Big Picture, Small Picture: Context for Dashiell Hammett’s THE MALTESE FALCON

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This blog series, Big Picture, Small Picture, provides a contextual collage for a chosen piece of literature. The information here is culled from newspapers, newsreels, periodicals, and other primary sources from the date of the text’s original publication.

“Nobody, friends”—Polyphemus bellowed back from his cave—
“Nobody’s killing me now by fraud and not by force.”
-Odyssey, Homer (translated by Robert Fagles)

Valentine’s day, Chicago, 1929. A group of Al Capone’s henchman, dressed as police officers, walk into rival mob boss Bugs Moran’s headquarters and gun down seven men, including the infamous Gusenberg brothers. When the real police arrive and question Frank Gusenberg, the bullet-riddled hitman’s whispered last words uphold the mafia’s code of silence: “Nobody shot me.”

One year later, on the west coast, residents of San Francisco open their windows and strut down the inclined avenues, enjoying the city’s second warmest February day in recorded history. To celebrate the lover’s holiday, they turn the radio on and dance to the latest hits, including Marion Harris’s sultry and crackling lament, “Nobody’s sweetheart.”

You’re nobody’s sweetheart now,
Cause nobody wants you somehow.
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The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Sudden Squall” by Judy Reeves

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Leaving one’s spouse takes a lot of courage, and in the culture of the 1950s, that was even more the case. In “Sudden Squall” (Connotation Press), Judy Reeves explores a mother making that difficult choice, employing a particular sentence structure to shape the thematic content and reveal her protagonist’s character.

Two versions of this structure appear in the first paragraph of the story, both in privileged locations: the beginning at the end.

Except that the hills rose and fell and nudged the horizon in a rolling cadence, the space that spread before them would have been called wide open…Instead, the Buick nosed up, then down, then up and down again, a lazy roller coaster that lulled Louise and Roseann into napping in the back seat. Anna was the only one of the girls who stayed alert and were it not for the little girl’s insistent chatter, Lilly herself might have lapsed into a daze, or worse, into some reverie of how things might have been.

Were the country different, the nature of the drive would be as well. Were Lilly’s daughter different, so might have been Lilly’s frame of mind. Reeves uses this comparative if/then structure to show not just how Lilly thinks, but that another imagined reality—of how things might have been—is pressing on her.

This is important, because this car ride with her daughters is itself a decision to shape a new reality and escape an old one. Reeves reveals that her intention is to leave her cheating husband Sam to go and live with the children’s Aunt and Uncle.

Further along, she employs that same sentence structure to imagine what life would be like were she not to leave.

If she stayed and let him make up to her, for weeks on end she would have to give permission for each touch. Each time his hand lingered on her wrist, his fingertips grazed her hair. Forgive and forgive and forgive.

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On Moving and Shaking

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Photo by Gabriel Saldana

Most weeks since last August, I’ve taught writing with some volunteers at Orleans Parish Prison. We usually head over around midday, parking just off Canal Street and the Goodwill on Broad. Sometimes we’re asked to leave as soon as we arrive, and sometimes logistics warrant spur of the moment rescheduling—but, mostly, they like having us around. They dig what we do. We try to respect that.

There really isn’t a demonstrative sample of the students we teach (although they are, by way of circumstance, almost exclusively women), but their interest in the poems we bring is voracious. They don’t accept the usual lip service—they devour the subtext whole. They look for the meaning in the usual canon. They look for the meaning behind the usual meanings. And it’s hard enough contesting poetry’s worth in a stuffy grad workshop—but doing the same for folks who just want to know can make you think.

We’re often asked what poetry does. What’s lost if it doesn’t do anything. And an even bigger quandary is how this usefulness/banality affects marginalized populations—whether poetry can actually be utilized for social justice; and why it is that this aim, in certain well-meaning circles, inevitably stigmatizes the poem’s reception in the long run.

Because talking about “political poetry,” in relation to “everything else,” one would think they’re on the opposite ends of two inscrutable libraries.

It’s stupefying to think that a modern country, whose national figureheads openly debate banning Muslims, can also claim Rumi as a bestselling poet; but I think it’s fair to say, for better or worse, that poetry moves Americans. Our potential president-elects pen their requisite autobiographies; we sway to an anthem before all of the games. We are a poetic nation. Or at least we like to think so. But that disconnect is further evidence that the social justice tip is crucial; or, as Eileen Myles has said, that “poetry always, always, always is a key piece of democracy… as things get worse, poetry gets better, because it becomes more necessary.”Continue Reading

The Required Pain and Suffering: Writing and Love

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What, if anything, does writing foreclose in life or between people?

Despite probably a million compelling counter examples, famous and anecdotal, to the Plath/Hughes model of artistic-romantic implosion, a master narrative about the impossibility of loving writers and loving while a writer simply…persists. It buttresses the imagined partition between needless fun and necessary sacrifice, as if what we do with our bodies is at once separate from and a threat to what we cultivate in our minds. Take, from my archive, three examples.

From its opening dissuasion—first, try to be something, anything, else—Lorrie Moore’s short story “How to Become a Writer” is a cheeky cautionary tale, a portrait of the aspiring artist as terminally antisocial. Though the story is episodic and elliptical, leaping months and years over the course of its “instructions,” it’s also structured by resurfacing motifs: repetitive similes for blankness, a fondness for explosions, and threaded among these, a quieter concern with the pained relation between writing and love.

We read that early failure is important “so that at fifteen you can write long haiku sequences about thwarted desire.” Later, the hypothetical writer steals her funny boyfriend’s jokes and uses her stories to malign his ex. Then an indeterminate era is condensed into the lines, “You now go out with men who, instead of whispering ‘I love you,’ shout: ‘Do it to me, baby.’ This is good for your writing.” To become a writer is to recuperate the letdown. Like earlier rejections at home and in school, questionable choices supply “the required pain and suffering.”Continue Reading

All Rise for the Story: Writing Lessons at Jury Duty

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We tell ourselves stories in order to live…We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience. — Joan Didion, The White Album

There seemed no crueler fate last November than to be drawn as a potential juror from a roomful of two hundred New Yorkers—all of us cold, sleepy but most of all impatient to return to our daily routines. All morning I waited to hear my name, certain with dread, panicking already about the hours the civic duty would surely engulf. With two jobs, my schedule was already rowdy.

Taking turns, we jurors testified to the details of our lives: occupation, birthplace, highest level of education, whether we’d been victims of violent crimes. Could we be impartial? Would we be fair? We were born in London, Scotland, the Philippines, living in Manhattan’s Harlem, Greenwich Village, Upper West Side. We were clinical technicians, line cooks, and energy traders who had escaped rape in Central Park, were mugged at knifepoint, had been in car accidents. We held a doctorate’s in Physics, two masters in Public Relations. Characters were taking shape. Next to me, a good-looking man in a navy suit blew loud, exasperated sighs. I edged away from his line of breath and lack of curiosity.

Sure enough I was summoned, screened, and appointed Juror #12 on a twelve-person jury. With what I thought was the unlucky lottery behind me, my four days of service turned out to be fabulous. The ritualistic tedium of the court fascinated me, the stenographer’s verbatim recordings, the sanctimony of due process. But at the root of it, I felt energized and encouraged by the weight and necessity of storytelling in the judicial process. The judge inquired with interest after a juror’s path from law to running a tree nursery, dismissed another who grew up hearing his nurse mother’s accounts of trauma in the ER. But it was the trial itself that served as a real lesson in storytelling.Continue Reading

Ornette Coleman and the Color of Fort Worth

ornette colemanOne night in the summer before I left for college, some friends and I piled into a car outside a coffee house in Fort Worth’s museum district. I don’t remember how we ended up on the other side of downtown, in an east Fort Worth neighborhood that I had never seen before. Fort Worth was then (and still is) a city big enough to get lost in, but small enough that you don’t really worry when it happens. We made a few turns, looking for a familiar street, and then passed an empty, stately building of yellow brick: I.M. Terrell High School.

I didn’t say anything to my friends, but I knew what I was seeing. That building, in the 1940s, housed a miracle of musical community. Inside those walls an amazing group of teenaged musicians—a half-dozen of whom would go on to make big contributions to mid-century jazz—had congregated, joked around, shared thoughts, learned lessons and traded notes. King Curtis, John Carter, Prince Lasha, Dewey Redman, Charles Moffett. And, of course, Ornette Coleman.

To that point, I had been reluctant to think of Fort Worth as my hometown. My family moved there when I was twelve—to this city with its cowboy slogans (“Where the West Begins”) where, twice a day, tourists watched city volunteers in cowboy costumes drive longhorn cattle down Exchange Avenue. That didn’t appeal to me as a teenager. Not because I was immune to the lure of the cowboy—what kid is?—but because it all seemed so inauthentic. Somehow, a whole chaotic, violent history (Hell’s Half-Acre! Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid!) had been turned into something civic, a selling point for the city. And though, as a middle-class white kid, I wasn’t exactly race-conscious, it was impossible not to notice the whiteness of the cowboy stories the city sold, and the way the city’s own mythology put it at odds with its diverse population.Continue Reading

Origin Story: Tony Tulathimutte’s PRIVATE CITIZENS

 

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Tony Tulathimutte’s debut novel, Private Citizens, charts the spectacular floundering of four recent college graduates. His eye is so sharp, his characters so recognizable, and his truth so pitiless that I sometimes had to close the book, as if he might read my soul through its pages. This is one of the most provocatively intelligent novels I’ve ever read.

I met Tony at a bar and asked him how the book came about.

David Busis: You said that before you started this book, you were writing pious, well-crafted stories. Did this book come out of a contrarian impulse, or did it come out of a willingness to take a risk that you weren’t willing to take before?

Tony Tulathimutte: Pure desperation. I hadn’t written almost anything for two years. I’d written a story collection that on some deep level I was too ashamed of to even try publishing, because of this issue of piety. The novel I’d been working on ended up dehydrating into a novella. Process-wise it was an important bridge between the older stuff and this, writing at greater length, but stylistically it was still like the old stuff. Once you’ve been writing a few years, it’s hard to let go of whatever little accolade or attention you’ve managed to get and start over with a new approach. But you have to, if you don’t want to stagnate.

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Reading POC is Grand but Why Aren’t We Reading Natives?

Leonardo DiCaprio called during his Golden Globes acceptance speech for viewers to deepen our appreciation and respect for First Nations tribes, and made-for-cable movies are showing Natives in a more positive, less violent light. But what about us writers and readers? Who among us is giving a shout out to indigenous writers? As for all those readers touting their year of reading People Of Color, how about we avoid skipping over Natives?

This blog series will feature just these authors throughout 2016. It will go into and beyond Sherman Alexie and Louise Erdrich because contemporary nativist titles come from Canada all the rugged way down to South America, and across oceans to Australia and New Zealand. They also extend to Taiwan, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, because according to some reports 370 million people across 70 countries can claim indigenous heritage.

It’s a bit surprising—given the trend to read exclusively women or non-white authors—more attention isn’t given to indigenous populations. Even my research or queries into the agencies active in promoting world lit are met with radio silence. Therefore it’s the goal of this blog to promote awareness of, interest in, and perhaps a surge among native lit in the mainstream. Through it, like other art forms and cultural resources, we glean an understanding of Natives’ ways of life and our role in their marginalization, and we forge a connection through our shared human condition.Continue Reading

Grace Paley’s “Wants”: Activism and Civic Involvement for Writers

 

Photo by Erich Ferdinand

Photo by Erich Ferdinand

After years of dodging PTO meetings and volunteer opportunities, I became involved in a school overcrowding issue in my town because I didn’t want my children’s class sizes to become enormous. The problem seemed simple at first, but soon enough I was attending school committee meetings, spending hours writing emails, and holding forth at a four-year-old’s birthday party about educational inequity.

As I sank deeper into the quicksand of civic involvement, wondering if this were one of the times I’d said yes when I should have said no, I remembered a passage from my favorite short story. I pulled the book off the shelf, as I’ve done so many times before. “Wants,” the classic Grace Paley story, is three pages long, and it contains the entirety of the narrator’s life.

The narrator runs into her ex-husband at the library. She returns two books she’s had for eighteen years, pays the fine, and checks out the books again. Her ex-husband rehashes their marriage, brags about the sailboat he’s got money down on, and says, “But as for you, it’s too late. You’ll always want nothing.” Left to consider this “narrow remark,” the narrator sits on the library steps and lists the things she wants.

I want, for instance, to be a different person. I want to be the woman who brings these two books back in two weeks. I want to be the effective citizen who changes the school system and addresses the Board of Estimate on the troubles of this dear urban center.

I had promised my children to end the war before they grew up.

I wanted to have been married forever to one person—my ex-husband or my present one.

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Octavia Butler’s Notebook Represents All The Anxieties Of Writers Of Color

 

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On its blog last week, the Huntington Library released previously unseen photographs of some of the late Octavia Butler’s papers, which the library catalogued after Butler’s untimely death nearly ten years ago. Included in the collection are some of Butler’s early science fiction stories, contracts, drafts, and notebooks, one of which caught the attention of nearly everyone on my Twitter feed last week.

On the back of one of her notebooks, Butler writes:

I shall be a bestselling writer. After Imago, each of my books will be on the bestseller list of the LAT, NYT, PW, WP, etc. My novel will go onto the above lists whether publishers push them or not, whether I’m paid a high advance or not, whether I win another award or not. This is my life. I write bestselling novels.

While everyone celebrated the spirit of these words I’m embarrassed to say that I, on some gut level, cringed when I read them. I couldn’t articulate why. I love Octavia Butler—I love the Patternist Series, I love the Xenogenesis trilogy, I love the Parable series. I love Octavia Butler! So, what was my deal?Continue Reading