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Posts Tagged ‘Toni MOrrison’

Songs of Myself

June 28, 2016 | by

Hosting a national blurb contest.

LoGcover

Walt Whitman, the “American bard,” who was named after a shopping mall in Huntington, New York, where I grew up, is often credited with having invented the book blurb. On the spine of his debut, Leaves of Grass, he had printed in gold leaf a line teased from a letter he’d gotten from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” Emerson was right: Whitman continues to rank among America’s finest careerists.

Gertrude Stein, unable to break through to the literary mainstream, wrote herself a novel-length blurb entitled The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Writing as Alice, her live-in companion, she described at length Gertrude’s prodigious, if misunderstood, genius. This 252-page press kit was an immediate best seller, prompting Stein to embark on a national tour, which she described in Everybody’s Autobiography, a sequel explaining why you should hire her for speaking engagements.

Ernest Hemingway’s first short-story collection, In Our Time, was published with no fewer than six blurbs—on the cover. I can’t remember if he won the Nobel before or after he finished taping the beer commercials. With Toni Morrison, it was definitely before: Pulitzer, Nobel, Chipotle wrapper, in that order.

Will my novels secure my literary legacy the way Morrison’s and Hemingway’s did theirs? Will I ever see my name engraved on a line of high-quality toilets, I sometimes wonder, after hours of furious literary labor? Will I be immortal, like Whitman, transcending with my “song” the conventional boundaries of self? Will Kohler, the premier name in luxury flushing, ever ask me to be their spokeswoman? Read More »

The State of the Political Novel: An Interview with Édouard Louis

May 3, 2016 | by

Édouard Louis

Édouard Louis, born in 1992, grew up in Hallencourt, a village in the north of France where many live below the poverty line. Now his account of life in that village, written when he was nineteen, has ignited a debate on class and inequality, foisting Louis into the center of French literary life.  

En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule (Finishing off Eddy Bellegueule) is unsparing in its descriptions of the homophobia, alcoholism, and racism that animated Louis’s youth in Hallencourt. “We thought the book would be as invisible as the people it describes,” said Louis, who rejects any romantic views of the “authenticity” of working-class life. His publisher thought the first edition, two thousand copies, would last years. But hundreds of thousands of copies have sold in France, and the book is being translated into more than twenty languages. The novel, which has earned Louis comparisons to Zola, Genet, and de Beauvoir, is set to appear in English later this year.

Eddy Bellegueule can be read as a straightforward coming-of-age story, but beneath its narrative is an almost systematic examination of the norms and habits of the villagers—inspired, Louis has said, by the theories of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. It’s as if he’s taken the whole place and put it behind glass—like observing the inner workings of an anthill.

Who is Eddy Bellegueule, and why do you want to finish him off?

Eddy Bellegueule is the name my parents gave me when I was born. It sounds dramatic, but yes, I wanted to kill him—he wasn’t me, he was the name of a childhood I hated. The book shows how—before I revolted against my childhood, my social class, my family, and, finally, my name—it was my milieu that revolted against me. My father and my brothers wanted to finish off Eddy Bellegueule long before, at a time when I was still trying to save him. Read More »

Rivers, First Draft

January 13, 2016 | by

Lorraine O’Grady’s living Künstlerroman.

“Rivers, First Draft”: the Debauchees intersect the woman in red and the rape begins, 1982 Digital C-print from Kodachrome 35mm slide. Photo via Alexander Gray Associates

In 1982, the artist Lorraine O’Grady staged her first major performance piece in Central Park, “Rivers, First Draft.” In the park’s bucolic Loch section, the audience watched a black woman in a red dress walk down the ravine. Red is a sign for wanton women, and this one was in the company of wild-eyed dancers, barely clothed—all of them white. She was shy, lingering behind the dancers as they shimmied and shook down the hill. When she caught up and tried to engage them, they spurned her.

So the woman in red wandered over to a door. Several black male artists were gathered behind it. She knocked, and they, too, turned her away. While she hesitated, hoping to change their minds, the dancers returned and attacked her with Dionysian energy. Read More »

Addy Walker, American Girl

December 23, 2015 | by

We’re away until January 4, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2015. Please enjoy, and have a happy New Year!

Addymeet2

From the cover of Meet Addy.

The role of black dolls in American culture.

In 1864, a nine-year-old slave girl was punished for daydreaming. Distracted by rumors that her brother and father would be sold, she failed to remove worms from the tobacco leaves she was picking. The overseer didn’t whip her. Instead, he pried her mouth open, stuffed a worm inside, and forced her to eat it.

This girl is not real. Her name is Addy Walker; she is an American Girl doll, one of eight historical dolls produced by the Pleasant Company who arrive with dresses, accessories, and a series of books about their lives. Of all the harrowing scenes I’ve encountered in slave narratives, I remember this scene from Meet Addy, her origin story, most vividly. How the worm—green, fat, and juicy—burst inside Addy’s mouth. At eight years old, I understood that slavery was cruel—I knew about hard labor and whippings—but the idea of a little girl being forced to eat a worm stunned me. I did not yet understand that violence is an art. There’s creativity to cruelty. What did I know of its boundaries and edges? Read More >>

Addy Walker, American Girl

May 28, 2015 | by

The role of black dolls in American culture.

Addymeet2

From the cover of Meet Addy.

In 1864, a nine-year-old slave girl was punished for daydreaming. Distracted by rumors that her brother and father would be sold, she failed to remove worms from the tobacco leaves she was picking. The overseer didn’t whip her. Instead, he pried her mouth open, stuffed a worm inside, and forced her to eat it.

This girl is not real. Her name is Addy Walker; she is an American Girl doll, one of eight historical dolls produced by the Pleasant Company who arrive with dresses, accessories, and a series of books about their lives. Of all the harrowing scenes I’ve encountered in slave narratives, I remember this scene from Meet Addy, her origin story, most vividly. How the worm—green, fat, and juicy—burst inside Addy’s mouth. At eight years old, I understood that slavery was cruel—I knew about hard labor and whippings—but the idea of a little girl being forced to eat a worm stunned me. I did not yet understand that violence is an art. There’s creativity to cruelty. What did I know of its boundaries and edges? Read More »

Our Thing: An Interview with Paul Beatty

May 7, 2015 | by

beatty-paul-c-hannah-assouline

Photo: Hannah Assouline

Paul Beatty’s recurring themes—race and tribalism, human psychology, ambition and failure, and the haunting presence of history—are the heavy ones. But he moves through them with light steps, his precisely choreographed Southern California meander broken by exuberant outbursts of buck dancing and the occasional disemboweling. His early poetry and his first novel, The White Boy Shuffle, opened up expansive new territory for writers trying to build an alternative literature, one that found its energy and idiom outside of the traditional American literary complex. But he has always belonged only to himself, unrushed and unburdened by any scene or movement.

I first encountered his work through the Nuyorican Poetry scene in the nineties. I remember feeling that wash of recognition and estrangement that certain books conjure—I was surprised by the familiarity of the voice, and thrilled by the weird, reckless shit it was saying. Paul seemed to come from the world I knew, a world filled with outsiders and cultural polymaths but still thick with the strange incense of African American life—where Amiri Baraka was a comedian, Kurt Vonnegut was black, and Ice Cube was an arch satirist. It was life-changing to see that world animated by Paul’s particular offbeat, backtracking, culture-swallowing genius. Beatty writes laceratingly funny books that often turn on the subject of race, but more than that, his novels are flares sent up—for anyone who happens to be looking—that illuminate the persistent and irreducible feelings that rumble in our deepest places. They’re about hope and failure and loss, the absurdity of systems and the loneliness of being our own weird selves. And they’re about the beautiful consolation of seeing it, really seeing it, in all its pain and nothingness, and laughing.

Paul’s latest novel, The Sellout, comes at an interesting moment in the eternal—and eternally recycled—American “conversation on race.” The protests that have broken out across the country over police violence have had a powerful undercurrent of black humor. My Twitter feed is illustrated with wild, vivid scenes that would be right at home in a Beatty novel: Newsman Jake Tapper in Ferguson for ABC News with a protestor behind him holding up a sign: IS IT OPEN SEASON ON A NIGGA’S ASS???????; CNN reporters getting their microphones jacked midinterview by angry protestors; a (probably doctored) photo of a young black boy riding a hijacked police horse away from the scene of a riot. Years ago, Beatty identified the source of this sort of dark comedy. “African Americans,” he wrote in one of his section introductions for Hokum, “like any other Americans, are an angry people with fragile egos. Humor is vengeance. Sometimes you laugh to keep from crying. Sometimes you laugh to keep from shooting … black folk are mad at everybody, so duck, because you’re bound to be in someone’s line of fire.”

Paul and I had a long talk in front of a single cup of coffee at a café in the East Village. That wide-ranging, candid interview was cursed by the gods of Cupertino and lost forever. Paul, being a mensch, agreed to meet me again at a different East Village café, and just as he started to open up about the path of his career, we were interrupted—our quiet café hosted a comedy night. We fled to yet another café, where we had this conversation. Read More »