I’m plugging this for a friend, long time after I said I would, but you should check it out. Thin Walls Press. Some cool little stories. Always room for more word places.
Writing the Weird, over at LitReactor has wrapped for now. I dug it more than a little, thanks to one of the most inventive and crazy-enthusiastic groups I’ve had the privilege of working with. I read some great stuff—malevolent bees and addictive urinal cakes (because they’re blue) and ghost towns of the mind. It was a blast and I look forward to being back.
I’m teaching Orwell’s 1984, right now. And in a recent class I brought up the ideas of utopia and dystopia and we all talked about our idea of both (Hogwarts and rampant viral infection respectively). One of my more capable students was kind of smiling and looking awkward, and I teased it out of her. Her idea of dystopia? Tony Abbott’s Team Australia. For this student, a Muslim woman, the threat of racial profiling was already so real, the daily experience of having judgement already made against one, of being always already guilty, has created a kind of psychic, if not an actual ghetto for, in this instance, people of Middle Eastern appearance.
‘It’s just the way it is, she said. You live with it. Make the best of it. Lie low and get on with your life.’
In 1984, Winston Smith
‘wondered vaguely whether to lie in bed like this, in the cool of a summer evening, a man and a woman with no clothes on, making love when they chose, talking of what they chose, not feeling any compulsion to get up, simply lying there and listening to the peaceful sounds outside. Surely there could have been a time when that seemed ordinary.’
I don’t think the student was in any way comparing the conservative Abbott government to Big Brother, but simply, and almost apologetically saying that when a nightmare becomes ordinary—everyday reality—it’s harder, and maybe even dangerous, or at least pointless, to fictionalize.
I’ve been thinking a lot about racial profiling lately, how, for instance, in the ante-bellum South, not to mention during Reconstruction, you’d cross the road if you were black and saw a white man coming toward you. Or even a white child. It was just the way it was. Survival depended on racial profiling, on keeping out of the reach of the perceived enemy—survival depended on assuming the worst, which is a kind of paranoia, I guess. The critic Aaron Rosenfeld notes that
‘Paranoia is the act of reading the world as if it were a book.’ (341)
I remember in Libra, DeLillo said something similar, but I can’t remember what that was. The difference between a slave’s, or a minority’s paranoia, and first-world xenophobia comes down, not just to terror and who inflicts it but to power and who has it. I notice the way people in the train compartments stiffen when a group of Muslim women with their children in strollers come in, not to mention an Imam. About half of my students are Muslim. Last year I had a student called Jihad. That took me a while to get used to. I looked it up at babynamer.com, and found out it means ‘struggle.’ I thought of all the Christians, Brahmas and Abrahams in the world. I know someone who was part of a Christian religious sect where you have your name changed in order to positively affect your destiny.
The problem with Team Australia, or racial profiling, is not really the racial aspect. I mean, in essence, maybe it is, as Sam Keen says, but not in practical application. The problem, as Martin Luther King said, is the legal aspect. You are, in a democracy, equal in your presumed innocence, and whether you wear a Hijab or a pair of dungarees your right to dream of ordinary things is an inalienable given based on the law of the land. When we were at the pub on Tuesday night, a young ropy white guy walked in with prison tattoos around his neck and a tight braid down his back, and his eyes were moving too quickly and he walked with that bandy-legged side-swagger that you get from being in too many tight spots and getting out of them the only way you can. He went straight up to the ATM machine. Then he sat down at the bar and started talking to the servers. He had a nice voice like a singer’s, full of subtle notes and soft harmonies. He worked down at the docks. It had been a tough day. He smiled a lot.
If I change a character’s name in the course of writing a novel, I have to rewrite the entire novel.
Another illustration from Der Orchareengarten by the great Alfred Kubin, who wrote the surrealist novel, The Other Side (Die Andere Seite) in 1908, which he also illustrated (below) adapting some of the drawings he’d prepared for Gustav Meyrink’s Der Golem when Meyrink hit a snag.
Kind of like when the money for the Halo movie ran out and Neill Blomkamp and Peter Jackson adapted the look and some of the Cthulhu-ish alien designs for District 9. I’ll be looking at the works of Kubin, among others in my upcoming LitReactor class, Writing the Weird.
Alan Baxter goes one on one with Margo Lanagan about brain vomit, gargoyle sex and the art of the warrior writer.
In addition to buying Alan’s book, I caught up with a bunch of people, and met Margo Lanagan for the first time. “Singing My Sister Down” is possibly one of the great stories of the last decade, and it still blows my mind and the minds of my students. So I bought her new book, Tender Morsels, that does crazy things with language, like, ‘Time stretched and shrank. She seemed to stretch and shrink. The pain pressed her flat, the crashing of the wood. Da muttered out there, muttered forever; his muttering had begun before her thirteen years had, and she would never hear the end of it; she must simply be here while it rose from blackness and sank again like a great fish into a lake, like a great water snake.’
So I got to meet the woman who wrote that, and she signed my title page, and it turns out we’re neighbors. She lives down the road from me. Love.
Also some stuff in the works for me, having to do with the new novel, waiting to see that unfold. TGIF suckers.
Eight weeks ago I was thrown into the deep end of a course I’d never taught before (not exactly) in a community college I’d never been to, with seven students I didn’t know. We met every Wednesday night between 6 and 8 pm, after work, hungry and tired, in an empty boardroom somewhere in the city. After the last class we all went out for farewell drinks. How many writers does it take to find a quiet bar on game night? State of Origin. North against South. Us v Them. Blue v Maroon.
Pale blue jerseys and surly barkeeps everywhere. The game projected on the sides of buildings, on high-def screens large and small. No cabs in sight. The restaurants empty. Everyone at home or at the pub, and no talking unless you’re screaming or buying a drink, or you want a punch to the throat. Except there we are in our sweaty power-suits and teacher’s drag, stories in our heads and words the only game in town.
There were five of us left. Two drop-outs (my lost American went back to LA; my Indian dreamer caught up in home and work duties), and the scruffy poet a no show. We missed him. His absurdist ramblings with a healthy disrespect for tense and time and which left an indelible image burned on the soul (a vast vaporous train station where the train never comes, a bus bisecting a desert path to nowhere). So it was just us. We found an upstairs room in a big noisy bar and got to know each other a little better. All but one of us comes from somewhere else.
Between them one publishable story, the beginning chapters of a novel and a travel memoir, and from the Ukrainian auto-didact, a vivid take on a mother-son encounter. Each with a new path carved from their hearts to their eyes and their ears and their tongues. Their fingertips telling them that the world is now a different place.
And the school offered me two more classes. Go the Blues!
The most important life skill is to learn to be loved. If, like me, life has taught you otherwise, and that you are unlovable, you had better unlearn in three, two, one. We’ll do it together. Now. Today is the day. Whatever it takes. I am with you. Fight Club, Glee Club. I’ll be over your shoulder for that awkward coffee with your daughter or your mom. I’ll be beside you at the bar for office drinks or watching the game with your dad or your room mate or playing Orphan Black with some chick in China or letting your new brother-in-law into your studio. I’ll be with you on that blind date or Facebooking her afterwards, or holding your newborn for the first time or taking your grandson to Mickey D’s or wondering if your ex will get the kids back by dinner time Sunday or typing ‘The End’ all alone, because you aren’t. I am with you in Rockland. Allen, how are you, you old so-and-so? You are loved. Love is the crumbs you’ve left in the forest (eyed by wrens atop the Golden Arches, fuck-you, this is my grandson). There are some crumbs left and it isn’t quite dark yet (pick up the phone). There’s still time to get out (the leaves are golden, the Aspens call). Still time to get home (the wolves are a dream). Where he waits.
A friend told me the other day that the novel she just finished was not the one she wanted to write. Isn’t that the point? Isn’t that the sound we hear as we tap, or type, or scribble? The sound of our own heartbeat, and maybe we’re panting a little, maybe even sobbing, as the words get away from us yet again, and the story runs away with our soul?
A crappy deal, whichever way you look at it.