Kashua, Mbue, and Platzová

On 18 September 2016, I moderated a panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival called “Occupy and Resist,” which featured the writers Magdaléna Platzová, Sayed Kashua, and Imbolo Mbue. Here’s the introduction I gave:

I’d like to try to have a conversation this afternoon about the place of politics in literature, given that all three panelists have written about the changes that political realities and politial ideals make to people’s lives. But before we start that conversation, I feel as though I should state, for the record, that the three books are very different, and as a way of introducing the panelists, I’d like to say a little about how they’re different.

Sayed Kashua is an Arab writer who now lives and teaches in Champaign, Illinois, but grew up in Tira, a small Arab city in central Israel. He’s the author of two novels, a memoir, and a hit television series. His hilarious, brutal, and urgent new book, Native, a collection of columns that he wrote for the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz, describes his move into, and then out of, an upscale Jewish neighborhood in west Jerusalem. Describing the early days of his move, Kashua jokes about how unnerving he finds the high water pressure, and how unsettling it is that municipal functionaries visit regularly to deliver mail and take away garbage, along streets ornamented with such luxuries as traffic signs and sidewalks—the implication being that these amenities were lacking in the Arab neighborhoods where he had previously lived. His humor, in other words, has a political edge. At times the edge grows so sharp that he drops humor and writes with plain pathos—as, for example, when he relays the accounts his children give him of being hurt by the casual cruelty of classmates giving voice to anti-Arab bias. Now and then Kashua does mention political events and controversies in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, but for the most part, the politics in Native is the politics of everyday life. A friend of his, quoted in a 2015 New Yorker profile of Kashua, called it “the kind of politics that arises from the dirty dishes in the sink.”

Though Kashua and his family are Arab, he wrote the first-person essays in Native in Hebrew, the language in which he was educated from high school on. I’m putting myself in a bit of peril by mentioning this, because in one essay he makes fun of people who incessantly ask him, “Why do you write in Hebrew?” But since American readers will be reading his book in an English translation, which, though very elegant, obscures this provenance, I think it’s worth bringing up. There’s a politics of translation, too, after all. When Kashua’s daughter declines to play in a recital scheduled to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day, for example, she explains to her music teacher that her family refers to the anniversary as Nakba, a commemoration of the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes.

Imbolo Mbue is a native of Limbe, a seaside city in the West African nation of Cameroon, and has lived in New York City for more than ten years. The young couple who are the heroes of her rich, vivid debut novel, Behold the Dreamers, share her geographic origin and are trying to make the same migration. The recent immigrant Jende Jonga lands a job as chauffeur for a wealthy executive at Lehman Brothers. Jende’s wife, Neni, joins him in the city, along with their son, and goes to school with the hope of becoming a pharmacist. Jende’s working papers are only temporary, however, and his residency in America uncertain. As Jende drives his employer’s family around, he becomes an intimate witness of their lives and, thanks to his cheerful manner, to some extent a confidant—an entanglement that becomes more complex after Neni goes to work briefly for the family, too, as a maid and babysitter. If one axis of the novel runs between Cameroon and New York, another runs between the Lehman executive’s home on the Upper East Side and Jende and Neni’s home in Harlem—between a wealthy white American world of status, convenience, secrets, anxiety, and loneliness, and a more communal and informal world of struggling, exiled Africans, where meals may require hours of preparation and may be eaten happily on the floor. This isn’t a conventional American immigrant’s novel, however; the axes cross in unexpected ways, and the story becomes quite dark, before the end.

Jende and Neni also live in a world in translation, speaking a mix of English, French, Cameroonian Pidgin English, and native African languages. Jende worries that his immigration lawyer might be mbutuku and refers to his native country Cameroon as pays. At the novel’s start, Neni is flummoxed when her precalculus instructor says he has a boyfriend, but by novel’s end, she and her husband have become so fluent in American culture that they’re able to poke fun at the typical Cameroonian’s taste in U.S. consumer goods.

Magdaléna Platzová‘s meditative and resonant novel The Attempt has two storylines. In the present, a student of history named Jan is seeking for the truth about his ancestry, which may or may not have to do with the novel’s second storyline, which takes place in the past—in the early twentieth century, to be exact—and concerns two anarchists, at one time lovers and later friends, one of whom, Andrei, spent 14 years in prison for attempting to assassinate an industrialist who violently suppressed a strike. Neither the present-day story nor the historical one is told in sequence, and much of the novel’s art consists in the way Platzová interweaves the two. But though the major axis in Platzová’s book is chronological, geography matters to her as well. Jan, like Platzová herself, is Czech; the would-be assassin whose story fasciantes him was Russian; and the industrialist and his heirs, whom Jan interviews, are American. It’s in America that the novel takes place—a country where Platzová herself, the author of six books, has both studied and taught, though today she lives in Lyon, France.

The Attempt has been deftly translated from the Czech by my friend Alex Zucker, who’s probably in the audience, but it feels to me as though within the novel the crucial translation to be made isn’t between Czech and English but between the past and the present. Those are the two worlds that can’t quite make sense of each other—the industrialist’s heirs keeping faith too rigidly with the past, the anarchists losing faith in the utopian future. A secondary axis, perhaps, is the one between fact and fiction, since Platzová’s fictional anarchists are modeled on the real-life lovers Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman, who left behind many letters and memoirs, and her industrialist on Henry Clay Frick, who left behind a famous museum.

A retrospective glance

The New Yorker, as you may have heard, has redesigned its website, and is making all articles published since 2007 free, for the summer, in hopes of addicting you as a reader. Once you’re hooked, they’ll winch up the drawbridge, and you’ll have to pay, pay, pay. But for the moment let’s not think about either the metaphor I just mixed or its consequences, shall we?

A self-publicist’s work is never done, and it seemed to behoove me to take advantage of the occasion. So I googled myself. It turns out that I’ve been writing for the New Yorker since 2005 and that ten articles of mine have appeared in the print magazine over the years. All seem to be on the free side of the paywall as of this writing (though a glitch appears to have put several of the early articles almost entirely into italics). Enjoy!

“Rail-Splitting,” 7 November 2005: Was Lincoln depressed? Was he a team player?
“The Terror Last Time,” 13 March 2006: How much evidence did you need to hang a terrorist in 1887?
“Surveillance Society,” 11 September 2006: In the 1930s, a group of British intellectuals tried to record the texture of everyday life
“Bad Precedent,” 29 January 2007: Andrew Jackson declares martial law
“There She Blew,” 23 July 2007: The history of whaling
“Twilight of the Books,” 24 December 2007: This is your brain on reading
“There Was Blood,” 19 January 2009: A fossil-fueled massacre
“Bootylicious,” 7 September 2009: The economics of piracy
“It Happened One Decade,” 21 September 2009: The books and movies that buoyed America during the Great Depression
“Tea and Antipathy,” 20 December 2010: Was the Tea Party such a good idea the first time around?
Unfortunate Events, 22 October 2012: What was the War of 1812 even about?
“Four Legs Good,” 28 October 2013: Jack London goes to the dogs
“The Red and the Scarlet,” 30 June 2014: Where the pursuit of experience took Stephen Crane

Visiting Liberty Plaza

A pink unicorn tricycle, Liberty Plaza, NYC, 4 October 2011

To spend one’s days and nights in a New York City park is expensive. At a minimum, one gives up running hot water, protection from rain and cold, convenient access to a bathroom, and most forms of privacy. I’ve done no more than visit the Occupy Wall Street protests in Zuccotti Park, whose older name of Liberty Plaza the protesters have reclaimed, and I imagine that the ones who actually spend the night there know who each other are. Maybe the willingness to lose safety and comfort are proof, in one another’s eyes, of a level of commitment. Maybe the loss underwrites a trust in one another that makes possible the group’s persistent faith in the ideals of openness and democracy.

During my two visits, I wasn’t wearing my reporter’s cap, and I’m not much of a joiner. That left me the role of tourist. When I visited on Thursday, September 29, haphazard eavesdropping seemed to pick up repeatedly the earnest, necessary, and tedious conversations typical of groups of people trying to decide how to make decisions—conversations that tend to become especially byzantine in groups suspicious of hierarchies. But the openheartedness with which people were giving themselves to these tedious conversations was winning, and the protesters’ physical innovations to group interaction were ingenious and looked fun. Since electric amplification is forbidden in the park, the protesters have adopted what they call “the people’s mike”: at the end of every phrase, a speaker pauses while audience members who were able to hear him repeat the phrase for the benefit of audience members who couldn’t. Lest this practice render listeners too fawningly imitative, audience members all the while talk back to the speaker through a variety of silent, waggling gestures: jazz hands pointing upward signify approval, a pinched forefinger and thumb suggest that the speaker cut his message short, and so on. Watching this new semiotics, I found myself wondering, Why haven’t people been doing this all along? It’s as if it took the Facebook generation to make the most of human presence. People of every description were photographing, filming, and recording. Policemen stood around the periphery, gazing into the crowds, apparently looking for alcohol, which the protesters have forsworn, and tents, which city law forbids. The multiplicity of surveillance triggered a little paranoia in me, and I wondered what sort of databases my visage might be appearing in.

When I visited again today, Tuesday, October 4, the food table looked better stocked, but the sleeping area looked more bedraggled. The photographers, meanwhile, seemed more benign; I watched a young man interview a protester on video, and when she asked, at the end, who he worked for, he explained that the video was just for his Facebook page; he added that he was from Tennessee. Whereas, on my earlier visit, strangers had greeted me and asked what I might be able to contribute, today the people who struck up conversations with me seemed to have more-focused agendas. A woman dressed as Marie Antoinette tried to sign me up for wind-powered electricity. A camera crew for Al Jazeera asked me to pretend to be reading an issue of the protesters’ newspaper, the Occupy Wall Street Journal, for the sake of some B-roll that they were shooting. I actually did want to read it, and the outreach table had given away all its copies, so I pretended. The camera guys were willing to let me keep the prop.

Is this the revolution? I haven’t gone to a march yet, and haven’t yet attended the protesters’ twice-daily town meeting, which they call General Assembly, so I’m hardly in a position to say. Some critics have pointed out that the finance companies once associated with Wall Street are now for the most part headquartered in midtown, but the criticism seems to miss the point: Wall Street, as a location, is a symbol. The location of Occupy Wall Street, on the other hand, is peculiarly literal. The protest is happening in a particular place; online, one may observe it happening, but one can’t virtually participate; it isn’t clear whether the improvised infrastructure could be transferred to another location, let alone seeded to many locations.

Other critics have objected that the protesters don’t seem to know what they want—an objection harder to dismiss. Indeed, the Adbusters poster that launched the movement asked the koan-like question, “What Is Our One Demand?” Similarly, the “Declaration of the Occupation,” which the New York General Assembly adopted unanimously on September 29, lists grievances but proposes no remedies—or rather, no specific remedies; it does exhort people to “create a process to address the problems we face, and generate solutions accessible to everyone.” But details matter in politics; it’s only through negotiation of details that compromises can be reached. Moods—even good moods—pass, and New York City is going to get colder before it gets warmer. Before winter comes, I hope the protesters find a way to disperse their movement without dissipating it.

Kaboom

“The Terror Last Time,” my article about the 1886 trial of Chicago’s Haymarket anarchists, which is in part a review of James Green’s new book Death in the Haymarket, is published in the 13 March 2006 New Yorker. As it happens, there are many Haymarket resources on the web, so I thought I’d link to a few of them. What follows will seem a little scattered unless you read my article first (ahem), but if you’ve done that, then . . .

If you want to read the witnesses’ testimony yourself, the Chicago Historical Society has published the trial transcript in the Haymarket Affair Digital Collection. The collection has all sorts of neat tidbits. If you thought my description of Louis Lingg’s beauty was a bit too breathless, for example, you can judge for yourself here. If you want to see exactly how nut and bolt screwed together to make a bomb, look here, for a bomb allegedly Lingg’s. The historical society also collaborated with Northwestern University to create Dramas of the Haymarket, a sort of online guided tour of the archival holdings.

The 2003 re-analysis of the Haymarket bomb fragments and evidence was described in this article by Timothy Messer-Kruse, James O. Eckert Jr., Pannee Burckel, and Jeffrey Dunn in a 2005 issue of the journal Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas.

The night before Parsons, Spies, Engel, and Fischer were hanged, Parsons sang the Scotch ballad “Annie Laurie.” There’s no recording of Parsons himself singing it, but there’s a period recording of the song by the Edison Male Quartette in the UC Santa Barbara Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project. As I mention in the article, the next morning, just a few hours before they were hanged, the men sang the “Workers’ Marseillaise” together. The three German speakers may well have sung in German, and I strongly suspect that that’s what’s being sung in this period recording. I’m not sure, though, because my German comprehension is extremely poor; it’s the right tune, certainly, and someone has catalogued it under the title Arbeiter, i.e., “workers.”

Innocence vs. experience

Pedro the Lion’s song “Penetration” begins

Have you ever seen an idealist with gray hairs on his head?

which reminds me of the passage in Emerson’s lecture “The Transcendentalist” where he says

Talk with a seaman of the hazards to life in his profession, and he will ask you, “Where are the old sailors? do you not see that all are young men?” And we, on this sea of human thought, in like manner inquire, Where are the old idealists?

which reminds me, in turn, of late Melville. Yesterday, on the electronic discussion group ISHMAIL, the scholar Peter Norberg traced the origin of the motto that Melville is said to have kept pasted to his desk at the end of his life,

Keep true to the dreams of thy youth.

It comes from a discussion of Schiller’s play Don Carlos in Madame de Stael’s Germany. Stael reports a favor that one character asks of another, and then adds an observation of her own:

“Remind him,” he says, “when he shall be of riper years,—remind him that he ought to have respect for the dreams of his youth.” In fact, as we advance in life, prudence gains too much upon all our other virtues; it seems as if all warmth of soul were merely folly . . .

After work today, I walked down to the library at 42nd Street, digital camera in pocket, to watch the anarchists rally. On Fifth Avenue, I happened to fall in with them, and I eavesdropped. A young woman asked the young man with a crewcut carrying their furled banner to slow down, because someone in back couldn’t keep up. “You’re six foot one,” she said, “and for every step you take, she has to take, like, four.” He wanted to arrive on time; she accused him of insensitivity. “We’re all adults here,” he defended himself.

I went partly out of curiosity, partly out of remorse at having been out of town during the proper protest on Sunday. Even in my youth—especially in my youth—I wasn’t much of an anarchist. (For the record, that’s understatement.) And I am more or less constitutionally incapable of joining in chants.

Still, it was a spectacle, which I feel conflicted about having fed. Over at n+1, Marco Roth has written, perceptively, that “When you find democracy entertaining, you know you’re a little off the right track—because it suggests you’ve become a spectator of yourself as a participant—similar to watching yourself have sex.” And the photograph that I wanted to take, but which the stutteriness of digital technology more or less defeated, was of the cameras nearly outnumbering the anarchists, surrounding their little bubble of human messiness like the black, lunar probe-shaped viruses that circled a cell and then punctured its membrane in the diagram in my high school biology textbook.

A line of police kept the protesters from returning to the front steps of the library, and the protesters seemed unable to decide whether to turn their backs to the police or to address them. Where was the fourth wall? It didn’t matter; the cameras were everywhere. The protesters shouted, “The whole world is watching,” but the warning wasn’t necessary. The police themselves were videotaping.

Will it hurt the Kerry campaign? The anarchists looked very much like middle America expects them to: tattoos, head scarves, sleeveless T-shirts. After the leader announced a march to Seventh Avenue, there was confusion, and I overheard a credential-wearing photojournalist mutter, “So fucking stupid.” The professionals, in other words, were not impressed.

And there wasn’t a lot of forethought on display. The protesters chose an extremely narrow gate for their exit. The police allowed them and the audience to file out. Then the police unrolled a ribbon of orange mesh and began to charge down the 42nd street sidewalk to clear it. If you haven’t experienced this, it’s sort of civil disobedience meets musical chairs. If the police finish “wrapping” a section of the sidewalk and you’re on the inside of the wrapper when they’re done, you’re arrested. In the one round of the game that I stayed to watch, it was not that hard to escape; maybe it isn’t meant to be. The police seemed mostly to catch photojournalists—players who were disadvantaged, no doubt, by not having looked up from their viewfinders.

I slipped forward along the walkway hidden by hedges that skirts the library’s north side and debouches at the Bryant Street Cafe. There a middle-aged woman rose, drink in hand, to accost a parks employee. “I hear the anarchists have organized a protest on the internet, but how can they do that?” she asked. “If they’re anarchists, how can they organize anything?” She seemed to feel she’d hit on a real stumper.

“They didn’t,” the parks employee answered.

That’s about as much as I witnessed. I think I’m supposed to be more chagrined by the silliness than I am. I see the Times is already calling the incident at the library a “brawl.” The word implies an evenhanded situation, as if the protesters resisted or fought back. They didn’t, from what I observed. They were trying their best to look angry and nonconformist, and their enemies will be happy to see them that way. But it was difficult, in person, not to notice that they were also well-intentioned and hapless—young and imprudent. They seemed full of life.