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Fall 2003
Volume 8, Number 1

Marvin Bell (Introduction, 9/30/03)

It is a very great pleasure for me to introduce Marvin Bell. Marvin and I have been friends for forty years. We were together at the Iowa Writers Workshop in the sixties. At that time Marvin gave up soldiering to become a poet. That, by any measure, was a very good career change on his part. If he had stayed in the Army, being a bright and adventurous man, he would have risen rapidly in the ranks. He would have served in Vietnam. Undoubtedly it would have been Marvin, and not Martin Sheen who journeyed to the upper reaches of the Mekong River and took Marlon Brando out. The problem with Marlon Brando in that film, incidentally, was that he was reading T.S. Eliot instead of Marvin Bell. Anyway, to continue with Marvin's unrealized military career, he would surely have been Storming Norman Scwartzkopf's right hand man as they swept north across the desert in the that glorious Gulf War. And today he would be one of Rumsfield's cracked commanders over there bringing peace and prosperity to Iraq.

Instead of achieving all that military glory, Marvin, to our great benefit, became a poet. He has written 17 books of poetry and essays. His success can measured by literally dozens of awards-from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the Lila Wallace Foundation, the Academy of American Poets, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the State of Iowa, where he was named its first poet laureate. I could go on but these recitations run against the grain of Marvin's natural modesty. I will just add that we are very fortunate to have in his latest publication, Nightworks, Poems 1962-2000, a selection from all of his books of poetry.

During the last decade Marvin has taken to writing poems about dead men and their skulls. These are ghastly poems, but very effective and even inspiring. Marvin's dead men do and say such interesting things that one almost wishes one were dead himself. Anyway, these macabre poems gave me the idea of ending this introduction with a poetic tribute of my own. So I have put together some Shakespeare and some Marvin Bell in a little ditty entitled "Marvin Bell as Yorick."

Now Hamlet's ruminations on Yorick and his skull are obviously posthumous. My poem on the other hand--and I take some pride in this--has the advantage of being a pre-humous posthumous poem. That is the subject, though dead in the poem, is, as you see, very much alive in the present and can therefore enjoy the poem before he crosses over, as Hamlet says, into that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns. Well, no traveler, that is, until Marvin started writing the dead man poems.

OK then, with the help of this homemade prop, suggesting that I am, like Hamlet, holding a skull up before me, I will recite this brief poem, addressed, for this occasion, to Ed Schwarzchild, who by introducing me has to bear some responsibility for this evening's mischief.

Marvin Bell as Yorick

Alas poor Marvin.
I knew him Eduardo.
A fellow of infinite jest,
A poet of excellent fancy,
How well I remember these lines he wrote and recited to me:
"I am the poet of skulls without why or wherefore.
I didn't ask to be that, one way or another, just a young man of words."

Ok, why don't we all join in a warm welcome for the young man of words and, who knows, maybe he will even consent to reveal the skull's why and wherefore. Marvin Bell.

Eugene K. Garber was a Professor in the Department of English and an Interim Acting Associate Director for the New York State Writers Institute.

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Marvin Bell

Carolyn Forché (Introduction, 12/10/03)

Welcome to the NY State Writers Institute's final afternoon seminar of the semester. Today we have the pleasure and privilege of hosting poet and activist Carolyn Forché.

Those of you familiar with Ms. Forché's books of poems are familiar with her concern with human rights, the human condition, and the importance of memory. The Country Between Us (1982), and The Angel of History (1994), as well as the anthology she compiled and edited Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, and her many translations and articles, show her concern with people's forbearance and perseverance in the face of human-inflicted atrocities through out history and through out the world. In 1998 her concern and actions in bearing witness and preserving memory and culture, were recognized with the Edita and Ira Morris Hiroshima Foundation Award for Peace and Culture.

Forché's new collection of poems blue hour deals with subjects similar to those in her previous books, but in a different approach. Whereas in her previous collections there were poems that dealt with specific historical places and horrors – El Salvador, Hiroshima, the Holocaust – blue hour spans all history, addressing situations and events of human inflicted suffering through specific images that are general enough to be applicable to numerous times and places. Thus, these poems are inclusive as they evoke questions about life, its beauty and horror, that pertain to many people and many places.

Forché writes that the title blue hour comes from the French l'heure bleue, a phrase used to describe the "time between darkness and day, between the night of the soul and its redemption, an hour associated with pure hovering." In addition to this, she notes that blue is the color of the second sefirah in Kabbalah, and that in Tibetan Buddhism, the blue hour is a time of "clear light" "arising at the moment of death," this light being "the radiance of the mind's true nature." (71) This mystical yet earthly and human time is what these poems address: they luminously present being, they hover over moments of shifting life. There are no stories here, with neatly organized beginnings and endings belonging to a few; these are moments of existence, mystical moments anchored in common place events of daily life and the, unfortunately, constant horrors of 20th century brutality, which belong to all of us.

On reading the 46 page poem "On Earth," one can't help but be reminded of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" for both poems create inclusion: Whitman lists and names all the kinds of people in the United States to insist on the multitudes of kinds of people here and to create a song of Americans. Forché creates tremendously evocative images that build and meld together to create the physical and philosophical conditions of existing "on earth," of the human condition. That this condition contains the horrible, and that Forché does not shirk from presenting it, powerfully, should surprise none of her readers. But the poem is also gorgeous. The images are linked lyrics or fragments of lyrics that soar on a shifting combination of the visual, the intellectual, and the emotional. One critic describes the movement of the poem as one of "strob-like intensity" (link Schley http://www.post-gazette.com/books/reviews/20030921forche0921fnp6.asp ). Others have described it in film terms saying it is "somewhere between screenplay and screen" creating "a trail of luminous images and scenes, personal flashbacks [in which] the politics and literature of the 20th century float toward the inevitable ghost-past-ghost-future." (Fanny Howe, bookjacket & Fogle http://www.popmatters.com/books/reviews/b/blue-hour.shtml)

"On Earth" is an abecedary, a form organized according to an alphabetical progression by the first letter of the first word of the line. Forché, in a note at the end of the volume, mentions that "Gnostic abecedarian hymns date from the third century A.D. Along with Christian and Buddhist texts, they were recovered from small towns on the northern fringe of the Taklamakan Dessert early in the twentieth century," (71) a place, apparently, of religious mixing, which resonates in the spirituality of the poem. The poem is prefaced with a quote from George Burgess, which includes the lines: "In the immediate vicinity of death, the mind enters on an unaccustomed order of sensations, a region untrodden before, from which few, very few travelers have returned, and from which those few have brought back but vague remembrances." "On Earth" is a sensory reproduction of experiencing life amidst death and a history of deaths. It is the quintessential poem of witness. It is a poem for all of us, for all times.

Please join me in welcoming Carolyn Forché.

Patricia Dyjak, Graduate Assistant, NY State Writers Institute

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Carolyn Forché

Douglas Glover (Introduction, 11/6/03)

It's an honor to introduce award-winning writer Douglas Glover tonight.

I must also confess that I found the task of preparing my remarks a bit daunting.

There are nine books now, displaying a depth of philosophical, historical and literary learning, and the latest novel Elle from which you will hear tonight--it has recently been announced---is on the short list for Canada's top prize the Governor General's Award-the second time one of Glover's books has been so honored. [Since this speech was given Elle has won the Canada's 2003 Governor's General Award]

So a little daunting.

But let me begin.

Douglas Glover's works inspires his reviewers to use rather colorful adjectives, nouns and adverbs to praise the work:

They say, for example:

". . .bizarre, wild, and Byzantine in their telling, excursions into the intricate worlds of exploded love, erotic insanity, brutal lunatic despair." (William Kennedy)

". . .stories are wildly inventive, deadpan comedies of our universal human catastrophe. They are demanding and wise-stories about language, desire and love (in a very dark place.)" (press release from Goose Lane)

"The common thread in the stories is an urgent, energetic writing style and an unblinking focus on the human condition in extremis." (Phillip Santo)

"The narrative is by turns funny, erotic, appalling and haunting" (David B. Mattern)

"In the confines of a sentence (Glover) can stagger your mind with insight, flush your face with outrage, double you over with amusement or quite simply and sharply break your heart." (Lisa Carey)

"This is not a book for the faint-hearted or the squeamish. You should probably forget about giving it to the mother-in-law for Christmas." (Lori Hahnel, Danforth Review)

This commentary, I think shows the attempt to convey the wild spirit present in the books. For those of you, perhaps, new to the work let me offer some examples from the short stories.

From Bad News of the Heart

Things were not going well. It was the eternal triangle: recently released mental patient, woman and other woman from down the hall. I didn't know exactly what I'd fallen into, maybe one of those lesbian hookups, or maybe, just lonely single ladies with a Bingo lust.In the same story: "With a sudden clarity I thought how clarity itself is a species of redemption, and this melancholy moment just before the click, when I saw my story and everyone else's. was a moment of equilibrium, tinged ever so slightly with meaning.From the Left Ladies Club I told Duffy it might hurt his parents' feelings to see themselves written up as homicidal incest practicing pedophiles. Duffy got writer's block bad after that.From State of the Nation The fat woman across the street (we are four storeys up) has pushed her bed to the window and lolls there naked exposing herself, masturbating shamelessly with an assortment of household objects: salamis, broom handles, cat brushes, vacuum cleaner attachments, bits of broken furniture, aerosol cans, stereo albums, pizza cutters and corkscrews.

Sometimes she simply lies with her head thrown back in ecstasy, holding the lips of her vulva open.

This is an electrifying development. Let me tell you.

All of a sudden I have an attention span again.

Prior to this, I often couldn't think of a reason to go out or stay in.

In the same story I see my country, violent and innocent again, like a flash of sheet lightening in history. I see her cradling a child to her breast, the child feeling absolutely safe and unafraid. I think Sadness, sadness, sadness.

Glover has called his own work part of his own war. "Most of my life I've been fighting a war against the discourse of rural Tory provincialism, the Ontario miasma of my youth and the various discourses that seemed allied with it: all sorts of conventionalisms . . ."

Those of you familiar with the work or even on just having heard the short excerpts, I'm sure you can see how I think of this war on convention as a bloody, take-no-prisoners type of war.

But the war has its purposes or, perhaps, it's better to say that it's not only battle against convention that's at work. It's instructive, I believe, to think about what John O'Brien the founder of the well-regarded Dalkey Archive Press, who just this year published a selection of Doug's stories called Bad News of the Heart, has to say about the work chosen for the press.

He says: "My point was that the books in one way or another, upset the apple cart that they work against what is expected, that they in some way challenge received notions whether these are literary, social or political. And this is precisely the kind of fiction I find interesting. It does things I haven't seen before. I do have a very conscious sense in selecting a book for publication that this is an author who is saying something people don't want to hear-that it will make them uncomfortable---even if they love the book."

The unique mix of bawdy, Rabelasian humor and observation combined with a deep interest in the philosophical, the mystical, the aesthetic and the historical makes it clear why Doug's work fits the criteria and was chosen.

Let me briefly expand further on the many ways the fiction works. The stories and novels succeed at the level of good story-telling, but there is also an attempt to grapple with philosophical issues including the quest for truth, the problem of identity, the problem of evil, the role of the aesthetic, the encounter with the other, the possibility of redemption and always and I think, Doug would say, most importantly, the complexity of love. Political issues such as feminism, capitalism, the identity of Canadians, and their effects on individuals also make their way into the stories as does an overarching sense of broad historical movements--such as the invention of the book--and their effects on the way humans understand themselves and conduct their lives.

There is also a range in terms of style and subject manner from the straight realism, to magic realism, to farce, to a kind of Melvillian whimsy. More than one reviewer has commented on the sheer versatility of the work. Glover is also an essayist, thinker and teacher, writing on such subjects as the novel, literary history, the writing craft and contemporary writers including Margaret Atwood and Crista Wolf.

Here, too he shows himself not unwilling to do war and to cut through confusion with sharp insightful words: "how sick I am of all those turgid log rolling arguments about whether novels should have ethical messages or whether they should be purely aesthetic confections. Most writers strike a balance that somehow suits their particular temperaments."

Last and certainly not least, something must be said of the master craftsmanship of the books---the sheer beauty of the sentences, but perhaps, as impressive is the way Glover can explain to you not only the choices he's made but their literary or philosophical roots; Rabelais, Schopenhour, Levi-Strauss, Kant, Cortazar, DeFoe to name but a few of those.

The words passionate, meticulous and hard-working often come to mind when I think of trying to describe Doug.

The value of Glover's work has been recognized. As I mentioned he's now been twice short listed for Canada's highest literary prize, The Governor's General Award. Once in 1991 for A Guide to Animal Behavior and now in 2003 for Elle. [Since this speech was given Elle has won the 2003 Governor's General Award] He was also a finalist for the Rogers Writers' Trust Award for Fiction for Sixteen Categories of Desire. H.J.Kirchoff selected The Life and Times of Captain N as a Globe and Mail top ten paperback of 2001 His first novel Precious was a finalist for the First Novel Award, Books in Canada.

His work has been in Best American Short Stories, Best Canadian Stories, The Journey Prize Anthology among other collections.

He has been a Contributor to New York Times Book Review, Los Angeles Book Review, Washington Post Book World, Tribune Books, Montreal Gazette, and Toronto Globe and Mail.

Born Nov. 14, 1948 in Simcoe, Ontario, he graduate from York University, and the University of Edinburgh and received his MFA from the University of Iowa. He worked as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Brunswick, Ontario, Quebec, and Saskatchewan and traveled in the Southern U.S. He landed in upstate New York in the early 90's where he continues to reside with his two children Jacob and Jonah. He has worked at the University of Vermont, Skidmore College and right here at UAlbany.

I now present to you,--reading from his latest award-winning book, Elle,--Douglas Glover.

Mary Lannon was a graduate student in the Department of English and a graduate assistant for the New York State Writers Institute.

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Douglas Glover

Ha Jin - Interview 9/25/03

Interviewer: English is not your native language, and I was wondering if you could tell us something about how you first learned to speak (and of course write) in English at the level that you do.

Ha Jin: I just followed Radio Programs. That was the first time I came across the English language.

Interviewer: Did you find that that was adequate preparation for your later encounters with English? Or was it difficult…

Ha Jin: No. At that time, I just had a lot of time on my hands. I did want to go to college, but colleges were still closed at that time. I just wanted to learn another language. Intuitively, I felt that it could be useful. We were taught to read books by Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Mao. But I knew that the books by Frederick Engels were written in English originally. I think it’s called The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, or something like that. So I thought that maybe, eventually I could read that book in the original. That was the thing I could imagine at the time.

Interviewer: Do you feel that you have fully possessed English, or does it sometimes feel to you like an alien language?

Ha Jin: Constantly, it’s always kind of an alien language. At the time I started learning it, I was 20 years old…almost 21. An acquired language is not a language I feel at home with at all. But, as you know, I have been making a living at this for a while, and it just stays. And all my degrees are in English. I couldn’t find any other kind of employment. I did try to look for jobs related to Chinese, such as teaching the language, and translation, or work for newspapers. But nobody would hire me because I didn’t have a degree in Chinese.

Interviewer: Critics remark on the brilliance of your English. Do you feel that not being at home in the language has helped you in a paradoxical way?

Ha Jin: I don’t know…I think there are more difficulties than advantages. And I do feel that that means that I have to work harder, and be aware of my weaknesses. For instance, I can’t be very natural, like a native speaker in the language. I think a lot of the accent of immigrant writers is hard to escape. For instance, in your native language, you can write energetically, or more with syntax, and other aspects. But it’s very hard for you to play with it in English, or to write a dialogue. It’s very hard. I don’t mean that it’s impossible, but it is more difficult.

Interviewer: Do you compose mentally in English? Or do you find that you need to translate from Chinese?

Ha Jin: I have to compose everything in English. If I am writing the piece in English, from the very beginning I have to think in English. Otherwise, I won’t have the rhythm there, with the writing.

Interviewer: Are there any things that would be easier to write in Chinese?

Ha Jin: I think any good piece of writing is difficult. Just to finish it means a lot of labor, no matter what language. But for me, I think it would have been easier. I never had the chance to write in Chinese, the way I work in English. In English, I have to revise and revise, and edit and edit, until I’m sick of the thought of that piece. But in Chinese, I never reached that stage. But I guess, if I had had the opportunity, it might have been easier. But, I think the amount of labor would be similar, because, writing in your native tongue, your standard would be different, I guess. Also, your sense of when you were finished would probably be different. So the labor is always there.

Interviewer: Do the two languages have their own special limitations? Or are there things that you feel that you would not be able to express in English, or things that you feel you would not be able to express in Chinese?

Ha Jin: Yes, I feel English is a very flexible language, and Chinese is very adaptable, too. But I think English is more speculative, very often more accurate. You always have one thing, one word, or one object, for one idea. It’s very clear. Whereas Chinese is rather loose with some things. I think that when the Chinese language describes objects and physical things, it’s very concrete. It’s pretty good. But when the language turns speculative, dealing with ideas, English is much more accurate.

Also, in Chinese the written and spoken languages are different; that’s another problem. In English we don’t have that problem; we always emphasize natural speech, and that’s always a virtue. But in Chinese, I don’t think you can write the way you speak. It is very difficult. There is always a literary discourse. That’s another issue one has to be aware of. That means, if you write in Chinese, you have to be literary in a conventional way, more or less.

Interviewer: Is the limit a cultural convention, or is it that the language itself cannot be rendered in a conversational tone?

Ha Jin: Both, because in the origin of the language, the written word was fixed by an enforcing power. The first emperor decrees and all the different kinds of scripts were eliminated. So, there was only one official script, which fixed the written language in time. As a result, the writing is always stable, compared to the speech. There are different kinds of dialects, and for me, many of them are foreign languages; I can’t understand them at all. But when the Chinese come to the page, there people share the same written word.

I think it’s a bad thing. The language itself has critical great poetry written in it, but I think it hurts the language. To some extent, it doesn’t have the emotion of the spoken word, or natural speech.

Interviewer: Have you ever translated your work into Chinese from English?

Ha Jin: Only once. It was a book of short stories. I only did it because it was a difficult book. The English words were subtle, so it’s very hard to put into Chinese. Besides, there are many voices, so it was difficult to translate. That’s why my wife and I did the work. Still, it doesn’t work as well as it does in English.

Interviewer: Do you think you’ll ever do that again?

Ha Jin: Unlikely. So far, it’s always been somebody else who does the translation. First of all, I’m a Professor of English. I have to teach. I have my publications, which should be in English; Chinese doesn’t count. I have to survive. Also, once I’ve decided to write in English, that means I give up Chinese. I can’t change my mind. This was fifteen years ago I made this decision; I don’t have that many years to wait to learn how to use a different way. That’s why I want to focus on English, and that means I can take this easily, but that’s something I have to sacrifice.

Interviewer: Do you think that there would be a Chinese-speaking audience for your work? Is there already?

Ha Jin: I think so, yes. But in Mainland China, only Waiting was published, and cut at some severity as well. So I don’t see when the other works would be published. I think only a book that is not politically offensive to the authorities might be published. But all the other books are published in Taiwan. I would say yes, the books are well received. Also, there’s a Chinese Diaspora. There is an audience for my work. Not a big one, but there is a steady group.

Interviewer: You’ve often talked about writing in order to survive, and that can make creating an urgent matter to you. But does that sometimes overwhelm the creative impulse? Does it just paralyze you? Isn’t there an aspect of fear involved?

Ha Jin: Sure. Fear is always part of it, always a part of it. That’s a part of the creative process that you have to deal with, and that’s normal. Also, I don’t think that that’s true only for a writer in my situation. For any writer, if you are not sure of your project, or the book you are going to write, there’s always that fear. It’s almost a normal part of the psychology. In the beginning it can be very frightening. You don’t know whether the book will be good, who will publish it. Everything is uncertain. But eventually, you will learn that this is a part of the process. You have to bear with it, there is no other way to do this. So fear, risk, uncertainty—these are just part of the process.

Interviewer: Could you describe for us what your general writing process is? Do you write first thing every morning, or do you wait for a lightning bolt of inspiration, or until your ideas come and seep under your skin?

Ha Jin: Most of the time, I write in the morning, but if I teach sometimes I can’t. If I don’t teach, I’ll always work in the morning. Always, once you have the time, you can be lazy. If you don’t have time, and you’re always in a hurry, you force yourself to work. So it’s harder in that way, in the fact that you cannot follow it very strictly. I try to write something every day. It doesn’t need to be new things, but sometimes I’ll just do some revision and edit.

Most of the time I start in longhand, for the first draft, then put it into the computer. For the rewrite, I work on the screen, and rewrite it many times, until I feel that this has stabilized. Then I print out the hard copy and work with different colored pens, editing. This process is repeated many times, through many drafts of the hard copy. Usually there are 4 or 5 revisions. That’s how I work. Nowadays though, most of the time I don’t write longhand anymore, because to me it would be similar labor. That means I work harder on the computer, with more drafts and more hard copies down the road. I only write longhand when the story isn’t very clear. In a way, when you write, I think your hand is trying to figure out how it works, and for me that might work better.

Interviewer: A lot of writers who come here confess to us that they dread teaching, that teaching robs them of time or energy. I was wondering if in some way teaching has enriched your work, or has in any way been a positive influence.

Ha Jin: I think so, yes. It takes a lot of time, sure. Sometimes if you don’t have a good class, you feel you’re just wasting your time. But I learned a lot from my teaching, especially in the early years. I have studied textbooks and the skills—how to read stories, and poems with very clear phrasing, so you could calmly analyze. So that in a way helped me to understand the craft. I especially think that teaching literature is very helpful for a writer, because it always reminds you of the standard. What is good, or what a good book should be like, and how it is made. There are always some basic opinions we know, but we tend to forget. Teaching is a way to remind ourselves of what should be remembered. In that sense, I think it is rewarding in it’s own way, but it takes a lot of time, and a lot of the same energy used for your own writing.

On the other hand, it is much better to have a steady income, because you can’t depend on the sales of books. Sometimes a good book, a really good book, may not sell at all. The tyranny of book marketing is worse than teaching I guess. It’s much worse than that.

Interviewer: You’ve described yourself as a young teenager, as being illiterate. I was wondering to what degree you were illiterate.

Ha Jin: I could write a very short letter, I could figure out how to read a newspaper a little, but other than that it would be difficult. I remember when I was 15 (yes, that was in ’71), some classics were re-published in Chinese. I bought a novel but I couldn’t read it. The first two pages took me four or five hours. So, as a result, I had to study the dictionary first, a very small dictionary called New China Dictionary. I had to study the dictionary to know some basic words, and after that I could read the novel. So I was at least half-illiterate.

Interviewer: Were your parents readers?

Ha Jin: Yes. My father used to bring home a lot of books, hundreds of them. But, at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, all the books were burned. So, when I began to be interested in books, I didn’t have anything to read. Among my uncles there, there was a good scholar; he went to college and had been a teacher for many years. So the family had a use for a lot of books.

Interviewer: Was there a sense that literature was precious, because it was so hard to obtain?

Ha Jin: Later on, yes. But at that time we really didn’t have anything to read, other than revolutionary writings and propaganda stuff. Later on, gradually I realized that literature is a different kind of writing. This is a process. I can’t tell you what year I began to pay attention to good, literary writing. Step by step, I began to be more interested, more attached, to literature.

Interviewer: Would that be true of Chinese culture in general? The fact that literature is difficult to obtain, or is rare, or tightly controlled. Does that make it more precious, something held in higher regard? Whereas, in this country, has freedom cheapened literature in some way?

Ha Jin: It used to be like that. But very similar to the States, now in China people own private businesses, and most people are interested in making money and getting rich. When most books were banned, there was a sense that a good book is something very different and precious. I think I saw this when I read a few hundred novels (they were not good at all), but at the time there was nothing else. Once anyone had written a book, basically, people just copied them. So, there was a sense of this. There are good writings that were lost, not just the propaganda stuff.

Interviewer: Is there an explosion of new Chinese writing that you’re aware of?

Ha Jin: Yeah. After the Cultural Revolution in the early eighties, and then in the nineties. There are always new generations, one generation after another. I don’t know how much of it is good, but there is always a new group, a new movement. There is a literary explosion here, a mystic generation, that kind of literary movement. Very often, every ten years you have one or two.

Interviewer: Do you read it?

Ha Jin: Occasionally, because sometimes there are just good literary works written by new writers, though not often. But often if the work is translated into English, I have to read it because people ask me to comment.

Interviewer: I’ve read in an interview that you cited the Russian novelists as one of your influences. I was wondering if you would talk about what you admire in their work.

Ha Jin: Sure. Russian authors were not banned in China, even during the revolution. They were not banned, but I think that most young people had that rebellious spirit—whatever it is that you were told to do, you wouldn’t listen, so most people really wanted to learn about literature by Westerners—European and American authors. So, we didn’t pay much attention to the classical Russian authors. It wasn’t until I came to the States, and found many American authors (especially short story writers) would read Chekhov very intently, and so I began to become interested in Chekhov, Isaak Babel, Gogol, and Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy, later on. I do feel that they’re closer to my heart, because the world that they describe is very similar to where I grew up. And I feel emotionally, it’s very close to my life. So that’s why I think I often read the Russian authors. Also, I think they are great, especially Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. They have huge, big heart, very spacious.

Interviewer: Where does your writing urge come from? Or what compels you to write?

Ha Jin: I think the word you used at the beginning, survival, is a major part. Survival, on the one hand, in the physical sense—it helps you keep your job, support your family, and get published in order to get tenure. There are all kinds of physical aspects. There’s also an existential aspect, or dimension. That is, I want to make sense of my life, and one way to do this is to write. That also means I couldn’t do anything else, and this is something I can do. Either way, it’s to claim your own existence, I guess, not just to physically survive, as a human being.

Interviewer: Critics have talked about the fact that there’s a sense of determinism in your writing. Your characters are often compelled, by some internal urge coming into conflict with some external force, and I was wondering if you feel a kinship with those characters? Or do you think your characters really do have choices, like you have freedom to make choices, and so on?

Ha Jin: I think choices are always limited. Freedom is not absolute. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be freedom. It depends on which character. Sometimes, I do have a lot of attachment or attraction to my characters. But sometimes, if you have a bad character, I feel resentment, even disgust, with them. It really depends on which one—what part of it, what part of the book, what part of the story, and what kind of people are in it. I do feel, more or less, that they’re all my creations so I can’t just say I have no connection with them at all. It’s hard to say which one I like better, or which one I like less. They’re all human beings. I think that’s my purpose with writing, to present a human being, with different dimensions. They should be round, and not just a flat character.

Interviewer: Isolation can be an advantage for a writer, and a disadvantage. I was wondering if you could talk about your own isolation, the various kinds of isolation that you’ve experienced, and how they’ve affected you.

Ha Jin: You know, I think we all work to be read; that’s why we try to publish. So, isolation cannot be absolute. But I do believe that isolation is a kind of working condition. If you want to work on a book, you have to be relatively isolated. Especially for fiction writers, you have to sit down and work many hours a day in order to finish the book. So, that is a necessary working condition. I think sometimes, I even long for that feeling, because now I have to be involved in many activities, so sometimes I miss the isolation of the early years. I think it’s very important.

Also, some writers would say that it’s loneliness that can nourish their art. It may be because you think differently, and have a different kind of companionship, when you are isolated. Very often it’s a spiritual, and not physical companionship. So I think it is a good feeling for writers, especially for young writers; I think it’s absolutely necessary.

Interviewer: I think that’s all the time we have for today. Thank you so much.

Ha Jin: Thank you.

Ha Jin
Gazette Article
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Ha Jin [Xuefei Jin] - Poetry and Novels

Born in mainland China, Ha Jin [Xuefei (pronounced Shu-Fay) Jin] grew up in a small rural town in Liaoning Province. From the age of fourteen to nineteen he volunteered to serve in the People's Liberation Army, staying at the northeastern border between China and the former Soviet Union. He began teaching himself middle-and high-school courses in his third year in the army, which he left in the sixth year because he wanted to go to college. But colleges remained closed during the Cultural Revolution, which continued when he was demobilized, so he worked as a telegrapher at a railroad company for three years in Jiamusi, a remote frontier city in the Northeast. During this time, he began to follow the English learner's program on the radio, hoping that someday he could read Friedrich Engels' The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 in the English original.

In 1977 colleges reopened, and he passed the entrance exams and went to Heilongjiang University in Harbin where he was assigned to study English, even though this was his last choice for a major. He received a B.A. in English in 1981. He then studied American literature at Shandong University, where he received an M.A. in 1984.

Ha Jin came from China to America to study literature at Brandeis University in 1985, receiving his Ph.D. in 1993. During this time he studied fiction writing at Boston University with the novelists Leslie Epstein and Aharon Appelfeld. Ha was still planning to go back to China when the People's Army opened fire on students protesting in Tiananmen Square. Ha Jin and his wife decided that they could not return. (http://www.bookreporter.com)

He stayed in America, teaching himself to write fiction in English. His award-winning prose is often compared to that of Kafka, and Tolstoy. Yet despite the critical acclaim he enjoys in the United States, Ha Jin says he remains a stranger in his native world. "To be a writer," he says, "is a difficult way of life. But to be a writer in a foreign language is an incredibly lonely way of life." (http://www.theconnection.org/shows/2002/12/20021219_b_main.asp)

When asked which novelists have influenced him, Ha Jin notes that he "couldn't avoid being influenced" by Lu Xun, a Chinese novelist influenced by the Russian novelists. When he found out this connection, he went directly to the Russians and includes them as his influences as well as V.S. Naipaul, Alice Munro, Saul Bellow, Adrienne Rich, and Susako Endo. (Bookreporter)

Ha Jin won the PEN Hemingway Award for first fiction in 1998 for Ocean of Words: Army Stories. Under the Red Flag (1997) received the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction and his short stories have won the Pushcart Prize three times. Ha Jin's novel Waiting (1999) won the 1999 National Book Award for Fiction and the 2000 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. His short story collection The Bridegroom (2001) won the Asian American Literary Award. He has two collections of poetry, Between Silences: A Voice From China (1990), and Facing Shadows (1996); three collections of short fiction: Ocean of Words: Army Stories (1998), Under the Red Flag (1999) and The Bridegroom (2001); and three novels: In the Pond (1998), Waiting (1999) and The Crazed (2002).


… As a fortunate one I speak for those unfortunate people who suffered, endured or perished at the bottom of life and who created the history and at the same time were fooled or ruined by it. If what has been said in this book is embarrassing, then truth itself is cold and brutal. If not every one of these people, who were never perfect, is worthy of our love, at least their fate deserves our attention and our memory. They should talk and be talked about.

So writes Xuefei Jin in the introduction to Between Silences: A Voice From China, (1988) his first book of poetry in which we are introduced to modern life in China. The voices here, the poems in this collection, cover a spectrum of perspectives: from those of a dead soldier - who died retrieving a statute of Chairman Mao – to a battalion commander dealing with the mother of a dead soldier, to the voices of children in the classroom conditioned to not be ambitious, to the voices of 14-year-old children going off to war, to a mother who has sent her daughter to be in the army.

The straight-forward simplicity of the narratives understate the emotional tension, which they quietly and forcefully build. In "The Dead Soldier's Talk," the first poem of the collection, a soldier petitions a younger brother or friend to read to him from the "red treasure book" citing his poor memory. It has been six years since he died while saving a statue of Mao. For the reader, but not the speaker, the loss of the speaker's memory parallels the change in the visitor who once vowed to see the dead soldier as a role model, but now only weeps. The memory loss and the move to weeping indicate a distancing from the valuing of such self-sacrifice for a symbol, and, consequently, to the ideology the symbol stands for.

The dead soldier never complains. He inquires after his mother and sister. But he is forgetting the words of Mao and he knows something is upsetting his visitor, but does not understand what that would be. The pathos is in his dedication, his desire for more words from the "red treasure book," in conjunction with his potential to discover his loss. He does note that his little sister will be bigger, but the significance of this, that life has gone on without him, has not yet dawned on him. This is contrasted to the weeping of the friend who in weeping acknowledges the loss of a life.

The final poem in the collection is "Because I Will Be Silenced." It complements the initial poem of the book in that both deal with kinds of death, one giving voice to the dead, the other is the living man who experiences a kind of death in being silenced. This poem begins:

Once I have the freedom to say
my tongue will lose its power.
Since my poems strive to break the walls
that cut off people's voices,
they become drills and hammers.

This is a fear of impotence, or of a kind of possible drowning inherent in the freedom to say what one wants, where and whenever one wants. Note that the poem's first word is "once" implying that this condition of freedom has not happened yet. This is intriguing as the poems have been clear about the dangers and constraints that people in China were/are living under.

The lines "The starred tie around my neck/ at any moment can tighten into a cobra." make it clear that the speaker fears repercussions for his actions, his writing. "The freedom to say," apparently, is not merely site-specific. It is not enough that the speaker is no longer in China. The constraints of being raised a particular way – plus the fear, perhaps, of reprisals targeting relatives still in China – are still present.

There is a palpable difference in the quality of anger in Ha's second collection of poems Facing Shadows (1996). The method is still indirect, presenting the situations of people in their voices, yet the anger is stronger, less restrained, perhaps less depressed. Also Ha addresses his particular situation of writing in a non-native language, in a foreign country and issues relative to living in the U.S.

In "June 1989" addressed "to a poet in China" the speaker writes of the horrible events concerning Tiannamen square. He dreams that a friend was arrested, dreams the fear, the humiliation, the abuse, and then writes:

Since June third
my dreams have run wild,
craving to kill the killers
as if their lives were no more than flies.

Such simple, direct statements contain a wealth of emotional intensity. The displacement of desire to "kill the killers" from waking life to dreamlife underscores a belief in a morality that says it is not good to kill at all. The waking self knows killing is an evil, but the dream self, feeling the horror of the massacre, unashamedly desires retribution. This stanza is followed by an explicit description of an atrocity:

On television I saw
a truck of soldiers pass by and shoot
three men who were watching them move out.
A small girl hid in a rickshaw,
but thirty-nine bullets smashed
the vehicle and the life inside.
Behind her stood a placard:
People are no longer afraid of death,
why do you threaten us with death?

These last two lines of this quote shouts a determination that is echoed both in the speaker's dreams and in the final stanza of the poem:

… An end?
Who knows when it will end?
From fresh stumps hidden in sleeves
deadly hands are growing.
From curses behind doors, from groans in dreams,
an eyeless typhoon is gathering.

There is no end, no end to the desire for a different life – for freedom – no end to the violence. The Chinese government has not "ended" anything.

A poem concerned with a different aspect of freedom, freedom under very different circumstances, occurs later in the collection. The speaker of "Gratitude" considers his own expectations, both of getting a job and of what freedom is. He anticipates his gratitude at getting a job, but then doesn't get one. This leads to a meditation on "the fate of Tu Fu and Li Po – / two great poets who had the bitterest of lives."

The direction of the poem turns again as the speaker decides he is arrogant to link himself to these poets as he and his family are doing ok:

… I am fortunate,
for my family is sheltered and we do not starve,
and I can even afford to stay in a hotel
where a thousand lectures are delivered in two days,
where professors look awesome as speakers and hirers.
Yet, do not mention again the beauty of this free land.
Freedom here is not a way of living
but a way of selling and buying. To survive
one has to learn how to sell oneself
and how to trim oneself into a bolt or a nut
to match the machine of a profession.
Still, I cannot but feel grateful
for being allowed to stay or go,
for knowing one price of freedom.

The speaker has observed that free-market freedom has conditions, which does not make it any the less valuable nor desirable, but that it was not what he had thought.


"A dreamy and beautifully written novel" is how K. Kunhikrishnan describes Ha Jin's novel Waiting (1999). The novel was published in an expurgated version in China, as it was considered by the Chinese government to be a plot to show "China's backwardness and the stupidity of the Chinese people." The novel is about a couple waiting 18 years to get married – 18 years of separation is needed so that the man, Lin Kong, a doctor, may get a divorce from his wife without her consent. "Ha Jin profoundly understands the conflict between the individual and society, between the timeless universality of the human heart and constantly shifting politics of the moment. With wisdom, restraint, and empathy for all his characters, he vividly reveals the complexities and subtleties of a world and a people we desperately need to know," (Judge's Citation, National Book Award).

Ha Jin's newest novel The Crazed (2002) is set during the Tiananmen Square tragedy of 1989. Bill Robinson, writing for mostlyfiction.com, describes it as written in a style of "sparse photo-realism. Everything is presented straight on and formally, in sharp focus with few extraneous details. The structure of the novel is theatrical with numerous short scenes that keep the narrative moving and give the book a serial, episodic flavor. This is an easy book to read, a hard one to put down." In the novel, Jian Wan sits by the bedside of his professor, and future father-in-law, Yang on the day after the horrors that occurred at Tiananmen Square. Yang has suffered a stroke and his rantings about life as a professor under Communist rule lead Jian to change his academic, and hence, his life plans. "Writing with a searing restraint born of long-brewing grief over the Chinese government's surreal savageness, Ha Jin depicts a warped society in which everyone is driven mad by viciousness and injustice. But Ha Jin's dramatic indictment does not preclude love, or the ancient power of story to memorialize, awaken compassion, and shore up hope" (Donna Seaman, Booklist).

P.R. Dyjak, Graduate Assistant, NY State Writers Institute
Poet, graduate student in English, University at Albany

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Ha Jin
Gazette Article

Ha Jin and Leslie Epstein - Seminar, 9/25/03

Schwarzschild: I’m going to give a more formal introduction this evening, but I do want to say a few words about our fantastic guests today. They have driven over the Berkshires to be with us. Boston University is about three hours east of Albany, if you motor along at a good clip. If you were to go there, stroll across the campus, and ask somebody for directions to the creative writing program, they’d direct you to a lovely converted turn-of-the-century townhouse, roughly a block or two from the Charles River. Once inside the building, you can make your way up to the second floor, where there’s something of a magical room. It’s a small space; there’s nothing really fancy about it. There’s nothing about the desks or the décor; nothing in particular. There may be a poster of Emily Dickinson hanging on the wall--

Epstein: It’s Virginia Woolf, alas (laughter).

Schwarzschild: —or Viginia Woolf. There’s a small window; it doesn’t offer the finest view, but if you have a limber neck, you can look out there and catch a glimpse of the Charles.

So it’s not really the furnishings or the design, or even the view, that makes the room at 236 Bay State Road, magical. The magic comes from the people who have sat at those desks and honed their craft, learning about writing from an incredible group of teachers. For instance, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton studied with Robert Lowell in that room. In the years since then, at one time or another, such writers as John Cheever, John Barr, Donald Barthelme, Stanley Elkin, Richard Yeats, Lynn Sharon Schwartz, Gloria Naylor, Allegra Goodman and many others. They’ve shared what they know about fiction, and drama and poetry, in that room. Students from the Boston University Creative Writing program have gone on to win just about every award there is. To give just two recent examples, Arthur Golden began his Memoirs of A Geisha there, and Jhumpa Lahiri worked on her Pulitzer Prize winning collection Interpreter of Maladies there. These days, such luminaries as Derek Walcott, and Robert Pinsky teach regularly in that room.

I’m happy to say that most of the other luminaries who currently teach at the Boston University Creative Writing program are sitting right here at this table. Leslie Epstein has been teaching in and directing the program for 25 years now; and Ha Jin, one of Epstein’s illustrious former students, is now a full professor in the program. In other words, and the theme for the day I think, is that though we can’t all go to that magical room by the Charles, today we’ll have a few hours of the room coming to be with us. I think it’ll be a wide-ranging discussion about issues of craft, about memory and imagination, about what it is to be a creative writing program. Whatever the questions dictate. But let me just say a few more words about each of the people here.

Ha Jin, of course, has not just traveled from Boston to be with us; he was born and raised in China, where his early education was interrupted by the Cultural Revolution, which closed schools for a period throughout Mainland China. In the years that followed, Ha Jin became a member of the Little Red Guard, and spent five-and-a-half years in the People’s Liberation Army. After leaving army service, he eventually earned both a bachelors and masters degree in American Literature. He came to the United States in 1986 to begin doctoral work at Brandeis University. He planned to complete his doctorate and return to teach at a university in China. However, he chose to remain in the United States after the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. Fortunately for all of us, he also choose to enroll in the creative writing program at Boston University, where as I’ve said, he studied with Leslie Epstein.

Since coming to this country, Ha Jin has published three collections of poetry, three short story collections, and three novels. He has managed somehow to be prolific, while always holding his work up to the highest standards. And the work has brought him numerous awards. I’ll just name a few. His first short story collect, Ocean of Words, won the Hemmingway/PEN Award for short fiction. His second story collection, Under the Red Flag, won the Flannery O’Connor Award for short fiction. The stories in the collection The Bridegroom won the Asian-American Literary Award. Individual stories of his can be found in three Pushcart Prize Collections, and four volumes of Best American Short Stories. Perhaps his best-known work so far is the novel Waiting, which received both the National Book Award, and the PEN/ Faulkner Award. His most recent novel is The Crazed, which is set during the Tiananmen Square Uprising.

Leslie Epstein has also covered a great deal of territory before arriving here in Albany today. He did not, of course, grow up in China. He did, however, grow up in a place that some of us might view as a foreign country; that is, right around Hollywood California. His father and uncle were the legendary screenwriting team of Bill and Julius Epstein, two men who wrote dozens of films including The Man who Came to Dinner, Arsenic and Old Lace, and arguably the best film every made, Casablanca. One might say that Leslie Epstein also learned a second language; he moved east to study at Yale, where he began by writing plays, but eventually turned to novels. And we’re very lucky that he did.

He’s published nine books of fiction, perhaps the most famous of them until now has been the novel King of the Jews, which is widely known as a classic of Holocaust literature. The other books include Pinto and Sons, Goldkorn Tales, Pandaemonium, and Ice Fire Water: A Leib Goldkorn Cocktail. His articles and stories have appeared in all of the major newspapers and magazines: The Atlantic, Harper’s, The Yale Review, Triquarterly, The Nation, The Washington Post, and The New York Times Book Review, among others. He has won numerous awards and fellowships for his work. There has been a Rhodes Scholarship, a Fullbright and Guggenheim fellowship, an award for Distinction in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, a residency at the Rockefeller Institute in Bellagio, and many grants from the National Endowment for the Arts.

I said that King of the Jews had been his most famous work up until now. I say that because his new novel, San Remo Drive, may soon become that famous if not more so. The characters we encounter in this book are unforgettable; it’s a moving, beautifully written novel. Throughout, the prose is absolutely stunning, and an utter joy to read. One of the many glowing reviews declares that San Remo Drive is among the four best novels ever written about Hollywood, and one of the other three, I should say, is his novel Pandaemonium. So that’s two of the four, actually.

So, that should give you a sense of who our guests are today. I hope you all welcome them to our not-so-sunny, but lovely University at Albany.

Q &A:

Audience Member: I would like to start with a question for Mr. Jin about Waiting. I was hoping that you could discuss your theme of abuse that runs through the novel. For instance, in the end, who do you think did more damage to Manna: Geng Yang, or Lin?

Ha Jin: Both of them did a lot of damage, I think. But there is intended damage and unintended damage.

By nature, one of the characters did not have a good heart, and he ended up hurting everybody, all of the people close to him. But, this is implied; I don’t think the book will really describe that to you, in real terms. Whereas, by comparison, Geng Yang is an evil character. He hurt others intentionally, and in that sense, he does embody the evil thoughts.

Audience Member: The book is entitled Waiting; does that mean that Lin is waiting for something? It didn’t seem to me like he really understood what he even wanted.

Ha Jin: Yes, and I think that’s the irony. Some of the characters in the book didn’t know what they were waiting for. That’s why the Lin character expected something, but didn’t know what that was. That’s one of the themes of the book.

Audience Member: Then does that go beyond Lin? I was confused whether it just meant that Lin didn’t know what he was waiting for, or if that applied to everybody.

Ha Jin: For many years, Manna, his second wife, doesn’t know either. But I think the first wife intrinsically knows. She’s the person who is sure of herself, so that’s a different kind of waiting. She waits for him to return to her.

Audience Member: This is for Mr. Epstein. I read a book about a year ago called A Double Dying, and in it there’s a chapter called "Exploiting Atrocity." Alvin Rosenfeld says that the book King of the Jews is a morally bankrupt book. It exploits atrocity in a way that’s not respectable. Obviously, you don’t agree with that (and I don’t agree with it either), but could you answer that, for the people who make that claim? How do you respond to that?

Epstein: The book came out in ’79. Twenty-three or twenty-four years ago, I got into such trouble with the Jews over this. I know Alvin Rosenfeld; he has sort of apologized since then, because, to his own surprise, the book has lasted. A new edition has just come out, in fact.

I think what Alvin didn’t realize, is the distinction between fiction and non-fiction. He’s a historian, and historians are at war with such things as irony, and with artistic necessity. I needed a river in my town, which was based on Lodz, so I took the river from Warsaw and moved it to Lodz. There is such a thing as poetic or artistic license, and I used it. What he really was complaining about, I think, was the tone of the book, and the humor in King of the Jews. Since I wrote King of the Jews, the archives of the Lodz ghetto were discovered—records kept by five Jews for the town—which recorded the extinction of Jewish life in that town. And they’re very funny. At least one of them has a tone eerily like the ironic tone that I adopted for King of the Jews. Much of the other humor—the intended humor, the jokes in the book—were taken from the Warsaw Ghetto diaries of Ringelblum, which were buried at Warsaw. And you know, when Jews get together they tell jokes, even if it’s on the gallows, and it was gallows humor.

I’ll just end by saying that I think that the book was before its time: King of the Jews came out twenty-four years ago. Now, you have Life is Beautiful (not a film that I much like, actually), but it’s easier to see the Holocaust with a kind of dark humor that wasn’t possible then. And I think Alvin’s come to realize that a bit.

Audience Member: I wonder how you feel, as a writer, while writing suspense. Do you sometimes feel that you want to do the opposite of what you have written, or what you were going to do, or do you just know where you’re going very strongly?

Epstein: I should say that it’s a pleasure for any teacher to be sitting between two of his successful students, not just Ha Jin but Ed (Schwarzschild). And of course, Ed’s still looking for an A, and that’s why you heard that nice introduction. But anyway, Ed may remember me saying this. When asked "How much of the ending of a novel should a writer know?" I always say about 71%. And you can ask Ha Jin the same. It seems to me, if you know absolutely where you’re going, it’s easier to write the book, but it won’t be such a good book. There won’t be room, for what I think you’re alluding to, which is self-discovery, surprise, and changes of mind. But if you know not much more than half, you’re going to flounder a bit. So it’s good to have a general sense of where you’re going.

If you’re asking about suspense in this book in particular, someone said to me recently, "Oh I was so upset about the children, I didn’t want anything to happen to them and I was so worried." I did know that nothing was going to happen to them; it wasn’t in these people to really harm children. There are harmed children in the book, but not physically. So I did know that.

Ha Jin: Yes, I think Leslie is right. You always know the right direction. But I think it’s also very difficult to know exactly where the story goes, and also, in the process you realize that you can’t make some connections, and there are things that you don’t yet understand. That’s the really hard part. That’s why it’s so important to understand your material to begin with, so you will know how to bring out or suggest all the nuances. It’s very difficult.

Audience Member: This is for Ha Jin. In both of your books, you have very strong characters. I like your character development, especially Shuyu—I’m a fan of hers (laughter). When I was reading, I really got into her, and just now when you said that she was a very strong woman, well, you can look at her and say "you’re a woman," but I think on any scale, she was just strong. When you were writing her, was there a specific person whom she was based on, or was this a multiple-research type thing and she was based on a lot of people?

Ha Jin: Not really, but I grew up in the countryside, and my father was an army officer, so we moved around a lot. I spent a long time with peasants, kids and families. So I think this older woman character really just came to me naturally.

Audience Member: I have a question about what made Richard [in San Remo Drive]so bitter. He seemed to have a negative attitude towards everything, even before the father died, when he was unprovoked. He seemed very disrespectful to me, though completely unprovoked.

Epstein: That’s news to me. I’m interested that you had that response to him. Since he’s based on me, I sort of think of him as a fine fellow (laughter). Optimistic, and cheerful, and straightforward wherever he goes. But, apparently not. Can you give me an example of his negativity?

Audience Member: One thing is his attitude towards his nanny’s husband. When he goes out to the car, and then comes back, and other people were beating up on him and calling him names, he didn’t really seem to care about this guy who was outside, getting beat up. He also seemed very disrespectful toward his parents, especially his mom.

Epstein: Well, if you had such a mother…(laughter). In that particular scene, towards the servants, I think he loves the servants. I think that on the whole, it comes through that he loves Arthur and Mary. Remember, he thinks Arthur is being beaten up, but he’s not; Arthur has just gotten drunk and is having a good time across the street. But what I wanted to show there, was the reaction of his brother Bartie. Richard—you’re right, you’ve picked something up—is quiet, and thinking about safety, and getting out of there, and calling the police. But his disturbed younger brother is the one who reacts, and he throws open the door and says "Leave him alone, leave him alone." What I wanted to show there is that the younger, imperfect person, has the more perfect reaction. Whereas, the more self-secure, perhaps complacent, and mature narrator, doesn’t respond well to that crisis. The more innocent, naïve, and troubled young man—his brother Bartie—does. So I sort of wanted to shift the focus to Bartie’s reaction there, because I wanted to show that Richard was neutral. That’s what you’re picking up. He wasn’t really disrespectful, but he didn’t do the right thing, whereas his brother did.

Audience Member: Mr. Epstein, in San Remo Drive: A Novel From Memory, how much of the story is actually autobiographical, and how much of it is made up?

Epstein: Very good question. These are the recollections of my childhood, but the different segments of the book have different degrees of recollection. The story "Malibu" is almost entirely as a I remember it; that doesn’t mean that that’s the way it was, but it’s as I remember it. I mean, there was that phony Frenchman; I didn’t like him at all. He took me out on that rowboat, and I was absolutely certain that he was going to kill me. He didn’t. And then, over a lifetime, you come to realize, as I say in the last chapter of the book—and it’s a difference between life as you live it, and what you can accomplish through art—he didn’t want to kill me. I wanted to kill him, and I projected those feelings onto him. That story is almost entirely as I remember it.

The others are more or less true. There’s a germ of recollection in all the tales. My mother’s death is exactly as I experienced it just a few years ago. Bartie is based, as best I can, on my brother, as he still lives, in just that way. My mother was much that way. In the story "Negroes," there were two men working on our house on a very hot day in 1948, and I as a child did invite them to swim in the pool, and they did. And then my mother came home. The rest was invented. The coming back with the men, the sexual initiation, was invented. In fact, I think that’s an interesting example of why art is superior to memory. And to people who write memoirs, well god-bless ‘em, but this is not a memoir. There is something revealed about me that’s truer, and that my mind would go in that direction. My psyche would see that the story needs that scene, between those men and that boy—a scene of sexual seduction, that never occurred in actual life. There’s a sort of deeper truth revealed there, than just the story of the swimming pool.

The general answer to your question is, it’s quite an autobiographical book, though bent willfully where the needs of art made it do that.

Schwarzschild: Ha Jin, I’d like to ask you the same question, about writing from memory of China, having been away from China for so long.

Ha Jin: I’m scared, scared to write an autobiographical story. I think any good piece of fiction is somehow autobiographical, in a way that deals much with your own life, with your characters, and a lot of the details that you give to others. I think that’s the issue, really. There’s a distinction between fiction and autobiography. But sometimes a student, or a young writer, has a book where he or she doesn’t know whether to put it in the autobiographical category, or as a novel. I always say that in a novel, you have more freedom. You can invent things that didn’t actually happen, to form your drama. That can be more meaningful. In an autobiography, you can’t say anything that didn’t actually occur, and I think that can cause us to struggle with ourselves. Very often, an author will say to me "I want people to know that this happened to me," but if you’re going to put yourself on the board, you have to make a choice. So, which one are you going to call it? It’s entirely up to you. Of course, as teachers, we always encourage the student to choose the heart—what is best for themselves.

Epstein: You know Susanna Kaysen, who wrote Girl, Interrupted? She once told me, "Every memoir is nothing but lies, every true novelist does nothing but tell the truth." I know what she means. The example from that story is I think what she meant.

Audience Member: When creating characters, from the very beginning do you have to be thinking about how to get the book published? Do you tailor your work to what you think will succeed, or do you just do what you want from the beginning and see where it takes you?

Ha Jin: I don’t know. Sometimes, you know some basic facts. You know the cast of characters in your novel or your story. Very often, I don’t know them very well. I just write and put them on the page, and the story leads them. But in the process of revision, and editing, I began to get to know them better. So the revision process for me is vital. That’s how the writing gets better. It’s very hard to put them forward, jump the characters into the drama and action itself, without revealing more of the characters. That’s why when getting the first book published, there’s always uncertainty, we don’t know. We may never get published.

In Leslie’s class, there was one thing he taught us, that I think we should cherish and carry with us: A good book will be published. If it’s not published by a major publisher, some small publisher will publish it. That’s what we should believe in, otherwise we shouldn’t be doing it. A good piece of work has it’s own power to get out there.

Audience Member: How does the teacher avoid forcing or encouraging his students to write like him or herself? I imagine that that could be difficult to work around.

Epstein: That’s a good question. My answer is "Why avoid it?" (laughter). I’m a very strict teacher. When Ed said that the poster was of Emily Dickinson before, I said "No, it’s Virginia Woolfe, alas." I never knew why we didn’t take that photo of her down. I don’t like the way she writes, particularly. I actively encouraged my students not to write like her. I always said "If you want to learn how to write, don’t write like her," because it’s too subjective, it’s too much in the mind, you’re never going to get to that damned lighthouse (laughter). I trust my students to know that they’re hearing it from me, and from my point of view, and if it’s wrong for them, they’ll discard it. I can only teach what I know, and what I feel, so I push them toward Dostoevsky, or someone that I admire. But you should ask both of them about how I warped them.

Schwarzschild: I get to talk to them twice a week, so maybe Ha Jin should answer.

Ha Jin: I think that influence is always a good thing. Young writers tend to be afraid of influence, but I think it’s very good to have one influence, and then another after another. Then, you will be a different thing. Also, I think most teachers wouldn’t say, "You should write like us," They always recommended good heritage, and I think that’s important. But, if you read a lot of books, and consider a lot of books that are close to your heart, you will formulate your own kind of heritage. I think that’s a part of the writing process. So in that sense, influence is always a positive force.

Audience Member: I’ve read some things about there being just too many writers, especially with all the low-residency writing programs that are around now. What’s your response to that?

Leslie Epstein: It’s probably true that there are too many writers. It’s too much to read. But there aren’t too many good writers. That’s for sure. We’re the opposite of a low-residency program. We are one extremely—as Ed and Ha Jin will testify—intense and difficult year. You are with us every minute of that year, in four different workshops, over two semesters. It’s very, very hard. So I can’t speak for low-residency programs. I can speak for ours, and the old chestnut of wisdom is, "Can you teach writing?" I mean, are we doing anything in that one year? I’ve never quite understood the question, because no one ever asks if Jascha Heifetz can teach someone to play the violin, or can Picasso teach someone how to paint, and I don’t know why. Of course, we can’t give people a guide, but neither could Heifetz or Picasso. We can accelerate, through emphasis on craft, things that are going to happen anyway. Failure’s going to happen anyway, for probably most. But success is going to happen to a significant amount of our students, and we can make that happen more rapidly and more surely, and perhaps with a greater sophistication and consciousness, than it would have otherwise.

Audience Member: You mentioned before that you were happy to be sitting next to two successful students of writing…and I was wondering what the most difficult aspects of teaching students to write better are.

Epstein: Having to discourage those who I feel need discouragement, and all the time being worried that I might be wrong. You know, I’m not always right. I’m probably wrong about Virginia Woolf, but not about The Waves. But, that’s a problem. Sometimes I do have to discourage. In a graduate program, there’s not the time to always pat them on the shoulder. With undergraduates it’s different, but in a graduate program, you have to tell it the way you see it. And people are unhappy. And then if they go and prove me wrong, that’s great. So I think that’s one of the hardest things, feeling the disappointment that you have to cause yourself. Plus, worrying if you needlessly caused it.

Audience Member: How do you overcome writer’s block?

Ha Jin: I guess there are different kinds of writer’s block. The most serious one is maybe when you just can’t write anything. But for me, the difficult part is when you know you can write, but you just can’t get it right. Also, you spend a lot of time writing and then you don’t get anywhere. You write the words on the page, but they’re not good, you don’t see the connection. I think the only thing you can do to overcome it, is to be patient. That’s what you have to do, again and again. You don’t need to fight writer’s block, because if you force it, and write things that you don’t like, you’re giving up energy that you need for your next book to come. So that means you have to be patient, and just wait it out. That’s my feeling about it.

Epstein: I have a three-word answer. I’m very hesitant to give the three words that I have to others, when in the past I had to very painfully learn this myself. I’ve been through it, as many writers have. Okay, here goes, here are the three words: Lower your standards. I think that the search for perfection is very dangerous for the writer. And like what Ha Jin said earlier, you can always rewrite, so if you can get it out and know that you’re not relinquishing it, that you’ll go back to it, and can make it better. But don’t try and be perfect in every sentence. Write it as it comes to you. Lower your standards a bit. Awful advice to give isn’t it, but I’ve found it’s the only advice that works.

Ha Jin: But you can make it better later on. That’s why it’s important sometimes to just get something out, so you have a draft to work with.

Epstein: Or, become a banker (laughter).

Audience Member: This is for Ha Jin. I read a quote where you said something to the effect of " A good novel transcends time." My question is, when you’re writing, do you consciously or unconsciously try to achieve that effect?

Ha Jin: Yes and no. I think when you conceive a novel, you always think about whether the story is meaningful. I don’t think a serious author just tells a story, and then if the story is told well, then it suddenly becomes resonant. No. But in the writing process, you know that there are certain things that tie the story closely to its time, so sometimes you try to deliberately avoid using them. But I think time is necessary. You cannot avoid history, the history we have achieved. So a historically authentic feeling is necessary. Still, the ultimate goal is always to go beyond time.

Audience Member: How important is the ending of the book? Tying everything all together?

Epstein: Absolutely vital, or you leave the reader hungry, dissatisfied, with a sense of unease. Of course, the opposite is when you have tied all the threads together, and there are no loose ends, it’s the most satisfying of all meals, isn’t it. So when I say, you should only know 71% of the ending, you have to find the other 29% by the time you’re done. You really have to knit all the threads together into a shining gauntlet sometimes; it’s absolutely vital.

Audience Member: This is for Ha Jin. I was curious about how you decided to write in English. I imagine the language was just so different, how was it that you didn’t say "Well, I’ll think and write in Chinese, then I’ll translate myself"?

Ha Jin: A lot of things happen to us in our lives by accident. I did try to look for jobs in Chinese, such as teaching the language, translation, or writing for newspapers. But I didn’t have a degree in Chinese. In this country, you have to have a degree in order to get a job. All my degrees were in English, so it didn’t make sense for me to write in Chinese. In that sense, it was a matter of survival. Since I got into the academic world, I had to keep my job, and I had to publish in English publications. So it was out of necessity, but of course we are not just animals looking to earn our food. I think there were other things as well, because in English I realized there was a tradition in which writers who’s native language was not English, had written in English and later become important writers in English, like Nabokov. That’s the beauty of the language, that there is already that tradition there. That means I very consciously tried to rethink the way I wrote, and prostrate myself to this tradition. In other words, I have to cut away from Chinese, and cut with the past. The Chinese tradition is just a different kind of writing.

Audience Member: This is for Ha Jin: To what degree did you use the language as a tool to make some philosophical comments about the political situation? It seemed to me that in Waiting, the main character’s mindset was meant to be symbolic of the political issues of the time.

Ha Jin: I think you can view him as just a type, because I think that although he is so passive, he is blind to his own emotion, and doesn’t understand how to love others. But this kind of psychology is not always based upon a political situation. Very often, a man and a woman, who have been traumatized, can also have this similar kind of psychology. I did receive letters from American readers, even women, who would say to me "All my life, I’ve lived like this, I never dared to engage other’s emotion." So in this situation, he is damaged, by the political environment, but on the other hand, this is not just a political statement. It’s about psychology and a certain kind of environment.

Epstein: It’s the same as your answer about time, in a sense.

Ha Jin: Yes.

Audience Member: How important do you think it is for a young writer to attend a Masters program in writing?

Epstein: Oh, absolutely necessary (laughter).

I didn’t. I think it depends on the writer. I think for some people, it will change their lives. For some, it’ll change it perhaps in a bad way. For others, it won’t make any difference one way or the other. And for others, it would be a mistake. It depends on your time of life, the kind of writer, and the degree of your sophistication. I think if you’re not sophisticated, you better get sophisticated, because there are no unsophisticated fine writers. There are no primitives in literature. It has to do with what Ha Jin said about influences: we all know on whose shoulders we stand, and we continue that tradition through writing programs and the study of literature. And also, it depends on what program you choose. Now you see the non-Virginia Woolf kind of guy that I am, so if you were a very subjective kind of writer, and committed to that, you wouldn’t want to study with me. There are experimental programs where you might want to go, other than our quite traditional program. So, picking and choosing the right people that you’re going to study with is also very important.

Ha Jin: I think a writing program can’t teach you to be a writer, but it can shorten the process of your learning, and really accelerate your practice. I don’t think on the whole, most American writers—young or old—are more skilled than European writers. I’ve met some European editors and publishers. They read manuscripts constantly, and they think that young American writers are very similar, because we have the workshops. But, the Europeans are very uneven. That means, anyone who attends the program can I guess reach the average (laughter), but the rest is really up to you.

Audience Member: I have a question about closure. Do you feel that when you write, you should avoid tying everything up to much? That it’s possible to leave a reader thinking that they know entirely too much at the end?

Epstein: Yes. I think it’s a wonderful question. If you’ve done so, you’ve written genre fiction. You’ve written a mystery, you’ve written science fiction, you’ve written a thriller, you’ve written a woman’s romance, etc. You’re asking whether the mystery persists in a work of art, and yes it does. That’s a very good question.

Ha Jin: And extremely few can try and reproduce that mystery, I imagine.

Audience Member: This is for Mr. Jin. One of the things that I’ve read about your book Waiting and your poetry is that you pay great attention to your culture. Is there a part of your culture or a part of Chinese history that you hesitate to write about? For example, Tiananmen Square. Are books on that subject allowed to be read in China? My understanding is that anything having to do with The Shining Path is no longer allowed, so I was just wondering about that..

Ha Jin: Sure, and there are subjects that are censored. I did write about the Tiananmen Square event in my novel The Crazed. Because of that, that book will not be read in China in the near future. And that sort of thing has become commonplace. I think in a way I’m privileged as a writer, because I’m writing in English, and so I don’t depend on the literary machine in China. That’s another reason why I decided to write in English: I wanted to separate myself from the literary apparatus of the authorities in China.

For instance, only one of my books is published in Mainland China, Waiting, but they cut some sentences. It was cut here and there, and very often the choicest moments were lost. Artistic integrity is another part of releasing a book that I have to be aware of, and by writing in English, to some extent, I can avoid that kind of problem. On the other hand, I do think translatability is a standard in literature. That means that what I write in English should at least sound true, if it is put into Chinese. That is very essential, otherwise I can easily abuse the privilege.

Audience Member: I have another question for Ha Jin, about the dream that Manna had regarding Geng Yang and the lover that she had before him. Was that supposed to foreshadow something in the future? Because, I think that was the cause of the discomfort between her and Lin. Because of that dream, she was putting more pressure on him, because she was afraid she was going to lose him. Then with that pressure, Lin was feeling more and more uncomfortable, and unsure of his love for her.

Ha Jin: Yeah, you’re right. You’re a good reader.

Epstein: And he’s wearing a New York Yankee hat (laughter).

Ha Jin: Yes, I think you’re right. It was not a rational dream, I didn’t think it was very clear. But you are right in two ways. All of those years, the rape is never gone. The fear always remains within her. On the other hand, although they were married, her man’s not that reliable. In the back of her mind, Manna does not think he’s that dependable. We know that he doesn’t understand how to love a woman. So I think that kind of fear is revealed in that dream. In that sense, that was foreshadowing the ending.

Audience Member: This is for Mr. Epstein. As a teacher, how do you grade effectively? If you get a paper that you know someone worked really hard on, and just think is awful, how do you grade objectively?

Epstein: When I see that, I put a C on it (laughter). I don’t give grades story by story, I put comments on them. But BU requires us to give grades, and they very much discourage us from giving all As. In fact, they really don’t allow it anymore. And I think that’s right, because even if some people have worked very hard—maybe even harder than the A student—their stories are distribution of talent, and you do your best to recognize it. And you do try and separate your own proclivities and prejudices from the grade that you give them—the final judgement. But you do have to give it, and we do.

Audience Member: Have you ever given all As? Because you said that they forbid it now…but…

Epstein: The class that Ed was in was a remarkable class, and I don’t think I gave many Bs. I would say five people in that class are now publishing. I think that the majority of that class has been publishing books, and that sticks in my mind as one of the great classes at BU. So, people did well in that class—of course, not all of them.

Audience Member: I was just wondering how often, when you’re writing, do you get an idea for your next book?

Ha Jin: I think you should put that aside. You always want to put everything into the book you have now. I think that is a rule in writing, you always keep everything to the thing you’re working on.

Audience Member: Doesn’t it happen frequently?

Ha Jin: It happens where you’ll get an idea, and you’ll have to know the other book, but you don’t get into it because you cannot afford to fight two battles at the same time. You don’t have enough resources, you just want to concentrate on one book. That’s how it is for me, at least. I don’t save anything for another book because I don’t know when I will write that book.

Epstein: Remember my answer lowering you standards? I just thought of another answer, which is "Write Another Book." I’d been working on a rather large historical novel, set in Italy in the 1930s, for years. And then one day, I took a new legal pad and I began to write on it, and it was the first chapter of what turned out to be this book. And I did the next story, and the next, and then things happened and I knew I was working on a novel. I’m only now, four years later, picking up the strings of the Italian book that I had done before. And that happened to me with one other book, Pinto and Sons, which took 11 years to write. During those 11 years, I did two other books. I did Regina, an unknown book that no one reads . . .

Ha Jin: I read it.

Epstein: Oh, look at that (laughter). There’s only one in existence. I did that, and then I did Goldkorn Tales. So, then I went back to Pinto and Sons and spent another seven years on it. My own favorite book is Pinto and Sons. That may be because it’s such a difficult book. You know, you love the child that caused you the most pain.

Ha Jin: It seemed with my recent novel The Crazed, which is in fact my first book, I just didn’t have the skill to do it. So I had to put it aside, and do something else, and return to it again after 13 years.

Audience Member: I know it’s difficult for a writer to separate himself or herself from the characters they create. So, my question is, what do you guys do when you’re writing a book? How do you make sure that you’re not too attached to one or several of your characters, whom you might identify with so much?

Ha Jin: I don’t think I identify myself with the characters, because I always keep some distance so that I can be more objective. There are other people in other countries who read the book, so I have to be more balanced-minded, I guess. But, of course, you understand your characters’ psychology, sometimes you can’t help developing a deep attachment. But again, you have to step back, and view the character, with their defects, and understand their complexity.

Epstein: I think of two characters: One is Trumpelman, the main character in King of the Jews (based on Chaim Rumkowski, a notorious figure in Jewish history, and WW2). Was he a villain? Was he a savior? Or was he someone who sent his fellow Jews to their deaths, or was he someone who saved them? And in the course of the book, I am condemnatory of him. At the same time, you don’t spend a few years writing about someone without feeling merciful, too. So, it’s a very kind of complex balancing of emotions that goes on.

The other character would be Richard in this book, who’s me. Who’s odd. I think the important thing there, was for him to act the way in the book I achieved, or meant to achieve, or maybe I achieved it later. You know Wordsworth’s famous dictum, that art and poetry is emotion reflected in tranquility. I think I had to be in my 60s before I could write this book; there’s a certain amount of tranquility, and I think the storm had passed. And that character couldn’t just represent, though some people feel that he does, that sort of angry, negative person. Some one else told me—it was Jhumpa Lahiri, my ex-student who’s now a very successful writer—she wrote me a note about this book saying that it’s the most forgiving book. It moved me that she could say that, because that’s not a word I thought of. But if she feels that I had written this character in a way that he could forgive himself and the people in the book , well that’s good.

Audience Member: I was thinking about your answers on the subject of how you grade. What do you do when you get something that’s so incredibly different, that you’re not sure that it’s any good or not? If you think it’s not, do you give it a bad grade and say something like "Oh, but I think you’re breaking new ground here, it’s a whole new realm, blah blah blah…"

Epstein: Are you really asking how one can give a grade, maybe not the best of grades, but remain encouraging at the same time? Is that kind of what’s behind your question?

Audience Member: Something like that.

Epstein: Well, you can give an F with a smile (laughter). It’s another good question. Teaching isn’t so easy. You have to sense who you’re talking to, what they can take, and how not to discourage them. I think maybe the best thing is to try and remember—and how can I forget—that I have been wrong many times, and I will continue to be wrong many times. I misjudge these young people, they have so much potential, how can I say "you’re not going to do it." So, they know that I’m talking to them and even grading them with certain grains of salt, a certain amount of caution and trepidation. If not, I hope they sense it. I have some that are angry at me, still. I know that. I know that there’s nothing I can do about that, but it’s more fun to be around (laughter).

Schwarzschild: I want to encourage everybody to take advantage of the books in the back, and come on up and have Ha Jin and Leslie Epstein sign their books. Thank you.

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Ha Jin
Gazette Article

Jonathan Lethem

Fortress of Solitude (2003)

"Mr. Lethem captures with perfect pitch the grunginess and fear of the boy's(Dylan's) life, the undertow of anxiety that constantly tugs at him; but he also captures the adrenaline rush of the city, its tumult of change and changing expectations, as gangs and gentrification vie for ascendancy on Dean Street and hip-hop, cocaine and punk music begin to permeate teenagers' lives." So writes Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times about Fortress of Solitude. Though she describes the novel as "dazzling, but fundamentally flawed" she applauds Lethem's virtuosity in created the worlds of Brooklyn, Berkeley, and Hollywood as well as his compassion and humor in describing the poignant humiliations and enthusiasms of childhood.

This latest novel by Jonathan Lethem takes readers to the Brooklyn he grew up in, which he describes as a "petri dish of sorts where it was left up to the children to live out the incomplete transformation of the civil rights movement" (Diane Cardwell, NY Times). The token white kid in a black neighborhood, where his hippie mother proudly sends him to local public schools, Dylan Ebdus get hassled a lot. Actually, he gets "yoked" – a process where some of the black kids in the neighborhood apologetically, but deliberately put him in a headlock, for his money. He is the outsider, and though the mark for neighborhood aggression, everyone is aware that Dylan's whiteness put him on the side of white privilege. His sometimes protector is Mingus Rude, another neighborhood boy a tad older and much hipper who aligns himself with Dylan. Both boys are named after musicians, have artistic (& ambivalent) fathers, and ultimately, their mothers are absent (A.O. Scott, NY Times). Dylan describes Mingus as "the rejected idol of my entire youth, my best friend, my lover" and together the boys, while boys, join together under Mingus's graffiti tag "Dose" and so share an identity. They also share the Aeroman ring, a ring that confers invisibility. Critics have differing views on the effectiveness of such supernaturalism in such a compassionate portrayal of childhood, but readers used to the kangaroos and babyheads of his first book, Gun, With Occasional Music, won't find the foray into invisibility so jarring.

Dylan ends up as a music writer; Mingus develops an addiction and spends time in and out of prison. "This is a story about fathers and sons, about best friends who grow apart, about the nervous subtext of race as it has played out in American society in the last three decades, … Mr. Lethem does a magical job of conjuring up Dylan's day-to-day life: the multiple worlds that children inhabit – at home, at school, on the street – each world segregated from the other, each defined by unalterable codes and freighted with desperately guarded secrets" (Kakutani NY Times). This biography, according to A.O. Scott "for all its hurt and fear, is also an unbeatable hipster resume" of what is authentic and cool. Dylan listens to DJs battle in the park long before the city's private school kids begin copying their fashion and behavior.

Motherless Brooklyn (1999)

"A detective story that transcends its pulp roots not by adopting high-art pretensions but by bringing to the genre an originality and an idiosyncratic sympathy that few other writers could muster," is how Gary Krist of Salon.com describes Motherless Brooklyn. To a traditional noir quest Jonathan Lethem adds a detective with Tourette's syndrome, but never "lets the metaphorical and linguistic possibilities of his narrator's (Lionel) illness overshadow his immensely appealing humanity."

This does not mean that Lethem is unaware of the metaphorical possibilities of Tourettes, on the contrary, he writes:

Conspiracies are a version of Tourette's Syndrome, the making and tracing of unexpected connections a kind of touchiness, an expression of the yearning to touch the world, to kiss it all over with theories, pull it close. Like Tourette's, all conspiracies are ultimately solipsistic, sufferer or conspirator or theorist overrating his centrality, and forever rehearsing a traumatic delight in narration, attachment and causality, in roads out from the Rome of self.

Initially more of a goon than a detective, Lionel becomes more than he was as he tries to find out who killed his boss, his erstwhile father Frank Minna, a low-lever fixer. In trying to solve the murder of this man who rescued him, and three others, from the orphanage, Lionel confronts his personal demons – his relationship to Frank (Minna wasn't your partner. He was your sponsor, Freakshow. He was Jerry Lewis and you were the thing in the wheelchair.), and his problems with romance (I'd never kissed a woman without having had a few drinks. And I'd never kissed a woman who hadn't had a few herself.) and his ability to find things out.

"The circuitous, often comic trail that Lionel follows leads him to a menacing, kumquat-consuming Polish giant; provokes one of his fellow Minna Men to start trailing him while he's tailing the murderer; and takes our hero from Brooklyn to the coast of Maine," writes Frederick Zackel of January Magazine.com. Zackel sees respect in Lethem's novel for the private eye genre, citing how Lethem quotes from Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and plays with the traditions and expectations of this genre. Describing Lionel Essrog as "one of the most unlikely private detectives in crime fiction, except in the most post-modern sense," Zackel goes on to note that Lionel compares himself to "a carnival barker, an auctioneer, a downtown performance artist, a speaker of tongues, a senator drunk on filibuster." Does this mean that Lionel, living with Tourette's Syndrome, with its raw release of stress in un-ignorable, disjointed verbal streams, is a post-modern 'everyman'? – I wonder. There is a sense that Lionel is like everyone existing within post-modern anxiety: fractured but not quite fluid in his/her sense of how his self is, in relation to the rest of the world. The unasked question is "how do I make sense of the world" and the answer is, in some ways, that you don't: Lionel needs to shift and re-assess assumptions and connections. That these old assumptions and relations worked for a long time is a part of the disjointedness of Lionel's life, as Gerard Minna points out to him what an anachronism he is, then gets the same accusation from Lionel in regards to his Buddhism. Old ways may get reinvented or revived, but he/we cannot take anything for granted. Understanding depends on knowing the characters and their situation -- which seems to be Lethem's point in the novel, and is why a detective story is such a good vehicle as an demonstration of post-modern life: there are always red herrings, unforeseen connections, and new characters surprising us. The question here for Lionel is, "How do I make sense of Frank Minna's murder," which is just a variation for him of "How do I make sense of my life?" In any case, Zackel calls Lionel Essrog "one of the most fascinating characters I have ever encountered in this genre." The Washington Post described this novel as "One of the greatest feats of first-person narration in recent American fiction." Motherless Brooklyn received the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.

Gun, With Occasional Music (1994)

So a guy walks into a bar, see, and there's an evolved kangaroo drinking there, paws crossed nonchalantly on the bar, legs crossed and taking up the whole aisle. Under his paws is the local paper: big photo spread; no words - they've been outlawed. The guy acts cool. Sits down, careful to sit on the far side of the kangaroo's powerful legs, and orders a whiskey. He turns to the kangaroo, offers an envelope of white powder and says, "Hey Joey." The 'roo and the guy share a few lines as a three-year-old walks in. "Look out," says the kangaroo to the guy, "this place is turning babyhead." The three-year-old climbs, literally, up onto a barstool and orders a beer. "You better believe it, pal," the babyhead says to the kangaroo. "If you don't like it, go back to the zoo." " You two can talk 'til you're frozen. I don't have the karma to spare," says the guy, getting up to leave. Just then, two inquisitors come in, collect everyone's karma cards. "We have some questions," the taller one says.

Where are you? in the world of Gun, With Occasional Music. It's a world where:

  • there are evolved animals, equal to humans;
  • childhood has been dispensed with through drugs, though only mentally, creating "babyheads;"
  • questions are banned, only licensed inquisitors, including private ones, can ask them;
  • drugs are free, encouraged, and available at the local makery;
  • the printed word is outlawed, newspapers are photo only, radio is a musical interpretation of events;
  • TV presents abstract images; people are encouraged to forget what they do for a living (the drugs help);
  • karma cards act as identity cards and a control measure, any public inquisitor can delete your karma;
  • running out of karma gets you frozen, instead of prison – if you've got someone to watch over you, you get thawed, if not, you could end as a mentally-frozen sex worker.

And, there's been a murder, one that the main character, Conrad Metcalf, a private down-on-his-luck inquisitor and junkie, is determined to solve, regardless of his low karma count and antagonism from everyone else involved. You can imaging the shadows from the window blinds falling across the detective's desk where he's snorting his own particular blend of drugs ("Skewed heavily towards Acceptol, with just a touch of Regrettol to provide that bittersweet edge, and enough Addictol to keep me craving it even in my darkest moments." but no "Forgettol") as film noir collides with a distopic vision.

What is so impressive about dystopic visions is how their connection to present reality, when well-wrought, creates the safe/unsafe chill of thinking "yes, we could be there in a few years." And Lethem pulls this off very well in Gun, With Occasional Music, for yes, there is such a push against questions and news reports that make those in power uncomfortable: questions and the printed word might just be banned soon. And on some days, is there much difference between abstract images and sound instead of TV sitcoms? What also adds to the chill is the "good intentions gone bad" of dispensing with childhood and evolving animals. "Babyheads" are kids whose mental abilities have been chemically accelerated. That their mental lives have been artificially grown means that there is no longer any childhood, so there are no little kids playing anywhere, no more playgrounds, no schools. That their emotional and physical lives have not been accelerated, means they are functioning freaks. The artificial evolution of animals to use our language and to function in the human world creates more unease as it does a Dr. Doolittle meets Mr. Hyde. "Wouldn't it be great to talk to the animals?" becomes "Gee, that kangaroo driving the blue car has a gun!" This condition reflects the traditional concept of western civilization that the human standard is the ideal. There's no sense of human beings existing as a part of the world, but of dominating and engulfing it. The domains of nature, of kangaroos or apes are gone. Human or animal, all beings in this bleak world are encouraged to forget, be calm and not ask questions.

Don't read this paragraph if you don't want to know the ending.

The non-resolution of the novel is a continuation of the escapist mentality of this distopia, a very apt way to end. The hero, Metcalf, is awaken after being frozen for six years to find that things have gotten worse. There are no more private inquisitors. All machines now play music – even guns (dramatic movie music, aka occasional music, as in the title). Special blends of drugs are impossible: the people who worked at the makeries have been replaced with machines that dispense a standard issue blend: time-released Forgettol – you're encouraged to write down your name and address before you take it. People carry their memories around with them, small databases, in case they need to check what they know, and of course, they do. And the hero's girlfriend is now the local chief inquisitor. So the hero, as a noble act, kills – not the bad guy of six years ago – but the current big bad and then uses the system to opt out. After the murder, he turns himself in to the inquisitors to be frozen, thinking that next time he wakes, things might be better. And if they aren't, he can get frozen again. He's the good guy, but this is how his world is, and he works it as he can. Publisher's Weekly named Gun, With Occasional Music one of the Best Books of 1994, and the San Francisco Examiner found it to be "Marvelous… Stylish, intelligent, darkly humorous, and highly readable entertainment."

The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye: Stories (1996),

In this short story collection of weird and delightful tales the reader is taken on investigations of the "what if?" phenomena. What if people could be brought back from the dead ("The Happy Man")? What if sex between one particular man and one particular woman could, truly, make the world disappear ("Five Fucks")? What if the sports skills of the greatest players were dispensed according to lottery ("Vanilla Dunk")? What if 'hardened criminals' literally became fixed and solid as bricks ("Hardened Criminals")?

"The Happy Man" is not happy, even though he has been brought back from the dead. For though this might seem like a reprieve and a second chance, those people who are brought back (because of the economic necessity of their families), do get sucked back to hell from time to time. Alas! The main character, Tom, has a personal hell of childhood, fraught with garden party breakfasts that aren't, witches who don't show up when they're supposed to, and a mad scientist who molests and rapes him. The horrifying assault, however, is what triggers his return back to his family. While Tom is in hell, his body is still functioning at home and at work. Only family members notice when he's gone, or gone zombie. And there's that mystery with Uncle Frank … When the worst of life is over, Tom finds out that there are always new hells. "The Happy Man" won third place in the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award and was a finalist for the Nebula Award, both in 1991.

In "Five Fucks" the sex between one particular man and one particular woman causes two weeks of her life to disappear. The next time they have sex, she's wiped out of all records. Each successive encounter changes the world in which they exist in fantastic, horrifying, elemental ways. In "Hardened Criminals" a young man goes to jail. He's not to be turned into the literal living wall of criminals, but he is living among them. In a mix of expected prison violence and all new kinds of atrocities, Nick Marra meets his father – a brick in the prison wall. It's not the usual kind of reunion that writers write about, but ultimately, Nick comes to, or creates, an understanding of the situation about his father and the prison.

Lethem's other books include Girl in Landscape (1998), where a family flees post-apocalyptic Brooklyn in order to help pioneer a distant planet. Set on a "wild frontier," the novel also pays homage to Western genre fiction, and particularly to Lethem's favorite Western film, The Searchers, directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne. Lethem also wrote This Shape We're In (novella, 2001), As She Climbed Across the Table (1997), and Amnesia Moon (1995). Lethem is the editor of The Vintage Book of Amnesia: An Anthology (2000), and co-wrote, with Carter Scholz, Kafka Americana (2001), a collection of spoofs and stories written in the Kafka vein.

Patricia Dyjak, Graduate Assistant, NY State Writers Institute

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Times Union Article
Jonathan Lethem

Anita Pratap (Introduction, 9/23/03)

Anita Pratap is not a cocktail party journalist.

A few years ago Time Magazine cultural writer Richard Zoglin, said about the state of contemporary journalism: "What has exploded is not news, but talk about news . . . commentary, not information . . . It’s cocktail party chat passing for journalism."

I cannot always tolerate journalists talking incessantly about journalism, but I can stand to listen to reporters talking about reporting. In Anita Pratap’s career and in her book, Island of Blood, we hear a courageous, intuitive, and vital reportorial voice telling us about issues and people and places and horrors that we can no longer pretend to mean, "something is happening, someplace else." The world no longer contains a someplace else . . . the world has become small, even claustrophobic.

But Anita Pratap has contributed greatly to helping us understand the cataclysmic changes in our world as she has reported on wars, ethnic conflict, natural disasters, the consequences of racial and historical prejudice, and religious and sexual discrimination, and mindless hatred and fear, from Indian dowry killings that send women to death by burning, to anti-Muslim Hindu riots in Delhi, to a cyclone in Bangladesh that took more than 25,000 lives. She became an astute expert on the Sri Lankan civil conflict that has killed more than 65,000 people. In her book she describes her encounter with the despotic guerrilla leader Pirabhakaran in which upon hearing disturbing news, he transforms himself from a seemingly placid, intense but poised leader into a seething, frightening avenger who Pratap compares to a coiled king cobra ready to strike.

She tells us about darting in and out of the streets and alleys and marketplaces of Kabul in the middle of the Taliban takeover in the 1996, she and her CNN crew constantly watching for soldiers who could harass or hurt and even kill them. She says, "For the first and only time in my life I did my stand-ups in a burqa and black scarf around my head . . . I had to . . . As I said my lines, I was not concentrating because my eyes were secretly scanning to check if any Taliban soldiers were in the vicinity." She recalls being interrupted by these kinds of soldiers just as she was trying to finish taping a story, and as she saw the soldiers approaching from behind her crew, she gushed out her last 22 words in about one second.

It was for her reporting on the Taliban occupation that she won the prestigious George Polk Award for Television Foreign Reporting for 1996.

During her career for leading Indian magazines and newspapers, including India Today and the Indian Express, and during her career as a correspondent for Time Magazine, Anita has also won such noteworthy honors as the Eminent Indian Award from the Indo-American Society, the Chameli Devi Jain Award given to the Outstanding Woman Media Person, the Woman Achiever Award by Giants International, and three Pinnacle Awards for her television reporting on Kashmir, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. She is now working as an independent writer and documentary filmmaker, and the American edition of her book has just been published by Penguin Books.

It is important too for us to respect the courage that a reporter like Anita Pratap must have to provide the rest of us with such important news. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that so far this year 22 journalists have been killed because of who they were and what they were doing, and 7 have disappeared in the last two years.

I would like to end by suggesting an answer to the often-asked question. "Are journalist human beings?"

Anita Pratap persuades us that most journalists actually are human beings. By this I mean to quote Anita herself in her epilogue, where she says, "I have to thank journalism for putting my life into perspective, for making me treasure the ordinariness of my personal life."

Each of her chapters begins with a pleasant, humorous long anecdote about a holiday or a trip or other episode she has shared with her family, and then at some point there is a transition that juxtaposes this ordinariness, this personal happiness, with the terrible, the saddening but the important details of the mayhem and madness she has witnessed . . . endured really . . . as a reporter. And this provides an invaluable lesson, this juxtaposition, reminding us that it’s naive to assume that reporters who can see almost anything and tell us about it are not also personally affected, sometimes for a long time . . . but ironically, they may become even better journalists for that experience. They realize they are called to do journalism because it needs to be done . . . done, and not talked about so much on the cable’s nightly shout shows. She tells a particularly poignant but frank story about how annoyed she was to be called out of a movie theater to cover a deadly bombing in a Delhi shopping area, and then how deeply humbling the experience proved to be as she watched a mother wailing over the body of a dead daughter, who a few minutes before had been shopping for a bridal dress. Anita says about her annoyance at being called out of the theater, "I had ranted in grief . . . Grief! What right did I have to use the word?" Please welcome journalist, and human being, Anita Pratap.

William Rainbolt
Director of the Journalism Program, UAlbany

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Anita Pratap

Anita Pratap

Sometimes I wonder is there is anything I haven't seen in my professional life: children with legs blown off, mangled bodies, severed heads, burning flesh, machetes dripping with human blood. I have seen countless dead bodies – carts full of them while covering riots in the remote Indian countryside, hospitals full of them after earthquake, villages full of them in the aftermath of cyclones.

Constant exposure to extraordinary events has its side-effects. Along the way, I accumulated sediments that became my personal baggage, developing an irrational but nonetheless deep-seated aversion to harmless things like white flowers and yellow eyes. Sometimes for no reason, I would be startled by a gleam or a smile.

Yet I survived, maintaining my sanity, perhaps even my innocence, by learning to celebrate the ordinary. 273-4

So goes the Epilogue of Anita Pratap's book of journalist reporting Island of Blood. It might have been better as a prologue, for it is clear in this collection of real-life, journalistic endeavors (I don't use the word "adventures" for that connotes a sense of fun which reporting in war-torn countries is not) that holding to the normalcy of courteous, ordinary human interactions might be the only way to survive the atrocities of terrorist battles and war. And Pratap does make it clear that she values the ordinary events of life – going on a picnic, spending time with her son. These are the things that keep her sane.

The special adherence to human courtesy is something that Pratap notes about those in battle-torn areas:

People in war zones help each other in ways people in normal areas don't. Even though slowing down and waiting for a few seconds to give a lift to a stranded civilian can sometimes bring danger, even death upon oneself, people do it – I have seen them do it in Kashmir, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. 150

It is as though to balance the horror done to other human beings by battle, that people cling to the small, personal acts of kindness.

A version of this is particularly evident in the interviews that Pratap does with V. Pirabhakaran, the leader of the terrorist Tigers organization (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam - LTTE) in Sri Lanka. When dealing with terrorists, perhaps extreme courtesy is a survival maneuver: it's the flip side of the kindness that makes people living through terrorism help each other, but both are matters of survival. Pirabhakaran is a demagogue; he is also a cult leader. Pratap describes the fanaticism of his followers in detail:

Over the years, Pirabhakaran has created a band of followers who at his bidding will lay down their most precious asset – their life– for him or his cause. It can only be an extraordinary human being who can wield such power. He commands the kind of unquestioning loyalty that makes his followers commit suicide, often brutally, with explosives strapped to their chest – just for him.

If there is something special about Pirabhakaran, there is something equally special about his guerrillas. They are reticent, disciplined and simple in their habits. They live austerely. Once recruited, cadres have to renounce their friends, their family, their home. The Tiger legion is their new family. They are not allowed to smoke, drink or have sex. Their prized possession is their weapon, usually an

AK 47. They are taught to worship it. They are told that as many as ten Tigers may have lost their lives to acquire it. …

The only time they showed some emotion was when they talked about Pirabhakaran, their Annai [elder brother]. A Black Tiger named Sunil said with something close to awe, 'For us, he is mother, father and God all rolled into one.' 98, 103

This description follows with some appalling suicide missions perpetrated by Pirabhakaran's elite group of guerrillas, the Black Tigers. The members of this special corps expect to be dead within two years of being picked to be Black Tigers. Their special treat is that they get to meet Pirabhakaran and have their photograph taken with him. Then they move on to their assignment, usually the assassination of a Sri Lankan elected official or the bombing of a military installation. The regular Tigers also exhibit a willingness to die for their leader. In one instance, the Tigers were attacking a Sri Lankan military installation, using armored tractors and bulldozers since they didn't have any tanks. One Tiger drove her bulldozer through the barricades and into the garrison. By the time the bulldozer stopped, both her arms had been blown off, her cheeks were ripped away. She was not more than 15. As she lay dying, the Sri Lankan soldiers gave her water, which she ferociously spat it out. This is the intensity with which the followers of Pirabhakaran act on his orders.

Pratap recounts so many politically and socially relevant atrocities that it is difficult to know what to focus on here. Her accounts of events in Afghanistan are harrowing. One orphanage of 850 children, who were cared for by a staff of 330 people, mostly women, before the Taliban came to power, were down to a staff of four women after the Taliban banned women from working (155-6). The women who did continue working had to sneak around so as to avoid detection. And though boys could continue to go to school, while girls were no longer allowed to do so, since 85% of teachers were women, the Taliban effectively closed the schools. And as Pratap reports, women who are too poor to buy a burqa and who have no man to provide for them, live in perpetual fear of being caught as they defy the Taliban both by working and by going to and from work and home – hiding in doorways and behind pillars – without the required covering (154).

Pratap provides some history about Afghanistan, noting its place as a hub of the ancient silk route, and noting the armies that have marched over it – those of Tammerlain, Genghis Kahn, Alexander, British and Russian soldiers. She also reminds readers that Afghanistan is at the confluence of four geographical and cultural areas: the Middle East, China, Central Asia, and the Indian subcontinent, which makes it a great "melting pot of Persian, Central Asian, Mongol, Arab, Indian, Turkish, and European influences" (157).

When she was in Afghanistan, Pratap was a television reporter. (Previously she had been a print journalist.) This posed some obvious problems: women were not supposed to work or be seen without burqas and no TV cameras were allowed. By surreptitiously videotaping, and constantly scanning the area for patrols, Pratap was able to report. For the first time in her life, she wore a burqa and a head scarf because, as she succinctly puts it, "I had to." While in Kabul, the TV crew she is with comes across some young soldiers and two tanks, firing at Ahmed Shah Masood, the military leader of the ousted Rabbani regime, who is positioned a few miles outside of Kabul. These soldiers were receptive to being filmed, despite the Taliban ban, which Pratap attributes to their youth and enthusiasm. However, when a senior Taliban commander arrives, he is furious. His fury increases as he notices a woman among the TV crew and throws stones at Pratap. He is too far away to do any harm, but it is a symbolic stoning of a woman for misbehaving (169).

Pratap visits and reports from other countries, over events: the Muslim/Hindu riots in India, the cyclone in Bangladesh where 3, 000 of the island's 15,000 residents form a fringe of floating corpses after the storm, and the burning of women for their dowry in India. It seems particularly astounding that such barbarous treatment of women continues unstopped, but Pratap reports that only one percent of dowry death cases result in conviction. And "dowry deaths have increased nearly fifteen-fold, from 400 a year in the mid-1980s to nearly 6,000 in the 1990s" (249).

Two years after marriage, twenty-year-old Sunita Vir was battling for life in a hospital bed with ninety-six percent burns. She was beyond medical help. Her dying declaration read like a horror story. Her father-in-law Subh Ram and brother-in-law Dalbir had held her down on a cot while Chand Vir, her husband, doused her with kerosene. One can imagine Sunita's terror explode into excruciating pain as mother-in-law Savitri lit the match.

Sunita was being punished for her father's failure to deliver an additional dowry of new appliances. …

In modern times, dowry offers a short cut to acquiring material wealth.

In jail, Sunita's murderous mother-in-law was unrepentant, wracked not by guilt but by one single worry – her locked-up house. 'I hope all my possessions will be safe," she fretted. 249, 251

What also contributes to the situation, Pratap states, is the "disgrace" of parents who have an unmarried daughter at home. Parents will go deep into debt to avoid the shame of an unwed daughter. This attitude of valuing a woman only according to whether or not a man wants to marry her, plus the treatment of wives as sources of extortable goods, and the apparently invisibility of women as human beings leads to the tragedy of 6,000 dowry deaths in the 1990s.

Burning is a usual way for these deaths to be orchestrated, and is part of what Pratap calls a "nationwide pattern of domestic violence" (251). Often victims of violence who do not die do not blame their families, for if they recover, these are the people to whom they have to go home to. Pratap notes that this violence is not confined to merely situations of dowry, but minor domestic complaints – overcooked or over-spiced food – can lead to violence. And this violence has no religious boundaries, occurring within Muslim, Hindu, and Christian families (251-2).

Most of the chapters of this collection begin with a reminiscence of a pleasant personal experience or piece of travel by Pratap in which some scene or object will remind her of an assignment. This is an effective way to demonstrate how much her reporting has affected her. These lead-in personal experiences present a strong contrast to the atrocities Pratap has witnessed. The only one that doesn't quite work is the over-long mother and son travelogue that begins the first Sri Lanka section, "Mothers and Sons." Because it is the first chapter of the book, it makes an unfortunate first impression in that Pratap aggressively presents herself as a "regular gal" primarily concerned with the welfare of her son. Though such concern is estimable, Pratap is not really a regular gal but a reporter who has seen many of the world's great human indignities. The over-use of the word "yucky" does not strike a commonality with the reader so much as it belittles Pratap's obvious courage and stamina in getting into dangerous places. Readers might want to start reading farther in to the book, then come back to this first section, so that they have a better sense of what the whole book is about.

Anita Pratap has worked for leading Indian and American newspapers and magazines including Sunday, Indian Express, India Today, and Time. Until 1999, she was the New Delhi Bureau Chief for CNN. Pratap has received numerous awards for her work including the American George Polk Award in 1997 for excellence in television reporting for coverage of the Taliban takeover of Kabul, the Eminent Indian Award conferred by the Indo-American society in 1997, and the Chameli Devi Jain Award given to an Outstanding Woman Media Person in 1998. She has also won all three nominations in the television news category for the Pinnacle Award for her stories on Kashmir, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan.

P.R. Dyjak
Graduate Assistant, NY State Writers Institute
Poet, graduate student in English, University at Albany

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Anita Pratap

Charles Simic (Introduction, 11/13/03)

It’s a great pleasure for me to be able to introduce Charles Simic tonight. I had the honor of teaching with him at the University of New Hampshire (almost 15 years ago now – it seems quite impossible), so it’s a pleasure to cross paths with him again. But as I thought about seeing him again tonight, I realized that we sort of crossed paths once before, in a strange way . . . because in 1954, when Charlie first left Yugoslavia to come to the United States, my family was just packing up to move to Belgrade. Now I don’t know what strange law of physics is operating here, to regulate the distribution of literary energy, or how we both got from Belgrade to New Hampshire, but I suspect that if anyone has access to this kind of secret law, it’s Charlie Simic.

I have a rather difficult task here, because Charles Simic has been amazingly productive since his first collection, What the Grass Says, was published in 1967. He is the author of more than 50 books, including some 25 books of poetry, and his work has mapped out an enormously varied imaginative terrain; to make matters worse, he has charted numerous intersections with other poets, not only American (though he has what the musicians call great chops in this area), but also French, Russian, and Yugoslav. He has also translated a number of volumes of work by a number of Yugoslav poets (Ivan Lalic, Vasko Popa, Stavko Janevski and others), and he is the author of more than half a dozen volumes of essays on contemporary poets and writers. I highly recommend The Orphan Factory, which contains memoirs as well as essays, and also a very recent book which has some 25 short and highly readable essays on a whole range of contemporary writers, including James Merrill, Mark Strand, Joseph Brodsky, John Ashbery, Saul Bellow, Czeslaw Milosz, James Tate and many others. The book is called The Metaphysician in the Dark (a good name for Simic himself, if you ask me).

Charles Simic won the Edgar Allen Poe Award from the American Academy of Poets in 1975, and a "National Institute of Arts and Letters" and "American Academy of Arts and Letters" Award in 1976. He has received the Harriet Monroe Poetry Award from the University of Chicago, and the international PEN translation award (twice!), as well as a Guggenheim, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, a Fulbright Fellowship, and an Ingram Merrill fellowship (you see what my problem is here). In 1984, he was the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation award, and he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for The World Doesn’t End.

Well, it’s a major body of work, and I can’t pretend to do it justice here. So let me simply give you a few fragments of his work, in his own words, to get you warmed up a little.

Shortly after 9/11, I was listening to the news on the radio one morning, and I heard a song, one of those bits of music that they intersperse between stories – to give you some relief from all that language, I suppose – and I suddenly found myself captivated by a melody I hadn’t heard for forty years, the fragment of an old Serbian folk-song that I had heard as a child in Belgrade, and that I didn’t even know I remembered. I knelt down on the floor in a sort of stunned bewilderment, dripping wet and wrapped in a towel, and I put my head right next to the speaker, in a kind of daze, wondering why I knew this melody, and where it came from, and finally I remembered . . . and then, just as suddenly, it was over, the news continued, and the day went on as if nothing had happened.

Simic’s poetry strikes me in the same way sometimes, as if it were reaching out into areas of obscurity or forgotten knowledge, or as if he were excavating those moments when the elements of everyday experience suddenly jump out of their places and ask us to follow where they lead. In his poem "The Spoon," for example:

An old spoon
Bent, gouged,
Polished to an evil

It has bitten
Into my life–
This kennel-bone
Sucked thin

Now, it is a living
Thing: ready
To scratch a name
On a prison wall–

Ready to be passed on
To the little one
Just barely
Beginning to walk.
(Dismantling the Silence)

Simic has an eye that is attentive to the visible world – in "Classic Ballroom Dances," for example:

The intricate steps of pickpockets
Working the crowd of the curious
At the scene of an accident; the slow shuffle
Of the evangelist with a sandwich-board;
The hesitation of the early morning customer
Peeking through the window-grille
Of a pawn-shop.

But the visible world is never simply that, because the eye sees things that aren’t always there, "things and their shadows," as he says somewhere. It’s "the great longing of the invisible to see itself," as he puts it in "The Table of Delectable Contents." Follow this path far enough, and you arrive at "Ariadne":

In the fine print of her face
Her eyes are two loopholes. No, start again.
Her eyes are two sadistic schoolboys
Pulling off the legs of a fly one by one.
To hell with her eyes!
I’d better tell you about her mouth.

Her mouth’s the famous cottage
Where the wolf swallowed grandma. . .
(Weather Forecast for Utopia and Vicinity)

One might think of Surrealism, and Simic is indeed a hospitable poet, but it would be a mistake to enlist him in any camp. For the extravagance of the imagination, moving as it does beyond the visible world, into the realm of metaphor, is only one piece of the puzzle. More often, in fact, the movement goes in the opposite direction, and words, instead of taking flight, are sent out in search of reality. . .

– in Summer Morning" (1971) for instance, where he writes:
I know all the dark places
Where the sun hasn’t reached yet,
Where the singing has just ceased
In the hidden aviaries of the crickets–
Anthills where it goes on raining–
Slumbering spiders dreaming of wedding dresses. . .

Here, it is almost as if he does not know where he is going, and he casts his words out in advance, like enigmatic spidery sentries, sent forth, even before we know where they will lead, to shine their lanterns into the dark. We invent, we imagine or dream, we cast words out, flinging them toward things in a way that approximates but never really reaches them, and Simic knows how much words invent, how much we live by them, but also how much they only approximate, and even sometimes lose the world.

Language invents us, but it also fails us, and Simic traces all the possible pathways of this labyrinth, holding on to the thread of reality in a way that is sometimes quite dark, often fierce, but never sentimental or grandiose.

His poem, "Eating Out The Angel of Death," for example, points us away from the game of verbal constructions, towards something beyond the reach of words:

Something goes through the world
Without speaking to anyone.
When it falls in water
It doesn’t make a splash, when it enters a tree
It doesn’t rustle.

The less you hear it, the fiercer its presence is. . .
(Dismantling the Silence, 45)

He manages to open our attention to these forgotten or inaudible places, but he does so without manufacturing any system, or enlisting in any metaphysical school. His poetry reaches down into those areas of obscurity in our experience – moving out (exploring) into places that are barely reachable – but never overreaching, or trying to set up shop there.

"We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us," Keats once wrote – "and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand into its breeches pocket." Keats saw what was precious in the momentary illumination, in what he called "a fine suddenness" ("it’s own silent Working coming continually on the spirit with a fine suddenness" [Nov 22 1817]). This is, for Keats, what ultimately damaged Wordsworth as a poet – that he could not relinquish his ambition to be a moralist. The same difficulty appears in Coleridge, according to Keats: "Coleridge would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude, caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge" (Dec 21-27, 1817).

Simic never makes this mistake. He has an enormous tolerance for not knowing, and this refusal of all grand doctrines is one reason why his work has such great independence, even as it remains open and hospitable to a thousand other voices, Russian and French and Yugoslav, as well as American.

Sometimes this attention to buried or silent recesses of experience connects us with questions of exile and homelessness, and with the weight of historical memory – in "Hearing Steps," for example, where he writes:

Someone is walking through the snow:
An ancient sound. Perhaps the Mongols are migrating again?
Perhaps, once more we’ll go hanging virgins
From bare trees, plundering churches. . .
Until the last word and the last sound
Of this language I am speaking is forgotten
(Hearing Steps)

Grass is everywhere, grass and animals and insects – and trees, with roots that burrow down into our dreams, and dredge up all kinds of crazy and sometimes unwelcome things for us to feed upon:

"The bones are already at the table," he writes in "Last Supper":

There’s also something trampled
Tongue or tail it’s hard to tell.
It snores under the table waiting for leftovers.

Historical memory is never far away in these poems, and the smallest detail or incident can bring the past crashing down on us, but it is never so heavy, in Simic’s hands, as to give rise to pontification. More often, it appears in ways that are both mysterious and comical, and often both at once. This is the genre that he himself uses to describe John Ashbery, namely that of tragi-comedy.

Recall the poem "To All Hog-Raisers, My Ancestors":
When I eat pork, it’s solemn business.
I am eating my ancestors.
I am eating the land they worked on.

Turnip-headed drunks, horse-thieves,
Lechers, brutes, filthy laborers,
I revive you within my blood.

Richard Howard wrote thirty years ago that Charles Simic was an "original" poet, original in the sense of being grounded in something very old and archaic. And for all his curious, modern, very American, post-surrealist experiments in the vernacular, there is something ancient in the way he understands the poet’s work.

History and memory and the obscure inheritance we receive from the past – all this is present here, but without the piety or grandiosity of some of his contemporaries. As he says in the poem "Hunger": "That’s all the explanation I find necessary."

Please join me in welcoming Charles Simic.

Charles Shepherdson is a Professor in the Department of English, UAlbany

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Charles Simic