Monday, April 30, 2007

On Meeting Salman Rushdie

For most of last week I was at the PEN conference in New York. I missed last year’s because I was in Los Angeles losing the Los Angeles Times Book Award for Best First Work of Fiction to Uzodimna Iweala’s Beasts Of No Nation. This year’s theme was Home and Away and I made sure to go for many reasons, not the least being that ‘home and away’ defines my very existence. At home my wish to be away comes down on me like a sickness. Away, where I can convert home into a concept instead of a place, I miss the idea of Jamaica only to go home and be confronted with the reality of Jamaican life and pine yet again for being away.

Anyway I’m at this PEN Conference and the one set of people you cannot get away from are writers. Around writers I cease being a writer and I hate it. I become a speechless, awkward fan and try to stay as far away from them as possible. Especially if I idolize the writer. In some alternative universe I’m being dismissed by some of those writers as the aloof snob with dreadlocks who hovers in and out of readings and never talks to people, when I truth I’m just a fan who has gotten drunk on their work in the past and fear that in meeting them I will blow it and come across as the same gushing, guffawing nerd that nobody likes.

On 12th Street I literally ran into the always nice and graceful Francine Prose who gave me a big hug to which my response was to re-introduce myself again, “Hi I’m Marlon James, we met at Miami Book Fair,” which was a pretty stupid thing to say to a person hugging me. She was trying to find Nadine Gordimer who was going hog wild over New York City in a taxi and I tried not be wowed by the remark as if, of course, that crazy South African, you know how our Nadine is. But there, right in front of NYU’s Tishman Auditorium I saw Salman Rushdie for the second time.

I had seen him that Friday evening waiting outside for a panel discussion between Vikram Chandra and Kiran Desai and it was as if some deity had come in the room to deign us with his brief presence. Mark from The Elegant Variation then told me how he had met him not long after 9/11 (at a restaurant or museum I think) and Rushdie and his wife invited him over. Or rather how he was too chickenshit to introduce himself and his girlfriend bellowed, as girlfriends sometimes do, that Mark was his biggest fan but was too shy to come over and introduce himself. In that split second, sitting in that theatre with Rushdie ten or so rows ahead of me, I realized what girlfriends are for: to be the man that men sometimes aren’t man enough to be. But then I met Maud Newton, writer of the best literary blog in America and the woman behind at least 50% of the new traffic to my blog and was kinda starstruck again. I looked down ten rows for that bushy balding head and he was gone.

Most of the writers I’ve met have been very nice. At the “Granta’s Best Young American Novelists,” panel I met a few. Gary Shteyngart, author of 2006’s best novel, Absurdistan, was a riot. He was every bit as funny as his book and me, unable to stop the torrent of fanboy mania once I started told him that I wrote a blog about him and that his was the kind of book that makes me want to write books. He asked if I was a writer and I told him that I was nominated for an award along with Uzodimna and Olga Grushin who were both on the panel. He wrote down the name of my book, which I thought was really nice and even if it wasn’t sincere it doesn’t matter in the least. I think authors, even the greatest and finest are still genuinely happy to meet people who get their work and most seemed to be impressed if not stunned by somebody in a Jamaican accent talking to them about their book. Alas Rushdie was clear across town at another panel.

But there he was again on Saturday afternoon, in front of Tishman’s Auditorium and by himself. By himself, he is by himself, I thought. People were talking to him but he was mostly alone, lingering outside the theatre like everybody else, a fan of literature waiting for an event to start. He was literally in my way; to get inside I would have had to either give him a wide berth and say excuse me. Of course nobody says excuse me to Salman Rushdie. I have no idea how this works when you encounter famous people. If you make a big deal then you might give them the exact public awkwardness they probably despise, but if you act as if they don’t matter then it seems almost like reverse snobbery or colossal ignorance, as if the person is irrelevant even if you are at an event where he is clearly the focus. Not that the event was about him, but as the Chairman of PEN, an organization of which I am a member, to act as if I don’t know who he is would have been disingenuous, not mentioned awfully unsubtle.

Them Mark hailed me from down the street and I felt both relief at being called out of this dilemma and saddened that I’m really not going to meet this guy. If you’re never read this blog then you don’t know that Salman Rushdie is by and large the writer who made me want to write the books. In 1999, I had finished my first novel, all 400 pages of it when I read Rushdie’s Shame and promptly destroyed my manuscript. That wasn’t a book, is said pointing at my manuscript. This is a book! I said clutching his. I remember reading it in church and people being so disturbed by my outbursts of laughter that they thought I was possessed (I had the book hidden in a bible). Rushdie exploded my conception of what a novelist could write, how he should write and what he could say. And who knows, maybe this is all stuff that he might have enjoyed hearing, even though lord knows Rushdie does not need affirmation from some indie novelist who has only written one book.

There’s something else. Like any other big fan of an artist’s work, I dread meeting Rushdie because it might ruin my image of him. Most of the writers I’ve met are nice and some have become really good friends but there is still this crushing fear that maybe my hero is an asshole, which will all but ruin my hero worship or worse turn me into those emotionally removed but still pathetic former fans who demur that “ I still think he’s a great writer,” to mask genuine hurt. Like any fan I think I need my heroes to be heroic and not real people, and instead of knowing him to be a jerk I’d rather not know him at all. As Mark and I took our seats, I looked around for the balding head or the glasses shielding those eyes that always look as if he knows something you don’t. But he was gone.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Am I A Book Snob?

This is Miss Leyow’s fault. 1985, way back in our first lit class, she warned me that if I were to really get a hold of literature, get into the magic and wonder of books, it would change everything about how I see the world—for better or worse. That was both promise and warning, something exciting yet ominous. Twenty-two years later, somewhere between stealing from Borges and shouting in envy at Bolano I realized that I just might be a book snob. This terrible secret I had long suspected and kept to myself, fearing the repercussions of being seen as an elitist, which can be a double curse for a black man; worse a Black Man in America ®. Recent debates in black American fiction have made it even worse, with clear battle lines being drawn between commercial and literary fiction as the former fights for inclusion and the latter for higher standards. It means much when self-published author Shamontiel’s most withering criticism of Mat Johnson (Author of The Great Negro Plot) was that he was ‘elitist.’ So many writers, black and white respond to this with insincere pluralism as if, of course War and Peace and Peyton place belong on the shelf together, right beside Danielle Steele and Toni Morrison. I knew because I used to be in their number. Then I reached 36.

Nothing sharpens your focus like age. I’m now at the age where I’m neither cool nor dead and am four years from my first prostate exam. This does many things to man including reducing his tolerance for bullshit. This is a roundabout way of saying that far from hiding my book snobbery I am quite proud of it. Snob, like nigger and bitch are words that were once bestowed on others as an insult. I feel like becoming a rapper and claim the insult for myself, except snob just does not have the poetic ring or the exciting sense of the forbidden. But that’s the word that I have been given.

The irony about us book snobs is that our tastes are far more inclusive than those of the people who criticize us. I have been calling Buffy the Vampire Slayer the last great work of the 20th century for years now, but people who watch the Lifetime Movie Network tell me to grow up. And put away my X-Men comics while I’m at it. And yet for all our supposed hatred of mainstream and genre fiction, it is us, not them who have been championing Walter Moseley and George Pellecanos for years. It is us who have kept Ice Berg Slim and Zora Neale Hurston alive. It’s us that realized that Georges Simenon was onto something and Mickey Spillane was not, despite the former selling far more than the latter. The only thing we hate is literature that insults our intelligence, whether that is Omar Tyree or Elfriede Jenilek. For some people (who have never heard of Jenilek), that’s enough to call one a snob.

This calls to mind my previous blog about highbrow and lowbrow lit. In that blog I was more diplomatic, trying on terms for size and refusing to claim any. This blog is different. I just don’t see why I should apologise for reading Stendhal and wanting to talk about it. This coming September I might even teach a class on The Charterhouse of Parma. I don’t see why I should hide that reading Steppenwolf scared the daylights out of me because I came across an irrefutable argument for suicide. Or that I know my Faulkner from my Welty. And that yes, the new translation of Roberto Bolano’s the Savage detectives has me going from one delirious peak to the next, like those orgasms that men don’t get to have. The difference is that I don’t hide it anymore to defend Eric Jerome Dickey.

There are reasons against snobbery of course, but it wasn’t until my 36th birthday that I realized that they were bullshit. To defend a black writer merely because he was black was and is still ludicrous, something that our forbears Richard Wright and James Baldwin never stood for even when there weren’t many black writers around and any writing was better than nothing. There must be something deeper at work. Something else perhaps, not in necessarily in all book elitists but in myself that forced me into the book snob closet. Then I remembered. Like most screwed up things in my life I got that from school.

I remember once, talking to a neighbour about dimming myself down in school. She was appalled to hear this, but my good friend Danielle backed me up because she had done the same. Dimming down works like this: in order to win more school friends and influence people, I set my brain on dim, acted less intelligent than I was. This saved me from the wretched nerd category, which in high school was the worst kind of loser. But I found myself dimming even when I got to work, where displays of intelligence were simply uncool, unmanly, and just plain wrong. I came across people who were quite proud of never reading a book. And never planning to. I went to a church that lauded the barely literate believer, proclaiming that it’s better to have a G.O.D. than and Ph.D. I came across college educated men who thought a lack of cooking skills made them straight and women who saw no problem with acting stupid to get a man. In short I came see that using one’s brain and appearing to do so was simply not done. And it made no difference if you were a writer.

This is compounded in the black community where criticism of another writer is seen as not just an attack, but also a declaration that the critic is calling himself better than the writer. Not a better writer mind you, but a better human being, a more valuable one, a snob. It makes no sense trying to get these writers to see otherwise. They will go to their graves not understanding the difference between critique and attack and will in turn attack you personally. But who is being the snob? My criticism of commercial fiction never extends to the writer, but their criticism of people like me often does. Am I a snob because I know that Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude proved that John Barth’s 1966 essay on The Death of Narrative was hogwash? Should I have kept that to myself? How about my annoying habit of sticking to the Pevear-Volokhonsky translations of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky because Brits tend to treat those guys like Victorians? Is this snobbish enough yet? How about me going four paragraphs without mentioning a black writer?

I’m just not sure what literary pandering achieves. I was reading Flaubert at seventeen, so why would I read Tom Clancy at 36? Why regress? No pianist goes from Schubert to Chopsticks. Nobody grows from adult to infant. Why is this regression cool? Why is a discriminating taste uncool? Literature is the only art form where the mere attempt to do it is supposed to confer legitimacy, not whether it is done well. New York City ballet is not hiring baton twirlers and the twirlers are remarkably non-plussed about it. So what’s so bad about having a summit of writers and not inviting Tyler Perry?

Maybe Snob, like nerd or fag is a way of quickly dismissing someone we do not understand. People still think I read these mountains of boring books for no reason than to appear smarter than everybody else. They cannot imagine that maybe I read Beckett’s novels because I actually enjoy them. Because they cannot enjoy or will never try reading these books they assume that no normal person would either and anybody who claims otherwise is either faking it or elitist. They think we wear black turtlenecks in summer, sip chamomile tea with our pinkies stuck out, speak of metaphysics then talk down to all commercial and self published lit. And yet the last time I ran into a fellow book snob we were gushing over some old issues of X-Men, which many commercial fiction writers consider beneath them. This is bullshit of the worst smelling order.

And what’s the opposite of a book snob, a book ho? Do you really see no difference between Erica Kennedy’s Bling and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty? Do you really think calling Smith a superior writer is an attempt to be snobbish? Well then so be it. If you are a book snob it’s time to come out of the closet. You might not think you are, but if you bought Pete Dexter instead of Tom Clancy, Junot Diaz instead of Jackie Collins, then you are a lit snob my friend. It makes no sense denying it anymore. You might as well take off those shades as you buy The New York Review of Books, or try to slip the Paris Review underneath that In Touch. I’m starting to like my book snobbery. I like not having my time wasted by people asking my opinion of books I will never read but used to praise because the writer is black. I like going on about the difference between Gaddis and Gass and why Camus is smarter the Sartre. Snob-haytas think that us snobs think we’re special and you know what, maybe we are. After all, if everybody is special, then nobody is. That’s from the Incredibles, a cartoon movie. Some snob I turned out to be.

Monday, April 02, 2007

In My Time Of Burying

Last year my friend’s mother woke up to a clatter in the kitchen. She ran in to see her husband hitting pots and pans as he stumbled to the floor. He was clutching his chest and gasping for breath. The hospital had released him only a few days before and he was supposed to be resting after major heart surgery. The rest of the house had woken up and the family scrambled to rush him to the hospital. But there, on the floor in the arms of his wife he looked at her said, I don’t think I’m coming home again.

At the funeral, his wife who I call my Kingston Mother asked me to read her remembrance. It was both touching and awkward; a memory of her husband that had an intimacy that I felt I had intruded on, even though she asked me to read it. I read of his virtues and flaws and I tried to make the congregation understand the secret language of long married couples, that I did not understand myself. More than anything I read her words and I understood that a major part of her died with him. My friend and his brothers all tried to roll with the inevitability of death and the ritual of funeral but they were clearly stunned by both, unsure sometimes what was the correct or meaningful thing to do, how much emotion to show, how much charge to take and what people meant when they told them be strong, as if strength was something as easily mustered as bravado. Not long after that another of my very best friends lost his father after watching his mind wither from Alzheimer’s.

I think of these deaths and look at my own parents, both in their 70’s. I remember that I’m 36. Am I about to enter The Burying Years? My mother buried her mother the same year she gave birth to my sister. She was forty-one years old (A spunky broad, that woman). But that year triggered off a sequence of years punctuated by deaths, reunions and funerals that went unbroken until 1984. I never though about it then but I did start to notice that people around me, 10 or more years older all went though a period of years underscored by black clothes, trips to the cemetery, barely seen relatives coming out of the woodwork, and squabbles over burials when the deceased wanted to be cremated. Nothing turns a normal family into Ewings like a death. It took one death to find out who was adopted, who was illegitimate or who wasn’t family at all. It took another for family members to unleash knives and claws, back stabbing and fighting dirty over the contents of a will.

But as the ages of friends with dead parents reach closer to my own I feel a growing sense of dread that I will soon go through the burying years. Maybe I’m in denial of something that has already begun, after all how many more deaths do I need before I invest in a durable black suit? I’m not ready to bury parents or aunts and uncles yet because I’m not ready to see them go or live in a world with them gone. But more than that is something that may be a manifestation of a fear of aging and it’s this. What comes after the burying years? The dying years?

My mother reads the obituaries the way my brother reads sports. Or maybe the way my niece reads the comics. It’s strange sometimes. I watch her and try to figure out what she gets from these pages: satisfaction, regret, humour or fear. Her comments can be glib and dispassionate as if the deceased had taken a trip to a place she cannot pronounce, or they are tinged with faint nostalgia, like coming across a forgotten friend through gossip. Maybe this is her way of coming to terms with mortality as a concept if not a reality. I’m not sure and I’m too afraid to ask. I can’t remember even reading an obituary other than The New York Times’ “The Lives They Led.”

So to paraphrase that fantastic Led Zeppelin song I’m bracing myself for my time of burying. I’m telling myself that there’s no fact of life more factual than death. Maybe I’ll take a page from the dying of whom I assume death becomes matter of fact. That’s easier written than done. I consider myself lucky to having not yet experienced the death of a close loved one but that fills me with a ridiculous paranoia. Death takes on the character of an alien abductor, some sort of interdimensional thief.

Maybe there is a strength to one’s forties that nobody has in their thirties. Or maybe a forty year old has already resigned himself to anything with a whiff of the inevitable. I’m sensing an awareness of how life works that I did not have at 20 or 31 for that matter. I find myself being cool about things I never thought I would ever be cool about, like knowing that some friendships weren’t meant to last, that money is good servant but terrible master, and that being correct is not as important as being right and being good trumps both. I guess I’m saying that maybe I am getting older and wiser. I’m just not ready to be wise about death, mine or anybody’s.