“Every social unit,” Nesrine Malik writes in We Need New Stories, “from the family to the nation state, functions on the basis of mythology … Some myths are less useful than others, and some are dangerously regressive.” Over the course of a tight two hundred sixty pages, Malik discusses six of the most influential myths in our “age of discontent.” Focusing on the U.S. and the UK, Malik is keenly aware of our moment—one of “political awakening and despair, when it is becoming clear that something (is) not working, where there (is) fear and distress but also a healthy impulse to resist and mobilize.” Too often, Malik argues, we are “still fixated on the idea of returning to a time before it all went wrong, rather than the recognition that things have been going wrong all along.” Thus, male, white, heteronormative power—presented as the preordained natural order of things—remains unchallenged. “A lack of uniformity breeds dissent,” Malik states, “and so it is logical that diversity of thought becomes a threat.” If so, let us say that this book is a welcome threat. Furthermore, it is one that has just found a U.S. publisher. Announcing the deal on Twitter last week, Malik wrote: “it’s hard to get publishers to back books by black women that are not exclusively about the experiences of black women. An authoritative non-fiction non-first person voice is still broadly the preserve of white men. So am heartened by the support.” I am heartened, too. —Robin Jones Read More
Silvina Ocampo was the youngest of six sisters who grew up in Argentina when it was one of the richest countries in the world, and when the Ocampo family was one of the richest families in Argentina.
Silvina was part of a magical circle whose nucleus was formed by Jorge Luis Borges and, among others, the younger man who would become her husband, Adolfo Bioy Casares. Each member of this circle created his or her own works, and also worked in collaboration. While each writer had his or her own style, as the Sur group—around the important journal Sur, founded by Silvina’s eldest sister, Victoria, in consultation with the New York writer Waldo Frank—they shaped a literary cultural identity and a new literary genre. In their collaborative work, the trio of Silvina Ocampo, Jorge Luis Borges, and Adolfo Bioy Casares became a quartet with the creation of yet another writerly persona (or personae). For example, Bioy and Silvina (married in 1940; he was eleven years younger) wrote with four hands a detective thriller spoof, literally Those Who Love, Hate. In 1940, Borges, Bioy, and Silvina published a famous anthology of fantastic literature, and when Bioy and Borges wrote together, the writer they created had various pseudonyms (taken from the names of their ancestors) like “Bustos Domecq” or “Benito Suarez Lynch.” Silvina contributed to those literary ventures and inventions as well, but she didn’t sign on as an official contributor, perhaps because her collaboration was exclusively oral.
For many years, Victoria was the only famous Ocampo sister, a celebrity in the intellectual circle coalescing in the thirties and forties, known as much for her elegant beauty as for her intelligence. Among the illuminati whose friendship she cultivated were José Ortega y Gasset, Virginia Woolf, Paul Valéry, Lawrence of Arabia, Federico García Lorca, Gabriela Mistral, and Rabindranath Tagore; she had passionate affairs with a number of distinguished writers (including Roger Caillois and Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, who, unlike Victoria and most of those close to her, was pro-Axis and committed suicide at the end of World War II); she commissioned Borges to translate Woolf’s Orlando and other works (we readers in Spanish have read that version for generations, and are familiar with the legend that Borges crafted it with his mother, another four-handed duet). In addition to being an editor in chief and a cultural entrepreneur, Victoria was a self-styled patroness, and her generosity was legendary, as when, for example, Tagore visited Buenos Aires in 1924, and Victoria sold a diamond tiara to put him up in a luxury hotel for two months. Read More
Jill Talbot’s column, The Last Year, traces the moments before her daughter leaves for college. It will run every Friday this month, and then return for a month each in the winter, spring, and summer.
I’ve never owned a house or a refrigerator, never had to think about knobs for cabinets. The cabinets in our apartment don’t have knobs, and it’s not for the sake of sleekness or simplicity. It’s cheap, functional. Lately, every time I open the front door, I wonder how many strangers have closed it for the last time. I wonder what might have caused the painted-over dents on the wall in my bathroom. And I wonder if someone else stared at the gap between the front door and the foundation the way I do, saw the sunlight sneak through during the day, felt the cold scuttle in across the floor at night.
Every time my daughter and I have moved, I’ve rented a place sight unseen, because I can’t afford to make the trip to the new town to scout rentals, walk room to room, peek in closets. I’m easily swayed: I said yes to the house in Utah when the landlady on the phone said, “It’s on a corner,”; yes to the duplex in Oklahoma because a Craigslist photo showed a built-in bookshelf in the living room; and yes to this apartment complex because the website showed black appliances, and we’d never had black appliances before.
Learning a new language in old age is said to be good for the brain and the memory, so in my mid-seventies I took up German. I didn’t want to learn tourist or business German, I wanted to read poetry. I find it easier to remember poetry than prose, and could still recall odd snatches of Goethe that had come my way when doing an O-Level way back in the 1950s. Maybe I could add some Rilke or some Hölderlin to my memory bank? I’d long wanted to read them. About thirty years ago, I found myself at dinner sitting next to a cultural attaché from the Goethe Institut and talking to him about this very vague wish. I was just making polite conversation, but a day or two later in the post a handsome bilingual volume of Michael Hamburger’s translations of Hölderlin arrived. It’s the Routledge and Kegan Paul edition, Poems and Fragments, dated 1966, bound in dark blue and maroon leather, with copper foil lettering. I was touched and impressed by this thoughtfulness, and occasionally, in my then very busy life, I would open the volume, which I kept by my bed, and read a few lines. There was one fragment that enchanted me, four lines that I would read again and again and learned almost by heart:
Sabrina Orah Mark’s monthly column, Happily, focuses on fairy tales and motherhood.
“I know you’re the tooth fairy.” Noah, my eight-year-old, looks me dead in the eye. We are out to dinner. A large television hangs from the wall. Without blinking, he looks back up at the screen. A small, dry wing falls from my back and lands on the floor like a candy wrapper. The thing about not existing is that sometimes it’s a lot like being a mother.
“Sorry, Mama,” says Eli, my six-year-old. He pats my hand and takes a bite of broccoli.
I think about all the elaborate notes in pink cursive, the one hundred shiny pennies in a cloth pouch, the blue stuffed cat, the five-dollar bill, the Superman, the glitter trails, the wooden hearts, the breath I held, the way I ever so gently lifted the pillow, the sparkle-stamped envelope with the tooth fairy’s address: 12345 Tooth Fairy Lane, Moutharctica, Earth. I kept myself secret. I tiptoed. I used my imagination, and now I’ve been caught. Noah looks at me again with a mix of sadness and pity and suspicion. I turn around to see what he’s watching. It’s a cartoon about a sea sponge who lives with his meowing pet snail.
A little light goes out inside me. But I can’t locate exactly what it ever lit up.
In Tash Aw’s new column Freeze Frame, he explores how his favorite masterpieces of Asian cinema have influenced him.
The story of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady (2004) seems simple enough at the outset: a handsome soldier stationed in a rural community on the edge of the forest in northern Thailand meets a young village man. Their lives are by and large carefree, filled with an innocence that feels entirely fitting with the peace and splendor of the countryside around them—the tawny deciduous jungle punctuated with lakes and rolling grassland, the mountains that stretch to Laos and Myanmar in the distance. They listen to pop music, stroll around the night market in the small local town, visit cave temples, spend quiet afternoons sheltering from rainstorms in a sala overlooking a tranquil pond. They fall in love.
Though they never manage to articulate their emotions, we are left in little doubt as to how they feel about each other after an hour of slow-burn desire, during which Tong, the younger, more inexperienced of the two, begins to figure out that this new relationship is not quite the laddish one he expected it to be. Keng, the soldier, is much more direct, familiar with same-sex relationships and comfortable in his queer masculine identity. (In one of their outings to the local town, he flashes a knowing smile at the buff aerobics instructor conducting public classes in the main square, a brief half-second that carries the weight of a whole history of off-camera, off-script liaisons.) But even as he courts Tong in an almost old-fashioned, mostly nonsexual manner, it’s clear that he has never before been in such a position of vulnerability. His longing for Tong is new and unknown. At the end of one long dreamy evening together, they finally express their physical desire by kissing each other’s hands—in fact not just kissing but licking, gnawing, each almost eating the other man’s fist. As Keng rides home, the night seems magical and unending, filled with color and music.
And then, the night is over.