the review here.