Etymology as Pedagogy: How Words Teach Me to Live

mapWhen I learned, not long ago, that the word “daisy” comes from the Old English word “day’s eye,” referring to how the petals open at dawn and close at night, I was delighted. Here was proof that the English language can be governed by a beautiful logic. It was a happy reminder, too, that what I thought belonged to me did not. The words I use have been elsewhere, passing from mouth to mouth, me just a mouth in between.

A little later I learned that the word “squirrel” comes from Greek words meaning “shadow-tailed.” More delight. This was evoking in me, I realized, the same adolescent wonderment of discovering that my parents were not parents all their lives, that they were proud participants of the sexual revolution and also shoplifted more than once. What I thought belonged to me did not. It became clear that words are very much like people.Continue Reading

Proxy Narratives: Jennifer Clement’s “Widow Basquiat”

raamellzee-bep-bop I’m always looking for a stellar book come November. National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for the uninitiated) is about as appealing of an idea as having a month-long dental procedure and about as equally fun to be around. So, I mostly hide away. I do the opposite of what you’re supposed to do in November—I take a writing break and read all month instead. Last year I read all of Larry Heinemann’s books. The year before that I dug into Rolando Hinojosa. This year, I’m reading and re-reading Jennifer Clement’s Widow Basquiat which is easily my favorite book of 2014, though it’s been around in the UK for years. It comes out in the United States this month. Continue Reading

The Book That Changed My Country

Gran_calavera_eléctrica2I mostly sit at the window when I’m working at Café la Habana. I have a spot. It’s the same spot where I sat when my buddy, Santiago, first brought me for coffee when I arrived in Mexico City. But I’m attached to the spot for other reasons too. It’s also the spot where Roberto Bolaño used to write, and the same spot where Fidel Castro and Che were said to have planned their invasion of Cuba. Mostly I’m nosy though—I love to people watch—and that’s why I sit by the window. A few weeks ago, a waiter came up to me and placidly said, “Caballero, I suggest you move away from the glass.”Continue Reading

Say Anything: A Case for Dialogue

Recently I was reading the prose section of an online literary magazine’s fall issue when I could not overcome a nagging sense that something was lacking. The stories themselves were well-written; the style was cohesive with the magazine’s tone; the narratives were engaging. Yet it somehow felt incomplete. As I scrolled through the stories again, it finally hit me–dialogue. None of the stories contained a stitch of dialogue. Certainly there were references to it and summaries of conversations. Actual dialogue, however, was nowhere to be seen.Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round-Down: Never Tell Me the Demographics

I’ll read anything if it’s great. A romance novel, or a soldier’s tale; a book about Zsa Zsa Gabor, or one about Obama. I know what kinds of books dorky, urban-literary type of guys are supposed to be reading–those by Jonathan Safran Foer, and things titled Introduction to Banjo–but I hate most of that stuff; I don’t usually follow stereotypes. I’m continually surprised by how many people think in that sort of shorthand, though. 3tb4fep

The other day, for example, someone said to me that most of the people who read Nate Silver’s book, The Signal and the Noise, were men. (Nate is one of my agency’s clients.)  It was a woman saying this, and she had read the book. Despite that,  she was dividing the world into “big ideas” to read by men, and “great stories” that would be read by women. Not only is this sexist, it’s pure speculation. No one has any idea who bought and read Silver’s book. We can see from looking at Amazon that people who bought his book also bought other big idea books, but we don’t know anything about his readers beyond what else they might have read.

Despite this, I still hear smart people say, when reading proposals, “That’s a young person’s topic and young people don’t buy books.” Now, we can find out if a topic tends to sell books or not, but we don’t know if its readers are old or young. Still, however, this is a widely held assumption: younger people don’t buy books. That’s why the most interesting thing I’ve read this week is a report from Pew Research on the reading habits of young people. The results go against that common wisdom. Millennials are reading more books than other age groups, lagging behind older generations on ebook adoption, and looking for information they know you can’t find for free on the internet. The lesson here is, never judge a book by its cover, but also never judge a book by the kind of person you think might be reading it. Because you have no idea. Continue Reading

The Power of An Author Who Can Share Her Insides

Prozac Nation Book CoverAt least sixteen years ago, maybe more, I read Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation and saw myself.

These days, it’s de rigueur to dismiss Wurtzel as a chaotic, self-involved mess. But back then, after receiving a diagnosis of chronic depression with bipolar tendencies, I ate up Wurtzel’s navel-gazing, book-length confessional. I read about her struggles with depression and, in a time when going to therapy was still a bit taboo to talk about, I began to feel a little bit less alone.Continue Reading

Is Chicana/o Literature Dead? (A: No, not really): A Teacher’s Ramblings

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It used to be that I didn’t know what Chicana/o literature was. Sometimes I still think I don’t, which is embarrassing because I teach classes on Chicana/o lit. The dictionary definition is easy—it’s been studied, chronicled, crystalized–and I can easily think of my heroes: Helena Maria Viramontes, Dagoberto Gilb, Corky Gonzales, Sandra Cisneros, La Gloria tambien. But what the genre is today is a different matter all together, giving me nightmares about how to teach a Chicana/o literature course at all. One question about the subject in specific used to unravel me:

In my dreams, I’m teaching in this ill-fitting Tommy Hilfiger suit (used car salesman grey), just killing it with my lesson plan, when some kid raises her hand and asks, “So, what is contemporary Chicano literature?” Of course there are writers I could cite, dates I could mention, etc. But what is it?Continue Reading

What Is It About the Literature of War?

511S2LUdJoLUp until that short story workshop I took my junior year of college, my TBR pile was made up of a bizarre mix of Stephen King, Barbara Kingsolver, and Bill Bryson. Then my professor passed around photocopied packets containing stories by Lorrie Moore, Grace Paley, and Tim O’Brien, and I realized there was more to life than homicidal clowns and humor writing.

The Things They Carried,” a staple in college classrooms across the country, started me in on a love affair with O’Brien’s work. It wasn’t necessarily the subject matter that appealed to me. I had never before been interested in historical fiction in any form. Rather, it was the beauty and artistry with which he strung his words together. That coupled with his quiet, quirky sense of humor.

Heck, I enjoyed July, July (a novel set at a high school reunion, having absolutely nothing to do with war) almost as much as I enjoyed Going After Cacciato.

But then his books became a gateway to other war literature. Catch-22. All Quiet on the Western Front. The Thin Red Line.

I ate them all up.

But what was it about these books?Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round Down: 10 Times in Life When Writers Have the Upper Hand

I’ve interviewed a lot of entry level job candidates. I’ve had plenty of recent college graduates sent to a conference room to meet me with a strong thumbs-up from Human Resources. Bright, well-dressed, great resumes, and eager. This impresses the HR types. However, when I’d ask questions, especially follow-up and off-script questions, I would get one word answers. “How did you like working in the Philosophy Department as a student aide?” Big smile. “Great,” they’d say. “Fun.”

c78cog1I’d wrap up that interview quickly, because I’d realize that I had already decided who I wanted. My next editorial assistant would be the dowdy, shy book nerd I’d met earlier that morning that HR hated, but who answered my question about what she’s currently reading with a long story about how she decides what to read and when. All the answers to all my questions entertained, revealed, and informed.

With the right kinds of stories, you can sell anything, including yourself.

That’s why the most interesting thing I’ve read in the past two weeks was this short piece by Neil Gaiman about The Moth. He describes the high-wire act of telling a story out loud in front of an audience and what works and what doesn’t. As I read it, I realized that this skill–public storytelling–is one that give writers the upper hand in a lot of situations where everyone else is struggling. Being a writer is never awesome at tax time, but there are plenty of other times when it’s the perfect thing to be.

Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round-down: The Problem with Literary Doomsday Laments

the end of literatureWe who love literature face an urgent crisis: a gruesome epidemic of articles worrying over the demise of literature, reading, English Departments, and apparently (along with them) culture, art, morality, humanity, and ALL KNOWLEDGE AND CIVILIZATION. We’re in dire need of an antidote for this doom-prophesying fever, these impassioned warnings aboutphilistinism.” (A word that, btw, needs to please hit a wall and slide down.)

Like other doomsday prophecies, tales of literary demise are long on fear and short on fact. And although based on verifiable observations (decreasing readerships and book sales, closing bookstores, squeezed English departments), they’re so focused on Certain Doom that they can’t acknowledge the many places in which literature is thriving and/or receiving a new infusion of public interest.

The last few weeks have offered up their own versions of doomspeak (and questionable solutions), including David Mascriota’s writeup for The Daily Beast – in which he argues that English departments must be salvaged because they’re the only places anyone reads anymore. (And apparently there are zero alternatives.) So basically, we have to make people read books in college English courses or we’re doomed to devolve into an uncivilized, unread mass of (un)humans.

phenomenal cosmic power

Unfortunately, this mammoth dearth of imagination is par for the Doomspeak course. Preachers of Lit Demise often assume that, because literature is disappearing from the places and situations they’ve learned to look for it, it’s disappearing entirely.
More egregiously, they often first exalt literature to a place of Powerful Human Significance, then claim it can survive only via a few fora: bookstores, classrooms, book clubs. It’s all weirdly small-minded . . . and vastly uncreative.

And it’s making me crazy. So Lovers of All Things Lit: It’s time we face up to our own raging blind spots, and to the ways in which we’re contributing to the very crises we fear. Literature will live, but/and we’ll have to come to terms with the wildly diverse reasons people are seeking it out. And we’ll have to let people love it for whatever qualities they see in its big fat fabulous literary face.Continue Reading