November 28, 2015
As a kid, I would sit on the floor in my bedroom (blue shag), reading whatever I was into at the time (Henry James, V.C. Andrews—just the classics, amiright?) with our ponderous illustrated World Book Dictionary resting solidly at my side; its existence preceded my own in the world by a good decade, and it usually resided downstairs in the dining room on its own wheeled lectern, handmade by my grandfather. As I read I would keep a running list of words to look up, and, every chapter or so, would stop and begin working through the list, which often devolved into looking up words from the dictionary definitions, words I already knew, words you would never normally question, culminating in the loss of all universal meaning of language and questioning the true identity of words like "the."
Having that good a time with a dictionary probably accounts for my enduring love of reference materials, and may at least partially explain why any subsequent ventures into the world of psychic enhancement proved to be kind of a letdown compared to the version of reality I had been plunked down into.
Now, without the time to trip on dictionaries and be shaken from my moribund relationship with language, I have children who help me achieve similar effects through their delightful mispronunciations, little word games, and intense questioning about the meaning of all things (I have, in fact, had to explain "the" to the rigorous satisfaction of a three-year-old, so turns out my youth wasn't wasted after all). Unsurprisingly, in their few short years we've amassed a respectable collection of children's encyclopedias, monographs, compendia, and, of course, alphabet books. Despite one son being an independent reader and the other having the ABCs firmly in his teeny-handed grasp, I continue to buy them because I enjoy them and my kids do to, too. I like the constraint of organizing information around an arbitrary theme, the panalphabetic approach to coming up with an (ideally) inventive and engaging text, the way that it can bring basic units of language relatable for learners, the challenge of filling the X slot with something, anything, other than "X-ray" or "xylophone."
While nothing is ever likely to topple The Gashlycrumb Tinies at the head of my alphabet canon, when I came across Rad American Women A–Z: Rebels, Trailblazers, and Visionaries Who Shaped Our History...and Our Future! from Sister Spit/City Lights, I knew there was a space on our shelf calling for it. The book's gotten a lot of well-deserved recognition since its release in March, and has been featured in Bust, Afropunk, Bitch, and even that old suburban standby (that I've somehow ended up with a mysterious self-renewing subscription to, just by virtue of procreating) Parents. It spent several weeks on The New York Times Top 20 Bestselling Children's Middle Grade List, and the Ms. Foundation recently announced that it will be donating 1000 copies of the book to New York City public school libraries.
Author Kate Schatz tackles in straightforward language topics that can be anything but, and each entry is accompanied by illustrator Miriam Klein-Stahl's gorgeous graphic paper-cut portraits (think Käthe Kollwitz, Erich Heckel, Nikki McClure). Comprising capsule biographies of 25 decidedly rad women, both widely known (Patti Smith, Angela Davis) and less familiar (Jovita Idár, Sarah and Angelina Grimke), and cleverly dispatching the X quandary by dedicating the entry to the unknown women of history, the unrecorded past, and the unknown events of the future to come, Rad American Women addresses many of urgent issues: racism, sexism, homophobia, gender, trans rights, the arts and activism, poverty, education.
Here is an interview with Schatz and Stahl from Michelle Tea over at Mutha Magazine.
Raising -- and teaching and otherwise contributing to the development and not-fuck-upping of -- children in the world is a terrifying and gratifying occupation, and as educators and parents themselves, Schatz and Stahl have clearly devoted considerable time and effort to finding ways to communicate these complex ideas to young readers and thinkers, in a way that stimulates conversation. Though the book is recommended for ages 8–16, I purchased a copy, reading -- and learning from -- it myself, but unsure if it would appeal to my oldest yet, who is now just a couple of months into Pre-K. The thing is, while we're doing what we can to raise our kids with nondiscrimination policies built into their moral charters, reality doesn't discriminate either, and even though our kids are young, we're all soaking in the patriarchy, and I've found that my oldest son is exposed more and more to pervasive stereotypes now that he's in school. So when he found Rad American Women sitting in my office and brought it to me to read, I was pumped to share it with him, even though I knew we would be digging into some tough conversations right before bedtime.
Once we'd finished "A is for Angela," and moved on to "B is for Billie Jean," my son stopped me and asked, "Are there any men in this book?" "No," I said, "It's all about women who have done important things in our country." He sighed and flopped dramatically on the bed: "That's so boring. Without men, it's just boring." Well, shit. I've never heard him say anything like that before (and he usually calls male-identifying folk "boys," anyway, so the "men" thing really threw me) but I tried to play off my dismay. "Do you think I'm boring?" "No." "Well, I think you'll see that these women are definitely not boring either."
When we reached "D is for Dolores (Huerta)," he was genuinely worried about workers having time off with their families and clean water to drink, and by the time we got to "E is for Ella (Baker)," and I gave him a brief explanation of the slavery Baker's grandmother had been trapped in, and how enslaved boys and girls had to work so hard, without school, without weekends or toys, without even any guarantee that they could stay with their families, he was really, really bummed out, but begging to keep reading.
We finished last night, spreading the 26 entries over three nights. At the end, my son asked why the entries were all just a page long because he wanted to know more and more and more. So we've ordered kidlit versions of biographies about his three favorites so far: Billie Jean King, Sonia Sotomayor, and Zora Neale Hurston. And will keep reading "X" three times more than we read any other page, I imagine.
And you can read this essay from Schatz explaining her eXecutive decision (sorry) at the KidLit Celebrates Women's History Month blog.
Besides creating a perfect addition to the collection of budding young feminists of all genders and the people who are helping them to grow into good humans, alike, Schatz and Stahl have included a handy resource guide in the back of the book for further reading and research, as well as an additional alphabetical list that suggests ways that readers can also be rad, such as learn from mistakes, make jokes, and, well, "X-ray everything! Learn what's inside." Which, held up among the anemic we-can't-think-of-any-x-words "X-ray" entries in alphabet books over the last century or so, is actually pretty solid advice.
November 11, 2015
In her 2013 entry in Granta's regrettably short-lived Best Untranslated Writers series (which may have been more accurately titled "Best As Yet Minimally Translated Writers," though def not as succinct/inciting to action-y), Valeria Luiselli relates her first, captivating encounter with the celebrated Mexican writer Sergio Pitol at the age of 15. She describes the writing of Pitol -- diplomat, writer, and translator from the Russian, English, and Polish into Spanish -- and the experience of reading him like so:
"His writing -- the way he constructs sentences, inflects Spanish, twists meanings and stresses particular words -- reflects the multiplicity of languages he has read and embraced -- and perhaps, too, the many men he has been. Reading him is like reading through the layers of many languages at once."
The precision of Luiselli's assessment is clear in this excerpt from Pitol's The Art of Flight, over at BOMB, (which, incidentally, contains one of the most gorgeous and animated descriptions of literary creation I've ever read, and I strongly encourage you to lose your breath over it ASAP). In it, Pitol reports on a hypnosis session that he hopes will cure him of his cigarette addiction, and his resultant insights, such as:
I jotted down in my notebook: “We’re a terrible mixture, and in each individual coexist three, four, five different individuals, so it’s normal that they don’t agree with each other”; it wasn’t relevant, but it soothed me; and with that news I fell asleep.
(I would feel remiss if I didn't mention that, in pulling together this post, I discovered that Pitol's hypnotist was the brother-in-law of writer Juan Villoro, whose short story collection, The Guilty, was recently translated by my former workshopmate, the excellent Kimi Traube, of which you can read an excerpt, the wry and wonderful story "The Whistle," here at Lit Hub, or purchase without a moment's hesitation here.)
A number of these previously un- or little-translated (into English) writers have been translated in the three years that have passed since the series began (including Guadalupe Nettel in our sister mag, Spolia). This is true of Pitol, as well, whose first two books in his Trilogy of Memory, The Art of Flight (El Arte de la Fuga) and The Journey (El Viaje), are now available from Deep Vellum Publishing, thanks to the seemingly indefatigable Will Evans. (Interview with Asymptote.)
Though Pitol has authored many books (26 to my reckoning), been translated into more than a dozen languages, and won both the FIL Literature Award in Romance Languages (formerly the Juan Rulfo Prize) and the Cervantes Prize, these are his first and second books ever translated into English, a task -- and a treat, I imagine -- undertaken by George Henson, a lecturer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign whose previous translations include Elena Poniatowska's The Heart of the Artichoke and Luis Jorge Boone's The Cannibal Night. (Interview also with Asymptote.)
And I'm hoping you share in my intense FOMO about everyone having a hell of a lot of fun when the US is out of the room, and equally intense gratitude to the literary translators and translation publishers of the world for opposing our insular tendencies.
Henson proposes that the reason for the absence of Pitol in English translation is likely severalfold and due in no small part to his complexity and transnational flavor. Variously billed as:
"sometimes difficult to follow" (Anne Poston over at Words Without Borders)
"unfathomable" (Daniel Saldaña París at Lit Hub)
"one of Mexico’s most culturally complex and composite writers" and "certainly the strangest" (Luiselli at Granta)
and "a tactful writer who masterfully handles hundreds of different subjects" by Matt Pincus in his review of The Journey in our latest issue of Bookslut, lest you fear you might be out of your depth with Pitol, Henri Lipton assures us in his staff pick over at The Paris Review that, while he may be a complicated writer with a zeal for many literatures, "Pitol is not a pedant, nor does the relative obscurity of many of his references distract from his vivid prose."
In his "An Ars Poetica?" from the January/February 2015 issue of World Literature Today, Pitol has soothing words for any of us who have ever felt that we were somehow intellectual dabblers, dilettantes even in relation to what we consider fiercest passions:
I was invited to attend a biennale of writers in Mérida,Venezuela, where each of the participants was to explain his own concept of an ars poetica. I lived in terror for weeks. What did I have to say on the subject?
Regrettably, my theoretical grounding, throughout my life, has been limited. [...] The truth is, I never got beyond the study of Russian formalism. [...]When I attempted to delve into more specialized texts, the so-called “scientists,” I felt lost. I was confused at every turn; I did not know the vocabulary. It was not without regret that little by little I began to abandon them. From time to time I suffer from abulia, and I dream about a future that will afford me the opportunity to become a scholar.
He goes on to expound, beautifully and fluidly, on his own poetics, giving us a guided tour of his inheritance from his many literary progenitors. But isn't it always a relief to hear a brilliant and accomplished person admit their lingering doubts in their own abilities?
Because uncertainty, skepticism, and the pursuit of complex understanding and multiple possibilities seem to be foundational to Pitol as a writer and as a person, I'll leave you with this explanation of what he aims to achieve with his narrators from "A Vindication of Hypnosis," which is just as good as direction on how to go about being a human in the world as it is on constructing a literary point of view:
He will come to know that absolutes do not exist, that there is no truth that is not conjectural, relative, and, therefore, vulnerable. But searching for it, no matter how ephemeral, partial, and inconstant it may be, will always be his objective.
November 8, 2015
2015 Daphne Awards
Herzog by Saul Bellow
To think that Herzog came out in 1964. What's more: Saul Bellow won the Nobel Prize shortly after that. Then came the Culture Wars and the onslaught of identity politics. And I think it´s safe to say Herzog, our brainy heteronormative male, didn´t make it out unscathed.
But that is not how Bellow, who referred to himself as "The Machine" would want us to think of Moses Herzog. He was fond of saying about realism, "Why that reality?" The reality of Herzog goes like this: married again, divorced again, married again, divorced again, progenerating endlessly, writing letters to people who will never write him back: canonical famous thinkers, sometimes family members.
One has the suspicion the novel is not only old but was old when it was first published. While he addresses the fad of psychology and addresses the breakdown of the institution of marriage, it never once accepts that it might not have been an ideal institution before the so-called "sexual revolution." The zeitgeist it intends to address for many had been a long time coming.
His fling with the Spanish archetype Ramona is close to unstomachable. Scenes go like this:
She walked with quick efficiency, rapping her heels in energetic Castilian style. Herzog was intoxicated by this clatter. She entered a room provocatively, swaggering slightly, one hand touching her thigh, as though she carried a knife in her garter belt.
Despite all of that, Bellow does slide in a few sentences that you can curl up with, only that you don't curl up with sentences, even if you admire them; you curl up with stories. The story in this case is muddled in ideas, which may be Bellow's point, but it's so tedious that it's almost unbearable to read another lofty rumination spewed from the plume of Moses.
This is a book, I'd offer, that has not aged well. Thankfully some things have changed. It´s no longer that easy to sympathize with someone who others might call a privileged womanizer, armchairing his way to the next boring letter to Brahms, or Beethoven, or fill-in-the-blank learnéd man. Don´t tell Woody Allen fans I said so.
by Jesse Tangen-Mills