“Waiting for Some Guy…” Toni Morrison Speaking to Cornel West

 

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Angela Radulescu [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D

At this moment, when we have just lost the incomparable Toni Morrison, it seems like a good time to revisit this 2004 Democracy Now interview with Cornel West. She speaks about truth and love, the perils of political loyalty, the courage of children in the saga of school integration, and more, much more.

belovedEighteen years after 9-11, we are still waiting for “some guy–the mayor guy, the governor guy….”

We are waiting, in the wake of gun violence that never ends.

In the midst of inequalities so great that they can only be explained by corporate theft.

In anticipation of a planet about to burn up.

Now we have lost a voice that spoke the truth with vibrant clarity.

 

 

“Thus, and thus, and thus! . . . Now all is done, and all is ashes!”

In “Pierre; or, The Ambiguities,” Herman Melville’s weirdly dizzying gothic thriller, we find the disturbed and disturbing Pierre incinerating everything his father left behind. A portrait curls in the flames, as do stacks of letters. “There is no knowing Herman Melville,” Jill Lepore writes in her article in the New Yorker in honor of the 200th anniversary of his birth this summer. In part this is because he didn’t want his papers to be preserved, burning his manuscripts and shying away from photographers.

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Source: Wikimedia Commons/ original uploader Chick Bowen at English Wikipedia. Public domain

Moby Dick defeated me for years–I just couldn’t get past the first few pages.  Some books are like that, requiring repeated effort. I did end up reading it many years ago but I have to admit it was work. Despite tripping up on the “idolatrous dotings” of the Egyptians and “the aboriginal whalemen, the ‘Redmen,'” despite being baffled by the endnotes (and that “Sub-Sub Librarian”) I did get glimpses of what all the fuss was about. The vast expanse of the book, like the ocean itself; the ship in peril at the hands of the obsessive captain; all that cetology; all that commentary on the world as the author must have known it, its realities obscure and dim to my 20th century mind; and the other world that was purely about the flaws and blindness to which humans are prey.

Practically ignored in its author’s lifetime, the first American edition of Moby-Dick of 2,915 copies did not sell well at $1.50 and only netted Melville lifetime earnings of $556.37. The rest went up in smoke, literally, in the Harper fire of 1853.

IMG_0699Aside from providing windows into Melville’s life, Lepore’s article reminds me of the value of re-reading and growing into books that we may have chanced upon prematurely in our youth. Re-reading grows the curatorial collection in the mind, a bit like sea-glass getting polished by the ocean’s waves.

Perhaps it’s time to reread Moby Dick. We are now, after all, in the middle of a real-life cetacean Armageddon. Beyond that, we are all playing witness to the actions of deranged captains of the good ship Earth, or perhaps we are, collectively, those captains. Some of us, by default, pick up the pens of sub-sub librarians, taking notes. “Thus and thus and thus,” we write, hoping against hope to escape the ashes.

 

 

Epistolary Day: In Praise of the Quiet Eye

ReaderComeHomeDear Maryanne Wolf,

I was always an easily distractible person. I still am. I can’t write if there’s music playing or if anyone is talking (other than the imaginary people in my head, that is). Sometimes, when I’m working on a draft, I have to pull the blinds down so I don’t end up spending hours staring at falling leaves or dragonflies instead.

As a child, my report cards frequently read, “Does not pay attention.” It was true. I was a hummingbird of a kid, whirling round in dizzy gladness, drawn from one bright object to the next.

But from the time I began to read, one thing always stilled me.  A book.

Give me a book and I would instantly get lost in its pages. I would become somebody else. I would go somewhere else, and somewhen as well. I would be transformed. Back in the 1960’s I didn’t have the bright objects that children have today. No screens with easy click-throughs to tempt my easily sidetracked brain away. Books allowed me to develop the “quiet eye,” the path to theologian John S. Dunne‘s “essence of things.” It would be years before I’d realize what a gift that was.

And because I didn’t have that many books, I reread the ones I had, over and over again. You quoted Anne Fadiman, Maryanne, on reading compared to rereading:

… the former had more velocity; the latter had more depth.

It made me see how I’m skimming so much more now, reading for information and not for immersion. The screen will do this to a person. It can fool you into thinking you know a lot. In reality, that kind of reading can result in knowing about many things, while knowing very little about any of them.

You cited Lorca’s poem, “My Ancient Heart of a Child.” And I wondered, if I, the distractible ex-child, who see myself now as a literate adult, am worrying about losing my own ability to read deeply,  what can I possibly do, as a writer for children, to stay true to the magic of the perfect word? How pass along the lineage I have inherited of generations upon generations of books, all speaking to one another and so, in the end, speaking to me? It seems to me that is the heart of a reading life, something that now feels as endangered as icebergs.

Hans Christian Andersen Travelogues and Juvenilia

My son, on a trip to Rome, recently sent me this photo of a house that Hans Christian Andersen lived and wrote in during his year in Italy.

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Image © Nikhil Krishnaswamy, 2019

What, I wondered, did he work on there from 1833 to 1834? One of his travelogues? It turns out it was his autobiographical novel, The Improvisatore, and the trip was sponsored by ad usus publicos, a Danish public fund set up in 1765 and used in the 1800s mainly to support literature, art and the sciences. In other words, this was a residency!  Many writers will relate to this experience, this life lived two centuries ago. We may rail against the norms and practices of times past, and we should, but we are also connected to writers who went before us.

9781554983247-1_0When my picture book, The Girl of the Wish Garden, was published, one of the storylines of my life as a reader and writer seemed to come full circle. As an 8-year-old in India in the 60’s, I’d been captivated by

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Copenhagen, sculpture of The Little Mermaid (Den lille Havfrue) by Edvard Eriksen. Photo © Nikhil Krishnaswamy, 2019

an illustrated collection of Hans Christian Andersen stories, a gift from an aunt who had visited England and bought a copy for me. The Little Mermaid made me cry. I have a visceral memory of a delicious surrendering to an emotional state. I don’t think it had ever occurred to me that words on a page could do that to a person.

So when I found out that an unknown Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale was discovered in 2012, that, too, felt inevitable and logical. It was probably written between 1822 and 1826, and shows that whatever else he write, the fairy tale genre came bubbling up for him quite early in his life. Excerpt from the Guardian article:

The story tells of a little candle, dirtied by life and misunderstood, which eventually finds happiness after a tinder box sees the good at its heart and lights it. “The Tallow Candle had found its right place in life – and shown that it was a real candle, and went on to shine for many a year, pleasing itself and the other creations around it,” writes Andersen.

“Pleasing itself and the creations around it.” May we all be as lucky.

“Young girl, you were not born only to cook…”

LetHerFly.jpgWho has not heard of Malala Yousafzai? Her courage, her clarity, her vision so startling for someone so young?

Here is a book by the father who has stood at her side all along. Excerpt from a poem by Malala’s father that serves as an epigraph:

Young girl, you were not born only to cook.
Your youth is not to be ruined.
You were not born a victim, were not born
as an instrument for a man’s enjoyment.

And this from the opening chapter…

I was going to be a father who believed in equality, and believes in a girl as she grows into a woman, and who raises her so that she believes in herself, so that in her life she can be free as a bird.

MalalasMagicPencil.jpgMalala herself, the world’s youngest Nobel laureate, continues to speak eloquently of her journey and her vision for the world’s girl children. Her father’s book is worth reading in tandem with Malala’s own picture book, Malala’s Magic Pencil, illustrated with a suitably delicate touch by Kerascoët, the husband-and-wife illustrator team Sébastien Cosset and Marie Pommepuy.

Cultural Complexity and Women’s Aspirations in The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad

candleandflameBritish Columbia writer Nafiza Azad locates her debut novel, The Candle and the Flame, in Qirat, a land located somewhere on the Silk Road. It’s peopled by royals and commoners, Shayateen who thrive on chaos, Ifrit who seek order, and humans with all their flaws and failings, joys and griefs. Qirat is a place of great beauty but what really drew me into this book is how much its cultures coexist. Deepavali lamps celebrate the Hindu holiday. The Azaan summons Muslims to prayer five times a day–in fact this is probably the best fictional rendering I’ve seen of those recursive calls of the muezzin. Rather than feeling imposed, they take on a kind of temporal force through the story, not to mention that the handsome muezzin turns out to be the love interest in an amusing subplot.

In the novel, the land of Qirat has been severed in two, the result of compromises following a terrible attack by the demonic Shayateen. It’s a backstory that feels subtly infused by the history of the Indian subcontinent itself, creating in the process a kind of aspirational mirror of the real world. The female characters are interesting and complex, sometimes pawns in a bigger game, but often engaged in a struggle for agency in their lives and for justice in their world. Fatima is the one we keep our eye on, but they’re all subtly drawn.

I found it interesting that the fractures in this world are not along religious or linguistic lines. Rather, they are rifts caused by the misdeeds of demons and people. Azad’s immaculately crafted prose weaves in the words of many languages—Urdu, Hindi, Arabic, Persian, Punjabi—seamlessly and mercifully bereft of italics.

Read in e-galley.

“A Rough River of Sorts”

It’s the 4th of July.

Time for the tanks to roll through Washington, DC.

Time to spare a moment to reflect upon young Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and little Valeria, father and daughter, drowned in the Rio Grande while trying to get to an America that no longer exists.

The Fascist menace in the White House responded by saying that the Rio Grande is “a rough river of sorts.” Careless words, cruelly tossed out, landing on the ear in a kind of uncanny poetry.

If you think there’s something wrong with this picture, you might add a dying planet, a rise in hate crimes and the new empowerment of white supremacist groups. The SCOTUS endorsement of partisan gerrymandering. The war on science. And more.

This Fourth, we are indeed trapped in the surge of a very rough river.

There is much to overcome.

What does this have to do with children or children’s books, you ask? Everything. What kind of country do we want to leave to the children we write for? What kind of world?

Epistolary Day: A Quality of Attention

ReaderComeHomeDear Maryanne Wolf,

Your chapter on the processes of deep reading stopped me in my t-r-a-c-k-s.

I was particularly struck by your account of former president Barack Obama’s conversation with novelist Marilynne Robinson and the capacity for empathy that fiction builds within us.

Excerpt:

…Obama told Robinson that the most important things he had learned about being a citizen had come from novels: “It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that. And the notion that it’s possible to connect with someone else even though they’re very different from you.”

It’s an ability we desperately need in the world today. It makes sense to me that reading can hold the antidote to a “culture of indifference.”

As I turn off my cell phone and computer and prepare to read for the sake of reading, I’m going to be chuckling over Eileen Gunn’s short short story. It would take me many more words to explain that story than the six words that it consists of–or, to be precise, five words, because the word “computer” repeats itself.

Praise the sentence, its opportunities, its limits. Praise reading for the worlds it opens up and keeps on building, in the only mind I have.

Epistolary Day: The Reading Circus

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From Letter Two, Reader, Come Home

Today I’m replying to Chapter Two of Maryanne Wolf’s Reader, Come Home with a letter. Because–well, how else, really?

Dear Maryanne Wolf,

You made me think about a single word in an entirely new way. Tracks.

T-r-a-c-k-s.

You reminded me that reading isn’t hardwired in my brain, that my brain’s “plasticity within limits” is the wondrous principle that has rearranged my circuits to make reading possible. You made me aware of the multiple acts by specialized neurons that release meaning within single letters, combinations of letters, design, prefixes and suffixes and plurals, probability and prediction, context (verb or noun or something else?), and then the next layer still, memory and association and emotional meanings. A kind of “Circuit du Soleil,” you said, thus imprinting that image indelibly.

All this happens in the single moment, when my eye lands upon that word? I felt the same awe that comes to me when I think of the chemical communications of tree roots or the nests of cliff swallows. Who needs miracles? Being alive in the world is miracle enough.

Your choice of word, too, is particularly apt. You could have picked any word. It seems, on the surface, as if any word will do. But this one has connotations that lift me up from the last chapter and transport me into the next, so that Letter Two becomes itself a track upon with my circus train starts to rattle on towards its next destination.

You write:

Anyone who still believes the archaic canard that we use only a tiny portion of our brains hasn’t yet become aware of what we do when we read.

When I revise my words today, I’ll do so with a new respect for the work I’m asking my readers’ brains to do.

Sincerely yours,

Your Reader

The Reading Brain, Kindness, and Contemplation

Proust and the SquidRemember Proust and the Squid, cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf’s 2007 account of how humans learned to engage in that seemingly unnatural activity we call reading? How the brain was changed by that unprecedented development and is now on the brink of changing yet again?

Here is the follow-up to that book. It’s epistolary in form, consisting of a series of letters to readers.

It’s titled Reader, Come Home.

Speaking for myself, I can’t resist a good invitation. I am now reading a letter a day from Maryanne Wolf to–me!

ReaderComeHomeOr at least that’s how it feels. This line, for example:

To be sure, when I was a child learning to read, I did not think about reading. Like Alice, I simply jumped down reading’s hole into Wonderland and disappeared for most of my childhood.

That was the child me. I have ended up living a life of words, a life built around reading but I sometimes wonder if I have lost the ability to leap into a book and lose myself, the way I did as a child, when the boundaries of the real world just dissolved and I was impervious to all distraction.

Proust and the Squid fascinated me and left me with questions about the young readers I write for and whether reading would be changed by emerging media. Now, more than a decade later, those questions have coalesced into worry, as we find ourselves deeply entrenched in a culture of digital media with all its bells and whistles, quickness and instant bling.

I’m delving right now into the last round of edits on a middle grade nonfiction project that is definitely all about the long haul, about thinking deeply and embracing kindness. That potential reader, 8 or 10 or 12 years old, is never far from my thoughts. For many reasons, this book seems particularly timely.

There’s something about the format of the letter that is at once anachronistic and entirely appropriate to the subject. A letter invites me to pause, to think about a point, to feel in communication with the writer. Wolf cites Rainer Maria Rilke’s kindness in Letters to a Young Poet as a source of inspiration. She writes about Aristotle’s good society with its three lives–knowledge and productivity; entertainment and leisure; and contemplation–and suggests there are three kinds of reading lives as well. She wonders if that third life of contemplation is in danger from the sequestered kind of reading that everyone does nowadays, reading only what we agree with, reading only in easily consumable bites.

The reading brain, she says, is the “canary in our minds. We would be the worst of fools to ignore what it has to teach us.”

Rilke writes in the first of his letters:

Therefore, my dear friend, I know of no other advice than this: Go within and scale the depths of your being from which your very life springs forth.

Wolf warns us against losing that very ability to “go within.” It’s a skill we’ve spent millennia acquiring. It seems a shame to toss it away now.