An@rchitexts: Voices from the Global Digital Resistance

One of the final essays in An@rchitexts: Voices from the Global Digital Resistance offers a curious definition of one of the older mediums: the paper book. Provided by Felix Stalder and Jesse Hirsh in their essay “Open Source Intelligence,” this definition is odd because it seems disconnected from the book that it is printed in. An@rchitexts is a collection of essays by and interviews with media artists, activists, organizers and hackers, and while the subject matter is unusual and shows the courage of the small press Autonomedia, the forms of the pieces both individually and collectively are pretty standard. The book squarely fits on an anthology shelf in an independent store, but it doesn’t fit the following definition from Stalder and Hirsh: “A book is a highly hierarchical and centralized form of communication – there is only one single author, and a very large number of readers. It is centralized because users form a relationship with the author, while typically remaining isolated from one another.”

Stalder and Hirsh make this statement while discussing a bestseller from a mainstream press, Naomi Klein’s No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. Although they overgeneralize on the basis of their example, their discussion of how Klein used the internet in a subversive manner is notably thorough. When, in 2002, Klein became inundated with emails from the many readers of No Logo, she responded by establishing a website for them. By going to nologo.org, people not only could learn more about the anti-globalization movement that inspired her book, they could begin to communicate with one another. Their online conversation was made possible by the open source (or free and modifiable) software called Slashcode. As Stalder and Hirsh explain: “The Slashcode-based web site provided a readily available platform for the readers to become visible to one another and break through the isolation created by the book.”

An@rchitexts supplies many specific examples of media activism, and its grounded details make it an absorbing read to anyone who is using technology to try to challenge corporate structures. But what I enjoyed most about this book were other less technological connections that it allowed me to make. Editor Joanne Richardson has brought together people whose innovation and persistence speak of a global need for freedom and integrity, a need that makes the mind and heart move quickly together.

Originally posted on 12.14.2005

Elana Dykewomon’s Beyond the Pale

In her historical novel Beyond the Pale, Elana Dykewomon weaves together the lives of two women: Gutke Gurvich, a Russian midwife, and one of the people whom Gutke helps bring into the world, a girl named Chava Meyers. The novel opens with Chava’s birth one winter just before the start of the twentieth century: “In Kishinev the river Byk is frozen. The oven stuffed with coal,” and yet Chava’s mother Miriam “lies shivering on a small bed in one of the few stone house on Gostinaya Street, cursing the walls.” While the birth is difficult, Chava emerges without injury, and soon Gutke, who is clairvoyant, tells Miriam her sense of the baby’s future. She says that the girl will have “a long, difficult journey. But she will be loyal and have courage.” The words do not impress the exhausted mother, who asks, “Is that some kind of curse? Every Jew has courage.”

True to Gutke’s prediction, Chava stands out as notably courageous even among the courageous. She survives the Russian pogroms to immigrate to America where she fights exploitation as a factory worker in New York City. At her very first job, she strikes, walking out of a box factory where rats make “tunnels in the waste cardboard on the floor.” Her story coupled with Gutke’s provides for a great, sweeping novel, but while this book is large in scope, its structure rests on down-to-earth symbols contained with its story. The two main plots – Chava’s and Gutke’s – are woven together like the challah bread that Miriam at one point teaches her daughter to make. The scenes move naturally, one folding over into the next and the next. Gutke and Chava are lesbians, and their stories come together to create a nurturing vision of social protest among Jewish women.

Originally posted on 11.18.2005

Riverbend’s Baghdad Burning: Girl Blog from Iraq

In her ongoing blog, the Iraqi woman who calls herself Riverbend writes in English about politics, shattered days and her survival among the pieces of those days. The recent print collection of her first year of posts Baghdad Burning: Girl Blog from Iraq is tense and upsetting, but because Riverbend’s voice is as strong and as agile as water moving over and around considerable obstacles, this book is also emotionally compelling and humorous at times. In October of 2003, she writes about how school supplies must be purchased for her cousin’s daughters, who cannot leave their house, not for a trip that adults can accomplish; war has made everywhere outside of the home too dangerous to take any unnecessary chances, and so the twenty-four-year-old Riverbend sets out with her brother and the girls’ parents to the “makatib” or stationary shop. “It felt a bit ridiculous – four grown people all out shopping for Barbie notebooks and strawberry-scented erasers…but I knew it was necessary.”

The good sense and thoroughness with which she selects two erasers for the absent girls – smelling different ones until the shop assistant seems “exasperated”; making sure the erasers look good because “kids don’t take care of their school supplies if they’re ugly” – this sort of no-nonsense care underlies much of the writing in Baghdad Burning. In many of the posts, Riverbend focuses her concern on educating Western members of her audience about her culture. She talks about the ritual of evening tea during which Iraqis discuss the day’s events, their conversation prefaced with “the gentle music of small, steel teaspoons clinking against the istikan” or thin glass teacup. In October of 2003, she explains the reverence that the Iraqi people have for palm trees. U.S. troops are bulldozing ancient groves of palm and citrus trees, collectively punishing farmers for not providing information about the insurgence, and she wants her American readers to grasp just how severe this economic punishment is. She writes that in Iraq the “death of a palm tree is taken very seriously,” for every one of the trees is “so unique, it feels like a member of the family.” The dates produced by the palm are treated accordingly: “families trade baskets and trays of dates” from their own trees with the enthusiasm of “proud parents showing off a child’s latest accomplishment.”

Baghdad Burning is not only a mature political accomplishment but a literary one as well. The descriptions of Iraqi life in the book are vivid and moving, and with them, Riverbend cuts through obliterating lies – that the U.S. is liberating Iraq, for instance – with care.

Originally posted on 10.14.2005

Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely

Trying to understand the tragedy of New Orleans, my mind reaches for poetry and brings me back to a passage from Claudia Rankine’s book-length prose poem Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. In the passage reprinted online as an excerpt in Boston Review, Rankine writes about James Byrd Jr., the black man who was dragged from the back of a pickup truck in Texas during George W.’s governorship. While publicly talking about the brutal killing, Bush could not recall some of the most basic facts about the crime. Through images combined with the clearest of prose, Rankine explores the deep connection between Bush’s poor memory and his racist apathy. She brings us into the dead center of Bush’s not caring about black people. There, she reveals a profound nihilism. What does life mean when individual lives, erased through sanctioned hate, do not matter?

Rankine raises enormous, painfully pressing questions throughout Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. One of them is “Define loneliness?” This question comes as a delayed response to a request made four pages earlier when a voice says, “Define loneliness.” This dialogue between two inner voices – one quietly demanding, the other possibly in shock, trying to respond – is palpably lonely. Heightening this feeling is what comes in between the request and the reply: on one page, we find a picture of a static-filled television; on the next comes a scene in which the poet is listening to her sister, who has just lost her children and husband in a car accident. When we then turn the page to discover the words “Define loneliness?” we are immersed in a lonely state, one which seems too large to define, but because Rankine’s voice goes directly to the heart and conscience, we are connected too. We are with the poet and her voices, and we are all terribly alone:

Define loneliness?
Yes.
It’s what we can’t do for each other.
What do we mean to each other?
What does a life mean?
Why are we here if not for each other?

The final question provides the last print on the page. It hangs above several inches of white space. In that space, these questions repeat themselves, forever defining the infinite loneliness of this world.

Originally posted on 9.12.2005

Alia Mamdouh’s Naphtalene

Alia Mamdouh’s novel Naphtalene is a coming-of-age story set in 1950s Iraq. Huda is a nine-year-old girl who runs through the streets with boys, jumping “over the gutters and the children.” She is “anarchy, insolence, and violence.” Her actions disrupt order on many levels, including those involving language and narrative structure. Sometimes Huda’s perspective comes to us in the first person – “My rage mounted and fell on me, making my head hurt, so I pinched my aunt’s hand” – and sometimes it comes to us in the more immediate second person: “When you saw yourself in the street, your fire was stoked….You greeted the cheese seller, Abu Mahmoud: ‘Hello, dear Abu Mahmoud,’ and stole a fresh cucumber and a date whose sweetness burned your mouth. You did not look up.” Through these second-person descriptions, Mamdouh allows us to experience Huda’s detailed perception of the Baghdad streets: “The alleys of your neighborhood were filthy, littered with onion and aubergine peels, okra tops and fragments of rotten bread, remnants of black tea.”

Huda is honest, and her integrity permeates this novel like the chemical in its title, naphthalene, which is used in both mothballs and explosives. Only a girl as fierce as Huda could form and preserve for her future such vivid, uncompromised memories. The facts of her life as she enters adolescence are hard; the women in her family face extreme difficulty every day. The opening chapters show Huda’s mother Iqbal suffering with tuberculosis but receiving no mercy from her husband, a prison officer. He berates her in his home. “The air in the room boiled with his shouts.” He is angry about Huda, “that daughter of yours,” and about how illness prevents Iqbal from bearing more children. “I want a real woman,” he shouts. “I’ve given you my best years and my heart’s blood, but all in vain. Go back to your own family. Go back to where you came from.”

Nowhere in the novel does the narration refer to Huda’s adult self; the “I’s” and “you’s” (and on rare occasions, the “she’s”) are thoroughly immersed in the world of Iraq in the 1950s, but the naphthalene in the title does lead the reader to speculate about Huda’s life in the present, about the adult she has become and is becoming as she unpacks these memories – but “unpacking” is too mild a word. When, in 1996, an English translation of the novel appeared in the UK, the book was entitled Mothballs; now, for its first publication in the U.S., it bears the title Naphtalene. I think the change, which connects Huda’s intense memories not only to mothballs but explosives, is appropriate. This book destroys the patronizing concepts of Iraqi women that widely circulate in this country.

It is the first novel by an Iraqi woman to be published in the U.S.

Originally posted on 8.18.2005

Patricia Highsmith’s small g

Patricia Highsmith’s last novel Small g has just come out in paperback, and with its absorbing and deceptively light story, it makes for an interesting summer read. Moving the book forward at a quick pace is the fierce plotting of its villain, a fashion designer named Renate Hagnauer. The homophobic Renate was once married and still presents herself as straight, but her strongest emotional attachment is to one of her female apprentices, Luisa Zimmerman. Like Highsmith’s best-known character Tom Ripley who idolizes the first man he ever murders, Renate cannot help but punish the object of her obsession. Her treatment of Luisa is less obviously brutal than the murder that Ripley metes out, but the wounded rage behind her manipulations and outbursts should be familiar to Ripley fans. The fact that Renate does not go to the same extremes as Ripley makes it possible for her to exist in the middle of an oddly light-hearted novel. The young Luisa, while escaping her employer’s sadism, finds romance along with friendship at her neighborhood bar in Zurich. The nickname of this bar, “the small g,” refers to a typographical notation in a guidebook: the bar with its partially gay clientele has a lowercase “g” next to its listing.

The combination of heavier and lighter elements – Renate’s psychological violence with Luisa’s romances – makes for a disturbing read at times. To get the disparate plots to fit together, Highsmith sacrificed the psychological depth that characterizes much of her work. Renate’s point of view is provided only in brief glimpses; I wanted more but recognized that too much of this pained consciousness would pull down the overall tone of the book. Luisa is not revealed in much detail either. For much of the novel, she is seen through the eyes of Rickie Markwalder, a gay man who helps her escape Renate’s economic and emotional control. Ricky is explored mostly on the surface too, but since he is fairly superficial – his first encounter with Luisa in the novel yields the observation that she is “so pretty” with “narrow lips, ready to smile” – Highsmith’s thin treatment of him seems more like an appropriate approach to his character and less like an eerie loss.

The irony of Small g is complicated, and I would not recommend it to someone unfamiliar with Highsmith. I would start with Strangers on a Train, The Price of Salt, The Talented Mr. Ripley or my favorite The Animal Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder. But for those who know Highsmith and the richness of her ironies, Small g does provide a curious view onto gay culture – its smallness and sincere joys, its wealth and poverty and its fragility.

Originally posted on 7.30.2005

Roshni Rustomji’s The Braided Tongue

The women in Roshni Rustomji’s novel The Braided Tongue are some of the most interesting, insightful people I have met in a contemporary novel in a long time. At the center of the book is Katy Cooper, a painter in her forties who embarks on a search for knowledge about her past. When she was child on the brink of adolescence, her father died, and she was forced to move from Mexico to the United States to live with white foster parents. She doesn’t remember much about her life in Mexico or about the circumstances of her father’s death, but what memories she does have are powerful and sensory – the sound of her father, who was originally from Devinagar, India, singing “K-K-K-Katy beeauutiifuul Katy” to her; the vibrant colors of the bougainvillea and roses and the more muted hues and shades of the “raucous birds”; “the rich textures, the complicated tastes” and “the rough fragrances” of Mexican food. This last memory fueled a “silent obsession” in Katy when she was young and living with her foster parents, Gregory and Theresa Saunders. Narrating the book as an adult, Katy says: “Many of the doodles in the margins of my notebooks started out as attempts to draw the hunger I lived with as I ate the foods Theresa Saunders served me with such loving care and generosity.”

Mrs. Saunders took Katy, who suffered pain in her legs, to four doctors, none of whom could arrive at a diagnosis. To ease her foster mother’s anxiety, Katy learned to hide this pain, which has followed her into adulthood and now, over twenty years later, is leading her to explore alternative methods of healing. If she is going to cure this pain and not merely numb or deny it, she must turn to resources outside of the medical industry, and her most powerful resources in this regard are her two close friends, Carmelita and Ratna, and a cousin from India, Roxanna Japanwallah. These memorable women help Katy as she travels to both India and Mexico to learn about her ancestral roots and to deal with the origins of her physical and psychic pain. What emerges from Katy’s journeys is an intricate and illuminating story about powerful women coming up against the immense greed and racist exploitation that is America’s great export at the moment.

It is a testament to the complexity of Rustomji’s vision that this novel is full of faith and hope.

Originally posted on 6.22.2005

Maeve Brennan’s The Visitor

I came across Maeve Brennan’s novella The Visitor in a used bookstore a few months ago and was thrilled, having just finished a collection of Brennan’s short stories, Springs of Affection. Those stories are all set in the author’s birthplace of Dublin, and through their form and genius, they capture one of the most haunting aspects of those few years called childhood: their literal smallness is at such odds with their profundity. The experience of reading those stories has stayed with me, and I think of them often; and now I find myself thinking over The Visitor frequently too. At under one hundred pages, it is an enormous book about revenge, bitterness, hope and familial love. I would recommend it to anyone, but for those who are interested in that intense, seldom-used form of the novella, it is an amazing gift. The history of the book’s publication underscores just how amazing: the manuscript was only discovered in a university archive after Brennan’s death in 1993.

Originally posted on 5.28.2005

Nicole Brossard’s The Blue Books

The Blue Books [Coach House Books, 2003] brings together Nicole Brossard’s first three novels: A Book, Turn of a Pang and French Kiss, or, A Pang’s Progress. In the introduction, Brossard discusses how fiction has changed since these novels were published in the 1970s. She writes that part of fiction has gone off with reality – and “reality, as we know, is now an industry.” Another part has “morphed in autobio/fiction at the speed of me descending the staircase of life.” Another “perpetuates the work of writers seeking new spaces within language as a place to deploy their quest for meaning.” All of these factions, Brossard writes, have generated a shift away from “emotion” toward a more controlled state: the writer is now experiencing a feeling generated by the imagination. This feeling is “the much sought-after thrill” that comes from anticipating the “outcome of the formal performance” of the finished work. Brossard asserts that nowhere in contemporary fiction are we entering the present as experienced by the writer – the pen moving across the page, the keys of the computer or typewriter being pressed, the moment of expression coming into being. The present in fiction according to Brossard has become tautological. It circles back onto itself as a time created in the past by the writer imagining the future.

Brossard goes on to make an interesting remark about the hand that grips the pen, the fingers that press the keys, the writer who desires to reach out and communicate through words: “The body (a theme my generation cherished above all else and hastened to associate with the pleasures, disorders and impulses connected with writing), the body, from here on fragmented right down to its genes, is today an installation, an object, a veritable shopping mall. And so what of our humanity?”

I didn’t read The Blue Books recently. I read the novels last summer, but not until recently could I articulate much about them. The experience of reading them was intense, but I could not say how or why largely because of the density and difficulty of the material. I found the last of the three novels, French Kiss, or A Pang’s Progress, translated from the French by Patricia Claxton, to be particularly hard. I was humbled to learn in Claxton’s foreword that her translation “is a little more accessible than the underlying French.” Only now almost a year later can I say that the last book was hard with the physical act of writing about passion – lesbian passion – as it is rushes into and through the hard fact of the word – “turning into language all the urges that beckon and invite her to partake,” Brossard writes.

Variations in typeface within French Kiss emphasize the hard physical reality of a book, its ink, its paper. Some chapters appear in large font and reveal a shared passion for truth at odds with the lifeless world that impersonally tries to lull and trick the individual into forgetting what she has learned in and through her body. “Our part in reality was that we weren’t taken in by anything,” Brossard writes in one of these large-print chapters. Coming after many chapters of more obscure sentences rendered in smaller font, these words are so clear and visible they make “normal”-sized font look for a moment like tricky fine print. “At least we managed to communicate among ourselves all the fragments of knowledge and wisdom each of us had access to from our own enquiry and experience.”

Our part in reality was that we weren’t taken in by anything.

It’s a hard part to play, not being taken in by anything. In telling the story of those playing this part, French Kiss subverts fictional conventions that, through their familiarity, take readers in. Without these conventions, a book is hard, but the hardness of French Kiss makes sense and cannot be separated from its characters, the alluring part that is taking them in and the un-story of their lives – but my fingers, after typing this last statement, paused. I deleted and retyped the sentence and then went to the top of this document to copy and paste in here Brossard’s statement about the contemporary body – that the body is now “fragmented right down to its genes.”

It’s probably naive to say in 2005 that a trait of a book cannot be isolated and removed from its original context. The hands typing these words know the reality of genetic engineering, having been formed in part by tomatoes crossed with cloned bacteria and potatoes engineered with genes from chickens. No financial incentive exists to isolate the hardness of experimental fiction and introduce the trait elsewhere, but experimentalism does have one appealing gene that the publishing industry’s market-tested crops conspicuously lack: excitement and newness, the thrill that comes from reading what has never been done before. What if the publishing industry were to isolate this trait and introduce it into their products, which, while easy to read, are often predictable and boring?

What if they could introduce the firefly’s cloned light into their dependable fields of corn? How their sentimental novels would glow, and the firefly – an organism on the edge of extinction – would never be able to say a word about the engineered result without being charged with jealousy. After all, the light emanating from these crops would far exceed the glow produced by the individual tail. What if? I ask again, trying like the firefly to illuminate a passing moment in a world of too much light. The surplus is one of the reasons fireflies are becoming extinct. They can’t see each other.

Originally posted on 5.6.2005

Women Write Pulp

Valerie Taylor’s The Girls in 3B led me into a series of books being put out by The Feminist Press entitled Femme Fatales: Women Write Pulp. I enjoyed Taylor’s novel about three young women, one of whom is lesbian, who are struggling to make it on their own in Chicago. Motivated by The Girls, I bought more books in the series and so had the pleasure of reading Dorothy B. Hughes’s work for the first time. Hughes started out her career as a poet before going on to write mysteries in a hard-edged, noir style. The Feminist Press has released two of her novels, both of which are fast reads because they are impossible to put down: The Blackbirder and In a Lonely Place. Feeding into the most striking difference between the two books is an essential similarity: both are written in the third-person limited point of view. But in The Blackbirder, the perspective is limited to a young woman with ties to the French Resistance who is now on the run, and in In A Lonely Place, the perspective is with a male serial killer. Both characters are trying their best to survive, which, in the case of the serial killer, means not getting caught. The blind spots that get in their way speak volumes about the limits of masculine and feminine roles. In the interest of not spoiling plots, I will say no more about the books except that I generally don’t like novels about serial killers. I don’t like descriptions of violence, especially when, having been processed into entertainment, the descriptions have no real meaning. Hughes, however, doesn’t write about the violent acts themselves but focuses on the consciousness that makes the violence possible.

Originally posted on 3.26.2005