Archive for November, 2017

The teenage Flannery O’Connor: “I have so much to do that it scares me.”

Wednesday, November 29th, 2017
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Flannery O’Connor with Robie Macauley and Arthur Koestler in Iowa, 1947. (Photo: Cmacauley/Creative Commons)

Image, a journal headed by the estimable Gregory Wolfe, has a scoop in its fall issue: the never-before-published college journal kept by writer Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964). According to Mark Bosco: “Four years ago my colleague Elizabeth Coffman and I embarked on a feature-length documentary about O’Connor’s life and work, and so we found ourselves at Emory University, where O’Connor’s archive had recently found a home. We already had over thirty hours of recorded interviews … It was time to see – and to touch – the physical objects of her life and photograph them for use in our documentary. We found in a box a Sterling notebook, standard issue for students in those days, inscribed ‘Higher Mathematics I.’ On perusing it we discovered an earlier attempt at a journal when O’Connor was just eighteen years old and already at Georgia State College for Women. She wrote her first dated entry during her Christmas Break, on December 29, 1943, and her last is marked February 6, 1944 – in all, a mere thirty pages. Reading it, you see O’Connor trying out the journal form as a way to examine her thoughts.”

It’s not online, so here is a short excerpt from “Higher Mathematics: An Introduction.” (And you can get a copy of the issue here.)

From the January 19, 1944 page in the journal:

I begin to wonder – what next? I have always wondered, but this wondering is different. This wondering sees me on the threshold of something or near it. I realize for the first time that all these knots must be untied – all this tangle unstrung – and me got out of the middle of it.”

I don’t like to write about things that make me lonesome. Yet they are so big – to me now. I hate to think of saying “goodbye” – the actual mechanics of the thing grieve me more than the loss. The way the rest will do – what they may say. If I should begin to feel sorry for myself – however erroneously – I could easily move myself to a liquid-eyed condition, and that would be disastrous. I have such an affection for myself. It is second only to the one I have for Regina [her mother]. No one else approaches it. I realize that joyfully just now. If I loved anyone as much or more than myself and he were to leave, I would be too unhappy to want myself to advance; as it is, I look forward to many profitable hours. I have so much to do that it scares me.

She was already beginning to experience the symptoms of lupus, which she mistook for arthritis. She was diagnosed with the disease, which had killed her father, in 1952, and lived for another dozen years – five more than expected. She died at 39.

Don’t put real people in your fiction! It could kill, says novelist A.S. Byatt.

Sunday, November 26th, 2017
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“Writers often realize the power of writing too late.” (Fred Ernst/Creative Commons)

A few days ago on these cyber-pages, Ursula K. Le Guin said, “It worries me for instance when writers put living people into a novel, or even rather recently dead people. There’s a kind of insolence, a kind of colonialization of that person by the author. Is that right? Is that fair? And then, when we get these biographers where they are sort of making it up as they go along, I don’t want to read that. I find myself asking, what is it, a novel, a biography?”

Her comments about how the imagination of children needed training was echoed in our subsequent post about poet Dana Gioia here. Now we find the eminent Le Guin seems to have channeled her colleague, the novelist A.S. Byatt. From a 2009 article in The Guardian: “I really don’t like the idea of ‘basing’ a character on someone, and these days I don’t like the idea of going into the mind of the real unknown dead,” said Byatt in an interview with the organisers of the Booker prize. “It feels like the appropriation of others’ lives and privacy. Making other people up, which is a kind of attack on them.”

In a more cheerful mood. (Photo: Seamus Kearney)

To tell the truth, her admonition would seem to be common sense for any principled person – not only because of the possible lawsuits, but just because it’s a kind of speculative gossip.

Yet Oscar Wilde appears in her own Booker-nominated novel, The Children’s Book. What does she have to say about that? Not the same thing, she said, because she “doesn’t say what he thinks.” Perhaps it’s because he’s been dead for awhile, too. However, we made something of the same case a few years back with Shakespeare in Love, and Shakespeare has been dead a lot longer.

The effects of such psychospiritual heist can be fatal: “I know at least one suicide and one attempted suicide caused by people having been put into novels. I know writers to whom I don’t tell personal things – which is hard, as these writers are always the most interested in what one has to tell,” Byatt said.

Even bloggers are to blame – modest, unassuming people, like Humble Moi: “Now we have the blog and the facebook everyone is a writer, and everyone’s idea of anyone else, kind or cruel, just or unjust, is available on the web, to be believed, or mocked. Blogs and facebooks, too, have caused suicides. Writers often realise the power of writing too late.”

Random strangers may kill themselves, but our families are deeply affected by our abstraction and neglect, too: “One impact of writing on families is that the writer has to spend long periods alone with a pen, and this time, and this attention, is taken from the family. I knew a writer’s family where the children buried the typewriter in the garden.”

The Book Haven is happy to report that no one has ever buried our MacBook Pro in the yard. No one has needed to. We’ve gone through five in the last year alone. They seem to bury themselves. Read the whole article at The Guardian here. Easy to criticize the excess, but … she does have a point.

How-to guides and texting aren’t enough: “Children, from the very earliest age, need to read stories,” says Dana Gioia.

Friday, November 24th, 2017
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Still on the road – but it may be some time before he gets to Lassen County.

Dana Gioia, California State Poet Laureate (and former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts), is continuing his mission to visit all of California’s 58 counties during his term. It’s not always easy: “I’m trying to go to Lassen County, but Lassen doesn’t have any libraries,” he said. “There are 3,000 people [in the county], and the person who runs the arts for the state there, it’s a part-time job. She also works as a forest ranger. In a lot of these places, I’m the first person who’s ever given a poetry reading.”

And some counties need to be visited more than once. For example, his home turf, Los Angeles County. At an event last week at California State University, Northridge, Prof. Robert Gohstand quoted from one of Dana’s articles, in which the poet claimed that  “literature awakens, enlarges, enhances and refines our humanity in a way that nothing else can.”

At the inaugural Sierra Poetry Festival last spring. (Photo: Radu Sava)

Dana’s remarks at the Northridge event reinforced what Ursula K. Le Guin said in the previous Book Haven post: that we need to train the imagination. “One of the troubles with our culture is we do not respect and train the imagination. It needs exercise. It needs practice,” she said (read the rest here).

In short, it’s not enough for kids to read cellphone texts, tech manuals, comics, wikipedia, or science magazines. They need to read literature.

An excerpt:

“The early experience of reading opens up something in an individual’s mind and imagination, which makes him or her begin to lead their lives differently,” Gioia said. “Children, from the very earliest age, need to read stories. They need to know how many possible outcomes any story has, how many characters, how many plot reversals. If you don’t train the imagination early on, it tends to be locked into a very narrow set of possibilities.

“It’s the books that capture the imagination that deliver the practical outcomes, rather than the books that are designed with cold-blooded pragmatism to teach people mechanical skills of reading,” said Gioia, who also serves as the Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California.

“Literature has the power to arrest the attention to create an empathetic connection as you’re reading, to use your imagination, to fill out the details,” he said. “That’s why reading is a more powerful imaginative exercise than watching a film. The debt that I owe to books, to public libraries, is immeasurable. It made a huge difference in my life.”

Read how libraries changed his life here.

Ursula K. Le Guin, going strong at 88: “I’m not a curmudgeon, I’m just a scientist’s daughter.”

Wednesday, November 22nd, 2017
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Slowing down? Pull the other one.

Ursula K. Le Guin is eighty-eight years old. Let that sink in: eighty-eight years old. She claims she’s slowing down, but not so much that she isn’t actively participating in the Library of Congress effort to collect and publish her collected works. “What I did not realize is that being published in the Library of America is a real and enduring honor,” she says. “Especially while you’re still alive. Philip Roth and I make a peculiar but exclusive club.”

We were delighted to see her interview at the Los Angeles Review of Books with the Pulitzer prizewinning New York Times journalist David Streitfeld (I describe the occasion of our meeting here.) He’s published his books of interviews with Gabriel García Márquez, Philip K. Dick, J. D. Salinger, and Hunter S. Thompson. Can Ursula K. Le Guin be far behind?

An intriguing excerpt from “Writing Nameless Things: An Interview with Ursula K. Le Guin”:

Malafrena (1979), the novel that is the volume’s centerpiece, takes place during a failed revolution in the early 19th century in an imaginary European country somewhere near Hungary.

It’s one of my works that is neither fantasy nor science fiction. So what do you call it? It’s not alternative history because it’s fully connected to real European history. There is no name for it. That’s my problem, I do nameless things.

It’s been a long journey for some of these books. Fifty years ago, they were originally published as SF paperbacks.

David’s won a few honors, too.

I’m not remotely ashamed of their origins, but I am not captivated by them either the way some people are. Some people are fascinated by the pulps — there’s something remote and glamorous in the whole idea of a 25-cent book. I am in the middle of rereading Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Michael is enthralled by the whole comic book thing. That is perfectly understandable and I enjoy his fascination, but my mind doesn’t work that way. I am into content. Presentation is something that just has to be there.

Fifty years ago, science fiction and fantasy were marginal genres. They weren’t respectable. In 1974, you gave a talk entitled “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?”

There’s a tendency in American culture to leave the imagination to kids — they’ll grow out of it and grow up to be good businessmen or politicians.

Hasn’t that changed? We seem inundated with fantasy now.

But much of it is derivative; you can mash a lot of orcs and unicorns and intergalactic wars together without actually imagining anything. One of the troubles with our culture is we do not respect and train the imagination. It needs exercise. It needs practice. You can’t tell a story unless you’ve listened to a lot of stories and then learned how to do it.

You’ve been concerned recently about some of the downsides of the imagination.

I feel fine as far as literature is concerned. The place where the unbridled imagination worries me is when it becomes part of nonfiction — where you’re allowed to lie in a memoir. You’re encouraged to follow the “truth” instead of the facts. I’m not a curmudgeon, I’m just a scientist’s daughter. I really like facts. I have a huge respect for them. But there’s an indifference toward factuality that is encouraged in a lot of nonfiction. It worries me for instance when writers put living people into a novel, or even rather recently dead people. There’s a kind of insolence, a kind of colonialization of that person by the author. Is that right? Is that fair? And then, when we get these biographers where they are sort of making it up as they go along, I don’t want to read that. I find myself asking, what is it, a novel, a biography?

Read the whole thing at the L.A.R.B. here

Poet A.E. Stallings in Athens: the children recall school bombings, massacres, and drownings at sea

Monday, November 20th, 2017
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A girl named Aqdas recalls those lost at sea.

Migrants have arrived in Greece since Hesiod’s time. Certainly, tales of treacherous Aegean crossings fill the pages of Homer. The poet A.E. Stallings has been a student of the classics since her Oxford days, but Homer and Hesiod didn’t prepare her for the hands-on experience of volunteering with refugees during the disaster that has engulfed Europe.

An Afghan girl recalls drownings

My article on her heroic work with migrants, “Crossing Borders” is currently the lead story at the Poetry Foundation website. I met the Athens-based Alicia Stallings, a MacArthur “Genius” fellow, at last spring’s West Chester Poetry Conference, where we discussed her experience being at ground zero of the immigration crisis.

An excerpt:

She would meet refugees at the disembarking areas and, with her friends, pass out shoes and serve food. Facebook groups spread the news that 2,500 people had arrived at Piraeus, survivors of the dinghies that washed ashore at the Greek islands of Lesbos, Chios, and Samos, and were moving on to Athens. Or that 20 families had arrived in the port and needed sleeping bags, clean clothes, food.

“It was quite unreal. Two thousand people walking out of a war zone, with muddy feet, poorly dressed,” Stallings said. “Some with wounds, others in fur coats or rags. If you had anything you would wear it. Some people would be coming out with wheelchairs; some were carried out. Others came with a dog or cat. Some had a taxi waiting to take them to a hotel. Others would be walking to Hungary.”

These were the lucky ones. As Stallings wrote in an epigram with a title almost as long as the poem itself: “From an autopsy report of an unknown drowning victim, Ikaria”:

Female. Nine years old. Found wearing a blouse,
And a pair of sweatpants patched with Minnie Mouse.

Epigrams were often the form she chose to express the horror and humanity of what was happening around her. “I wanted them to be sharp,” she explains. “Something that had distance, irony. The reality was too overwhelming for a sonnet. These are real people. The situation is bad enough that you don’t have to poetify,” she said, stressing the last word with a little self-mockery.

On land, the adults were bored and anxious, and the children more so. “The worst part is being in limbo and waiting. The uncertainty is really unbearable for people,” said Stallings. “This is their life. Instead of finishing their law degrees, they’re wearing ill-fitting shoes.” She remembered, in particular, a Syrian graduate student who felt his youth was being frittered away. From “The City”:

“I want to go to another land. I want to cross the border,”
The young man out of Syria said. “I’m tired of being stuck.
Sure, Greece is nice enough if you can get a job: good luck.”

“The saddest cases are men in their twenties. They don’t want to fight for Assad or ISIS. Their youth is being eaten—and they don’t know what will happen.”

Stallings and her friends brought supplies—crayons, Play-Doh, markers, bubbles, and pipe cleaners—to keep the restless kids busy as they waited day after day to learn their fate. “We’re the artists, we’re the painters, we’re the poets. We can do this,” she said. “I’m a mother; I can yell at kids in four languages.”

The Play-Doh, markers, and crayons ushered in a new era for the children. They may not have been eloquent in their native tongue, but were eloquent on paper. One drew a massacre he had witnessed and more than one drew those who have drowned at sea. Others illustrated bombings, one with the word “Assad” written on the aircraft. They made a case for immigration more heart-rending than any politician’s speeches.

Read the whole article here. Images courtesy A.E. Stallings and the “True Colors” Facebook page.

Children and adults are afraid of the sea now.

A Syrian boy recalls a school bombing.

The same Syrian boy recalls the maiming of a teacher at his school.

A child depicts a Turkish vessel firing a water cannon to try to sink a dinghy

Nobel prizewinner Liu Xiaobo is dead, his widow under house arrest. Now it’s illegal to sing songs about him, too.

Saturday, November 18th, 2017
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We’ve written before about Nobel peace prize winner Liu Xiaobo (here and here and here, among other places), who died last July in police custody from late-stage liver cancer, which received very, very late treatment from the Chinese authorities. They had ignored the increasingly desperate pleas for his treatment. His widow is still under house arrest. But that’s not enough. Now they arresting people who sing songs about the writer, poet, and human rights activist. The latest from Radio Free Asia:

The memory lives on: Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia

A Chinese musician detained since last September for singing about late Nobel peace laureate and political prisoner Liu Xiaobo has been formally arrested, while his collaborator has been forced to leave the city, where he has a job and a family, a rights lawyer said on Tuesday.

Singer-songwriters Xu Lin and Liu Sifang were being held in Nansha and Jiangxi respectively after they wrote songs for Liu, who died in police custody of late-stage liver cancer in July.

Xu Lin was formally arrested for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” on Nov. 2 while fellow singer activist, Liu Sifang, was released on bail.

“Without regular contact with his family and a lawyer, Xu Lin is at risk of torture and other ill-treatment,” London-based rights group Amnesty International said in a recent statement.

Rights lawyer Sui Muqing visited Xu in the Nansha Detention Center in Guangdong’s provincial capital Guangzhou on Monday, he said. “Picking quarrels and stirring up trouble is a charge pinned on dissidents and rights activists for what they say,” he said.

“The charge of picking quarrels and stirring up trouble has become one of the main charges used to crack down on freedom of speech,” Sui said. “Most people who get detained for posting something online are charged with this offense.”

Sui said Xu had requested not to have a lawyer, following a pattern set by other detained activists who strike a deal to plead “guilty” in return for more lenient treatment.

Xu top, Liu bottom

But Sui said Xu didn’t want to use up resources needed by others.

“The main reason was that he didn’t want to take up resources available to other people, not that he was refusing to hire a lawyer,” he said.

“She isn’t allowed to have contact with anyone outside the family, nor can she give interviews to the foreign media,” she said.

“The family have been very worried ever since they received the notice of formal arrest.”

She said Xu Lin hasn’t committed any crime.

“This case is all about the policing of free speech, in the spirit of the [ruling] Chinese Communist Party’s 19th congress [last month],” she said.

Meanwhile, Liu Sifang, in spite of being released on bail on the same charge, has now been forced to leave Foshan, where he lives with his wife and works at a private school, Sui said.

Next they’ll make the signs illegal.

“He lives with his wife in Foshan, and they both work at a private educational establishment there,” Sui said. “He had barely been back at work a few days when the Foshan state security police starting telling him to leave town.”

“Not directly, of course, but they put pressure on him via his employer, who had no choice but to tell him to leave,” he said.

Liu Xiaobo died weeks after being diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer, and repeated requests from his family to seek medical treatment overseas were ignored.

His wife Liu Xia, who has never been charged with any crime, remains under house arrest and continual police surveillance in spite of continued international calls for her unconditional release.

Police have since detained a number of activists who staged memorials in Liu’s honor, including Zhuo Yuzhen, detained in Guangdong’s riverside town of Jiangmen for taking part in a seashore memorial a month after Liu’s passing.

Zhuo Yuzhen, who hails from the southeastern province of Fujian, was formally arrested by police from his hometown and has been sent back to Guangdong to face investigation and prosecution.

Copyright © 1998-2016, RFA. Used with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036

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