Wole Soyinka in Conversation With Henry Louis Gates

The New York Review of Books published a long, wide-ranging interview of Wole Soyinka, Nigerian Nobel Laureate in Literature, by Henry Louis Gates. The conversation touches on Trump and why Soyinka cut up his green card, the African diaspora, desegregating motel swimming pools, Obama and burdening a leader with a Peace Prize, federalism in Nigeria, classism in South Africa, women’s rights and fundamentalism, and Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize. I can only recommend reading it in full:

There’s One Humanity or There Isn’t’

Image: Frankie Fouganthin (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Literary history and the present are dark with silences, some the silences for years by our acknowledged great; some silences hidden; some the ceasing to publish after one work appears; some the never coming to book form at all.

Tillie Olsen, quoted by Rebecca Solnit 

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Vietnamese American Literature Recommendations

Viet Thanh Nguyen, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sympathizer, compiled a reading list of Vietnamese and Vietnamese American authors for Lithub. I read lê thi diem thúy’s coming-of-age novel The Gangster We Are Looking For in college and can recommend it. Closing the list is Ocean Vuong’s 2016 poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds, which is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I can only agree with Viet Thanh Nguyen:

“Ocean Vuong is the Walt Whitman of Vietnamese American literature. Lyrical, expansive, sexual, provocative, he sings of the Vietnamese body and of Vietnamese history.” 

I’m keeping my eyes open for the other picks on the list.

 Additionally, Viet Thanh Nguyen recently talked to Seth Meyers about the difference between immigrants and refugees, and what we can learn from the Vietnamese-American refugee experience in these troubled times.

Western society habitually presents itself as the society of the rights of man, but before a man could have rights, he had to constitute himself as an individual, to consider himself such and to be considered such; that could not happen without the long experience of the European arts and particularly the art of the novel which teaches the reader to be curious about others and to try to comprehend truths that differs from his own.

Milan Kudera, quoted in this JSTOR Daily article on literature as resistance. There is a lot to this argument, and it is also a reason why diverse literature is so important:  The more stories of e.g., trans people,are told in literature, the more the public can imagine this group as a part of society with individual, civil rights.

In literary fiction, male writers who use lightness and humor, who spin wildly in the space between one sentence and the next, who push against what’s expected, are described as “wry” or “satirical” or just plain “funny.” Women are bestowed a tiny, glittering bless-her-heart tiara of “whimsy.” Reflexive condescension absolves us from serious engagement. Miranda July is a woman, and a very serious writer who is also very funny. She’s challenging. Feed “whimsy” to the birds.

Lauren Groff makes an excellent point about “whimsy” in her review of ‘The First Bad Man,’ by Miranda July on NYTimes.com.

The Colorless Murakami

Here are a few thoughts I had while reading Haruki Murakami’s current novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. A book I didn’t hate, but didn’t particularly like, either. This includes hints at major plot points, so be warned if you care about spoilers. 

This is the first time the prose of a Murakami book feels dull, overdescriptive, bland, to me. Most of the points I disliked about the novel might be intentional to make the “colorless” point, but I’m not sure if I can buy in. The book is an engrossing, fast read but not that enjoyable or riveting, barely moving at all.

The characters of the original five friends are really conservative in more than one way.  Characters are repeatedly frowning when confronted with anything that is connected to homosexuality. Abortion is dismissed as killing a living thing. However, this is not a flaw but the design: The five friends are simple bland grownups in simple bland grown up lives with simple bland reactions to life and it’s problems. Even their deep revelations are grown up simple and bland. The big relationship reveals are also so so simple, bland, conventional.

The book is about what simple real everyday people find to be genuine weirdness. Not only the main character, but also the narration has an unnecessary, annoying fixation on female body parts and sex. It uses sex in the way that Real Literature™ uses it: omnipresent, slightly creepy, and always out of place and out of touch. The way critics love it in Roth, Houellebecq, Schlink. All the dirty old men. I’m fraid Murakami is turning into a dirty old man, too. 

The strongest passages of the novel are also its most unsettling and most problematic (as it so often is.) The theme of connecting to old friends after a long time is the best part of the book, but only develops towards the end. Increasingly unsettling is Tsukurus obsessive dreaming about very young and/or dead Yuzu. The obsessive dreaming is almost entirely sexual.Yet here is also where Murakami is at his best: Tsukuru does and doesn’t question reality. His obsession leads him to ponder the possibility that there is a deep darkness in his colorless heart. In these passages there is the split between alternate realities, both probable within the context of Murakami’s Tokyo. But they are only passages, glimpses, embetted in overwhelmingly repetitive and bland obsessive sexual dreams.

The ending is kept open, is even hopeful. But after what has happened before, and especially by the world Murakami has created around colorless Tsukuru, an actual happy ending seems unlikely. Were the guy to get the girl, they would merely be enveloped by the increasing absence of color. Ultimately the novel leaves you dead certain that if only enough time passes, we all become empty, colorless vessels.

Have you read the book and have a completly different feeling? Feel free to disagree with me

“Not A Thing For The Marketplace, A Thing For Its Own Sake”

Mark Yakich answered the question “what is a poem?” for the Atlantic:

When we come across a poem—any poem—our first assumption should not be to prejudice it as a thing of beauty, but simply as a thing. The linguists and theorists tells us that language is all metaphor in the first place. The word “apple” has no inherent link with that bright red, edible object on my desk right now. But the intricacies of signifiers and signifieds fade from view after college. Because of its special status—set apart in a magazine or a book, all that white space pressing upon it—a poem still has the ability to surprise, if only for a moment which is outside all the real and virtual, the aural and digital chatter that envelopes it, and us.

I highly recommend the essay. Not sure if I agree on all points, but it is excellent grease for the machine, prey for the wild animal. 

Junot Diaz on Vampires’ Reflections and Representation.

Via lovingmyselfishard:

““You guys know about vampires? … You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, “Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist? And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.””

– Junot Diaz