Thursday, November 12, 2015

Edward Baugh @ Rutgers-Newark + Poems

Last Friday, poet and scholar Dr. Edward Baugh paid a visit to Rutgers-Newark. Professor Emeritus of English at the University of the West Indies, Jamaica, Baugh over the years has held many visiting posts in the US and UK, among them at UCLA and Howard University, as well as as Flinders, Macquarie, and Wollongong Universities. Baugh is widely known as ab eminent literary critic whose academic writings focused on West Indian literature, especially the study of Anglophone Caribbean poetry, and in particular the work of Nobel Laureate, Derek Walcott.

Yet throughout his scholarly career he also has been a poet of note, and it was in that capacity that he came to campus from Jamaica as part of the Department of African American and African Studies' lecture series, with the co-sponsorship of the English Department and the MFA Program in Creative Writing. Also key to his visit was support from my colleague Rachel Hadas, who not only helped to organize and provided key financial sponsorship for his reading, but also hosted Dr. Baugh during his visit. (While in New York and New Jersey, Dr. Baugh also visited Ramapo College under the auspices of Professor Shalom Gorewitz, Rachel's husband.)

As part of his visit, I offered introductory remarks, excerpted below. The reading, Q&A and reception drew a strong crowd that included many Rutgers-Newark colleagues and students. Also attending was Baugh's longtime friend, multimedia artist, poet and arts activist Gerd Stern, one of the founders of the legendary arts collective USCO. Stern, I learned, had maintained a home for decades in Jamaica, which is where he befriended Baugh.

A snippet of my remarks:
Edward Baugh's poetry disarms with a quiet power. It does not indulge in rhetorical flashiness or imagistic legerdermain, but rather draws upon the poet's commitment to careful observation and an engagement with the flow of daily life. 
It is poetry very much of its time and place, of the Jamaica of Baugh's lifetime, and indeed of his life, flavored with everyday speech and the tonalities of the contemporary lyric, but also it is a cosmopolitan poetry that casts a net out to and hauls in perspectives from the wider world, the black and diasporic worlds, the worlds of literature itself. 
It is a poetry brimming with wit, sometimes machete-sharp, and an ear keenly attuned to the resonant subtleties of language's possibilities that can recut the edges on a copper. In "You Ever Notice How," from his 2000 collection It Was the Singing, Baugh writes

 And is always the same, check me again
 tomorrow night, same time, same square,
 different set of players, different
 colour costume, but the same script,
 different maximum, but the same
 two left feet missing the beat. 

And, in "Words," a heart-breaking poem about his mother's illness and how she shaped his own love of language, from that same collection, he writes:

                         She sits
 rigid with pain, too proud to ask
 if there is any word of relief.
 In the silence between us
 you can hear the metastases multiply.

These are words that do profound work, revealing for and reminding us of poetry's many powers, one of which is portraying the world around us, while another is to reveal what lies deep inside it, and us. 
Copyright © 2015, John Keene

Here are two brief poems by Edward Baugh, one rather light and one quite serious, from his most recent collection, Black Sand. They offer only a glimpse of his work, which I recommend, so do consider adding Black Sand to your collection. He is the author of three collections of poetry, including A Tale from the Rainforest and It Was the Singing. His other publications include Derek Walcott: Memory as Vision and Frank Collymore: a Biography, as well as the edited volumes Critics on Caribbean Literature; Derek Walcott's Another Life (ed. with Colbert Nepaulsingh); and Derek Walcott's Selected Poems.


No, I am not
Eddie Brathwaite
nor was meant to be
and anyhow
he's Kamau now
while I remain
just plain



When they asked James Meredith
what it was like to be
the first black student at Ole Miss,
he replied: "It's like you walk in the dark
and a bird flutters in the bush.
I have walked in the dark
and bird is always fluttering."

Both poems copyright © Edward Baugh, from Black Sand: New and Selected Poems (Peepal Tree Press, 2013). All rights reserved.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Recent Travels/Book Tour

In Pratt Library's window
It is hard to believe we are nearing the end of the semester, but in a few weeks Thanksgiving will arrive, followed by the last few classes and final papers, and the term will be a wrap. Like prior falls this one has raced by, but the speed has assumed a barreling quality because of the trips to promote Counternarratives, with body underneath the fast-moving cask. Now whenever I get on a plane I wonder in all seriousness how I ever commuted for ten years to and from Chicago, though I must add that when I first started at Northwestern, which was in the immediate post-9/11 moment (2002), dealing with airport security and TSA was nowhere as enervating and exhausting as it is today. It has nevertheless been a joy and honor to be able to read from and promote the book in different cities.

The beach in Santa Cruz
Those giant redwoods on
UCSC's campus
Karen Tei Yamashita tagging
in the restaurant
At the utterly chaotic LAX
In late September, I headed to Baltimore and Washington. In Charm City, Judy Cooper hosted me at the Enoch Pratt Free Library for a reading and Q&A, so many thanks to her and everyone at Pratt (including past Prattizen Reggie H. who made the reading possible). I drew a small but enthusiastic audience, met a number of people, including broadcaster Melvin Lewis, and sold and signed books. Judy and everyone at Pratt were a joy to work with from start to finish. The next day at the invitation of Dr. Meta DuEwa Jones, a professor of English at Howard University, I read to and spoke with one of her classes. It was so encouraging to receive the warm reception and I got to meet several budding writers studying with Meta, a scholar and writer I deeply respect and admire, as well as some of her great colleagues. She was the consummate host from the time I arrived at Union Station until she dropped me. This was an Amtrak trip, and I give it the highest ratings in every category. (Years ago, from 2001-2, I commuted via Amtrak and Greyhound, so I've seen both at their best and worst too.) If only, I thought as I often do when I experience a smooth train ride, we had a real high-speed trans-national rail system. If only!
Steve Dickison
Reading at the Poetry Center at SFSU
With Tan Khanh Cao at City Lights
Three weeks later, after the trip to Detroit for Fire & Ink IV: Witness, I headed to the University of California-Santa Cruz to read at the invitation of the utterly brilliant and dear poet and critic Dr. Ronaldo V. Wilson, as part of their "Living Writers Series." Again I was fortunate in my host, as Ronaldo made sure things ran very smoothly, including deputizing one of his talented undergraduate writing students, Oscar Del Toro, to meet me at San Jose Airport. As part of the visit I met with Ronaldo's poetry class, who shared their poetry with me, before we discussed Seismosis and writing in general. As part of the visit I read from Counternarratives, and sold and signed books, always a pleasure. Ronaldo, who was a delight to hang out with, gave me a little driving tour of Santa Cruz, whose giant redwood trees I cannot get out of my head, and one of the highlights of the visit was meeting the great Karen Tei Yamashita and her Brazilian husband, Ronaldo, as well as other colleagues of Ronaldo's like Chris Chen, his smart and friendly graduate students, and some of the writers who had traveled down from the Bay Area to attend the reading, like Jaze. I also thought about Angela Davis and her presence on this campus while I was there. We also had the experience of a black staff person stopping Ronaldo and me as we walked down a hallway to comment on how rare it was for her to see two black men walking together on campus, so that she had to note this. I appreciated that moment of recognition and connection. A wonderful trip, especially because I of how much fun I had with Ronaldo, and I have promised myself I will not blather on about how beautiful Santa Cruz is. But it is--go see it!
You know where
C and Tonya
At Green Apple Books
Tan, I and Stephen introducing us
Offering an answer
The following week C and I headed to San Francisco for several events,   under the auspices of the Poetry Center at San Francisco State University. Though I had never read in their series I actually had interviewed aeons ago--shortly after I received my MFA--at San Francisco State, so it was wonderful to be able to return almost two decades later with a new book to share there. Our host was poet and professor Steve Dickison, who from the time he met us at the airport was a shepherd of the best kind. Our first night we stayed in a gentrified neighborhood right on the edge of Golden Gate Park, then we moved to a hotel in downtown San Francisco, right on Union Square, which allowed us to do a little sightseeing and shopping. I had a desire for tunic-style shirts and sweatshirts, and San Francisco was able to oblige me. The reading on Thursday at the Poetry Center drew a full crowd, including Maxine Chernoff, whom I hadn't seen since that interview in the 1990s; Paul Hoover, with whom I once broke bread in Rhode Island and whom I would see from time to time in Chicago; the warm and talented Robert Ricardo Reese; and one of my favorite people, Tonya Foster, who now teaches at the Californi College of the Arts in SF. I also got to meet some local writers and poets, including Brandon Brown and George Albon, who shared with me a copy of his book Fire Break (Nightboat Books). I am leaving out several other people, so I apologize, but it was an afternoon I won't forget for a while.
A full house
Signing books and chatting
with one of the booksellers
That night Steve, Tonya, C, and I went out to House of Nanking, a restaurant I'd hoped one day to return to, because the food was so good. It is still standing around the corner and down the street from City Lights Books--where we stopped in after our meal and dessert--and just as yummy. Ask for the special menu too! At City Lights, I finally got to meet Tan Khanh Cao, a consummate bookseller, artist and brilliant person inside and out, with whom I would be in conversation the following night at Green Apple Books. I loved meeting Tan, and got such a good vibe that I knew things would go well at Green Apple. Of course I had to be disabused of the notion that the store was in Oakland (???), but we got there without a problem via Uber, spending a little time with Tan, Steve, Susan Gevirtz and others (including Paul from City Lights) before the reading. At Green Apple the room was packed, and the audience was truly enthusiastic. Among those present were Green Apple's Stephen Sparks, who introduced us and who has been a champion of Counternarratives from day one; Brad Johnson, from Oakland's Diesel Books, who wrote one of the best reviews of the book; one of my most amazing former students, Tai Little; translator Katrina Dodson; and the dazzling critic Aaron Bady, whom I knew from Twitter. I didn't get to say hello to my former college poetry classmate, Joseph Lease, and his wife Donna de la Perrière, becuase they jetted as I was signing books, but I was so glad to know they were there (I spotted Joseph's nimbus of hair from a distance). The dialogue with Tan flowed easily and was such a pleasure; I believe it's on tape and will be live soon, so I'll post a link when that happens. There were even two St. Louisans present, a lovely young couple whom I got to ask the St. Louis question, "Where did you go to high school." (SLUH and Nerinx Hall, and she was from Webster Groves too--go figure!) Afterwards a large group headed to a local bar and had a great time. While we were in San Francisco C and I got to see my former colleague, the extraordinary Jennifer DeVere Brody, who is flourishing and made our day. I returned to JC and classes a little tired but also still soaring from the wonderful trip.

At the bar, with Aaron Bady, Brad (at left),
Stephen (in the plaid shirt) and others
Paul and others
C smiling (Katrina Dodson directly
in center at back)
To ALL my hosts, to all who made these readings possible in any way, to all who came out for the readings, to all who have bought and read copies of Counternarratives or given them as gifts, I offer my DEEPEST THANKS ALWAYS! Thank you, thank you, thank you! 

Friday, October 16, 2015

Fire & Ink IV: Witness

Over the span of four days a week ago Detroit hosted Fire & Ink IV: Witness, the fourth national gathering of black GLBT (LGBTIQA+) writers and activists. The inaugural Fire & Ink took place in 2002, and this year's conference, which focused on the theme of "witnessing," embodied Fire & Ink's vision of serving as an "influential supporter and advocate for GLBT writers of African descent," and its mission of sponsoring regular forums focused on black GLBT writing; advocating for black GLBT works to be included in libraries, academic curricula and bookstores; and organizing workshops that nurture GLBT writers of African descent and foster our writing. I have not verified the attendance figures with the conference's organizers, Lisa C. Moore (President); Steven G. Fullwood (Vice President); Reggie Harris; Anthony R. G. Hardaway; Shawn(ta) Smith-Cruz; and Steven J. "Lula-Bell" Fields, about many people attended, but many of the workshops, performances and screenings were packed, and I know that writers came to the Motor City from all corners of the US as well as from across the globe.
The view from my hotel window
This was my second time participating in Fire & Ink. The first one occurred in Chicago just before I arrived to teach at Northwestern, and I did not know about the second one, so it was not until the 2009 event in Austin, Texas that I had an opportunity to attend. That gathering, like this one, left me feeling incredibly invigorated about the future of black LGBTIQA writing, while also providing an opportunity to catch up with writers and artists I had not seen in a long time, and to meet and experience the work of new ones. As with the Detroit gathering, I wished after Austin that it were possible to have Fire & Ink occur annually or biennially, as the mission statement posits as a goal, but the realities of organizing and fundraising, particularly for an organization without limitless resources, and that strives to provide scholarships and support for its attendees, mean that the conferences occur when they can. I am grateful that I have been able to attend at least two of them.
Jack Waters, Skyping in for the Q&A
after the Jason and Shirley screening
The conference's lineup of workshops and panels began Thursday evening and concluded on Sunday. I unfortunately had to miss the final day because of Monday teaching responsibilities, but to the extent that I could, I tried to sample a little of everything. Among the highlights for me were Reggie Harris's Thursday afternoon workshop on "The Black Body," which included an array of useful exercises that not only disarmed and united everyone in the room, but also sparked candid conversations. Reggie interspersed his thoughts and questions with readings of poetry and prose that felt perfectly appropriate for the topic. Another highlight were the screenings that Ernest Hardy and Tisa Bryant hosted.
An edible handout from Samiya
Bashir's M A P S performance
I caught several screenings, including Stephen Winter's new film, Jason and Shirley (2015), starring Jack Waters and Sarah Schulman, and playing until October 27 at MoMA. I originally thought Winter had remade in fictional form Shirley Clarke's disturbing original 1967 documentary, Portrait of Jason, starring the eponymous Jason Holliday, but Winter instead tried to imagine what Clarke had not depicted, including her own selfish manipulation of her star, as well as Jason's torment and wily resistance, and Clarke's lover Carl Lee's emotionally brutal intervention. The film, despite its brevity, was wrenching, with a strong performance by Schulman and an unforgettable one by Jack Waters, who spoke briefly about the film and took questions via Skype after the screening. (I will try to post a fuller review if I can find a free moment.) Robert Phillipson's short documentary Tain't Nobody's Bizness: Queer Blues Divas of the 1920s, narrated by Jewelle Gomez, was also a gem I am glad I did not miss. Despite my belief that I had a fairly extensive knowledge of the subject, I learned quite a bit from Phillipson's documentary, as my in-the-dark note-taking will attest. I left wanting to know more particularly about Gladys Bentley, a heroine (as were the film's other figures) if there ever were one.
Samiya in peformance, stage right
Another film that Ernest and Tisa screened, Arthur Jafa's Dreams Are Colder than Death (2014), was a particular treat since it was not clear whether Jafa would agree to release the film, as earlier versions had been leaked and were circulating. Ernest and Tisa made sure that this color-corrected version was secure, and it was a visual and sonic feast. Jafa's aim, as I understand it, was to explore the current post-utopian moment created by the fading ideals of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous March on Washington "I Have a Dream" speech through arresting imagery, a futuristic soundtrack, and the voices of leading scholars and artists, and veteran black activists, including Fred Moten, Saidiya Hartman, Kathleen Cleaver, Arthur Fielder, Charles Burnett, Wangechi Mutu, and others. Jafa's, Hans Charles and Malik Hassan Sayeed's cinematography and Melvin Gibbs' score were enthralling, but I did not find the collage of voices, brilliant as they were, especially illuminating or fresh, and the near absence of prominent out LGBTIQA heads was glaring, as was the heteronormative presentation of sex work as a proxy for black sexual liberation. Perhaps I misread or misunderstood the role of the nude female strippers in the film, but this felt a bit retrograde especially in light of the complexities of black sexualities going back several hundreds years, let alone today. I was glad to have had the opportunity to see Jafa's film, and I hope someone takes up the thread but flips the script a bit more.
Jewelle Gomez, talking about
the documentary Tain't Nobody's
Topping off Friday's events, I went to see Samiya Bashir perform M A P S: a cartography in progress, a section of a larger piece based on the great Somali writer Nuruddin Farah's highly regarded novel Maps, but refracted through Samiya's imaginative lens to become, as she describes it, "a poetry of emergence" that "resists a resolution" of the novel's child protagonist's key question about desire, in the process charting a trajectory that crisscrossed themes of family, sexuality and diaspora. On Saturday afternoon I split my time between two different panels, one of which was titled "Multiplying Personalities: The Writer Witnessing Self and the Many Characters We Create," comprising G. Winston James, Ana-Maurine Lara, Charles Rice-Gonzalez, and Marvin K. White, which was also a very diasporic panel. All four speakers, with Glen moderating, offered compelling commentary about their own work and processes, and satisfactory replies to the audience's queries. The second panel I popped into was "Dig: Queer Archaeologies," at which Jonathan Bailey, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Lisa C. Moore, Zaneli Muholi, and Julia Roxanne Wallace each spoke persuasively about the richness of the black queer archive(s).

Reggie Harris, leading his workshop
on "The Black Body"
My notebook nearly bursting with jottings, I head to main event, which was the keynote lecture by acclaimed writer Randall Kenan. The recipient of numerous awards; a professor of English at the University of North Carolina; and author of the novel A Visitation of Spirits; the story collection Let the Dead Bury Their Dead; and two works of nonfiction, Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century and The Fire This Time, Randall delivered a powerful, sometimes circuitous and in the end quite effective speech on the theme of witnessing, beginning by recourse to a critique of Roland Emmerich's financial and aesthetic debacle of a film about the 1969 Stonewall Uprising. What he stressed was something that was threaded throughout the conference's very reason for existence, which is to say, the importance of the work that everyone in the audience was undertaking in terms of bearing witness to our present and past, as well as imagining a viable future for black LGBTIQA people to come. An apt counterpoint came later that evening when Jewelle Gomez's Waiting for Giovanni, a two-act dream play that imagined a split second--yes!--in the mind of the great James Baldwin as he contemplated the publication of his landmark second novel amid the socially and politically fraught landscape, particularly after the murder of Emmett Till and in the course of the surging US Civil Rights movement. It bore witness in some of the very ways that Randall spoke about.

Reggie introducing Randall Kenan
I was not just a spectator, however. At the Austin event I gave a presentation on translating black LGBTIQA authors, and I reprised that this year through a workshop under the new title "Translating Black LGBTQ Writing: Expanding the Global Conversation," since the need for learning about and connecting with black people across the globe has grown even more important in light of the Black Lives Matter movement and in the wake of the challenges we face all over the globe, particularly in the Americas, Europe, and the Middle East. This time I had a few more facts about the paucity of translation in the US in general, and particularly of black and LGBTIQA authors of African descent to share. It also felt different to speak of translation as a practice having published a book in this area, and I hope by the next Fire & Ink, if I am around and able to attend it, to have more, including a book by a non-Anglophone LGBTIQA author to share with attendees. The conversation with the audience went very well, and I was able to meet a longtime hero as well as younger translators who were very interested in taking up this work.
Randall Kenan, delivering the keynote
A week or two before arriving in Detroit, several writers realized there would a critical mass of people working in innovative forms at the event, so Tisa and Samiya organized a panel for Saturday morning that also included Duriel Harris, Alexis DeVeaux, Rosamond S. King, and me. We each chose different ways to introduce ourselves (I perhaps ill advisedly read the very beginning of my short story "Blues," which only gives a glimpse of what is to come, rather than the ending, before speaking about how I viewed this and my other work, so I am not sure that I made the best case for what my work in Counternarratives or elsewhere sought to do), before a passionate and often illuminating series of presentations and discussions ensued. I believe the entire panel presentation was recorded and will become a podcast at the Los Angeles Review of Books' website, so that when that is available, I'll post a link on this blog if I can remember to do so.
Ernest Hardy, Duriel Harris,
and Tisa Bryant
Two final things were touches you probably would not find--or that I would not--at other conferences. These included an altar room the organizers established to honor both deceased predecessors as well as living figures who could not be present. Many were the faces and tongues that had blazed the path that made Fire & Ink possible, and which now filled that room. Another wonderful touch was the literary stretches, held from 7-8 am, that Rev. Marvin K. White led. I was never out of my room in time to bend myself into blissful pretzels that early, but I heard they were very enjoyable. As for the hotel, the Crowne Plaza Hotel Downtown, which sat right across the street from the Cobo Center, where the conference took place, I can't rave or rage about it. The view from my room was as picturesque as one could ever imagine in Detroit, but the room itself I found it passable. One day a too-early visit from the cleaning staff person, which I declined, led to my room being left untouched for a day. OK, I can deal with that. I extremely fortunate had no encounters with the bedbugs that at least two guests reported, or the roaches that others have cited online. Thank the gods and ancestors for small favors, and thank Fire & Ink's organizers and all its attendees for an amazing conference!

Fire & Ink President Lisa C. Moore
The group portrait
Rickey Laurentiis
The cast from the staged reading
of Gomez's staged reading

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Random Photos

Peering at a luxury
site in Chelsea
Another luxury tower construction
site in Chelsea
The PSE&G (gas) worker installing a
safety vent in our basement 
On 23rd Street 
Sidewalk art, Chelsea 
Professors Jason Cortés and Laura
Lomas at the reception for the
new Latino Studies Working Group
at Rutgers University-Newark 
Vincent Czyz, at our reading
with Greg Gerke at Unnameable
Books in Brooklyn
Subway violinist (on the train heading to
Brooklyn and returning from there) 
Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption,
The Washington Monument
in downtown Baltimore 
Segway traveler, Baltimore
Selfie enthusiast,
Meatpacking District
Rutgers-Newark MFA director Jayne Anne
Phillips with Suki Kim and Vijay Seshadri,
at Writers @ Newark reading

Friday, October 09, 2015

Counternarratives on WNYC's/NPR's On the Media + The Nation & Konch Reviews

Three weeks back, through serendipity's hand, Counternarratives and its author made their way into the WNYC studios and onto the air, courtesy of On the Media host Brooke Gladstone, producer Kimmie Regler, and their amazing staff. Why do I lay this turn of fortune at serendipity? Because it was not the the usual route of a New York Times review (there hasn't been one) or a galvanizing PR campaign (none exists), but old-style independent bookstore advocacy by the exceptional people at Park Slope Community Bookstore. They sold--and championed--the book to Brooke Gladstone's husband, who in turn passed it onto her, and after she read it, and shared it with Kimmie Regler, they decided the book and I should be on the air.

What I had originally thought would be a hour-long session extended to over two, I believe, with Gladstone (about and to whom I had to kvell, as I am a longtime fan) posing a wide array of questions and inviting me to read (and re-read) selections from the book, including from "Our Lady of the Sorrows," the novella at the heart of the collection and a text I'd never read from publicly. Afterwards, Gladstone, Regler and their team went to work and cooked up a delicious, distilled confection that also drew in musician and host Terrance McKnight, who with his rich bass voice read the part of Jim (aka James Alton Rivers), from my story "Rivers," and included musical selections by Georges Bizet ("L'Arlesienne Suite No 1 (III. Minuet)"), Jim Taylor ("Little Rose Is Gone/Billy in the Lowground"); George Whitefield Chadwick ("String Quartet No. (II. Andante semplice)"), and John Scofield ("After the Facts").

The result: "Every Story Has a Twin."

You can hear the show here, and you can find the rush(ed) transcript here. I couldn't be happier with the beautiful work Gladstone, Regler, and the On the Media staff did, and it has been one of the best boosts the book has received thus far. Many thanks to everyone involved!


Of the many things about which I can express gratitude concerning Counternarratives, one is the steady stream of reviews, and excellent ones, that have appeared since the book's début in May. It feels, at least to me, almost inconceivable that nearly five months have passed since I got the official word from New Directions that Counternarratives was on bookstore shelves, and from shortly before its appearance the notices have flowed in. Two of the very best are the most recent. 

In esteemed progressive magazine The Nation, writer and critic Ben Ehrenreich recently provided an appraisal not only of the new book but of my first as well, in his review "Literature as Map to Liberty." This is without question one of the finest reviews I've received. A quote:

Counternarratives is no less ambitious or complex a work than Annotations, but it is considerably more approachable. Yet it is a book of such richness that it’s hard to know where to begin, so I’ll start with a moment—and there are many of these—where Keene’s text slides into another’s. This one occurs in a novella with the sly, unwieldy title “Gloss on a History of Roman Catholics in the Early American Republic, 1790–1825; or the Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows.” Like many of his stories, it’s quite epic for its length. It follows a young and variously gifted enslaved woman named Carmel as she accompanies her erstwhile master (mistress, really—a teenage girl holds title to her body) from Haiti in the throes of revolution to a Catholic convent school in Kentucky, which was then on the far western fringes of the young American Republic. Keene interrupts the narrative with several brief intertextual meditations on “the role of duty,” one of which leads with a quote from Gilles Deleuze and concludes with a question: “Within the context shaped by a musket barrel, is there any ethical responsibility besides silence, resistance and cunning?”

“To speak of culture,” Keene wrote in Annotations, “is to foreshadow a battle.” With Counternarratives, Keene is engaged, the battle roaring on several fronts at once. As in his previous book, there are missing texts at work in all these stories. This time, they are the reader’s assumptions and expectations, the dominant narratives—historical and political as well as strictly literary—with which we conjure the world and reproduce it, exclusions and erasures intact. Probably the most exemplary of them in that regard is “Rivers,” a tender and brutal tale in which Keene avenges a historic injustice, granting Mark Twain’s Jim the opportunity to narrate his own post-Huckleberry life. Tom Sawyer has aged into a less charming version of the glib sadist we always knew he was. Huck is broken and earnest and sad. And Jim, who has in freedom renamed himself James Alton Rivers, is something Twain never allowed him to be: a man of complexity and depth, with his own loves, tragedies, desires. Even here, Keene lets the telling be hinged on white hunger for a narrative in which Jim will always be pushed aside. The story is spurred by a—presumably white—reporter’s question about “the time you and that little boy…” Jim shushes him with a glance, annoyed because “this is supposed to be an interview about the war and my service in it”—at 46, Jim enlisted in the First Missouri Colored Troops and fought with them all the way to Texas. He seldom even thinks of Huck Finn anymore, “not even in dreams or nightmares.” I won’t give away the end, but you will never think of either Jim or Huck in quite the same way after reading it.

Another review, sidereal, if I may use that word, with an understanding as deep as a seismograph's needle, appeared in Konch Magazine, the journal that Ishmael Reed has been publishing for decades (the online archives, however, only go back to 2008). Reviewer, author and artist D. Scot Miller sussed out aspects of the collection that almost no other reviewers have mentioned. Here is a snippet:

And passage requires papers. Permits, letters, carte de visits, journals, diaries, and newspaper clippings give access, and decipher the cipher secreted within the stories. Mute Carmel creates specific languages for all she encounters, and draws maps as she secretly learns how to “make marks”, while Red learns how to mark time, creating a map of Civil War Washington D.C. in his head, but not free to walk its streets without his freedom papers. Jim Rivers has his in a water-proof metal locket laced around his neck when he bumps into “Mr. Tom Sawyer, Sir”, and the boy who tried to lead the fugitive slave deeper into the south years before in Rivers. It’s Rivers who gives a pass-key in the passage, “Have you ever noticed how on the decisive day the future reveal themselves as a ghost language and you got to do more than just pay attention but use all the knowledge and wisdom you have ever gained to interpret it?...the gleaming dressing the leaves with omens and auguries, printing clues in shadowed patterns in the grass and soil you just needed to discern if you could, because the real test is always to go beyond mere guessing to following the map the world around you sets forth.”

There are clues along the way, but they are coded in the ghost languages of history. A dedication to Samuel Delany invites the reader to seek, and find them through Möbius strips, through fractured text, peering between columns, or nestled between subtle breaks in type, notation, and marginalia. Keene posits history as a map of time, with language as the passage to freedom from time, through time. Time un-marked and un-timed, conjured by a multi-lingual tongue of a mix of Portuguese, Spanish, Haitian French, English, Pig Latin, German, and Arabic, like a poem from The Hallucinated City, containing neither rhyme nor meter, speaking what remains unsaid.

What is not being unsaid? The “unknown knowns” found in Langston Hughes’ "Blues" (“He slept like a rock/Or a man whose dead.”), the gentle caress between Carmel and Sophie, or Red and Horatio. Keene succeeds in “un-queering” history by queering historical text. Not so much re-writing it, as reclaiming it.
Many thanks to both reviewers and to The Nation and Konch!

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Who Will Receive the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature?

UPDATE: Svetlana Aleksijevitj/Alexievich, a Ukrainian native now long resident in Belarus, and author of several major works of nonfiction and fiction, including Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of History of a Nuclear Disaster, her masterpiece, was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature.

You can read more about Alexievich's life and work here. Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of History of a Nuclear Disaster was translated into English by Keith Gessen and has been republished by Macmillan Publishers (and Picador). A documentary based on this work is forthcoming next year.

The Swedish Academy's official announcement, with more information about Alexievich, is here.


This is Nobel Prize week, and as I have done nearly every year over the last decade, I cannot help but speculate on this blog, which began in 2005 with a focus on literature, about this year's winner in the literary category. The honoree will be announced tomorrow, I believe. (Here are my posts from 2005 (and after Harold Pinter won in 2005); 2006; 2007; 20082009; 20102011; 20122013; and post-award to Patrick Modiano in 2014.)

My batting average has admittedly been poor, in part because I keep thinking that the Swedish Academy, which awards the prizes, will end its focus on Europe in favor of the broader literary world, and yet for the past decade, the annual prizes have been weighted towards European writers, or, in the case of Alice Munro--whose work I am a huge fan of--writers of European descent across the globe. The last 15 Nobelists include Patrick Modiano (2014); Alice Munro (2013); Mo Yan (2012); Tomas Tranströmer (2011); Mario Vargas Llosa (2010); Herta Müller (2009); Jean-Marie Gustave LeClézio (2008); Doris Lessing (2007); Orhan Pamuk (2006); Harold Pinter (2005); Elfriede Jelinek (2004); J. M. Coetzee (2003); Imre Kértesz (2002); V. S. Naipaul (2001); and Gao Xiangjin (2000).

Three of these writers, LeClézio, Lessing and Coetzee, come from Africa, but all are of European descent; one, Vargas Llosa, is Latin American, and again, primarily (wholly?) of European descent; and two come from the most populous country on earth, China, which before the selection of Gao, an exile living in France, had never had a Nobel Laureate in literature. Of this gathering, I wholeheartedly endorsed the selections of Munro, Tranströmer, Pinter, Coetzee, and Kértesz. I did not know of either Mo's or Gao's work before their selections. I have long been a fan of Modiano's, as my linked post above makes clear, but I think there are better Francophone fiction writers, with far greater range, such as Michel Tournier, or the much younger Alain Mabanckou (French-Congolese), and in any case, because of both Modiano's and LeClézio's awards, France's greatest living poet, Yves Bonnefoy, was overlooked yet again.

 Orhan Pamuk was clearly a political choice, and is a fine writer, but I slogged--as if wading through mucilage--through several of his books, including Snow and Black Book. Each had great moments and set pieces, but in general, I am not a fan. I may be alone in this judgment, though. I do think Müller is an exceptionally gifted writer and have written before on the blog about her prose, particularly in Nadirs, but there are other German-language writers of great talent who should have been higher in the queue, like Alexander Kluge, one of the true originals in any language. I also believe Vargas Llosa is prolific and not the worst choice, but with so many other talented Latin American fiction writers who have been overlooked, I thought his selection was a wasted choice. Lessing's selection made an important political point, though I do not like her work at all, and it was a very good choice to select writers from China, about whose literature I am completely ignorant (though I have since read one novel by Mo Yan in translation and am trying to catch up). Meanwhile, a path-blazing writer like Assia Djébar (of Algeria), for example, who in some key ways renovated the literature of her country while adding a vital voice to contemporary letters, not only was passed over, but passed away in the meantime.

Of course the Europeanist slant is the Swedish Academy's prerogative. They are Europeans, after all, and hold the literatures of that continent in the highest regard, which should hardly be a surprise. Yet the Nobel Prize has long been a global literature prize, sometimes given for a lifetime's achievement, and at other times for a work or series of works that seem to capture the spirit of the age. Many of its winners have been major innovators in their national and global literatures, and have had an outsized influence on writing that follows. Others have been eccentric choices that few people knew of and perhaps even fewer read today. And then there have been other choices like Jelinek that remain confounding. Her choice, in fact, led one member of the committee to resign in disgust. I am not sure if it merited that level of response, but apparently the rancor around her selection was significant.

So: given the tendencies of the Swedish Academy, who will they choose tomorrow? Critic and book lover Shigekuni makes some smart picks on his eponymous blog. High at the top of his list is someone I have repeated touted since 2005, and one of my favorite writers in the world, the highly original Guyanese-British writer--there really is no one who writes like him--Wilson Harris, who is now 94 years old, and who published his last novel several years ago. Harris would be an excellent and inspired choice, but for that reason I doubt it will happen. Another writer from the Anglophone world that Shigekuni points to is John Ashbery, now 88. Ashbery is one of the writers who survives from the remarkable generation of American poets born between 1925 and 1935, whose oeuvres still loom larger in our national literature, and he has been, like Harris, utterly original as he has also become, without question, one of the most influential poets not just in the English language, but globally. (To the dismay of some, I should add.) I am not sure, however, whether Ashbery's recent poetry, which sometimes reads like a parody of his best work, may have harmed his chances.

Shigekuni additionally mentions Nathaniel Mackey, another major American--and African American--poet (and fiction writer), who has finally begun to receive his due. Given two of Mackey's (and our) direct literary ancestors, the extraordinary poets Jay Wright and Edward Kamau Brathwaite, are still alive, I almost feel that either or both of them should receive the award first, but any of these authors, but especially Harris, Wright and Brathwaite, would be excellent. An African writer that Shigekuni cites, the Nigerian fiction writer Buchi Emecheta, strikes me as unlikely, though she certainly has a large and strong body of work. I have feeling that as with Guadeloupean writer Maryse Condé, one of my perpetual favorites, Nicaraguan fiction writer Claribel Alegría, and Brazilian poet Adélia Prado, all of these incredibly talented will continue to be overlooked by the Nobel committee, though the work of any of them should the award. Two other Latin American poets who probably will be passed over but who merit the award are Raúl Zurita, the singular, innovative Chilean poet so beautifully translated into English by poet Daniel Borzutzky, and his fellow Chilean Nicanor Parra, who is aging towards the clouds at 101--yes, he is 101 years old!--but whose poetry still cuts like a well-honed razor.

Other writers Shigekuni mentions who would be top choices, and one of whom may emerge as the Prize recipient, include Ngugi wa Thiong'o, whose prodigious writing not only sets a high standard but also helped to spark a crucial shift in African and decolonialist/post-colonial writing in general when he elected to write in Gikuyu, a language indigenous to Kenya, rather than in English. Ngugi also has been outspoken politically throughout his career, and as Shigekuni mentions, was jailed and went into exile as a result. Another is the lyrical master of Arabic poetry Adonis (Adunis, pen name of Ali Ahmad Said), a native of Syria, who has more than established himself as one of the leading figures in his language. Adonis's poetry is politically aware and clear-sighted, and has been widely and deeply praised. (I featured one of his poems back in 2005; in 2013 I had the almost inexpressible pleasure of meeting him in person, and shared a photograph of him on J's Theater.)

My thought is that given the turmoil in the Middle East, and the fact that the Swedish Academy has not honored a poet since Tranströmer and few others in the last 15 years, as well as no writer working in Arabic since Egyptian fiction writer Naguib Mahfouz in 1988, Adonis will be the pick, though it very well could be Ngugi, who more than deserves it. Ladbrokes, the betting site, has Ngugi third at 6/1, and Adonis twelfth at 20/1 but either really should be a top choice. Will the Swedish Academy do the right thing, or will it be one of the usual suspects high on Ladbroke's list? First there is the Ukrainian writer Svetlana Aleksijevitj, whose work I am not at all familiar with, though I know she is a journalist of some note.  Also high on their list are Japan's Haruki Murakami, a writer I do enjoy reading and have taught many times; Joyce Carol Oates (???); and Jon Fosse, whom I read as I was writing Counternarratives, and found compelling and somewhat like a more abstracted Pinter.

Also on the list are perennials Philip Roth; Peter Handke, who may be disqualified because of the controversy that still surrounds his pro-Serbian statements; John Banville, a writer's writer I think is very good but perhaps not Nobel-worthy; and Nawal El Sadawi, the Egyptian feminist I remember reading in my early 20s with enthusiasm. If it must go to a European writer, and it isn't one of the very senior figures like Bonnefoy, Lászlo Krazsnahórkai, who received last year's Man Booker International Prize, and whose most recently translated book into English, Seiobo There Below (New Directions, 2014), merits the epithet "sublime," ought to be the choice. That novel is peerless, and, like the late Roberto Bolaño's 2666, represents a possible, vital path for other writers to follow. (Krasznahórkai) currently is in New York City, so I am angling to find a way to meet him before he heads back to Hungary).

Lastly, there are the Swedish Academy's geographical gaps. Since Rabindranath Tagore received the Nobel Prize in 1913, no writer from that country has received the Nobel, yet India abounds in superb writers, as does much of South Asia in general. No Korean has won the award, though Ko Un is often cited as a likely choice. Indonesia's literature also has gone unrecognized. In the Americas, Brazil's rich literary tradition has never been honored with a Nobel; should it go to a Brazilian, I predict it will be either Lygia Fagundes Telles, now up in years, or the prodigious João Gilberto Noll, from the far south of the country, who published, as my colleague put it, several very "strange"--but to me striking--novels several decades ago, and who seems to be at the top of favorite lists among Brazilianists I know. (I had the pleasure of meeting Noll several years ago at a dinner in Evanston, and though he had lived and taught for a while in the United States, we rambled about haltingly, more because of my nerves than his, in Portuguese.)

Whomever they pick, the Swedish Academicians will certainly spur us to comment. If it's an obvious choice, we'll say, Of course we knew this was coming. If things go as they have of late, though, we might just be saying, well, of course I knew Mia Couto (Mozambique) or Patricia Grace (New Zealand) was going to receive the award! But really, we didn't! I will most certainly update this blog post either way.

Monday, September 21, 2015

2015 Rugby World Cup Underway

English and Fijian ruggers vie for the ball
Once upon a time visitors to J's Theater would be likely to encounter regular postings about professional sports, both of the US domestic kind (i.e. baseball in particular, as well as soccer and football) and of the kind played and championed in other parts of the globe (i.e., rugby, the Olympics, etc.). Back in 2005 I even wrote a post some years ago all the sports I like(d) to follow.

At some point, perhaps during one of my very busy autumns half a decade ago or so I ceased posted about baseball, for the most part, and also about all other sports, though I last year did mention soccer's FIFA World Cup in Brazil, with its attendant protests. (It turned out to be a debacle for the Brazilian team and harbinger of a looming political crisis for the country, though the World Cup in general went off without real problems after the first few matches.)
Try is good!
US rugger Andrew Durutalo
Fiji vs. England
Fiji's breakaway run
I haven't posted about rugby union's World Cup since 2011, but I marked my calendar not to miss this year's version, the 8th meeting of this sport's quadrennial global championship, and through the miracle of the Internet, I've been able to catch a few matches and catch up on many more. The UK is serving as host nation for the 2015 World Cup games, which began on September 18, and run through  October 31. The pool matches are taking place across England and Wales. The final will be held in Twickenham Stadium in London.

20 nations, including powerhouses New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and France, as well as the United States, Canada, Italy, and Japan, and Pacific Island nations Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji, are in the competition. 12 of the 20 countries qualified by finishing in the top 3 places in their pools in the prior World Cup, in 2011, and only Uruguay, replacing Russia, did not compete in the prior championship. There are four pools of five teams, with each team in a pool playing a round-robin of 10 games with other pool members to establish which ones will advance to the next round on points and points differentials.

The pools are as follows:

Pool A: Australia, England, Wales, Fiji, Uruguay
Pool B: South Africa, Samoa, Scotland, Japan, United States
Pool C: New Zealand, Argentina, Tonga, Georgia, Namibia
Pool D: France, Ireland, Italy, Canada, Romania

Thus far, there have been expected outcomes, with host England defeated Fiji (though quite badly, which was surprising) 35-11, France walloping Italy 32-10, Ireland wiping Canada 50-7, and Wales defeating Uruguay 54-9, but there also have been upsets, with international powerhouse South Africa falling to Japan 32-34, and Argentina giving the New Zealand All Blacks a stiff challenge before going down 26-16. The US, which is somewhat near the bottom of the pack in global rankings, fell to Samoa 25-16, though they have the skills to win at least one match, if not more, in their pool.
After Fiji's loss to host England
Tonga's succesful try!
US (in dark blue) vs. Samoa
Tonga, and Georgia, during a scrum 
I'll end by noting that whenever I watch rugby I'm reminded of its many similarities to US football. Both involve a group of big men running up a field, with a ball, that they can throw to each other, kick down the field, and try to put over a goal line, or through upright bars, for points. On the other hand, in rugby there are no set yard gain requirements, no padding (except for earguards), and no forward passing.

The sport also involves a scrum, and the fascinating set play where each team hoists a player into the air to catch a sideline pass. (All of these game elements have specific names that I should look up.) When I was in high school, where rugby was played, I thought it was nowhere near as thrilling as football (and I didn't play it, either), but now, watching certain breakaway runs I think it gives football a credible challenge. I'm looking forward to watching more matches, and will aim to post a few more times before the championship is over.

Next matches up, this Wednesday: Scotland vs. Japan, Australia vs. Fiji, and France vs. Romania. Here are a few screen captures from the first few matches. Enjoy!

NZ All Black hooker Kevin Mealamu
throwing in the ball against Uruguay 
All Black back row rugger Victor Vito
New Zealand vs. Uruguay 
Uruguay tackles a New Zealander 
All Black rugger making a run 
New Zealand back Aaron Smith diving
for the goal line and try
Fijian lock Leone Nakarawa
England (in red) and Fiji,
during the match
A Tongan, going for a try (touchdown)
The Tongan player is almost there
South African players,
before their match 
Japan vs. South Africa 

Japan's Ayumu Gomomaru,
attempting a conversion 
Samoan players celebrating a try against US 
Samoan player throwing in
the ball, US vs. Samoa 
US player making a run
US teammates celebrating
US player attempting a goal kick 
Samoan player, after his team's
victory over the US