November 2009 Archives
I'm wondering about an idea for a possible scholarly article that explores the role of the city as a site of interpersonal misreading in contemporary Chican@ short fiction. Here's the basic notion. Displaced from the locating context of village, family, and homeland of origin, Chican@ characters on their own in the metropolis become subject to diminished legibility, misreading each other and/or being misread, sometimes to humorous effect but sometimes with devastating and violent results. I'm thinking particularly about stories that foreground the role of the city, such as Viramontes's "Cariboo Café," Chacón's "The Biggest City in the World," Troncoso's "My Life in the City," and this story, "Soy la Avon Lady," by Lorraine. In each, ethnicity, history, and identity are at stake. In each, there's some degree of alienation from Mexican culture. In each, individuals' spatial mobility plays a significant literal role in the story. How are all these facets working together?
And are there questions of genre to be asked? Why does this set of issues crop up so markedly in short stories? (Maybe it's just as prevalent in novels and poetry, and I'm not reading widely enough.)
I'm just kind of kicking this idea around, wondering what it means and what, if anything, I can/should do with it, in a scholarly way. If you're familiar with these stories and/or with the issues and want to respond with your take on it, please do. I'd really welcome your perspective.
And if you just want an entertaining and thought-provoking read, definitely check out "Soy la Avon Lady." I can't wait to hear what my students say about it tomorrow.
Thanksgiving is always hard for me. Not only is it another holiday I didn't grow up with and don't really know how to do (no warm associations from years past), but it's like the whole culture publicly fetishizes family togetherness, which has always been problematic in my scattered, shattered family. (At least at Christmas, there are little twinkly things to distract me from the whole synchronized social chant of family, family, family.) So it was nice to be a guest at someone else's Thanksgiving do.
I was thinking that maybe from now on, I'll throw a big Thanksgiving dinner at our new place (since it's walking distance from campus) for all the graduate students who can't afford to go home or maybe don't have a congenial home to return to. With a cracking full bar, damn it.
As I've looked ahead to moving into our gutted apartment, I can't stop thinking about the little area that's going to be my own study (once we can get the walls put up--by summer, maybe?). For the first time, a room with a door that closes! Heaven.
But what's odd is that, as I visualize how I'd like it to be, I keep being seized by this sort of Belle-Époque madness--visions of curlicued chandeliers and gold gilt and ridiculous little curvy chairs. (The study will be only 6' by 8', so not too many chairs. Not too many anything.) Think I'm kidding? Go here to see my recent fantasy world. It's as though my inner princess, now granted a tiny territory, is roaring out.
The strange thing is, I didn't even know I had an inner princess.
A little backstory: through roughly equal parts chance, choice, and necessity, I've never been a recipient of diamonds or other real jewelry, or furs, or a cool car, or exciting travel. (As if you didn't know.) The homes I've lived in have generally been cramped, drafty, falling apart, and far below the standard American standard, at least as exhibited in a million suburban McMansions and shown on HGTV. (Our current apartment is miraculous by comparison.) I have always loved them, though, and found them beautiful in their ways.
I try to dress nicely for work and do have a few relatively expensive things that I wear and re-wear to the office, but at home, I wear ten-year-old men's flannel shirts from a yard sale and jeans that rip and fade and fray the old-fashioned way: because they're worn out. No one has ever accused me of being a diva; in fact, good friends have chided me for failing to expect (read: demand) more for myself.
But I can't help it. Watching HGTV this past week (it was recommended when I told someone about the apartment, and now I'm practically an addict), when someone says, "I am just not feeling these tiles," or "This whole kitchen would need to be ripped out," I just laugh. Like: It works, right? The oven works?
So it's funny to watch this little streak of princess flare up. She's remarkably greedy and opinionated. Who knew she lurked within, like some dormant virus?
Well, she'll have to wait her turn, and she may be only a phase. We need to get Grey graduated, and that's not until May. By then, her imperious little scepter may have faded away. And I'll be more than content with a door that closes and a window that opens. (Even if it opens onto a multi-story parking garage. Downtown real-estate purchasers can't be choosers.)
I guess, reflecting back over the years, there's only one way that I've ever really been princessey: wanting a prince.
And a prince I am lucky to have had, and to have still. Seventeen years and holding; handsome, clever, and kind. A true Mr. Knightley--who doesn't mind a girl in an old flannel shirt.
Which is worth giving thanks for.
The great and gorgeous journal Water~Stone Review is accepting general submissions in creative nonfiction through December 1, 2009 (a postmark deadline), and you can go here to find out more about guidelines.
The Iota International Poetry Competition ends on November 30. They're accepting submissions online, and the prize money's nothing to sneeze at. Go here.
For a $45K, year-long fellowship at the American Folk Life Center at the Library of Congress for "original field research into the culture and traditions of American workers," go here. The deadline's November 30th, though, so hurry!
Here's an opportunity for you young social-justice junkies. If you are, or know of, a college sophomore or junior who would benefit from a 15-day summer institute in New York City designed to help progressive activists become public policy makers, go here. Students of color, immigrants, LGBT students, and working-class/low-income students are especially encouraged to apply. (Know a student who'd be great? Make a difference and send her or him to the site.) The deadline for this one's not 'til February 14, 2010.
Hope you have a chance to kick back and feel some love over the holidays!
If you're pondering what to put on the table this Thanksgiving (if you celebrate Thanksgiving), you might be interested in how Gary Steiner, professor of philosophy and "a really strict vegan," breaks it down.
From the other end of the spectrum, Jennifer Reese slaughters her own rooster and wearies of Jonathan Safran Foer's urban sighing. Pragmatic and unblinking, she writes:
From the age I could sit in a saddle, I knew what meat was. My grandfather and great-grandfather were ranchers whose land was suited for little but running cattle. From earliest memory, I accepted that a steer was also a steak the way I accepted that water was also steam. It seemed neither mysterious nor tragic. Animals died all the time in rural Wyoming, frequently for reasons that had nothing to do with us.(Her essay at The Week is only available to subscribers right now but should be generally available in about a week.)
There's more I wanted to tell you, but James just announced that our dinner--a delicious carrot-curry soup, coincidentally--is hot and ready. More soon!
On my way to work yesterday, two poems emerged in my head, most emphatically not like Wallace Stevens's, but very much (as you will see) about my reluctance to get to campus. For something different, I thought I'd just fling them up here, just for fun, unrevised and unpolished. The first one alludes to the fairy tale "Cinderella," and the second one reaches all the way back to when I was an undergraduate, and depends on a misremembering of some lines from Richard Wilbur's poem "Epistemology."
I also appear to have been quite partial to the oo-sound yesterday.
Oh, the sweet soft parts of self I've lopped
to stuff me inside the academy's shoe.
I am the unfit sister, sawing her flesh,
and the dove who follows the blood trail,
cooing the truth.We milk the cow of the world
and as we do
we say to her
you are not true,
read the sign on my advisor's door.
I don't, I thought. I lie
beneath the world cow's curves:
happy, drinking, crying Moo.
Secondly, fans of Tayari Jones--friend of the blog and friend to my life--will be thrilled to know that her eagerly awaited third novel, THE SILVER GIRL, has found a home at Algonquin.
Thirdly, Lorraine López's edited collection, An Angle of Vision: Women Writers on Their Poor and Working-Class Roots, is now available in paperback from University of Michigan. Congratulations, Lorraine! Full disclosure: the title essay is by yours truly, and the book grew out of a raucous panel at the AWP a couple of years ago called "Trashy Women," which some of y'all kindly attended, thank you much. (When over 400 people showed up, Lorraine knew she had a racehorse of a topic on her hands.) The book includes work by Dorothy Allison, Sandra Cisneros, Joy Harjo, Bich Minh Nguyen, Karen McElmurray, Heather Sellers, and other wonderful writers, including Lorraine herself and my own UNL colleague and friend Amelia Montes. If you've ever been struck by the weird dissonance of class friction--even if you're not a woman or a writer, and even if you didn't end up in academia or publishing--then this book will move you and make you laugh.
Lastly but not leastly--and this is strictly personal--my sweet husband James and I made an offer on a home here in Lincoln. It's a small condominium downtown, near where we've been renting for the past 2 and a half years, and it's definitely a fixer-upper, which is why we could afford to spring for it. We're very excited (or is that panic?); I'm not sure if the fluttery feeling is a product of my profound (post-Wabash) commitment-phobia, or due to the hideous old turquoise carpet and popcorn ceiling. (Alas, the decor is neither retro chic nor dazzlingly of-the-moment, but more like a pathetic from-the-land-time-forgot melange. But the location is killer.)
We should be in it by Christmas--the closing is during exam week. Help! If you have advice about moving, renovating, contractors, or anything related, please post!
It did feel a little weird. As I stood there, having words read aloud about the mentoring relationship I've had with Amara for these past couple of years, I thought, Amara's the one who should be here. She should be receiving this award, just for surviving her life. Only the cash bar helped to ease this ontological angst.
A lot of corporate donors were there, and I hadn't realized how expensive a program BBBS is: it costs approximately $1,000 a year to support each mentoring match (in terms of paying office staff to run background checks, handle paperwork, and do monthly check-ins with each member of every pair). But considering the payoff, it's not such a high price to pay. It's a program that changes kids' lives, and it's a worthy cause. If you have time (and patience, and you genuinely like kids), consider being a mentor. If you're short on time but have some cash and want to change a child's life, consider making a donation; BBBS has been thoroughly vetted as a sound charity.
In totally unrelated news, writer Charles Baxter was here on Monday to give a lecture and a reading. His lecture was on "lush style," and here are some quotable quotes (or rough paraphrases) for all you craft-talk gluttons out there:
In our own postmodern era, an era of irony, skepticism, and understatement, we live with an "aesthetics of suspicion." Only established writers like Angela Carter or Toni Morrison can get away with a lush style; in workshops, lushness is "vetoed" or "sneered at."
"If you want to be cool, you can't be lush. You can be one or the other, but not both."
Lushness is "undefended, naked, vulnerable, embarrassing." It is a "hot style" that "works out of a fever" and is given to "unstable self-dramatization."
It often "refuses to give up the past," and instead "superimposes the past on the present through lyric expansion."
Whenever two time frames are superimposed, there's the possibility of lushness. The lush style is nostalgic, backward-looking; Proust, Faulkner, Joyce, Woolf, Garcia Márquez, and Nabokov, especially in Lolita, are all practitioners of the lush style.
"When the claim is being made that everyone should believe in an emotion and agree with it, lushness veers into the overripe, the coercive, the fraudulent, the manipulative. It stops being poetry and becomes rhetoric."
"Lush styles are about fullness." They are about being open and unprotected. They believe in the possibility of transformational love. Irony, by contrast, is a form of protection, and it is possible that we are all, now, over-protected.
"In a trashy, duplicitous culture" (like our own current culture, apparently), "irony, a cold style," is the default. Since we are always being lied to, we are always skeptical.Those were the highlights of his lecture on style, as predigested for you by Joy. It was an unusual presentation; we were given a handout that began with 4 pages of sheet music by Rachmaninoff and instructed to follow along as the piece was played for us, which quickly separated the musical wheat from the chaff. (I'm definitely chaff on that score.)
I'm still thinking through the things Baxter said.
It's a lovely program, and I've enjoyed working with the wonderful, hand-picked adult students and with the stellar faculty. Co-teaching, first with Mike Steinberg (who founded Fourth Genre) and then with Randall Kenan, will remain a permanent highlight of my teaching career, and I've had the honor of working one-on-one with some truly extraordinary apprentice writers--warm, talented people I'll never forget.
But it was time to go.
My position at UNL is full-time (and sometimes much more than full-time, like this week, when we're reading 90+ applicant files for a position in Ethnic Studies). The weekends and evenings when I should have been writing were often slated for Pine Manor students' manuscripts.
While burning the candle at both ends used to be my MO, I'm 42 now, and skimping on sleep takes its toll. Perhaps just as importantly, I no longer feel comfortable skimping on my own work, putting it off to some indefinite future moment. I want every hour.
Even in an economic downturn, when I'm grateful to have work, working two jobs came to seem less and less tenable. Three years of doing so was just right.
I'll miss my friends, and leaving behind the pleasures of Pine Manor--especially those late-night, front-porch conversations, fortified by Laure-Anne-tinis and literary chisme (like summer camp for writing faculty)--brings its regrets, for sure, but stepping off into a new free space is invigorating. Wish me well!
And if you've ever, ever even once, dreamed of devoting more time to your writing and getting some serious, intensive instruction, I recommend Pine Manor without reservation. It's an excellent, solid, rigorous program, the faculty is just terrific . . . and the campus is soooo pretty.
November 2, 2009
Why Weren’t Any Women Invited
Publishers Weekly’s Weenie Roast?
Publishers Weekly recently announced their Best Books Of 2009 list. Of their top ten, chosen by
editorial staff, no books written by women were included. Quoted in The Huffington Post, PW
confidently admitted that
they're “not the most politically correct" choices. This statement comes in a year in
which new books appeared by writers such as Lorrie Moore, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Rita Dove, Heather McHugh and
absence made me nearly speechless,” said writer Cate Marvin, cofounder of the newly launched
national literary organization WILLA (Women In Letters And Literary Arts), which, since
August, has attracted close
to 5400 members on their Facebook web page, including many major and emerging women writers. “It continues
to surprise me that literary
editors are so comfortable with their bias toward male writing, despite the great and
obvious contributions that women authors make to our contemporary literary culture.”
WILLA’s other cofounder, Erin Belieu,
Director Of The Creative Writing Program at Florida State University, asked, “So is the flipside here that including
women authors on the list would just have been an empty, politically correct gesture? When
PW’s editors tell us they’re
not worried about ‘political correctness,’ that’s code for ‘your concerns as a feminist aren’t legitimate.’ They know they’re being blatantly sexist,
but it looks like they feel good about that. I, on the other hand, have heard from a whole lot of people—-writers and readers--who
don’t feel good about it at all.”
PW also did a Top 100 list and, of the authors included, only 29 were women. The WILLA Advisory Board is in the process of putting together a list titled “Great Books Published By Women In 2009.” This will be posted to the organization’s Facebook page and website. A WILLA Wiki has also been started for people to share their nominations for Great Books By Women in 2009. Press release to follow.
WILLA was founded to bring increased
attention to women’s literary accomplishments and to question the American literary
slow-footedness in recognizing and rewarding women writer’s achievements. WILLA is about to launch their
website and is in the process
of planning their first national conference to be held next year.
(Note: until recently, WILLA went under
the acronym WILA, with one
“L.” If you’re interested in the organization, please Google WILA with one “L” to see background on
how this group was originally formed.)
For more information contact:
Erin Belieu firstname.lastname@example.org
Cate Marvin email@example.com
Though the monetary award is only a token 10 euros, the prize brings tremendous international attention and prestige to the book and the author.
While I don't think you can yet get Trois femmes puissantes in English, the attention from the Goncourt should soon correct that. In the meantime, you can get NDiaye's novel Rosie Carpe from the University of Nebraska Press--the amazing little press that calls 'em first (as with Müller & Le Clezio on the Nobel).
Thanks to Cheryl Strayed for the heads-up!