May 23, 2007
It was by chance that I attended a talk by poet, author, filmmaker, Sherman Alexie at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books last month. As I planned the day’s itinerary, my bookseller friend, Melony, suggested we meet at the Barnes & Noble stage at two to hear Alexie, one of her favorite authors.
I was already on my way to attend a panel discussion featuring one of my favorite authors, global optimist, Pico Iyer, so I glossed over Alexie’s name, remembering where I was to meet Melony, but not who was speaking.
At three minutes past two, I found the B & N stage packed beyond the twenty-five or so rows of filled chairs, and was relegated to standing with other latecomers outside the huge canopy.
Sherman Alexie by Angie Brenner
The tall, good looking author with thick black hair had captured the audience’s attention with a story of, “One of the two worst flights I’ve ever experienced.”
He’d been sitting across the aisle from an attractive, well-groomed woman, who, after a perilous drop in altitude, reached out her hand. He took it. And, for the remainder of the flight, they sat there, holding hands, in silence. Once safe on the ground, they let go and turned away in embarrassment.
He admitted that he’d felt more vulnerable than if he and the woman had just had sex in the airplane restroom.
“It’s one thing to share body fluids, but nothing’s more intimate than to show fear.” He punctuated the point. “There’s no condom for fear.”
This guy is poignant and hilarious, I thought. In the way Robin Williams is funny.
“Who is he?” I asked the lady in front of me who had managed to irritate most of the people around her by letting her gray and white whippet silently beg for affection by gently placing a paw on a leg or arm.
“It’s Sherman Alexie,” she said.
Ah ha, now I remembered. Alexie is the author whose short stories, collected in the book, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, were the basis for his movie, Smoke Signals.
I’d loved the movie, but hadn’t read Alexie’s books.
Suddenly, I felt like I’d come upon a treasure chest, or an old box in my grandmother’s attic, and had found gold or a stack of old AT&T bonds.
“He’s fabulous,” I said, and the woman nodded her head in agreement.
The whippet turned to stare at me as if to say, “You fool, of course he’s fabulous! Where have you been?”
Alexie talked about being in Nantucket, Connecticut for the screening of his movie, Smoke Signals, and was surprised that so many white residents would want to see a movie about Native Americans. After all, Nantucket’s “the whitest, white place in the history of whiteness,” he said.
For forty minutes Alexie created a roller coaster filled with laughter, and then told us about a recent book signing in Virginia. He’d returned to his hotel room to find several messages from his family and friends asking if he was “okay.” Perplexed, he returned the calls only to learn about the student at Virginia Tech who’d just gone on a shooting rampage.
Alexie picked up a copy of his new book, Flight, about a young man with guns, ready to do the same. He held up the book.
“Thankfully,” he said. “I chose a positive ending for this story.”
We were stunned. No one was laughing. This storyteller had taken us to the edge of the cliff and I could feel the collective emotion of the audience sink to my gut.
“Forgiveness,” said Alexie, “I guess it’s a form of optimism.”
Next week Angie Brenner returns to New York City to cover Book Expo America.
May 16, 2007
I have to admit: I wasn’t entirely prepared for the discussion on art and politics at the PEN Voices Festival in New York. I had left my little blue notebook at my friend’s apartment, and my pen’s ink was running little dry. And because I thought I would be a bit late for the discussion, I didn’t stop to pick up a new pen. So I took notes, selectively, on a brochure that announced upcoming events at the Instituto Cervantes where the discussion took place.
In a small, low-set auditorium, the moderator, New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus, introduced the distinguished writers at the table. A very interesting mix of international writers that included Danish writer Janne Teller, German novelist Dorothea Dieckmann, Spanish novelist Almudena Grandes, African American activist-poet/performer, Saul Williams.
Janne Teller by Beowulf Sheehan for PEN.org
Quoting a Russian artist whose name I didn’t catch, Tanenhaus set a sobering (yet potentially uplifting) tone to the discussion, and to the importance of politics for the artist. He said that politics, according to the now deceased Russian artist, “guarantees the freedom of the artist.”
This statement agreed with me — and I imagined that this Russian artist had probably lived in communist Russia where politics had guaranteed little for artists with dissenting views, even their own lives. Today, in America, a freer society, the artist is luckier — and can probably express any political view through his or her work without life-threatening consequences.
Yet, regardless of the times, Saul Williams, was essentially right that afternoon when he said, “You come from a place of privilege if you write from an apolitical [position].” For him, at least, “a sense of activism is always related to [his] art.”
With some pleasure, I observed the emphatic, confident presence Williams had at the table. He is a stylish man with a strong message about the less privileged, those who are young, poor, and black in this country, and those who need an intelligent and creative advocate in their diminished corner. He seemed to know exactly where he was coming from and what he is doing with his own life and art.
Another bold writer on the panel was the Spanish writer Grandes. She spoke first, through a translator, in response to Tanenhaus’s initial question to all the writers. “How,” he asked, “would you define politics in terms of your lives and art?”
For Grandes, writing had a lot to do with ideology. “When the writer writes,” she said, “it is his ideology that makes him (or her) look at the world.”
That afternoon, the discussion would inevitably loop back to ideology. At one point, Tanenhaus asked the panel to discuss what happens when you have great art and abhorrent politics. Take, for instance, the fascist sympathies of great poet and writer Ezra Pound. A few distinctions were quickly drawn, one by Dieckmann. “Power is the main issue in this case…” she said. ”And it can be corrupt, though the art itself can be incredibly valuable and beautiful.” She essentially argued that you can separate the man or woman from the work — and by work, I took that to mean “quality of work.”
As with many things, political, lines were constantly being drawn by all the writers between opinion and art; the particular and the specific; the local and the global, the political and the philosophical, the empathetic and the sympathetic, and so on. That afternoon, it seemed to me that the discussion on art and politics could go on for a very long time; there was simply so much to say.
As my ink dried up and writing became futile, I just listened — and then mentally noted a question from a woman in the audience who wondered why PEN had failed to put a writer from the developing world on the panel. She too had drawn a line between “worlds” while making a pretty reasonable point — and a very politically loaded one at that, too.
The question, however, was unfairly directed at a panel of writers who had little or no hand in the event’s arrangements; none of them could “speak” for PEN. Danish writer Janne Teller surmised nicely though at some point during the discussion, inadvertently giving us what I thought was a pretty good response to the woman’s question and the general plight of the artist. She said, simply, “As an artist, I am an individual.”
May 9, 2007
EDITOR’S NOTE: While we continued coverage of PEN World Voices Festival in New York City, West Coast Editor, Angie Brenner, hopped a plane and followed World Voices participants Gary Shteyngart and Pico Iyer to the Los Angels Times Festival of Books. Here is her report….
“The West Coast Totem is different from the East Coast Totem.”
— Sam Shepard at PEN World Voices
Big-top tents, balloons, cotton-candy, popcorn. “The next time you see me,” says a diminutive young woman, pulling a wheeled cart behind her, “I’ll be a nine foot high shrimp.”
She pointed to the nearby, multi-colored stage banner which read: Jumbo Shrimp Circus.
No, this isn’t the county fair. It’s the 12th annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books held at the UCLA (festival co-sponsor) campus in Westwood, California. A Disneyland of book festivals, and I admit experiencing some culture shock having just arrived from the PEN America World Voices Festival in New York.
For a week, I was moved to my core by exiled poets and writers from around the globe as they reflected on world events and the human condition through poems and prose. Only in New York, I thought, can such a diverse dialogue take place.
Now, I walk between rows of yellow daisies and white roses in full bloom between venues and the tented bookseller and author signing booths on the campus. By noon, the morning fog has rolled out to the Pacific. Temperatures soar into the eighties, and lemonade hawkers are at the ready to quench our thirst.
The LA Bookfair, with over 2000 exhibitors and over 100 author signing opportunities, is decidedly less international in nature then the PEN World Voices Festival. But if the goal is to make the written word accessible to the public at large, the festival organizers have succeed.
Children have their own stage. Families wheel strollers through the crowd to hear authors Julie Andrews Edwards, John Lithgow, and Tina Louise read from their books. And yes, there are movie and sports stars. This is Los Angeles after all. Fans can rub shoulders with Michael Douglas, Ellen Burstyn, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
But, if anyone has the idea that West Coast readers and writers aren’t serious about the world we live in, they’d be mistaken. Conversations flow freely and sometimes become heated. Michael Pollen discusses food controversy, Amy Goodman, current politics; and directly from the NY World Voices Festival: Gary Shteyngart is on hand for a fiction writing panel.
Pico Iyer and Daniel Altman open a discussion on the Global Village, where the panel (which also includes authors Tony Cohen and Rebecca Solnik) conclude that, in spite of the U.S. becoming increasingly xenophobic (or perhaps because of it), writers and artists from other countries are creating their own dialogue without us.
A particularly lively and timely debate takes place during one panel on Critical Thinking: The Role of the Reviewer, lead by writer and book editor of the Los Angeles Times, David L. Uline. Panelists, Meagan O’Rourke (cultural editor at Slate and poetry editor for the Paris Review), Ariel Swartley (contributing writer to Los Angeles Magazine), and Mark Ruzzo (writer and former L.A. Times Book Review columnist), discuss the downsizing by most print media of book reviews and arts coverage, and the dismantling of the reviewer.
The statistics are frightening: Overall column space loss of arts coverage; the recent firing of the Atlanta Journal Constitution book editor; the Chicago Tribune will move their book review section to Saturday publication.
Ruzzo says, “It’s hard to imagine art coverage without the reviewer.”
Uline adds that in his opinion, criticism IS art, and as important as a cultural conversation. Swartley, who writes 1500-2000 word book reviews, says that to be able look at a book thoroughly enlarges the conversation.
Yet, O’Rourke suggests that she is quite interested in the trend toward the online culture, and doesn’t see a “gloomy ending.” With the majority of the panel still unsure about the internet blog culture, it feels a little like I’m listening to a conversation playing out by radio broadcasters during the dawn of the television era.
Change is inevitable. However, the need for us to understand each other through our stories, whether in print, audio, visual, or human contact form, is timeless.
And now, back to the team in New York…
May 3, 2007
WHERE AN INTERVIEW BECOMES A LITERARY ADVENTURE
Location: Roger Smith Hotel — Lexington Avenue Between 47th and 48th
On a sunny, blue-sky morning, we hurry up Lexington Avenue for our interview with Iraq exile and poet, Saadi Youssef, whose most recent collection of poems, Without an Alphabet, Without a Face, published by Graywolf Press, is a Lannan Translation Selection.
We look carefully because the hotel hides behind a framework of scaffolding. Look again and spot poet Alain Mabanckou who takes a drag of his cigarette and with a wide smile greets us (strangers) generously when we mention how moved we were by his reading at Town Hall, a poem about homeland, motherhood, motherland.
Mabanckou, in black leather jacket, born in Congo-Brazzaville, winner of the Prix Renaudot, one of the most prestigious literary prizes in France, easily agrees to a future interview to be published by Wild River Review this fall.
Alain Mabanckou reading at Town Hall
Through the door, and there, in a quintessential New York lobby — art deco, bustling with the comings and goings of authors — stands Mr. Youssef, in a cream colored turtleneck and a golden charm hammered into the shape of his beloved country hanging from a gold chain around his neck.
Youssef, who has translated Cavafy, knew the great Greek poet, Yiannis Ritsos, and equally great Turkish poet, Nazim Hikmet, cordially leads us to the elevators and pushes the button to the 16th floor Penthouse where all interviews take place.
And we can’t help thinking that we’ve landed in a novel, a novel about New York and its place in world literature, where authors such as Neil Gaiman sit on a chintz sofa talking to a reporter from salon.com.
Moroccan writer Layla Lalami sits on a settee with Cuban, Alex Yera. Danish novelist, Janne Teller, pauses for a moment to describe the gathering of authors — the conversations — the readings — as “a breath of the universe.”
Layla and Majnoun aka Layla Lalami and Alex Yera
In a relaxed interview with Youssef, we discover his deep love of the Arabic language and why it naturally lends itself to creativity. He talks about his nearly 30 years in exile, and what he has learned about poetry from cats.
“Ah yes, a cat. You know the cat, how he walks, how tender and sensitive the cat‘s pads are. It is an approach to life and to art, also. Treading carefully on the earth. The art must have that sensitive orientation of the cat to take life tenderly, to walk very quietly, to feel what is beneath our feet. But we must not forget that a cat, too, has claws.”
This summer Wild River Review will publish our in-depth interview with Youssef and three of his poems (accompanied by the Arabic calligraphy of Saad Abulhab).
A New York novel, in which a hotel is a character, must include a mix up with an elevator. In our case, Mr. Youssef goes to copy poems for us. When finished, he waits in the lobby, while we wait in the Penthouse. Finally, figuring this out we take the elevator down, only to find that Youssef has gone up.
Returning to the elevator, we see a woman sitting by herself in the restaurant, elegant, petite, her thick gray hair pulled back in a bun. She is reading. She is, we realize, Nobel prizewinning author, Nadine Gordimer.
We hesitate, introduce ourselves, and on the spot she agrees to an interview.
Clear blue eyes, smiling, she quotes Gustave Flaubert. “I wanted to stay in the ivory tower — but the shit kept getting all over the walls. ”
Gordimer discusses the important role PEN plays for writers of all kinds and why the world of the writer must encompass everything—excrement and all.
And then she talks about the importance of promoting books as words on paper are increasingly being replaced by the image. She turns to the profound inequities in her homeland, post-apartheid South Africa, and the lack of infrastructure and resources in so many communities. (The complete interview will appear this summer.)
Meanwhile, we find Youssef, join him for a drink, and disappear into a world where writers know no borders.
by Saadi Youssef
In the room
On the roof terrace facing the sea,
The retired pirate prepares his meal —
Half a loaf of bread
A slice of meat
A bottle of vodka —
He shuts his door firmly
And from his ebony box he takes out his ledgers
Now he is happy…
So stay tuned, as we continue to celebrate World Voices with more interviews and commentary. On our site: May 11 — Graphic novelist, Marguerite Abouet in French and in English.
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