Friday, July 25, 2014

The international mongrels of the world, the international bastards, the patriots of elsewhere

Polaroid portrait of Colum McCann at Taschen New York by Jeremiah Wilson 
In a conversation recently somebody asked me to describe my website, what I write about and why, and I found myself at a loss for words. Yes, this is an immigration blog but even though I often describe it as such, the definition doesn't always fit. At its core, the experiences that have moved me to continue to write over the years are the experiences of an immigrant: the person who leaves their country of national origin to seek better, broader horizons. But, to paraphrase Josip Novakovic, my immigrant saga has neither been touching nor difficult. In many ways, the experiences that I have had in this country have been joyful and nurturing. For the most part, my life in America has aligned with the lives of those with extreme privilege. So, when I feel discomfort about being here, weirdness about not being FROM here, embarrassment about where I am from or ambivalence about where ultimately I would like to end up, I tend to freeze. Perhaps my "issues", I wonder, are not immigrant issues. Maybe...they are psychological. Maybe... it's just me.

But I am now (the last person in the world to be) reading Colum McCann's magnificent Let The Great World Spin and came across an interview with the author in which he said:
I’m interested in what Ondaatje calls the “international mongrels of the world,” or what Rushdie calls the “international bastards,” all those people with no place and yet every place inside them. The best line I ever heard along these lines was from John Berger. I met him in Paris. We were both a little over-served, shall we say, wine and vodka, and I asked him where he was from. He looked at me strangely, as we are friends and we’d been corresponding a long time, and he said, “England, of course.” And I said in the most ridiculous way, “I know, I know, I know, but where are you from from?” He smiled that big smile of his, those eyes of his. He waited a long time and then he said that he was “a citizen—no, no, not a citizen—a patriot of elsewhere.”
An international mongrel, a bastard, a patriot of elsewhere. YES. That's me! But I read what I read, and write what I write to feel less like it's JUST me.

Friday, July 4, 2014

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO CRY OVER A BOOK?

Federico Zandomeneghi, The Reader

The Y.A. debate, in short, is about more than young-adult books and their not-so-young readers. It’s a recapitulation of a deeper debate that we’ve been having for centuries—a debate about why books matter to us, and what reading is “for.” It’s also a debate about who we want to be. Talking about what makes us cry is also a way of talking about ourselves. With each way of talking—sentimental, sensational, aesthetic—we say something different: that we’re kindhearted and empathetic, or passionate and romantic, or sensitive to beauty and the pleasures of art. Saint, lover, artist: surely these are all good ways of being. Probably, though, we’ll keep arguing about them forever. Nabokov was wrong; we never lose interest in the adolescent project of learning to live. 
Pelagia Horgan for The New Yorker 

Monday, June 16, 2014

What do you call Ghana-Must-Go Bags... in Eastearn Europe?


This question is provoked by the fact that I am currently reading Taiye Selasi's beautiful debut novel, Ghana Must Go . The book takes its title from the "Ghana-Must-Go" bags that, according to Selasi, were first used by Ghanaian immigrants forced to leave Nigeria in 1983. People had to pack all their belongings in a hurry and they used these cheap, sturdy bags that became known as "Ghana-Must-Go" bags. (According to Selasi, the term is embraced by Ghanaians.) So... my question for you is... what are these bags called in Eastern Europe? I have a vague memory that I read about them either in a Josip Novakovich or an Aleksandar Hemon book... and now I'm having trouble locating the reference! HELP!!!


UPDATE!!!
Discovered the (East) European equivalent of the "Ghana Must Go" bag: "Tuekenkoffer", i.e. Turkish suitcase. I also found out that in Hong Kong, people call these bags 'amah bags' because Filipina domestic helpers use them (especially when sending stuff back to the Philippines) - 'amah' being a Chinese word for maid/nanny. Now you know.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

KYLE COMA-THOMPSON:
If you’re ever wanting for a direct assessment of your talents, ask a Bosnian.

Photo: Kyle Coma-Thompson 

Tobias Carroll interviews Kyle Coma-Thompson for Vol.1 Brooklyn, whose new collection of short stories, The Lucky Body, is just out on Dock Street Press. I haven't read the book but the interview got me really intrigued. Apparently, Eastern Europe is at the core of several of the stories (and in Coma-Thompson's upcoming novel) and Carroll asked what attracted him to that setting. Here's his answer, in full (the bold is mine):
I’d say Eastern Europe was on my mind while I was writing these stories because three of my closest friends, whom I see regularly, emigrated from there, two from Bosnia, one from Romania. One of the Bosnians and the Romanian are professors of history, the other Bosnian is a poet. The poet was, in fact, the person who first suggested to me that I try writing stories. The reason? He hates my poems. If you’re ever wanting for a direct assessment of your talents, ask a Bosnian. They’ll put a swift end to any illusions you might be having. 
So when these friends and I get together, we drink. When we drink, we tell stories. The benefit of telling stories with a historian in the room is that you can often count on getting the long view of certain events and details. 
That said, I’ve gravitated towards the literature of Eastern Europe long before I fell into writing fiction. Miroslav Holub, Zbigniew Herbert, and Celan were some of the first poets whose writing was consistently engaging to me; the same for Bruno Schulz, Ivo Andrić, and Danilo Kiš, with fiction. Something about the formalist approach to socio-political subject matter had a solid, resonant appeal to me; and this, I think, is a general trait of Eastern European literature, or at least a trait common among those writers who have been translated into English and perhaps packaged that way, to feed into an aura of presumed cultural relevance during the Cold War period. 
No bullshit in a sharp, exacting style, with flair. I supposed that’s what appealed to me.
I love this answer and I think it describes the flair with which us Balkan people go about life and friendships. I just never really thought about our literature in that way but then again, my knowledge of Eastern European literature is pretty dismal. I am excited to pick up The Lucky Body and also maybe commit to learning my people's literature.

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Thursday, March 27, 2014

ELIF SHAFAK:
Identity politics affects the way stories are being circulated, read and reviewed

The writer and commuter James Baldwin gave an interview in 1984 in which he was repeatedly asked about his homosexuality. When the interviewer tried to pigeonhole him as a gay writer, Baldwin stopped and said, "But don't you see? There's nothing in me that is not in everybody else, and nothing in everybody else that is not in me." When identity politics tries to put labels on us, it is our freedom of imagination that is in danger. There's a fuzzy category called multicultural literature in which all authors from outside the Western world are lumped together. I never forget my first multicultural reading, in Harvard Square about 10 years ago. We were three writers, one from the Philippines, one Turkish and one Indonesian -- like a joke, you know. (Laughter) And the reason why we were brought together was not because we shared an artistic style or a literary taste. It was only because of our passports.Multicultural writers are expected to tell real stories, not so much the imaginary. A function is attributed to fiction. In this way, not only the writers themselves, but also their fictional characters become the representatives of something larger.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE:
The Writer as a placeless member of the Society of the Imagination

Photo Credit: Ian Williams for The National Post

Henry Krempels has a great interview with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie over at Daily Beast. He is particularly interested in the ways in which the city of Lagos inspires her writing. Adichi shares that Lagos gives so much to complain about and at the same time, so much to love... especially for a writer. For example, she says gets annoyed about sitting in traffic entirely too much and at the same time recognizes the endless possibilities for stories to write about that very same experience. Who are the people sitting and waiting with you? What is happening in their lives? 

Do you think it matters where a writer comes from when considering their ideas? Does the idea of place still exist for a writer?
It's nice to imagine it doesn't but it does. If you are a writer from a country like Nigeria or Pakistan or Sudan or Bangladesh, you are much more likely to be aware of where you come from because you'll have trouble with travel - the process of applying for a visa would itself make a short story. And it belies the idea of the writer as a placeless member of the Society of the Imagination. 

I wish I could put her in conversation with Jhumpa Lahiri.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

MOLLY ANTOPOL:
On the privilege of being American, on being nostalgic about dark times and the difference between writing about politics and writing political fiction.

The UnAmericans is Molly Antopol's first book and I say this with so much sadness because the moment I finished reading it, I wanted MORE. So, I went back and re-read my favorite stories from her debut collection. The three absolute stand-outs for me were The Quietest Man, in which a Czech dissident scrambles to make a living on adjunct gigs after the world has lost interest in his area of expertise (communism, communism's aftermath) and under the constant fear that his daughter will expose his poor parenting in the play she has just been commissioned to write. My Grandma Tells Me This Story is about Jewish resistance fighters in Belarus, a gaggle of teenagers who build a village and an army in an effort to survive. And last, but not least, I adored the closing story of the collection, Retrospective, in which an Israeli man travels back to Jerusalem for an art retrospective celebrating his American wife's grandmother. The journey is precipitated by difficulties in the marriage and complicated by the mystic figure of the grandmother and her extraordinary but not untroubled life. Of course, the moment I list these three stories as favorites, I start agonizing over my choice... because every single one of the pieces in the collection is just as powerful.

I talked to Molly via Skype in early March as she was taking a little breather from her book tour and I originally intended to transcribe and edit the conversation down to proper interview length. However, I had so much fun talking to Molly that I thought it'd be fun to share the actual conversation. The audio quality is not perfect but I think you will be charmed by the person as well as moved by the writer Antopol! If nothing else, PLEASE read the book!

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The UnAmericans is wonderful for so many reasons and, definitely, subject matter is one of them. Antopol is interested in the ways in which politics and grand historic moments affect the day to day existence of ordinary human beings. In her McCarthy Era stories, she tells a story of a surveillance state but through the eyes of those being closely watched. In A Difficult Phase, the life of an Israeli reporter working in Ukraine is interrupted by the financial crisis in the United States. But the stories are not didactic and you will actually find yourself wondering about the political opinions of the person who wrote so compassionately about such a diverse set of characters.

Because the stories are so firmly grounded to actual historic moments and locales, I wanted to know more about Molly's family - where they were from and what they did - and her experience of living in Israel.



As you read Molly's stories, you get a very keen sense of the ways in which geography, place and history have an impact on the way people move in the world. For example, you become aware of the subtle ways in which being American makes it so easy for Americans to travel and slide right into place anywhere in the world. Does that have to do with nationality or something else? Class? Privilege?



Speaking of careers driven by conflict, what happens if your entire life is defined by a conflict and then the conflict is gone? Can you be nostalgic about dark times? (These questions seem especially relevant in the context of various political conflicts we are baring witness to. Could Putin be missing the Cold War? Yeah, we lived in fear but we were relevant, weren't we?)



In the next clip, Molly Antopol talks about the research she did for The UnAmericans, traveling to Eastern Europe and Israel to learn about the people and places she was writing about and filling in the gaps when the person/location was no longer there. We also talk about the difference between researching facts and discovering truth. Bonus footage: Molly's dog Rocky makes an appearance and our dogs Lyudmila + Hamlet begin barking at him. Dog party! P.S. So sorry, Jennifer DuBois, for totally blanking out and forgetting your name. I adored Partial History of Lost Causes!

 

The next question is for the writers among you, I was really curious about Molly's writing process and given the diverse subjects and settings of her work, in particular, if she worked on a single story at a time.



Stylistically, what I love about Molly's stories is how novelistic they are. They span generations and locales, cover conflicts personal but also political... The stories really caught me off-guard because I really didn't know that short stories could be and do that. So this is the point in our interview where I had to admit my ignorance and just ask Molly if that was a common approach to short story writing. What I got was a fantastic answer and discovered a fellow lover of a good back-story AND a reading list. Get your pen out, you would want to write this down.



Since Molly mentioned it took her about 10 years to finish her book, I was really curious to know if in the process of writing, her stories would change. What happens to a story when you take a long time to write it? Do you come back to it to find that in your absence your characters have completely changed?



Here are Molly's thoughts on the difference between writing about politics and writing political fiction, a distinction that is important to her and really comes through in her work.



And here are some final notes on the upcoming translations of The UnAmericans in Europe, on saying good-bye to her characters and her next book project.



Thank you, Molly!
Thank you guys for reading!

Friday, March 7, 2014

INTERVIEWING MOLLY ANTOPOL

Photo CreditWenjun Miakoda Liang for Interview Magazine 

On Sunday I am interviewing Molly Antopol, author of The UnAmericans and total literary badass. I am not nervous at all. 

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

KATE ZAMBRENO's Heroines:
When she experiences it, it's pathological. When he does, it's existential.

Photo Credit: Jean Rhys, 1974 by Bill Brandt

Over the weekend, I devoured Kate Zambreno's book Heroines. The project is difficult to describe as it's quite unusual in terms of structure and genre. Some people have referred to the book as a critical memoir, which I suppose, is the most accurate way to talk about it. The book is a critical exploration of the "wives and mistresses" of the modernist area: their work and circumstances, their (often aborted) careers. Zambreno examines the biographies of Vivienne Eliot (T.S. Eliot), Zelda Fitzgerald (F. Scott Fitzgerald), Jean Rhys (Ford Madox Ford) to conclude that in many ways they have been diminished, pathologized and (almost-)plagiarized by the genius men they associated with. 

Zambreno approaches her subject through a very personal lens, weaving her own obsession with these women through the narrative and using it as a jumping point for reflection on her own relationship with her admittedly supportive husband and with her own writing. I align myself with a genealogy of erased women, she writes, which is the least convincing point she makes. Not because I don't believe her. The book makes it quite clear that she does. I am just not so sure why... as the autobiographical details lead me to more or less conclude that Zambreno has had a comfortable childhood in middle class Chicago, has received an excellent education (she says her journalism degree from Northwestern is "useless"), she is close to her parents who have supported her through her journey in sorting out her mental health issues and have encouraged her writing. So has her husband who sounds like a entirely decent human being and whose main flaw seems to be that he has chosen to work in academia. To borrow from her, it is difficult not to leave with the impression that she is being melodramatic and that she is pathologizing her own biography. Which is not to say that I don't absolutely agree with her contention that in the case of her modernist muses BUT also so much so today, still, anxiety often seems to be interpreted through gender: When she experiences it, it's pathological. When he does, it's existential. Have truer words been spoken?

Perhaps because it's what I've been thinking about recently... but I don't think that's why... I thought that Zambreno's most important questions are the ones she raises about the lived experience of being a writer and an artist. What does it mean to paint seriously, to write seriously? It is all about self-identity, and discipline, this audacity to believe that what one could possibly create is worth sharing with the world. And in doing so, she brings up a series of issues that have to do both with the daily labor of creating written work but also, of how it is received. For example, why is it that so very few female writers choose to write humongous doorstop-type thousand pagers? What does it mean to be published by a big publishing house versus a smaller, experimental press? How many major publications review books by women but also, beyond numbers, HOW are women's books reviewed? (And because Zambreno mentions she arranges her bookshelves by literary gossip, I have to admit how much I loved a section in the book that she discusses a conversation she has with a guy she'd messed around with, in which she casually-on-purpose mentions that her first book is about to come out and it's a novella with a small feminist press and he says, yeah, mine too and it turns out the guy in question is Adam Levin, whose debut novel The Instructions was published in 2010 to much critical acclaim and who's already beeing compared to Roth, Salinger, DFW and the like. I just wish I could give her a hug!)

So, I am telling you to read this book not because I liked it, which I did. I didn't love it but I liked it very much. I am telling you to read it because it will leave you with so much to ponder, so many questions to try and answer, so much evidence to seek. It will also leave you with a reading syllabus (a long one) and, in my case, a to do list:
• Start a diary, focus on describing the minutiae of daily life: needs to be remembered
• Look for novels based on fictionalized portrayals of actual historic figures: re-read Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife?
• Read all of Joan Didion: especially fiction, for narrative infused with style/fashion without being superficial.
• Read Muriel Spark
• READ JEAN RHYS


Wednesday, February 26, 2014

CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE:
I dress now thinking of what I like, what I think fits and flatters, what puts me in a good mood. I feel again myself.

Photo Credits: Sunday Alamba for the Associated Press
Fan-girling on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie today. Again. Adichie wrote a lovely piece for Elle.com, asking the seemingly obvious question of what's wrong with being a smart woman and loving fashion at the same time. I adore Adichie! She is smart, observant, emotional and passionate but not at all sentimental! In my wildest dreams, I even imagine us being friends. BUT one thing I have got to say about her and it's something that comes across through her writing but especially during her interviews: she is frighteningly sarcastic. In the Elle piece she shares an anecdote from a writing workshop in which a fellow (unpublished at the time) writer says about the instructor: “Look at that dress and makeup! You can’t take her seriously.” Adichie admires the woman and she finds her both brilliant and very graceful but hears herself quickly agreeing with her fellow-student. Yes, indeed, one could not take this author of three novels seriously, because she wore a pretty dress and two shades of eye shadow. Snort

This part here, though, just kills me: 
I am now 36 years old. During my most recent book tour, I wore, for the first time, clothes that made me happy. My favorite outfit was a pair of ankara-print shorts, a damask top, and yellow high-heel shoes. Perhaps it is the confidence that comes with being older. Perhaps it is the good fortune of being published and read seriously, but I no longer pretend not to care about clothes. Because I do care. I love embroidery and texture. I love lace and full skirts and cinched waists. I love black, and I love color. I love heels, and I love flats. I love exquisite detailing. I love shorts and long maxidresses and feminine jackets with puffy sleeves. I love colored trousers. I love shopping. I love my two wonderful tailors in Nigeria, who often give me suggestions and with whom I exchange sketches. I admire well-dressed women and often make a point to tell them so. Just because. I dress now thinking of what I like, what I think fits and flatters, what puts me in a good mood. I feel again myself—an idea that is no less true for being a bit hackneyed. 
I like to think of this, a little fancifully, as going back to my roots. I grew up, after all, in a world in which a woman’s seriousness was not incompatible with an interest in appearance; if anything, an interest in appearance was expected of women who wanted to be taken seriously.

To my Eastern European sisters reading this, is it time to bring back up the conversation about green eye shadow and red hair again? I think so. 


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