Music is the ultimate consolation for reality’s letdowns (like being thirteen and still firmly living in the realm of childhood). I would listen to “Venus as a Boy” on repeat in my bedroom, curtains drawn, and imagine Allan’s face, his arms, his chest, his body. ...more
Paul Griner talks about his newest novel, Second Life, his just-released story collection Hurry Please I Want to Know, putting real life into fiction, and whether creative writing can be taught. ...more
In episode 31 of The Rumpus’s Make/Work podcast, host Scott Pinkmountain speaks with researcher/curator Aurora Tang, who has built a career around thinking about sustainability for artists and arts organizations. ...more
Because we’re adept cave dwellers, because we pull down the shades and curl into each other, because we find some sort of domestic bliss in being fake-married for seven days, I think we can do anything....more
Mark Danielewski talks about the "maddening energy of violence" and why he’s writing a 27–volume novel, starting with his first 850-page installment in the series, The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May. ...more
Shulem Deen talks about his memoir, All Who Go Do Not Return, his life as an ex-Hasidic author, divorce and parenting, and how painful he found it to be cast out from the religious sect he'd belonged to for over fifteen years. ...more
Editor and author George Hodgman talks about his new memoir, Bettyville, what makes for a good memoir, and returning to his hometown of Paris, Missouri from New York to take care of his aging mother. ...more
In the finished novel, this journey will take up four sentences. My virtual mapping of the route will have almost no discernible impact on the prose that I’ve already sketched out – as adjectives go, “nondescript” doesn’t paint much of a picture – and, once again, what I justify as research might just as easily be dismissed as the writer’s tendency to arse around. It’s certainly less costly and time-consuming than visiting Bologna, but it still feels a little like cheating. What if I’ve missed something? Isn’t being there part of the job?
Over at the Guardian, British novelist David Nicholls shares his experience of using Google to research places for his novels compared to visiting them in person.
What are the fundamental differences between telling your own story, telling the story of another, and telling your story about trying to understand someone else’s story?
I’ve been pondering this question since reading The Man Who Built Beirut, Bye ByeBabylon,and Baddawi, three graphic stories that focus on life in Beirut. Individually, these stories account for the experiences of an American traveler, a Lebanese citizen, and a Palestinian refugee, all having lived in Beirut during tumultuous and unsafe moments in the city’s history. Each story is told from a different perspective and each aspires to understand, to remember, and also not to forget.
The Man Who Built Beirut(2013) is an exemplary piece of mini-comic travel journalism—a genre I may have just made up—and a great intro on former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. It’s also a flash overview of Lebanese politics, focusing specifically on the years between 2005-2011. What is most noteworthy is how The Man Who Built Beirut is also a story about the author, who as a character in the comic ventures to understand the complex and chaotic political history in Beirut.
Just sixteen pages long, the mini comic was written and illustrated by Andy Warner, who visited Beirut for the first time in 2005, the same year Hariri was assassinated. Warner actually felt the reverberations from the bomb blast across town that killed Hariri. After that somewhat traumatic moment, he decided he had better learn something about Hariri and Lebanese political history in general.
Hariri was a billionaire by way of highly corrupt business practices, twice the president of Lebanon and widely credited with rebuilding Beirut after the 15-year war that ended in 1990. His murder ignited massive protests across Lebanon, known as the Cedar Revolution, and remains unsolved to this day.
Warner, a white American, said he didn’t know much about the political history of Beirut before he visited. And this is part of why this comic is so powerful—he confides in the reader that he is uninformed and shares his subsequent journey of research and discovery. To the reader, Warner functions as a companion, a guide along the path to understanding and caring about things outside of our own experience.
In this way, the comic isn’t just about Rafic Hariri but about the process of developing empathy. It’s about seeking understanding when the possibility of understanding seems too complicated or too scary or even hopeless, but pushing through and as a result becoming engaged. It’s about an American trying to understand and getting confused and articulating that confusion. And that’s a relatable story for a lot of people, including myself.
The Man Who Built Beirut is available to view as a webcomic here.
Bye Bye Babylon (2012)is a graphic memoir by Lamia Ziadé that recounts her experience of the first four years of Lebanon’s 15-year war from 1975-79. Unlike Warner’s tale, this is not journalism. This is Ziadé’s story of having lived through it.
Ziadé was just seven years old when the war started in 1975 and the first pages of the book reflect that. Saccharine drawings of Bazooka bubblegum, Kraft marshmallows, and Kellogg’s Smacks introduce her as a typical child. Almost immediately she offers the reader a not-so-subtle reality check (this was a Beirut childhood after all) by adding drawings, in the same delightfully sweet style, of various weaponry: Kalashnikov AK 47s, M16s, and RPGs. Further on, she illustrates the fashions and insignias of active militias in Beirut: Amal, Saiqa, the Phalangists, NLP, PLP, SSNP.
The book continues this way. Drawings of consumer objects alternate with objects of war. There are hotel fires and bomb blasts, and then there are Chiclets and bottles of Chivas Regal. Some transitions between the two are more jarring than others. I gagged a little after turning a page of deliciously drawn hamburgers to see a live person tied to the back of a car, bloody like ketchup and being dragged to his death. This interaction of consumer culture and political reality recalls Martha Rosler’s series of photo-collages, “Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful,” except that the way Ziadé presents this interaction seems less intellectually constructed. Ziadé’s actual experience of war is the argument that Rosler astutely crafted.
Most noticeably, all of Ziadé’s objects float. They appear without background, without context or landscape. They exist in isolation. They function like the myopic lens of memory: there are holes and disconnections. There are hotel fires, bottles of Valium, and Enid Blyton books in no particular order. But there is no sky, and there definitely is no ground. There are no page numbers. There is only action and objects. There is violence and explosions and there are the objects looked to for distraction.
Bye Bye Babylon literally illustrates that the function of memory and the processing of it doesn’t require both a foreground and a background. That’s the business of cameras. Our minds click on disparate elements that our memories later retrieve and rearrange in the telling of our stories. I suppose Ziadé could have created complete drawings of environments that seamlessly stitched together her experience of the war, but she didn’t. And maybe that’s because she wants you, the reader, to do the stitching.
That’s what is most compelling about this book. Where there are blank spaces, there are unanswered questions. What existed in those spaces surrounding Ziadé’s objects? Was there a table underneath those Kellogg’s Smacks? If that table was omitted, then what else is missing from Ziadé’s story? As readers, we are asked to fill in the blanks, and maybe this means that Ziadé is inviting us to add a little of ourselves to her story. If we are able to do that, are we empathizing more so with her experience?
Baddawi (2015) is a coming-of-age graphic novel about Ahmad, a Palestinian refugee in Beirut. It is written and illustrated by his daughter, Leila Abdelrazaq. She dedicated the book to her grandmother and grandfather, and to “all those children of immigrants who have not forgotten their parents’ stories.” In some ways Baddawi is an unremarkable story, but it’s a vital one. So much of the world sees Palestinians as inhuman or nonexistent, and one reason for this has been the active eradication and suppression of Palestinian culture. Culture, after all, is what identifies us human.
Abdelrazaq’s father Ahmad was born in Baddawi, a refugee camp in Northern Lebanon where he lived with his mother, father, and nine brothers and sisters. Despite his family’s displacement, it seemed that Ahmad experienced certain aspects of a typical childhood—he was mocked by classmates, desired the perfect soccer cleats, played marbles like a champion, and loved cheese sandwiches. He spent time in the mountains gathering thyme, the main ingredient in zaatar, which his mother made.
He had a best friend, Ibrahim. Together they would hang out, do homework, stay up all night talking, and get into all sorts of shenanigans. Like the time they decided to build a boat and Ibrahim floated out to sea with it and disappeared. Hours later, Ahmad found him washed ashore in a garbage dump smelling like, well, a garbage dump.
Quotidian life in Baddawi went on like this until the early 1970s when Israel struck the camp with cluster bombs and a cousin’s wife was killed. After this, Ahmad’s story experienced a series of ups and downs. The family moved out of Baddawi and to Beirut, where a tween-age Ahmad was dazzled by the fancy hotels and the seaside culture. Like many boys his age, he became obsessed with Bruce Lee films and got a job as a grocery delivery boy so he could afford movie tickets at the Piccadilly Theatre.
One day he witnessed the bloody aftermath of the Israeli murder of a PLO leader. On another day he got stuck in traffic after the Phalangists, a militant political party, opened fire on a bus full of Palestinian refugees. This incident was called the “Bus Massacre” and is commonly credited as the beginning of Lebanon’s 15-year war.
Baddawi and Ahmad’s story may not be extraordinary, relatively speaking, but that’s what makes it so heartbreaking. Baddawi is the Palestinian experience of displacement, poverty, inequity and suffering. Emergent in this story is also Abdelrazaq’s commitment to keeping her father’s story alive. Baddawi is not just about Ahmad but about Abdelrazaq’s ambition—as a child of a Palestinian refugee—to not forget, which is much different than trying to remember. Palestinian people are faced with a persistent struggle to not forget because so much of their cultural note taking has been erased. Baddawi is a beautiful addition to that cultural memory
For TheMillions, Caroline Crampton explores the prevalence of “sheep lit” (writing about shepherds and sheep) in 20th century British literature. According to Crampton, writing about sheep shows a relationship between the way shepherds “interact with their land,” and their personal histories. The result is writing that does not render details into “extravagant, writerly prose,” but rather writing that is “straightforward” and “connected to the place that inspired it.”
Conservative pundits have been attacking Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia student who spent the last year carrying around her mattress in protest of how the university handled the discipline hearing after she was raped, labeling her a liar. Most of these criticisms seem to forget that three other women also filed complaints against her attacker, Paul Nungesser. One of Nungesser’s victims went through the Columbia University discipline process and Nungesser was deemed “responsible,” at least before the university granted him an appeal. That victim has now spoken out, publishing an account of the incident and subsequent fallout on Jezebel. (more…)
It would have been Sun Ra’s 101st birthday last Friday, and to celebrate, Harte Recordings has released a 40th anniversary edition of the artist’s otherworldly cosmic trip, Space is the Place. We’ve done our share of commenting on the proliferation of Sun Ra remasters out there and how they’re organized for consumption in an Internet world, but this one—with its restored footage showcasing the film’s truly incredible sets—seems like it’s more than worth a peek. The reissue comprises a DVD, CD, and book including all the features you could want from a release like this: commentary from the directly relevant to the celebratory, the film’s producer Jim Newman to famous fans like Wayne Coyne; cut and uncut versions of the film; never-before-published photographs; and all other kinds of anniversary edition fanfare. Watch the film’s intro after the jump and check out the full details of the release at Birdman Records.
We’re never going to see eye-to-eye on what’s OK to write about. I’m not trying to embarrass or hurt anybody but telling my story is something I can’t compromise.
If I’m not telling it, it’s because I’m ashamed or feel guilty, and I don’t want to live in those places emotionally anymore. I spent a long time there. There’s some risk of overexposing myself but at the same time, telling my story is how I counteract the very real desire to hide everything about me.
At Vulture, Boris Kachka looks into the recent trend of publishing “mega-books,” with the hopes of answering a seemingly straightforward question: “When did book get so freaking enormous?” In his analysis, Kachka touches upon works by Knausgaard, Tartt, and Catton, all authors of recent works of significant length that have received a great deal of literary acclaim.
In this weekend’s Saturday Essay, Amanda Parrish Morgan returns to a favorite film of her childhood, Dead Poets Society, as a high school English teacher with a more critical eye. Parrish Morgan ties the sad “martyrdom” of the movie’s hero, Mr. Keating, in with the New York State Legislature’s new, unrealistic standards for evaluating teachers. The unfortunate reality is that: “In most communities, teachers are compensated so poorly and afforded so little respect that in many cases the primary compensation is martyrdom.”
Meanwhile, Ann van Buren offers a review of Paul Muldoon’s collection, One Thousand Things Worth Knowing. Part elegy for Seamus Heaney, part elegy for Muldoon’s lost homeland of Ireland, the book at turns compels and repels van Buren. Obscure references make the collection challenging. “In every phrase of yours,” Van Buren tells the poet directly, “we see a thousand synapses firing.”
Then, in the Sunday Essay, Suzanne Clores has nightmares about her own murder at the hands of her loving husband and wonders where they might come from. The boundary between female intuition and genuine precognition becomes blurred. “In my more sane and confident moments,” Clores writes, “I am certain he is the non-murdering gentleman I married.” But the symbolism is continually frightening.
We’re getting ready to send out our next Letter in the Mail, and it’s from Ben Dolnick! Ben writes a very funny letter about the “strangeness of traveling alone” while his plane is delayed for hours at the Sea-Tac airport.
Ben Dolnick is the author of three novels: Zoology, You Know Who You Are, and At the Bottom of Everything. His writing has appeared in the New York Times and on NPR. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and dog.