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A Badjohn in Harlem: An Afternoon with Earl Lovelace

April 11, 2012 | by

Readings take place in bookstores, bars, even laundromats, yet an old-fashioned home salon is a rare and special thing nowadays. In Harlem, especially, the living-room salon evokes a storied past of the 1920s Renaissance soirées of writers like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. When you step into the grand, rambling Graham Court apartment of poet Quincy Troupe and his wife, writer Margaret Porter Troupe, you are immediately transported to a vibrant, sun-drenched world of creativity. One room has been turned into a gallery of contemporary artwork inspired largely by the African diaspora (together the Troupes edit the NYU journal Black Renaissance Noire); a large sitting room, where a makeshift table/bar has been set up, is crowded floor to ceiling with books; while the living room, with rearranged sofas and twenty or so folding chairs, has been transformed into an intimate space for the day’s honored guest and audience. And all around, there are sweeping views across the Harlem rooftops and off into the hazy distance.

On a recent Sunday, the great Trinidadian author Earl Lovelace was in town to be feted at the Troupe’s Harlem Arts Salon. The house was packed and festive, and the wine was flowing. I remember first discovering Lovelace in the late eighties—and I still have my worn copies of The Wine of Astonishment and A Brief Conversion and Other Stories to prove it. These books were wonders in themselves: sleek, colorful paperbacks published by the beloved imprints Aventura’s Vintage Library of World Literature and the Heinemann Caribbean Writers series. Yes, Lovelace—his name, too, had its own special ring—evoked a whole world, a vision of Trinidad and the Caribbean that was bursting with life, with its own rhythm of dreams and vexed sorrows, its calypsonian sages and steel-pan virtuosos, its gurus and Garveyites and badjohns, or street-corner rebels. Lovelace was a revelation (as was his compatriot Sam Selvon, whose short story “My Girl and the City” still sends thrills through me), and over the years, I suppose, I’ve missed him without even realizing it. Read More »

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John Berger on ‘Bento’s Sketchbook’

November 22, 2011 | by

Photograph by Jean Mohr.

The British author and artist John Berger (G., To the Wedding, Here Is Where We Meet, Ways of Seeing, Another Way of Telling) has for decades been writing books that are one of a kind: impassioned, big-hearted, politically engaged meditations on art and history, creativity and experience. Fluidly moving between fiction and essay, art criticism and memoir, Berger has emerged as a sort of Zen master of the written word. “Those who read or listen to our stories see everything as through a lens. This lens is the secret of narration, and it is ground anew in every story, ground between the temporal and the timeless,” he writes. “In our brief mortal lives, we are grinders of these lenses.” His new book, Bento’s Sketchbook, takes the life and work of the seventeeth-century philosopher Benedict “Bento” Spinoza—who earned his living, coincidentally, as a lens-grinder in Holland—as the inspiration for reflections on subjects ranging from ripe quetsch plums to Japanese Shoh paintbrushes and his Honda CBR 1100 motorcycle. I recently spoke to Berger by phone in France. Read More »

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Arundhati Roy on ‘Walking with the Comrades’

November 1, 2011 | by

Arundhati Roy. By Sanjay Kak.

Arundhati Roy’s 1997 Booker Prize–winning debut novel, The God of Small Things, helped transform her into an overnight literary celebrity and something of a poster author for the boom in Indian writing. (Billboards across the country trumpeted her Booker victory.) She followed up the novel, however, with a stinging essay condemning India and Pakistan’s nuclear showdown, entitled “The End of Imagination,” and set off, as she’s said, “on a political journey which I never expected to embark on.” She was soon taking up the pen on a range of issues—big dam projects that were displacing communities, India’s occupation of Kashmir, political corruption, and Hindu extremism. Suddenly, she was seen in a very different light at home: a voice of conscience, perhaps, but also a shrill and uncomfortable reminder of what lurked behind India’s democracy.

But perhaps nothing quite prepared her for the virulent response to her March 2010 cover story for the Indian newsweekly Outlook, an inside report from the jungle camps where Maoist insurgents (and tribal villagers) were locked in a deadly and drawn-out battle with government forces over mineral-rich land. “Here in the forests of Dantewada [in central India],” she writes, “a battle rages for the soul of India.” That article forms the centerpiece of her new collection, Walking with the Comrades, from Penguin Books; while Kashmir: The Case for Freedom, out now from Verso, also includes pieces by Roy as well as Tariq Ali, Pankaj Mishra, and others. She’ll be making two rare appearances in New York next month, at the CUNY Graduate Center on November 9 and the Asia Society on November 11. I recently spoke with her by phone in Delhi. Read More »

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Antonio Lobo Antunes on ‘The Land at the End of the World’

July 26, 2011 | by

Portuguese author Antonio Lobo Antunes is the author of more than twenty books, including the novels The Return of the Caravels, Knowledge of Hell, The Natural Order of Things, The Inquisitors’ Manual, and What Can I Do When Everything’s On Fire? His book of newspaper “crónicas”—a free-form amalgam of essay and fiction—was published in the U.S. in 2009 under the title The Fat Man and Infinity. Last month, his groundbreaking 1979 novel, South of Nowhere, was reissued in a new translation by Margaret Jull Costa as The Land at the End of the World, and this September Dalkey Archive will release another early novel, The Splendor of Portugal. Both books are dense, kaleidoscopic visions of a modern Portugal scarred by its Fascist past and its bloody colonial wars in Africa. Lobo Antunes has been called “the heir to Conrad and Faulkner” (by George Steiner) and “one of the living writers who will matter most” (by Harold Bloom). I spoke to Lobo Antunes, now sixty-nine, over a scratchy phone connection to his home in Lisbon.

Your author bio mentions that you were trained as a psychiatrist and served as a military doctor in Portugal’s war in Angola before becoming a writer. This experience seems to be at the heart of The Land at the End of the World, which takes the form of the soul-baring rant of a Portuguese war veteran honing in on a sexual conquest in a late 1970s Lisbon nightclub. How do you see this novel now, which has since been acclaimed as a literary masterpiece on the absurdities and wretchedness of war?

I started that book more than thirty years ago, as a very young man. In the first versions, there was no war at all. In many ways, it’s impossible to speak about the war directly. For me, it was a personal matter. When I arrived in Africa I looked up at the sky and said, “I don’t know these stars. Where am I? What am I doing here?” I just wanted to return alive. I remember we kept calendars and would cross off each day that we were still alive! Read More »

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Damon Galgut

October 11, 2010 | by

In the unusually high praise of Rian Malan, author of My Traitor’s Heart and great doomsayer of South African letters, the work of novelist Damon Galgut occupies something of a vaunted position: “If there is a posterity, The Good Doctor will be seen as one of the great literary triumphs of South Africa’s transition, a novel that is in every way the equal of J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.” So sayeth Malan—and I’m inclined to agree. The Good Doctor, Galgut’s 2003 Booker Prize–nominated novel, was a tense psychological examination of modern South Africa; The Impostor, his 2008 follow-up, cut perhaps even deeper. This month, Europa Editions publishes Galgut’s latest book, In a Strange Room, a series of linked travel stories told in the shifting perspectives of a South African wanderer named Damon. It has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize as well, which will be announced tomorrow. Galgut recently answered questions by e-mail before leaving his home in Cape Town for the festivities in London.

In a Strange Room is made up of three journeys, each first published in The Paris Review. How did you conceive of these pieces coming together to form a unified whole?

I wrote the first two pieces about ten years ago, but the book still felt incomplete, out of balance somehow. It was only with the addition of the third part, about three years ago, that everything finally cohered. And as is often the case with novels, at least in my case, the unity was felt rather than logically thought out. I’m often the last person to understand that what I sense has a rational basis to it. In this case, it has to do with the three relationships the book deals with. The first is about power. The second is about love. The third is about guardianship, taking care of somebody in need. And when you stop to consider it, these are the three primary forms of human relationships. If you have a connection with another person, not necessarily a positive connection, it’s going to take the form of one or more of these relationships. So that’s the thematic unity of the book, the invisible architecture behind the words. And it’s at no point spelled out, so readers have to sense it in much the same way I did. Read More »

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