Saturday, November 29, 2008

Toni Morrison's A Mercy; Or, That's Mr. Misanthrope to You

I spent much of Thanksgiving Day reading Toni Morrison's novel A Mercy, an advanced reader's edition that I had since September and which I'd attempted twice without completion. Morrison's strengths are language, imagination, and wisdom; and her ambition is to deliver the truth, whether it hurts or heals, but there is solace to be found in her words, in her vision. Fundamental to Toni Morrison's novel A Mercy is an act of sacrifice and imaginative sympathy that looks like cruelty: and in that misunderstanding is a sabotage of character and an inclination toward submission. A Mercy is, like many books, about perception and interpretation, about language, but it is also, very much, about the split roots of the American past--of Europeans rich and poor, of native Americans befriended, exploited, and maligned, and of Africans who are touched with brutal hands, whether they are desired or despised. It is a book about civility and savagery, intelligence and stupidity, love and hatred: life and death. It also concerns a theme that may be as timeless: what children do not understand about parents, especially their acts as well as feelings within the treacherous churnings of history (thoughtful concern can look like indifference).

In A Mercy is a European immigrant farmer who assembles a homestead that seems remarkably free for all, in the age of slavery and indentured servitude, but which is based too much on will and whim to survive his illness or death. Weaknesses are exposed--and religion steps in to offer morality in the place of intimate knowledge, mutual respect, or even practical sense; and it is a pious and wicked religion which begins to make both love and work very difficult.

It may be a footnote, but this is one of the few instances in Toni Morrison's work when homosexuality is recognized as impulse and relationship, in presenting two male farm workers who work well with others and have a sexual relationship between themselves. It is as if Morrison is attempting every reconciliation in this book; and offering hope for the present by showing the shared tasks of the past.

The book contains a lot of details, emotional, sensuous and historical; and there were a few times when I felt too much the presence of research or thought Morrison's summaries were too overt, but, on the whole, I found the book one of mastery, an important and interesting interpretation. Toni Morrison has enlarged her own literary authority again, and added something that may be essential to our understanding of the past.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

On Cities (On Individuals)

"Alone Together"
By Jennifer Senior
New York magazine, November 23, 2008

Excerpt: ….Cities, in other words, are the ultimate expression of our humanity, the ultimate habitat in which to be ourselves (which may explain why half the planet’s population currently lives in them). And in their present American incarnations—safe, family-friendly, pulsing with life on the street—they’re working at their optimum peak. In Cacioppo’s data, today’s city dwellers consistently rate as less lonely than their country cousins. “There’s a new sense of community in cities, an increase in social capital, an increase in trust,” he says. “It all leads to less alienation.”….

The Clash

Today, I heard a music program on public radio devoted to the history and work of the rock band The Clash, hosted by Delphine Blue (she does a show on New York's WBAI); and it was very good to hear her voice again and to be reminded of the complex circumstances and motivations of the music group and the quality of what they accomplished.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Carole King, singer-songwriter

I heard today a public radio special on Carole King and her Tapestry album hosted by Rita Houston, who is affiliated with WFUV in New York (I heard the program on Louisiana's KRVS). That was an album I had bought, living in the country in southern Louisiana, when I was very young, through a Columbia House/TV Guide sale (you could get a bunch of albums for about a $1). I loved the album; and recall playing it for my sister and some nearby cousins (I liked "So Far Away," "Where You Lead," and "I Feel the Earth Move" and we all liked the story-song "Smackwater Jack"). I listened to the album Tapestry in New York, too. It was great to hear songs from it again. (I'm still impressed by the sincerity in Carole King's voice and her piano playing.) I spent a good part of the program with tears in my eyes (truth to tell: there were more tears rolling down my cheeks than lying still in my eyes); and I recall that I had a similar response recently to hearing an old Rickie Lee Jones song. It is hard to say why. Maybe just the fact that the songs are good and have been with me for so long. Carole King deserves tribute, but, like too many women artists, her work has not received the consistent attention it warrants; and this program, which discussed her career and the making of the album, was wonderful to hear.

Impression: Biking

I had several bicycles, including an English racer, before I was 18, and I enjoyed biking very much, in southern Louisiana; and after I moved to New York I would think at different times, with longing, that I should get a bike but I did not; and, now, riding again, out of both opportunity and necessity, there are times when I enjoy it and times when I come close to hating it. My legs seem long for the bike and I hesitate to adjust the seat, as when I used to do this when young it would make the seat undependable (and the seat would sometimes fall at surprising times, which would be dangerous when riding in town, in or near traffic). Sometimes my knees hurt. It is hard riding against the wind, as I have on too many afternoons. I have had three accidents: one when startled by traffic behind me, when I went into a ditch; two, when a broken, small branch entered the spokes of the back tire while I road on a sidewalk in New Iberia (I didn't fall but I still refer to this as an accident, as it was undesired and unplanned, interrupted my ride, and damaged part of the bike); and three, when on the road soon after leaving the house, I was distracted by my own anxious thoughts and the front wheel twisted all around and I fell. I worry about having a serious accident, of having a bone broken, or of dying. I notice, too, that there aren't very many people using bikes--and on most days I notice no one on a bike, though on some days I have seen a few people (usually very young or very old). It is interesting to me that there are more people in New York using bikes (I remember this from a few months ago; and I was just reading an internet article, today, on bike riding in New York and how police are trying to control it). Here, there are a lot of trucks and cars and tractors and a few motorcyles, especially large American trucks (trucks made by the companies that are doing so badly in terms of national sales). Biking is good excercise, both exhilarating and exhausting; and the landscape I ride through is often charming, soothing; and I would not have guessed that I could dislike biking.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Fiction Excerpt from A Stranger on Earth

Writer's Note: Sometimes I think all writing is the same--language, thought, feeling; and other times I think that there is no form of writing more complete than the novel. I have found when trying to write fiction that one is both a creator and a supplicant--open to imagination, inspiration, energy, possibility, tradition, and more. This is an excerpt from the chapter "What She Thought" in the fiction project, the novel A Stranger on Earth, a work-in-progress.

(c) DG

“He had terrible parents,” said one girl, laughing.

“I don’t know. Each did what he or she thought was best for the family,” said a young man, quietly.

“Well, Susan, Mark, you both might be right,” said Dr. Whitaker, walking in front of the class of twenty students.

“I liked John at first, he seemed smart and professional, but as the book went on, he became less likable. He seemed wounded, cold,” said a sensitive boy, through plump pink lips, his small dark eyes uncertain behind his glasses, though is words were sure.

“It was like a detective story,” said the laughing girl, adding, “only solving the mystery would explain to the detective why he was the way he was.”

Dr. Whitaker looked at the girl with appreciation, and said, “It is interesting that the history everyone in the book knows is not the full story, or the true story. There is another history, a secret history, and that history is about questionable motives, personal transgressions, and power where we do not expect to find it.”

Dr. Whitaker quickly glanced at Sarah, who sat at the back of the class. She had dressed carefully, cleanly, wanting to be a respectable but not distracting presence for anyone, but with the glances of the professor and the other students she knew that her presence was considered special. No one knew what she was thinking: she was the mystery in the classroom.

“What is learned in the book tells us something about the creation of a particular individual, a particular community, a particular world,” said Dr. Whitaker. “John Washington uses knowledge as armor. He wants to be prepared, protected. Yet, he is accumulating armor after the wound has been delivered. He thinks he needs knowledge but what he needs is wisdom.”

“What’s the difference?” asked the sensitive young man, a worried look on his face.

“Paul, I think the difference is that wisdom gives you insight that you can use,” said Dr. Whitaker, “and it’s not merely functional, it is healing.”

“Aren’t historians just concerned with facts, not, not—spiritual stuff,” asked Mark.

“Historians are devoted to what happens and why, but the spirit of a man, or a time, can shape what happens,” said Dr. Whitaker.

“Like prejudice,” said Mark.

“Yes,” said Dr. Whitaker.

“Historians aren’t usually heroes,” said Susan, “but John seems heroic. We begin to know some of what he’s afraid of, and yet he persists in his quest. He is afraid of not knowing and the more finds out, the less sense some of it makes, the less he seems to know, until near the end.”

“I liked that he was smart, tough,” said Mark.

“He was a bastard,” said Susan.

“Actually, his parents were married,” said Paul, smiling.

“You know what I mean,” said Susan. “He was bitter and he took it out on people, his girlfriend, his mother.”

“What is bitterness?” asked Dr. Whitaker.

“Resentment,” said Susan.

“Thinking angrily about the best more than you think hopefully about the future,” said Mark.
“Self-pity,” added Susan.

“Constantly remembering something that hurts and angers you,” said Mark.

Dr. Whitaker smiled and asked, “Have you thought about this a lot Mark?”

“It’s hard not to. So many people are bitter,” said Mark.

Dr. Whitaker moved from one side of the room to another, in thought, and then he stopped, and looked at the class, and said, “Novels create an intimate space in which our minds can roam.

Novels give us scenes that touch our imaginations, our feelings. In The Chaneysville Incident we find a very smart man who is bitter and difficult. We think of bitterness as an attitude or emotion, but what if it is a form of atrophied thought, a kind of stupidity?”

The class listened to him, looking around.

He’s right, thought Sarah. He’s right. It is stupid, and even someone otherwise intelligent, someone visionary, can have blind spots, can be stupid.

Leaving the class, Sarah looked at the students; and, glad that she had come, she felt pleasure and pride in their presence, and a little envy and pain too. She was surprised that as she walked slowly down the hall, thinking about her own school days and her life since that time, to find that Dr. Whitaker had followed her, and was trying to talk to her. He seemed different—more intimate, warmer, as if they were friends. She tried to say how much she enjoyed the class, and though he seemed glad to hear it, it seemed also as if there was more he wanted her to say. She did not know what that might be, and it ceased to matter once someone he knew walked up to him and said, “Did you hear the news? The governor is involved in some kind of sex scandal with a prostitute. They’ve got him on tape, and he apologized on camera, with his wife standing next to him.”

“I don’t believe it,” said Dr. Whitaker.

“Believe it. It’s all over the television, all over the internet. You’ll see it,” the young man told him. They might have been talking about a bargain at the food market, but were talking about the destruction of a significant public reputation. Sarah felt a moment of disappointment, as she had thought the governor would be more and do more than his predecessors, those do-nothings.

“The emperor has no clothes—and he’s got a stiffy,” said the young man, laughing.

“I’m sorry to hear it,” said Dr. Whitaker. “It seems like a stupid mistake.”

“He was a smart guy but as arrogant as anybody,” the young man said.

“Derrick, arrogance is not a crime,” said Dr. Whitaker, adding, “but prostitution is.”

“He should have known better,” said Derrick.

“Do you think he wanted to be caught?” asked Sarah.

Both men looked at her.

“Why else would someone—a lawyer, a governor—do what he did? It wasn’t done in ignorance of the law. It wasn’t done because he couldn’t find some woman somewhere to have sex with him for free. Doesn’t it seem willfully destructive?” remarked Sarah.

“It does seem bizarre,” said Dr. Whitaker.

The three stood in silence, in thought, until Derrick said, “Well, I’ll let you go.”

Alone with Sarah, as students and teachers passed them by, Dr. Whitaker said, “That seems to put everything in perspective. Here we are, thinking about philosophies and fictions and the world is being turned by money, sex, and power.”

Sarah smiled, sadly, for a moment. It was something she thought of often, how principles were necessary, how dreams and ideals made life more inspiring, but how the force of the world could smash everything.

Joyce Carol Oates, creative writer and critic

Excerpt from "Joyce Carol Oates on productivity: 'I love to write' "
By Robert Pincus
November 23, 2008 San Diego Union Tribune (c)

I love to write,” she stated. “It's a fascinating experience to deal with language and to tell stories involving people who are, for me at least, fascinating.”

Oates declined to be interviewed by telephone, preferring to answer questions by e-mail.

“There have been 'prolific' writers and creative artists through the centuries – most of them men, as the work of women tends not to survive in quite the way that the work of men has. We can assume that the products of a highly energetic imagination like Mozart or Picasso are natural to them, and not unnatural or freakish; the same is perhaps true for others of us, less 'immortal.' I don't truly think of myself as a 'workaholic' – in fact, I don't work nearly as much as I would like to.”

...Oates' fiction is provocative, often intensely so. She tends to veer toward disturbing, dysfunctional dimensions of our culture: a family deeply traumatized by a crime (“We Were the Mulvaneys”), a life that disintegrates in the face of fame and exploitation (“Blonde”) and, in her most recent novel, the mysterious murder of a 6-year-old ice-skating champion that destroys the rest of her family (“My Sister, My Love”).

Two of these books are rooted in actual lives: “Blonde,” a finalist for the National Book Award in 2001, takes up the biography of Marilyn Monroe. “My Sister, My Love” echoes the story of JonBenet Ramsey.

This intersection of history, events and fiction has been a recurring subject for Oates, whose 1992 novella “Black Water” caused a stir because its tale closely paralleled that of the car crash on Chappaquiddick Island with Ted Kennedy at the wheel that resulted in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne.

“This approach is of particular interest to me,” she stated, “when it allows the writer to explore the specific and historical, as if it were emblematic, representative and even, in some ways, prophetic....

Literary Critic James Wood

Excerpt from "How Wood Works: The Riches and Limits of James Wood"
By William Deresiewicz

The Nation, magazine (c) 2008

An iron law of American life decrees that the provinces of thought be limited in the collective consciousness to a single representative. Like a poor man's Noah, we take one of each. One physicist: Stephen Hawking. One literary theorist: Harold Bloom. One radical social critic: Noam Chomsky. Before her death, we had one intellectual, Susan Sontag, and one only. (Now we've dispensed with the category altogether.) We are great anointers in this country, a habit that obviates the need for scrutiny. We don't want to have to go into the ins and outs of a thing--weigh merits, examine histories, enter debates. We just want to put a face on it--the logic of celebrity culture--and move on.

It has been decided of late that the face of literary criticism shall belong to James Wood. A writer first at the Guardian (from 1992 to 1996), then at The New Republic and now, since last year, at The New Yorker, Wood has long been considered, in a formulation that soon assumed a ritual cast, "the best critic of his generation."...

...Wood is centrally concerned with the ways novelists tell the truth about the world, how they "produce art that accurately sees 'the way things are,'" and it is here that we begin to see both his project's deepest motives and the first of its limitations. Wood's ideal authors are those, like Chekhov and Mann and the Sicilian writer Giovanni Verga, who are able to invent characters who seem to break free of their creators' intentions, who feel "real to themselves"--and thus to us--because they "forget" they are fictional...

Too much is sacrificed on the altar of this aesthetic theology--too much in fiction that is fine; too much, finally, that is true. Magical realism is indeed unconvincing in Rushdie and Morrison, as Wood says, but what of García Márquez, who integrates it into a seamlessly imagined world? Does it matter that Borges doesn't create realistic characters? Nabokov's characters may be "galley slaves," as the novelist boasted, but he is still able to use them as, in his words, "a kind of springboard for leaping into the highest region of serious emotion." To Roland Barthes's charge that realism is merely a collection of effects, Wood correctly replies that "realism can be an effect and still be true." But so can antirealism. Wood defends realism, justly, from accusations of naïveté, but the terms in which he does so make him susceptible to the same charge...

Wood's unwillingness to confront the contradictions in his thinking about these matters--to distinguish between realism and reality, artifice and experiment, character and person--points to a larger problem. Wood is a daring thinker, but he is not a particularly rigorous one. His powerfully associative mind tends to run him into logical cul-de-sacs that his supreme self-assurance prevents him from noticing. He often wanders from topic to topic, always too willing to be seduced from his path by the dappled description, the blooming detail....

For so imperious a critic, Wood is surprisingly sloppy. He repeatedly writes "literature" when he means "fiction." He confuses Jane and Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, thinks the Professor in Conrad's The Secret Agent is a real professor and fails to see that Don Quixote and Sancho Panza know exactly how they're depicted in the first half of Cervantes's work, since someone tells them at the beginning of the second (a particularly surprising oversight, given that their resulting self-consciousness shapes the couple's behavior throughout the rest of the novel). In How Fiction Works, he spends two full pages burbling over the delicious mystery, in Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, of Mr. Casey's having gotten his "three cramped fingers making a birthday present for Queen Victoria" (Why Queen Victoria? Whatever could the present have been?), when anyone can see that something sardonically political is intended, a suspicion confirmed by Richard Ellmann's standard biography of the author. Wood's prodigious ability to trace lines of descent across novelistic history, usually so illuminating, can become first a bookkeeper's compulsion (he'll complete his double entry whether it's relevant to the discussion or not), then an obsessive's delusion. Cormac McCarthy's Anton Chigurh is not a "reprise" of Conrad's Professor, even if one makes Wood think of the other; the only thing the two characters have in common is that they're both scary...

... We are immensely fortunate to have him--his talent, his erudition, his judgment--but if American criticism were to follow his lead, it would end up only in a desert.

Turkish author Murathan Mungan

Excerpt, from "Chador by Murathan Mungan: Journey into Nowhere"
(a few lines from a review of the novel Chador by Mungan)
By Volker Kaminski, © 2008, Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

Returning home can be a dangerous thing. Those who return to the cities of their birth after a long absence to search for relations or find their roots can get a rude awakening. They may find that no-one welcomes them with open arms and that the things and people they thought they knew are strange and cold to them....This is exactly how Akhbar feels when he returns to his native country after many years in exile. He lost contact with his family years ago, his father died at a young age, and Akhbar does not know whether his mother and siblings are still alive. Now he discovers that his beloved home has changed completely. Parts of the country have been destroyed by war; streets and houses are deserted...

The story begins with a drive over the border into a hot, desert-like country. The reader gets the impression that this country is Turkey. However, the world described in the book is not as the reader might expect. Many things seen through the eyes of the protagonist seem exaggerated.The reader gets wound up in events that seem fantastic, reason gives way to the fable, and everything becomes increasingly surreal until the reader realises that the things described in the book are born more out of a vision than any real experience.Mungan's language is very poetical. He makes every effort to achieve a clarity based on powerful images; sentences linger in the mind of the reader; atmospheres, smells, and noises become almost tangible, although the descriptions of them may seem a little exaggerated to western European readers.

Excerpt from "Murathan Mungan: The Muse of Mardin"
(a few lines from a profile of Mungan)
By Nimet Seker, © 2008, Translated from the German by Ron Walker

"Literature was long seen as a substitute for politics in Turkey. Literature was loved and popular in the service of politics."The words belong to Murathan Mungan. Mungan is a cult author in Turkey, every bit as well known and successful as Orhan Pamuk. He is not only a writer of literature and song lyrics – entire CDs have even been dedicated to him...Mungan stands apart in other ways too. It is not only his themes and his Kurdish-Arab roots that make him something of an unconventional figure. Mungan is homosexual and speaks openly about it. Like his characters, he too has an abrasive approach to taboos, and an outsider's regard for social norms and conventions...So far, none of Mungan's novels are available in English. A pity, it has to be said. It really is high time that the writer achieved wider international recognition.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Some of What's Happening Now

Stephen Sondheim’s musical about money and morality, Road Show, with a book by John Weidman, and directed by John Doyle, is at the Public Theater in lower Manhattan. The work of Sondheim reconciles passion and reason, fantasy and realism, and is impressive not only for its creativity but for its recognizable intelligence and truth.

There is a new collection of the music group Belle & Sebastian’s performances for the BBC from Matador Records; and a former Belle and Sebastian colleague, Isobel Campbell, performs with Mark Lanegan on the album Sunday at Devil Dirt, just out from V2. I expect these cult favorites will be welcomed enthusiastically.

I regret not being able to see A Christmas Tale, the new film about a troubled family with health issues at holiday time, by Arnaud Desplechin, featuring Catherine Deneuve and Mathieu Almeric. There is no place nearby showing it or likely to show it anytime soon. Stuart Klawans, for the November 6 Nextbook, has written about filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin (and his new film A Christmas Tale): “Desplechin tends toward overstuffed plots, theatrical conceits, rapid shifts in mood and style, and outrageously candid gestures. To these traits, he adds an element found not in Almodóvar but in the works of Woody Allen, whose inspiration he often acknowledges: a high level of literacy among the characters, and a correspondingly flighty level of chatter…With so much honor being heaped upon Desplechin, this might be the right moment to think about another of his distinctions, and a very curious one: he is contemporary cinema’s most Jewish non-Jewish director. Though as Catholic in upbringing as Almodóvar, Desplechin populates the margins of his films, and sometimes their centers, with surprise Jews, phantom Jews, Jews who wear their identity as openly as a badge…In case it should sound as if Desplechin’s maybe-Jews are an unpleasant lot, let me give a contrasting example: the old father in A Christmas Tale. A wise man, good-humored despite his troubles and free of all vanity, this character might be said to look Jewish, bears the vaguely Jewish first name of Abel, and works in a business (textiles) often associated with Jews…”

For a long time, I did not know anything about Destiny's Child or Beyonce Knowles. Until she released her first solo recording, I hadn't given her much thought; and then she got my attention when she was cast in Dreamgirls and the comparisons to Miss Ross began; and now I do find her fascinating for her talent and a bit amusing for the ferocious directness of her ambition, for which she has not been punished yet (unlike other female performers in the past). I am curious to see how her career develops, regarding both music and film. Here are some of the observations of Beyonce Knowles on her new movie, Cadillac Records, from an article in the New York Times, November 14: “Ms. Knowles said that Ms. Martin and the other actors made her feel secure enough to delve into Ms. James’s demons, allowing her to elevate her work beyond her own expectations. ‘For the first time, I was able to feel that out-of-body experience in a movie that I feel onstage,’ she said. She put on weight — 15 pounds — to match Ms. James’s size and added a rougher physicality to her movements; she sings two songs associated with Ms. James with confidence and authority.”

There is so much culture in New York, though not everyone participates in it. There, as elsewhere, culture is the obsession of a relative few: though because the population there is greater, there is also a signficant amount of people involved in it, enough to support a lot of it. reports that “Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg presented the 2008 Mayor’s Awards for Arts & Culture to six individuals and organizations in celebration of their outstanding contributions to New York City's cultural life.” The ceremony was held at the Apollo theater, and hosted by singer-actress Vanessa Williams. The Awards were created in 1974 by the Cultural Affairs Advisory Commission; and the 2008 Mayor’s Awards Recipients included: Alliance of Resident Theatres / New York; Arthur Aviles of the the Arthur Aviles Typical Theatre and the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance (BAAD!); Dr. Sharon Dunn, an arts educator;Galt MacDermott, a composer and pianist; the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, for supporting the arts; and Rush Arts Gallery & Corridor Gallery.

The literary critic John Leonard, who championed a wide range of writers, in very eloquent and thoughtful language died November 5th. Today, it is reported that another well-known critic of dance and culture, Clive Barnes, has died.

Saturday, November 22, in Henderson, Louisiana, is the Atchafalaya Basin Festival, one of many fall Louisiana festivals; and on November 29 and 30 is a Native American gathering in Gonzales, Louisiana, a powwow.

News reports in the New York Times and elsewhere indicate Eric Holder Jr. is likely to be U.S. Attorney General, and Tom Daschle will be the Secretary of Health and Human Services, in the administration of Barack Obama.

In Louisiana, Brittney Gary, a 17 year-old girl who was missing for several days, has been found dead, another among a group of girls found dead, in Jefferson Davis parish; and a funeral fund has been set up in her name. People wonder if a serial killer is active; and, there have been reports that several of the girls had cocaine in their bodies. Much of the daily news--on television and in newspapers--is about crime, and even minor crimes are prominently reported. It is hard not to feel in danger when so much attention is paid to violence, even as one looks around as sees reasonably established security. That there is so much nature here--a fundamental wildness--also contributes to that sense of danger.

Meanwhile, regarding international affairs, the United Nations News Centre reports that Israel is blockading Gaza again, which has produced a crisis of poverty in the past.

What is reality? How much thought is based on belief, and how much on reason and fact? In author Ronald Aronson’s “Choosing to Know,” from the online magazine Butterflies and Wheels: “In over thirty countries, including every other advanced society, a higher percentage of the general population accepts evolution: in pious Ireland, for example, the number accepting evolution is sixty percent higher than in the U.S.! Americans are just as likely to choose to believe in ghosts and UFOs as Creationism, and only somewhat less likely to believe in witches and astrology…Truth, then, can never be the realm of the dogmatic, inflexible demand and the obedient, submissive response. Nor is it the postmodern space occupied by a near-infinity of individual and group points of view. Its spirit is not best imbibed passively, by rote, or by accepting that everyone’s claim to truth is as valid as everyone else’s. It is generated actively, among people, questioningly, challengingly. To choose to learn today is to accept living within this process, to embrace being part of the widest possible human community…”

In the Brooklyn Rail article “A New Type of Human Being and Who We Really Are,” a piece that looks at contemporary culture and how opposition often fails to have an effect, writer and thinker Robert Hullot-Kentor states, “This criticism of all things that amounts to criticism of nothing at all is what is being discussed here; the point deserves to be emphasized and expanded. No one doubts the degree of social dissatisfaction and distress; millions are now displaced in the wreckage of homes, families and any plausible future. Over the course of the past eight years an acutely ascending line has in full public knowledge graphed the growing distress that has culminated in this moment.”

Impression: Food

One of the local (southern Louisiana) publications did an article on Blue Bell ice cream, the product of a local (Texas) creamery; and I had that ice cream today, shortly after noon: the brand's pralines flavor, which I liked. I had been thinking about pralines, a sugary candy made with pecans, that I had a lot of when I was a boy and I hadn't had it since I've been back and I had considered making some, so today's ice cream was a special treat. Some of the other things I had recalled from youth I have had: boudin, a sausage made with a meat and rice dressing traditionally stuffed into a casing made of pork intestine (I had it once, thought it tasted good, but remembered how it was made and thought it might be the last time I had it); hog cracklin' (pork skins), deliciously salty and also a bit oily; and popcorn balls, balls of popcorn held together with hot, carmelizing syrup. One aunt has shared her cooking on Sundays and that has included a good okra gumbo. My mother's cooking is much better than it was when I was young, though I do not like everything she cooks. She has made a good chicken stew, spicy, nearly sweet, and some green vegetable dishes that I've liked a lot. I have had barbecue only about three times, two restaurant purchases and one a church fair purchase, and only once was it very, very good. Maybe it is the season, autumn, but there seems less of it than I remembered. Some of the meals I have eaten have been remarkably good but some have also been very disappointing (a meal I had in New Orleans was disappointing; and also a couple of "po' boy" sandwiches I had here have been disappointing--they were not made to be filling, as they were when I was actually a boy and they were not particularly tasty, and it was funny to think that the franchise Subway makes sandwiches that are closer to what I remember than the local places). I myself have cooked several simple but well-seasoned pasta dishes, and also French toast, a favorite of mine that I have for breakfast on Sundays (my grandmother used to make French toast; and I had it as well in New York, sometimes for brunch or supper). Every once in a while I'll watch a television program on cooking, such as the Mario Batali/Gwyneth Paltrow show on traveling in Spain or one of the local public broadcasting food programs. Cooking is a necessity and an art and I find it fascinating. I know that I am limited by my budget, but, in general, the food here hasn't been as good as its reputation. (I think the people hired to cook in the past used to love to do it and were good at it! It wasn't just a job.) I hope I'll have more money in time so that I can do more exploring of a wider range of restaurants.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Laurence Fishburne

I think that I first saw Laurence Fishburne in 1979 in the film Apocalypse Now, directed by Francis Coppola; and I saw him late last night (early this morning) on television in 1997's Hoodlum, directed by Bill Duke, and co-starring Vanessa Williams, Cicely Tyson, Tim Roth, Andy Garcia, and Chi McBride. It is a film about gangsters--Dutch Shultz (Roth), Lucky Luciano (Garcia), Stephanie St. Claire (Tyson), and Bumpy Johnson (Fishburne). It was interesting to see different generations of actors--such as Tyson and Williams--in a single film, but I was impressed by the intelligence, strength, and sexual magnetism that Laurence Fisbhburne embodied. His performance was not particularly nuanced (nor was the film) and yet I found it riveting and nearly felt a transfusion of strength as I watched Fisbburne.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Racism Persists (Chapter 389)

The Christian Science Monitor reports, as have other publications, that many in Europe welcome Senator Barack Obama as president-elect, but we are reminded that not every American approves of that election: “The election of America’s first black president has triggered more than 200 hate-related incidents, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center – a record in modern presidential elections. Moreover, the white nationalist movement, bemoaning an election that confirmed voters' comfort with a multiracial demography, expects Mr. Obama’s election to be a potent recruiting tool – one that watchdog groups warn could give new impetus to a mostly defanged fringe element,” writes the Christian Science Monitor’s staff writer Patrik Jonsson (yes, Patrik Jonsson), in the publication’s November 17, 2008 issue (“After Obama's win, white backlash festers in US”). It is widely thought that the first Africans arrived in America in 1619; and it seems as if that presence is not, after all this time, fully accepted. Surprise.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Ideal Film Culture in Louisiana?

Several weeks ago I asked several questions of diverse persons involved with Louisiana culture; and here are two answers to a single question regarding Louisiana film culture...

Daniel queries Alexandyr Kent, film reviewer:

What would a more ideal film culture look like, or be, in Louisiana?

Alexandyr Kent: That’s tough to answer for me. I’d begin by looking at the habits of movie-going itself.

We have enough movie theaters, generally speaking, and it’s nice to see the fall and winter lineups featuring popular arthouse/foreign films. It’s nice to see commercial appreciation for high-quality films.

Primarily, though, I think most moviegoers see movies as escapism or light entertainment. There’s nothing wrong with that. What worries me, however, is that some viewers may not be concerned with a movie’s potential seriousness of purpose (or its misrepresentations of society, culture, history, desire, etc.). I’d like to hear more conversations – by both viewers, reporters and critics – about subject matter and film form, and less about celebrity PR. It’s wishful thinking, but healthy doses of intellect and skepticism never hurt anyone.

If you attend theaters like the Prytania in N.O., like the Angelika chain in Dallas or New York, like the Robinson Film Center in Shreveport, they encourage a deeper engagement in the medium. They encourage, but do not force, deeper inquiry.

I wish multiplex chains would do this in a more overt way, and I think it would start by simply offering consumers appropriate spaces – like restaurants, cafes, coffeeshops, bars or ice cream counters – to digest what they see. Audiences often seem to be in a rush to leave the theater.

By their very design, many multiplex movie theaters don’t encourage consumers to pause and reflect, and that’s a shame to me. Look, on the other hand, at how bookstore chains like Border’s and B&N have encouraged customers to linger by adding cafes, comfy chairs and programming kids’ events and book signings. Bookstores and movie theaters are not mirror-image businesses – you don’t have to buy a ticket to get into a bookshop -- but they have a lot to offer one another when it comes to designing an experience.

Daniel queries Susie Labry, an actress, singer, and film community activist:

What would a more ideal film culture look like, or be, in Louisiana?

Susie Labry: I would like to see more professionalism in the film industry. I want to see our culture preserved and maintained and respect for one another’s cultures as we are a diverse culture and that is what makes it interesting. I want to see history and culture maintained and preserved. Want to see more Louisiana talent used. I want to Louisiana music and more sets used here. I want to see the workers work together as family and yet have healthy competition and quality. There needs to be a balance where both Employers and Employees and Contracts all benefit all. I want to see us as Louisiana unique, not mainstream and looking like everyone else. Just as colorful and exciting as its original music and food industry. Preserve our way, music, food, architecture, history, etc.

Friday, November 14, 2008


Before leaving New York for Louisiana, hoping to do some journalism, I had contacted several publishers here and I renewed that contact with a number of them upon my arrival, without success: most of the publications are small in terms of staff and budget, and unfortunately some of them have sensibilities to match (the provincialism is blunt and even proud). There are a few other publishers that stated an interest in the possibility of my doing something with them, and I have been trying to come up with projects--for one of them, involving the subject of regional film, I have received, thus far, only a few responses from possible interview subjects. Yesterday, I submitted my resume to a couple of art galleries in Lafayette, Louisiana, with no significant expectations, and also, elsewhere, for a couple of office jobs. Earlier in the week, I did some painting of the roof of my mother's house, and today helped her pick oranges off a couple of trees that she has at the edge of the yard. I learned yesterday that some New York mail is being forwarded to me, by a friend, after several delays. I would like to think more about literary concerns, specificially about a fiction project, but that is not what has been on my mind, at least not in terms of writing or reading, though I have been thinking about the difficulty of cultivating an audience. I saw an interview that Charlie Rose conducted with John Updike, and Updike said that it was his Rabbit books that put him on the literary map and if it wasn't for those his work would be like the Baltic republics. Obviously, it is important to do something that achieves critical and popular success, something that can become a reference point, a fount of authority, for others. And, various other matters have crossed my mind: the transition of Senator Obama into president; the death of South African singer Miriam Makeba, whose Sangoma album is still a favorite; the changing, cooling and rainy weather; and November 15th as Native American culture day; etc. But, mostly, the difficulties involved in creating a complete life and a successful career have been what I have been thinking about.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Impression: Landscape

I rode a bike into New Iberia today, Saturday, and the roads coming in were busier with cars than they seem during the weekday. I have begun to notice the landscape less than before. During my first weeks here in Louisiana, often, the cane fields, and woods, and pretty houses, set against the blue sky, white clouds, and whatever trees might be in the distance, would strike me as beautiful. I mentioned to a friend that when I grew up here I did not spend a great deal of time thinking of how beautiful the land is, though when someone would ask me about the south I would mention the land: rather, when I was a boy, the times when the land seemed beautiful were rare revelations of the sublime. Many of the houses are prettier now than they were when I was growing up. And of course, I am even more conscious of different kinds of beauty than I was then (thanks to an immersion in painting and film). I know that others, too, are more conscious of the "beauty" of Louisiana, as it's mentioned in things that are written about the state, and I have thought that the environmental movement and the greater appreciation of folk (and world) culture have led to more appreciation by the locals for the land and culture that are here, not only out of personal or family pride but partly because of the desire for tourist dollars...Sometimes it is wonderful to pass a homestead with a fenced-in area that collects cattle or horses, or to see a small copse of trees along the road, or a even well-kept lawn (and most of the lawns are very well-kept)...

Alberto Fuguet's novel The Movies of My Life

Writer's Note: Many of us love movies to excess and it is a great temptation to refer to them in various mediums and Alberto Fuguet is one writer who has made films an important subject in his novel...

Alberto Fuguet. The Movies of My Life. Ezra E. Fitz, translator. Rayo/Harper Collins. New York. 287 pages. 0-06-053462-1.

The Movies of My Life, by Chilean author Alberto Fuguet, is a family romance of anger and sweetness, countless aunts and uncles and more grandparents than most children need, class differences, adultery, and—friendship. It is the biography of an individual mind; and an exploration of a science that combines technology and uncontrollable natural force, seismology. The novel is also a love letter to the fondly remembered films of childhood. It is not enchanting, but it is pleasing.

The reader meets Beltran, who studies earthquakes, as he prepares to take a flight from Santiago de Chile to Japan for a conference. Shortly before he leaves for the airport, Beltran’s sister telephones him to say that his grandfather died in El Salvador. Beltran expresses no grief; and he is not given to being charming, and fearlessly asserts his rights—to the airline when it suggests rescheduling his flight due to overbooking and to his seat partner when she seems inclined to intrude on his privacy. (Beltran says about his work: “I liked being surrounded by people who were completely unable to relate to themselves or to each other. There is no greater paradise on earth than the microcosm of science—and now, especially computer science—for those who don’t dare to die but also are unable to live like the rest.” pg. 32) Beltran is an alienated figure, one of many in modern literature; and part of this story is the telling of how he became that way. The text moves among various time-periods; that, a fragmented narrative, and carefully distilled information are also traits of a modern literary text such as this one. Beltran’s unexpectedly friendly conversation with the woman seated next to him includes her mention of a list of favorite movies; and that inspires his own film lists—which he will send to her via e-mail.

The films are fun—and counterpoint to the political upheavals of the time (Nixon, Allende, Pinochet), distraction, expression, and guide; alternative narratives. Napoleon and Samantha features an actress who reminds the boy, Beltran, of a girl he’s infatuated with; The King and I stars an actor one of Beltran’s aunts is briefly married to, Yul Brynner; and Beltran sees Earthquake! with his seismologist grandfather and realizes the man’s fundamental fear of earthquakes; Beltran’s first orgasm is inspired by memory of Jacqueline Bissett in a wet T-shirt in The Deep; and Beltran takes his mother to see An Unmarried Woman to help her become reconciled to being a single woman. The book, while being a very literary text, is enjoyable for its demonstration of how pop culture intersects with youth in the modern world. We see as part of Beltran’s memories sudden changes in culture (from Santiago to Inglewood and Encino in California), schoolyard abuse, a distant father, a mournful mother, and a scientist grandfather who introduces him to a field that has both practical and imaginative uses.

Fuguet has replaced magical realism with the force of personality, human purpose, and nature.

© DG, 2004

Sentences on Sounds

All texts © DG

Excerpt from “Beyond Category: Gnarls Barkley's The Odd Couple and St. Elsewhere"

Most of the songs on St. Elsewhere are short, which is shrewd—there is not enough time to grow bored beyond one’s initial fascination. Light, textured instrumentation is married to a soulful—big, expressive—voice, that of Thomas Callaway (Cee-Lo Green)… Thomas Callaway’s voice, in which I hear traces of Sam Cooke and Al Green, is not the kind one would expect to be heard and appreciated in a culture in which so much excessive and false masculinity is celebrated; and yet it has been heard—and it resonates in the hearts of many: androgynous, clear, dramatic, soulful…Charity Case” is the first of thirteen songs on Gnarls Barkley’s The Odd Couple. “If I help somebody, maybe there’s mercy for me,” says the narrator in “Charity Case,” which does seem a continuation of the music and themes of St. Elsewhere, in its mixture of style and passion, dance and dread. More direct, less ambiguous, is the plaintive questioning of “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul” (“Who’s gonna save my soul now? How will my story ever be told?” “Is it possible you are hurting worse than me?”)… The Odd Couple and St. Elsewhere deepen the pair’s value: each project is an expansion of skill, vision, and authority; and an artist’s authority increases with his or her ability to engage broad, diverse, significant human experiences.

Excerpt from “What One Young Man Made of His Freedom: Liam Finn, I'll Be Lightning"

Finn achieves what seems a personal voice—not the voice one speaks in but the voice one thinks with, the voice that is changed when one feels, the voice others usually do not hear: a voice of sensitivity and serenity, a voice of imagination and investigation.

Excerpt from “Energy, Honesty, Intelligence, Tradition and Possibility: The Clash, London Calling"

“Death or Glory” conflates crime, domestic violence, rock and roll exploitation, market research, and sexual violation—lives of immorality and greed. Listening to the song, I actually thought of Jackson Browne and Bruce Springsteen, also 1970s contemporaries of the Clash (I thought of the Jackson Browne of 1977’s Running on Empty and the Springsteen of 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, and their attempts to marry musical momentum and meaning, their attempts to sound naturally observant and particularly insightful). However, the ambition (an ambition as political as it is artistic) and the anarchic energies of the Clash are probably closer to those of Patti Smith, androgynous, impassioned, and intelligent, she of the large voice, literary references, rock star heroes, and shamanic manner—the principal force and visionary of Horses, Easter, Dream of Life, Land, and the tribute album Twelve, a woman who understood that art is both discipline and revelation.

Excerpt from “Where the White Boys Dance: The Killers, Sawdust"

The collection, Sawdust, is mostly a lot of fun, and is better than I expected it to be (I liked Sam’s Town, but its earnest quality limited the sense of sensuality)… It does not take much guessing to identify the band’s influences (the band is reaching up over the heads of many of its contemporaries to touch the rock tradition: a form of respecting the parents that kids do not frequently like, when they recognize it).

Excerpt from “The Ordinary Lives of Intelligent People: Bell and Sebastian's If You're Feeling Sinister"

The clichés of romance and success, the usual clichés, are not the themes of the band’s songs: instead, the small moments, the found moments and objects, of the ordinary lives of intelligent young people are those that are featured: moments involving contemplation, flirtation, withheld secrets, modern technology’s use, mundane institutions, news media, simple homes, promiscuity, self-regard, the observation of others, social class, sexual complexity, lost chances, official power, age and time, madness, unfair retribution, violence, cinema, alienation, sports, music, tall tales, suicide, betrayal, guilt, and more: and, suddenly, the ordinary lives of intelligent people no longer seem that ordinary.

Excerpt from “The Lasting Icon: Elvis Presley and his 30 #1 Hits"

Hearing Elvis Presley’s songs again, I become aware that a song can break your heart—and it’s not always the song you think it is going to be or for the reason you expect. A song can remind you, as it has me, of a time when you were younger, when you took much for granted, and you can weep at that kind of innocence, even though innocence—or ignorance—came to cause you so much pain.

Excerpt from “Howlin' Wolf and the Blues, Then and Now"

A favorite song of mine, “Who’s Been Talkin’,” was written by Howlin’ Wolf, and it is about a relationship break-up told through a woman’s plans to leave and travel, a leave-taking partly inspired by gossip about the male narrator’s behavior. Who has been telling his secrets? Wolf sings “Goodbye baby, hate to see you go” and “You know I love you. I’m the causin’ of it all.” Another song is full of characters, and it’s a party song, but one in which excitement seems the equivalent of aggression—in which there is little difference between partying and causing trouble—and that song is “Wang Dang Doodle.” (Maybe fighting is a pleasure you allow yourself if you do not have the social space to confront your most vital issues.

Excerpt from “Traditions, Transformations: Leela James, A Change Is Gonna Come"

In the collection of songs A Change Is Gonna Come, Leela James is attempting to cover a lot of ground. One can only speculate about what will become of her. Often the establishment—the musical establishment, the critical establishment, any establishment—does not know what to do with someone who isn’t a blank slate, easily manageable: someone who is not coming to be shaped by others, but has her own ambitions. What helps or hurts a career can be a matter of impressing the wrong people in the right way or the right people in the wrong way. Modern bureaucracies—companies, institutions—seem to say, “We’re not here to help you. We’re here to get from you what we require, to make you of use to us.” Sometimes the achievement of public identity is a triumph of image or rhetoric, not being. Of course, free and questing people are the most interesting kind. One wants a lifelong conversation with such people.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Senator (President-Elect) Obama and the Arts

People have begun, already, to discuss how President-Elect Obama might relate to, and influence, the arts. The Alliance for the Arts November 5 Bulletin, as well as the online digest Arts Journal, both outline some of the proposals that Senator Obama supports, proposals that include arts education for children, including creation of an artists corps allowing artists to teach in low-income schools; health care for artists; greater consideration for artists regarding taxation, such as allowing deductions for the market value of work given as a charitable contribution; increased funding for the National Endowment for the Arts; and international cultural exchange, including improving the visa process. Already, the Senator's campaign has inspired artists--visual artists and musicians, among others--who supported him and celebrated him in their work. If he as president supports the arts as many expect, and if he advances the social and political policies he has proposed during his campaign, it is very likely that he will be an important force in the arts, with significant impact.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

International Film

Writer's Note: It is important to look beyond one's own province to see what is in the world, its beauty and its ideas and its power; and films, like literature and music and other arts, are windows across the world. (The texts below were written over several years, this year and in previous years.) It is fascinating to discover both similiarities and differences among people.

All texts © DG

Excerpt from “Turkish Films: The Prisoners, Love and Honor, Bliss and Dry Summer

Many Turkish films dealt with the timeless subjects of love, loyalty, place, family, and society; and the tonal palette of the films vary, both hot and cool, with some of the films becoming notorious for their indulgence in emotion. It is sad then that few of its films have been known to most informed filmgoers, that more of us have not had a chance to see some of the country’s best work for ourselves, although there have been, and are, festivals devoted to Turkish film in American cities, such as Atlanta and Boston and New York, and cities around the world, such as Berlin and Rio and Sydney. It was a good opportunity for me to see Turkish films in Manhattan, The Prisoners and Love and Honor on June 11, and Bliss and Dry Summer on June 13, especially in light of the decline—often attributed to the popularity of television and video, and fluctuations in the Turkish economy—in the quantity of the country’s filmmaking, with now about fifty films produced annually….The film Bliss (2007) is a film of beauty, challenge, emotion, tradition, and truth; and every image in the film is gorgeous. (The screening’s printed program gave the film’s date as 2006, which may or may not have been the time of its making, but most other sources I have seen list its date as 2007, the year of its release.) Based on a novel of the same name by Zulfu Livaneli, with a screenplay credited to Kubilay Tuncer, Elif Ayan, and Abdullah Oguz, the film stars Ozgu Namal as Meryem, and Murat Han as Cemal, and Talat Bulut as Irfan.

Excerpt from “Letters from the Rest of the World: the book Dreams of a Nation, On Palestinian Cinema

Dreams of a Nation is a small collection of essays on Palestinian film, on the aesthetics, history, politics, and reception of Palestinian film: it is a thoughtful and sometimes provocative book; and its strengths are its clarity, its focus, and its passion, as it argues that Palestinian film is an affirmation of Palestinian identity, an identity that is threatened by exile, by slander, by violence; but, sometimes, with no lack of sympathy for the injustices of history, one reads the book and longs for a little more film criticism and a little less historical context, for a little more objectivity and a little less outrage. Dreams of a Nation, edited and introduced by Hamid Dabashi, with a concluding essay by Dabashi, and a preface by the late, great Edward Said, contains essays by Annemarie Jacir, Joseph Massad, Michel Khleifi, Bashir Abu-Manneh, Ella Shohat, Hamid Naficy, Nizar Hassan, and Omar al-Qattan; and notes on the chapters; contributors’ biographies; a Palestinian cinema filmography; and a bibliography on Palestinian cinema. The book Dreams of a Nation is a helpful work, a valuable work, and while broadly suggestive, it does not exhaust its subject.

Excerpt from “Memoirs from the Beijing Film Academy: International Cinema, and Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou’s school days”

The cinema of the Fifth Generation represents and comments on Chinese history and life, from the ancient to the contemporary, focusing on the cosmopolitan and the rural, and developing Chinese film practice and reception, in terms of aesthetics and audience, despite censorship and local and international commercial influences. Many of us see these films and love them for their exuberant color and emotion, for their willingness to explore serious themes and still give us extreme sensation and great pleasure: and for their ability to focus on small portraits of lives that have gone ignored, uncelebrated, unremarked. Ni Zhen is a professor of the Beijing Film Academy, an instructor, friend, and colleague of the Fifth Generation, and the author of The Exploratory Screen and Reform in the Chinese Cinema; and he wrote the film scripts for Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern and Li Shaohong’s Blush. Memoirs from the Beijing Film Academy by Ni Zhen is a detailed, intimate, and thoughtful history of the aesthetic formation and practice of an important generation of Chinese film students whose works have gone on to receive the love and high regard of filmgoers around the world. The book is a testament to the importance of discipline, study, work, good fellowship, spiritual fortitude, tradition, and innovation. One reads it and knows that culture does not stop at national borders.

Excerpt from “Violence and Intimacy in Germany, Israel, and Palestine. Imitating One’s Enemies: Eytan Fox’s Walk on Water

Walk on Water, written by Gal Uchovsky and directed by Eytan Fox, is a film about an Israeli intelligence agent, a member of the Mossad who performs the duties of a detective and a professional killer (it’s fascinating to have American and Israeli films that take for granted that government employees, other than those in an army established for national defense, are hired and trained to kill: and yet, of course, denials arise usually when those people are actually charged with killing: culture contains more truth than politics)… Walk on Water is a film that offers pleasure and insight, including the pleasure of insight, as it explores family, politics—the relationship between Germans and Israeli Jews, and the possibilities for friendship, love, and sex. Its characters are made believable by their moods and their thoughts, whether it is cheer or bitterness that they feel. What does the present owe the past, and how much must the personal yield to the political? How can honesty and hope coexist? The film’s embrace of complexity is refreshing, stimulating, and satisfying. Walk on Water offers images of Istanbul, Israel, and Germany that alone make the film worth seeing. More than seventy locations in Israel and Germany were filmed in less than a month. The film cost a little over half a million Euros but it looks as if it cost much, much more. It is panoramic and intimate.

Excerpt from “The Saddest Music in the World”

The Saddest Music in the World, directed by Guy Maddin, and written by Maddin and George Toles based on an original screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro (author of An Artist of the Floating World, and The Remains of the Day), is more than one kind of moving picture: an experimental film; a musical comedy; a story of family troubles—an exploration of rivalry between father and son, and between brothers; an exploration of a woman’s crippling and the defiance and malice that has come out of it; a story about how a company calculatingly exploits human misery for money; a view of emblematic moments when people in the world seem to come together in both competition and community; a consideration of memory and forgetting—different ways of handling trauma; and the story of how one man’s confidence is defeated by circumstance, a lover’s rage, his own carelessness, and an old woman’s mocking prophecy. Guy Maddin, with cinematographer Luc Montpellier and production designer Matthew Davies, has made a new film that looks appealingly old—and its newness is not simply the fact that it was recently constructed but that its spirit is new: knowing (aware of motives base and pretentious, passionate and cunning; aware of different cultural forms around the world and the fundamental need of survival that unites all people); mocking (the crushing things from which people seem barely to survive render their hopes and pride poignant in one moment and ridiculous in another); and sympathetic (after all is said and done, whatever happens is simply another chapter in the story of humanity).

Excerpt from “Everything Must Change: Kim Ki-Duk’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, … and Spring; and Alexander Sokurov’s Father and Son

Father and Son is one of several recent Russian films on the familial relations between males, such as Boris Khlebnikov and Alexei Popogrebsky’s Koktebel and Andrei Zvyagintsev’s The Return. Western mainstream films are more likely to be about quests for money, power, and women. Although we regularly see male lust in other films onscreen, we rarely see male love: we rarely see a constancy of care and intensity, even between men who are relatives or long-time friends. I think Sokurov asked himself, Why shouldn’t men say exactly what they mean to say—or need to say—to each other?—and had father and son do exactly that.

Impression: Politics

I did not know of Louisiana's Mary Landrieu until September. Since then I have seen her in two political debates with John N. Kennedy, during her campaign to be elected again to the U.S. senate. I was impressed by her intelligence and grasp of the issues, and by what seemed her honesty and directness. She is respected as a very competent political person who is not driven by ideology but by the demands of her state and the substance of issues; and she is part of, and sometimes the leader of, various important congressional committees: she is on the appropriations committee, the energy committee, the small business committee, and chairs the disaster recovery submittee (of the larger government affairs committee). I was not positively impressed by her opponent--and found his responses to various questions pandering, too simple, and inadequate, and thought that the fact that it was a close race very suggestive about the intellectual and political requirements of the voting populace. (He ran a campaign similiar in its nastiness, and in its failure to define him and his principles, to that of John McCain and Hillary Clinton.) Luckily, Landrieu did win by some 50,000 votes, a reassuring fact, especially in an election year when most of the state's votes seems to have gone to conservative Senator John McCain rather than the progressive candidate, and the election winner, Senator Barack Obama, who embodied hope, intellect, and unity, in the national presidential race. I was pleased that New York supported Senator Obama and troubled that Louisiana did not, a fact that seems a commitment by many in the state to old ways of being, thinking, and governing.

One of the local election issues in Louisiana actually involves desegregation: as Nathan Stubbs wrote yesterday on the web site of a local weekly paper, The Independent, “One of the most dramatic local stories will involve the fate of Ville Platte High School. For the third time this year, voters are being asked to approve a property tax increase that would go toward a bond issue to renovate the deteriorating 100-year-old facility.” Why? “With a predominately-black student population, Ville Platte High is at the center of a 45-year-old desegregation case facing the parish - an issue has divided the town along racial and socioeconomic lines. The federal Justice Department says that if the bond issue on today’s ballot fails, it plans to shut down the school.” The bond issue did not pass—it did fail.

President-Elect Barack Hussein Obama!

Yesterday, with the results announced last night, the American people elected the junior senator from Illinois, Senator Obama, as the next president of the United States. It is a happy day, and a very promising time. It would be wonderful for us all to be equal to that promise.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

On the margin of the margins?

How does one reconcile public optimism and private despair, or general disbelief and personal ambition?

It is easy to be concerned with whatever other people are concerned with, out of a sense of community or duty. It is easy to give one’s attention and energy to family, religion, sports. After all, many people only respect individual intelligence as a tool, as a tool of deception and manipulation. It is easy to give attention and energy to ordinary work or indulgence in common pleasures. Who wants to be on the margins of the social world? Who wants to be on the margin of the margins? It is easy to find solace in distraction, in simple escapes. It is easy to spend time wondering about the latest episode of television programs such as “CSI” and “Law and Order” and “Without a Trace,” programs that show transgression, and its trace, and its termination in punishment (programs that can be embodiments not simply of moral lessons but of the pornography of violence: many of these programs show bruised and battered bodies, and one program showed recently the beginning of an autopsy of a murdered man, in which a Y was cut into his chest and his skin and flesh peeled back to show his internal organs). On the other hand, some television programs—especially the comedies, such as “Will and Grace” and “Two and a Half Men” and “New Adventures of Old Christine”—offer reflections of the different formations present among current social relations (as they focus on friends, unusual intimate relationships, broken marriages, etc.). It is easy to listen to radio programs that encourage fear, and the demonization of people whose politics are different from our own. (There are southern, conservative radio programs that offer emphatic statements about Senator Obama’s ideas that are, actually, the exact opposite of what he has believed and done.) It is easy to belittle and dismiss and gossip about others. If you do not take a man seriously, you do not have to take his ideas, his demands, or his needs seriously. It is easy, also, to ridicule what is idiosyncratic. How could one not laugh at a television news story that profiles a snack vendor who sells deep-fried Snickers bars, to first skeptical then enthusiastic customers, as occurred here just days ago? It is harder to take a comprehensive look at one’s self and at others and to be honest about one’s genuine feelings, one’s most persistent ideas, one’s deepest hopes, one’s greatest ambition. It is more difficult to be an individual, to be rigorously intelligently, honestly sensitive, whether or not that puts one with others or apart from others. Often we do not have the courage to die—but what is worse is not to have the courage to live.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Current Events, and What Is to Come

Writing in the November 1, 2008 issues of the Canadian publication The Globe and Mail, journalist Guy Dixon declares, “As the bestselling New York writer Sarah Vowell notes in her new book The Wordy Shipmates, there is a lot of carry-over rhetoric from the earliest English-American settlers to the present day. The original sermons uttered by Puritans washing ashore in the New World not only defined what was to become the American belief of a chosen land for a chosen people, their words still echo in today's stump speeches.” Guy Dixon discusses a time when education and eloquence mattered, were part of both promise and practice, something that inspired essayist and novelist Sarah Vowell, who was repelled by the narrow uses to which some people put those ideas and words in contemporary times, a feeling that led to her historical research and her book The Wordy Shipmates. Interestingly, some of the early Americans had ideals that might be considered lofty today. Guy Dixon goes on to note the observations of Vowell: “And words, along with education and general learnedness, continued to be held in high esteem once they settled in Massachusetts. ‘They just loved words and writing and reading … not just the volume of it, but the quality as well. I’m just continually amazed by how much writing they did considering they were in a lot of ways regular old pioneers,” Vowell says over the phone during her current book tour.”

“Two Paths for the Novel” is Zadie Smith’s consideration of the contemporary novel, as part of her review of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder (New York Review of Books, Vol 55 No 18, November 20, 2008).

Caleb Crain, in his review of a book on loneliness, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, by John T. Cacioppo & William Patrick, from Norton: “People do like to be alone sometimes. But no one likes to feel lonely – to feel that they are alone against their will, or that the social contacts they do have are without deeper meaning. According to Cacioppo and Patrick the feeling of loneliness is the least of it. They present scientific evidence suggesting that loneliness seriously burdens human health. By middle age, the lonely are less likely to exercise and more likely to eat a high-fat diet, and they report experiencing a greater number of stressful events. Loneliness correlates with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s. During a four-year study, lonely senior citizens were more likely to end up in nursing homes; during a nine-year study, people with fewer social ties were two to three times more likely to die.” (Abu Dhabi's The National, October 30, 2008)

Jonathan Davis has a new recording, The Renaissance. Davis is better known as Q-Tip, of the innovative hip hop group A Tribe Called Quest.

The luminous Nicole Kidman and the dashing and fun Hugh Jackman are in Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, an epic of the country down-under, opening later this year. The New York Times features a short slide show of Kidman and Jackman, wearing clothes from the film—she looks great!

An old Catherine Zeta Jones movie, Entrapment, was featured this past weekend on southern Louisiana television. Zeta-Jones, a uniquely beautiful woman, sophisticated and sensitive, is scheduled to appear in Bart Freundlich's film The Rebound, about the relationship between a single mother and a younger man.

In Louisiana, the Second Saturday ArtWalk is planned for downtown Lafayette, November 8, 2008. The Acadiana Symphony Orchestra is to present a tribute to film and film music that night too, November 8, also in Lafayette at the Heymann Center (and present Viennese classical work on January 25, 2009, at Angelle Hall in Lafayette). Days later, November 15, a wild game and seafood cook-off is planned for New Iberia at SugArena. The Lafayette Ballet Theatre will feature The Nutcracker on the 6th and 7th of December, at Heymann Center, Lafayette. A Crawfish Town celebration will occur in Henderson and Cecilia, December 13. February 14, 2009 is the Mardi Gras parade, beginning in downtown Lafayette. And, a little later in the month, there's a Blue Note Records tribute at Heymann Center, February 27. Many Louisiana festivals are in the fall but in the spring there are some too, including an Etouffee festival in Arnaudville, on the Little Flower school grounds, April 24 through 26, 2009; and a crawfish festival in Breaux Bridge, May 1st through the 3rd. A Cinema on the Bayou festival is scheduled in Lafayette for May 25th through 29th!

The British magazine The New Statesman has an article on its web site about Israeli harassment of Palestinian farmers.

The just-ended elections were credible, peaceful and transparent, said the electoral observer mission team leader John Kunene, of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), of the October 30 elections in Zaire, in an report ("Zambia: A Successful Democratic Election"), November 3, 2008.

Senators Obama and McCain are currently holding rallies in different parts of the United States, their last efforts to get people out to vote. There are concerns about vote suppression and voter fraud, but there are plans to monitor the election for such. The race is close, but many expect Senator Obama to prevail.

Africa on Film

Writer's Note: The piece on Lumumba, the film on the African freedom fighter and Congolese prime minister Patrice Lumumba, and the ABC Africa film review, and the Ousmane Sembene piece were written at different times.

Raoul Peck’s Lumumba

Raoul Peck’s Lumumba is a mostly well-made, good looking film about the short but important political career of Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of the post-revolutionary Congo (also known as Zaire) in 1960, after a struggle against Belgium for independence.

The film begins and ends with the murder of Patrice Lumumba intercut with shots of military strongman Joseph Mobutu on his throne (the corrupt Mobutu was backed by European and American powers), and this interweaving clearly connects the murder of Lumumba with the rise of Mobutu. (Both African locals and European nations were complicit in Lumumba’s death.) The film shows us Lumumba’s rise as a political activist, his attempts to create a post-revolutionary government, his argument with an important regional leader who becomes part of Lumumba’s defeat, Lumumba’s mistaken appointment of Mobutu as army chief, and also Lumumba’s tender ties with his wife and child. (The family scenes are brief but among the films best, showing Lumumba’s care for his family, his joy with them, and his reacting to their pain with a startled thoughtful look in his eyes and trembling lips.) The actor who plays Lumumba, Eriq Ebouaney, is very effective. He conveys an agile intelligence matched with a straight-back confidence, the kind of man who sees the intelligent thing and expects people to do it. Such a portrait allows us to look more closely at heroism.

Heroes and leaders—such as Lumumba, but also Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X—through their self-cultivation, and location of situations that nurture or need them, are often ahead of the general populace. (It is unfortunate that we do not see Lumumba’s childhood in this film, nor his close personal friends.) The recognized rare value of such men is also what makes them vulnerable to antagonism, misinterpretation, and violence. Why cannot such men better see the danger that surrounds them and protect themselves from it?

The film’s drama resides in the scenes pitting Lumumba’s intelligence against brutal Western power and African short-sightedness (a vision that doesn’t see how the decisions made today will affect tomorrow).

What we call history—an influential past, the combination of personality, culture, economics, political power, and time and their effects on relationships and events and the distribution of resources—is ongoing, is behind us, beside us, and before us. This film gives us back a part of our history.

© DG

ABC Africa
a digital video moving picture by Abbas Kiarostami
on AIDS in Africa and the resulting orphan children

The documentary ABC Africa begins when the Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami (The Wind Will Carry Us, A Taste of Cherry) receives a fax inviting him to view the Uganda Women’s Efforts to Save Orphans (UWESO) program, a program that was begun in 1986 in response to the devastating impact of AIDS, which has struck down many adults and has left more than one million Ugandan children as orphans. The program involves organized business training and financial savings. The women, five in a group with ten groups forming a cluster, are encouraged to develop work skills, even entrepreneurial skills, and helped to develop a banking system. Each woman deposits a set amount weekly into a savings account and the women are allowed to take money out in times of emergency or as loans to help in starting a business. Thirty-five of thirty-nine districts are active in this volunteer organization. Kiarostami accepts the invitation, and travels to Uganda to see for himself, and he begins to take digital video notes during his ten-day stay, and out of those notes have come this documentary, which is being shown in U.S. theaters.

After the fax comes through, we see the director Kiarostami in Uganda at the airport. He asks his driver to put on music from the driver’s native Kampala. The driver is soft-spoken, as are many of the men we see, including one who begins to explain to the director the UWESO program. As we ride with the director through the streets, we see many people traveling on foot, and also people on bikes and in cars and trucks, and there is a large bulletin board advocating the use of condoms to prevent AIDS contamination. We learn that condom use is considered by the Catholic Church there as family planning, and as a practice that might encourage promiscuity (no consequences, no restraint), both of which the church is against. Later we’ll see a poster-calendar featuring the pope with the slogan “Stay a Virgin.” We also learn that in the year 2002, the number of orphans is predicted to increase to two million.

The children we see in the documentary are shy, curious, watchful, ready to perform, taunting—many of them seem like children anywhere. We see children playing kickball and singing. One woman lives in a small house, and takes care of more than thirty children. It is the circumstances the children live in that are unusual—the specter of death and life without parents and the poverty. Although there are signs of modernity in the hotel and some housing developments and the music boxes and cars, most of the Africa we see in the documentary is an Africa in which there is hardly even the thinnest line between nature and civilization. The video is full of long views of cultivated valleys and streets that aren’t tree-lined as much as forest-lined. There are outdoor butcher shops and fruit stalls and we even see coffins being built outside. One of the most beautiful images in the documentary is of a boy in a clearing of trees preparing to lift onto his head a bundle of sticks and tree limbs, presumably for a fire; we see him lift the bundle onto his head and walk away from the camera.

The sight of ordinary black faces and the brief view of ordinary black lives are part of the value of this documentary. The colorful fabrics some of the women wear and the music of the men are a pleasure. At the same time, one does wonder, whose ordinary movements can sustain a camera’s attention for long, a camera’s implicit request (or is it our request) for entertainment, information, and meaning—for a justification of existence? It is sad that to get those ordinary views we must see a documentary focused on suffering. We visit in the documentary an AIDS hospital, full of sick children and sick adults. Their slim, anguished faces are hard to look at, but they’re why we’re here, why the program exists: a syndrome of illness in full force for two decades continues to kill and wreck lives. A nurse methodically wraps a dead child in cloth and cardboard, and the body is given for transportation to a man on a bicycle.

During a night in Uganda the film crew looks at mosquitoes near an outside light and wonder about malaria. The electricity is scheduled to go off at midnight, and when it does, they continue to talk. They talk about the torture of not having light, of how they can’t stand its absence for five minutes but if they had to live without light for fifty years they would, because humans can adapt to anything. In this darkness, with the screen black and the talk ongoing, one sees several things, and one of them is the nature of cinema—that it is so often connected with modernity, with money and technology, and with image and superficiality, but that it can be an embodiment of consciousness.

Certain questions regularly arise in regard to Africa: how much of its trouble is its own and how much related to colonialism’s brutality, economic exploitation and calculated subversion of culture? Why don’t we know more about what’s going on there? When there is disturbing news there, why isn’t there more response from the West? Where are “knowledge” and “system” and “technology” in Africa, and how are they used in relation to problems? Who is best qualified to tell the story of Africa?

This documentary, which at its best is journalism and visual poetry and meditation, does not address most of these questions. Arguably, it didn’t attempt to, but its very name—ABC Africa—conflates one country, Uganda, with a continent, Africa, and thereby a whole mythology is summoned. The needy African child is a story the West has been telling for a long time—and there are moments in the video when the people, because of the simplicity of their lives, do seem very much “other.” (How “other,” and how hateful and wasteful an American life might look from another perspective—it is difficult to see one’s self from another’s view and standards, difficult to accept that view.) While the people interviewed are articulate, I found myself wanting to hear from African intellectuals who might have put the issues the video raises and those it ignores in the most comprehensive terms. There is no mention, for instance, of any actual or proposed U.S.-type public assistance programs, which is what an American grandmother asked when I told her about the documentary. What we know is what we see, and though we are shown a lot we do not see everything and so we must be told.

The camera is sometimes (sometimes?) intrusive: one woman looks embarrassed as it captures her breastfeeding. A woman turns her face away from the camera as she answers questions about the death of her husband, her eyes glistening with unshed tears and her words coming to us in English from a translator.

One grandmother in the documentary lost four sons and has eleven grandchildren to care for. One woman lost a husband and six of her twelve children and also has four grandchildren. It is remarked that there are few men in the villages, as they become ill and die in their prime. There are small, important, and not uncomplicated moments of hope: A woman talks brightly about seeing how the women in the UWESO program move from fear of constant dependency on others to self-sufficiency. A man and woman who both lost spouses to AIDS plan to marry. An Austrian couple, the man a doctor and the woman a teacher, both white, adopt a baby girl whose parents have died of AIDS, a black African child, who when we see her is wearing a top with the alphabets ABC. The parents want to take a brief tour of the locale and take pictures so in years to come they can tell the child what it was like. They seem conscientious. The documentary ends with a plane flight out of Uganda, with images of children’s faces imposed on the clouds, but before that happens someone has reiterated the struggle of the grandmothers and implored the West to help.

© DG

Ousmane Sembene
Excerpts, from “A Bleak Heroism of Words”

Ousmane Sembene’s films include Borom Saret (1963), Black Girl (1966), The Money Order (1968), Emitai (1971), Xala (1974), Ceddo (1976), Camp de Thiaroye (1988), Guelwaar (1993), and Faat Kine (2000). His Moolaade is a film of beauty, and it focuses on conflicts between tradition and modernity, men and women, and religious and secular values.

Ousmane Sembene, now considered a master of film, was born in 1923 in southern Senegal in modest circumstances, was expelled from school in 1936 for indiscipline, and worked from 1938 to 1944 as a mechanic and bricklayer. He served active duty in World War II on behalf of France, and after the war in 1946 he joined a union and saw that activity become part of his country’s political struggles. Ousmane Sembene migrated to France in 1947 to live and work; and he continued his union activities, which accelerated his political and intellectual growth, as he began to attend seminars and workshops (on Marxism), and pursue culture, exploring museums and theaters. Richard Wright, John Dos Pasos, Pablo Neruda, and Hemingway were among his influences, according to a scholar of his work, Samba Gadjigo, a professor at Mount Holyoke College. Ousmane Sembene published his first poem in 1956 at thirty-three in Marseilles. He published the first of several novels in 1956, The Black Docker. He returned to Senegal upon its independence from France in 1960, and became interested in making films to be able to reach illiterate people, and made the short film Borom Saret in 1963. Ousmane Sembene has been quoted as saying that the Africa of the past fascinates him but the Africa of the future excites

...In Moolaade: Women talk about what’s going on with the men in the village—the ban of radios; and one of the women says, “Our men want to lock up our minds.” To which another says, “But how do you lock up something invisible?” (That question has always enraged tyrants, who then decide that the simplest way to still the mind is to cut off the thinking head.) Later women gather near the new partially enclosed water pump, unable to sleep. It seems early morning (a lovely scene: the women are near a tree, mostly seated, and there’s some light in the sky, not a lot, and a large shadow on the ground and in the distance one can see the green of the trees. It is one moment in time that is obviously about to become another—sunrise, or sunset. The film’s cinematographer is Dominique Gentil, the production designer is Joseph Kpobly, and the editor is Abdellatif Raiss). “We bought those radios, didn’t we?” one woman says. Some of them begin to shower as a man atop a mosque begins a call. Colle’s husband tells her, in front of his older brother, that he wouldn’t have married her if she hadn’t been cut; and his older brother defines genital cutting as part of their tradition. The Salindana women come to speak with Colle and she goes out. Her husband is told by his elder brother that Cire is laughed at in the village as he cannot control his wife—and the elder brother leaves a whip with Cire, who says he has never beaten a woman, nor even his daughter. Colle is at the meeting of the Salindana and village elders when her husband comes and whips her in front of all, telling her to speak the word to end the moolaade. “Don’t say it,” many of the women yell. “Tame her,” some of the men say. The village seems divided mostly, but not entirely, along the lines of gender (I was reminded of James Baldwin’s Blues for Mr. Charlie, in which something similar occurs between black and white Americans, two choruses with differing consciences). Colle is whipped near to falling and the mercenaire steps in to stop the beating (he says he can’t stand violence, an irony coming from someone who had been a soldier). “After all this beating, not a word—unprecedented,” says one of the village leaders. The mercenaire, who we have seen trying to seduce various women (and called a womanizer by some of them—they are no fools), is accused of corrupting the wives and daughters of the village. His intervention in the public whipping—in which he shows that not all men agree with indiscriminate use of power over women—might be seen as another aspect of “corruption,” of changing perceptions. He is told by the men that they want him out of the village, but he doesn’t try to leave until they come at night after him with their faces masked, carrying torches and weapons. As her own wounds are being tended, Colle learns that one of the refugee girls was taken by her mother while Colle was being whipped, that the girl was taken, cut, and died; and that the mercenaire was killed in the night. Colle, having survived her ordeal, orders moolaade ended; and the rope in front of the compound is undone. Women visit Colle with food gifts; and a mat is unrolled for them to sit. They have come to get their daughters and claim they felt Colle’s pain while she was being whipped. The woman who took her child from Colle’s compound grieves that she held her crying, bleeding, dying daughter in her arms (we see a flashback of her luring her daughter out and carrying the protesting girl to the red-robed Salindana women). The grieving mother is given a baby to take care of for life by one of the other mothers.

Ousmane Sembene died June 9, 2007.

© DG

African Folktales

Writer's Note: Barack Obama is an African-American, perhaps almost purely so, with an African father and an American mother and himself having been educated in important American schools. It is often said that the story of Americans is the story of immigrants, but the African past, and African culture, is less familiar to many than that of other populations who have arrived on these shores...It was easy in New York to hear African music, or to eat African food, or see African film; and in Louisiana, the African heritage is known in architecture, food, and music, in the evolution of a unique people, the Creoles...Here is something written several years ago, on African folktales...

African Folktales
Selected and Retold by
Roger D. Abrahams
Pantheon Books, New York
December 2000 (publication date)
352 pages

(c) DG

Roger D. Abrahams’ African Folktales is a book that is not only wise it is entertaining. The stories it collects are mostly brief, concise, intelligent, and funny; and they are sometimes shocking in the complexity and violence they sometimes present, a complexity and violence that seem true to the depths of the human psyche and the workings of the real world. Many of these stories are fanciful, stories in which animals talk and influence the worlds of men and women; they are allegories of experience. It is important to note that while one can better understand cultures by looking at the stories they tell, at their oral and written literature, as well as by looking at their social organization, politics, science and technology, and history, the gaining of sociological understanding is not the primary reason for reading these stories. Although many of these ninety-five tales were originally gathered by missionaries, anthropologists, and ethnographers, these stories are not merely evidence, not merely relics of old or dying cultures; they are a literature and literatures are alive and relevant beyond the circumstances of their birth.

Here are creation stories, stories about birth and death, love affairs and families, honor and corruption, selfishness and community. Many of them are from the Bini, Dahomey, Ewe and Dahomey people of West Africa, but there are as well stories from other regions, language groups, and peoples, including that of the Akamba, Bondi, Fipa, Fjort, Hausa, Igbo, Kaguru, Liberia, Swahili, and Wayao, among others.

In “The Password,” a man steals from thieves by mastering their secret codes through the ability to read and write. In “The Three Tests,” a man does favors for others who need them and later when he’s in need they help him—he feeds them and they help him to master the tests given him by a powerful man. In “A Man Among Men,” a prideful man meets a bigger, stronger man who threatens him—until that man himself meets a formidable foe, with the conclusion that the latter two wrestle and rest and wrestle again, still trying to defeat each other. The sound of their wrestling is what we hear as thunder. The moral is that someone somewhere is our equal or stronger than we are and it’s dangerous and wasteful to be preoccupied with such matters. A selfish jackal exploits a community resource—a pond of rainwater—in “Saving the Rain” and outwits the other animals when they seek to punish him. Is there are moral here? Such a story allows for the fact that apparent good does not always win out in the end. In “Never Ask Me about My Family,” a poor boy falls for a beautiful girl he wants to marry but she says she’ll marry if he promises never to ask about her family. After their children are born, he does ask, and a great tumult occurs with old spirits coming to plague them—and the small family is buried under stone, destroyed by these old spirits. This may be one of saying, Respect the other’s privacy and Let the past alone.

Such stories are suitable for both adults and children, and are similar to European fairy tales in which Hansel and Gretel face the threatening unknown, the Arabian Nights in which adventure, love, and gold provide character tests and life lessons for the protagonists and entertainment and intellectual stimulation for the readers, and Bocaccio’s Decameron, in which the gravity of life and death issues give way to the bawdy considerations of pleasure and sex. These African Folktales belong not merely to Africa but to the world.