Thursday, April 20, 2017
If you're near, I hope to see you. It's free, but a RSVP is hoped for.
That night a rumor spread that over two hundred migrants had been incinerated when the cinema burned down, children and women and men, but especially children, so many children, and whether or not this was true, or any of the other rumors, of a bloodbath in Hyde Park, or in Earl's Court, or near the Shepherd's Bush roundabout, migrants dying in their scores, whatever it was that had happened, something seemed to have happened, for there was a pause, and the soldiers and police officers and volunteers, who had advanced into the outer edges of the ghetto pulled back, and there was no more shooting that night.
Saeed for his part wished he could do something for Nadia, could protect her from what would come, even if he understood, at some level, that to love is to enter into the inevitability of one day not being able to protect what is most valuable to you. He thought she deserved better than this, but he could see no way out, for they had decided not to run, not to play roulette with yet another departure. To flee forever is beyond the capacity of most: at some point even a hunted animal will stop, exhausted, and await its fate, if only for a while.How lucky I have been to spend the last few weeks reading and re-reading books that teach me. Books that have forced me to ask myself what it is I think I am doing with my writing life...and what I should be doing. Paul Lisicky's The Narrow Door (unspool time to find the truth). Dana Spiotta's Innocents and Others (the novel as document, the document as story). George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo (be unafraid to do the things that will, inevitably, be questioned). Paulette Jiles's News of the World (make history now, make details crackle). Claire Fuller's Swimming Lessons (there are always many sides to one story). Debbie Levy's Soldier Song (picture books, the best of them, are as smart and as well-researched as anything on the adult table). Vivian Gornick's The Odd Woman and the City (memoir is as much about what you've thought as about what you've done). Amor Towles' A Gentleman in Moscow (nothing wrong, nothing at all, with a good, old-fashioned hero set down inside a good, old-fashioned, finely told story).
Did I murder Elmer? the woman said.Goodness, that's fine stuff. It's proof, like the work of Dana Spiotta (whose new Innocents and Others I celebrate here), that you can write way the heck out of expected forms and still land on the most humane story of all. That's not just a lesson for novelists, my friends. That's a lesson for memoirists. That's a lesson for people in general.
You did, said the Brit.
I did, said the woman. Was I born with just those predispositions and desires that would lead me, after my whole preceding life (during which I had killed exactly no one), to do just that thing? I was. Was that my doing? Was that fair? Did I ask to be born licentious, greedy, slightly misanthropic, and to find Elmer so irritating? I did not. But there I was.
And here you are, said the Brit.
Here I am, quite right, she said.
The girl still didn't move. It takes a lot of strength to sit that still for that long. She sat upright on the bale of Army shirts which were wrapped in burlap, marked in stencil for Fort Belknap. Around her were wooden boxes of enamel washbasins and nails and smoked deer tongues packed in fat, a sewing machine in a crate, fifty-pound sacks of sugar. Her round face was flat in the light of the lamp and without shadows, or softness. She seemed carved.I have more to share. I'm on a roll. I'll soon be reading Amor Towles's A Gentleman in Moscow, and after that some Vivian Gornick and after that Tim Winton, and I won't be done. We can't be done. Not with this.
It was when you surrendered to a piece of music or a story. By reclining and closing your eyes, you could respond without tracking your response. You listened. The opposite were the people who started to speak the second someone finished talking or playing or singing. They practically overlapped the person because they were so excited to render their thoughts into speech. They couldn't wait to get their words into it and make it theirs. They couldn't stand the idea of not having a part in it. They spent the whole experience formulating their response, because their response is the only thing they value.Here, later on in the book, are thoughts about being an artist:
It is partly a confidence game. And partly magic. But to make something you also need to be a gleaner. What is a gleaner? Well, it is a nice word for a thief, except you take what no one wants. Not just unusual ideas or things. You look closely at the familiar to discover what everyone else overlooks or ignores or discards.My friend Thomas Devaney was at the reading last Wednesday night. He had Spiotta's novel in his hand, but no words for it. It's just that good. It's just that wise. There's no actual point in talking about it.
What difference does it make to writers of stories if public figures are denying their responsibility for their own actions? So what if they are, in effect, refusing to tell their own stories accurately? So what if the President of the United States is making himself out to be, of all things, a victim? Well, to make an obvious point, they create a climate in which social narratives are designed to be deliberately incoherent and misleading. Such narratives humiliate the act of storytelling. You can argue that only a coherent narrative can manage to explain public events, and you can reconstruct a story if someone says, "I made a mistake," or We did that." You can't reconstruct a story—you can't even know what the story is—if everybody is saying, "Mistakes were made." Who made them? Everybody made them and no one did, and it's history anyway, so let's forget about it. Every story is a history, however, and when there is no comprehensible story, there is no history. The past, under these circumstances, becomes an unreadable mess.Incredible words, right? Written as if they erupted just yesterday, but they did not. Burning Down the House was first published in the 1990s, and Baxter begins this chapter, called "Dysfunctional Narratives," by talking about Richard M. Nixon.
Perhaps from gladness at escaping that harangue and at remembering how everyone is vulnerable to hardship, a tenderness welled up in me toward all the living. I found a stillness within our transitory state, relishing the passing folk intent on business or recreation, and loving the familiar clip-clop of horses, freshly curried and brushed, as they pulled grocery wagons house to house, stopping to deliver milk or ice or bread. The odors of meals escaped through windows, and hunger cut into me.Jill Santopolo's The Light We Lost (on sale in May from G.P. Putnam's Sons) is a book about right now, a story about a woman's undying love for the man who knows and loves her best, but is never quite hers. This is a novel steeped in the melancholy of what might have been, a narrator who writes of her personal history from a suffused and brokenhearted present. This is a story that ponders the porous and saturating nature of love—the lines that can't be crossed, the lines that are, nonetheless, crossed. It is a novel of what if's, and it can't be helpeds. Lucy cannot rewrite the past, and maybe she doesn't want to rewrite or negate the past, even if the past hurts, even if the present cannot free her from her past. Short chapters, look back and ahead at once:
Sometimes we make decisions that seem right at the time, but later, looking back, were clearly a mistake. Some decisions are right even in hindsight. Even though everyone told me not to, and even knowing what happened afterward, I'm still glad I moved in with you that snowy day in January.Why is it that books that break our hearts are books we love to read? Jill's book raises this question again, in all of the best ways.
Many Philadelphia writers have a felt responsibility to incorporate historic city texts into the conversations that swirl today. As part of that process, work is underway to publish the Philadelphia freedom texts that were read on January 15th during the WritersResistPHL gathering (more that gathering here). Interested in researching and sharing and, indeed, applying additional texts? Ask questions.
Many writers are concerned about purported proposals that would eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Those who would like to participate in drafting a petition or speaking to representatives or framing the importance of the arts to legislators or patrons have an opportunity to get involved.
The Philadelphia-area writers traveling to the AWP conference in Washington, DC, hope to put on a united front—to get to know each other, to advocate with each other, to make a difference together. If you're planning on spending time at the AWP and would like to help organize a united front, check in through the email list.
Philadelphia-area writers and artists and musicians seeking to strengthen the power of their art and the utility of their concerns would benefit from collaboration and conversation with other similar groups across the city and nation. Start or join a conversation about linking your actions/our actions to the work of others via the list.
On April 1, on the Widener campus, an undergraduate-focused Writers Resist program will feature the voices of the young from campuses across our area. If you are a teacher or a parent who knows of undergraduates who would like to read or speak (or if you are an undergraduate!), ask questions.
Every protest march, every protest poster, is ultimately local. Politics happens on a local level, too—through locally elected representatives. Gerrymandering, in the words of the non-partisan organization Fair Districts PA—results in "politicians ... choosing their voters, rather than voters choosing their politicians." One of the most important acts of change will come from those who effectively speak up and out with the tools provided through this organization. There are resources out there. Ask.
If we're going to speak or write or be active, we have to have the facts. Many texts, articles, resources were noted today. If you were one of those sharing links, please share them via the list. If you have additional links to share, please do add those as well.
Many literary journals and bloggers have platforms through which to speak, or platforms from which they might now speak. Among those discussed at today's meeting were Cleaver, which offers a "Life as Activism" segment, the Shockwire Chapbook series developed by The Head & The Hand Press, and mainstream publications. Additionally, there is the Write Our Democracy program, noted above, created by the national WritersResist program—an opportunity for you to write an immigrant's story.
What do writers do? They write. Who can writers help, on a volunteer basis? Those who need some writing done. There are resources out there listing organizations in fields ranging from science and the environment to health care and immigration that could all use a voluntary press corps. If you'd like to help with this, or if you are an organization in need, let your interests be known.
Independent bookstores are sanctuaries, no matter the time of day or the season. But such bookstores have a special role to play today. If you are interested in helping bookstores develop material that might be shared with patrons, get involved.
Many individual writers and artists are hosting speakers, unveiling new exhibits, and launching books at this time—all opportunities to go beyond the typical book launch or lecture or show to bring people together and raise funds for the greater good. If you would like to help manage or create a single listing of such events, please ask questions on the Facebook page. If you would like to help develop a tool kit that might be disseminated at signings and events, please let us know.
Writers will only be effective as a group if the group mirrors our societies as a whole. Today we heard from two women who have embarked on a project designed to help them truly know each other. But what more can be done to ensure that the group that gathered today is sufficiently diverse in all ways? We'd love your ideas.
There was, believe me, more said and proposed and hoped for today. But this, I think, gets us started. I'll conclude this blog posting the way our meeting ended, with words by Calvino, as read to us by Ann de Forest, from Six Memos for the Next Millennium, written in 1985. Excerpting from the excerpt: "Think what it would be to have a work conceived from outside the self, a work that would escape the limited perspective of the individual ego, not only to enter into selves like our own, but to give speech to that which has no language, to the bird perching on the edge of the gutter, to the tree in spring and the tree in fall, to stone, to cement, to plastic......."
... This Is the Story of You—has been awarded the distinction of being a VOYA Perfect Ten 2016. Each year, VOYA Magazine compiles reviews of titles that were awarded a 5Q and a 5P into our annual Perfect Tens list. VOYA’s unique rating system is the only one that weighs both literary quality and teen appeal equally, a distinction that is of great interest and use to those charged with ordering and collecting reading materials for teens.This list is relied upon by librarians and educators around the country (and the world) in their selection of titles to add to library and classroom collections. It is an invaluable tool to our readership, and a lofty honor to those authors and publishers whose titles are selected.The full reviews of all of the Perfect Ten honorees are included in ordering databases/systems of some of the largest book wholesalers and library jobbers in the country, for both public and school libraries. The complete listing of this year’s Perfect Ten reviews will be available to all on our website (www.voyamagazine.com), including the full reviews and book cover graphics. VOYA will be publicizing this year’s list via Facebook and Twitter. We are also publishing these reviews in our sister journal, Teacher Librarian.As reviews editor, I understand how difficult it is for a title to receive a perfect 10 rating from one of our reviewers. In fact, out of more than 1,100 titles reviewed last year, only 33 titles were awarded this honor. That’s less than 3% of all titles reviewed. Our reviewers are cautioned to consider and re-consider a number of issues before deciding on a 5Q 5P rating assignment for a book. It is not a designation given lightly—nor is it given by novices. Our reviewers are seasoned library and education professionals who work directly with young adult readers and have a broad base of understanding and appreciation for YA literature.In sum, a VOYA Perfect Ten is a laudable accomplishment that very few titles can claim. Congratulations again, and thank you for allowing VOYA to be part of celebrating your outstanding contribution to YA literature.