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Posts Tagged ‘Georgia’

The Comic Voice: An Interview with Christina Nichol

August 7, 2014 | by

Christina-Nichol

Photo courtesy of the Overlook Press

Last month, Brooklyn’s powerHouse Books hosted Norman Rush, Marco Roth, and Christina Nichol to discuss Nichol’s debut novel, Waiting for the Electricity. Set in a post-Soviet Georgia, rife with power shortages, the book stars Slims Achmed Makashvili, a maritime lawyer navigating the perplexing, often hilarious vagaries of life in a corrupt republic. Slims yearns to visit America—he writes letters to Hillary Clinton and applies to a business program she sponsors—where he hopes to discover a land of stupefying efficiency. But when at last he arrives in the U.S., the vision of progress is not what he’d hoped.

Nichol has taught English in India, South Korea, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, and, of course, Georgia; her experiences abroad inform much of Waiting for the Electricity’s observant wit. With Rush and Roth, she discussed the direction of the comic novel, fiction’s bearing on foreign policy, and a State Department official with a ukulele.

ROTH

Christina, how did you end up in Georgia? How did you join the great English-teaching enterprise that is this new American century?

NICHOL

As a kid I went to the Soviet Union with my grandfather, who braved a hundred Americans and a hundred Russians on a boat down the Volga River. This was during the eighties, and I sort of fell in love with Russia—I continued to go back to witness the transformation of communism into capitalism, which I saw as an amazing and tragic story of the twentieth century. I’d been to Kyrgyzstan, too, and as an adult I was trying to get back. I applied through this foundation, and they said, Well, we have Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia available. I’d once seen some Georgian folk dancers, and they were really amazing, so I decided on Georgia, knowing nothing about it.

ROTH

And Norman, you spent some time in the Peace Corps.

RUSH

Not technically. [Elsa and I] were co-country directors in the Peace Corps in Botswana from ’78 to ’83. But the formative effect of being outside the country for a long period of time is certainly the same—having that be a catalyst to a kind of uncheckable literary impulse, looking at a different part of the great evolution that’s taken place. But Christina, you said something intriguing—that you thought the conversion or the evolution of communism to capitalism was a great tragedy. That’s certainly not the State Department opinion. Are you a Bolshevik?

NICHOL

I suppose I’m thinking of how it was done to hold up America as an example. In communist nations, they’d heard all these terrible things about how capitalism works—someone gets money and then doesn’t provide the service he’s been paid for—and they’d say, Well, that’s the free market economy for you! Then, under capitalism, they began to live the kind of ideology of the propaganda they’d been brought up with. It was actually an even worse form of capitalism than ours.

RUSH

Yours is a glorious comic narrative, and there’s something slightly odd in talking about it in the midst of terrible political tragedy, the murder and carnage taking place around the world—a kind of carnage in which, as humans and as Americans, we’re all to some degree implicated. But it isn’t strange, actually, when you think about it. Comic narrative, especially high comic, in textual form, is very important for two reasons. One, it relaxes us and returns us. It disengages us from the essential tragedy, the base tragedy, and the unnecessary tragedy that we encounter as human beings. And it teaches a kind of distance. It has a way of recharging, of remaking our willingness to be open, to have strength in the world, and to work within it. This novel is a remarkable entry into the world of comic fiction. If you look at the history of what’s considered funny in terms of narrative fiction, it’s been pretty much a male reserve. Examining, say, English Anglophone writers—novelists, not short-story writers or nonfiction writers—there’s Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm, but suddenly now there’s Lydia Davis, Rivka Galchen, and an explosion of the comic subject. Read More »

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Painting with Fire: A Visit with Betsy Eby

March 10, 2014 | by

77. 2009 Sanguine II

Sanguine II, 2009.

Encaustic means “to burn.” The ethereal quality of Betsy Eby’s encaustic paintings belies the labor-intensive process of their making—an ancient method involving heated wax, damar resin (the sap of a Southeast Asian pine), and pigment applied in translucent veils with brushes and knives. Using a blowtorch, she liquefies the wax and fuses the layers with fire.

Eby’s solo show, “Painting with Fire,” is now at the Morris Museum in Augusta, Georgia. Eby is also a classical pianist, and many of her works are titled for musical pieces; her delicate compositions often seem to possess fluttering rhythms reminiscent of piano music. Eby is steeped in the Romantic era’s exploration of the interplay of senses. In a new book, Betsy Eby, art historian David Houston contributes an essay about synesthesia in her work, exploring the connections between sound and image. He mentions Baudelaire’s idea of correspondence, “anchored in the belief that sensory experiences can correspond to common emotions.” One of the surprising benefits to viewing Eby’s work in person is the engagement of another sense—smell—in the presence of natural beeswax. Drawing from poets and philosophers, composers and visual artists, her paintings resonate as much with history as they do modernity.

I recently spoke with Eby from her studio in Columbus, Georgia, where she lives with her husband, the Realist painter Bo Bartlett, in his childhood home. (The Morris Museum is also hosting a concurrent show of Bartlett’s work, “Paintings from Home.”) Read More »

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It’s All Lustful to Me

February 19, 2014 | by

Georgia’s obscene novels.

censorship header

From a foreign edition of Erskine Caldwell’s God’s Little Acre

Sixty-one years ago today, on February 19, 1953, the State of Georgia approved the formation of the first-ever literature censorship board in the United States. It went by the misleading name of the Georgia Literature Commission, and its humble charge was to stamp out obscenity in all of the myriad and insidious forms it took in our nation’s periodicals and publications. The Washington Post has an excellent gloss on the commission, which persevered for some twenty years, despite having been mired in controversy from its inception. James P. Wesberry, the committee’s chairman—and not coincidentally a Baptist preacher—found himself ridiculed by the national press when, soon after the committee’s formation, he said, “I don’t discriminate between nude women, whether they are art or not. It’s all lustful to me.”

Thus, with God and a pure, unyielding ignorance on his side, Wesberry developed an eight-question checklist with which to gauge literature for obscenity:

1. What is the general and dominant theme?
2. What degree of sincerity of purpose is evident?
3. What is the literary or scientific worth?
4. What channels of distribution are employed?
5. What are contemporary attitudes of reasonable men toward such matters?
6. What types of readers may reasonably be expected to peruse the publication?
7. Is there evidence of pornographic intent?
8. What impression will be created in the mind of the reader, upon reading the work as a whole?

(One imagines that question seven did most of the heavy lifting—the committee probably skipped ahead to that one, much as a wayward youth would skip ahead to the prurient bits in a girlie mag.)

Erskine Caldwell’s God’s Little Acre was the first book to be suggested for censorship, in 1957; The Catcher in the Rye and The Naked and the Dead were also deemed obscene. For the most part, though, the commission went after dime-store sleaze like Alan Marshall’s Sin Whisper—when they banned that title, the battle went all the way to the Supreme Court, which overturned the decision. By 1971, the whole commission seemed kind of silly. When Jimmy Carter, he who had lusted after women in his heart, was governor, he slashed the commission’s funding, and by 1973 it was no more. Still, when you see the lurid covers of these novels, you’ll understand why they were believed to corrupt and deprave. Here are some of the books the committee found too debauched for the public consumption: Read More »

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This Side of Paradise

June 28, 2012 | by

Howard Finster was fixing a bicycle in his Summerville, Georgia, workshop one day when a smudge of paint on his index finger took the shape of a face, a face that spoke to him and told him, “Paint sacred art.” Finster, then in his sixties, had been many things in his life: a teenage tent-revival preacher, a pastor, a mill worker. He had never been an artist, but he had also never been a man to shirk the word of God.

That was in 1976. The Lord told him to make five thousand works, a quota he reached just before Christmas 1985. By the time he died in 2001, his catalogue had swelled to more than forty-six thousand pieces. He devised an intricate numbering system and timestamped many of his works upon completion; he often painted through the night, sleeping only intermittently. Sometimes he signed his paintings BY HOWARD FINSTER, OF GOD. MAN OF VISIONS.

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Those Are Marshmallow Clouds Being Friendly

December 22, 2011 | by

My first shift at the candy store was on the first day of October, my last just before New Year’s, but when I talk about it now, what I say is, “Last Christmas, when I worked at the candy store.”

In the world of candy stores, and this candy store in particular, Christmas is a perpetual condition that just happens to spike at the end of the year. A red-and-green decorating scheme carried throughout the shop—I could not escape it, even when I retreated, as I sometimes did, to the store’s one bathroom, also tinged with red and green, just to shut out the world for a minute or two. On the sales floor, the shelves were heavy with saltwater taffy and boxes of truffles and delightfully analog toys—balsa gliders, pick-up sticks, chunky wooden puzzles. The general effect was that of being buried inside the holiday stocking of a child who’d been very, very good that year—along with the child himself, and a hoard of his less well-mannered friends and their overstressed, oblivious parents.

I took the gig shortly after finding myself laid off from the job I’d had for the last four years as an editor at a music magazine. I felt adrift and thought tending to a candy store, such a bastion of simple pleasures, might anchor me more firmly to the world, and also I thought that money might be a thing I’d might want to have again. But in my vague desperation I had forgotten about humans’ terrific knack for rendering even the most ostensibly pleasant pursuits completely soul crushing, and how that tendency increases as the winter days darken.

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On the Shelf

September 28, 2011 | by

H.G. Wells

A cultural news roundup.

  • Jewish poet and novelist Emanuel Litvinoff has died at the age of ninety-six.
  • Here, he reads his poem “T. S. Eliot.”
  • A new Bloomsbury imprint will digitally revive out-of-print titles by Edith Sitwell, Cecil Day-Lewis, and Monica Dickens, among others.
  • Julian Assange’s memoir, due to  lackluster sales, may soon be out of print. It’s sold fewer than 700 copies.
  • Michael Moore tries to pull his memoir from “murderous Georgia” following the execution of Troy Davis.
  • Reviewers vs. Bloggers.
  • Stephen King gives fans a taste of The Shining sequel.
  • Le fin dAsterix.
  • The return of The BFG.
  • The sex life of H. G. Wells.
  • Between a rock and a hard place.
  • A visual history of book references in The Simpsons.
  • Bentley was, however, no ass.”
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