writers institute logo

Spring 2007
Volume 11, Number 2

William Kennedy: Albany's Poet (5/96)

Through six novels of his "Albany Cycle," two books of nonfiction prose and a powerful play, William Kennedy has become something more than a community fixture of the Capital Region, he has become its spirit guide. In two new works about to emerge, the novel, The Flaming Corsage, to be released at the end of April from Kennedy's publisher, Viking, and the play Grand View, given its premiere by the Capital Repertory Company in May, Kennedy only adds to the legend which has grown around him.

When, as rarely happens, a writer and a place merge, mesh, and acquire synergy, making something in the combination that hasn't been seen before, both readers and critics take note. When that blend becomes so dynamic that both literature and the space of people's lives are affected, something wonderful begins to happen: people, as one writer put it, "recognize a sense of community and of common destinies on a deeper level than that of practical affairs."

At its best, that's what American literature is about: in stories and novels from Hawthorne and Melville to Hemingway and William Faulkner, and in drama from Eugene O'Neill to Lillian Hellman to August Wilson, the greatest American writers write of what they know, their home spaces, and in so doing make them real, pungent, palpable, and accessible on the stage of life.

William Kennedy, a steadfast member of the community of Albany and the Capital District, not to mention a shaper of its self-understanding, has become both an actor and a voice on the ground it offers. Dead soil to most, or at least rocky and infertile. But what Kennedy has done has brought this landscape into blossom, flower and fruit. The literary map is incomplete without Albany wedged in among James Fenimore Cooper's upstate frontiers, Robert Frost's Vermont, and Herman Melville's, Henry James's, and Edith Wharton's Berkshires.

Both The Flaming Corsage and Grand View enhance that connection. The Flaming Corsage, which along with Quinn's Book and Very Old Bones, completes the second trilogy in the Albany Cycle (the first is comprised of Legs, Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Ironweed), offers us a turn-of-the-century playwright, Edward Daugherty, whose ambition comes to naught.

"Wounded by history, branded by ancestry" as one reviewer aptly put it, Edward gamely attempts to make art out of life.

Along with Edward are his wife, Katrina, worn to melancholy by an unhappy life; the talented, self-destructive Thomas Maginn, a journalist who becomes at once Edward's alter ego and nemesis; and Melissa Spencer, "a gifted conscienceless actress who becomes Daughtery's lover and sets in motion a murder/suicide that comes close to destroying Daugherty." Another writer, for Kirkus Reviews, neatly summarized the rather complex issues of The Flaming Corsage. As the reviewer put it, "The long struggle of Albany's Irish population to seize power from the governing elite is never far from the action: Daugherty, given a start in life by a wealthy benefactor, uses his plays to celebrate the resiliency of the Irish and lampoon the Dutch and English who rule the town." But it is the combined struggle of Edward and Katrina that drives the plot, through deaths, betrayals, and deceits.

There are some fascinating self-contained set pieces in the novel, notably the youthful Edward's musing on the suppression of the Irish, a new years hotel conflagration, and Katrina's comical effort to get materials assembled for administering last rites. This last segment alone is worthy of Joyce's Dubliners, or the "Spotted Horses" section of William Faulkner's The Hamlet. But what's most compelling about Kennedy's effort is his ability to present a huge novel, which covers decades and generations, in barely over two hundred pages. He does this by telling the story in non-linear fashion. The reader fills in the gaps of time following Kennedy's strategic foreshadowing and hindsight. The result is a system of revelation that is hallmark Kennedy. The last quarter of the book moves rapidly across time with a darkness and regret reminiscent of Ironweed's best. The book is an exhilarating, masterful achievement, whose last line, "there would always be bacon," pierces the heart much as that flaming sliver of wood earlier pierces the corsage on Katrina's breast.

Grand View: The Play
[premiered at Capital Repertory Theater in Albany from May 8-June 2, 1996]

But the sense of "the play's the thing" has led Kennedy to move from imagined play in The Flaming Corsage to the real item in Grand View. Grand View emerged from a germ idea in Very Old Bones wherein Patsy McCall, modeled on the Albany boss Dan O'Connell, has to confront a machine greater than his, that of the Governor's (the model here is Dewey). The time is Labor Day, end of summer, 1944; the place is a Saratoga, not the genteel locale the region has come to know, but a gambling den controlled by Patsy McCall and his minions.

There's a score to be settled. Corbett Atterby, his wife, Mabel, and his daughter Faye, come to pull the plug on Patsy's local machine at the behest of the Governor. But Patsy and Corbett have some older scores to settle. Patsy, surrounded by martinets who do his bidding, thinks of himself as the Civil War general, Grant, at Vicksburg, managing a siege. Corbett has the goods on the machine, but Patsy's comeuppance is one-upped by a dark history that lies with Mabel and her daughter. A strange dance of one-upmanship ensues, the likes of which are reminiscent of Hellman's "The Little Foxes," and Warren's "All The King's Men" with touches of classic films like "Key Largo," "Casablanca," and "The Maltese Falcon" thrown in.

The characters are sharply drawn, and the locale and setting give the play a film noire quality reminiscent of the best of Bogart. The action comes fast and the repartee among the characters is swift and witty. Who finally wins in this clash of titanic forces? Strangely, and productively, it is Albany, the richness of its history, and the sharpness of its characters. To say more than that William Kennedy has yet again delivered on his talented promise would be to say too much. Come and see.

Donald Faulkner is Associate Director of the New York State Writers Institute.

William Kennedy
Brian Dennehy portrays Patsy McCall (5/7/07)
Very Old Bones Interview by Tom Smith
William Kennedy (Academy Awards), by Mark McGuire for the Times Union
William Kennedy's Albany Walking Tour, by Jack Rightmyer for the Daily Gazette
William Kennedy, "'Ironweed' sows Albany lore across globe", by Paul Grondahl, for the Times Union
William Kennedy, by Pete Hamill, special to the Times Union
William Kennedy, "Courtesans, Stars, Wives, & Vixens: The Many Faces of Female Power in Kennedy’s Novels", by Neila C. Seshachari (AWP April 17, 1999)
William Kennedy, by Thomas Flanagan for The New York Review of Books, 4/25/02
William Kennedy, Introduction 1/24/02, by Paul Grondahl
William Kennedy, Political Scores, by Joseph Dalton for the Times Union
William Kennedy, Fiction, Not Laurels, That Counts, by Paul Grondahl for the Times Union
O'Kennedy, by Douglas Blackburn for the Times Union
William Kennedy, by Paul Grondahl for the Times Union
William Kennedy, by Ula Ilnytzky, Associated Press article in the Times Union
The Flaming Corsage
Top of Page

Xue Di, February 24, 2000
Partial Afternoon Seminar Transcript

Don Faulkner: It's a great pleasure to have Xue Di with us this afternoon. Just for general information, he will be doing a reading from his work this evening at 8pm in the Recital Hall, and the deepening pleasure for me, is that he will read in Chinese and I will read his work in English--all of a sudden I can kind of feel his words coming through. It's a very remarkable work. He's a very remarkable poet. I will tell you a little bit about his life and I think some of our conversation will begin with talking about his background and his experiences. Also with us this afternoon is Ming Lee, who will act as translator for any of you who are native speakers and want to pose questions in Chinese.

Xue Di is a poet who is both a man of words and a man of action. He was, as many of you know from the biography of him that has been put into circulation, among the dissidents in the Tiananmen democracy movement. He made it out by the skin of his teeth, as we say, to use an American term. We were talking about that earlier. He has had a remarkable life, as an individual becoming a poet. His autobiography on that level, which we were just talking about, moves me deeply. Suffice to say that he has lived, essentially, on his own since the age of six. And, in a moment of near-despair amidst the Cultural Revolution, when books were banned and people were carted off to literally God knows where, he found a copy of Pushkin's poetry, and read it, and found that something had begun to happen, that there were some words, some ideas, some notions that literally moved him and brought him to understand the power of language, the power of words and the strength of poetry. Something began to turn him toward writing more and more.

Up until then, the time of '89, he managed to get out of some difficult situations in part because he was in semi-retirement from some of the immediate activities of the students in the democracy movement and so was not as readily fingered as others were. He has been, for a number of years now, at Brown University as a writer in exile, and this has given him an opportunity to publish his work. Some of the copies are available here for sale and I won't go on any further. It's a great pleasure to have him here. Please join me in welcoming Xue Di.

I think what we could do is carry on some of the conversation that we were having earlier. One of the things that you had said so appropriately, I want to say before I forget about this, is that China has a tradition of poetry that goes back more than a thousand years. Some of the people who are in the room have been kind of just dipping their feet into the tradition of T'ang Dynasty poetry, and that is something I'd like to talk about at some point, but we were talking earlier about the situation in Tiananmen, and I think this is something that people would be immediately interested in, and as I said, I wanted to ask you about your shirt, and so maybe if you would say something on that, and that could sort of start us into some other conversation.

Di: Ok. It's my great pleasure to be here and thanks to Mr. William Kennedy and the director of the New York State Writers Institute, thank you for introducing me. The reason I came to the United States is because I participated in Tiananmen Square, in the student hunger strike in 1989, the democracy movement in China, in Beijing-and after the movement crashed down, because of my political situation. At that time, I was in the democracy movement, as Mr. Faulkner just mentioned. I actually organized writers to march in the square. We called ourselves "the Beijing poets," and we marched in the square to support the democracy movement and the students, too. In some of my personal readings, lectures, I wear this shirt [the one that I wore then]. There are two characters on the front, two characters on the back, one means "rebellion," or to fight in human society systems, the other means "save," to save our lives, our children's lives, to live in a better way. Yes. I participated in the aftermath, after the movement was crushed down.

I received an invitation from Brown University to be a visiting fellow. So, the reason I was able to come out to the United States was because everything I did 10 years ago, I was doing alone. I mean I was not really working with the working unit to go to the square to support the democracy movement. I was… I acted as an individual poet. The reason was because I was retired at that time. People ask me, "how could you retire at such a young age?" I say because when we graduate from school, usually we are assigned a job. We have to go to this job. We have no choice. Back 20 years ago, that was part of the system, the society. So, I was assigned to be, really I was invited at that time, but I was assigned to be in a film-lighting institute to make lightbulbs, and it was a good thing to make lightbulbs because in the mean time you could see some films, but I really didn't like that job. Of course I couldn't transfer myself to something like this Writers Institution-to be a professional writer-because, if I didn't take that job, I wouldn't have my identification in society. So I went to that job and worked 8 years, but I hated it. I needed money to pay for my basic life-expenses.

So I found a way… there was a way for artists, back 20 years ago as a part of the socialist society system, if you got sick, you could stay home to recover, and in the meantime, you would receive a full stipend. It was a crack in the system, I mean, something you could really take advantage of. I would pretend I was sick and stay home. I had my full time to be a professional writer, and in the meantime I could accrue money from my working unit. I hope you don't think this is not honest… it's just that to live in that society, to try to be in that society and to get a life out of it, this was something you had to do. So I had this very good friend who really liked my work. He was an expert on faking all kinds of illness. I asked him, I said, since you really like my work, it's time to test you how much you like my work. Tell me, give me a trick; let me fake my illness and stay home. He said, okay, you know there are ways of tricking, this kind of thing; there's a beginning level, medium level, and an experienced one. The beginning one, you can probably stay home a couple of weeks, or even a month, but the medium level, you really could take a couple years off to stay home-you get some kind of proof from a doctor, and the experienced one is you just fake a life long illness. I said I do not want a life long illness. I want to just have a couple years to do my work. So tell me how. For the medium level, I had to treat him to this really expensive restaurant. I had to treat him a couple of times, to the best of restaurants.

You know back then, the Chinese didn't really have a lot of money, so to eat in a restaurant was a tremendous treat. It was to feel like a king or a queen. So that's why when people went to restaurants at that time, they tried to stay there as long as they could, because they would feel like they were queens or kings they were treated so nice. So I said, ok, I'll do that. He told me three ways I could fake a long illness. He told me specific things like when I went to see the doctor, I should go to the bathroom and twist my arm in this way so I could hear my heart go bum-bum bum-bum really fast… so I tried that. Usually the way we did it, was we went to the hospital, and we would put out our personal number and lay on the table and the doctor would take one and put it away, they'd tell you "look at it"… my number moved away. I went to the bathroom, did that thing, and came back and then the doctor had to chat and called me five minutes after, when everything was fine. It only lasted for 5 minutes at that time, the bathroom trick! I badgered him [the guy who could fake illnesses], I said-hey this is bullshit, you fooled me. It doesn't work, all right? So tell me something real good. So he said okay you'll have to treat me again. I feel like a fool, but I treat him again, and he tells me something like I mean I'm not going to tell you about that but really tells me something that really-the doctor uses this machine to test the blood. I really could make the blood pressure high, as much as I wanted to.

My father is a traditional Chinese doctor, so he's a professor. Before I went to the doctor, I said, I'd better test this, to make sure whether it works or not. So I went to my father, I said, father, would you please test my blood pressure. He said, I know you, son, you have no problem. You know, you have been doing all the right things, of course you're fine, and I said, so just test it. So when he tested it the first time, everything was fine. Then I said, do it again. And when he did it again, I did the trick and the blood pressure was really high. He was really scared. He said you really have a problem. You have to go the hospital immediately because at as young an age as I was, of course I was skinny, back then. Usually high blood pressure, when people get big, they get high blood pressure. So, I say don't worry, do it again. So he did it again… I said it's a trick. He said. No way, you can't make high blood pressure. I said if you really want to know it, you can treat me to restaurant and I'll tell you. He thinks about it and says, ah, forget it… and I say… he still wants to know, he still asks me: how'd you do the trick.

So I went back to the hospital, for half a year, consistently, I got reports from doctors and finally, I could stay home. So I had gotten almost seven years off from work. I collected a stipend. So when the democracy movement happened, I was not in a working unit, and so could do everything by myself. And I went there, but nobody had a clue who I was working with, and that's why they didn't really catch me. I had a chance to be invited to the United States; that's another long story-the difficulty of coming out of the country.

So, what I want to say, a little bit about the question at the beginning, is about the situation between poetry and politics in China. Because, as you know, we have a thousand year history of poetry. Poetry has a power. It is a convenient mode in China. To be a poet, you have to be honest, you have to be truthful to internal life experience… not just to be truthful, but to be brief, to have the conscience to speak everything out. So, the situation of the poet is a very risky situation in China. If everything in society was calm, everything was fine, you could write, you could publish, I could publish my work, but another six months later, or another year, when the campaign comes, everything turns out. The editor would lose his job because they publish works from me or other contemporary poets and they would turn out in the police office-[politicians] would say, now, you are a problem; they could be arrested. Even now, the poets are always the first group of people to be oppressed, to be punished or arrested when the political campaign comes. So, just quickly to say, that's kind of what the poetry situation is in China.

I've been living in this country for 10 years, I guess you could say exiled life, or even internally exiled. So people also ask me how do you feel this kind of life affects your writing, either in a good way or a bad way? And, of course it's both ways, but it's difficult. You know a lot of writers just stop writing once they come to this country. First of all they have to go through the language boundary. They have to study a brand new language, and when you come to this country at 35-40 years old, and have to study another language, you just feel like you're a fool, you know. You can't really talk to people, you try to tell them this, and they look at you with great confusion in their eyes; you feel like such a failure in your life. You couldn't even express yourself, and for a poet, who lives his entire life through language, you know, that's really tough… and also adjusting to the exile.

I used to be proud of my language. I think the way I live is through language. Language is a bridge between my internal life experience, and my identification with society, with the older. That's the way things reach me, through poems, through language. And when I came to this country, language becomes my witness, I mean I cannot carry my language here, I only carry my language with me when I am writing or talking to my parents, but besides that, even, I'm talking to you and probably I really don't know what I'm talking about because this is not my language. Hopefully, it makes sense. Ok.

So, there's a lot of twisting, or potential for twisting, impressions, and the loneliness of self. The frustration, all these things come together to really crash a foreign writer who is living in this country. And especially as a Chinese, because this is a totally different society. We come from a communist society, and this is a capitalistic society, and the culture, the language is totally different. Probably some people coming from Europe have still some kind of a connection or a relationship to the culture and the language, but we are just totally different. To live in another society, and feel like whatever we did back in our country… we couldn't bring with us, [what we had,] we couldn't really add or credit to our living in this country. So, this kind of thing, it's dangerous, not just to a writer, but to any individual, people who are from a totally different culture.

So, it is that way that people have to be very tough and strong and willing to open themselves, to relocate themselves as beginners of everything. That's really difficult, especially for some of the people who really were successful in their own countries. They come here, and they feel like they are nobody. I used to have a friend who is a poet, who would say that we are so useless. He's a poet, right, and he would say we are so useless! …even not better than a kid here. Even kids, they know how to speak, they know how to tell what they want to people. When we tell people, we make big fools of ourselves because of the language. You know those kind of things, this is the difficult part. But you know, I really believe that when you go through that part… if we are strong enough and open enough, if we are able to take a challenge, to challenge our lives, our condition, the desire to send ourselves to a higher level, all of those things could be moderated… the power and force to work on our own lives, to go through unusual difficulties and to re-find ourselves in a higher level, to understand culture, not just Chinese, but American culture, too.

To reach a combination… there are a lot of advantages of being in this situation, but it can also be damaging for people who are not ready or not that strong or… whatever, in their situations. So that's my understanding about my life in this country for 10 years. I feel like I'm not appreciating my situation because I still… I miss my country all the time. Home sickness is the one thing I've had to deal with day by day and sometimes I feel all right, but sometimes I cannot go through, and also I still feel like I have a switch in my mind that sometimes switches on Chinese, switches off English… those kind of feelings make me feel I'm lost in my life-but another way to say-I think I understand my poetry better. I think I understand my life; I've reached my life internally in a much broader way, a higher level. Also, I understand language. I understand my language better because to describe this kind of a living situation, normal, general language, even in Chinese won't do any good. I have to really find a way to communicate and process my language much more precisely, with much more richness. It's much richer, much more precise to express myself exactly and deeply to people or even to myself. This is very brief and there could be a lot more details said about the whole thing… about language and politics and life in exile, work overseas, but this is just general. I'm just giving you my feeling of being in this country for 10 years… very brief, very rough. And, I'm willing to answer any questions.

Faulkner: I want to lay out a couple of questions and then invite everybody to pose theirs. I have a couple of, sort of vested interests on slightly technical levels. I was saying I wanted to bridge into some talk about the T'ang Dynasty poetry and maybe I could pose that question. So many of those writers are in exile while they're writing. And, do you feel a continuity even though it's 1000 years? Do you feel an identification with their sense of exile, in terms of the Chinese tradition? And, another question, to get back to your bridging step, in your work, you're reflecting on many of VanGogh's paintings, which I find really remarkable. Here's a Western painter, as European as someone non-Chinese might get, and your writing, your work is sometimes in response to that. So, if you'd reflect on the Chinese tradition and then in your work, now, how you're doing some things reflecting on your Western experiences.

Xue Di: All right. So your question has a couple of layers. So, let me just address the VanGogh part first. VanGogh is an exception in China. People have been crazy about his work because the way, because he lived in such depression, because of the craziness in working with the arts and the honesty in his life. These kind of situations are pretty similar with Chinese artists who live in that society. The society is very very closed and they feel like they cannot really process their art work well. The society of VanGogh is similar in that VanGogh at that time could only sell one painting, I mean in his entire life. Also the closeness and the depression and the pressure, anger and craziness, they all kind of match to the Chinese artists in fact, now. That's why VanGogh has been very popular. Also, particularly for me, VanGogh has lots of personal significance… I feel a personal relationship with his work, because of the honesty and the craziness… as I said, personally I had the same kind of feeling… the way VanGogh used to live, I feel like I used to live that same way. The painting he has about passion, the layers of passion and the desire and to be in life, to live. I had the same kind of feeling when I was in China and also the closeness, it felt like it was so hard to breathe, you know the feeling? That's why I react to VanGogh's poems, his paintings, his poems, in flames, that were published separately in a chapbook because I feel like… of course his poems, not just his paintings, he used his paintings as titles… I used them to bring my own feelings out, to reflect my generation, you know.

And that's also why Sylvia Plath was really popular in China. Lots of American poets ask me, who is an American poet about whom the Chinese know the most background… I always tell them, Sylvia Plath, in China, probably why? Because of the depression, because of the frustration, the darkness and the twisting, and those kind of things. It just communicates well with Chinese contemporary artists. So, this is one.

Another thing to talk about that you mentioned was the T'ang Dynasty. Yeah, I do agree with you about their exile. Every poet, artist, I think they live in their own exile, I mean it doesn't matter if they're in their own country or another country. There's a feeling, a sense of exile, to live in society, and an internal feeling, to be a real artist. To feel is not, well, acceptable, well in terms of society, so there is a sense of exile, as I believe… in the sense of a true artist's life. But, there is a huge difference between the self's internal exile and forced exile, political exiles… really there are differences between exile in your own country and exile in a foreign country. And, I think exile in a foreign country as a poet is much more challenging, because you don't communicate in your daily life with your own language. I mean, there is such danger of losing your identification and your confidence of being a good poet, a good artist… those kind of things are dangerous.

So I really think those traditional poems, especially Du Fu or Li Pai were writing good poems, really tremendous, I mean the life of Du Fu-he wrote so many great poems about the disaster and misery of the nation, back at that time… during the war, the city wars at that time… he was really worried for society, for general people's lives. We now see in younger poets, I think, the effects of his poetry. The way he writes, he lived. I wish I could live that way; as I was growing up, I had more and more respect for his poetry. That's also the big argument even in China. Who has the best, the true art, the classical poets? Who is better? The argument is half and half, some say, the last 400 years.

So my lifestyle here, I'll talk a little bit… I usually take this very personally. I mean, I used to feel like I was in personal exile, back 7 years ago or so because I had to go through so much adjustment of my life, re-open myself, challenge myself, as a new person, faced with a completely new situation. I had to go through my frustration and crisis of being an artist and a poet and to live here. But now, I've moved on more and more in recent years. My writing is much more related to, or connected with the writing of my country, and the situation, and as you all know, probably through the news, in China even now- the government is really cruelly oppressing one of the spiritual groups in China, and just last week human crimes happened in China, so I feel like, as an artist living abroad, I don't have any fear of thinking, writing, publishing. I should be doing more than people who still live in China. They risk their lives. And, I relate to my exile now much more with the political situation in China, with my people, their hardship, but still the center, the whole core, is how do I understand it, internally, about my writing, in a foreign country or in society… how do you find the best way to combine it. It's hard to tell you how the exile feels. It's more… it's better through poetry, because I mean when you go write poetry, everything comes out, you know… that's probably a better way to do this, and also later in the evening, tonight, in the readings, I'll really relate you to those feelings of being exiled. . . .

Xue Di
Top of Page

Kwadwo Agymah Kamau, February 27, 1997
Partial Evening Reading Transcript

Don Faulkner: Tonight we have the wonderful opportunity to hear a writer who has spent some time in Albany as well as places far and distant. This brings up a tale: Lucy McCaffrey, who will introduce Agymah, our guest tonight, is a musician and artist. She once came up to me at a reading that we had-and this does happen from time to time, though it seldom works out well-an said "here's a book you really have to read. Here's an author you really have to bring here." Frequently, those best of intentions don't reward in the reading of the book. Usually, it's somebody's second cousin, or something. But here, I found myself opening my literary imagination to a much more dynamic imagination in the novel's flickering shadows. And I thought, "yes," this is a person we have to have here. So, to introduce our guest tonight is the wonderful agent of this combination of good forces. So, Lucy McAfrey.

McCaffrey: I feel very unworthy of this task, but I will do my best to be worthy of introducing "Mama's grandson." Agymah Kamau was born in Barbados 43 years ago in a small village in which life was very good to him, and which he loved very much. He was an indifferent student, so he says, as he grew up. He was raised by his grandmother, Mama, who was a very strict disciplinarian, and who got on his case when they were threatening to keep him back a grade when he was 12 years old. He got his act together and went on, stayed in Barbados, got a job as a customs inspector, which he said was slightly less boring than the job he got in Albany [laughter] but still pretty boring.

He visited America in 1974, a trip where a young woman whom he had met, introduced him to the idea of, "Why don't you go to college?" Along with all the possibilities that that would open for him. He came to America with his older and younger brother and his mother in 1977. His grandmother had pointed out to him that if he stayed in Barbados, he would probably become a cab driver, if he was lucky. So, she urged him to go on, and he did. He went to CUNY, to Beirut College, where he kind of felt his way along, and majored in finance. He's no slouch, because he was fourth in his graduating class. He made the Dean's List every year. He made the national Dean's List, and he was elected to the scholastic honor's society there, and was given the Wall Street Journal Award. He stayed there to get a Master's Degree in 1981 in economics.

He served a couple of internships at the United Nations and in a New York City Department. Eventually, he found his way into a regular job here in Albany as a senior economist in the next campus over here, T & F, taxation and finance. He has all kinds of things to say about that which are not particularly flattering. It was, however, very good for him that he came here, because it so bored him that he sat at his computer terminal in his cubicle and started to write stories and poems. And you know, the way you do when you're in great pain, you think about something that you really love, and his mind went back to Barbados and his village and to why was that so precious to him. And he answered an ad in the personals from a writer named Henry Evens, who is now in New York, but was up here in Albany. The ad was to see if anybody wanted to come to the Arbor Hill community center and read stories, and Agymah came, and found many kindred spirits there. He was told by them, some of them are in the audience I hear, that he has a gift, a great gift of storytelling and that he should use it.

Agymah tells me that his grandmother who raised him was a hell of a storyteller, and that they used to stand around in the village at night, and for their entertainment--there was no television, no movies--they would tell each other stories. They valued the people who could tell a good tale; his grandmother was one of them, and he was proud of her. He knew the difference between a story well told and one that was not so very good. So he had those very high standards from that very demanding and disciplined woman already in him before he even started telling his stories, stories that kept him alive in the cold and frigid bureaucratic winters of Albany. Finally, after being here, working at T&F for 3 years with my husband, who was also from another island outside of America--in this case, Ireland--also from a small village where live is eminently understandable even to a seven year old. Also to an economist who looks at the world with realistic eyes, not rose-colored glasses, and tries to understand the whole of it, and how all the people are working together to produce a certain quality of live, also from a culture where the people are very kind and courtesy is learned very, very quickly and treasured.

After being here, in America, finding its shortcomings and hanging onto the vision of Barbados, Agymah finally decided that life as an economist was not all it was cracked up to be. And so he looked around, with the help of Henry Evans, and found Paule Marshall, at the Virginia Commonwealth University, who was leading a workshop that he had joined. And he began expanding his short story--the one that this novel is based upon. But, his main impetus, he tells me, was really you young people. That he was trying to capture for the future generations, a time in Barbados, or the Caribbean, that has passed.

Technology has changed the way of life there, and so it's only by his diligence and his self-discipline, the eight, nine, or eleven, whatever it was, drafts that he worked on for 2 ½ years full-time, on this book, in which he tried to capture not only the rhythms of speech, and not only the character of the people, the struggle of the times as Barbados emerged from colonialism into a kind of "independence." But also, more importantly, to capture that village, and why it was so good, that all the people counted in it. And that's very hard to do, because, when you read this book, you will discover that there are so many characters in it. It has a huge landscape. It's not just one little corner of someone's room. It's a whole country, distilled into one village, and all that ripples out from it. He captures it very, very well, but he never looses you because his grandmother, the storyteller, would not allow that. If you have to tell a story, you have to tell it well, which means that you have to write it and re-write it so that the humor is there, and the interest and the color, and all these wonderful things, use of words, are there.

He also is a very fine and clever craftsman. I, in one of my incarnations, was a High School English teacher, a College English teacher, and I noticed immediately the way he has crafted this tale. He has told it through the eyes of a spirit, which is a very appropriate thing to do. It's an African headset, mindset, that he shares. Spirits. You don't die, your spirit is still there. But it also is a device that allowed him to be everywhere in Barbados, if he wanted to be... to tell his tale in an omniscient point of view, but to still be influencing the people who are alive. The tension between Africanization and Britishization is also in the tale. It is so rich and so distilled. I guarantee you that if you read the first two pages, you will stay up all night and finish it. So let me let him begin. Thank you.

Kamau: Good Evening. I should have hired her as my PR person. [laughter] Thank you all. It's a really good crowd this evening. Thanks to all the people for coming out to hear me present my work. And also I thank the Writers Institute for inviting me here back up to Albany. I never thought I would return to Albany, after leaving in 1989. And I'm glad to be back here, because I can see some friends of mine that I can catch up with. "Flickering Shadows." "Flickering Shadows" is a fictional narrative that's set in an unnamed Caribbean country. It's set around the time of the transition from colonialism to so-called independence. I say "so-called independence" because a lot of times, these countries get an anthem and a flag, and that's the extent of the independence. The story is told by the spirit of an old man who dies early, who dies at age fourteen, but that doesn't stop him from telling the story. He keeps on telling his story anyway. And the story is one of the villagers' relationships with one another, and their responses to the social and political changes going on at the time. So, without further ado... "without further ado".... that's something I've always wanted to say [laughter]. You never get a chance to say that in normal talk, seriously, so I'll say it again. Without further ado, I'll start, and give you a reading of a passage in the book, to give you a sense of the way it sounds. Because it's written in Caribbean, but not pierre. But the thing is, I didn't use all the misspellings and so forth, to convey the words. I didn't use any phonetics, because, a lot of times, all that does is it confuses you, puts out of the story. You spend so much time trying to figure out what the person is writing that you loose interest in the story. So what I concentrated on is the syntax, the way people put words together. Usually I start this kind of session by reading from the beginning of the book, but I'm going to change the script a little bit, because a few days ago, I got a call from a gentleman, an official from the Barbados embassy. This call was legitimate in that we were trying to arrange an affair in Washington D.C., but after talking on the phone for 5-10 minutes, he said to me, you know, I have some reservations about some of the passages. I say, "Yeah? Well, what are those reservations?" He said, "You know some of those passages that give people the impression that Caribbean politicians engage in, it's called duggery, or chicanery," so what I'm going to do, is I'm going to read from one of those passages.

I don't see what's wrong with that, but they had problems with it. [laughter] Like it was said earlier, I was born in Congrua, and grew up in Barbados, and was educated under a British educational system. So, for example, one of the things I remember clearly coming up in High School, I remember us reciting, memorizing, this poem about daffodils. I can't even remember what the title is. Funny how our brains forget information that is irrelevant. [laughter] But I remember us as little boys memorizing this thing about daffodils. And I had never seen a damn daffodil in my life. [laughter] So that's the kind of educational system that we had. And I also recall us sitting in school, singing this song, "Rule Brittania, Brittania rule the mers." Brittans never never never shall be slaves. And not really understanding, understanding the irony of that. Because we were the offspring of slaves talking about how we never would be slaves. So what I'll do is I'll read a passage that kind of reflects that experience, to give you an idea. Because some of you might relate, you know, relate to that experience, and for those of you who don't, all I can say is you're lucky. [laughter]

That's the kind of stuff that I had to go through [learning "Little Miss Muffet," and "London Bridge is falling down"]. I was raised by my grandmother, as I said earlier. And one consequence of having no siblings when you're growing up is that often you want to play and all you have is your imagination. At the time, I didn't appreciate the value of that, but recently I've been thinking about that. I'm beginning to appreciate that because, essentially, I'm doing the same thing that I was doing back then, making things up, telling stories, because when I was growing up, you can't talk without telling lies, you know, telling stories. The only difference is, back then I used to get my rear hit for it, and now I'm getting paid for doing it [laughter]. Another thing is when I was growing up, we didn't have any television so we sat around telling stories, jokes, riddles, duppie stories. A duppie is a spirit, ghost. As I would recall, every night we would tell these duppie stories, and sometimes be afraid to walk home in the dark. You know, we still keep doing the same thing every night anyway. So what happened is "Flickering Shadows" is influenced more by those storytelling sessions than by any literature that I read. There's a strong element of the oral tradition in "Flickering Shadows," and you can see it in the kinds of techniques that I use, onomatopia, and so forth. You can see it also in the use of spirits. After all, a sprit is telling the story. And spirits interact. There's no distinction between the spirit world and the living world. So what I'm going to do is read another section, and give you a flavor of the sort of thing, a kind of sprit world that flows in this book.

And that gives you a sense of the kind of spirit atmosphere in the book. Like I was saying earlier, "Flickering Shadows" is influenced more by an oral storytelling tradition than by literature. So my main concern in writing this book is to make sure that the rhythm and the syntax was right. Especially the rhythm. It was very critical to me that the story sounded right in my ears. It had to sound as if somebody's sipping rum, telling a story, or something like that. And that's the thing that got me into a lot of hot water with my editor, because, I remember for example, the first time he sent back the manuscript to me with some changes, he would write these little additions in the margins, and he was really meticulous. So he would write these objections and suggestions, and then he would write something like "Chicago Manual of Style, pg 63," [laughter] and what I did, was I just crossed it out, ignored it, and sent the manuscript right back to him [laughter]. So this went on for a while, back and forth, back and forth a few times until I finally got real fed up with him. I called him up and we had some words, you know what people say. And then he started to realize what I was trying to do. It eventually worked out to be a really good collaborative relationship. So what I'm going to do now for my final passage, is I'm going to read a passage that he really objected to more strenuously, because there's... well, you'll hear it. It's a really oral piece.

"the Wap Wap Wap of the knee-drum beating in his brain like a heartbeat..."

Kwadwo Agymah Kamau
Top of Page

Wayne Koestenbaum
BookShow partial transcript

Glover: Welcome to he BookShow. I'm your host Douglas Glover of the New York State Writers Institute, which is located at the University at Albany as part of the State University System. My guest today is the award winning poet, non-fiction writer and Yale University Professor, Wayne Koestenbaum. Among other arresting productions Koestenbaum has written a personal often lyric meditation on opera called The Queen's Throat Opera: Homosexuality and the Mystery of Desire, which made the New York Times list of notable books for 1993. In 1994 he published a Whitmanesque and sometimes erotic Song of Myself-like volume of poems called Rhapsodies of a Repeat Offender, a flamboyantly tragic, comic adolescent "coming out" book, a journey from heterosexuality to homosexuality, which includes in a section called "Star Vehicles," a series of complicated riffs on the nature of gayness and celebrity. And I quote, "In the early years of the plague/ I knew a guy who died named Crawford/ William Crawford in a tux, but this poem is not his poem/ This is Joan Crawford's poem, dressed like a bungalow with regrets/ With unpainted storm worn shingles and a front door loose on its hinges." Koestenbaum is a comer in the realm of pop-cultural criticism, a man whose image, like that of Camille Paglia before him, may soon command as much attention, invite interpretation as intensely as his work itself. He is a writer in short who seems to be on his way to his own brand of celebrity. His latest book, Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting an Icon, published by Farrar Straus Giroux, is a phantasmagoric improvisation on the theme of Jacqueline Onassis as pop icon, as the ultimate personal and cultural reflector. It's an infinitely empty and sliding image as conversely as the foundation of American society and culture. Jacky Under my Skin is flamboyant, playful, campy, ironic, comic, irreverent and deeply, deeply smart. It's like a volcanic eruption from the crack or joint where the language of gayness meets the language of post-modernity and critical theory, where all is seeming in reality or what commonsense used to call reality, where everything seems to drift farther and farther away from us in the world, and the world and the self simply reflect one another back and forth. It is an uncomfortable world, tacky, somewhat sad, nervous and empty; a world in which celebrity replaces the idea of hero or saint, a world in which Jackie Onassis, as the arch- celebrity, whose fame has had no bases in substance of accomplishment, whose affectless face provides the perfect reflector for desire, becomes the fundamental image of the time. Wayne Koestenbaum, welcome to the BookShow.

Koestenbaum: Glad to be here.

Glover: Now this is not a book of biography, it is not a book of psychohistory.

Koestenbaum: Right.

Glover: It's the fact and facts are kind of few. It is the description of a kind of gaze or a glance or a way of looking at her.

Koestenbaum: It's a record of my immersion in her and it is in a way, the record of the process of looking at her as well as it is just a set of facts gleamed from the act of looking.

Glover: When you did your research were there a lot more facts, sort of selected out in some ways?

Koestenbaum: Well, it is in a sense a set of post-hoc consolidations or crystallization's from a many year-long immersion in the facts of Jackie's life. It's sort of an ongoing quest for those facts and there are very few facts in the book compared to all the facts that I could have put in. I mean the temptation was always in writing the book to make an endless shopping list of details and trivialities. There are pages in my file draw of a list of objects and places. I don't think I will ever regret that I did not include more of those facts in the book, but who would publish it?

Glover: (Laughs) And the things that are chosen are often striking in a kind of emptiness that surrounds them, a kind of banality.

Koestenbaum: Like the grilled cheese.

Glover: Yes

Koestenbaum: I mean I can go on and on about the fact that she would often have a grilled cheese sandwich in the White House. Obviously these are details that characterize lives less glorious than Jackie's and it was moving to me to be able to find an entry into her fabulous life by way of the most trivial details, rather than the most unusual details.

Glover: I have a small Jackie story myself.

Koestenbaum: Yes.

Glover: It did not happen to me, it happened to another writer friend of mine who met her on the way to the copying machine at Random House. And she said that she liked his tie.

Koestenbaum: Did you know what the tie was?

Glover: It was some kind of riotously colorful thing. A very not pretentious, not sort of classic. He is not a well-dressed man.

Koestenbaum: What is wonderful about that story is it resembles many Jackie stories that I have heard.

Glover: That's what I thought.

Koestenbaum: If she is getting a gift, she knows that she is the princess of appearances and her look is often commented on. She is a style-setter and she is probably subliminally aware that this person doesn't get complimented a lot or that this is not even a nice tie and she is saying, I like your tie.

Glover: I also like that she is on her way to a copying machine.

Koestenbaum: Yes, which is her home.

Glover: (Laughs)

Koestenbaum: (Laughs) As the queen of copies, you know it is also that the tie is a masculine object. I mean it's phallic even, really, it's flirtatious and indiscreet to comment on a tie, but it is also thoroughly appropriate. How many ties she must have commented on, in her life? Think of Jack's ties.

Glover: Right, see I got into this book.

Koestenbaum: Oh, one more thing I have to tell you is that I think she gave P.T.--P.T. was Jack's boat that he was on in WWII--but she gave P.T. tie clips to all of the Kennedy Mafia, after the assassination.

Glover: Really?

Koestenbaum: Yeah, that was her farewell gift to lots of people in the White House. I may be wrong but I think I am remembering this correctly-- little P.T. tie clips. So I mean, this isn't any detail in Jackie's life that is so over determined.

Glover: That's right, which is the impression you get from this book and you sort of go on and on. Now I don't mean to make that going "on and on" sound at all. . .

Koestenbaum: Pathological?

Glover: It is sort of pathological, no, I'm just kidding.

Koestenbaum: No, it is deliberate.

Glover: Right, there is a distinct impression and your very self-conscious of this, in talking about Jackie and doing anything about her that you're being intensely personal, also déclassé, kind of tacky.

Koestenbaum: Right, Right.

Glover: And expressing kind of bad taste.

Koestenbaum: Right. . . . (interview continues)

Top of Page

On Hopes, Dreams and Bringing to Life
Persian Girls: A Memoir
By Nahid Rachlin
Penguin Books, 2006

Anyone who doubts the liberating power of literature has never had to hide her short story under a mattress for fear of being discovered. Or found a favorite bookstore demolished and closed because of what they sold. Or feared entrance to the country of her birth because of the words she wrote. Iranian-American novelist and short story writer Nahid Rachlin shares these and other stories, of her and her sister Pari's deep desire to be free to think and write as they please, in her latest work, Persian Girls: A Memoir.

Growing up in Iran under the Shah, Rachlin is taken from her aunt who is raising her and thrust back into life with a birth family she does not know. Rachlin weaves her own story with that of her sisters, her birth mother, and aunts to form this memoir, which is as touching, beautiful and eloquent as any work of fiction.

Throughout this compelling account of coming of age in Iran under the Shah, and the subsequent revolution that changed the country to an Islamic Republic, we are drawn into what those things meant and continue to mean for a diverse range of ordinary people. As the title suggests, Persian Girls is about the women of Nahid's life. We meet her sister Manijeh, seemingly doted on, but in the end, genuine and selfless as a caretaker of aging family members. Nahid's birth mother is Mohtaram, who gives her infant daughter away to a childless sister, only to have her husband, Nahid's father, insist that the child come back to live with the birth family. The older sister Pari, who befriends young Nahid, shares her dreams of freedom and envisions her life as an actress. Finally, there is Maryam, Nahid's beloved aunt, devoutly religious, kind and unswerving in her love for the daughter she raised. It is clear that like the woven tapestry Nahid brings with her when she leaves Iran to attend an American college, this memoir was difficult to construct, as she revisits painful memories, relationships, and unanswered questions, and tries to heal wounds still open.

Of Iran, the reader gets a sense of cultural schizophrenia, of old mixed with modern, of new rules paired with ancient, and the constant anxiety of change. While young Nahid is living with her aunt, she comes to know women who are devout in Islam and wear the chador, or headscarf. Yet when she is taken back to live with her birth family in Ahvaz, it is mostly modern, Women wear skirts and men suits. It is confusing to her young mind, to see on the one hand censorship of thoughts and words, and the daily prayers of Muslims, but on the other hand people wearing imported clothing and working for American or British companies, yet still enforcing arranged marriages. Rachlin shares some perspectives of what international influence, primarily the U.S. and Great Britain, had on the country and its people, especially in the oil town where she lived. While she and her sister enjoyed the American movies shown in the outdoor theater they were able to catch glimpses of from their balcony, she also describes the constant smell of petroleum in the air and the "other side of the river" where Americans preferred to live in modern houses. With these stories and a keen eye for detail, Rachlin informs readers of the human cost of international politics and religious fundamentalism that wreak havoc on lives in Iran, especially women's lives.

In part two of Persian Girls, the teenage Nahid has moved to America and is attending college. Over and over again we see that she is neither "this" nor "that;" neither "Iranian nor American." During her time at a midwestern college, she describes being asked to wear her "native costume" for parents' day. Feeling embarrassed that she had no "costume" she tells the dean of students that some women in Iran wear the chador, the headscarf that she never wore. She is instructed to wear this garment, something she had come to know as oppressive, while living in the land of freedom. While in America, Rachlin learns of her sister Pari's mysterious death, and seeks answers to her questions, some which still linger. Grief and uncertainties such as these led Rachlin for many years to create beautiful fiction, where she felt she had the power to shape and control the destinies of characters. Fiction gave her the power to invent families, characters and situations, which had for so long been out of her control. Finally, with this memoir Rachlin is able to claim her own personal history while giving readers a glimpse of where many of the inspirations for her fiction were found.

Nahid Rachlin's prose has been repeatedly described as "spare," using seemingly few words to paint a portrait of time, place and relationships that are anything but simple. Perhaps it is because she knows first hand how words can be restricted, by regimes and censorship, that she therefore appreciates and understands the sheer power of words, however few.

Sigrid Nunez says of Rachlin's writing that it is a "…fine introduction to a land and culture about which it is imperative we Americans inform ourselves as much and as quickly as possible." While American readers gain an introduction to a land and culture as convoluted as our own, readers are also being privileged with the private details of a woman's life, her sorrows and grief, and her hopes and dreams. Thank you, Ms. Rachlin, for allowing us the honor.

Nahid Rachlin is the most published Iranian-American author in the U.S. Her four novels include: Jumping Over Fire (2006), The Heart's Desire (1995), Married to a Stranger (1983) and Foreigner (1978). She is also the author of a short story collection, Veils (1992) and currently teaches at the New School in New York City and the Unterberg Poetry Center.

Carmen Golay is a graduate assistant at the New York State Writers Institute and a graduate student in Women's Studies.

Nahid Rachlin
Top of Page