Saturday, January 31, 2009

Nadeem Aslam is like a James Joyce in 2004

Nadeem Aslem’s 2004 novel "Maps for Lost Lovers" is an extraordinarily book. Aslam, a Pakistani English writer, is similar to Joyce in his amazing use of the English language, his obsession with exile, and his concerns with lovers suffering from society’s repression.

Aslam was born in Pakistan, but moved to England when he was 14 because his father, who was a Communist, a poet, and a film director, had to flee President Zia’s regime which was torturing dissidents. Exile is one of the great themes for Aslam exiled from Pakistan as it was from Joyce who self-exiled himself from Ireland. In the novel the Pakistani immigrants call their English town Dashte-e-Tanhaii the Wilderness of Solitude or the Desert of Loneliness to symbolize their exile from Pakistan. They give all streets in their English town Pakistani names. Despite white racists, they create their own rich culture in England.

The novelist interweaves the stories of the immigrants' lives in Dashte-e-Tanhaii with their past lives in Pakistan as he recreates a new fictional universe of Pakistan England. No main characters are whites. In fact, some of the main characters hardly speak to whites at all. Just as Joyce was the first to capture the city Dublin and Dubliners in English fiction, Aslam recreates brick by brick the Pakistani English world in fiction including traumas of the past such as the riveting scene where the main character’s grandfather was a victim of British brutal attack to put down a rebellion in English India.

The novel’s hero and heroine are a mismatched married couple: the secular, cosmopolitan former-poet former Communist Shamas is married to the pious Muslim Kaukab. Though the novelist clearly sides with the husband Shams, he brilliantly brings alive the wife who is the greatest character in the novel. Since her three children have rebelled against her, she deeply suffers their absence. Though husband and wife love each other, they have been at odds ideologically for so long their marriage is more a war zone than a haven. While Shamas has had a good education and works as a social worker, his wife barely speaks English and spends her life isolated within home. Kaukab is a some ways a tragic character.

The novel interweaves the stories of four pairs of lost lovers into their story of the alienated husband and wife. Kaukab like the other pious Muslims constantly try to arrange marriages for her children, but the younger generation rebel against arranged marriage to fall in love with taboo partners. Falling for the wrong person is a tragedy as old as Romeo and Juliet but Aslam manages to make the tragedy current.

Shamas's brother Jugnu and his lover Chanda were living unmarried in Dashte-e-Tanhaii in England. Chanda’s parents married her off to a new immigrant who disappeared, so she is unable to get divorced according to Muslim law. Now Jugni and Chanda have disappeared. After their disappearance some said Chanda’s brothers killed them in an honor killing while others say the two lovers will return. The novel is part detective tale as the story of what happens to the lost lovers slowly unravels. The second pair of lost lovers is Kiran, a Sikh, who years ago in England fell in love with a Muslim Pakistani. His family split up the two lovers but they yearn for each other for decades.

A third story of lost lovers interweaved in the novel is a Hindu boy and Muslim girl in Dashte-e-Tanhaii. The girl’s family attempts to break them up, calling the girl posessed. The final pair of lost lovers is the book’s hero Shamas who has long been married to Kaukab but who falls in love with Suraya who disappears.

Just like Joyce imported Irish sensibility into the English language, Aslam has imported a Pakistani sensibility into English. The novelist has said, “I wanted every chapter of Maps for Lost Lovers to be like a Persian miniature. In these miniatures, a small piece of paper … holds an immense wealth of beauty, color and detail. Trees have leaves each perfectly rendered. Flowers are moments old and the tilework of the palaces and mosques is lovingly detailed. That was the aim in Maps...” Sentence by sentence he recreated Persian miniatures of astonishing loveliness celebrating the lighting, the butterflies, the lakeside near where his characters live—celebrating the whole natural universe. The novelists celebrates Urdu poets, Persian minatures, dissidents, Pakistani traditional foods, women using henna. Just like Joyce gave his Irish an immensenly rich inner life, so does Aslam for his Pakistani characters. Aslam is in love with being Pakistani only as those who have suffered exile can love their missing country.

This novel tells a spell binding tale of what happens to all the lost lovers. By the end we know how families have been destroyed and reunited. Lovers are killed but love reaches beyond their deaths. Just as Joyce brought alive the rich life of Dubliners into English fiction, Aslam has recreated with subtlety, compassion and brilliance in English the world of Pakistani immigrants. The novel is heartbreaking, dazzling, and original.

Friday, January 23, 2009

We Sudy California

I’m going to Berkeley today for the meeting of the California Studies Association based in Berkeley:

I am a board member. We study California and have an annual conference In April trying to connect academics who study California, politicians, community activists, writers and artists. Last year the conference was called “Changing Climates: Class, Culture, and Politics in an Era of Global Warming.” I did a panel on new California fiction, and my panelists were novelist/poet Owen Hill taking about his detective novel The Chandler Apartments set in Berkley dealing with conflict between bohemians and yuppies; poet/playwright Judy Juanita reading poetry and discussing her plays; and novelist/journalist Rip Rense discuss his second novel The Oaks about a boy growing up in the 1960s in a brand new superb of Los Angeles trying his survive his hostile stepmother and alcoholic father.

This year the conference is will be at De Anza College in Cupertino, Silicon Valley, on Friday April 24: “an attempt to orient the vision of the Silicon Valley away from the entrepreneurial, boosterist narrative, and toward the history and culture of the political economy and its communities.” For the conference I read many novels written about Silicon Valley discovering yes, indeed, this area has a fascinating new literature. Some of the writers I discovered are novelist/journalist Po Bronson whose novels I reviewed her; journalist/short story writer Pauline Borsook, who wrote a wonderful non-fiction critique of Silicon Valley culture Cyberselfish; and novelist Pat Dillons’s The Last Big Thing, a wonderful satire on the dotcom bubble.

CSA also has frequent free dinner/talks in Berkeley where authors about California books talk along with free dinner. I’ll post the information soon for the next dinner/talk.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Janis Ian Tells All

Janis Ian became famous at fifteen years old in 1966 when her song "Society's Child" about an interracial love affair became an international hit. Her new autobiography "Society's Child" is a fascinating tale about her decades long struggle both with her personal demons and against her record companies. Her early success led to extreme personal turmoil and to her record company exploiting her; her story makes the reader look at the dark underside of how the American music industry works.

Ian is very frank about her childhood made up of equal parts personal trauma and musical riches. Her father was first a poor farmer and then a struggling left-wing Jewish high school music teacher who lost job after job when the FBI spoke to his bosses. Further, as a young adolescent she was molested by her family dentist. She grew up feeling a cultural outsider and a sexual victim, speaking about these traumas to no one.

Yet her family gave her a rich musical upbringing. Her father had started teaching her piano when she asked him to at age two and a half. Her doting parents encouraged both her reading and her music. Her parents sent her her to left-wing music camps where leading folk musicians such as Pete Seeger, Richie Havens, and Bernice Reagon were roving music counselors. Ian got exposure and connections in her early performances in the folk music clubs in Greenwich Village, but she rejected folk musicians' distrust of the big recording industry and pushed early for mainstream pop music success and fame like her idol Bob Dylan had.

She did enjoy parts of her meteoric early success such as befriending her music idols, but her life fell apart fast. Her parents fragile marriage couldn't deal with their daughter's success: she made more in a month they did by working all year. Her father charged her mother with infidelity and divorced her, soon fleeing across country. Ian felt angry at her mother, deserted by her father, and without any family, coping with the pressures of her record company to immediately produce a new album and tour tour tour. She never questioned why even though her first album was a hit she wound up owing her recording company $100,000. Instead of questioning, she crashed, got pneumonia, and had a nervous breakdown--at this point she looked like her friends Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix who lived hard and died young. Instead Ian fled music to work seriously with a therapist in Philadelphia. Her therapist helped Ian for the first time get in touch with her feelings which helped her song writing tremendously, but she was broke and a music has-been at 21. She was still alive.

During her twenties Ian repeated the whole cycle again: years of working writing songs and touring for spare change; signing with a major label and putting out albums which got her an Grammy award; touring relentlessly; her personal life exploding; and then the crash at 32. Again and again she chose to fall in love with people who leeched off her and then deserted her or attacked her. Like other young musicians from Elvis to Kurt Cobain big success seemed toxic to Ian.

Also, since Ian was 15 she had let her manager, lawyer, and tour agents make all her career decisions, so in her 30s she was stuck in a horrid contract she hated producing an album an year for seven years with a grueling tour schedule thrown in. She then walked out of her CBS contract. Since she was 15 she had let her accountant totally handle her money; when she was in her thirties the IRS went after back taxes her accountant hadn't paid; also she found out he had been stealing from her. She wound up alone, divorced, and totally broke as the IRS took a million dollars from her. Ian lays out why a famous musician could also wind up really miserable and broke.

What's remarkable is that Ian is a survivor. She moved to Nashville, got a new therapist, restarted her career and met a new woman with whom she had an adult, stable relationship. In her forties she began to seriously ponder how she had always lusted for fame and had always followed the "established pattern; manager, major label, make a record, tour behind it." Following this pattern had let to her physical and mental crashes. In 2002 most of the music industry was bemoaning how downloading songs on the Internet was hurting them, but Ian wrote an article "The Internet Debacle" saying that musicians needed the Internet to promote themselves and that the industry angered customers by charging high prices for albums they made cheaply. Many in the recording industry attacked her for this critique.

In a second article she suggested a new business model of "downloadable music, video clips, links to artists websites .... " A year later Apple was beginning to do as she suggested. She started her own record label "Rude Girl," produced her own albums, managed herself, and was for the first time she felt getting fairly paid for her recordings. She had put into practice her idea about being a musician in charge of her life and without a major record label. She found living better.

Rather than crashing until she died, Ian found a way to live with herself and with her music. Her book looks squarely at current debates in the music industry, arguing that the old way of operating was horrendously costly to musicians and fans alike so new ways would be better.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

"The Exception": a Danish novel about genocide, women, and the office

Danish writer Christian Jungersen's 2nd novel "The Exception" was a bestseller in Europe and won a major Danish literary prize. Published in English in 2007, the novel uses a thriller format to investigagte the psychology of evil among Danes.

The novel focuses on four women who work for the Danish Center for Information on Genocide (DCIG), an archive of material about genocide open to the public. The four women all think of themselves as good people--human rights workers, people who care.
Danes have always prided themselves that during World War II, they were the exception to the rest of Europe who handed over their Jews to the Nazis as the Danes were the only country to save their Jews on principal.

The four women in the office think they carry on the Danish tradition of goodness. Malene, the program manager, helped her best friend Iben get the job as head of public information at DCIG; both are attractive university graduates in the late twenties. Camila, the secretary, and Anne-Lise, the librarian, are in their forties, married, with children. All four feel lucky to have their good jobs at DCIG because many university graduates have no jobs. Yet Malene, Iben, and Camilla have been harassing Anne-Lise, the newest one, for some time in the office. Malene seems to be the ringleader, taking away part of the librarian's job after the previous librarian quit and still continues to do part of the librarian's job after Anne-Lise is hired.

In the beginning of the novel three of the women get death threats, and they think Mirko Zigic, a Serbian war criminal on the loose somewhere in Europe, is the culprit as Malene and Iben have articles on the Internet condemning Zigic. The police soon loose interest in the case, so the women are left alone with their fears. Paul, the head of DCIG, is often absent trying to make sure his small center isn't swallowed up by a larger government institute so rumors of layoffs swirl around the office. Malene, Iben, and Camilla would rather not think about the war criminal sending them email death threats, so they decide Anne-Lise, who has begun to express anger over her harassment, has sent the emails. The office becomes divided into warring factions; paranoia increases. The women do outrageous acts--spy on each other, spread untrue rumours, try to get Anne-Lise fired.

Jungersen tells the story alternating the voices of the four women so one is first appaled by the woman's behavior and then one sees her viewpoint. Each woman has her vulnerabilities. Malene is battling with rheumatoid arthritis, is afraid her boyfriend will leave her, and is afraid of layoffs. Iben was recently kidnapped in Africa and acted heroically rescuing the other kidnap victims but has post-traumatic stress and is extremely paranoid. Camilla was bullied terribly as a child and is hiding the fact she had a war criminal Serbian ex-boyfriend. She will do anything not to be bullied including bullying another person. Anne-Lise is terrified if she loses her librarian job in the bad economy she'll never get another librarian job in Denmark.

At the same time Iben, the intellectual center of the book, is publishing articles about the psychology of evil in genocide which are reprinted in the novel, but the office women never see the obvious parallels between their behavior and the behavior of those who commit war crimes. Iben writes about the book "Ordinary Men" by American professor Christopher Browning which argues that German soldiers participated in genocide not in obedience to authority but out of loyalty to peers--peer pressure. Yes, office politics, particularly in economic recession, can get vicious, but does it have the same psychological elements as genocide?

At one point Iben steals Anne-Lise's CD, which is a diary of her suffering at the office. After reading the diary, Iben for the first time sympathizes with Anne-Lise; in the office next when Malene starts the harassment of Anne-Lise, Malene turns to her best friend Iben for support. Iben knows she no longer participate, but breaking ranks would meaning losing Malene, her best friend who got her the job. Iben breaks ranks, supports Anne-Lise. Malene starts screaming at her. Iben has proved to be the exception.

The novel is not over. The novelist increases the tension as the women learn about Camilla's war criminal ex-boyfriend. Is he the one sending emails? Will Camilla now be the odd one out at the office? "The Exception" is a gripping novel that interrogates in tough times who will do evil acts? Who will be the exception?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

"Lady of the Snakes"--a novel of the modern American woman

Rachel Pastan's 2008 novel "Lady of the Snakes" has its heroine Jane Levitsky, a contemporary American woman who is trying to start a career as a literary researcher and university professor, raise a young child, and having a loving marriage. In the novel trying to be a professor, mother and wife at the same time is difficult, very difficult.

The heroine finds herself pulled apart from the multiple stresses of being mother, wife, and professor. Levitsky founds herself pregnant in graduate school on the East Coast but her woman thesis adviser is not sympathetic to her pregnancy. After the baby is born the heroine struggles with working at her dissertation while always lacking sleep. Her family is far away in California so they can't help her take care of the baby. The problems worsen at her first job teaching at the University of Wisconsin.

Pastan brilliantly describes the multiple stresses on young mother-new college instructor. She can't afford any household held but a babysitter. One babysitter quits without any notice. It's hard to find a daycare center the heroine likes. Her department is unsympathetic to her childcare crises, and one professor tells her its "unprofessional" to talk it. Taking caring of her child, her husband, and her new teaching job leaves the heroine no time to do research for the book she needs to keep her job. She constantly has to put aside her research to take care of child, her husband, and her students. Her marriage starts to fall apart.

The novel is also brings alive the heroine's fascination with her research about 19th century Russian novelist Grigory Kharvov and his wife Masha. The heroine wants to write a new view of the ignored wife Masha, wants time to delve into Masha's dairies, wants to see if Masha had literary talent. The novelist interwines the stories of two couples: the 19th century Russian novelist and wife Masha with the 21st century American academic Jane and her husband. The young professor Jane Levitsky clashes with the male dominant professor Sigleman who thinks only the male Russian novelist is important not his wife. The novel brings alive the clash of ideas in literary research and even the ruthlessness in making careers and putting down your rivals. Can the heroine stand up to ruthless people like the male professor Sigleman to question theories and ideas she disagrees with?

"Lady of the Snakes" is a good novel that compares with A.S. Byatt's novel "Possession," a brilliant work about two late 20th century English academics--a man and a woman--researching a famous male poet and woman poet in 19th century England. In both "Lady of the Snakes" and "Posession" the modern heroine is searching for literary foremothers to give her courage.

Byatt magically brings alive both the 19th century and the 20th century couples. Unfortunately, Pastan only brings alive the 21st century wife and husband but the 19th century Russian couple don't come alive but seem like stereotyped egocentric male novelist and submissive devoted suffering wife. Only in the end does the 19th century wife and husband come alive as the stories of both couples become resolved. "Lady of the Snakes' might have some flaws but it's still excellent in its portrayal of the problems and struggles of a contemporary American woman.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Poem into Song into Rap into Video

I’m teaching an introduction to literature using the book Literature An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry and Drama by x.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. Chapter 17 Song had poems which were also songs. On a whim I decided to look up these poems/songs from the literature book on youtube, and to my surprise I found multiple videos for all of them.”

Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poem “Richard Cory” about a rich man who seemed to had everything but shot himself at poem’s end is quite famous. The poem was rewritten by Paul Simon into a song which Simon and Garfunkle sang popularizing it. On youtube I watched a 1966 video of a young Simon and Garfunkle singing “Richard Cory.” On youtube video list the second video of “Richard Cory” by Nora Rodriguez called “my first music video” was even more fascinating. Rodriguez had Simon and Garfunkle singing “Richard Cory” while they had actors act out the poem—quite a wonderful musical recreation of a poem and a song.

For Shakespeare’s poem/song “O Mistress Mine” from his play Twelfth Night the first youtube video was Ben Kingsley singing the poem/song from the 1996 movie version of the play. The Kingsley clip is quite wonderful starting out with him singing, then showing other characters in the play, and then back to Kingsley. There were many other youtube videos of “O Mistress Mine” to watch, of course.

Dudley Randall wrote a powerful “Ballad of Birmingham” about the tragic bombing of a church in Birmingham killing four black children during the civil rights movement. The first amazing video of the poem song accompanying a music video “Slavery and Civil War” with the singing accompanied by powerful photos and illustrations of slavery and civil war. Tennessee State University produced the second brilliant music video which has two wonderful singers singing the poem along with a montage of photos and film from the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The vocals are song by Santayana Harris and Kameka Woods, both of whom have amazing voices.

W. H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues” is Auden’s version of a blues. The movie "Four Weddings and a Funeral” helped make Auden’s blues famous, and you can on youtube see the section of the movie where a character at a funeral recites the poem. But even better is “Funeral Blues” W.H. Auden Tribute where a wonderful female singer sings the poem cabaret style more like Auden wrote it. Also someone did a music video of "Funeral Blues" read to photos of actor Heath Ledger as a tribute to him.

The literature book has an excerpt from rapper Run D.M.C ‘s “Pied Piper.” Of course, youtube has a video of Run D.M.C. doing the whole rap “Pied Piper” which has many literary references to fairy tales and nursery rhymes--it's really good. Yes, rap is poetry, popular poetry just like traditional folk ballads like Barbara Allen.

I gave my students a homework assignment to see the youtube videos and they seemed to like seeing poems as songs on videos. I learned something from this as I hoped they did.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Master poet of Iraq: Saadi Youssef

Saadi Youssef has been for decades just not just one of the most important Iraqi poets but also one of the most important poets writing in Arabia. His 2002 collection "Without an alphabet, Without a Face," translated from Arabic into English by Khaled Mattawa, is an moving, heart rendering book.

Youssef was born near Basra, Iraq, in 1934. His life has been one of forced expulsions and exiles. When young he became sympathetic to socialism, and after an unauthorized trip to a Moscow youth conference in 1957, he was forced to leave Iraq for Kuwait. After the 1958 Iraq revolution, he returned to him homeland, but was jailed and then left for Algeria.

He turned to Iraq again, but with Saddam Hussein's coming to power in 1979, he left the country. In 1982 he was living in Beirut writing for Palestinian publications when the Israels bombarded Beirut so he left with the Palestinian fighters. In mid-1980s he was living in socialist South Yemen, working in publishing, when the civil war started. After his home was bombed he was forced to leave. In France after 1991 he helped organize an Iraqi expatriates club in Paris, but after the French police asked him to be an informant, he left. Youssef is similar to left poets such as Neruda who was forced to flee Chile and Nazim Hikmet, Turkey's great poet who spent time in jail and years in exile.

Youssef is an 3rd generation modernist in Arabic poetry. He's influenced by poet Al-Sayyab's modernist poetics mixing love lyrics with political discourse in the same poem. Both Al-Sayyib and Youssef are also committed to free verse and experimentation. His translator Mattawa has said that Arab critics "have noted that Youssef prefers whispering to declaiming." The first poem in Youssef's collection "Night in Hamdan" describes a poor provincial village the poet lives in with "tuberculosis and date palms" but the poet whispers to his beloved, "you, in whose eyes I behold spring/ how can a friend forget you?"

His poem "In Those Days" describes his Iraqi imprisonment dwith the guards' beatings and the judge's derision but the poet never loses hope: "When we were thrown in the imprisonment that has yet to end, I vowed: 'This heart's yearning will not end.'" Nothing--not decades of exiles of expulsions--has ever diminished his hope. Youssef is a great poet of hope. The poems from his "Beirut" book are amazing accounts of living under Israeli bombardment. In the poem "A Raid" from "Daily Chores" the poet describes

The room shivers
from distant explosions
The curtains shiver.
Then the heart shivers.
Why are you in the midst of all this shivering?

Even under bombardment, he still attends to his heart; the poet is not declaiming but is listening to his heart's shiverying.

Youssef, who translated Walt Whitman into Arabic, is most famous for his poem "America America" written after Gulf War I but seems to be written for Gulf War II. In this poem the poet quotes blues and loves jazz, Mark Twain, Mississippi steamboats, and American fields of wheat and proposes exchanges between himself and America:

Take James Bond's golden pistol
and give us Marilyn Monroe's giggle
Take the Afghani mujahadeen beard
and give us Walt Whitman's beard filled with butterflies.
Take Saddam Hussein
and give us Abraham Lincoln
or give us no one.

The poet wants these peaceful exchanges, not war, not soldiers. The tragedy is we didn't send to Iraq Whitman and Marilyn Monroe's giggle and Lincoln but instead we sent to Iraq bombers, tanks and 100,000 soldiers.