Friday, December 29, 2006

Reading, Writing and Absurdistan

I don’t quite get it. On a very basic level, I can’t figure out why people would want to write unless they like to read. I mean, what would be the point? For the incredibly glamorous fast track lifestyle? I don’t think so. —Francine Prose, Atlantic, July 18 2006

I don’t get it either. That writing programs are increasing by the ten-fold while actual reading is plummeting does not surprise me. Perplexes me yes, but surprise? No. What does surprise me is how many of these non-readers are writers themselves, or people who want to write. This is what I do not understand. Why in heaven’s name, if you do not like books would you want to write one? And if you really don't care much for books, why, why, why should anybody read yours? But this is more common than I thought. James Frey made no secret of his rather lean library which seemed apropos for his rather massive hubris. In her wretched book, The Right to Write, Julia Cameron speaks about everybody being a writer merely because they write. She got particularly defensive at what she thought was writerly elitism. I can’t remember her mentioning a single book, other than the ones she wrote.

My belief is this: Writers who do not read have no right to write. How do you get the right to write? You need to be given permission first. In a blog I posted on Amazon several months ago I wrote about being given permission to write. It went like this:

“Gabriel Garcia Marquez talks about being given permission to write by Kafka. He read the following: "When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from a night of troubled sleep he found himself transformed into a monstrous insect,” and was stunned out of his mind. “I didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that,” he said. “If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago. So immediately I started writing.”

I have always been a writer, but wasn't given permission to write until I read Salman Rushdie’s Shame, about the sisters Chunnee, Munnee and Bunny. Among its many preposterous bits was a narrator who kept inserting himself in the narrative, even telling beforehand which character he was going to kill off. Then there was Omar Khayyam (no relation to the poet) who may have been born from all three sisters at once. I was appalled. Who told him he could do this? Who told him he could ruin the element of surprise and wag it in front of my face? But in asking the question he freed my answer. I trashed my first book and wrote another, the one I published.

I’m not going to blow my own horn about what I accomplished with my first book, but none of this could have happened were I not a reader. It just makes sense. How can anyone hope to blow somebody away with prose if they have not been blown away by prose? One of the many remarkable things about Gary Shteyngart’s magnificent Absurdistan is how much of writer’s novel it is. Absurdistan celebrates the very idea of the larger than life literary hero, something we have not seen in at least a century. More than that the book dares to suppose that fictional heroes are the only true models for real humanity. Shteyngart takes an audacious line; supposing, as his main character Misha Vainberg does that fictional heroes are realer and more instructive than real heroes. He also takes for granted that the reader is as well read as the narrator. I wasn’t in fact. But I did end up with a brand new copy of Oblomov as a result.

Absurdistan is the type of book that makes me want to write books. This is the type of magic that can happen with a novel, when it frees your mind and your pen. The book opens up new ways of seeing things, reading things by putting words together that excite me like never before. Can I do something like that? Not to copy him but to write in a way that I grab words together, throw them against a wall and watch them bounce? Because, to tell the truth I was bored with skinny prose. Okay that’s a lie. I dislike skinny prose. I dislike it profoundly. I dislike when people wave Hemmingway in my face as if he wrote with a scalpel instead of a pen, claiming that he fixed literature, as if anything was wrong with it. Joyce, Fitzgerald, Anderson, Woolf, Lawrence, and Svevo were all doing quite fine, thank you very much. The reductionism school of literature has been lauded too long as some sort of panacea. The very idea that smaller prose must be better prose has been neutering too much fiction. The result is horribly efficient and meticulously unadorned writing with as much pulse as a gnat.

Don’t get me wrong.
I’m all for Hemingway.
I think Carver is an absolute genius.
But writing like this.
Because I want to.
Because the night is cold.
And I’m alone.
Is just bad.
No to mention lazy.

There is nothing lazy about Shetyngart’s prose. Like the main character, Absurdistan is a huge lumbering beast of a novel, rattling off literary Molotov cocktails with such abandon that it doesn’t care who gets hit. Maybe Shteyngart needed an Eastern European with spotty English to pull this off. Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated certainly echoes this point. But whereas Foer’s “English” revealed the desperate heart of a wanna-be, Shetyngart’s English is the global village that language has been threatening to become; equal parts Bronx Jive, literary overheatedness, Russian Rhythm and gruff Hebrew all set to NYC hip-hop. I’ll go further to say that Absurdistan is the first true Hip-hop novel: Bold in its ambition to associate itself with the Gogols, Dostoeyskies and Goncharovs, but borrowing, sampling and stealing words, then slamming together to see what sticks. A trick to be sure but if this what we have to do to set fire to prose, then bring on the tricks. It’s such a thrill to read a novel that takes chances, consumes itself and downright gluts on a feast of words, without announcing that that is exactly what it is doing. And managing to do so while being a crazy and hilarious road movie disguised as a fiction. I’m so anxious to finish this blog just so I can write again.

And that dear reader is what reading can do for a writer. There are other reasons of course. Under-read writers also betray a certain narcissism evident not just in the preponderance of first person narrators who sound like the author but also in the assumption that one's prose is already so perfect that one cannot risk being “influenced” by someone else. Figures. Only an troglodyte would not want to be influenced by others. That's why there are no Mona Lisas on cave walls. If you have not read enough, you may be a writer, but you have not yet been given permission to write. And you will never write great fiction until you have been given permission. This comes from reading and reading widely. It comes from reading outside of your race, gender, age group, sexuality and era. It comes from reading the very book you wouldn’t touch in a million years, or maybe it simply means taking down Moby Dick and reading past page 2. If you are one of these non-readers, do me a favour. Grab a few books including Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer and don’t stop reading until you get that feeling—You’ll know it when you feel it. The feeling where you say, damn! this book makes me want to write. What comes next will be better than anything you ever written before. Trust me, I know what I’m talking about.

God Save Prince Harry

Seems my favourite worthless royal isn't so worthless after all. Whatever you may think of the British Monarchy (and I think very little) or the Iraq war, surely it speaks to something that this is the first country where someone of privilege, a royal at that, has decided himself to be no better that the "ordinary" people who have been sent to die. It doesn't matter that his royal heinie may never see combat. It doesn't even matter that this may be a publicity stunt to redeem our favourite swastika wearer. The fact is here is a prince putting his considerable money where his mouth is and having the balls to bear arms in the war his country helped start. What would Audie Murphy think about a Brit of all people, showing Americans up? Last time I checked none of the following have signed up for duty:Jenna Bush, Barbara Bush JR, George P. Bush, Noelle Bush, John Ellis Bush Jr, Neil Bush, Lauren Bush, Pierce Bush, Marshall Bush, Samuel LeBlond, Ellie LeBlond.

Of course these worthless rich brats are merely following the example of uncle Dubya, uncle Dick (good show! knocking up the wife exactly two days AFTER the draft was expanded to include childless married men), Cousin Rummy, et al, who used their trust funds to dodge vietnam. How did the so called greatest generation (George Bush senior) produce such cowardly kids and grandkids? Fine, having been in a war, George senior would undoubtably know the truth about conflict. Certainly a good father would never subject his own children to such a thing. So he sent poorer children instead? I can't imagine the type of cynicism that breeds the mind set that believes that the only constuctive thing a poor kid can do for his country is die for the politcians that run it. Who'd ever guess that person coming looking the best in this civil war would have been Sadam?

Thursday, December 21, 2006

New York Notes #1: The Cortez Principle

Sure he was a sadistic, opportunistic, money grubbing, glory hungry, genocide inciting murderer, but Cortez still had a winning attitude to succcess. I know what you are thinking. Do you mean the attitude where in order to get wealth one must slaughter all who stand in one's way even if they are millions of Indians standing on top of gold or millions of Africans setting up huts beside diamonds? No, not that one. I much prefer the lesson where Cortez guarantees success by eliminating failure as an option. Because failure is neither a situation nor an outcome but a choice. Or rather an attitude. Failure is its own forgone conclusion. Circumstances are what they are and sometimes they obey no one, but too often we have failed ten times before we even started.

As soon as Cortez landed in the Americas he burnt all his ships. Whatever would happen to the conqistadores, returning to Spain was no longer on the table. My best friend, Che and his wife eliminated divorce as an option in their marriage. As a result they have survived things that have destroyed couples around them. As soon as they realised that option E, the escape clause, the eject button, the net below was gone, not only did they have to go back into the murk they just left, but they also had to find what worked, discard what didn't and beat a problem into a new shape, because there could be no failure. There is always a way, but you'll never know if one of your ways is the way out. Okay if I keep this up I will look in the mirror and see Deepak Chopra.

Here is my point. After writing the big, well read blog 'On Mediocrity', I found myself, or rather three friends found me to be one of the very mediocre people I was writing about. So 2006, the year I should have spent getting deeper into the art and business of being a writer, I spent selling beer. Placed in a situation where I could either take stock or take risks, I ended up hedging my own bets, willfully sticking myself in a job that I did not despise, but did not love either. It was a life that was behind me but I held on to it because it was safer. My justification was that look, I had debts to pay. I wasn't being a coward, I was honoring my obligations. I said that so often that I convinced myself that I meant it. So I've been living with a net. Figures that people who love nets hate risk, I just had not figured on one of these people being me. But playing it safe still means that you lose. In my case I watched my writing career grind to a slow crawl even as I was making money as an advertiser in a small country, in a career of no real consequence.

Playing it safe is just a three worded term for a more brutal, two worded one: Tunnel Vision. My friend Bill asked me how much I charged for my last advertising campaign, because that was what I was telling the world that I am worth. Whatever I earned that year, that was what I was telling people that I could be had for. After dividing that Jamaican sum into American dollars it turns out that I was worth 66 times less than I thought. This wouldn't have hit so hard were it a new lesson, but I had been there before. I knew this rut. It me six years to get out of it the last time.

I'm not into making resolutions but I will say this. I'm 36. Way too old to be cool and way too young to be dead. And way too far gone to be playing it safe now. A turning point is a point of choice where you can either take stock or take risks. And sometimes decisions that initially look like risks turn out to be things that we simply have to do. Because even inaction has a reaction and I don't want to be one of those "If only" people. So I have become one of those millions in New York striving for a dream that I can't define, on a mission that makes no real sense. It's not that I'm giving up Jamaica or that I'm going to live in the States, but as I left the airport I could smell my ships burning.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Just Found This One As Well: His Royal Badness

Thank God for You Tube. Now I can delude myself that I'm living in the past for as long as I like! Except for Patti Smith circa 1975-6 nobody has ever been as fearless and outrageously original as Prince was in 1980, not even Prince.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Question of The Week

"What has our society come to when Prince is the guy you can trust not to sexually offend 120 million middle Americans?" —James Poniewozik, Time Magazine.

Amen, brother James, Amen.

Have you seen this guy? Does anybody know where he went. There were unconfirmed reports that he briefly surface in some thing called Black sweat then quickly went back to making pop for soccer moms whose children are gone for the weekend and they want to get freekay!

Could somebody find him please and shoot the twerp that has been taking his place?

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

How to Make a Jamaican Music Video

First there must be children. But take heed: all children are not the same. There are some who touch strange things like books and remain indoors. These children may be white, red, yellow, mulatto or black in a white kind of way. Please refrain from employing that sort of animal. Many other children are available, far more pleasing to the video camera. Dark like Marassa and Midnight, with big bellies, still growing teeth, blue school uniforms (with blue tie-the-pig ribbons!). If possible, please make sure they are barefooted and this is crucial people, they must always be smiling. This is essential for the behind the scenes special where the star can grab his chest and remark how with all these hardships surrounding them these children are always smiling, always happy. That way you can be like Anderson Cooper in Africa! Please rehearse this line, for if references to inexplicably happy Negro children are not made, said video will seem exploitative. Your audience will never believe that you have been transformed as a person until you break down at the sight of smiling blackies.

Your local crew must come from a smattering of variably coloured well-spoken semi-Negroes who are quick to point out their Italian, French, Scottish, or Cherokee blood. Not Irish for everybody knows Irish people are just Negroes turned inside out. They should have traveled widely, listen to groundbreaking acts like James Taylor and Creed and should be able to reassure you that they know every hoodlum in the ghetto and go there all the time. Please bear in mind that these men and women only go to the ghetto with a film crew and 1000 US dollars in hand, but don’t let that trouble you. Ghetto people are just people, except that they are from the ghetto.

Now comes your cast. School girls in dark blue uniforms are a must but so too are children who do not seem to go to school, especially if you are shooting on what is clearly a school day. Their purpose is the run behind your vehicle screaming and laughing. Nobody scowls in the ghetto. The sidewalk must be taken up with five to ten men, preferable old and playing dominoes. You must get the action right. Make sure you zoom in to a medium shot just as the winning Negro rises and slams the winning domino on the table, breaking the table in two. Next pan upwards to the cute ghetto girls looking out their window, pan back down to catch more ghetto kids running and smiling then scoot the dolly over to catch the Granny, whose toothy grin belies a lack of actual teeth. Make sure she smiles for two teeth are better than too many. Her hair should be in two pigtails like a Native American and she must be selling something, preferably fruits, vegetables and cigarettes. Under no circumstances should an adult man be shot beside a child. That would imply that he is the father and everybody knows that ghetto kids ain’t got no daddy.

Come to think of it, forget, the ghetto; you must shoot in the uberghetto. Remember that poor Jamaica is the real Jamaica. Forget high-rise buildings, Taino tribal grounds, the second oldest railroad track in the world, and the most fascinating network of underground caves in the Caribbean. You need bad roads, shit running down the side walks, zinc fences, tenements and gunmen, because this is the real Jamaica. Please have the locals stack 12 speakers together, 3 in a row and have the natives come out to wind their waists and slam dominoes on the table or your viewers will think that it’s Haiti. You must shoot in district of Waterhouse. This will be in your contract for Waterhouse is the music video ghetto of choice, probably because the quick to be violent blackies aren’t so violent there. But be sure to buy the men in mesh merinos a hot Guinness or you might not make it out of there alive. Remind yourself that if Alicia Keys can shoot there, you can too.

Should you meet a gunman make sure to genuflect in the usual fashion. But feel free to pass off an offensive comment so that the Jamaican crew can never shoot in that place again. The nature of that comment is up to you but forgo the racial for Jamaican Negroes are not black. Make sure you have extra film left for the midnight dance so you can remark how bestial and sexual the natives can be while dancing. Listen as the Jamaican producer remarks that this is in keeping with our African culture, even though he or she will not do such things until after the wrap when they take you to Quad Nightclub where uptown people grind each other. Try a dance yourself but restrict it to hands, you don’t need to remind us that white people cannot dance for us to remember that we’re still safe. Because once you take our dances we’ll have nothing left! Don’t forget the smiling children.

Make sure there is at least one Rasta, Rastafarian to you. Please try your hardest to find one that is old and almost toothless as the young ones might make a play for your women folk. The Rastaman capacity for seduction is legendary, just ask a certain vogue editor about her Bob Marley lost weekend. One must have at least one Rasta to show the world that yes; Bob Marley’s spirit approves this video. Try to get somebody to wear a Bob Marley T-Shirt while at it. While you cast for Rastas makes sure that wardrobe drapes the video in red, green and gold as these are the only colours that Jamaicans wear. Except the dark blue uniforms of the school children. Extra points if the Rasta is a coconut vendor for you can include a shot of him decapitating said nut and drinking the juice to reassure your women that a big black man with a machete is not a creature of violence but quaint beauty.

All women must be fat. Your video babe will be imported so there is no need to search for Jamaican women that American men find attractive. Your women must have big, big, big breasts. Mount Everbreasts. She must sport two wheelbarrows to carry each tit. And with big breasts must come wide hips and monstrous thighs that could squash a penis into a flounder. She must always have a basket of fruits on her head, even though this is the ghetto. She must blush when called for, wind her waist on cue and disappear as soon as a white woman enters the shot.

When you have wrapped up the ghetto scenes, then it’s time for the other real Jamaica. The deep blue seas, the wide expansive sunrises and the Rastas on the beach. Under no circumstances should you shoot a building that is more than two stories high or was built in the 20th century. In fact, make sure your structure or edifice is not taller than 12 speakers placed together in rows of three. This is to remind American viewers that Jamaicans party all the time and have no need for houses or workplaces. Never ever let on that any Jamaican works for a living in any other profession but selling fruit and cigarettes on the street corner. Have you gotten the sun rising over the mountains shot? The sun rising over the sea? The sun rising over the ghetto? Good. Now shoot your sunsets. When that’s done go to a market and shoot some more market women selling fruit. And running children.

Make sure all of this is done before you shoot your star or he or she may have to wait among poor people. This your star may find extremely unpleasant because then he or she will have to take pictures with babies who have never heard of her. And while no criminal lives in the ghetto you might still want to spring for extra security because it’s not their fault that they may want to take stuff that is not theirs. Private property? Bah!

Please also remember not to pay the extras. You will only create monsters that will then expect to be paid for actually working on your production. Believe the Jamaican producer when he tells you that the locals will be so happy to be in your video that they won’t even take your money, after all, what use is money to poor people? Make sure you thank the Jamaica Tourist Board for allowing you to film Jamaica in the way they like Jamaica to be filmed. Granted, nobody at the tourist board had ever seen or will ever see the ghetto (except in music videos), but they trust that you had found lots of smiling black children and a red green and gold color scheme to play with. And even if you did not, throw in two or three sunsets and they will call it even. And when you finally wrap up your shoot and fly back to where you came from, please come back again soon. Without you, there’s no work for the country to do.

PS: If you think I'm joking, google "Jamaican children," click images and see what comes up.

Monday, December 11, 2006

My Blues Aren’t Blue Enough

Poor Darby Crash. If the late Germs singer thought that his life was so insignificant that death was the only way to improve it, he might have changed his mind had he seen how less significant his death turned out to be. Darby Crash had the extreme misfortune of taking his life the day before Mark Chapman took John Lennon’s. And as poetically catastrophic and sickly epic suicide can be (see: Kurt Cobain) it’s nowhere near the ticket to instant martyrdom that murder is. Or a noble fight with a terminal disease. Crash didn’t even OD in the rock & roll way. Drug overdoses are supposed to be accidental, not deliberate. Gun deaths are far more glorious. For instance, you get Dave Grohl to immortalize you in perhaps the best lyric of his career: “One shot...nothing.” Crash was doubly cursed when months before, Ian Curtis of Joy Division, took his life by a far more poetic hanging, inadvertently spawning the best dance band of all time and creating about five or six genres at last count. Crash was just a loser punk who offed himself before he could record a decent version of Sex Bomb.

I mentioned Darby because it’s a hell of a thing when your own misfortune pales beside others. Not that I’m proud of misfortune or think it’s something to boast about, but in this new culture that celebrates victimhood and uses it to justify any behaviour, you can be declared irrelevant if your blues just aren’t blue enough. This must be why I sympathise with the straight white American male so much. Ever since political correctness declared him the villain of the story he has had no choice to but rush to the sidelines because all the people he kept down must now have their moment. Sure you’re an A student, but are you an A student from the ghetto? Sure you’re the top in your class but did you have to sell meth today just to buy a decent shirt to come to school? Your mom may be dean of studies but is she a crack-ho? Yeah you’re cool, but are you a poor black lesbian feminist who has been given a hard time by people just like you? Of course not. White boy, your blues just aren’t blue enough. I feel your pain. You’d be surprised how many black people do.

I could have traded on third world guilt if I wanted to, but that becomes less and less convincing when I type stories on a Mac Book pro or dine at Asia de Cuba. But that’s not even the point. Earlier this year I applied for a fellowship to a writer’s conference that shall remain nameless. I wasn’t expecting to win, because well, I’m a pessimist but thought I stood a chance, coming from a third world country still shaking off colonialism, political tribalism, globalism and every other ism I could think of. Of course I didn’t win but when I read the biography of who did I had this weird mix of guilt and envy. “My leaders are corrupt,” is just not as engrossing as “when the warlord torched our village, we could not find food to eat,” not even to me. I found myself asking how can I compete with that? I found myself asking myself why am I asking myself these questions? This was beyond politically incorrect. I was envying somebody his or her catastrophic misfortune because it made her resume look so much better.

Of course I had no right to such thoughts, but I know enough to realize that these setbacks also work in persuading who they need to persuade. Of course she could have won because she was simply better than me. After all, I’m not so stuck up my own butt to think I’m the be-all and end-all of fiction, but I kept finding myself asking questions that only my white male friends could understand. Is my suffering, suffering enough? I think my childhood was as crappy as the next misunderstood geek, but how can it compare to “last year they took our children, now our boys have come back to kill us”? My parents may have died from cancer but how does that compare to when they are massacred in their sleep? In a world that celebrates the victim, scars become stars. It’s even worse when the victim has genuine intellectual merit because you simply know that it then boils down to who suffered the most. And if you’re a white male it means that people think you’ve had things too easy. If you’re from the Caribbean middle class it means that you were one of the luckier blacks even if you don’t feel lucky at all.

This doesn’t mean that I think affirmative action or refugee programs are not necessary. It’s a myth to think the we will always do the right thing and measures such as these step in when we inevitably fail to be the nobler creatures we claim to be. But sometimes it does seem as if the playing field isn’t so much level as re-skewed, and if yours is the sinking side then you have no right to say as such. It means that I might never win an award if I go up against a Haitian or African and I should be damn ashamed for writing such a sentence. But I know better. At the end of the day we love storytellers and some people’s stories are simply better...especially if they are worse.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Only Good Dictator is a Dead Dictator

God must have a really messed up sense of humour to continue allowing the worst killers to die of old Age. Mobutu, Papa Doc, Milosevic and now Latin America's favourite CIA creation, and good friend of Margaret Thatcher, Augusto Pinochet. Whatever happened to the Good old days when Mussolini got his just desserts? It takes some skill to wash the blood of some 3000 people off one's hands, so perhaps he was already at peace before he finally croaked. So rest in peace Augusto, you corrupt, murdering, klepto son of a sniveling mongrel bitch. If I ever find your stinking ass in heaven when I get there, God's going to have to answer to me.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Get Thee To A Creative Writing Class!

The first time I came to New York with aspirations (ok pretensions) of being a writer I immediately went to Brooklyn. I had read (ok bought) tons of books and without fail the blurb at the back would say that _____________ resides in Brooklyn. Paula Fox...Brooklyn. Colson Whitehead...Brooklyn. Colin Channer...Brooklyn. Chris Claremont (OMG!!!) ...Brooklyn. That was enough to make a postcolonial writer go batshit. I flew into a delusion close to psychosis. I jumped off the G train and thought, this is my Paris 1927! I would swoop down on Clinton Hill and run into Jonathans Lethem, Franzen and Safran Foer, arguing about whether prose is really just the freest of free verse. I would stop for coffee and Paula Fox would run up and warn me to stop distracting readers with smut. Jhumpa Lahiri would explain that the reason her agent didn’t like my book was him not me. I would spend lunches drinking coffee and smoking Craven A’s, nights poisoning myself with absinthe and the rest of the time banging out the great Caribbean novel while my life fell apart. Spectacularly of course. Instead I couldn’t even get myself mugged, and realized that the last person to ask for directions in Brooklyn was a Brookliner.

Because New York is 8 million nations of one and in Brooklyn the nations are islands. Maybe there is a community of writers there, but as I’m not yet the type of writer that the New Yorker needs to talk about, I probably won’t see it. But there was a reason I was searching. Simply put, a writer needs community. There has to be something to offset the essential loneliness of being a writer. Something had to balance out the truth that we are at our most productive alone.

Maybe this is why so many writers spend a great amount of time knocking Creative Writing programs. “Can writing by taught?” goes the question, as if anybody in a creative writing program has ever been so stupid as to mistake it for composition class. For a genre so confident in its intellectual certitude, literature can be downright bonehead in its theories of how one becomes better at it. Julia Cameron, in the Right to sums it up as this: I have pen, I have paper, I write so I’m a writer. Like Ginsburg rhapsodizing about Bebop, the point was that if you were inspired enough anybody could do it.

Funnily enough nobody spins on their toes twice and gets called a ballerina. Now that I can strum a guitar a little bit, it’s been 6 months and yet Bob Dylan hasn’t gotten the memo that I’m his next band member. And Scorsese, what’s up with you not casting me in the Departed? Don’t you know that I was the star of my high school nativity play? You’d think of all the people who would know that inspired amateurishness is a myth it would be writers, but they are the ones shoveling this stuff. Make no mistake several writing programs are awful. There are also far too many of them and sooner or later they will have to ask why writing programs attendance is up while actual reading is down. But back to the point. I’ve heard and read too many writers, many of them graduates speak nothing but ill of programs, patting themselves on the back with the knowledge that writing can’t be taught and none of the real greats went to writing class anyway.

This is of course mythmaking of the highest order or rather, bullshit. I joined a creative writing program (Wilkes! Big up you'self!) after I published my first novel. And yet I was not the person in the class bitching about how unnecessary the classes were. This man thought everybody had a right to his opinion; boasting that his good buddies Mailer, Wolfe, Hemmingway, Baldwin and Jones never went to Creative writing class. Alas, pity the poor fool who takes a class with Kaylie Jones, who called Baldwin uncle Jimmy and James Jones, Papa. The fact is the boys did go to creative writing class. The class of Maxwell Perkins, the legendary editor from a bygone, awfully missed era. When Jones first submitted From Here to Eternity, Perkins told him to keep 100 pages, ditch the other four hundred and write the book over. He also gave Jones 100 bucks so that he wouldn’t starve to death doing so. Mailer, Thomas Wolfe both entered the Perkins classroom and all literature is the better for it. Hemmingway went to the class Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson. Edith Wharton was pretty much schooled by Henry James. Even Flannery O’Connor went to an actual writing program, Iowa. Even Brooklyn was a school for writers once.

But that Brooklyn doesn’t exist anymore. Nor that Paris or London or Berlin though there was a Prague for a while. A writer searching for community is not going to find it at some smoky café in Park Slope or Rue St. Honoré. And maybe editors like Perkins still exist but I have my doubts after a junior editor at one of the three most powerful publishers in the world told me that his boss is not a “book person.” If you want the atmosphere of creativity and critique that can make a difference in a manuscript the only place you’re going to find that is a Creative Writing program. It took me 4 years to write my first book, largely because I did not know what I was doing. I could have used a trained ear, somebody who knew when storylines weren’t tied up, when words like ‘it’ were being overused, when characters were flat when they should be round and when using ignominy in a sentence impresses no one. I’m sure Zadie Smith can get Ian McEwan to read her next manuscript but the rest of us have to go to school. Sometimes if you’re lucky you get to build your own community. More than that, you come to realise that it does take more than one person to write a good book. If you have Jonathan Franzen on speed dial to do this for you then congratulations, but the rest of us have to go to school.

Creative Writing programs aren’t perfect. I’m still not sold on the idea of beginners giving pointers to beginners since nine out of ten don’t read nor have a clue about reading like a writer. There is also the tendency to confuse critique with simply telling what you would have done had YOU written the story. Workshop fiction can be devoid of real feeling (sentiment is the enemy!) and bad workshop fiction obeys rules so close that the end result is more of a thesis than a story. That said chances are that editor will not be able to tell you that your tone slipped on page 150, busy as he is, signing the next plagiarizer of chick lit. And neither Joyce Carol Oates nor Andrew Wiley can read your nine pager so you’ll have to take a number for a very long wait. But maybe Peter Carey or Colum McCann over at Hunter can help you turn your care bears story into Watership Down. Or maybe Francine Prose would pick up where others haven’t that your masterpiece in one less character away. And maybe you will realize that the best writers are students and Creative Writing programs serve to teach us that the essence of good writing is learning itself.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Spacebreak Sex

For something that we do all the time, obsess about when we’re not doing it, think about, worry over, take pills to enhance, and even define one’s identity by, sex seems curiously absent from literary fiction. Oh sure we have bad sex, unrewarding sex, adulterous sex, paid for sex, deviant sex, even interspecies sex (Ok, guilty) but no real sex. We’re particularly good at exploring the implications of post-sex but never in medias res, in the thick of it so to speak. The human body goes through all sorts of wonderful and scary stuff during sex yet nobody writes about it. What gives?

Instead what we have what Barbara Kingsolver called spacebreak sex. You know what I’m talking about. It goes like this:

He touched her hair, she looked in his eyes, they both headed for the bedroom.


The next morning the woke up in each other’s arms...

So what the hell happened? Were they lost in pleasure? Did one of them in the act of sex realize that they were making a horrible mistake? Did somebody fake it and why? Did they think sex was a blanket panacea for everything else and realize that it wasn’t (or it was)? What happened? Who was dominant and why? If a writer loses nothing by describing how a bullet enters a person why does he lose point for describing the entry of genitalia?

I think literary fiction writers are scared of sex. It was so weird in creative writing class when I would submit something explicit and I would be counseled by well meaning adults how to write with more subtlety so that I could get the feeling across, you know, so that I wouldn’t HAVE TO go into the act. Why not? And why use the phrase HAVE TO? Maybe we fear that we would suck at it. Maybe that demon of sentimentality that hovers over all writers would run amok and ruin our stories with lines unfit for even Cinemax After Dark. Maybe we would just end up writing porn. That’s not an unreasonable fear, The Bad Sex in Fiction Award is usually given to otherwise fine novels that stumbled spectacularly in this area. How about this one from literary luminary and 2005 bad sex nominee John Updike:

“..his prick stared back at him with its one eye clouded by a single drop of pure seminal yearning. He felt suspended at the top of an arc. Faye leaned back on the blanket, arranging her legs in an M of receptivity, and he knelt between them like the most abject and craven supplicant who ever exposed his bare ass to the eagle eyes of a bunch of crows.

Faye took him in hand. He slipped in. He became an adulterer. He went for the last inch. She grunted, at her own revelation. His was that her cunt did not feel like Phyllis's. Smoother, somehow simpler, its wetness less thick, less of a sauce, more of a glaze. It was soon over. He could not help himself, he was so excited, proud, and nervous. When he was done, he opened his eyes, and saw this stranger's face an inch from his, seemingly asleep, the closed eyelids showing a thin pulse, her long lips curved self-lullingly.”

Notwithstanding that no good sex scene could start with the word prick (Is this a white male writer thing?) it’s no surprise then that most times we resort to the good old space break.

Maybe great writers, unlike great poets are simply not having good sex. Or maybe it’s only the straight ones. When it comes to good explicit action the gays guys seem to have it locked even if the straight audiences may not want to read it. Alan Hollinghurst can get into literary raptures when writing about man-man action. His Booker Prize winning novel, The Line of Beauty is filled with them, but they work for the novel precisely because the main character was trying for this rapture, with a certain erotic desperation to lock into a 70’s style hedonism in the AIDS encroaching 80’s and failing miserably, especially when class, no respecter of persons or sexualities got in the way. Next to the gay guys are the dirty old men of the Latin boom, such as the late Guillermo Cabrera Infante, who’s Infante’s Inferno would probably never have been attempted by an American or a Brit. Whenever I mention that only the gay guys and Latin Americans got it, Henry Miller is frequently trotted out. But Henry Miller died way back in 1980 and his last books were the words of somebody trading in his own detritus and not even aware that he had become just another Henry Miller imitator.

Maybe we are just aware that other art forms, pardon the pun, do it better. A particular accomplishment is the new movie Short Bus, which opens with a man satisfying himself in a way that few men can and then goes on to a sex therapist who’s never had an orgasm and a couple playing way out of their league by bringing a third person to the party. That this film is buoyed by explicit sex scenes (we have a go for penetration, folks!) underscores rather than undercuts it. I was incredibly pissed off and envious that I hadn’t written a novel like this first. In music Prince nailed the knife-edge between pleasure and perversion way back 1980 with Dirty Mind and Patti Smith rode through with Horses even further back in 1975. Even photography boasts of Mapplethorpe, Helmut Newton, Nan Goldin and Andres Serrano.

I think we literary fiction writers need to take our pencils, or laptops back into the bedroom. Something pretty fascinating is happening in there. Everybody seems to know this but us.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Where I'm Coming From

I’ll never forget my first day of Primary School and second day of High School. Primary is probably what Americans call Elementary but I’m not sure. Primary school was the first time I realized I was different from everybody else. High school was the first time I was reminded of that difference. Neither was a happy experience, in fact both fucked me up royally in wildly different ways. The first time I was ridiculed for being different was in spelling class when I said “Yes Miss”(we call all female teachers Miss, even the married ones) and the whole class shouted Yesssshhhh Misssssh. I don’t know, maybe I spent my earliest years in some parent made cocoon but I hadn’t the slightest idea that I spoke funny. But they turned funny into a double whammy—the best of puns, where how I spoke was both funny-ha-ha and funny-strange. It was something to ridicule in the innocently merciless way that children always ridicule. Like Jason Taylor in David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green I also studied words, dictionaries and my own way of speaking, anything to avoid a word with S in it. I guess that increased my vocabulary a thousand fold but it also made me sound like an idiot, an eight year old stumbling over words so as not to roll the dreaded S off my tongue. I even tried pronouncing it as a Z.

They called me Sissy and other names as well that my subconscious has mercifully kept to himself, but here is the great thing about kids. I was a sissy, but I was their sissy. Once something happened, I can’t remember what, but my school uniform was ruined (might have been a fight, man did I love to fight) and the entire class marched to my home to explain to my mom that it wasn’t my fault. In some way, being the resident strange kid made me a weird kind of popular. I had no reason to believe that this would not continue. But then came High School. And all boys’ High School. Wolmers Boys School.

If Primary school made me different, High School made me so sorry I was ever born that I spent five years thinking of ways to fix that mistake. September 1981. It seemed that I couldn’t open my mouth for two seconds without somebody calling a girl’s name or an animal’s name or just simply battyman or faggot. All because my S sounded like SH (I did not get over this complex until I heard Sean Connery speak the same way). My second day of school I was going home with my brother, the coolest kid in Second Form (Grade 8) and his just as cool friends. They were only 11 and 12 but I thought I was in the company of men, the coolest men I’ve ever seen, and they were even talking about girls and sex already! Christopher M________ saw me leaving and shouted “Angela!” Like an idiot I said, “I wonder who he’s talking to?” to which my brother said “It’s you he’s talking to,” in a tone I heard from my father once talking to my mother because I said I liked disco (that was back in 1977, people) and she seemed to think I was headed for ballet class.

In less than three days I was rejected by my own class and had embarrassed my brother. But I was a good student and needed to learn my lesson only once. I stopped acknowledging my brother as such and never did it again for the rest of our school lives. To this day most of the boys who know us or of us have no idea that we are related. I volunteered to step out of his cool life. I decided, perhaps without knowing that the only way to stop fucking up my brother’s reputation was to disappear, so that’s what I did. I left for school at a different time. I went to a different bus stop. I took a bus that went in a different direction. We had no interests in common, no sports, no school clubs, no arts, no friends. We maintained our distance so well that even when my brother had to repeat a year and we ended up in the same class, people still had no idea that we were related. Some of his own friends made it their duty to humiliate me on a daily basis. I just figured that since leaving high school was not an option that maybe enduring this shit was just something I was supposed to do.

I love my high school and I still support it, but with the exception of two remarkable years in 1982 and 83, it was the most colossally dismal experience of my life. I think the only reason I’m still here was my cowardice about suicide. Back when the first wave of misinformation came out about Columbine, I remember hearing that these two boys were picked on mercilessly in high school because they were not cool or liked (This is totally untrue by the way, they were not nerds or geeks), there was a part of me that felt the way Eminem felt in the verse he cut from the Marshall Mathers LP. I too have been that angry and that hurt. There were days when I don’t know what would have happened if I had a gun. And my mom was a cop. I know there are people who think, “So you had it rough in high school and nobody liked you, nyah-nyah-nya-nyah-nyah,” (I think that’s what my friend, Bill said). I know there are people who think that people like me should just grow up and put the past in the past. But if you have never been through what we’ve been through, rejected at the exact age when you crave acceptance then you really don’t know what being a boy or a girl interrupted feels like. Ten years later you will channel that void into restless ambition and you will do well, just as I did. And it will mean nothing because you’re using success as revenge. I sometimes wonder if I were to walk up to Bill Gates and whisper, “those kids in school STILL hate you,” what would happen. All I know is that to be rejected by your peers at that point when affirmation means everything leaves a void in you that is replaced by something, maybe a chip on one’s shoulder, maybe the emotional life of a 12 year old, maybe a lifelong obsession with Science Fiction, comics and porn. Who knows.

Kurt H__________, one of my brother’s friends started coming to this church I joined a few years ago. He was clearly going through some very heavy shit and as a church brother, moreover a church brother who knew him maybe it was my duty to encourage the man. But here is something funny about nerdhood. To be tormented by people is not half as bad as to be forgotten by them. Because there really is a link between abuser and abused, a relationship in its own weird way that leaves you thinking that considering all the shit this son of a bitch put me through he could have at least the common decency to remember my name. Because I will never forget his. It weird being a nerd because you find so few reasons to feel special that you’ll settle for being special in torment and when you find out that you were a mere run-on sentence in your tormentor’s life it feels worse than the abuse. Anyway, this guy was clearly going through some heavy stuff or he wouldn’t have been in church. I’m not going to speculate what the heavy stuff was, but maybe he needed somebody to talk to. That was not my thought but the friend beside me, who also went to the same school. He kept prodding me to talk to him, to remind him who I was as if that were an icebreaker. All I could think of was him humiliating me again and it would hurt like I was fourteen. You have to understand Kurt H_________. Loads of boys humiliated me during high school but Kurt H________ went one step further, by befriending me enough to help him cheat on his art exam then publicly humiliating me right afterwards. I looked at this guy in church and felt such a monstrous hatred for him that I was pissed off at Jesus for letting him in here. I thought that if this was the kind of asshole who was going to make it to heaven then I wanted nothing to do with that goddamned place.

Maybe it was the thought of never hearing Purple Rain again or reading another issue of X-men that kept me from killing myself. Maybe it was that we had a rather loud car and somebody would have heard the engine before the carbon monoxide got to me. Or maybe I was just too chickenshit to do anything. The truth is something else. Something Todd Solondz nailed in that movie, Welcome to the Dollhouse. Like the brutalized heroine in that movie I think what kept me alive was the stubborn determination that some way, somehow, somewhere, sometime things just had to get better than this. It just had to.

In 1986 I decided that I had to do something. By the end of 1985 I was so unpopular that I even earned a sort of respect because nobody could understand how I could stomach so much relentless abuse, to even laugh along with it. It seemed that I was one of the top four targets of ridicule in my year; something had reached critical mass. There was just no way I could continue like this, hated because I like art and lit and history, didn’t like football (soccer) and walked and talked funny. I realized that more than everything, it must have been my screwed up way of speaking that made people hate me.

So in the summer of 1987 I stopped speaking.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Losing My Religion

It’s far easier to be a dogmatic Christian than you may think. You don’t need the ability to read, or a secondary education, or a sense of reason or even reality. You need believe only two things, Creationism and Armageddon. Once you have alpha and omega nailed then everything in the middle is just gravy. Doesn’t even matter if your dogma is slightly different than mine. It’s a disturbing Irony that Jesus never wrote down a single sermon, perhaps because he knew exactly what was going to happen, that by writing something down his words would have become exactly what it is today: Dogma, especially for those who prefer to be read to.

Because reading, as the always-brilliant Jeanette Winterson said recently, is an act of free will, and it is a private act. This is why when the oppressors come, whether they are culture warriors or Armageddon-horny church sisters, they destroy the books first. An educated mind is a liberated one and a liberated mind is a dangerous thing, especially when it becomes sensitive to injustice. This is why Religion is still the opiate of the masses and for it to remain so; the masses cannot be too intelligent. Who’d ever guess that an ignorant, uneducated populace would serve both a religious and political agenda in one shot? An uneducated believer can be told that hardship is his lot and accepts such as God’s will without even once realizing that his slave ancestor was told the same thing. Or he is told the opposite, that MONEY SHALL COMETH TO HIM NOW, and he will believe that instant, unearned money is God’s will as opposed to the whole “by the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread" business. A friend of mine bought this hook line and sinker several years ago and thought it was the Lord speaking to him when an old, childless woman willed him the contents of her safety deposit box in England. He had only to pay the overdue bank charges and the contents of several boxes would be his. He flew to England, paid the charges to her attorney at his six storey, busy office and was handed the keys. He soon found out that while the bank certainly existed the account did not. By the time he got back to the attorney’s office, less than two hours later the people, the furniture and the phones on all six floors were gone.

I’m not convinced the faith is supposed to trump reason. Ever. I’m not sure God thought so either. For every “Faith can move mountains” one can also find in the bible a “test me in this.” There is something essentially backward and pagan about blind faith, something unintelligent in such thinking that runs contrary to a God who seemed intent on establishing a kingdom of reason and justice on Earth. Yeah you read me right, don’t let all this faith mumbo-jumbo fool you. God also said faith without works is dead.

Because if religion without question becomes dogma, then faith without reason become mysticism, a holy witchcraft. We’ve seen this before. Not just in Jim Jones’s Guyana or Waco or the Moonies or Mormon polygamists. We see it also in Jamaican churches that insist on their pastors being a final authority. That nutcase preacher who condemned her congregation for exposing the filmed gang rape of a young girl wasn’t pissed that the rape occurred, but that by taking the case to the authorities, the congregation members challenged her God given authority. I wrote a novel about this, set in the past because I refused to believe that I was telling a contemporary story. Boy was I wrong.

I still consider myself a believer, but I’m not sure if I’m a Christian anymore. One reason for this is that to this day I have never been able to take my mind to church. It always seemed unwelcome in a place that lionized the once illiterate Smith Wigglesworth while ignoring that the man did eventually learn to read and write. The church has the archetype of the holy idiot who takes things on faith, sings choruses for two thirds of the service and pays attention to the sermon only if it condemns everybody else for being sinful and praises him for being saved, sanctified and spirit filled while promising him that while bullshit happens in the night, joy cometh in the morning.

I cannot think of a more satanic existence. As long as religion never engages the mind it never engages reason. The by-products of reason, ethics for instance then become fluid to the point of meaningless. A case in point, some of the kids I counseled could speak in tongues at the drop of a hat. They could also sleep around with no remorse whatsoever. They would drag praise and worship for hours so that the “spirit” is given free reign but tune out once a pastor starts to challenge them. They would condemn everything and every one outside their window but never look at the monster in the mirror. Because open-mindedness, fairness even is an act of reason as well.

A lack of this creates moral hypocrisy. More porn in consumed in Utah than in New York. Adult friend has 21,000 Jamaican members, even though, as we will sooner or later tell you, we have more churches per square mile than anywhere else in the world. You can always tell when a Christian convention is staying at a hotel, for the adult cable viewership quadruples. A woman I know who sold adult toys and videos when asked said she hadn’t sold a sex video to Jamaicans in years, instead they preferred scat, amputees, S&M and all manner of kink.

Christianity began as a renewing of the mind. That is what made it so liberating and so dangerous. Maybe it is the curse of all movements that they become the very thing that they were supposed to be a reaction against. The crux of the New Testament are letters from Paul that impressed people through reasoning, not dogma, condemnation or cheap spirituality. The first manifestation of Jesus’ uniqueness was him dazzling the Sanhedrin with his intelligence and wit at such a young age. This Jesus and the adult he became flipped the script on dogma with intellect, not by creating new absolutes of his own. And if you don't think the sermon on the mount is a profoundly intellectual discussion then you're reading the wrong bible. I rarely find this intelligence in church and even when I do, I still feel as if I have to set my mind on dim.

What so great about being proud that the Bible is the only big book you’ve ever read? Jesus never even read it. Why do people rejoice when they hear that sister so and so doesn’t have a PhD but a G O D? How come all these evangelical anti-Catholics all praised that orgy of gore and violence called The Passion of the Christ? Why did they use the film to recruit new Christians? I told some church people that I felt like I had seen a snuff film or some really kinky porn with children in the audience. I thought the film was nothing more than the director’s bloodlust passing off as art and it played into the belief that people should still be scared into faith—something that Jesus couldn’t have been more opposed to. I also said that Jesus would have been appalled that anybody would stoop so low as to show his suffering in order to get people to follow him. I think he would have been appalled in the utter refusal to engage the mind as opposed to the heart or in this case, the stomach.

Two of my favourite writers are Jack Miles and Gary Wills. Both are Catholics and both are part of the few who believe that Faith and Reason are by no means mutually exclusive. I read their books like how others take drugs. Both agree that by not trying to explain God, by resorting to “he works in mysterious ways” you reduce his supernatural power to magic and Jesus becomes hocus-pocus. I love the Jesus of the bible. He was actually quite scandalous, fraternizing with whores and tax collectors, cursing trees, praising lowlifes, hanging out with women, staying homeless, remaining single, calling himself the fulfillment of prophecy, educating leaders in the dark, giving over to rash emotions like fury and mirth, sometimes at the drop of a hat. There is simply no way to understand a mind such as his without using your own . That is what I plan to do. I just don’t know if I can do this in the church.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Live TV and Dead Children, Take 2

I LOVE this. So right after I post my blog about what I think about today's children, along comes a kid to set me straight with this:

I agree that children can be like this, but not all. Some children have the right mind not to do any of those things. You may think this is foolish, since this is coming from a kid, but it's true.

I agree that children want to be a singer or an actor so they don't have to learn anything, because I used to. Now that I am growing up, I want to be a writer, but being a singer or an actor is still in mind. I say this because children can imagine to be what they want to be. After all, we are just kids.

The real world will come to kids soon, just don't judge all kids and say that all kids want to be super stars and that they would do anything to be famous because, like I said before, not all kids are like that.

"The Real world will come to kids soon." It sounds like both a promise and a warning. Perhaps it's both. I have only one question. If kids are reading my blog do I now have to behave myself?

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Live TV and Dead Children

I love kids. Especially today’s kids. They are smarter than we (I mean we old people in our mid 30’s) were at their age. They are more aware, speak more languages, know more people and thanks to the internet they talk to friends all over the world every day, all day. They live on a planet that even my generation passed off as science fiction; cutting room stuff best left for a Blade Runner sequel. This is the exciting world children live in. But they are not children.

Enter Trishelle. I was always fascinated with this Real World cast member and it was not because she was a white trash redneck slut who always seemed to trip and fall smack on top of a penis. More than that, Trishelle and her costars were the first Real World cast to grow up watching Real world; (she was twelve when the show started) probably the first not to remember a world before the show began. There was a price paid for that awareness and you could tell from the very first episode of that season. As soon as the cameras rolled they were performing. Sure everybody faked it on some level from the first season, but this was different. This was Courtney Love’s lyrics come to life—“my fake is so real/ It is beyond fake.” Not only could you see the disingenuousness, but you knew that were you to scratch the fakeness off what you would find was not the real Trishelle, but nothing at all. Since then I’ve run into dozens of kids all waiting for their close up. All wanting fame for fame’s sake. All wise beyond their years, and most of them underdeveloped zombies masquerading as kids.

If you think that fourteen year old girl on the receiving end of R. Kelly’s golden shower didn’t know what she was doing then you don’t know today’s kids. Not that she really knew, but she THOUGHT she knew and that is the problem. These kids are not wise, they are merely precocious and world weary. Adults confuse the two and think they have miniature adults in their midst. They trade in real world terms that they have no maturity to process. I’m not sure a thirteen year old really knows what a being a ho means, nor do I think a 12 year old can truly be a playa. But they think do and adults assume that they do, which could not be further from the truth. Years ago, many were stunned by the film Kids, because here were children that were not children at all. They were young people with a nonchalance about sex, drugs and aids that stunned audiences. But that kid has been threatening to show up for some time now. And maybe it’s the parent’s fault.

Or maybe it was Britney. I remember an article in a mens’s magazine, probably GQ about this man who had his little girl’s friends over for a slumber party. “_______ dances suggestively,” his wife said. The man thought the remark absolutely ludicrous since the girl was not yet seven. Two Britney songs later he was on the phone demanding that somebody remove little slut from of his house. I’m not a prude, but I’m not blind either. These children have watched Britney, Justin and Christina grow up on camera but for all three growing up merely meant getting more and more sexual as if that was the only sign of maturity. Should we have been outraged that the man who ushered Britney into video womanhood was controversial porn director Gregory Dark? Does it mean anything that it was a porn director that shaped the archetype that your nine year old is presently following? I’m all for bringing sexy back but I wonder if Justin has anything else to bring.

We like to congratulate ourselves that we are not in Dickensian times, that children are no longer chattel, dregs or slaves. But they are now the opposite: pandered, patronized and ignored. The ironic end result is a 21st century child not much different from the Victorian: one whose circumstances have forced him to grow up too fast. The first evidence of this is an entitlement complex that would floor a Hilton sister. Some of the kids I’ve met expect to be paid millions even though they are at a loss as to why they should actually work for it. There are children in Jamaica waiting for American Idol or some other reality show, a recreational career that would save them from having to learn to do anything. They are dead set on a music career because being able to sing is beside the point and they want to be in movies not to act but to appear on the MTV special about the movie. They have friends with benefits but may never know young love. They may be smart about the world and know as much as adults, but they have never experienced what being a child is like. And they don’t have a clue.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

One Book Meme

Stolen from Chekov’s mistress who got it from James Marcus. Oscar Wilde said that talent borrows but genius steals. I don’t know about feeling like a genius but I do know a thing or two about feeling like a thief. So here are my answers:

1. One book that changed your life?

I think the best books change your life in ways that maybe you cannot recognise, but others recognise in you and think that it's just growth. With that as a yardstick, X-men becomes as important as The Color Purple. But if I had to pick only one book it would be James Joyce’s Dubliners. The irony is that I’m such a prude that I didn’t realize what was happening in “The Encounter” until I was 31 years old! The very first thing I ever wrote was a story-by-story response to Dubliners. The Sisters became Disintegration (yep also based on The Cure), A Painful Case became Wallpaper Faces and Two Gallants became Two Gentlemen United for Northside. All awful, trust me. But after that I realized that I was never going to whup this writing thingy. Mind you it would be another seven years before I wrote something else.

2. One book that you have read more than once?

My Name is Red, by Orham Pamuk. Possibly the only book influenced by One Hundred Years of Solitude to pose a serious threat to that book’s much deified place in fiction. Yes it is that good, and yes I knew he was going to win the Nobel this year. Joining Red in lit syndication however are Pride and Prejudice, Song of Solomon, One Hundred Years of Solitude and Lolita.

3. One book you would want on a desert island?

A desert island would probably be the perfect place to get into a writer I feel I should know intimately but don’t have a clue about. That would be Philip Roth. So hopefully I would crash land with the new library of congress editions of his books. Given his rep for misanthropy and my future without company, maybe we would be a perfect match

4. One book that made you cry?

Richard Powers's The Time of Our Singing. Call it the anti-Corrections. You root so much for this way-before-their-time interracial family that when they ultimately, inevitably fail, you feel all humanity failed with it. I haven’t been so upset over fictional characters since Bill Sykes scared me for seven years.

5. One book that made you laugh?

Shame, by Salman Rushdie. I didn’t even think I was allowed to laugh with serious literature until this book.

6. One book you wish had been written?
I can't stand memoirs but I would have given anything if one of the four: Mary Shelley, Percy Bycce, Lord Byron and that other woman who I keep forgetting, had written a memoir of that summer they all spent together.

7. One book you wish had never been written?

I could do without Nicholas Sparks and Mitch Alborn, but maybe more Oklahoma kids wouldn't be missing their parents and vice versa had their been no Turner Diaries.

8. One book you are reading currently?

Francine Prose’s Reading like a Writer and Patrick White’s Riders in the Chariot.

9. One book you have been meaning to read?

Oh lord where do I start? Maybe I should just say Ulysses and be done with it. And horrifying as it is to believe, I still haven’t read The Great Gatsby.

10. Pass it on

Saturday, October 28, 2006

On Mediocrity

Even though I’m dead set on becoming one, I have a huge problem with expatriates. Bad times are good times for somebody and as some Jamaicans go through the worst of times, expatriates seem to be coming here by the plane load, taking jobs, many of which Jamaicans are qualified or can be trained to do. I see them at Heathers, Peppers, Red Bones and sometimes I can’t shake this feeling that we are entering a new era of Massas disguised as marketing managers, efficiency experts, HR managers and police commissioners. I can’t shake this feeling even as I scour the online career website looking for a way to put this creative writing MA to good use. I was ambivalent about my ill will to expatriates for a long time until I realized that it wasn’t them I was pissed off with. It was Jamaicans. We are the people of the plateau—we work as much as is necessary to reach a flat, safe place. Then we stay there for thirty years.

Is there anything so ludicrous as the Long service award? It’s to reward someone for not making anything of their lives, for hedging their bets, for playing it safe, for setting their brain on dim for thirty years. For being mediocre. And not just in work but in education, politics, philosophy, music, and life. It's not that expatriates take jobs that Jamaicans can’t do—its that they take jobs we don’t feel we have a right to.

The Jamaican still feels he has no right to success, to excellence, to ever use any word in the superlative. You hear it in how we greet you.

“Whaappen star?”
“Looking at you, the better one.”

“How are you?”
“Hanging in there.”

I think we are taught this. The second we reach that career choice age in high school the first thing taught is to hedge our bets. To pick those fall-back subjects just in case. To this day I can’t remember putting my fall-back subject to good use and I wasn’t always a writer. More than that, we take the hedge your bets philosophy through life. Here is the problem with this. If in life, career or even love you always consider the alternative or the cop out strategy, you’ll never lock on to the drive, intelligence, the cojones to be a true success. If you never reach the point where the only way forward is through, where this is it and nothing else, you’ll never achieve, it. Whatever it is. Sean Paul succeeded where others did not because there was no other choice. There was no waste management career if the music thing didn’t turn out. Those who think he had lucky breaks are not only unaware of the real story but also fall prey to that sin of the mediocre: bitchiness about others’ success.

As long as you work with a net, you will never fall, but you will never fly either. The security blanket that is supposed to be a cushion for achievement does the opposite, it sucks achievement back down to the midrange. Shockingly most Jamaicans or rather most of the Jamaicans I’ve met seem fine with this.

A friend of mine told me recently that she had a huge fear of flying. I told her to become best friends with Valium, but also to take the longest flight she could book, over sea if possible where there was no chance of a stop until the final destination. The last time she flew, the knowledge that there was a stop in Montego Bay, amplified her fear instead of reduced it. Yes it’s the swim in the deep end philosophy and some will drown that way, but so many more would soar. I think. I hope.

This wouldn’t bother me so much if it weren’t such a national malaise. We read putrid crap like The Five People You Meet in Heaven, a book so sickly sweet that I got tested for diabetes. We watch Martin Lawrence movies, listen to Andrea Bocelli records when we want to feel cultured, along new age music and lots of lite jazz. For a particularly deep night we reach for The Road Less Traveled or The Alchemist. When asked about this most of the people I know will reply that they just want something light, some form of escape, something they don’t have to think about. Can there be anything more tragic than to believe that you could never enjoy a thought? That learning cannot be fun? That to be challenged in any way is to be subject to something just slightly worse than constipation? Believe it or not Camille Paglia can be a riot. You might shed more tears over Anna Karenina than you did over Titanic. Peter Gabriel is more rewarding than Sting. Tar Baby is a sexier read than Waiting to Exhale. I’ve been told too often that I’m too deep and you don’t have to over analyze everything or reach for the toughest most puzzling book or movie. There is this belief even among some of my closest friends that I cannot possibly be having any fun. And here I thought puzzles were fun. Here I thought that I was laughing like an idiot because As You like it was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen, not because Shakespeare was costing me some brain cells.

It doesn’t surprise me that people with a mediocre appreciation for art have a midlevel appreciation for life as well. Many will say that they are just being realistic and there is some truth to that. But more often than not they are just being pessimistic, as if a dim view of the world is a correct one. And while thinking the world is set against you is pessimistic, getting one CXC pass and biding time as a secretary for four years is just plain lazy. I take issue with this realism. It's as groundless as any other fantasy. But convenient. And aye, there’s the rub. There is a safety in mediocrity that’s four hundred years wide. An irresistible safety. The problem with risking failure is, well you fail, don’t you? But most of us do not fail. But maybe we should, because those who have already know that failure is just another speed bump to success.

I have friends who are writers, artists, dancers, musicians, politicians and photographers. A few will make it, some of them spectacularly. None of them will fail, but several will never achieve anything remotely close to greatness. It’s not a matter of talent or intelligence though those are crucial. But there are many mezzo-sopranos out there taking dictation. Many possible Oliviers biding time as bank clerks. Weekend virtuosos all of whom think a second job, a moneymaker is a sign of good sense, not cowardice. Maybe they are right. I’ve claimed to have a lot of things but good sense was never one of them. I just never thought that there was something in this world that should be out of reach.

Maybe this is one of those slavery shackles we’re still trying to pry loose. Or maybe we are just imitating our leaders. There was nothing particularly remarkable about PJ Patterson, but he was prepared to do the one thing at which mediocre people excel. He was prepared to wait.

Monday, October 23, 2006

The One Album Mojo

You know, CD's aren’t cheap. No matter what currency you’re paying in they are almost never worth the money. This is why the Ipod generation is among us and I am proudly among their number. The Rolling Stones albums I’ve made for my Ipod way outclasses anything they’ve ever released, ditto for Bob Marley, Eurythmics and even (gasp) Rod Stewart.

Pitchfork, the only website I check daily did something last week that I didn’t think possible, a positive review that might do more damage to a band’s career than all negative reviews put together. Near the end of their review for Clinic’s new album the writer delivered this nasty piece of viciousness: “Clinic are threatening to become the sort of rock band of which you only really need to own one album.”

I haven’t been so struck by something said by a rock critic since somebody I forgot mentioned that Prince is giving us albums we might need but do not want. (Hold on, it was Prince who said that).

But the statement had me looking at my CD collection and Ipod like never before. Even now, years since I’ve written a music review, my shelves are littered with pop detritus, records that I barely listened to once and certainly never will again from artists that I expected more from. Artists of which you really only need one album. I was about to have a requiem and needed more than black calvins to carry it out. I began to scan for artists that have failed me time and again with crappy records. I rifled through bands like The Doors, where the definitive album was a greatest hits. I realized nothing of the Eagles was worth saving but much of Fleetwood Mac was. On the other hand I realized that repetition was not necessarily the enemy. The Ramones and ACDC’s albums were all as interchangeable as they were essential. So who made my list?

Red Hot Chili Peppers
Yeah, whatever, spare me the Under the Bridge nonsense. If you were a true Peppers fan, your masterpiece was Mother’s Milk and your life would have changed the first time you figured out the chorus to Knock Me Down. You also (admit it) never listened to Hendrix until you heard Chili Pepper’s version of Fire. But alas, if the trajectory of the artist is INNOVATE, RECREATE, MASTURBATE, then the Chili’s have been wanking off since the One Hot Minute Album. I knew something was horribly wrong when the only thing I like about their new album was the artwork. Not sure whether to be the Eagles or Fleetwood Mac, the Chilies have settled on being Three Dog Night.

Keeper: Mother’s Milk, not Blood Sugar Sex Magik, you sellouts.

Wasn’t Load the most aptly named record ever? Metallica blew it when they turn against their own fans with the Napster debacle but maybe those fans were just stupid enough to believe that a band of millionaires could ever gave a damn about the “little guy.” Metallica’s fall to crap has been so catastrophic that they took once thought great albums with them, leaving only: Master of Puppets.

Badly Drawn Boy
The tantalizing thing about Damon Gough when he first appeared was that of all the Beck Clones, he was the only one who posed a serious threat to his dominance. But sometimes, and this is nobody’s fault, all that a writer needs to say he says the first time out. BDB’s new album proves he is clearly bored with himself and has no problem boring us too, but more than that we are witnessing what happens when talent leaves the talented. In its place come vindictiveness (him dissing James Blunt of all people), defensiveness and the stupidest miscalculation of Bruce Springsteen since the Killers. Like that unfortunate band he mistakes simplicity for silence, confession for revelation and regular characters for boring ones.
Keeper: Hour of Bewilderbeest

All Debuts Rappers from 1991 (and Wutang too)
1991 was the end of hip-hop golden age, but what is not being said is that it was the rappers of 1991 that killed it. More than any other genre hip-hop has been the music of the one album, and even those with long careers simply figured out how to give product a longer shelf life, not how to grow as an artist. None of these bands made better albums that their debuts, so debuts we shall stick with:
Brand Nubian: One for All
Cypress Hill: Cypress Hill
Main Source: Breaking Atoms
Black Sheep: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
WuTang Clan: Enter the Wutang-36 Chambers (not 1991, but still)

Morgan Heritage
I’m sick of people lionizing this band for what they are not instead of paying attention to what they are. And that is nothing much. In Reggae's era of diminished expectations it takes nothing to be a roots reggae star. There are a few requirements of course, mastery of the one drop, a song for Selassie, one for mama, and one for you to eat your greens people. We Jamaicans love the safety of mediocrity and have been living in that shadow for so long we don’t even remember what excellence sounds like. This one is easy. Just go over to the CD rack, close your eyes and grab one. Anyone will do.

In all my life, there has only been one rock and roll record that has caused every single person I have ever ran into from reggae deejays, to gunmen, to writers, to intellectuals to stop and ask, “who is that?” The magic of Gomez’s Liquid Skin was that you could easily make it your own masterpiece no matter who, what and where you were. The band didn’t rock so much as roll, an indefinable sound that seemed equal parts magic, rock action and the best weed in the UK. The record sounded like it took a major effort to make and by the end of it the band was spent. Now five albums later, Gomez still haven’t found back their mojo. It sucks when a major band goes to the toilet and stays there, but worse trying to sell their record on E-bay where even online one can smell the stink.
Keeper: Liquid Skin.

The rest because it’s getting late and you’re probably tired of reading:
Burning Spear: Marcus Garvey
Eric B & Rakim: Follow the Leader
Yellowman: Zuguzunzugguzunguzeng
Seal: First Album
Sting: Nothing Like the Sun (Russians and Moon Over Bourbon street are profound, if you still write your poems in a trapper keeper)
Queen Latifah: All Hail the Queen
Cream: Gold
Kiss: Gold (in fact most albums in the Gold series trump the original records from the artists)
Stevie Nicks: Belladonna
White Stripes: White Blood Cells
Placebo: Once More with Feeling
Slayer: Reign in Blood
Nine Inch Nails: The Downward Spiral
Eminem: The Marshal Mathers LP
Janet Jackson: Control
Moby: Play

Rest assured, this list will be updated.

The Greatest Love of All, or, Reconsidering Jean Rhys

Perhaps Jean Rhys is right after all. Perhaps the best way for a writer to deal with something, or to get past something or merely to understand it is to write it down. Or perhaps that is to write it out. Or more than that, to write it off. Maybe this explains the memoir craze. Or the blog. I don't know. So I'm watching this remarkable play, After Mr. Rochester about Jean Rhys's remarkably screwed up life and I still envy her a little for at least having lived it.

The sad and amazing thing about Rhys was that all along she was only looking for a way to love herself. Self love is such a vast, infinite thing that you can only come by it simply, for once you over-analyse self love or try to comes to terms with it; once you think about it too much, you can never achieve it. The mistake Rhys made was to fail to see how vast and how simple self love was so she looked for substitutes in the only form of love she recognised, a father figure. Talk about Electra complex. Rhys surrounded herself with big daddies, I guess because she was looking for a big love, something that no other person could give her. I think this is why she exhausted all of her lovers. I also think this is why Michael Jackson never feels loved until 100,000 fans scream his name. Maybe God can provide this love since he is vast and infinite too, but he can also seem judgmental and distant to some, friend and enemy. If as the line goes in South Pacific, that we are carefully taught to hate and fear maybe we can unlearn them too. Maybe we can unlearn self loathing. Must every great artist have a self hating streak? Didn't Jean Rhys transfer hers to writing and Naipaul to everybody just like him? Is happiness a false goal for an artist? What's so meaningful about pain anyway? Just a thought.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

My Proust Questionaire, Damnit

I love Vanity Fair's Proust Questionnaire even more than I do Esquire's "What I Learned" column. But look, I'm never going to be famous enough to ever merit a page in Vanity fair and even if that miracle happens, it will take years and I don't have time to wait. So here are my Proust answers, because unlike 99 percent of the people Vanity Fair usually asks, I've actually read Proust.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Pesto on everything

What is you greatest fear?
That Jamaica will get neither better nor worse, just stay the same as it always has. Wait a minute....

Which living person do you most admire?
Patti Smith

What is the most overrated virtue?
Restraint, especially when it comes to sex scenes in literature.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?

What is your greatest extravagance?
Rare Books, Pesto and Jeans I can't afford

What is your Favourite journey?
On my way to a newly discovered used books store

On what occasion do you lie?
When dear friends ask if their babies are pretty

Which living person do you most despise
Fundamentalists who are still alive, though the dead ones aren't much better

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
"Actually," "Don't let that stop you," (as in "Buy me lunch." "I don't want to." "Don't let that stop you.") and saying "sigh" and "argh" instead of actually sighing or arghing

What is your greatest regret?
That I didn't write down what my Grandparents told me.

When and where were you happiest?
College, 1990 although touring Sept-Dec 2005 comes very close

What is your current state of mind?

If you could change one thing about yourself what would it be?
Did I really have to get saddled with knock-knees, God?

What is your greatest achievement?
That I've made it this far without killing a fundamentalist

If you were to die and come back as a person or thing what do you think it would be?
Anything but a chihuahua

What is your most treasured possession?
Possession is counter revolutionary

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery

Where would you like to live?
Paris, Buenos Aires, Berlin, Kinshasa and the Jamaica that Chris Blackwell lives in

What is your favourite occupation?
I'm quite taken with this writing thing actually. I think I'll give it a few go's before I quit.

What is your most marked characteristic?
A harmless cynicism, an evil scientist laugh and a knock-kneed penguin walk

What is the quality you like most in a man?
Intelligent, funny, and not in the least bit bothered that a man would answer a question like this.

What is the quality you like most in a woman?
Intelligent, funny, and asking me these questions long before I decided to write these answers.

Who are your favourite writers?
Orham Pamuk, Jose Donoso, Jane Austen, Los Bros Hernandez

Who is your favourite hero of fiction?
Have no idea, but I do know that Bill Sykes still gives me nightmares. That was not an exaggeration by the way.

Who are your heroes in real life?
Patti Smith, Doctors without borders, that guy who stood in the way of the tanks during the Tiannmen square massacre. Don't worry, last time I checked I was one of two or three Jamaicans that China doesn't own yet.

What is it that you most dislike?
Fundamentalism, Christians who say they don't have a PhD but they have a G O D

How would you like to die?
In way that I don't even know that I'm dead

What is your motto?
There's always a way.

Now do one yourself. Special prize to any that I can rip off for material in my next book!

Friday, October 13, 2006

Rock the Cheeze Wiz

So I just finished my Ipod 80's hair metal mix (You give love a baaaad name! Rock You Like a Hurricane and my personal fave, Tuuuurrrrrbooooo Loverrrrrrrrrr!) and this mix had me waxing nostalgic all day. You know what I really miss? 80's Alternative. Not great alternative like the Pixies, Sonic Youth or Echo and the Bunnymen, those bands never really went away, but alternative trash. Cheesy alternative. Mediocre alternative. Even bad alternative. Alternative that had few fans, mostly because the pop audience was smart enough to buy Prince and the Bangles instead.

I miss them like how Jack the Ripper misses disection class. In my mind came a quick roll call: Romeo Void, Generation X, Revolting Cocks, Sigue Sigue Sputnik (!!!!!), Bow Wow Wow, Missing Persons, Housemartins, Romantics, Mission UK, Dead or Alive, The Busboys, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Dexy's Midnight Runners, After the Fire, Falco, Taco, M, "Just Can't Get Enough" era Depeche Mode, Madness, Whoever sung the title song for the TV show Square Pegs, Spandau Ballet, Skinny Puppy, Nitzer Ebb, Frontline 242, Cabaret Voltaire (actually they turned out to be genuises all along), 23 Skiddoo, Magazine, Toni Childs, Grace Pool, Celibate Rifles, The Glove, The Cramps,
Einstürzende Neubauten and others that my subconscious chose to keep for himself.

There are a million others of course, but right now I'm too busy, hitting up my Limewire, pleading with it to let off some more underground 80's cheese, so layta for you.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

That 70's Show

I wish I was an adult in the 70's. Terrorism had sexy names like Baader Meinhoff Gang, the cocaine was wonderful and the sex came without such baggage as, well death. Radicalism was cool and revolution was as much ideology as it was pose and all the better for it.

The trouble is, I was an adult in the 70's. In Jamaica at the very least back then, there was no such thing as childhood. The cocoon of childhood, that delicious naivete that's essential for children to remain children was obliterated at about age 6 or 7, about the first time I saw a dead body or heard about politics. Because to live in the third world is to be defined by politics whether one likes it or not. Politics infiltrated everything, religion, society, culture, sex so much so that at times every decision one made was essentially political. Every action reverberated with political consequence. Before my ninth birthday I knew IMF was screwing up the economy, socialism was just an appetiser for the communist meal, gunmen would kill you for sporting the wrong colours and Reggae was the music of nasty people. I knew the Prime Minister by his biblical, demi-god nickname (Joshua, of course) and I knew why so many Jamaicans including my Dad clutched his Walter Rodney and his Eldridge Cleaver books.

In the 70's it wasn't just the children who were naive. Grown men and women living in a country barely over slavery had already begun to believe that capitalism had run its course, ignoring of course that Marx would have been horrified that such underdeveloped countries were trying on communism for size. The 70's were a decade of mistakes paid for in debt and death. A time when not even Bob Marley was safe from gun violence. It was the decade when the CIA may or may not have tried to destabilise the economy. It was the decade when my father would throw a block party just because he got his hands on corned beef.

Still I wish I was in my 20's or 30's in the 70's if for no other reason that it seems that that was the last time where anybody thought there was possibility. Maybe not in Jamaica but certainly elsewhere. Or maybe I'm still being naive. Or maybe I'm being a lot more superficial that I care to admit. After watching Munich the thing that stuck with me the most was how cool the clothes were. I'm not sure that what I'm saying has anything to do with the 70's or any or decade so much as I'm trying to say how disconnected I am from this one. Sometimes I wish for a massive global conflict just so the 21st century would start. I still feel that we're sifting through feedback from the 20th century instead of making up new explosions in the 21st. I'm impatient for 21st century lit, art, music, dance, sex, love, whatever, but feel that post modernism, that lazy act of reaction has rendered any ability to innovate dead.

Post modernism was the first movement with no creation whatsoever because it was more concerned with responding to what have been created before. As a man who came of age in this postmodern era I wonder if my generation will create anything. Even grunge was more reaction than creation, and response more than an idea. Even Pulp fiction was a response to film more than a film itself.

I wonder what the next punk rock will be. I wonder where the next Sartre is coming from. I wonder if we are capable of creating new myths and if my generation will be remembered for anything other than irony. I am intoxicated by all the good memories of the 70's despite knowing just how bad the bad was. I would like to matter to somebody and make a difference without thinking about it too much. I would like to write books that engage my generation and quite frankly it would be nice if my generation read more. I'd love a 70's in Germany or a 20's in Paris or a sixties in California or even a 50's in Cuba. I'm just anxious for the 21st century to start. Or maybe it is I who need to start something.