September 30, 2014
Ladies and gentlemen, your attention, please:
Did you guys know that I am a young person? Yes, it is true; despite my incisive wit and prescient wisdom, I am but a humble millenial, ears forever perking to the sound of bored indie rock bands, nose hyper sensitive to the smell of third-wave coffee that takes 24 minutes to be prepared by a shitty screenwriter whose parents bought her a loft space in Williamsburg in which to take cocaine. And as a millenial, a young person, it is my great pleasure to announce:
There's going to be a party!!!!!!!!!!!!!
And it is not just any party, ladies and gentlemen, no, but a party at which significant honors will be conferred, at which libations will be consumed, at which we will celebrate authors departed and consider those authors who will one day be. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, after months of anticipation and woeful commiseration about the state of the publishing industry, we finally see a light at the end of this tunnel of two-dimensional characters and unnecessary memoirs: the winners of the first annual Daphne Awards, celebrating the best forgotten, ignored, or otherwise snubbed books of 50 years ago, are soon to be announced, in a live and public forum. Being a millenial, I am also easily distracted by occasions for which I can imagine possible outrageous outfits, so here is where I turn things over to the older and wiser Jessa Crispin, who, since abdicating her Bookslut throne, now speaks in a sagacious omniscient third:
The Daphne Awards
WHAT: BYOB Day of the Literary Dead
WHEN: November 6 (full moon), 7:30 pm
WHERE: Melville House headquarters
145 Plymouth St, DUMBO
Brooklyn, NY 11201
DRESS: "Go crazy"
[Editor's note: In the run up to the event, watch this space for many-a hairstyle slideshow.]
How does one throw a party for a book award when (almost) all of the writers nominated are dead? Do it on a full moon, round about Samhain/Day of the Dead/All Soul's Day.
Bookslut is gathering at Melville House headquarters to announce the Daphne Awards, celebrating the best book that should have won a literary prize 50 years ago. But we'll also be marking the writers lost that year and this, all the writers who have come and gone and yet still feel like our ancestors. There will be readings and wine, conversation and feasting. We will also have an altar.
The Daphne Award was born when, after about a bottle of wine and an argument about this year's nominees for all of the major prizes, Bookslut founder Jessa Crispin decided to look up who won 50 years ago. It was a great year for literature. Julio Cortazar's immortal Hopscotch was born. Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar and Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are both found publication. And yet: the award went to John Updike. A middling John Updike, even! The Centaur took the prize. Nonfiction was no better. Despite Eichmann in Jerusalem changing the way we all think about how the Holocaust could have happened, the award went to some Keats biography.
Acknowledging that occasionally greatness takes time to recognize and understand, the Daphne looks to use its hindsight to good advantage. A shortlist was quickly compiled. For fiction, Sylvia Plath and Julio Cortazar were joined by Heinrich Boll, Jim Thompson, and Tarjei Vesaas. In nonfiction, Arendt is going up against Primo Levi, James Baldwin, and Jessica Mitford. Poetry and children's book winners will also be announced.
Guests are asked to please bring an offering of spirits for the spirits and the living. There will be a feast, but mostly for the dead. Food for the living can be summed up as "potato chip bar."
Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
The Grifters by Jim Thompson
The Clown by Heinrich Böll
Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas
Dreambook for Our Time by Tadeusz Konwicki
The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima
Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter
The American Way of Death by Jessica Mitford
Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt
The Reawakening by Primo Levi
The Making of the English Working Class by EP Thompson
Burning Perch by Louis MacNeice
Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law by Adrienne Rich
Requiem by Anna Akhmatova
Selected Poems by Gwendolyn Brooks
Five Senses by Judith Wright
Poems by Gwen Harwood
At the End of the Open Road by Louis Simpson
The Dot and the Line by Norton Juster
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Mr. Rabbit by Charlotte Zolotow
Harold’s ABC by Crockett Johnson
Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back by Shel Silverstein
The Moon by Night by Madeline L’Engle
Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective by Donald J. Sobol
Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey
September 29, 2014
Image: "Olympia" by Manet.
Lena Dunham sucks. She obviously doesn't have any kind of media coach, because if she did she wouldn't make egregiously selfish oversights and then have to immediately and sort of blandly unapologetically backtrack on them. "Some good points were raised"—girl, I KNOW they taught you about the passive voice at Oberlin. And as for the comedian just grateful to open for her—can we just not?
An exciting and alcoholic announcement coming this week; I'd recommend checking back hourly.
September 26, 2014
Weekend Recommended Reading
I'm going to be honest, everyone: I'm in London and haven't read anything online in, like, four days. They have been some of my happiest in months, which I only attribute 40% to everyone speaking English and 10-15% to every moment having the potential to be a moment in which Indian food is enjoyed; the rest is likely related to the laid back vacation mindset, but whatever: the point is that I am not up on "the conversation," for which I apologize and feel guilty. I can only offer you:
LO: So you think there’s no room for intellectuals anymore?
DS: Not in the sense that Sontag managed to do it. By that I mean she really was at the tail end of a cultural movement where culture valued smart people and gave them the opportunity to actually be listened to and be read. Someone like Sartre or Simone de Beauvoir would be unimaginable today. There are some French intellectuals, there are smart people in Germany, there smart people in the US, but it’s not the same.
-It's TS Eliot's birthday, and I spent yesterday afternoon at the Virginia Woolf exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. (Best line from a letter: "Never did any woman hate 'writing' as much as I do. But when I am old and famous I shall discourse like Henry James." Preliminary assessment: still pining for good old days of incestuous intellectual circles.) Thus, a theme emerges: go through the Modernism Lab wiki at Yale. And then read the Hermione Lee biography of Virginia already, for God's sake.
-Emily Gould has a good top ten list of books to read in the fall at PAPER. I feel like I want to read most of the books on it, though my personal experience with top ten lists tells me it includes lies and disappointments.
-I asked my very smart friend with the PhD in something dealing with German literature, etc., whom I've mentioned before and will likely mention again—see: very smart—what reading I should recommend, and he said that we should be thinking about the University of Colorado professor who is suing the university for $2 million in damages after they "banished" him "for a joke he made about suicide." This article doesn't offer much more detail than that, but let's all look for it.
-I just read Memory Theatre by Simon Critchley, but you wanna know what? 10:04 deals with similar themes less obnoxiously! I'm all for in-depth discussion of philosophy and intellectual history in fiction/whatever, but I do not feel it was as successful as it could have been!
-Let's save the discussion of "successful" and/or notions of "good" in art for some other time.
September 25, 2014
Image: Susan Sontag in a bear suit, by Annie Leibovitz, which I got here.
An Interview with Daniel Schreiber: Part 2
So continues my talk with Daniel Schreiber, the author of Susan Sontag: A Biography, out from Northwestern University Press last month. To read the first part of the interview, in which we talk about loving/hating Sontag, gossip, and the problems that arise with biography, click here.
LO: Do Germans see her differently than Americans?
DS: She spent so much time in Europe. In Germany especially, and in France, Sweden, Poland, Italy and Spain, she has always been this American ambassador of culture. She was always the person to get an opinion from when something happened in the US—the person to ask for an explanation. So she was very much admired here. Of course she was also admired in the US, but we don’t have this portion of people—we don’t have these neoconservative people who reviled her.
LO: Ha—you don’t have them at all?
DS: No, we do, but they hate other people; they don’t hate Sontag. And we have fewer of them, which is great.
LO: And would you say they’re relegated a bit further to the edges of politics than in America?
DS: Yeah. Our neoconservative extremists have more to contend with. That being said, there is this kind of racist Tea Party-extremism on the rise all over Europe, including in Germany. They are not a cultural force, but sadly they seem to be becoming a political one.
LO: What other American cultural figures would you say were also important to Germans, alongside Sontag?
DS: Mostly male writers, funnily enough. Philip Roth.
DS: He’s huge here. Still is. And Paul Auster is really big.
LO: But in terms of cultural critics...
DS: Sontag was, in a way, the last intellectual. I wrote about it in the book. I believe that very strongly.
LO: So you think there’s no room for intellectuals anymore?
DS: Not in the sense that Sontag managed to do it. By that I mean she really was at the tail end of a cultural movement where culture valued smart people and gave them the opportunity to actually be listened to and be read. Someone like Sartre or Simone de Beauvoir would be unimaginable today. There are some French intellectuals, there are smart people in Germany, there smart people in the US, but it’s not the same. They don’t have this...
DS: Glamour—that’s the way Sontag did it. That’s the way Sontag was able to have this position for that long, because she brought a new sensibility to it—staging and creating this person. And that’s why she became this media persona.
LO: Do you think her being that way affected the decline of intellectualism?
DS: No. That’s just a cultural movement, you see it everywhere. In Europe it happened a bit later than in the US. People in general are not interested in smart people anymore.
LO: I guess it might be appropriate to mention those lowbrow/middlebrow/highbrow delineations being discussed a lot now. Just in terms of arguments one reads about this—do you mean middlebrow people are not interested in highbrow culture anymore? Or that highbrow culture is seen as inaccessible, not populist enough?
DS: I guess these delineations don’t exist anymore. What used to be middlebrow would now be considered highbrow, and what used to be highbrow is now part of academia. And academia is not readable for people. Lowbrow took over, and you know—it’s a question of money and education. If more people want to read books that aren’t complex and they buy books that aren’t complex, that’s it. People used to really understand that you could make a living as a writer, by writing books—of course you could do that! But that’s dead. Today—I mean, we don’t even have to say.
LO: Do you have an opinion on that? Or do you see it as "That’s the way it’s worked"? Do you feel a loss? When I was reading your book, I felt really nostalgic, which is ridiculous because I wasn’t alive for it.
DS: Of course I have a certain sense of nostalgia for those times and for those lives—I’m fascinated by those lives. But, now, to be upset about it, as a writer—that would be silly. You just have to accept it the way it is.
LO: Do you think Susan Sontag would accept it?
DS: Oh, no, she didn’t accept it. All her later essays were about the great power of literature; in the very, very end much of her writing was very old-fashioned and out of touch. She wouldn’t accept it.
LO: I also read a review of your book in the Gay and Lesbian Review, and I’m wondering about the reception of Sontag and your book within the queer population. I think a lot of the time you see queer writers lauding her because she was bisexual or non-conforming...but it sometimes feels like a bit of an overcompensation. Do you know what I mean?
DS: I know exactly what you mean. The way Sontag presented herself with her writing and her public persona—so many people were able to project onto it. And let’s put it this way: she didn’t do anything to stop it. She was happy to be applauded for many things.
But if people in the LGBT movement would read her correctly, they would have a hard time making her a part of their cause. The same is true for feminism. Obviously she was a feminist and the way she lived her life was mind-boggingly brave, impressive, and amazing for a woman at that time. But as for the movement, she was outside it. And she was outside the LGBT movement as well. She was a part of the Manhattan elite, in the end; she didn’t have any interest in her private life being discussed openly. It was a cultural practice that was common in Manhattan to keep your sexuality an open secret—to live it out sort of openly, but to have the agreement that we don’t talk about it. Since there were so many gay men and lesbian women in Manhattan, it was possible to maintain that.
It changed with the 80s; the movement had to become more outspoken because of the AIDS epidemic. The AIDS book [AIDS and Its Metaphors] is really the only book I don’t like by her. Her language is really out of touch—she speaks about "the homosexual" all the time. It seems like it’s written for a wider American audience, but it’s insincere: she obviously had a very different experience, and she obviously was gay herself, and she obviously was touched by the deaths of so many of her gay friends in a very different way than she wrote for that imagined audience.
If you read her diaries, for instance, you see she had this really difficult relationship with gay men. Most of her friends were gay, but it was a real sort of love/hate relationship she had with them. I have no idea why. It always seemed like a form of projected self-hate. As for her own sexual life, she was very promiscuous and very outgoing, for the time especially, but as with many personal things in her life, I feel she didn’t come to terms with it in a way that made her really happy. The AIDS book was not a success; gay men in particular didn’t like that book.
LO: Now there are a lot of contemporary feminist and queer writers say you have a responsibility to talk about your private life for the benefit of future generations, or whatever.
DS: I don’t think that’s true. I don’t feel like anyone should. I understood her not doing it. We can look at this today and see: this is what happened, we can now see there she wasn’t being sincere. But I would have done the same thing if I were her. She was born in 1933—she grew up during the 30s and the 40s! And she really fought hard to make her living as an intellectual in New York. As a single mother. As a lesbian single mother. I mean, come on. I wouldn’t have been like, "Hey, I’m a lesbian, but I also like to sleep with guys sometimes!" either.
LO: I agree. I mean, she could barely wear pants! She was wearing jeans in college, and everyone was like, "Oh my God, can you believe that woman?"
DS: If you speak to people like Edmund White, who was very outspoken, her main point was that she was afraid that she would be the lesbian writer, and the thing is that she was right. Edmund White is the gay writer, and it would have been the same for her, I feel.
LO: People get pigeon-holed like that now as well. Her media awareness seems very prescient: you see that construction of persona so well with social media now—you wonder what she would have done with it. I think you hear that a lot, with dead intellectual people: "How would she have done Facebook?"
DS: I think she would have enjoyed it. She would have run with it. She would have hired a few young gay guys to do Facebook for her.
September 24, 2014
Image: Susan Sontag in 1966. I got it here.
An Interview with Daniel Schreiber: Part 1
When I told my flatmate that I was going to meet the German writer Daniel Schreiber for coffee, she said, “Oh, he’s so cool! And he’s a proper journalist!” Schreiber wrote a biography of Susan Sontag (as well as a memoir, Nüchtern out in German last month), and having read it, I’m inclined to agree. The book came out in Germany in 2007, under the name Susan Sontag: Geist und Glamour, and it did well, but English didn’t get a translation until last month, when Northwestern published it under the less sassy Susan Sontag: A Biography.
I get why it was translated less sassily, but I'll still say that "Geist und Glamour" is a good subtitle. It examines the entirety of Sontag’s life through the lens of her public persona—how she constructed it, why she constructed it, where it intersected and diverged from her private life—and I think it really succeeds in creating an image of Sontag as both open and mysterious, as well as in absorbing you in the good old days of incestuous intellectual circles. It’s kind of appropriate, then, that at the beginning of our conversation Daniel said, "Don’t judge me" before ordering an amazing-looking apple pastry. Or maybe that's a tenuous, introduction-y excuse for me to share use that anecdote. I was judging him, but in a good way.
Lauren Oyler: In America Susan Sontag seems to have become kind of trendy in the last couple of years—I wonder if Maria Popova has had a lot to do with that.
Daniel Schreiber: I think she had a lot to do with it, actually. I love her website. She has this attitude—“I want to read books that challenge me and talk about them in a way that doesn’t have to be opaque, that doesn’t have to be pseudo-academic.” And it’s no surprise that she’s also such a fan of Sontag’s work. Sontag had a very similar attitude.
LO: Popova also really liked your book. Has there been much biographical work on Sontag since your book came out in 2007?
DS: Mine was the first biography since Sontag’s death. But all in all my book is the second biography. The first one [Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon by Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock] came out when Sontag was still alive; it didn’t cover all of her life. To be honest, it was a very tendentious book. I don’t know whether you’ve read it…
LO: Well, I read your book, and you talk about how she was incensed by it.
DS: She was, and partially because she was Susan Sontag but partially rightly so. [Rollyson’s and Paddock’s] book did an important job in terms of contributions to research; without that book, I wouldn’t have been able to write the biography in the way that I’ve written it, so I’m actually very grateful to those guys. But they did lack an intellectual understanding of most of Sontag’s writing, and they had a very clear-cut political agenda. It was very clear from the beginning that they hated Sontag, that they wanted to destroy her.
LO: Why did they hate her?
DS: They were neoconservative. They were very motivated politically. It’s the same way that the Wall Street Journal hates Susan Sontag.
LO: Did I just read their review of your book? With the lede something like “With Susan Sontag, you either hate both the ideas and the woman or you just hate the woman, and it’s clear that Daniel Schreiber is in the second group”? Would you say that’s fair?
DS: Not at all. It’s so outrageous that I almost wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal. It’s ridiculous on two levels: I do not hate Susan Sontag, not at all. And then, the quote the writer tried to prove his assumption with, you know—it doesn't say what he says it says. In the preface, I write about ambivalence and about how biography has to acknowledge that. To get [what he got] from the text—I couldn’t tell whether he'd read the book or not.
[The WSJ quote is: "Writing on Sontag, the German critic tells us, was both wonderful and difficult: 'Wonderful because I had the chance to immerse myself in almost everything Sontag had ever written or said....Difficult, also, because Sontag's character made it impossible for me to adopt the tone of unbridled admiration authors of literary biographies usually adopt.'"]
LO: Sontag’s work is not exactly straightforward itself.
DS: It’s very important to talk about this with Sontag, which is what I try to do. The book tries to keep a very neutral attitude towards her, and as I said in the preface, writing this book was really about learning to live with ambivalence, because I really admire Sontag and I admire her work and I admire the way that she came up with being that person. It’s so impressive! And if you read the tiniest bit about the time she was doing this, it’s mind-blowing.
But on the other hand, she could be very difficult, and mean, and downright cruel sometimes. To pretend that this side of her didn’t exist would be wrong. People are not one or the other.
One or two reviews have suggested that I’m not apologetic enough about her—because she had such a hard childhood and her mother was an alcoholic. And it’s awful to grow up with an alcoholic mother, of course, and there were poor phases in her childhood, but all in all, growing up in the 30s and 40s—there have been more difficult childhoods. I don’t think you need to apologize that she was the way she was because she achieved a lot, and she lived her life in a very impressive way. To now pretend that she was also this super nice, sane person—she wasn’t.
Tim Parks wrote an essay for the NYRB about how literary biographies in the US usually take this hagiographic tone; it’s sort of like you have to do it, in a way. I felt the pull to do this, because it’s much easier to write a hagiography. But writers are people, too.
LO: Where does your interest in her come from?
DS: I moved to New York in 2001, shortly before September 11. Then I moved back to Germany for a year to work at the university [Freie Univeristät in Berlin] and to do a PhD. And after a year of working here, I realized it wasn’t for me, and I moved back to New York. It was really crucial for me to read intelligent texts—I loved to read intellectual writing. But I didn’t want to read academic writing, because that seemed so fake to me, and as writing it’s also not beautiful. So many of those texts are not interesting to read, and so much is about power struggles and what’s in fashion. Sontag was this insanely smart, intellectual woman who was able to write in a very, very, very intelligent way without being unentertaining or dull. I was really impressed by her. I met her once!
LO: Yeah? I was about to ask.
DS: "Meeting" is too much. I saw her at a talk she gave after September 11 at the journalism department of NYU.
LO: Just, like, in a line or something like that?
DS: Yeah, standing in a line. I was 23 back then, utterly impressed and utterly petrified. She was so brilliant—and so impervious, I think, after the talk. But it was great!
LO: Would you say the reception of your book has been different in Germany versus in the US?
DS: Yes, of course it has been. In Germany the book was surprisingly successful. It was on TV, and it was even on the bestseller list for a couple of weeks. So that was great, and it was really well reviewed by mostly everyone, too. But that was seven years ago. And now it’s fantastic that the New Yorker recommended it, which was unimaginable; it was wonderful. But it’s a small university press. And it’s a book by a German guy.
LO: And you wrote that you didn’t have access to the diaries at the time.
DS: No I didn’t. The Sontag archive at UCLA wasn’t open to the public until ten years after her death. But, of course, I had access to a part of her diaries, to other archives—for instance her publisher's, FSG. And of course I talked to many of her close friends and peers. But to be frank, my book is not a biography in the sense that it's a 700-page tome that tells you about what she felt in this week of her life or that. That's not something I wanted to write. It's a book that's mainly focused on the public persona and her work and of course it does give as much private information as possible, but it was really about the persona: what she did to become this person, what she achieved with it, where there were problems with it—and whether all that made her happy.
LO: She’s such a gossip-worthy figure in intellectual circles that I’m sure it was tempting.
DS: Everyone has gossip about her. Everyone you talk to has met her and has their story about her, very often about how outrageous she could be.
LO: Did you find it difficult to decide what to believe? Did that stuff color you as you were writing?
DS: To be honest, I did journalistic work there. If there was only one person saying something—if I couldn’t fact-check it—I just didn’t write it.
LO: You said in the preface that you wouldn’t have done anything differently if you’d had access to the diaries before they were published, except maybe put more emphasis on her addiction to amphetamines. Do you still feel that way?
DS: It was really shocking for me to read [that she was addicted for so long], to read about the extent of her addiction. I had known and written about it, but back then I didn't find it that important. A lot has happened in my life as well that has led to me seeing things a bit differently today. People always think, "Oh, you take drugs, and then you’re normal when you’re not on them." No! It changes you. It might explain a lot—how she acted towards people, how she always felt she had too little, how she always felt like she wasn’t happy, how she always felt like people were treating her awfully when they weren’t.
Part 2 of the interview will be posted tomorrow; it's about European vs. American perspectives on Sontag, the death of the intellectual, and Sontag's relationship to feminism and queer politics.
September 23, 2014
Image: Woman's Head by Alexei von Jawlensky
Where / what is home? That’s the nagging and confusing question the immigration experience poses. Finding an answer becomes all the more urgent as all too often a person risks remaining just a number in statistics on immigration. In the September issue of Bookslut, Rebecca Silber reviews Vanessa Manko’s The Invention of Exile. It’s the story of Austin Voronkov, a Russian immigrant who falls victim to the Palmer Raids from 1919-1920 -- the consequence of the so-called Red Scare. For more on Russian immigrants in the US, here are a few suggestions:
Reading this review coincided with my listening to a podcast on anarcha-feminism that mentions Emma Goldman -- also a Russian immigrant, also a victim of the first Red Scare. The only difference: Emma Goldman really was an anarchist. Her US citizenship made no difference, she was deported to Russia. Though optimistic at first, the new Russia, the Soviet Union, did not fit Goldman’s vision. And as an anarchist, Goldman did not fit into this new Russia. Goldman wrote about her Russian experience in My Disillusionment in Russia. About her deportation she writes:
It was on December 5, 1919, while in Chicago lecturing, that I was telegraphically apprised of the fact that the order for my deportation was final. The question of my citizenship was then raised in court, but was of course decided adversely. I had intended to take the case to a higher tribunal, but finally I decided to carry the matter no further: Soviet Russia was luring me.
Ludicrously secretive were the authorities about our deportation. To the very last moment we were kept in ignorance as to the time. Then, unexpectedly, in the wee small hours of December 21st we were spirited away. The scene set for this performance was most thrilling. It was six o'clock Sunday morning, December 21, 1919, when under heavy military convoy we stepped aboard the Buford.
For twenty-eight days we were prisoners. Sentries at our cabin doors day and night, sentries on deck during the hour we were daily permitted to breathe the fresh air. Our men comrades were cooped up in dark, damp quarters, wretchedly fed, all of us in complete ignorance of the direction we were to take. Yet our spirits were high -- Russia, free, new Russia was before us.
- Emma Goldman, My Disillusionment in Russia
A place of transit for prisoners who would end up in labor camps during the Stalin regime, Magadan is also the connection between the nine stories from Kseniya Melnik’s Snow in May. Melnik discusses her childhood Russia, remembered through the prism of nostalgia, the real Russia (“whatever that is”), and other writers’ Russia in the short essay "Selling Your First Soul":
Almost thirteen years after I’d emigrated as a teenager, I travelled back to Stavropol, my mother’s hometown in the South of Russia, to see my sick grandmother. I felt I was taking a creative risk: how would my writing change in the face of such a strong dose of reality?
After a three-day trip from Alaska and my initial awe at the transformation of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport (clean bathrooms! free wifi! flat-screen TVs!), we finally reached Stavropol. From then on, whether we were at the hospital, the pension fund, stores – you name it – we were assaulted by absurdities of Ilf-and-Petrovian caliber. The drunken operator of the only functioning elevator in the hospital, off for her fifteen-minute break. The only place to make copies of documents for the passport bureau – at a nearby parking attendant’s booth. No Internet at the Internet Café, and so on.
I was finally observing it all first hand. I would out-Shteyngart them all!
Kseniya Melnik, Selling Your First Soul | Granta
Speaking of Shteyngart: during these past few years, the author has indeed become one of the most known voices in the story of Russian emigres.
The Shteyngarts come to the United States as part of the wave of Soviet Jews allowed to emigrate under an agreement Jimmy Carter made with the Soviet government. In Shteyngart’s précis, “Russia gets the grain it needs to run; America gets the Jews it needs to run: all in all, an excellent trade deal.”
Andy Borowitz, Mr. Shteyngart’s Planet | The New York Times
While in New York, Sergei Dovlatov still wrote in Russian. Twelve books in twelve years. He left the Soviet Union in 1978 and arrived in New York in 1979 to join his wife and daughter, part of the so-called “third wave” of Russian immigration (an anxious transit anticipated in Pushkin Hills and more fully described in A Foreign Woman and the memoir, Ours, which traces the stories of four generations of his family).
James Wood, Sergei Dovlatov and the Hearsay of Memory | The New Yorker
Vanessa Manko on living in a never-ending state of longing:
That's really where the book began for me. I had an image in my mind of a man alone in Mexico City, walking down the street, not connected to anybody. Living in exile, broken and alone. I began to make the empathetic leap into what that would be like. It was partly based and inspired by the life of my grandfather I never knew. I grew up with different versions of the story but never knew the man himself. When I finally did research and began to understand what had happened to him, that I had a grandfather, a Russian in exile living alone in Mexico City, it brought up all sorts of questions.
Vanessa Manko interviewed by Royal Young, Vanessa Manko Goes Long | Interview Magazine
September 22, 2014
Interview with Peter Schneider
By Corinna Pichl
Peter Schneider is best known for his novel The Wall Jumper, which explores life in divided Berlin on both sides of the Wall. Schneider came to West Berlin as a student half a century ago, and he got involved in the student revolts of the 1960s. His political activity led to him being initially denied a career as a schoolteacher after graduation, before he established himself as a writer.
In the new essay collection Berlin Now, Schneider looks at Berlin with his decades-spanning perspective to offer a sense of how the city became what it is today, 25 years after the fall of the Wall. On love in Berlin, he starts off by evoking Christopher Isherwood's 1920s, then goes on to tell the story of a bugged Nazi brothel, and then describes the phenomenon of sex tourism across the border and reflects on differences between East and West regarding gender roles.
Other themes addressed in the book include minorities in Berlin and new forms of racism, the ongoing drama surrounding the Berlin airport [editor's note: still not open], and the story of the tearing down of the old GDR Palace and the resurrection of the Prussian Palace in its place.
We live quite far apart from each other, so I asked my questions over Skype.
[Another editor's note: She also conducted the interview in German and translated it into English, because she is great.]
Corinna Pichl: Why did you want to write a book about Berlin now?
Peter Schneider: Berlin plays the leading role in all my texts, and in the US I was especially successful with Wall Jumper. The book came out in 1982, and it was the first prediction of the "Wall in the head"—I coined this phrase—that this "Wall in the head" will keep standing longer than the thing made of concrete. I wrote this in 1982, and now my American publisher wanted to know: what does Berlin look like after the fall of the Wall? I hesitated at first because, as I said, I had already dealt with Berlin, and I thought: you know everything I know. Then I decided that I could only do it if I pretended not to know anything. To research and go see everything that interested me again.
CP: During your research you also went to the clubs in Berlin. I found it interesting how you described the crowd waiting in front of Berghain, as dressed discreetly and alike.
PS: It was like that when I went there. Maybe it is different at other times, but I was very surprised. It seemed to me that they had all been warned through information in the Internet that you don't get in if you're dressed very conspicuously. The only one, who was really noticeable, was this Sven Marquardt [the doorman]. He would never get into Berghain. He is a star now; he has written a book, too, and it got two pages in Der Spiegel, which doesn't review real books anymore. When I left I asked him if he would give me an interview, and he just said: you have to ask my agent. Even as a doorman you can become a star in Berlin.
CP: Would you say that today's generation is more conformist than earlier generations?
PS: I would never say that. Today's generation is in a completely different situation, and people are as conformist and non-conformist as we used to be back then. That we rebelled against our fathers' generation in this way was a unique historical situation; it was only possible for the generation after the Nazis. Today's generation is in a completely different situation. And the revolts take place elsewhere and maybe not in politics.
CP: At the beginning of the 60s, you moved to Berlin as a student from south Germany, and you became active in the protests of 1968. In your book, you describe the difficulties many West German leftists had in dealing with the totalitarian, but also leftist, GDR state. How did you resolve this conflicts? Have your political attitudes changed a great deal over the years?
PS: These [attitudes] changed significantly. Back then, in 1967-68, we believed we could make a revolution, that we could replace capitalism with something else, etc. We were particularly interested in the fate of the so-called "Third World" countries: Why were there extremely poor countries and rich ones like ours? The "Third World" is less of a topic today. Today they are called "emerging" or "BRIC" countries. These are euphemisms; the exploitation is still taking place, of course.
I do not believe in revolutions anymore. I believe that revolutions will take place over and over again because there is no other way when oppression gets too bad and when violence is the only way to defend oneself—this happens again and again. But revolutions don't actually bring anything good, because new tyrants occupy the place of the old.
I believe that radical reforms are the best means to change a society. This is one of the important positions that I changed. But there are a lot more.
CP: You also describe the alternative art scene in West Berlin in the 80s as closed in on itself and separated from the rest of the world.
PS: It was turned inwards. Self-regarding. The whole impetus to engage with the outer world, to change society, from before was gone all of a sudden. This was, of course, related to the failed plans for revolution; it was a logical consequence.
CP: Do you still see this tendency today?
PS: No, I think today there are many things on the Internet that we didn't know back then and that continue a lot of ideals that we had. For example, the open-source community, which is based on the conviction that inventions belong to the public, to the world, and must not be bought and marketed by huge Internet companies. There are many developments like this—they make me very interested. Also, all these exchange services, like car-sharing, this sharing without getting money for it—these are great developments that don't have a revolutionary ethos, but which I find very exciting.
CP: You also tell the story of Bar25, [a legendary club on the Spree] whose space could have been saved from being sold to real estate companies. Do you think the sale of free spaces to investors is unavoidable?
PS: Unfortunately, this is the course of the real estate market, and if nobody puts a stop to it, then what's happening now will keep happening. You could say the same thing about the economic crisis of four years ago: if this isn't opposed with rules, then financial markets will again bring the world close to collapse.
I believe that it is indeed possible to do something, and I believe that Berlin—the Senate does deserve some praise in this regard—followed other principles in some cases. There's the Kater Holzig club, which is Bar25 all over again: they got their property at Jannowitzbrücke because the Senate was told that it belongs to Berlin, that it is a piece of culture that we can preserve and that we can't just sell to the highest bidder. This is the right way to do things. It should be this way in many cases, but so far this is the exception, not the rule.
CP: You also write that the western part of the city might be resuscitated when it gets too expensive in districts like Neukölln.
PS: Not exactly Neukölln—it will take a while until it gets as expensive as Charlottenburg. But Prenzlauer Berg is definitely expensive enough already that people are moving to Wilmersdorf instead. Of course, there are constant migrations within the city, and it has been this way since the 1920s; in the middle of the 20s, bohemia moved to the west all of a sudden, even though things were still happening in the east.
This could definitely repeat itself. I don't believe in the predictions that say Charlottenburg is a retiree's paradise now, that it will never recover from that. It's all going to change again.
September 19, 2014
Image: "Charakterköpfe" by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt
Weekend Recommended Reading
I'm in a wacky mood because I haven't slept and spent all day writing an invective. My best advice for you this weekend is to not read and sleep instead. Also don't subhead any New York Times opinion pieces with "There Are Social and Political Benefits to Having Friends." David Brooks's writing is indistinguishable from my mother's sorority sisters' Facebook status updates.
-Scotland—you have so many thinkpieces already. All I can add is that haggis is disappointingly not that disgusting and Edinburgh is cheaper than London if you're looking for a vacation spot where people call you "love" at "the shops."
-The response to 10:04 hasn't been as obsessive as I would agree with. BEN LERNER IS A GENIUS AS WELL AS GREAT!! I want to shout it from the rooftops! I was going to pitch an involved, meta-nonfictional review about it to several new-wave intellectual publications, because I love that book so much and feel no one has done it justice, but I don't really want to actually write the review, so I'm not. Anyway, read everything he's written and then this long conversation he had with Ariana Reines!
-Two long and worthy things at The Baffler: this about Kickstarter and this about the work fetish. Yes, I know, AGAIN with the work fetish, but it's good! It was originally published in German, a language I should have really learned by now, in Die Zeit, and it has a postscript responding to the (significant) comments it received there.
-"It all started with a BDSM black latex mermaid suit, as the best stories often do. Permaid, the Persian mermaid who mysteriously washed up off the shores of Malibu in a giant clam shell, is fast becoming the it girl-fish of LA, touring hot spots and not spots and always causing a stir wherever she kicks up her wipe-clean black fins."
-Pair this Electric Literature piece about locura (madness) in early modern Spain with this brilliant and sickening one about military sexual trauma. "Son, Men Don't Get Raped."
September 18, 2014
Latvians—they're just like us!
September 17, 2014
Image: Starification by Hannah Wilke
In the Disappearance issue of Spolia, the excerpt from Breanne Fahs’s Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote SCUM (and Shot Andy Warhol) is an attempt at retracing Valerie Solanas’s steps during her final years.
In the interview from the May issue of Bookslut, Breanne Fahs further discusses the disappearance of Valerie Solanas and how that parallels her work on the SCUM Manifesto:
I had originally called this biography A Life of SCUM, and I did this because Valerie's story is so deeply connected to and mapped onto the story of SCUM Manifesto that it was impossible to separate the two. Valerie always imagined that, if only she could publish a correct edition of SCUM Manifesto, if only her words were not plagued by typos and misspellings and sabotaging errors (mostly from her publisher Maurice Girodias), if only she could somehow get out her pure and precise SCUM Manifesto to the world, she would be able to achieve greatness. This story propelled her along for some time, all through her years in prison and mental hospitals, and even the years after that. But once she actually did publish, in 1977, the correct SCUM Manifesto, and once it, too, did not seem to "land," did not seem to connect in the way she had hoped, she, along with the manifesto, seemed to disappear. I found this timeline really poignant and incredibly sad. It was as if at the moment that SCUM Manifesto could no longer prop her up and hold her together, at the precise moment that SCUM Manifesto in its fully realized version failed to connect, Valerie also ceased to exist. She disappeared into the ether because she, in some ways, finally let go of SCUM Manifesto (though not fully; her last recorded conversation had her asking Ultra Violet about the manifesto and asking her to get a copy for her from the Library of Congress). Valerie defined her life by her writing, and defined herself as a writer; once she no longer did so, her madness consumed her.
Breanne Fahs interviewed by Coco Papy, An Interview with Breanne Fahs | Bookslut
(The interview is to be accompanied by the reading suggested by Ami Tian on the Bookslut blog on the radical feminist legacy of Solanas.)
The effort to piece together the puzzle that was Valerie Solanas’s life is doubled by the effort to separate her image from the shooting of Andy Warhol. It is interesting, though, to read about a biography of Valerie Solanas in Interview Magazine, which is basically a part of Warhol’s legacy. On Warhol’s interest in Solanas:
I love the odd relationship that they had. I think they are such polar opposites in certain ways, and almost identical matches in other ways. You have Andy Warhol operating in this mode of "I will be distant and detached, and coolly observant of everything." Then Valerie, like I said, is this live wire. She is total passion, earnestness, hotness, like heat. I think both she and Andy had a lot of similarities—they both come from this working-class background, they are running away from a certain kind of life that they grew up in. Certainly they share some kind of queer identity, somehow. There are all these things that seem like they should have felt more aligned than they did, but temperamentally they were just so different. This creates this, I think, one of history's most absurd and bizarre pairings.
After the shooting, Andy acts like Valerie shooting him was in her nature, and therefore she can't be blamed for it, and therefore he can't be all that angry at her. Valerie was kind of apologetic and sheepish about the shooting, but at the same time she said things like, "You're just trying to get publicity for yourself by pretending to be kind to me," and other blasphemous statements like, "I should have done target practice." She also realizes the cost of shooting him and how it kind of derailed her bigger purpose as a writer. It placed her in history as the woman who shot Andy Warhol.
Breanne Fahs interviewed by Hannah Ghorashi, Layers of SCUM: Uncovering Valerie Solanas | Interview
More on Valerie Solanas’s short and troubled connection with Warhol and the Factory:
Paul Morrissey loathed Valerie, and said plainly to me that he hated that I was writing this book. He screamed and ranted and carried on when we spoke on the phone, seething with resentment and saying that I should write about Lady Gaga instead. Some of the Andy Warhol crowd still harbors similar feelings, while others have taken a more nuanced and semicritical look at Andy. Certainly, the women associated with the Factory have been much more critical of Andy’s treatment of women in general, while the men in the Factory seem to have this unreflective and fanatic worship of Andy that I find troubling artistically and personally. Still, Andy did have streaks of generosity and goodwill, taking into his scene misfits, losers, freaks, drug addicts, gender trouble-makers of all sorts and eccentric artists. That said, I wholeheartedly believe that he made promises to Valerie that he later revoked or simply forgot about, and for Valerie that constituted a serious offense.
Breanne Fahs interviewed by John Williams, A Sad and Remarkable Life: Breanne Fahs Talks About ‘Valerie Solanas’ | ArtsBeat, The New York Times
Partly responsible for the difficulty of separating Valerie Solanas and her work from the Andy Warhol affaire in our recent collective memory is also Mary Harron’s movie I Shot Andy Warhol. (Personally, I can’t remember which one came first for me: reading the SCUM Manifesto or watching I Shot Andy Warhol.)
Mary Harron’s 1996 film I Shot Andy Warhol offered some backstory to Solanas’s gripe with — and eventual assassination attempt on — the celebrated artist, but Fahs goes deeper, by explaining how much influence Warhol’s Factory and its superstars (or, as Solanas called them, “stupidstars”) wielded in New York’s art scene at the time. “Andy created women as offshoots of the male imagination, something Valerie could never (and would never want to) live up to. She was a dangerously real product of a world hell-bent on treating women as mirrored distortions of the male ego,” writes Fahs, and indeed, within the Factory’s silver-lined walls Solanas was given about as much consideration as a stray wad of chewed gum. And yet, marginality was everything to Solanas. Why was she attracted to Warhol and the Factory scene in the first place? Fahs attempts to puzzle that out, surmising that Andy, who hardly treated Solanas well, nevertheless “stood in for a variety of emotionally charged, missing, or distorted figures” in her life.
Andi Zeisler, Andi Zeisler on Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote SCUM (and Shot Andy Warhol) – A One Woman Army | Los Angeles Review of Books
In her review of Breanne Fahs’s book on Valerie Solanas, Jennifer Pan focuses more on the radical politics of Solanas, managing to emphasize the relevance of her work in the context of both second wave feminism and today’s feminism.
During a time when the most visible expression of feminism centered on the assertion that women were as just as capable as men of waged employment, Solanas’s recognition of the political possibilities of failure was an unexpected – and radically provocative – gesture: one that, at once, recognized the centrality of women to capitalist production and also championed the destruction of that very system. Likewise, the feminist discourse that is commonly dismissed as “trashing” today often serves as a flashpoint for resistance against liberal feminism and includes, among others, women of color criticizing the systemic racism that continues to pervade much of these liberal feminist spaces.
If calls to end trashing are efforts to close the gaps between various factions within feminism, then Solanas has helped to remind us that trashing can also be the insistence that these gaps cannot be filled – that feminism must represent a multiplicity of claims and seek to redress several interlocking forms of exploitation.
September 16, 2014
Ten Irish Women and Their Names
1. Fionnula Flanagan (pronounced "fin-NOO-luh")
2. Nora Barnacle
3. Máire Mhac an tSaoi (pronounced like this)
4. Medbh McGuckian (pronounced like "Maeve")
5. Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill (pronounced "NOOH-luh nee GOH-null")
6. Orlaith Rafter (pronounced "or-la")
7. Una Troy
8. Nano Nagle
9. Erminda Esler
10. Eimear McBride (pronounced "ee-mer")
September 14, 2014
Two-ish weeks ago, I dropped in a little criticism of Brad Listi's interview podcast, OTHERPPL, saying he'd "lost the plot a bit" and was "always talking about himself." (If you're not familiar with the podcast, it's a pretty standard format: Brad does a 10ish-minute monologue followed by an interview with someone involved in publishing, usually an author but sometimes agents and editors, too.) This being the Internet, he saw what I wrote and sent me an email asking if I could elaborate on it. (NB: We've emailed before.) What I sent back is below, RAW & UNEDITED; file under: interview philosophy, narcissism, entertainment, criticism, "content."
If you want to hear parts of this read aloud in Brad Listi's sexy radio voice—or hear how he responded—it's in the monologue of this Sunday's OTHERPPL, which later features Wendy C. Ortiz.
from: Lauren Oyler
to: brad listi
date: Thu, Sep 11, 2014 at 3:03 PM
subject: Re: [Lauren Oyler] Contact
Important according to our magic sauce.
Hi hi hi,
Sorry—I didn't want you to think I was going to ignore your email but tweet you with apparent fervor, especially because I was just whining about how no one *~*gets*~* me, but I was really busy yesterday. Anyway. I'm tempted to launch into some pseudo-apologetic preamble about criticizing you, about how I debated with myself about whether I should say anything negative about the podcast on Bookslut because of the noted sentimental attachment I have for it but then was like, "Fuck it, if I can't stand people being lamely nice on the Internet then I must be the change I wish to see on the Internet," but I'm just going to let that discussion of the temptation to pseudo-apologize sort of count as the pseudo-apology and then say: I think it's in the interviews. I noticed that maybe your monologues have gotten shorter recently—I started skipping them, and maybe that says something to you, though I usually skip podcast monologues because I don't really care. But in the interviews it seems like you're constantly bringing up the same anecdotes or autobiographical tidbits, in a way that makes me think, "Oh my God, Brad Listi, we KNOW you hiked the Appalachian Trail! We KNOW you went to school in Boulder! We KNOW you had a traumatizing move at an impressionable pubescent age from one Midwestern state to another, similar Midwestern state! We KNOW you sort of wish you were bipolar, I mean, like, you know it's horrible and difficult, but wouldn't manic episodes be great for your productivity?" (Do people email you about that one?) I'm thinking about the interview with Brittani Sonnenberg, whose whole thing is about her childhood characterized by international relocations that were both causes and effects of trauma—like, she's a tall redheaded person playing on a basketball team in Singapore, where her sister later died of a rare and undetected and thus completely unexpected heart condition—and you talked about how much you hated moving to Indiana for, like, minutes. Or what seemed a lot longer than establishing-a-connection length.
To be fair, my sensitivity to this might have something to do with me having listened to the podcast fairly continuously, often one or two episodes a day for a few months—I was walking twin babies (in a stroller) in the snow for low pay—which would create a sense of familiarity with your biography that someone who listens only occasionally wouldn't have; the repetition of certain autobiographical themes of yours—or, rather, the increased repetition of autobiographical themes I've noticed of late—is more obvious if you're listening to the podcast regularly. But after awhile your interviews stopped feeling like they were about, ahem, other people and felt more like they were about what you could use other people to say about yourself. Which I totally understand—I'm not good at interviewing people because I'm a huge narcissist and interviews are usually about using yourself to give someone else more attention, and I often feel what I have to say or could say deserves more attention than what the person I'm interviewing has to say, which creates an additional resentment because it's like I'm giving them this gift of attention (also megalomaniacal) and they're wasting it on being boring. This is why I don't have a twice-weekly interview podcast (and try to only interview people who seem like they'll be interesting); if I were a better interviewer, I would probably be able to foster less boring interviews. This seems to contradict what I'm criticizing you for—if the interviewer is more interesting than the interviewee, shouldn't hearing about the interviewer be more interesting than hearing about the interviewee? Theoretically, yes, but I think we hold interviewers to different standards than we hold interviewees, because their express purpose is to give other people attention. It doesn't really matter how interesting the interviewer is; what matters is his ability to draw the interesting out of others. And especially when the interviewer does a lot of interviews and repeats the same (theoretically) interesting information to every interviewee, this disconnect between the theory of the interview and the practice of the interview is annoying, especially, I think, in an audio interview; it takes time to read an interview, yes, but the reader has more control over his experience there—reading is active, listening is passive.
On the flip side of this is the worshipful interviewer, who's too afraid of the person he's interviewing to have an actual conversation with her, and that's probably worse. I don't think you do that, but maybe you're wary of doing that, because it's important to have an actual conversation, establish a connection, etc. But I think you (one) can establish a connection by only succumbing to the autobiographical impulse when it will actually serve that conversation, and therefore the listener, and not just your(one)self. Right? Moderation! You seem to talk much less about yourself when you're talking to famous people, or to people who seem like they're able to hold their own enough to steer the conversation in the direction of what is interesting; these are always the interviews I like better and the people I sort of think will become the famous ones later. It's hard. I'm not going to be like, "Maybe you should interview fewer boring people," because boring people abound in the publishing industry and their lameness doesn't necessarily translate to their books and part of the point of the podcast is to grant attention to a variety of books and writers (right????), but I think it's the interviewer's responsibility, if he wants to be a good interviewer, to stave off as much of the boring as he can.
Anyway. I really do appreciate the podcast, and I know you waver (or were wavering) about why you do it or if you should be doing it and whether it is your "thing," what is your "thing," and I'm not going to say anything about that because I just overreached significantly—correspondences being, I think, different from interviews—but I agree with what a lot of people said about it being a huge and great contribution to "the conversation," and I do hope it doesn't start sucking.
P.S. I might blog part of this. Content, you know.
P.P.S. For typos: genuinely sorry.
September 12, 2014
Image: "Extraction of the Stone of Folly" by Hieronymus Bosch.
Weekend Recommended Reading
-Tonight begins my days-long enduring of the annual Internationales Literaturfestival Berlin, where two years ago I watched the worst interview I've ever seen take place on stage between a baffled Chad Harbach and another (native English-speaking) writer, who offered the somewhat reserved Harbach long and giggling pauses after questions like, "So...baseball? Like, what is it?" The Berlin literature festival doesn't have the best of reputations, for this and other reasons. Check back to see what I can find wrong with talks by Junot Díaz, Xiaolu Guo, Helen Oyeyemi, Carlos Labbé, Tao Lin, Chloe Arjidis, Ma Jian, and Joshua Cohen (whose collection of short stories, 4 New Messages, I'm reading now; I would describe it as Denis Johnson online, which I would in turn describe as not my favorite, but potentially someone else's).
-I got that link from the Fitzcarraldo Editions blog. They make beautiful books and have good taste.
-Juliet Escoria has a piece about marriage and mental health and mental health treatment at Hobart:
Scott’s doctor didn’t give him the test. Scott’s doctor hasn’t even told him about that side effect. Scott’s doctor hasn’t told him about any side effects. I don’t know what the fuck is wrong with Scott’s doctor, but there’s no way in hell I am going to Scott’s doctor.
In California, there were dozens of psychiatrists within a couple miles from me. I could have my pick. I went with mine because I didn’t hate her based on the photo on her website. I ended up liking her because when I told her I was having anxiety, she showed me some breathing exercises rather than handing me another prescription.
When it comes time for me to find a psychiatrist in Beckley, I Google “psychiatrist Beckley.” Scott’s psychiatrist comes up. The internet says he sees 60 patients a day.
I now understand what the fuck is wrong with Scott’s doctor.
-The Paris Review Daily posted an interview with Lynne Tillman yesterday.
-And if you're tired of looking at things, listen to Ruth Barnes's radio documentary on Judee Sill, here or tomorrow at "15:30," as they say, on BBC Radio 4.
September 10, 2014
There's a point at which homesickness stops being about what is better where you came from and becomes simply about what is where you came from. That is apparently the point I'm at, because I'm reading Americanah, which is often about America's particularly insidious and confusing brand of racism as perceived by Ifemelu, a "non-American black (NAB)" who writes a popular blog about race in America from this perspective, and my initial responses are 1) "Why did I not read this before! It is amazing!" and 2) "I yearn so wistfully for this problematic land!"
To be fair, a lot of the book is about Nigeria, and a lot of the book is about the UK, and I'm not exaggerating or doing one of those evasive book reviewer maneuvers when I say it's so even and good that I haven't succumbed to that When will you get back to the plot I like, I am the ultimate and most important reader, I want to read only what requires no empathetic or imaginative skill to register with me weakness that has defeated many-an Infinite Jest reader. This despite suffering a longing for the land of the free, home of the brave apparently so intense that I seriously thought, when the protagonist Ifemelu and her Yale lecturer boyfriend, Blaine, walk "down Elm Street, on their way to get a sandwich": "Oh my God, I WISH I WERE WALKING DOWN ELM STREET ON MY WAY TO GET A SANDWICH."
Once, as they walked down Elm Street, on their way to get a sandwich, they saw the plump black woman who as a fixture on campus: always standing near the coffee shop, a woollen hat squashed on her head, offering single plastic red roses to passers-by and asking "You got any change?" Two students were talking to her, and then one of them gave her a cappuccino in a tall paper cup. The woman looked thrilled; she threw her head back and drank from the cup.
"That's so disgusting," Blaine said, as they walked past.
"I know," Ifemelu said, although she did not quite understand why he felt so strongly about the homeless woman and her cappuccino gift. Weeks before, an older white woman standing in line behind them at the grocery store had said, "Your hair is so beautiful, can I touch it?" and Ifemelu said yes. The woman sank her fingers into her Afro. She sensed Blaine tense, saw the pulsing at his temples. "How could you let her do that?" he asked afterwards. "Why not? How else will she know what hair like mine feels like? She probably doesn't know any black people."
"And so you have to be her guinea pig?" Blaine asked. He expected her to feel what she did not know how to feel.
Okay, so it's not just the sandwich, and I hated Yale and don't experience pangs of Cole Porter-soundtracked memory when I think of Elm Street and the specific sandwiches one might purchase there. While my homesickness could be interpreted as me being nostalgic for a racism from which I most certainly benefit (I am white), I really don't think that's what it is, after much uncomfortable reflection on race in America inspired by this book and the Ferguson bullshit and living in a country (Germany) where blackness is just different (in terms of, e.g., ancestry, immigration status, particular long-standing racial tensions (blackface—they're still doing it), integration between racial groups, proportion of the general population that is of color—the last time I went to New York I got off the plane and thought, "Oh my God, I forgot about black people"—and all the effects these differences create). Europeans often offer a back-handed compliment when the topic of racism in America comes up; they insult your country with you, not at you, since you must obviously share their holier-than-thou, "America is so fucked up!" stance—after all, you left for a reason! But I often feel guilty for not being there, for having decamped to a culture where the issue of race is glossed over with a "What's the big deal?," where it doesn't really have to make me uncomfortable and few would understand, really, the many ways Americanah is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's "fuck you" book. I want to be able to appreciate with someone the way her bad ass critical eye turns to what is so rarely critiqued and instead accepted as rightness. But instead I'm alone in my room, thinking, "Why did I not read this before! It is amazing! I yearn so wistfully for this problematic land, where I might find people who would understand how amazing this is without my having to explain it!"
She...wrote her blogs from his apartment, at a desk he had placed for her near the bedroom window. At first, thrilled by his interest, graced by his intelligence, she let him read her blog posts before she put them up. She did not ask for his edits, but slowly she began to make changes, to add and remove, because of what he said. Then she began to resent it. Her posts sounded too academic, too much like him. She had written a post about inner cities—"Why Are the Dankest, Drabbest Parts of American Cities Full of American Blacks?"—and he told her to include details about government policy and redistricting. She did, but after rereading it, she took down the post.
"I don't want to explain. I want to observe," she said.
"Remember people are not reading you as entertainment, they're reading you as cultural commentary. That's a real responsibility... Keep your style but add more depth."
"It has enough depth," she said, irritated, but with the niggling thought that he was right.
"You're being lazy, Ifem."
He used that word, "lazy", often, for his students who did not hand in work on time, black celebrities who were not politically active, ideas that did not match his own. Sometimes she felt like his apprentice.... She blogged about two novels she loved, by Ann Petry and Gayl Jones, and Blaine said, "They don't push the boundaries." He spoke gently, as though he did not want to upset her, but it still had to be said. His positions were firm, so thought-through and fully realized in his own mind that he sometimes seemed surprised that she, too, had not arrived at them herself. She felt a step removed from the things he believed, and the things he knew, and she was eager to play catch-up, fascinated by his sense of rightness.
September 9, 2014
In the August issue of Bookslut, Corinna Pichl interviews Chloé Griffin, the author of Edgewise: A Picture of Cookie Mueller. The underground writer and actress Cookie Mueller is mostly known for having been part of John Waters’s unique, repugnant and delightfully monstrous Dreamland. For more on Cookie Mueller and the Dreamland, here are a few suggestions:
Always with Castro on my mind I spent idle hours of the summer months in the woods behind my parents’ house. In these woods was a strange railroad track, where a mystery train passed through a tunnel of trees and vines twice a day, once at 1 PM and then again in the opposite direction at 3 PM. I would climb a steep hill which sat right on the tracks and I would look down into the smoke stack and always the black smoke would settle on my white clamdiggers. For miles and miles in the direction that the train was headed there was nothing except a seminary and an insane asylum so naturally my assumption was that one of the cattle cars was full of loons anxious to be committed and the other car was full of future priests, students of theology, who, as everyone knows, have to use public transportation because they’re far too religious to drive their own automobiles. The 3 PM train would return the other way carrying the dirty laundry. I imagined that both cattle cars were full of stained straight jackets and sweaty clerical collars. There was always a caboose full of shirtless men playing cards or strip Monopoly. This verified my assumptions, somehow.
Cookie Mueller, My Bio: Notes on an American Childhood, 1949-1959 | BOMB Magazine
Mueller’s book, Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black, contains more autobiographical writing. John Waters: "Cookie Mueller wrote like a lunatic Uncle Remus - spinning little stories from Hell that will make any reader laugh out loud." The humor she exhibits in her writing – especially her humor about being institutionalized – is the element that best reveals what a great fit she was for John Waters's crazy, outrageous, and yet funny world.
To better understand Cookie Mueller’s stylistic sensibilities, we need to plunge deeper into the Dreamland envisioned by John Waters:
In creating his world, John Waters was equally inspired by movies and books. He insists screenwriting is writing. And who could argue against such a statement without coming off as obnoxiously elitist? One can get more than just a glimpse at his writing influences as he is very open about what’s on his bookshelves. In a conversation at the New York Public Library, John Waters discusses his collection of trashy, politically incorrect books. A closer look at his shelves, though, reveals that John Waters is more intellectual than he’d like to admit: "Reading as a Pleasant Deviation: A Guided Tour of John Waters’ Library".
Going back to Cookie Mueller, Alexandra Molotkow writes:
Cookie Mueller had her own normal and her own values -- good values, adapted for a life that careened like a unicycle down a fire escape. She was the kind of person who seems to live adjacent to the rest of us, subject to different rules and different laws of cause and effect. Adventures just accrued to her, like money for some and lovers for others (“I’m not wild,” she wrote, “I happen to stumble onto wildness. It gets in my path”). And she was lucky, in her way: in Sicily, she rented a car, totalled the roof, then returned it to an inspector too short to notice the damage; in Elkton, Maryland she was kidnapped by gun-wielding hillbillies and escaped by hiding in the woods under the lining of her black velvet jacket. She lived a short life as a born survivor; you picture her losing an arm, then tossing it into the ice box as she fishes out a beer.
Alexandra Molotkow, "Funny But Not Beautiful, Beautiful But Not Smart" | Hazlitt
What We're Reading
by Will George
Image: "The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)" (1915-23) by Marcel Duchamp
Before I found Chris F. Westbury’s The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even I’d never heard of Marcel Duchamp’s artwork of the same title; my knowledge of Duchamp was restricted to urinals. The original "Bride Stripped Bare," on permanent display in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is a 6'-wide-by-9'-tall abstraction showcasing no bride, no bachelors, no bare-stripped anything. Instead it sandwiches an image of an antique chocolate grinder between plates of crazed glass.
Westbury’s novel is crazed in a different sense. The narrator is a Duchamp-obsessed OCD sufferer whose fixations carry him to Philly to commission a pricey working replica of the chocolate grinder. He’s independently wealthy, so he can chase his interests full-time. Or more than full-time.
I can’t say I relate to this intimate first-person view of OCD: the constant hand-washing, the habitual anagrammatizing of names, the interminable group therapy, the minute over-description. I could definitely smile at it, though—I admire Westbury’s handling of this subject, humorous but without flippancy. I recommend The Bride Stripped Bare to fans of fiction or memoir about mental disorders (e.g., Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted).
September 8, 2014
Image: "L'Absinthe" (1876) by Edgar Degas
Ten Short Story Collections Featuring Recurring Female Protagonists Who Are Alienated and/or Despondent and/or Bitterly Cynical After Finding Themselves Victims of Patriarchal and/or Generally Unfavorable Situations
2. The First Person and Other Stories by Ali Smith
3. The Left Bank and Other Stories by Jean Rhys
4. The Habit of Loving by Doris Lessing
5. Widow: Stories by Michelle Latiolais
6. Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans
7. Self-Help by Lorrie Moore
8. Famous Fathers and Other Stories by Pia Z. Ehrhardt
9. Dangerous Calm: Selected Stories by Elizabeth Taylor
10. The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
September 5, 2014
Weekend Recommended Reading
-I am in a terrible mood, involving both anger and despair, as well as a resentment that comes in waves of generality that crest and crash into specificities, and I do not want to talk about any of the 3-4 good books I'm reading right now. And why am I listening to Josephine Baker? What is the point? The beautiful resurgence of summer weather taunts, oppresses. This Prospect article about the problem with expectations of happiness has always been apt, but it's especially so on this pleasant fucking day:
The problem with Hawaii is that you are expected to be happy—by idiots like me, for example—so that when you are depressed, you are not just depressed, you feel guilty about being depressed too, so you’re doubly screwed...
“Yep,” she concluded, “Hawaii really sucks.”
The article is about how Hawaii is everywhere.
-I was going to write about that Women in Clothes book that came out yesterday, but it's so big, and so far my open-to-random-page, scan-for-something-interesting strategy has uncovered nothing worth talking about, except a series of photos of one woman's different kinds of bobby pins, which I think evokes a very particular and intimate aspect of feminine appearance, the behind-closed-bathroom-doors construction of that appearance. And I often think about the unfamiliar bobby pin on a nightstand as evidence of an affair. Anyway, I don't know; I will read more and get back to you. I can imagine there being great interviews in it, and I'm interested in knowing what all Sheila Heti's (sometimes rich) friends-of-friends spend on clothes, etc., but it's not really the kind of book you can read; it's more like a magazine you don't get the satisfaction of being able to skim in a single sitting.
-Adult has a great profile of the "emerging" painter Jamian Juliano-Villani that contains a pretty critical analysis of MFA (art) programs. (Spoiler: the piece is called "Discourse Sucks.") If you go to Adult's homepage, you will be greeted with a very round man ass. Unrelated, but possibly of interest.
-Yesterday I fell into a New York Magazine Science of Us spiral, initiated by a desire to vindicate my literal disgust for networking and then set in real motion with a procrastinatory link about how to avoid procrastinating that takes its illustrative example from Harry Potter. You don't need to read the articles, but what is kind of funny is the sole comment on the one that briefly, very anecdotally mentions our boy wizard. The author of the article says he hasn't read Harry Potter, so he makes a little joke about how he has no idea what the ultimately irrelevant Harry Potter terminology used in the study he's talking about means. Comment reads:
Uh, maybe find out what the Triwizard Tournament was all about before writing an article centered around it? Just an idea.
Uh, adult Harry Potter fans, maybe try to be a little less transparent. Just an idea.
September 4, 2014
There's a freshly translated Cortázar story, "Headache," up at Tor.com. I'm not going to summarize its premise in a blog-like manner, since part of the not-quite-fun-but-enjoyment,-pleasure of reading him is having to figure out what's going on, and I'm pretty sure I don't just say that because the first Cortázar story I read was "Axolotl" in Spanish class and I think our professor was doing it to fuck with us, figuring out what's going on in non-magical stories being task enough in Spanish class. What I will say is that it contains the sentence, "The cranium squeezes the brain like a steel helmet—well said," so I don't know why you're still here.
September 3, 2014
Image: "The Children's Class" by Henri-Jules-Jean Geoffroy.
September and a new issue of Bookslut are upon us: buy new clothes to fabricate a sense of rebirth and possibility, and then read! Literature pairs well with brown leather boots! You cannot achieve intellectual growth without products!
Nicholas Vajifdar is on point, as usual, with his The Forgotten Twentieth Century column, this time on Kathy Acker's essays:
Acker's other preoccupation is with something she calls "language," and again her repetition of the word creates a kind of hypnotic hum around it, suggesting esoteric meanings. Acker's "language" is not simply talking and writing, but the entire enterprise of trying to "pin things down," to particularize them in a system of symbols; it also encompasses the privilege of being heard and understood on one's own terms.
David Connerley Nahm, the author of Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky, which is also reviewed in the September issue, is today's guest on Brad Listi's Other People (now OTHERPPL, but ugh, I just can't) podcast. I haven't listened to the episode, and Brad has, frankly, lost the plot a bit with Other People (see: OTHERPPL, always talking about himself), but maybe it's good? I used to listen to the podcast a lot while I was working a particularly horrible job that involved walking around outside for hours in Berlin in January, so maybe it's out of sentimental attachment that I want him to turn it around, but: I want him to turn it around.
Also, don't forget that if you're, ahem, looking for extracurricular activities, to return to the lame back-to-school reference, Bookslut is looking for new writers. Email firstname.lastname@example.org if you're interested in reviewing, interviewing, or writing a column.