27 December 2011

How to Respond to a Critic

Posting will be light-to-nonexistent here until after the new year, but I want to put this up before I forget it.

I've been bingeing on Tim Minchin over the holidays, mostly because I've been very busy with grading, writing, wrapping, cleaning, etc. and needed something amusing and profane in the background of these activities. Minchin's "Song for Phil Daoust" is a heartfelt, soul-searching, and genuinely touching example of something artists should really never, ever do, despite the temptation: respond to a negative review. (Note: despite being heartfelt, soul-searching, and genuinely touching, this is not a song you will want to play anywhere where colorful words might singe sensitive sensibilities.)

15 December 2011

A Promise Kept

In my latest Sandman Meditations piece, I discussed the unconscious shame of reading comics in certain settings, and at the end I promised I would read some old G.I. Joe comics while my students worked on their final exam activities.

I have kept my promise -- and gone beyond it. Since today's class was called Media as Popular Culture, I thought we should all enjoy some popular culture for a moment, so I loaned everyone in the class a G.I. Joe comic....

14 December 2011

Site Note

I was bored with the old look of this site, so decided to change things around a bit. (If you're reading this via RSS or a mobile device or something, check out the actual website to see.) There may be some adjustments as I try it out on other computers and browsers, but for now this will do.

Until I decide to go all neon green.

Because clearly the internet needs more neon green.

13 December 2011

Canonical Nationalism

Questions of literary canonicity have been stalking me for the past few months, mostly in relation to teaching. Some I began thinking about because I was designing a course called Currents in Global Literature, and when faced with giving English majors perhaps their only taste of writings from beyond the U.S. and U.K., I had to figure out my priorities.

One of the things I decided to do was try to provoke the students to think about why they have read what they have in school, why they have the assumptions they do about books and writers, and how they can learn more. So I had them watch TED Talks by Chris Abani and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, listen to Stephen Snyder on "The Business of International Literature", and read Dan Edelstein on "Gerrymandering the Canon", Binyavanga Wainaina on "How to Write About Africa", and Manijeh Nasrabadi on her experiences trying to write and publish a memoir. Additionally, our poetry textbook challenged the templates of Romanticism they had previously encountered in other courses and complexified their understanding of literary history -- not just the history itself, but how it got to be that way.

Global literature in our class, then, was presented not as some ethereal essence floating through the ether, but as a system of literary production, distribution, and reception. It's too easy to gain a feeling from our curriculum that U.S. and U.K. fiction, poetry, and (to a lesser extent) drama are Literature and everything else is some exotic offshoot. The department has done a lot to try to mitigate that, but there are huge disciplinary systems in place that make it difficult.

Last week, I was part of a panel discussion for English majors about canonicity. Various questions had been raised by majors this term about what they were learning -- particularly for the English Education majors. Hearing these questions, one of my colleagues decided to put together the informal discussion, and so a group of us created 5-minute statements about canonicity and education, then we had a free and wide-ranging discussion of all sorts of things related to it all.

11 December 2011

Notes on Petals of Blood by Ngugi wa Thiong'o

In the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Petals of Blood, Moses Isegawa calls the novel "the definitive African book of the twentieth century". I would only disagree because I do not think there is any one definitive African book, nor should there be -- one of the problems African literatures face when sampled here and there is the tendency for one or two books to be seen as giving some sort of definitive portrait of a continent of over 50 countries, a billion people, and thousands of languages. Petals of Blood is capacious and brilliant, but it's not definitive.

A lot has been written about Petals of Blood since its publication, and it continues to incite interest both in its portrait of Kenya in the early years of independence and its (and its author's) politics. This was especially true at the time of its release, because it was difficult then to see beyond the novel's critique of Kenya's ruling class to its subtler aspects, and the fact that Ngugi was soon imprisoned without trial added to the political reading of the book. It is, of course, an overtly political novel, a novel that very clearly wants readers to see the government of Kenya as betraying the ideals of the liberation struggle in favor of capitalistic greed. But one does not need to be a Marxist to find great value in Petals of Blood, any more than one needs to be a visionary Christian to find value in Dostoyevsky's novels or a vegetarian to appreciate Tolstoy's.

One of the purposes Petals of Blood serves is to recuperate in writing an unwritten past. We might identify the central narrative of the book as the story of the murder of three prominent men, but amidst that story are many others, and the movement is hardly linear. Were we to create a graphic representation of the novel's many pieces, it would surely require a spiral or two, because the overall sense the various strands of plot and event give is one of moving deeper and deeper through the history of the village of Ilmorog, which is also, at least partially, the history of Kenya. The structure is so carefully constructed, though, that this history does not feel tangential -- indeed, it becomes impossible to see the solution of the murder mystery (the primary concern of the basic narrative) as separate from the history of Ilmorog and of Kenya generally: specifically, the history of its systems of power. This is perhaps one of the reasons why I constantly think of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy when I think of this novel. The murders in Petals of Blood serve similar narrative purpose(s) to the murders in Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, or the battles in War and Peace. While certainly this purpose/structure/effect can be interpreted as a result of Ngugi's Marxism (perhaps with reference to Lukács), it's not something we find only in Marxist narrative. It could come from any worldview that is not fanatically individualist.

Back in the Saddle

Things have been mostly quiet here for a few months because of general busy-ness on my part since September. Not just with teaching, though that has eaten up more time than usual, but also with my membership on the jury of the Shirley Jackson Awards and the board of our local domestic violence shelter and resource center, Voices Against Violence. (Operating a domestic violence shelter and resource center that offers entirely free services in these economic times in a state where the legislature is full of anti-government, anti-spending fanatics is not the easiest job on Earth.) Free time and sleep have not been things I've experienced much for the past few months, and that took a toll as well, since I'm now recovering from a rather nasty virus. But we soldier on!

And there should be a bit more time for blogging in the coming months, so I've begun to make some plans. First, the usual reflection on the term's classes, which even if it ends up being terribly boring for most readers is very useful to me, and it's also helpful to be able occasionally to point people toward some of my writings on what I do in the classroom. One thing I want to do is write about a few of the books I used in the Currents in Global Literature course I taught, and which I'll be teaching again in the spring, because a few of them are books I haven't taken the time to write about before. So expect posts soon on Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Petals of Blood, Alejo Carpentier's Kingdom of This World, and Hisham Matar's In the Country of Men. (I've written previously about Nadine Gordimer's Burger's Daughter and a little bit about Flaubert's A Sentimental Education.)

I also need to write about a few books some folks have sent me over the past six months; I've mostly discouraged anybody from sending me books (well, before I joined the jury of the Jackson Awards) because I knew I'd have limited time for reading and, especially, reviewing, but there's lots of really interesting stuff out there, and I need to take a moment to note some of it.

Also, I had fun creating the video essay on Derek Jarman, and would like to hone my skills at that with a few more. I'm thinking about something about Jean Renoir, maybe something on one of his most-neglected films, La Nuit du Carrefour, or perhaps a look at how Fritz Lang remade two of Renoir's films (La Bete Humaine became [or drew from the same source: Zola's novel] Human Desire and La Chienne became Scarlet Street). Or maybe/also something about 1980s movies like Red Dawn and Invasion U.S.A. We shall see...