Friday, January 19, 2018
Playwright Lynn Nottage won her first Pulitzer Prize for this play, commissioned by and premiered in November 2008 at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. The back of the book reproduces the songs created for the play, musical composition by Dominic Kanza, lyrics by Nottage. The music for “You Come Here to Forget” is fast, using lots of black keys, while “A Rare Bird” has a chord-heavy left hand and a thinly-picked out treble overlaid. The set for this play is a seedy, well-used bar in a small mining town close by a rain forest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Congolese government soldiers and rebels broken into factions all patronize Mama Nadi’s bar and her “girls,” the women contracted to her because they were run out of their own families after kidnapping and repeated savage rape by one of the warring parties. All have been psychologically damaged by their experiences, but they usually try to support one another within their current confinement in Mama Nadi’s bar.
The heat is made apparent by the repeated calls for a cold drink, whether beer or Fanta is a matter of some debate. Mama Nadi makes her living offering libation to fighters, and she is proud she has managed well for so long. She does not appear to be afraid. She has regular customers, including a supplier who one day brings her some girls, including one who is “ruined.” Her captors had used a bayonet to rape her; she was in pain, she couldn’t pay her way, and her future was dim.
Mama Nadi is a businesswoman, not a bleeding heart, but upon learning that Sophia can read, sing, and keep accounts, Mama reneges and accepts her into the fold to work essentially as slave labor. The exploitation of one by another happens everywhere everyday in this patch, roiling beneath the surface, and only breaking through on special occasions, like the one that comes near the end of the play.
That occasion comes shortly after we learn of a breathtakingly grotesque act of revenge perpetrated on a nearby mission for suspected betrayal. The tension level at Mama Nadi’s skyrockets when the government troops there learn they just missed by minutes the rebel leader they have been hotly pursuing. Anything which brings on the wrath of either warring party may easily tip into something more dreadful than death.
This extraordinary play is a work of witness to the suffering of the people of the Congo who are pawns in the drama that constitutes their lives. The wealth of minerals in the Congo is paradoxically proving to be a greater curse than a blessing, and the curse has lasted for such a long time. The story is drawn from life: in the back of this book are photographs of the women whose story this is.
Originally conceived as a remake of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage, the play took on an entirely different character after Nottage met a group of survivors in the DRC when she visited with collaborator Kate Whoriskey, who writes the introduction to this volume. However, the word 'ruined' survives from Brecht; both the meaning and the interpretation changes several times during the play.
Stage directions allow us to picture this play as it unfolds, to imagine actors, to envision our own rage. However easy it is to conjure up these images, it must be a particularly rich experience to see the work performed. Its simplicity of expression paired with a complexity of human emotion may be the thing that raises this play above its fellows. Definitely worth seeing it performed, the work is ultimately redemptive. But read it if you must, as I have.
This interview with two main cast members also has video of the Washington, D.C. performance where you can hear a bit of the music.
Below is a slide show of the production in Boston, with original music:
And music & clips from the Berkeley performance:
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Thursday, January 18, 2018
The Homeric epics are said to be the greatest martial stories ever sung or written of all time, so if for some reason they did not resonate for you in high school, you may want to revisit what your teachers were talking about. When they describe the death of a man in the full bloom of his strength looking like an flower in a rainstorm, head and neck aslant, unable to withstand the beating rain, we understand. I listened to the audio of Stephen Mitchell’s streamlined translation, and it was utterly ravishing and compelling.
The Iliad is one episode among many in Homer’s epics, and it may have been assumed that listeners of the original spoken performance would be familiar with all the players in this war. It is argued by some, including British scholar M.L. West, that The Iliad has had pieces added to it over the years. Stephen Mitchell follows West’s scholarship and strips out the extra passages, a notion expanded upon in a review of Mitchell’s translation by classicist Daniel Mendelsohn in The New Yorker (2011). Mitchell’s translation may be the most readable, the most listenable one in English. It is also the shortest. Mitchell also shortens the lines in English so that they have speed and momentum for an impressive delivery.
The recent (2017) Peter Green translation, begun when Green was nearly 90 years old, is similarly easy to read; Green tells us that he began in a relaxed attitude for diversion and completed the whole within a year. Colin Burrow reviewed Green's translation in the June 18th 2015 edition of the London Review of Books. Neither the writing or the reading of this version is anguished or tortured, and Burrow points out that Green was a historian but didn't allow that to obfuscate or weigh down the poetry.
The Green & Mitchell versions both retain a long recitation of those who prepared their ships to sail with Agamemnōn to Troy to bring back Helen, the wife of Menelaös. One imagines ancient listeners shouting when their region is named, much along the lines of the cheering section of a field game, when each player’s name is called. And later, as the blow-by-blow of the battle proceeded, one imagines each region cheering when mention of their leader is declaimed, though some died horrible deaths.
This is another reason to read this ancient work: We live and die not unlike one another, we who lived so far apart in time, and perhaps the ardor young men of today have for the sword and for fame will be doused by the utterly desolate manner of death recounted here, one in particular that I cannot forget: a spear through the buttock and into the bladder meant a painful and ugly death. However, it is true that Achilles chose fame over life, knowing that his exploits in Troy would mean his physical death but his fame amongst men would be sung for “thousands of years.”
One wonders how the ballad was delivered—in pieces or over a period of days—perhaps in sections by different singers? Caroline Alexander, after a lifetime of her own research into the Homeric epics argues in The War That Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer's Iliad and the Trojan War that the work certainly required days to recite, and may have been performed in episodes. The length of the piece now suggests the work was once short enough to be memorized, with a few repeated lines leaving headspace for the singer's invention and modification as befits the oral tradition.
John Farrell in the Oct 30, 2012 edition of the Los Angeles Review of Books to untangle the English translations and sort them for clarity and poetry. Those of us who love this work will read all the versions, especially the fascinating introductions to each in which the translators themselves wax eloquent about what they loved about it. Mitchell's introduction is especially accessible and impelling: I couldn't wait to get to the story.
I have read reviews of people who prefer Lattimore, Fagles, Fitzgerald, or Lombardo translations and all I can say is I’m not the one to quibble about great works. Daniel Mendelsohn "graded" four translations in the article discussing Mitchell's translation. It must be a curse and a blessing both (for one's self and one’s family both) to understand ancient Greek and to feel the desire to translate Homer. All the questions any editor/translator must address, e.g., spelling, which edition is ‘original,’ more poetry or prose, whether to render the translation literally or by sense…how exhausting the decisions, but how fantastically exciting, too.
One last observation is that the men in this epic were mere playthings of the gods, gods that could be cruel, petty, jealous, and vengeful. These gods were helpful to individual men or women insofar as it helped their cause vis à vis other gods. There was striving among men, but most of the time human successes or failures had less to do with who they were than with who they knew. Was it ever thus.
※ Mitchell: Paperback, 560 pgs, Pub Aug 14th 2012 by Atria Books (first published -750), Orig Title Ἰλιάς, ISBN13: 9781439163382; Audio Pub: Simon & Schuster Audio, 10/11/2011, Unabridged, ISBN-13:9781442347311
※ Green: Paperback, 544 pgs, Pub May 14 2015 by University of California Press, ISBN13: 9780520281431
※ Alexander: Paperback, 608 pgs, Pub Sept 13 2016 by Ecco, ISBN13: 9780062046284
※ Fagles: Paperback, Deluxe Edition, 683 pgs, Pub Apr 29 1999 by Penguin Books, ISBN13: 9780140275360
※ Fitzgerald: Paperback, 588 pgs, Pub Jan 2 2004 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, ISBN13: 9780374529055
※ Lombardo: Paperback, 574 pgs, Pub Mar 12th 1997 by Hackett Pub Co, Inc., ISBN13: 9780872203525
※ Lattimore: Paperback, 599 pgs, Pub Nov 15th 2011 by University Of Chicago Press, ISBN13: 9780226470498
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Wow. Every bit as earthshaking and meaningful as Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, this graphic novel by Craig Thompson published in 2003 by Top Shelf is one thoughtful Americans do not want to miss. Christian evangelical notions of life on earth and what comes after are a huge part of the narrative of our nation. Even today when our population is more diverse than ever, the history of these core beliefs within our citizenry continue to affect the direction of our politics.
Teenagers instilled with these notions rarely have the intellectual wherewithal to question those received ideas. Paradoxically, perhaps because of those early teachings and the constraints of his upbringing, the author--the main character in this memoir--has the discipline and strength to look squarely at his life, the beliefs of his parents, and think again.
This graphic novel won two Eisner Awards, three Harvey Awards, and two Ignatz Awards in 2004 and a Prix de la critique for the French edition a year later. A strict Christian evangelical family raises two sons in rural Wisconsin; we watch the boys grow up from sleeping together in the same room/same bed they move to their own rooms, go to summer camp, get harassed at school, romance a girl.
Sometimes graphic novels get a few things right, like the artwork, or the pacing. In this case, Thompson seemed to get everything right. The growing up story is poignant and real and revealing about farm life in Wisconsin in a close-knit religious family. Craig goes to visit his girlfriend Raina who lives in the snowiest city in the contiguous United States, in the Upper Peninsula of far north Michigan....in winter. We are treated to Raina's home life as well, another Christian family who struggles under enormous pressures.
Graphic novels are especially impressive because they must portray characters from an endless array of angles, and in this case, we recognize a character as he grows over a period of years. Moreover, we are feeling that character struggle with the promises and constraints of his religion and the actual manifestation of those teachings that he can see. When Craig’s pastor suggests he consider a religious calling, Craig seriously contemplates the idea.
The graphic novel drops into lower gear here and we see the quality of the intellect behind the work. Craig’s thinking and research into the Bible is Jesuitical, deep and challenging, and he is left with too many unanswered questions and lingering doubts. Different mentorship probably would have produced a different result. This portion of the book is careful, allowing Craig to slip away, leaving the door to his family open, and conflict at bay.
I especially appreciated the belly laughs he led us to near the end of the memoir when some of the church elders in his hometown warned Craig not to consider going to art school, lest it lead him to sin. Our hearts nearly break with what the teen will miss if he doesn’t follow his passion, but again he manages to avoid confrontation while following his dreams.
Thompson has continued his remarkable success, and in 2011 Pantheon Books published Habibi, a book Thompson had begun working on in 2004 after traveling in Europe for a time. Influenced by Arabic calligraphy and Islamic mythology, Thompson tells us "I'm playing with Islam in the same way I was playing with Christianity in Blankets.” [Wiki].
Below I have posted two videos of Thompson demonstrating and discussing his work. The first is short and covers his childhood and all books. The second is a 56 minute interview, with slides, of Thompson discussing Habibi. This man completely knocks me out; I am wowed by his work, and the depth and scope of his intellect. Highly recommended.
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Sunday, January 14, 2018
Reni Eddo-Lodge no longer wants to talk to white people about race because white people always manage to make the conversation about themselves. Isn’t this the original definition of a bore? This would actually be funny if it didn’t have such deadly consequences for people of color everywhere.
“Discussing racism is not the same thing as discussing ‘black identity.’ Discussing racism is about discussing white identity. It’s about white anxiety.”Eddo-Lodge is British and this book evolved from an explosive blogpost of the same title that she wrote in 2014 and which is reproduced in full in the Preface to this volume. Contrary to her explicit desire to stop talking to white people about race, she has become a national and international spokesperson and spends most of her time talking to white people about race. Is there a lesson here?
Eddo-Lodge divides her commentary on the subject of race into seven chapters, the first of which, “Histories,” details her awakening to the realization that she knew very little about black British history until her second year at university. That moment of awakening, the moment Ta-Nehisi Coates also details in his own book, Between the World and Me, is a thrilling one in the life of an writer/activist. After that moment comes the hard work of study and making connections.
“We tell ourselves that good people can’t be racist…We tell ourselves that racism is about moral values, when instead it is about the survival strategy of systemic power.”Chapter 2, “The System,” tries to describe the way racism looks today from the point of view of those discriminated against in Britain, and the excuses made to paper over any actual discussion of the problems. This is where the insistence upon merit and the way the conversation always turns to white anxiety is most apparent. Chapter 3, “What is White Privilege?” surprises us with the assertion that
“White privilege is never more pronounced than in our intimate relationships, our close friendships and our families… Race consciousness is not contagious, nor is it inherited. If anything, an increase in mixed-race families and mixed-race children brings those difficult conversations about race and whiteness and privilege close to home (literally) than ever before.”I’d always assumed that mixed race families had the advantages of understanding around issues of race, but Eddo-Lodge tells us that many families are not having the conversations they need to have, difficult and raw though they may be.
“It makes sense that interracial couples might not want to burden themselves with the depressing weight of racial history when planning their lives together, but a color-blind approach makes life difficult for children who do not deserve this carelessness.”There is so much in this short book that I have to urge everyone to get their own copy. The insights come fast and furious from this point on. For some white people, Eddo-Lodge asserts, “being accused of racism is far worse than actual racism.” That resonates in today’s America, and could as easily be said about sexism. When addressing feminism and racism in Chapter 5, "The Feminism Question," Eddo-Lodge may present her most eloquent arguments, including a discussion about the need for black feminists to meet separately:
that [white gaze] “does so much to silence you...And there's an element of just speaking the truth of what it means to be a black woman in the UK that it would be ridiculous, as a white person, to not read that as implicating you."In direct relationship to the cogency of her arguments, her shortest chapters are the most fluent, insightful, and well-argued. At the end, Eddo-Lodge uses a Terry Pratchett statement as her final chapter heading: "There is No Justice, There is Just Us." In this chapter she reflects our questions right back out at her audience.
“White people, you need to talk to other white people about race….white people who recognize racism have an incredibly important part to play. That part can’t be played while wallowing in guilt.”Apropos of this exhortation, a racial justice educator based in Boston, Debby Irving, wrote a book on race primarily for white people, called Waking Up White, detailing her experiences waking up to an unconscious racism. I agree with her that we need to learn to speak this new vocabulary of race if we want to enjoy the benefits of diversity. Eddo-Lodge, despite her exhaustion talking about race with white people, is doing her part.
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Monday, January 8, 2018
I have a new favorite poet and and I can’t stop thinking about her work. But you have to hear her speak the work to get the full impact so therefore below I have attached a video of Oswald reading the first poem in this 2016 collection, called "A Short Story on Falling."
I have learned that this appears to be Oswald's ninth book of poetry, and that her second book, Dart, won the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2002. According to her wiki, Oswald "is a British poet from Reading, Berkshire. Her work won the T. S. Eliot Prize in 2002 and the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2017. In September 2017, she was named as BBC Radio 4's second Poet-in-Residence." It is absurd to fall in love with language again, but here I am, helpless in her hands.
Her visualizations are unforgettable. In "You Must Never Sleep Under a Magnolia," we learn of "shriek-mouthed blooms" and the first flowering like a glimpse of flesh. And what of
Old scrap-iron foxglovesOr what about "Tithonus: 46 Minutes in the Life of the Dawn" whose characterization of Tithonus reminds us of another babbling old man:
rusty rods of the broken woods
what a faded knocked-out stiffness
as if you'd sprung from the horse-hair
of a whole Victorian sofa buried in the mud down there...
--from Evening Poem
It is said the dawn fell in love with TithonusAs it happens, just when I discovered this unbeatable voice, I learn that she and another newly discovered favorite author, Kei Miller, will be speaking together, in a month, at the same venue in England, as part of the Bath Spa Poetry Series:
and asked Zeus to make him immortal, but forgot
to ask that he should not grow old. Unable to die,
he grew older and older until at last the dawn
locked him in a room where he still sits babbling
to himself and waiting night after night for her appearance.
It is enough to bring the dead to life. What I wouldn't give to hear these two... ♬♪ If I were a rich man ♬♫
Listen to Oswald reciting her poem, "A Short Story on Falling," from memory:
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The poetry of Alice Oswald is preternatural…preternaturally gorgeous, preternaturally immediate and relevant and precise. We want to sink into that language and be in that bright place—perhaps not to live (among the flashing swords), but to die there, amongst one’s brethren, with poetry read and songs sung in one’s honor.
Everything about this book is beautiful, and new and bright and contemporary. The Afterword written by Eavan Boland answers all the questions one has while reading this wholly original poem, this ‘oral cemetery’ memorializing the men who fought the Trojan War. I am tempted to suggest you read the Afterword first, but no, of course you must proceed directly to the glory that is the language exploring the feel of the Iliad, a story with so many deaths, so many deaths of young and old and brave and foolish and handsome men.
EPICLES a Southerner from sunlit LyciaOswald gives the names she memorializes at the beginning of her work and then proceeds to tell in startlingly immediate language, how exactly they met their end, or some tiny biographical note that makes them, contrarily, come alive.
Climbed the Greek wall remembering the river
That winds between his wheat fields and his vineyards
He was knocked backwards by a rock
And sank like a diver
The light in his face went out…
…Even AMPHIMACHOS died and he was a rarity
A green-eyed changeable man from Elis
He was related to Poseidon
You would think the sea could do something
But it just lifted and flattened lifted and flattened.
EUCHENOR a kind of suicideThe ancient critics of the Iliad praised its ‘enargeia,’ or ‘bright unbearable reality.’ And that is exactly how we perceive the language Oswald gives us: all the bright young brave men, all dead.
Carried the darkness inside him of a dud choice
Either he could die at home of sickness
Or at Troy of a spear wound
His mother was in tears
His father was in tears but
Cold as a coin he took the second option…
ECHEPOLUS a perfect fighterOswald strips the narrative from the oral tradition and gives us a kind of lament poetry aimed at translucence rather than translation. She wants to help us see through to what Homer was looking at. But the context is remarkably unnecessary. It is about young men at war. We understand immediately, sadly.
Always ahead of his men
Known for his cold seed-like concentration
Moving out and out among the spears
Died at the hands of Antilochus
You can see the hole in the helmet just under the ridge
Where the point of the blade passed through
And stuck in his forehead
Letting the darkness leak down over his eyes.
And IPHITUS who was born in the snowThe poetry of war. Breathtaking. Heartbreaking.
Between two tumbling trout-stocked rivers
Died on the flat dust
Not far from DEMOLEON and HIPPODAMAS
Alice Oswald reads a portion of Memorial
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Sunday, January 7, 2018
One reason this debut novel succeeds so very well are the layers. It can be enjoyed by teens but just as well by adults. Race, religion, ethnicity, family dynamics, growing up, sexual awakenings, being harassed, winning admiration, feeling out of place, making friends and losing them…all these things are eloquently addressed in the hip hop slang of a white boy trying to fit in a primarily minority school in Boston. He is twelve and on the cusp.
Graham-Felsen gets the awkwardness and uncertainty of twelve just right. The time is 1990s Boston before the explosion of high-speed internet and we are treated to the excruciatingly slow process of downloading color jpegs, presumably from dial-up modems. The segregation in Boston schools does not feel so distant, however. The white-black friendship between David and Marlon, our narrator and a boy in his class, always feels a bit tentative and unsure, just like the boys themselves.
On an ordinary day, most of us might not be rapt listening to the thoughts of a twelve-year-old for nearly three hundred pages, but David’s jive language adds a layer of complexity to the picture that completely works. We understand that he uses this language with his friends and peers and not with his parents, two Harvard-educated hippies now living with their two sons in Jamaica Plain. The Arnold Arboretum, one of the largest collection of plant species from around the world, is part of David’s walk to his ‘ghetto’ school so that he can avoid the housing projects where he has been harassed.
Everything about the setting, the characters, the situations ring true. Dave’s parents believe in public schools so they won't consider a private school for David but instead encourage him to win a place at Boston Latin, the best public school in the city for grades 7-12. Dave and Marlon both have their sights set on Harvard because of the money they could make: just a look at the statistics for heads of corporations and heads of state tell them a Harvard degree is stone cold gold.
But Graham-Felsen adds the spice—that layering again—by having a teacher looking to show the boys what’s possible bring them to meet a city councilor who graduated Harvard and who has some pretty harsh things to say about the experience. The city councilor is black and knows that Harvard’s aura of success mostly works for whites but less well for people of color.
Another of Dave’s classmates, Jimmy, is Vietnamese and living in what Dave calls a real ghetto in Chinatown. One day Jimmy surreptitiously shows Dave a switchblade he’d brought to school; Dave considers getting a blade like it for his own protection, and so visits Jimmy’s ‘crib.’ This scene is painfully realistic and beautifully rendered. Jimmy knows there is practically no chance he will get into Boston Latin because of the quotas for Asian students. Reverse quotas.
All of this rich material is artfully mined by Graham-Felsen. It never feels heavy handed; the absurdity of the blond white boy speaking inner-city lingo just lightens the whole experience, even when we have reason to feel sadness, for example when considering that members of both Dave and Marlon’s families struggle with a mental illness diagnosis. Dave’s younger brother refuses to speak for a reason never revealed, and Marlon’s mother may be bipolar or schizophrenic. The families deal the best they can, both very differently, naturally.
The very best parts of the novel may be those sections that are not about being white, but are about being black: when Dave convinces Marlon to help clear snow to make some loot, most of Dave’s old customers don’t answer the door when Marlon rings the bell. Or the time the boys are invited to a party in a nice section of Jamaica Plain and are followed by a cop car as they walk. Or the times Marlon wants Dave to just figure it out why he does not want to get caught doing something even marginally illegal, or why he does not want to pick up recyclable cans at a Harvard reunion, or why he has never entered the gates at Arnold Arboretum despite the fact it is free to everyone, or why he doesn’t want to attend an exclusive arts camp in New Hampshire for the summer.
Finally I know the answer to the joke about what the whitest thing I ever did is. Everyone will have their own answers, and it is worth spending the time to figure out what your answer would be to this question. The novel is a triumph of noticing, of seeing color and speaking of it, as well as a paean to youth, to curiosity, to seeking, to becoming. I hope everyone gets a chance to weigh in on this one--it's a real conversation starter. Families can read it together. It’s a crossover novel on many levels.
Listening to this book is a terrific way to enjoy the language. Brilliantly read by Prentice Onayemi and published by Random House Audio, this book is available for Whispersync. The book is a fast read, and I moved between the two. Beaks & Geeks, a free Random House Soundcloud podcast, posted an interview with Graham-Felsen that is really worthwhile. Graham-Felsen also wrote a short piece for Lit Hub that is worth a glance.
Below please find a short PRH Open Book Event YouTube video by Sam Graham-Felsen about his background and the book. He is a magnetic speaker, and just as good on the page. Enjoy.
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