Dalkey Archive Press

When Dalkey sent me the galleys of Theater of Incest and some other book with bugs in the title, I sympathized with the publicist’s plea: however great a book Theater of Incest may be, it will not get the readership it deserves, given the title.

I certainly have not read it yet.

But I admire Dalkey tremendously. As Djuna Barnes’ publisher and the publisher of other lesser known modernist works, I see Dalkey as one of the real heroes, a house with a distinct personality, publishing books of high quality that for all their variety, seem to go together.

But I have found a Dalkey book that I am totally, utterly thrilled with: Amanda Michalopoulou’s I’d Like, translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich. I learned about it when I heard her read and speak at a PEN event last spring. It is a dazzling, moving, strange collection of connected short stories. I’m not done with it yet and I think I’ll have a lot more to say. It’s stunning, though.

Bravo to Dalkey for bringing us this great work!

Cloak and dagger

When I sought to build a literary life, I imagined fame. What’s come to pass is smaller but maybe more delightful. This weekend, surrounding the PEN Festival, I learned three secrets. That is, I learned that three semi-anonymous or pseudonymous people with cool jobs are actually friends of mine: 1) I know the pseudonymous blogger over at “Of Books and Bicycles”--we chatted at the Eco-Rushdie-Vargas Llosa event and she revealed her blogging identity to me!, 2) not PEN-related but very cool, an old friend and former teacher emailed this morning, apologizing for not having gotten in touch when she was briefly in New York--to testify as an expert witness on J. K. Rowling’s behalf in this month’s Harry Potter trial, and 3) I have been good friends for decades with the translator of Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah, an exposé on the mafia.

Who knew my friends were leading such cool double lives?

As for me, when I’m not blogging here, I tend to be negotiating t.v. privileges with beloved but demanding daughters--“No, honey, you got to watch Dora all morning. It’s your sister’s turn to pick a show.”

PEN Projections: Translation and Original

I want to underscore my support for this new(ish) plan of having writers read in their native language whilst a screen projects the English words. I am totally with Garth on this one:
In what I believe is a new twist, writers read in their first language, with a translation projected onto a screen behind them. I applaud this, in theory; in a festival that prides itself on a global outlook, it seems questionable to force readers into English. That said, the projectionist's manic-depressive speeding-up and slowing-down of the scrolling text added a rather surreal dimension to the evening.
This would have been such an asset for Francesc Seres, the Catalan writer whose work I wish I understood better. And, much as I enjoyed Eco’s reading, I was really bothered by the fact that the projectionist scrolled through the English at such a breakneck pace that we reached the end of our text a full five minutes before Eco had done reading. If PEN can get this system to really work, with projectionists who speak the language, can follow along, and scroll without making our stomachs lurch, then I think the festival will really stand a chance to become a much richer celebration of World Voices. There is something deeply moving about hearing the writer speak in her own tongue: you get an intuitive connection to them that makes trekking off to auditoriums in parts of Manhattan unknown worthwhile.

From the PEN blog

There are many wonderful accounts of PEN events I’ve described here, both at MetaxuCafe and the PEN blog. You can read them for yourself, of course, but I wanted to highlight a couple entries on events that I, too, attended if only to document for myself the resonances between their reaction and my own:

Thus, Joshua Shenk seems to share my sence that the Crisis Darfur event was a big success:
it was Farrow’s attitude toward it that was my big lesson for the night. On the one hand, she was resolute clear, and specific. She made a very plain and concrete case, for example, for using the Olympic moment to pressure China, which pumps the Khartoum government full of cash and arms. After the event, she was on her way today to Hong Kong to for an Olympic torch protest.) But her indignity was accompanied throughout by a palpable humility before the vastness of the subject. That’s precisely what I feared would be missing from the event, and it was refreshing to get it.
More surprising and delightful to me was Laban Carrick Hill on Hub/Witness.org event: he, like me, seems to feel that we witnessed something truly remarkable:
As author Kashmira Sheth, a native of India, spoke of her grandmother being forced to marry at age eleven, I was reminded of my own grandmother marrying at fourteen in the rural South. I can remember when my oldest daughter turned fourteen and my realizing with sorrow and horror that she had reached the age my grandmother had married. Like Sheth’s grandmother, mine was denied education and made sure her children graduated from college. My father was the first in the family to graduate from high school, let alone college. I mention this story because as Americans we think that human rights abuses occur only the Third World. The testimony of the high school students in the room brought home just how close to our daily lives human rights abuses can be.
And Joshua Shenk agrees:
There were two distinct highlights on this morning's program. The first was learning a little about the Hub , which is a community video site (like YouTube) for human rights and which co-sponsored the panel. The second was watching Uzodinma Iweala turn a polite but lethargic field-trip crowd of high schoolers into living illustrations of the Hub’s abstract potential — to energize a community with self-respect and empathy.
I hear from my translator friend that Roberto Saviano’s events were smash hits and you can read about them in Italian here.

PEN World Voices: 3 Musketeers, Again

Others have posted their reports, so I’m indulging myself with impressions. There was a time when I might have scoffed at the false glamour of going to hear three literary giants read and talk. This year, I jumped at the chance.

After all, when Mario Vargas Llosa came to Yale when he was running for President of Peru, my Peruvian ESL students (dishwashers, new immigrants) went, but I stayed home and read.

And what do I remember of Umberto Eco’s visit? Only that his accent was hard to understand and, more vividly, that a fellow graduate student with a flamboyant style of dress and a Cantonese accent thicker than Eco’s Italian one, pushed herself to the head of the line of admirers, chatted with Eco, and returned, triumphant, to announce that she had secured the right to publish his talk in The Yale Journal of Law & Humanities. We--the other student editors and I--were amazed and impressed.

But in the spring of 1989, my professor for Anglo-Indian Narrative announced that, when we got to Shame, Salman Rushdie himself would be joining us to talk about his book.

The fatwa was declared a week later and I had never been in the same room with him until Friday. So, while Rushdie-spotting has become old hat to many, it was a really big deal to me.

His best work may be behind him, but I must say that I was really excited by what he read: not the rock stars and modernity of recent books but a turn back to the court of the great Mughal Emperor, Akbar. This is the kind of mythography that Rushdie excels at, and this fairy tale of the glory days of Muslim India seems really promising. He read a passage in which Akbar discourses with a young princeling who poses some interesting philosophical questions on kingship and what it means to rule--the kind of questions one’s philosophy professor might ask in a class on Plato. Akbar beheads him for his impertinence but then strokes his chin and wonders, hmm…, what if we did permit free speech?

I thought this was poltically pertinent and hilarious, moving and exciting. What more do you want in a novel?

And I thought the event overall was great: lots of fun to watch those giant egos on display, to hear the readings, to see them talk with each other. Like Dorothea, over at Books and Bicycles, I felt like the vibe was good from the get-go. My press pass worked magic and I got into the hall, the second attendee! I had a great seat on the aisle, Dorothea spotted me, we chatted, and I got to watch the anxious literary ladies of the 92nd St.. Y power-walk down to the front rows only to discover the seats were reserved. Eventually, a really handsome woman sat next to me and we fell into conversation: she is a high school English teacher in Madrid, visiting the city for a few months and drinking in the culture. We had a great chat about being a working mom and working to balance doing stuff for yourself and caring for your kids. (At 16, her daughter’s cool with her being away for two months; my daughters accept one late night a week, two max.)

Then, the reading began, and unlike almost every other event, the introductions were blessedly minimal. As in, the interim director of the Poetry Series thanked us, made some announcements, and then said, “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Umberto Eco.”

He read, walked off stage. Rushdie walked on. When Rushdie finished, out came Vargas Llosa. No baloney. Just great, professional, funny, and beautiful readings.

At dinner with other bloggers afterwards, some expressed disappointment in the degree of narcissism on display. They were shocked--shocked!--to find that three male literary lions, coasting on the crest of their careers, still virile but no longer striving, had big egos.

Indeed.

I noted that not one woman writer was mentioned all night long, but Mary Reagan rightly corrected me: one was: J. K. Rowling (!), whom Rushdie mentioned with humorous, ironic approval as a good-bad writer who seems to have learned from Dumas how to fill up pages with delightful nothings. So we learned something else: Rushdie is a Harry Potter fan.

So is Keith Olbermann. So am I.

In any case, I think my point still stands: these are great big male egos. Woolf, Stein, Sarraute, Arendt, Morrison, Sor Juana, de Pisan, etc., do not loom--large or small--in their imaginations. Still, they are unabashedly liberal, cosmpolitan, educated, historicist and forward-looking. I admire them.

As Levi notes,
The three eminences then gathered for a loose and lively chat about why they liked to call themselves the “Three Musketeers” (Rushdie even mulled over “The Three Tenors”, which I had suggested in a blog post on Thursday, and I was also starting to think up other alternatives including “The Traveling Wilburys” and “Velvet Revolver”). With Alexandre Dumas pere now in play, Rushdie, Eco and Vargas Llosa now began batting The Count of Monte Cristo back and forth, debating whether or not such “bad writing” as this can also be great writing. All three seemed to agree that bad writing could be great writing and that this often happens (it’s not hard to guess that all three authors were thinking of their own excesses here, as well as those of Dumas pere).

The panel was great fun to listen to because the writers were loose and rambunctious, eagerly speaking over each other at times, fully devoid of the stiff politeness that too often mars these gatherings.
The only downside, alas, was the usually intellectually agile Leonard Lopate kept trying to get a word in edgewise. I’m with Dorothea:
I would have preferred that he just let the writers keep up their debate and their jokes because the minute he asked a serious question the energy fell and the mood changed.
The Dumas conversation was a highlight: if you’re going to watch anything online, I’d watch the first fifteen minutes of the roundtable. But later, when they talked about the role of the writer in public life, many interesting things were said, too. That was where a lot of my dining companions heard too much ego, but I’m inclined to be forgiving towards great novelists who are also political commentators or presidential candidates or objects of a global fatwa. They have achieved greatness in more than one arena and it would be strange if they didn’t know it. Looking past that, and past the fact that in their world women still mainly exist as muses, gorgeous fleeting visions of Selma Hayek or Scarlett Johansson or…, I heard some interesting things: most interesting to me was Eco’s point that the US lacks public intellectuals in part because our universities tend to be cordoned off from the city itself. I certainly have found that the change in my life from teaching in rural Indiana to teaching in midtown on a campus that is really just a single building has made me a more engaged citizen.

You can see Mary’s gorgeous photos here.

And see the whole event at the PEN site.

PEN World Voices: Reading the World, again

If Resonances rambled like an old jalopy, Reading the World clicked along with all the professionalism and friendliness of a Volvo.

I don’t have much of an ethnicity nor a lot of ethnic pride, but what little I have lies in being half Scandinavian by heritage. And the sleek, modern room, the friendly manner of the staff (the first of four events where I just entered, got smiled at by volunteers, and sat down), and the handsomely friendly old lion in charge of Scandinavia House who welcomed us reminded me of why it’s not nuts to take some tiny pride in having ancestors from Norway and Denmark.

In any case, the readings were a delight: three powerful, professional readings of intense familial stress, ably and cheerfully introduced by NYT Book Review editor Rachel Donadio (wearing a really cool Mondrian-y skirt, appropriate to the Scandinavian design ethos).

I haven’t read Peter Carey, but I was so interested in what he said about His Illegal Self on WNYC a couple months ago, that I gave it to my mother-in-law for her birthday. She returned with a positive report. And Carey got up, joked about the intimidating podium (with only a slender stalk, there was no place to hide one’s legs), and said “All right. I’ll just start at the beginning and read for twelve minutes.” And so he did. He read from this story of a boy whose hippie mom is on the run, being raised not on the Upper East Side, where his grandma feels most at home, but, for safety’s sake, in “ a town of 400 people where no one lived.”

A brilliant phrase, “ a town of 400 people where no one lived,” capturing the anger, fear, and isolation of that woman, so at home in Bloomingdale’s and Zabar’s and luncheons with the ladies who give to the Met.

Hafdan Freihof’s reading from Dear Gabriel was an excruciatingly patient account of a dinner party interrupted by the temper tantrum (is that even a fair term) of an autistic son. Like Geoff, whose experience of the event seems to have been markedly similar to mine, I was under the very strong impression that this is memoir. For me, the great moment in this riveting story was of the father, wandering the rural neighborhood, in the dark, looking for his hiding son, “wherever you are you want to be found like a treasure,” he wrote.

That brought all the desires and pains of girlhood running away flooding back: wanting to be found “like a treasure” and reconciled with mommy and daddy, needing to be reassured that you are treasure, even when naughty. Gorgeous.

Like Geoff, Janet Malcolm’s reading from Two Lives was the highlight for me--for just the reasons he states.

It was nice to end with the reading from the hunky Catalan author Francesc Seres, but I longed to hear him read in Catalan and to have the chance to read a screen or handout in English: his accent was so strong, that too much passed me by.

PEN World Voices: Resonances

Well, 2 out of 3 isn’t bad.

I thought the Crisis Darfur event was informative and worthwhile: as enjoyable as being lectured at on genocide can rightly be. And the Witness event was a model of how to engage students in reading and activism: I was moved and amazed.

The Resonances Event at Baruch, by contrast, was dull, dull, dull.

I was so disappointed.

I arrived a little early and sat down in the middle of a row only to have a professor come up, stand right before me, ostentatiously count the empty seats to my right and left and ask if I was bringing my class. (Do I look that much like a teacher?)

No. I just thought it was a good seat and, if I sat in the middle, I wouldn’t have to keep getting up as people file in.

Ok, she said skeptically, but you’re going to be surrounded by my students.

Oh, sorry. So I got up and moved. She seemed confused as to why I didn’t want to stay and insisted that she hadn’t meant me to move….

Things went downhill from there: the moderator had gathered an impressive group of writers from all over the globe--Charles Simic, Antonio Munoz Molina, Fatou Diome, and Ma Jian--to speak about canonical works that continued to resonate for them. Of these writers, I know and admire Simic’s work quite a lot and was looking forward to learning more about the others. But they got up and rambled and rambled; the mic didn’t work well; Simic read his remarks on the eroticism of Ovid with all the panache of John McCain; the next two writers’ choices were predictable and nationalistic (Molina chose Cervantes; Diome, Cesaire and Senghor); each writer lectured us about basic facts and then rambled.

In short, the event was really disappointing and I was not sorry that mild illness gave me an excuse to cut out early.

I hear from others that Ma Jian was great on Kafka, but even that would have been too little, too late for me.

It’s so disappointing because, as a reader of old and new books, a scholar, and a professor, I welcome the notion of this event: I was excited to hear what these writers made of their precursors and excited to have contemporary writers speaking about reading. It should have been an event to inspire. Alas, it was not.

Pen World Voices: Witness: A Special Program for High School Students

I thought that the Crisis Darfur event was moving, interesting, and ideal. Nonetheless, as I hovered, famished, near the food table, scarfing down puff-pastry cheese straws (from Murray’s!), I could see why the whole scene reminded Levi to ask me if I’d yet read the new Keith Gessen (I have not; he liked it; it’s All the Sad Young Literary Men): as amazing as it was, it would be possible, without a lot of effort, to turn it into satire. (The Brit showing off by pronouncing Lévy as they do in the UK [BER-nerd HEN-ry LEAVE-ee], the girls worrying about whether or not MediaBistro ads for CondéNast jobs are going to lead to anything, the gray-haired German in his red-framed specs, the 80ish former actress at the reception noting that, really, Dianne Wiest was better in “Hannah and Her Sisters”…)

The Witness Event this morning, however, was moving and funny and inspiring in a different way and it’d take a more skilled satirist and a more cynical writer than I satirize it.

Again, the house was packed at a lush downstairs auditorium, this one smaller and further East, at the Instituto Cervantes on East 49th. About 150 people were there, mostly high school students and their teachers. The students were about 70% black, I’d guess and came from the Manhattan (especially the High School of Hospitality Management), Queens, and West Orange, NJ.

The event was primarily to publicize a new venture from the nonprofit organization Witness: The Hub. It’s a video-sharing site and online community for human rights and the goal of this PEN event was to get high school students informed about the site and empowered to watch, share, and make videos documenting the injustice and human rights issues touching their own lives.

What was so genius about this event is that everything about it was designed to emphasize that Witness really is interested in young people’s participation. It wasn’t just friendly, it was actually engaging and almost all the students were engaged for the full two hours (!). The organizer started by asking two or three students to share what mattered to them in the area of human rights. (One student talked about her ongoing project to make country report cards, another mentioned a civil rights book she’d read last year in 9th grade, a third mentioned his distress at the current oppression in Tibet).

From there, she turned to the panel: five writers who write for young adults. Each had been invited to share a video from the Hub, speak about it, and then read a very brief selection from her work.
  1. Kashmira Sheth chose a really moving but, I expect, strange to NYC high school students Bollywood-style video of a woman who escapes an abusive marriage. I loved it and, as it ended I heard a few “Oh! I get it. Wow!”s from the audience. She read from her novel about a child widow in search of an education—based on her great aunt’s life in India.
  2. Patty McCormick spoke about her sister adopting a Haitian boy and showed a video on indentured servitude in Haiti before reading from Sold, a novel about child prostitutes in South Asia.
  3. Jutta Richter, who writes in German, explained that she did not choose a video because she wanted to focus on the things we need to do right in our own neighborhood and then she read an amazingly funny and brilliant passage about a girl so enraged by a rumor-mongering “friend” that she pokes her in the face with an ice cream cone. I loved it!
  4. Then, the moderator opened it up to some more comments and questions. Students asked about the prevalence of spousal abuse in India today, about the inspiration for Richter’s fiction, about the centrality of education, about how McCormick became interested in Haiti through her sister and nephew.
  5. Amanda Michalopoulou spoke movingly about the importance of knowing about the past, of thinking about past suffering, before showing a video about comfort women. She writes adult fiction and children’s books and read from I’d Like (which I bought and started reading on the train: it’s amazingly great!), a book of interconnected short stories.
  6. Finally, the only man on the panel and by far the youngest writer, Uzodinma Iweala spoke. He totally held the day for the students. He really seemed to know how to treat them with respect and connect with them.

He is the most famous of the group: certainly the only writer I’d heard of among them; his Beasts of No Nation, the other book I bought, was a big title last year. Uzo, as everyone called him, was also the only one not to read from his own works. Instead, he worked the crowd, asking students to raise their hands if they were seniors, juniors, sophomores… He then quizzed them on ages--to drink, to enlist, to vote, to be tried as an adult (typically 16 but sometimes 13).

His video was about youth in prison in the US, from BooksNotBars.org, and, like Kashmira Seth’s music video, it was catchy, professional, and youth-oriented in ways that inspired. He then gave them a big homework assignment: go to this web address (he made them write it down, amidst much jocularity): http://ojjdp.ncjrs.gov/ojstatbb/nr2006/downloads/nr2006.pdf, read the report from the Department of Justice on how our government treats young people, and write a report. The first person to email him their paper would get a prize.
Money?
No, guys. Something like a book.
You got to tell us the prize, man.
How long?
Can we write on really tiny paper?
Big font?
Do we have to read the whole report?

Uzo laughed but stood firm: If it’s cool with your parents and your teacher, I’ll take you out to lunch with a friend of mine who’s a human rights lawyer. 5 pages, double-spaced, 12 point type, Times New Roman. Ok?

He went on to ask if any of the students had been harassed by the police. More than half had and we heard three sad stories of misunderstandings (we were waiting for a friend from another neighborhood on the corner and the cops told us to move on; we stayed there waiting and we all got tickets) that blemished these kids’ records. “I think the police just need to RE-LAX!” concluded one young woman.

At last, it was time for some final thoughts. A couple students mentioned other books that had meant a lot to them. A couple panelists urged students to keep wishing, pushing, fighting. And then there was time for one last question. A young black man from the back raised his hand and said that he was from Queens and he felt that it was really important that we all pay attention to this project, speak out, and work in our communities because he was from Queens and he was thinking about Sean Bell and the police department and if we didn’t speak up, one of us could be the next Sean Bell.

And that was the end. We clapped, I bought some books, got Amanda to sign mine, didn’t dare interrupt the circle of adulation around Uzo, and headed back to the office.

PEN World Voices: Crisis Darfur

I got to the Florence Gould Auditorium at fi:af a bit before 8:00 to find a peculiarly French combination of confusion and bureaucracy. To those of us seeking entry, there was lots of barking: “Stay in line!” “Hang on!”; amongst those in charge, there was much confusion. I wasn’t on the list (imagine my little moment of panic), but the magic words “blogging…Bud Parr” brought a smile to her face and the doors opened for me.

Levi, who was on the list and with whom I munched on olives and pate (Oh the irony!) afterwards, has already written up his views here, but let me add mine, too.

This was a very moving and impressively organized event. I left feeling better informed about Darfur and both sadder and more hopeful for change.

Joel Whitney, a founding editor of the online literary magazine Guernica, started the evening off, forgetting to introduce himself (I’ve known him for a while now), but introducing the event and moderator Dinaw Mengestu with aplomb.

I was particularly curious and skeptical about Bernard-Henri Lévy’s presentation, remembering Garrison Keillor’s hilarious skewering of his book on America in the Times book review. Although his slides tended to feature pictures of him standing alone amidst the rubble, looking rugged and dashing and although he slightly mischaracterized Let us now praise famous men, I was impressed with him overall: sure, he has a big ego, but he also put it on the line to go to Darfur.

He was extremely clear and really showed his mettle as a popular philosopher, bringing us a range of conclusions:

  • The crisis in Darfur is a war AGAINST civilians, not a civil war.
  • We need to suspend the myth of the Janjaweed: We need to recognize that the attacks on villages are largely carried out by airstrikes from above, supported on the ground by Janjaweed.
  • Debates on whether on not this is genocide have all the relevance of the medieval debates about the sex of angels. This reference provided a welcome chance to laugh and provided Lévy with the opportunity to make one of his most important points of the night, one that Farrow’s presentation took as its theme: that these lives, these tiny, anonymous lives, have been lost and remain uncountable to us.
  • Why are we so passive? Our passivity, he thinks, is the perverse effect of the combination of three good modern ideas: 1) anti-racism, anti-colonialism, and anti-imperialism. That is, being anti-racist, it’s hard for us to fathom non-white perpetrators of genocide; being anti-colonial, we hesitate to intervene in former colonies, recognizing our culpability in their current political dilemmas; and being anti-imperial, we struggle to grasp the relevance of the plight of oppressed people who are not part of the vast story of power in the globe.

I think that this fourth point was the most philosophically impressive and interesting. I suspect that it is part of his forthcoming book, the very cleverly titled Left in Dark Times.

Still, for me, the most impressive moment was his very careful and respectful discussion of the problem of knowing how many have died in Darfur.

He spoke about the huge range of estimates—from 200,000 to over half a million killed—and he made sure we knew that, with entire villages wiped off the map, we will never know how many people have been killed. Village after village is cone with, as he eloquently said, “no memory, no inscription, no grave, no face, no name, no number,” and talked about these tiny lives, lives wiped off the earth.

He spoke about tiny lives, but I thought of our tiny lives: the 300 or so of us sitting in a packed underground auditorium, comfie seats, dressed in black, wearing rakish scarves and dutifully silencing our smartphones. I felt important to be there, to have a press pass, to know the editor of the magazine that sponsored the event. And tiny, too. And so far from Darfur or being able to help.

But he made sure that we thought about that: about the importance of bearing testimony, of asking for real sanctions against Sudan, and, most importantly, of pressuring China to cease buying the oil that provides the cash for the Sudanese government.

Phew.

So, after this talk, I felt saddened and informed.

Then Mia Farrow came out: tiny and thin, as I expected. Looking small and a bit afraid and way more like Joyce Carol Oates than I ever, ever, ever would have guessed.

If Lévy offered us the philosophy and history, she offered the politics and the emotions. She presented the slideshow that you can find on her website: devastating, heartbreaking pictures not of her standing looking good but of burnt villages, women seeking firewood, scars of raped women (often raped on their ten-mile walk to find firewood), dying children, and grief, grief, grief, grief.

Farrow has made eight trips to Darfur and she spoke with passion about the plight of the internally displaced Darfurians whom she’s come to know. She showed a picture of a 27-year-old mother (looking 40) who’d walked for 20 days to find safety, burying 2 of her 4 children on the way, because, “Someone said there was a country called Chad.”

This was but one of dozens of such tales, each typical, each heartbreaking.

I was impressed, deeply impressed, with her commitment and with the way in which she’s put her power as an actress to manipulate our emotions to such good service: over and over again, she brought us nearly to tears of despair and then pulled back so that, as with the first talk, she could remind us that the point is not catharsis but action.

Again, China was singled out as the best leverage against the Sudanese government.

This has gone on much too long, for sure, but I must say that I thought this was a smashing, moving, and informative event: a real model of how to get people to learn and to care about a distant crisis.