Russell Banks said once – probably more than once – "I really think of myself more and more as a storyteller . . . the guy in the cave who tells stories to get a place to sleep and a piece of the meat and gets to sit by the fire. And does what a story teller has always done, which is tell people where they came from and give them some idea of . . . where they're going."
Russell, the son of an abusive, alcoholic father, had what he called 'a turbulent, chaotic and angry youth,' which pushed him into a misadventurous young manhood. He fled his life and his family in rural New Hampshire, and took to the road like a character out of Jack Kerouac, whom he eventually came to know. He has returned again and again in his books to the setting of that life he left behind; and he lives part of his life today in a comparably remote setting in the Adirondacks. The people of his fiction are often the working and workless classes, who live in dilapidated houses and trailer parks, and are what one reviewer called "Irish Catholics, French Canadians and deracinated Yankees whose lives and relationships freeze and crack like ponds in winter."
Russell was once asked what he would be if he hadn't become a novelist and he replied: "I probably would have been killed in a bar fight at age twenty-four." And he added: "Writing in some way saved my life. It brought . . . a kind of order and discipline . . . that I don't see how I could have obtained otherwise." From his raw beginnings he has risen to a much-lauded place in American and world literature, taught writing for many years at Princeton, has published nine novels, five short story collections, four books of poetry, and has a career as a filmmaker that is bordering on the spectacular. Two fine films have already been made from his novels – The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction, and four more are on the way – Cloudsplitter, Continental Drift, Rule of the Bone, and The Book of Jamaica.
Russell's books travel the hemisphere, and in his novel soon to be published, he will take us to Africa – specifically to Liberia. He is a supreme realist whose work moves easily into the realm of the mythic; but however dark and violent his work becomes, it stands as spiritually intense fiction. And this is what the storyteller knows – however brilliant the writing may be, without the compelling story it will not invigorate our souls. Russell Banks knows this. He is a great storyteller, a great American writer.William Kennedy is a Pulitzer-Prize winning author and Executive Director of the NYS Writers Institute.
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Billy Collins - Remarks by Donald W. Faulkner, 3/4/04
Billy Collins, who served two consecutive terms as US Poet Laureate said on receiving the Walt Whitman award as State Poet, "Moving from the position of United States Poet Laureate to New York state poet laureate might seems like a demotion or drop in rank to the military minded. It might even appear that I am headed toward eventually being crowned laureate of my zipcode. …" He did of course say he was pleased and grateful.
Trying to be chauvinistic on behalf of our state I offer a riposte: "Since New York State is more important in the literary world than the United States, we expect that Mr. Collins will consider this a step up."
This is a good day for an inauguration. Lincoln was inaugurated for his first term on this date. Although he had to slink into the capital to avoid agitators. Nothing like that today.
Billy Collins is a poet who has reinvigorated American poetry with the clarity and simplicity (deceptive simplicity one always hastens to add – but isn’t simplicity always deceptive to those whose minds are cluttered with hobgoblins?). He reteaches us that simplicity is elegance. He becomes language’s spark. In his work, wit grows from wisdom and humor, and from a generous heart. Poetry is, I believe, the highest form of the language, and Billy Collins has applied his considerable knowledge to that highest form in a way that embraces and enriches us.
In this I would call him fearless. As a poet, he, like a sentence formed of words, as Collins wrote in one of his poems, "starts like a lone traveler heading into a blizzard at midnight," trying to make sense. Billy Collins transforms the too-often unrecognized and ordinary things at the edges of thought. He exalts the everyday, and he shows, joyfully, the sublimity of things at hand. I’m riffing off the great lines of Rilke’s 9th Elegy here: "Praise to the angel our world, not the untellable. In the cosmos where he so powerfully feels, you’re only a newcomer….so show him some simple thing that lives near our hands and in our eyes…." Billy Collins’s poetry looks on life’s dark glass and sees instead a door opening into light. Or perhaps I should just say, a door opening into the sunlit back yard, where a small dog barks in that "blazing, festive emptiness."
He also communes with his artistic forbears with the ease of a time-traveler. Petrarch, Emily Dickinson, the painter Goya. "In the morning when I found History/ snoring heavily on the couch,/ I took down his overcoat fro the rack/ and placed its weight over my shoulder blades," he wrote.
"Not since Robert Frost" is a line that gets used when speaking about Billy Collins’s popularity. He gets radio play. He is the author of seven books of poetry. When he changes publishers it makes the front page of the New York Times. I’m not sure if he’s done late night talk shows, but he might. He has Collinsheads, like Deadheads, who follow him from reading to reading. When he worked as laureate with the Library of Congress he instituted his poem-a-day program for students, and created an anthology of contemporary poetry he rightly called Poetry 180, the notion involving a 180-degree turn, away from the poetic obscure and toward clarity. As he once said, "when I encounter a poem title like ‘Vortex 47’ or something, I just feel this mild headache coming on." He loves haiku, the seventeen syllable enigmatic art form of Japan, and finds haiku everywhere. I remember him remarking, "Do you know the lyrics to the old standard, ‘Moonlight in Vermont’ are mostly haiku? And so it is in Blackburn and Suessdorf’s song – count them out: "Pennies in a stream/ Falling leaves, a sycamore/ Moonlight in Vermont."
When I think of Billy Collins, I think of this jazz-loving connoisseur of good wines and good cheese who seems frequently in his poems to be sitting in a warmly lit kitchen, but I also think of a would-be boddhisatva gliding across the glass lake of language on a thin and perfect reed, perfect in the spirit of William Carlos Williams’s "Danse Russe," happy like the happiness of Whitman: oh to be happy in one’s poetry, even when as Collins says, most poetry is about death and mortality.
Billy Collins, I salute you for the masterful achievement of giving us back the giddy pleasure of finding words put well.Donald W. Faulkner is Director of the NYS Writers Institute and Associate Professor of English, UAlbany.
Janice Galloway - Introduction by Randall Craig, 3/15/04
Unanswerable Questions from Janice Galloway:
"Is too little enough?"— "What will I do while I’m lasting?"
Janice Galloway challenges the adequacy of our terms to describe the author, since her work steadfastly refuses to remain, sometimes on the page itself, but always within comfortable categories of the literary or the artistic. She has written not only short fiction (Blood and Where You Find It ) and novels (The Trick is to Keep Breathing , Foreign Parts , and Clara ) but also a book of "pieces and poems" (called Boy book see ) and a play (Fall). She has not only written song lyrics and a libretto (Monster , composed by Sally Beamish) but also collaborated on several art installations (notably Pipelines  and Rosengarten  with Ann Bevan). Monster is a densely layered tale amplifying and revoicing Mary Shelley’s "waking dream" and the progeny to which it gave birth. Pipelines and Rosengarten are mixed media works, the latter on the theme of birthing and obstetrics.
Janice Galloway’s work has received a great number of prizes, but the work’s words are more eloquent than kudos’ titles. Rather than list them, therefore, I have chosen three passages that I hope will suggest, first, the power; second, the range, and, finally, the wisdom of her writing.
Galloway’s work typically yokes sophisticated and self-reflexive artistic methods to the mundane business of daily human existence (a difficult marriage evidenced both in the life of Clara Schumann and in Galloway’s representation of it). Thus, on the one hand, her fiction is formally innovative and challenging—fully crafted, intricately constructed, satisfyingly demanding—and, on the other hand, it is humanly rewarding and rich; eliciting sometimes a smile, sometimes a pang, of recognition. It is mostly and simply, often wrenchingly, beautiful.
One of the earliest images in Foreign Parts is a pictorial rendering of driving onto a car ferry, in which a defamiliarized and suddenly recognized moment of reality morphs into an image of commercial culture and then into an expression of psychic discomfort:
You watch the bonnet nose into a space that is too narrow, the window filling up with metal wall. Juggernaut. Rivets on an orange ground, a painted eye that rocks to a standstill when she pulls the brake. Your skin deals with practicalities, contracting as you open the door, helping you fit into the not enough space that is left between the car and this alien brute, this metal enormity muscling up the whole span of available vision. When you stand up, cramming the doormouth, the eye becomes part of something bigger. An orange. An unconvincing cartoon fruit smirking and sooking a straw which is stuck into another cartoon fruit which in turns smirks and sooks a straw which is stuck into another cartoon fruit which in turn decides enough is enough and it kind of gives up. The oranges get even less convincing than they were to start with and aren’t oranges at all any more. Just blobs. Pretending. The whole side of the lorry is covered with them. Above, a dancing slogan that might be Spanish: not that you speak any but there’s a wavy line over the n. The metal is radiating almost physical lines palpable as human musk. You find yourself sucking in the diaphragm, your breath shallow: the soft torso folding itself carefully to avoid second degree burns, making room for the door at your back to swing and close. The bloody thing is roasting.
Two women, Cassie and Rona, enter the belly of this beast (and, I should add, their parturition upon arrival in France is equally striking). The rest, and that is most, of the novel juxtaposes snapshots from Cassie’s past vacations, primarily to Greece with her former boyfriend, with various stops on this tour of France with Rona, her current and long-time traveling companion.
There are numerous excerpts from guidebooks that explain their itinerary, but Cassie at age forty is looking for more than cathedrals and chateaus and the "OLD STUFF" they house; more than she can learn either from the Flaubert and Zola that she is reading or from the innumerable portraits of women objectified by European masters that she and Rona have seen over the years. After many museum visits, "I look at her, she looks at me. Culture fatigue, she says, I vote we go back to the room and look at each other" (emphasis added). Cassie’s self-consciousness and existential questioning contrast sharply with her friend’s impassive contentedness. Nevertheless, by the end of their trip, Cassie considers the proposition that they "[l]ook after each other" (emphasis added). Looking at and looking after—the dialectic of art and of life in Galloway’s fiction.
The Trick is to Keep Breathing mirrors the fragmenting consciousness of a secondary school teacher, Joy Stone, who following an unsuccessful marriage and the death of her lover, struggles to organize the shards of her existence. The novel is a collage of what Woolf in Between the Acts called "orts, scraps and fragments." There are experimental uses of print, disruptions of time, lists—as if refractory reality might be controlled by them—letters, excerpts from women’s magazines and advice columns—as if wisdom were to be gleaned from them—painfully funny versions of interviews with health care professionals and others that reveal their essentially banausic nature. It is a world of things and smells—objects and actions stripped of coherence and particular purpose, different from, but no more meaningful than, the stuff in museums encountered by Cassie. This can of soup, for example, won’t be found in Warhol’s Factory:
There was a can of vegetable soup in the cupboard: individual size. I found the opener and dug it into the top, lifting it higher with each turn of the handle. Some of the stuff inside smeared on my knuckle. It felt slimy, unpleasant. Inside the can the surface was a kind of flattened jelly, dark red with bits of green and yellow poking through. Watery stuff like plasma started seeping up the sides of the viscous block. It didn’t look like food at all. I slid one finger into it to the depth of a nail. The top creased and some of the pink fluid slopped up and over the jagged lip of the can. It was sickening but pleasantly so. Like a little kid playing with mud. The next thing I knew, I’d pushed my hand right inside the can. The semi-solid mush seethed and slumped over the sides and onto the worktop as my nails tipped the bottom and the torn rim scored the skin.
Scored skin, a second degree burn, ordinary injuries whose hurt is so disproportionate to their seriousness and that are nothing to the desperation of Joy’s searing cry to her absent friend: "What will I do while I’m lasting Marianne? What will I do?" The trick, of course, is to keep breathing.
The strikingly visual qualities of Galloway’s fiction are anchored in the quotidian—the strains of everyday life, of loneliness and friendship, of marriage and work. I’ll close with an excerpt from an interview in which Galloway speaks of her first novel in terms that seem true in some ways of all (I begin at a point of intentional ambiguity):
You take what there is, no matter how small, and you build on that simply because you have to—the alternative is nothing. . . . Is too little enough? It has to be enough for folk every day. . . . A lot of people, I think, get by with that little. They’re not doing it consciously—that’s too sad to do it consciously—but we’re all doing it. We find a gardening tip, a new Marks and Sparks ready-meal and find excitement in it, tell our friends. 50P off. It’s a something. That’s part of the daily getting-by, and that to me is what makes human beings heroic. That great works of art get made is remarkable, but more remarkable than that is that there is so much bloody misery in the world, so much effort and demand and folk keep at it, trying to construct, make it better. They rear children, cultivate vegetables, try to treat each other with kindness. Whether to keep going for that or not—that’s what the book’s largely about.
Janice Galloway is here to share with us her most recent novel about a woman who kept going and her husband who did not. It’s a novel about bloody misery but also remarkable art. Please welcome Janice Galloway.Randall Craig is a Professor in the Department of English, UAlbany.
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Nelson George - Introduction by Mike Hill, 2/10/04
It's a great pleasure to introduce tonight's visiting writer. As a relative newcomer to the English department here at Albany, I have great enthusiasm and respect for the hard work the Writers Institute does in sustaining the intellectual and cultural life of the College of Arts and Sciences, and of the University at large. Tonight's guest, who the Washington Post Book Review calls "the most accomplished black music critic of his generation," is no exception to the Institute's high standards.
But it would be a mistake to limit Nelson George to the passionate focus on the world shaking phenomenon of rap that he offers in the book Hip Hop America; just as it would be wrong to link him solely to the deft indictment of American corporate compromise he provides in The Death of Rhythm and Blues. While he his well-known for his successes as a music critic, Nelson George is the preeminent interpreter of black pop culture in any number of its many manifestation--which is really to say: a critic of American--and increasingly--global pop culture. And while Nelson George is surely one of pop culture's preeminent critics, he is also its ambassador. He is at times its consumer, and at other times its producer. But with eyes equally on social justice and on commercial trends, there is always something in his work of mass media's troubled conscience, a "something" that still dares to speak of the promises of popular culture, even in the wake of its lost soul. Nelson George is a successful fiction writer, a best-selling biographer, a filmmaker, and a television producer. He served as co-producer of the Emmy-Winning HBO program, "The Chris Rock Show," for it's five season run, and serves as the executive producer of the new HBO film, "Brooklyn," which he reminds us in the autobiographical flourishes of his work is his life-long home. George is the author of fifteen non-fiction books, including the two I've already mentioned on hip-hop and R-and-B, which were both finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
His latest book, Post-Soul Nation--some of which I think you'll hear tonight--offers characteristically sharp insight on black-American culture in the little-examined aftermath of the 1960s era of social protest and reform. Here George anatomizes the "post soul" epoch of the late 70s and 80s, where the apparent gains of civil rights achieved media prominence as black celebrities--actors, sports heroes, politicians, and of course, musicians--enjoyed unprecedented visibility and influence, if not always on the terms they would choose. In the "post soul" epoch, if George is right, W E B Dubois's infamous "color line" dividing black-and-white for the first half (or so) of the twentieth century seemed--at least superficially--on the verge of a kinder readjustment at the twentieth century's end. That such an adjustment seemed to work in favor of racial justice and equality, while the march of neo-conservatism and hyper-commercialism saw once-vital black neighborhoods ravaged by drugs, poverty, and renewed rage, is the contradiction Nelson George dares to detail in Post-Soul Nation. It is revealing that his own career as a journalist for the Amsterdam News began in 1978, at about the same time George marks as the beginning of the "post-soul" epoch in what is very much a twentieth-century book. This convergence between the author's time and his subject's is revealing because, what you realize in reading Post-Soul Nation, is that, for all the book's reluctance to give way to the easy idealization of what's popular and what sells, its author never forgets--and never lets its readers forget--that, in the "post soul" epoch, we who have a critical interest in mass culture are part and parcel of the very thing we describe. We are its contradictions. And we live its paradox, as we risk the desire to separate its promises from its failures, as Nelson George has done, perhaps like no other writer, for more than twenty years.
In the epilogue of Post-Soul Nation, which meditates on America's unfinished future, George suggests that we "are no longer post-soul…[but] something else." And the definition of what we now are, he says in the books final sentence, is "[left] up to you" (emphasis mine). So, with the final word of Post-Soul Nation in mind, will "you" please join me in welcoming, Nelson George.
Mike Hill is Associate Professor of English and Associate Chair of the Department of English, UAlbany.
Ruth Ozeki, filmmaker and novelist, is the author of My Year of Meats (1998) and All Over Creation, (2003). The topics of these novels are, respectively, meat and potatoes. More specifically, the novels concern themselves with the hormones and pesticides that are added to meat and potatoes and the people whose lives are entangled in the agricultural, and health and nutrition issues surrounding these practical and ethical issues, that is, by extension, all of us. Ozeki has isolated, what one critic teasingly calls "one of the strangest literary niches:" (Claire Dederer NY Times) novels about food additives. In doing so she has created "a unique, hybrid form of American fiction" (Dave Weich, Powells.com) one that combines fictionalized lives and well-researched facts about food and the additives we ingest.
Ozeki's first novel, My Year of Meats, has been described as "a comical-satirical-epical-tragical-romantical-novel … delicious" by Jane Smiley (Chicago Tribune Book Review). A story about global meat and media production, the novel focuses on the lives of Jane and Akiko, two women living in New York and Tokyo, respectively, whose lives are connected by a TV show about American meat, called My American Wife!
The pitch for My American Wife! is written by Jane at the start of the novel, before she becomes aware of the intricacies of the meat industry. Her pitch to meat executives for the 30 minute shows directed at Japanese housewives goes:
Meat is the Message … It's the meat (not the Mrs.) who's the start of our show! She must be attractive, appetizing, and all-American. She is the Meat Made Manifest: ample, robust, yet never tough or hard to digest.
It's easy to see the connection between the selling of meat and the selling of the Mrs. And, if you wanted to list some of the important issues the novel touches on, it does consider sexism, racial stereotyping, artistic freedom, sexuality, and the meat industry and additives. But, as Ozeki says "It's a drag to be lectured to." …"It never occurred to me to write a novel about the meat industry. I started out writing a novel about a woman who makes television, specifically Japanese, TV documentaries about American life" ("A Conversation With Ruth Ozeki," end of My Year of Meats). Ozeki writes a novel about people's lives, specifically about Jane a Japanese-American documentary film maker and Akiko, a Japanese housewife. Their lives, like ours, include incidents and interactions with other people, media and other things from which social issues can be elicited.
My Year of Meats won the Special Jury Prize of the World Cookbook Awards in Versailles, France – an unusual prize for a novel – as well as the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize for its contributions to greater understanding and cooperation among the peoples and nations of the Pacific Rim in 1998.
A filmmaker as well as a novelist, Ozeki's autobiographical documentary, Halving the Bones (1995) was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. The film has been lauded as a marvelous exploration of Japanese-American identity. Halving the Bones was shown on Friday March 26 as part of the NY State Writers Classic Film Series and hopefully many of you were able to see it.
Ruth Ozeki's latest novel All Over Creation revolves around the growing of potatoes – the Russet Burbank, to be exact, the darling of the fast-food industry. Lloyd and Momoko used to grow one of the largest plots of them in Power County Idaho, but, now retired, they focus on open pollinated vegetables and flowers. Cassie and Will grow the Russet Burbank, having bought Lloyd's holdings, and they worry about the link between Cassie's breast cancer and the copious amount of pesticides the Burbank requires. They are willing to try genetically modified potatoes to see if they can reduce their pesticide use. The Seeds of Resistance are an eco-activist group doing demonstrations around the country against genetically modified foods and are concerned about the potato called NuLife which manufactures its own insecticide (271). They end up on Lloyd and Momoko's farm just as Yumi – or Yummy as the locals call her – returns home after 25 years to visit her estranged and ailing parents, 3 kids in tow. Yumi, the "bad seed" of the family, is mostly indifferent to potatoes, drowning as she is, in 25 years of guilt and anger and love towards her dying father, and confusion regarding her former school teacher-first lover, now a PR man for the NuLife potatoes, who shows up again in her life.
Ozeki's characters are multi-dimensional: they disappoint each other, please each other, make mistakes, are judgmental and are often very funny. Some, like most of the Seeds of Resistance, are driven by a sense of the present and imminent danger of GMOs and a desire to produce positive social change. Others, like Yumi, are adults belatedly figuring out what they believe and want, and finding that coming home raises all the long-buried family issues. The little kids are adorable, brutally honest, and disarming in their adaptability and capacity to love. The teenagers are often obnoxious. These characters, writes the Kirkus Review, are "most fully realized and heart-wrenching in their imperfect yearnings."
The novel's consideration of the 'rock and a hard place' situation of farmers in regards to pesticides and the issue of genetically modified organisms presents the complexity of the situation well. Ozeki visited the scientists who do gene splicing and transgenic potato breeding while researching the book, and could sympathize with their sense of excitement over creating new things (powells.com). And she could also sympathize with the idea of the ideal gone wrong:
Think about the canon of Western literature, [says Ozeki in an interview]. At the heart of the canon are themes like hubris. You can't get a better theme. Well, hubris is playing out in the science and technology fields now – that's the theatre for it. It's playing out in the potato fields; that's where this stuff is happening. And that's what I'm drawn towards, that conflict of ideas and beliefs. That's what you write about; it's the stuff of novels.
Ozeki's sympathetic understand of the multiple perspectives of people in regards to issues makes for human characters and fleshed-out and complex conflict. One critic has described the novel as "a tour de force – structurally sophisticated, conceptually sound, well-rooted in a concern for both people and the Earth" (Beth Kephart Baltimore Sun). Another critic notes that Ozeki has written a book "where dread and hope coexist. Neither is given short shrift or magicked away. Nature isn't dead yet, but just to be on the safe side, let's buy organic" (Dederer).
Please join me in welcoming Ruth Ozeki.
P.R. Dyjak, Graduate Assistant, NYS Writers Institute (April 1, 2004)
Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (Riverhead Books, 2003) is a debut collection of eight short stories that showcase Packer's great ability to create characters who are flawed and/or hurt human beings in unpleasant or even dangerous situations, who are making their way through the world. That some of these characters instigate their problematic situations doesn't make us like them any less. That most of the characters are African-American women means readers get to read about a variety of individuals who are negotiating the boundaries of their up-bringing and the stereotypes and expectations of our world.
Stuart Dybek says that "these deeply felt, had-to-be written stories thrum with a comic vitality that translates into a celebration of life and of humanity in a way that connects Packer with the great humanist tradition of American letters." The Seattle Times notes that "ZZ Packer's is an African-American voice attuned to the ironies of race, and desperately (as well as humorously) trying to sort out truth from rhetoric in the long shadows cast by the glories of the Civil Rights Movement. Packer has a fine eye for impossible characters and the paralysis they induce in those who have to deal with them. She also has a shrewd sense of how genuine social grievance can fuel and abet outlandish, irresponsible behavior."
The endings of ZZ Packer's short stories have been described as "bittersweet." I think this is a great compliment that indicates how much a reader identifies with her protagonists and how the stories do justice to the complexities – the funny intertwined with the sad – of life.
Tia, in "Speaking in Tongues," is a particularly engaging teenager of 14 whose problem is that she cannot speak in tongues, and therefore, the sincerity of her belief is in question by the matrons of her church. Tia is one of two "saved" teenage girls in her high school and is easily identified as such as she wears ankle-length skirts and long-sleeved flouncy blouses. After being locked in one of the church closets, Tia decides to flee her grandmother's care and the repressive church community to look for her mother in Atlanta. She bravely hops on a bus to Atlanta having no idea where her mother is. In Atlanta things do not go well, and Tia ends up sleeping in the backseat of a car, then gets chased by white men who assume she was trying to steal it. Tia is befriended by Dezi, a charming pimp of 32, who intrigues the innocent and sexually awakening Tia. When she believes that Dezi has raped her in her sleep, Tia cuts him. She runs into and is saved by Marie, an independent prostitute. Marie calms the scared girl, examines her to make sure she hasn't been raped, then bosses a few other prostitutes into donating money so as to send the "church girl" back home.
"Give her twenty," Marie said. She unpried Tia's hand from her skirt pocket and made her hold it out as if begging for alms.
Marie barely knows Tia but from their few conversations she knows of Tia's sheltered upbringing. Marie and the other prostitutes give Tia money and fight off Dezi when he comes for Tia. Marie's final words to Tia are "Run, honey. And don't let nobody lock you in no closet no more." The care and insistence on self-respect and self-assertion that Tia learns from Marie stand in stark contrast to the conformity that passes for care and respect that Tia gets from her grandmother and church community. But her grandmother's community is where Tia needs to make her way, and that is where Marie sends her.
A number of characters find strength from their church communities as they also find misogyny, lack of care, and lack of support for social activism. It is this clash of individual values against the values of her particular religious community that causes conflict for Doris in "Doris Is Coming" and for Clareese in "Every Tongue Shall Confess." Doris is a young woman who longs to join the sit-in's during the civil rights movement but is counseled not to do so by her pastor. Clareese is a devout member of the Greater Christ Emmanuel Pentecostal Church of the Fire Baptized. She has been noticing the lack of appropriate interest and respect from the church brothers: the lack of response by the deacon to her suggestion of a Micah discussion group, lack of care by the pastor toward her sick aunt, and the time the deacon put his hand in her underpants. But, she is not shaken in her faith. She tries to convert the patients her nursing brings her in contact with, but when one of these patients tries to convert Clareese to blues guitar, she must try to find some way to reconcile her understanding of what is good and what is good for her.
The title story "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere" concerns Dina, a young black woman who recently lost her mother, and who is a freshman at Yale. When she declines to do the "trust-fall" exercise, the group leader tells her: "As a person of color, you shouldn't have to fit into any white, patriarchal system. I [Dina] said, 'It's a bit too late for that.'" Some fitting-in is unavoidable, but any that can be avoided, Dina does, arming herself with stacks of ramen noodles so that she doesn't need to even see other people in the dining commons. She seems intent on not confronting anyone or any issue, and so goes home to a father she hates so that she doesn't have to confront the role she feels he played in her mother's death, she avoids Heidi – who she loves – so she can avoid her own sexuality.
"You're pretending," Dr. Raeburn said, not sage or professional, but a little shocked by the discovery, as if I'd been trying to hide a pack of his cigarettes behind my back. … "Who knows?" he asked with a glib, psychiatric smile I'd never seen before. "Maybe it's your survival mechanism. Black living in a white world."
Dina ends up pretending, but pretending a future. She moves in with an aunt, not her father, and imagines meeting up with Heidi again. This is the first time Dina daydreams. Nothing is certain, but the story ends with Dina imagining possibilities.
Many of the stories in the book first appeared in the New Yorker’s debut fiction issue and in "The Best American Stories 2000." The stories also helped Packer win a prestigious Whiting Writers’ Award and a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award.
ZZ Packer was born in Chicago and grew up in Atlanta and Louisville, Kentucky. She is a graduate of Yale, the writing seminar at Johns Hopkins, and the Iowa Writers Workshop. She has held Wallace Stegner and Truman Capote fellowships at Stanford University. She has also taught at both Iowa and Stanford. Packer’s given name is Zuwena, which means "good" in Swahili, but she chooses to go by the childhood nickname ZZ to avoid mispronunciations.
ZZ Packer is currently working on a first novel about the adventures of the Buffalo Soldiers, all-black military units stationed in the West after the Civil War.
Patricia Dyjak is a Graduate Assistant at the New York State Writers InstituteZZ Packer
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Richard Price - Introduction by William Kennedy, 1/27/04
Richard Price has become a curious victim of success through his own diverse talents. He’s a novelist, a screenwriter, a superb reporter who never worked in journalism. He began his various careers 30 years ago as a literary wunderkind, publishing his first novel at the age of 24 while he was in a graduate writing program at Columbia University. That book was The Wanderers, and it had a success well beyond most first novels. It told the story of a teenage gang from a North Bronx housing project, and it was called extraordinary, tough, and crude, but, said one critic, "his switchblade prose is not interested in shadows, but flesh and blood . . . His dialogue has the immediacy of overheard subway conversation. His wit is capable of perceiving the dopey pathos behind adolescent swagger and obscenity, as well as capturing the surrealistic exhilaration of mass violence." Hubert Selby Jr., whose powerful story collection, Last Exit to Brooklyn, was an early model for Richard’s approach to his own literature, wrote that The Wanderers was "an outstanding work of art . . . with insights that allow us – at times force us – to feel closer to other human beings whether we like and approve of them or not."
Richard’s second novel, Bloodbrothers, also in the Bronx, was about a summer in the life of an 18-year-old making crucial decisions about his future, and, said one reviewer, "it’s about people who haven’t often found their way into fiction since James T. Farrell first put their lives on record many years ago."
Ladies Man, his third novel, set in Manhattan this time, reported on a traumatic week in the life of a 30-year-old door-to-door salesman as his live-in girlfriend takes off and he’s left friendless. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt said of it in the New York Times that Price shows that "he knows the language, mores, herding instincts and hunting habits of the bottom-class urban young just about as well as Margaret Mead got to know those who come of age in Samoa."
Bloodbrothers in 1978 became Richard’s first link to the movies, with the film directed by Robert Mulligan. The following year, 1979, ‘The Wanderers’ also became a film, directed by Philip Kaufman, and it fared better with critics than did ‘Bloodbrothers.’ The young novelist then developed personal problems that occupied him for a few years, but through his link to the movies with those first two novels, he developed his second career -- as a screenwriter. He hit an early peak in 1986 with the script for The Color of Money, Martin Scorcese’s sequel to The Hustler. The film, which starred Paul Newman and Tom Cruise, was well received, and Richard’s screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award.
His screenwriting career continued in subsequent decades with popular successes such as Sea of Love, Night and the City, and several scripts adapted from work other than his own. He’s also written scripts for his own recent novels, Clockers and Freedomland, but he has distanced himself from Clockers.
"That was a Spike Lee production," he said, "the book was me, but the movie wasn't. He" -- Spike Lee – "has a very strong sense of what he wants to do and it's his right; that's his job. I would probably have done a lot of things differently, but I'm not a director."
Richard’s script on Freedomland – directed by Michael Winterbottom -- is due out this year. He’s also at work on an original script with the director Jonathan Demme; he’s working on scripts for the television series The Wire, and he’s supposed to write the screenplay for his last novel, Samaritan.
It’s a heady business being a dual success, and Richard tries to keep the two genres separated, with notable common sense, but peculiar consequences.
"While I'm writing (a novel)," he said, "I don't think, ‘Boy, this would make a good movie’ or ‘I hope I sell this as a movie.’ Sometimes people assume I write with that in mind because I sell a lot of screenplays, but writing novels is my freedom from screenplays. This is where I get to throw in everything. It's where I get to not think in marketing terms." But he finds himself not exactly free from anxiety in either form. He was quoted by Casey Seiler in the Times Union on Sunday as saying, "I always want to write a novel while I’m doing screenplays – until I’m actually writing a novel. Then I wish I was really doing screenplays, which make me so happy. Except when I’m doing a screenplay, I wish I was writing a novel, which makes me so happy. Except nothing actually makes me happy when it’s happening."
As to making films from his own books, he does it, but claims he doesn’t enjoy it. ". . . I have to take a 400-600 page book," he said, "and turn it into a 115-page singing telegram. That's not a lot of fun if you feel like you own every word of the book. Not only that, but once you're the screenwriter you go from being the biological parent to the babysitter, and you're being paid by the hour. It started out as your child but now you're just an employee on it. If you start going places with it that they don't want you to go, you can get fired off your own child."
He recalled that James M. Cain, who wrote Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, when asked what he thought about what Hollywood had done to his books, replied: "They didn't do anything to my books; they're right up on the shelf." And Richard says that that's the attitude he’s defensively developed for himself.
Some years ago he said he did not want to become known as "the voice of the Bronx," and he did move his last three novels to the fictional town of Dempsy, New Jersey. But he has dwelled again and again on the gritty life of that ‘bottom class’ of urban dwellers where he began – and he has made that life important. We never doubt the authenticity of his world, whatever he calls it. His dialogue is terrific, always credible. Some of our best novelists write terrible dialogue, and maybe Richard is right when he says that you can’t learn how to write it; that you either have the knack or you don’t. And he does.
As to his authenticity, more than a knack is necessary to achieve that. How does he make us believe that this is a real world and real people? "If I have a rough idea of what I want to do," he said, "I go and hang out in the place, and with the people similar to the people I want to write about. I take notes, but I don’t ever look at my notes . . . They call it research, but it’s not exactly like I go out with a clipboard and a pith helmet. It’s just basically hanging out and seeing what strikes me. Of course," he adds, "you’re always anxious not to do something stereotypical. Maybe that’s why I do all the hang time . . ."
In his novel Freedomland he spun off from the story of Susan Smith, who drowned her children and blamed a black man for doing it. Not Susan Smith but the racial hoax was what interested Richard, that and the mystery of such a woman, and the impact of the crime on the media."
"I was really interested in what type of woman could get into a jam like this," he said, "a woman (who) is not a sociopath, (who) is not evil. It’s just, life has done this and she moved left when she should have moved right . . . intimate things of a person’s life, and the gargantuan chain reaction that affects the world."
His achievement in this novel was summed up by another first-rate fictionist, Francine Prose: "Despite its hipness, its up-to-the-moment street jive and cops-and-robbers jargon," she wrote, "(Freedomland) aspires to the heft and weight of a 19th century Russian classic. It has that same capacity to shake up our unexamined assumptions about sin and forgiveness. In fact, Freedomland suggests some version of the novel that might have resulted if Anna Karenina had been hit by the train before the book began, and her wounded, restless ghost had returned from another world to haunt us, to make us look at ourselves and think a hundred times before we cast that first stone."
So now here he is, a Russianesque novelist out of the Bronx and Jersey, who probably wishes he were someplace else -- Richard Price.
Richard Selzer - The Doctor Stories
The grim realities of human disease, disfigurement, and death; the struggle of survivors to understand and live through the demise of people they care about; the humor that can co-exist with dignity; and acts of unasked for kindness – all of these situations are presented with understanding, respect, and a sensitivity to the delicacy of human interaction in The Doctor Stories (1998), a collection of short stories by Richard Selzer.
Four of the stories – "Sarcophagus," "Fetishes," "Whither Thou Goest," and "Imelda" – have been adapted by playwright Kathryn G. Maes, in collaboration with Richard Selzer, in the play The Doctor Stories (Picador 2003), along with the story "Atrium." A staged reading of The Doctor Stories will take place on February 3, Tuesday evening at 7:30 pm in the Recital Hall, the Performing Arts Center, Uptown Campus of the University at Albany.
"Imelda" is a heart-wrenching story about doctors traveling to Honduras for a few weeks to help the people there. The narrator is a third year medical student who provides translation and a record of an unexpected kindness. The Chief of Plastic Surgery – precise, not a reader, called arrogant by some, a ladies man, remote but forthright with patients – plans to operate on a young girl, Imelda, who has a dramatic harelip. Imelda and her mother wait all day for her examination, sitting in the heat and relentless sun. After repeated requests for her to remove the cloth, the brusque surgeon impatiently rips away the cloth Imelda holds to her face to hide her deformity. The contrast between the girl's shame and the surgeon's clinicalness imply a lack of feeling in the doctor that is belied by subsequent events. When Imelda dies unexpectedly while being put under anesthesia, before the surgery take place, the operating team moves on to other waiting patients. Later in the day, when the surgeon informs the mother of Imelda's death, she consoles herself with the idea that at least her daughter will go to God with her lip corrected. And when the family comes the next morning, the medical student discovers that the surgeon has gone and done the surgery on the dead girl, so that the family has that consolation.
"Fetishes" involves a loving couple wherein the wife, Audrey, has a deep, dark secret of which she is embarrassed: a long time ago, when her husband was away, she was coerced by a dentist to have all her teeth removed. Audrey immediately regretted doing so. It has become to her a kind of preservation of both her sense of self and the quality of her marriage, that she has kept from her husband the knowledge that she wears dentures. As she prepares to have a cyst removed from an ovary (and again is swayed by medical professionals to go to the extreme of a complete hysterectomy) she is placed in the position of not being allowed to wear her dentures. The prospect of her loss of control over this seemingly small matter, where she has already lost control over her medical decisions, plus the long history of her concealment of the dentures from her husband terrorize the woman. Her salvation comes in the kindness of the intern who tells her, and does, make sure she has her dentures in before her husband sees her. Underlying all this are issues of trust and honesty. Audrey does not believe in total honesty in a marriage, but her act of trusting the intern leads her to muse on his apparent acceptance of life.
When, in an operation, there is nothing a surgeon can do for a patient, and that patient is dying, who in the operating room decides it's time to stop the medical support? The impossibility of consensus, the inevitability of death, the distress of the family, the debate of whether it's best to die quickly or linger for a few days so that the family can become accustomed to the idea – this is the situation in "Sarcophagus." The operating team works to try and save a man's life, but the situation is hopeless. In hopeless situations, how long do you try? At what point is it unethical to keep trying?
Once a family donates a deceased family member's organs, where is that person? Hannah, in "Whither Thou Goest," donates her dead husband Sam's organs – a noble thing to do. Even the crass bedside manner of the doctor who made the request, and his appallingly insensitive letter after the "harvesting" of Sam's organs – insisting that Hannah must be comforted by knowing that Sam's lungs went to Fort Worth, his liver to Abilene, and his heart to a small town in Arkansas – do not faze Hannah who says "dead is dead."
However, three years later, she begins to wonder, "Where is Sam?" Hannah decides that only 50% of him is dead; the other 50% is living on in other people. Because of this, she feels that she is living in limbo. She dreams of an operation where Sam's heart is moved into the transplant recipient's body, and on waking, decides she must meet this recipient and listen to his chest, to Sam's heart.
This isn't easy. After some subterfuge with the hospital to find out where the heart went, Hannah tries a letter to the recipient, explaining that she wants to listen to his heart for an hour. This request is rebuffed, as is the next, and the next, and the next as Hannah keeps sending letters. Try a psychiatrist, the recipient's wife suggests.
Ultimately, the man who received Sam's heart relents and Hannah goes and listens. She hears Sam's heart, recognizes the beat, and remembers lying next to him after making love. After an hour, she is content to leave and to go on with her life.
Surgeon and writer Richard Selzer was born in Troy, New York, graduated from Union college in 1948 and received his M.D. from Albany Medical College in 1953. After completing a surgical internship and residency at Yale University in 1960, Dr. Selzer remained as Assistant Clinical Professor of Surgery until 1985 in addition to maintaining a private practice.
Selzer’s writing career began in the 1970s with the publication of Rituals of Surgery (1973), his first collection of short stories. His acclaimed books about the practice and meaning of medicine are required reading at virtually every medical school in the United States and include: Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery (1976), Confessions of a Knife (1979), Letters to a Young Doctor (1982), Taking the World in for Repairs (1986), Imagine a Woman (five novellas) (1990), A Mile and a Half of Ink (a diary) (1990), Raising the Dead: A Doctor’s Encounter with His Own Mortality (1993), and The Doctor Stories (1998). In 1992 Selzer published a memoir of his Troy boyhood and other formative experiences, Down from Troy: A Doctor Comes of Age.
His latest book is The Exact Location of the Soul: New and Selected Essays (2001). His latest book, The Whistler's Room: Stories and Essays, will be published by Shoemaker & Hoard in June 2004.
Patricia Dyjak is Doctoral Student in English and Graduate Assistant, NYS Writers InstituteRichard Selzer
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