“To spend such long periods facing the texts of the past can be dizzying,” writes Doireann Ní Ghríofa toward the end of A Ghost in the Throat, her fascinating new hybrid work of essay and autofiction from Dublin’s Tramp Press, “and it is not always a voyage of reason; the longer one pursues the past, the more unusual the coincidences one observes.” The pursuit of the past, and the kind of obsession it can birth in the present, is in fact the focus of this book; as Ní Ghríofa becomes pregnant with and nearly loses her fourth child, her story becomes entwined with that of Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, an eighteenth-century Irish noblewoman who, distraught over her husband’s murder, drinks handfuls of his blood before composing a poem about him and their love. Past versus present, blood versus milk, birth versus death, the Irish language versus the English: dichotomies abound, but the questions of women’s lived experiences and who history remembers link them all. “This is a female text,” Ní Ghríofa repeats—about her own book, her own body, and Ní Chonaill’s poem, which appears at the end in Ní Ghríofa’s translation. —Rhian Sasseen Read More
The subtitle of Not a Novel, by the German writer Jenny Erpenbeck, is A Memoir in Pieces, but I think maybe the word shards would be more accurate—the texts collected here come from many eras and many moments and seem to fall around the reader like bits of glass, catching the light at different angles, complete in themselves but tied to one another to create a whole that is provisional and temporary and full of cracks. There is no trail of bread crumbs in this book, but somehow that makes it feel, as a memoir, even more real. The texts themselves share this tendency—“Open Bookkeeping,” which talks about her mother’s death, becomes a list of items inherited and lost, costs incurred and paid (a tax adviser tells Erpenbeck that her mother is due a refund of five euros); “On ‘The Old Child’ ” includes memories of its own earlier drafts and becomes a story about the imperatives and impossibilities of writing as a means of communication (“It isn’t always the case … that saying more brings us closer to the truth than saying less”). Translated by Kurt Beals, the book will be published next week by New Directions, and part of me expects it to land like a boulder on an iced-over river: there is something terrifying but liberating about seeing a person construct herself and her history in a way that feels so opposite to everything we are told. —Hasan Altaf Read More
A sense of unease pervades the Haitian writer Lyonel Trouillot’s Street of Lost Footsteps, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale, as does a sense of political hopelessness. The novel charts, over the course of a single night, a violent uprising in Port-au-Prince against the dictator Deceased Forever-Immortal, told from the perspectives of three characters: a taxi driver, a madam in a brothel, and a post office employee. Central to the story is the problem of how one should approach the subject of political violence in a work of art. In language that does nothing to prettify—in fact, the poetry of Trouillot’s sentences serves to better underscore the horrors he describes—the characters navigate lives lived in a moment of grim uncertainty. “How could we have made love,” the postal worker asks his lover, “when we were perhaps already dead, uncertain of our own existence, even incapable of imagining the point of existence? … What do such pretty phrases have to do with the paralysis of terrified flesh, already absent from its own desires?” These are salient questions, questions that have no answers. “In the silence,” he continues, “the dream flowered in her eyes. In some way or another, we had led the night to us.” —Rhian Sasseen Read More
What I remember most about being seventeen is how infallible I felt, how naively but deliriously hopeful. So it didn’t surprise me, watching the documentary Boys State, that a group of a thousand seventeen-year-old boys imitating a political election would devolve into a raucous theater of ego. The film follows the 2018 Texas Boys State convention, a weeklong summer camp held every year in every state by the American Legion, and primarily documents the race for the coveted office of governor. Boys State won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, but still, I think I expected shallower thrills. I thought I knew how it would end—who would be the hero, the villain, the winner, the loser. But though it could have said something easy to believe about politics, something easy to believe about boys, the film provides more nuance. It offers a complex interpretation, something frightening but almost forgiving, of being seventeen. Even at the heights of the rampant manipulation and self-aggrandizing enacted by the boys (of which there is so much), every interaction feels like an attempt to be liked and to feel alike. “I thought if I played to that, then they’d love it,” one of them says when his misjudgment of his peers costs him an election. And while I could have told him that trying to read the minds of teenage boys is an effort destined to fail, the best moments are when the godheads come loose. The more heartbreaking moments are when, for some, their ego is only affirmed. Real life, I was reminded, is not a bildungsroman. But I am now barely the person I was when I was seventeen, and 2020 feels eons away from 2018, when the film takes place. These boys could be anyone now. Then again, they could also be exactly the same. —Langa Chinyoka Read More
Contributors from our Summer issue share their favorite recent finds.
Recently, I was inspired by the poet Solmaz Sharif to revisit June Jordan’s collection of essays, Civil Wars (1981). At a time when courting sickness and death is described by the president as “opening up,” or else framed as a concern about the education of children, when the attorney general defines peace as submission to police force, and when some voices, in the midst of a genuine emergency, are petulantly and nebulously complaining about “forces of illiberalism” and “cancel culture,” it’s been refreshing to revisit Jordan, who cuts through all the nonsense to show what is truly at stake with the politics of language and calls for polite civility. If you’re interested, maybe begin by checking out this excerpt from “White English/Black English: The Politics of Translation”:
They all—all them whitefolks ruling the country—they all talk that talk, that “standard (white) English. It is the language of the powerful. Language is political. That’s why you and me, my Brother and my Sister, that’s why we sposed to choke our natural self into the weird, lying, barbarous, unreal white speech and writing habits that the schools lay down like holy law…
See, the issue of white English is inseparable from the issues of mental health and bodily survival. If we succumb to phrases such as “winding down the war,” or if we accept “pacification” to mean the murdering of unarmed villagers, and “self-reliance” to mean bail money for Lockheed Corporation and bail money for the mis-managers of the Pennsylvania Railroad, on the one hand, but also, if we allow “self-reliance” to mean starvation and sickness and misery for poor families, for the aged, and for the permanently disabled/permanently discriminated against—then our mental health is seriously in peril: we have entered the world of doublespeak-bullshit, and our lives may soon be lost behind that entry.
Or maybe this, from the titular essay:
Most often, the people who can least afford to further efface and deny the truth of what they experience, the people whose very existence is most endangered and, therefore, most in need of vigilantly truthful affirmation, these are the people—the poor and the children—who are punished most severely for departures from the civilities that grease oppression.
If you make and keep my life horrible then, when I tell the truth, it will be a horrible truth; it will not sound good or look good or, God willing, feel good to you, either.
Reaching for my mask along with the standard phone-wallet-keys when I venture out for groceries or remember that it’s healthy to go outside (mostly), I keep thinking of artist Denilson Baniwa’s series “Ritual Masks For a World In Crisis,” part of a quarantine-era commission of 125 artists by the Instituto Moreira Salles in Brazil, with an essay translated here by Tiffany Higgins. In these eight self-portraits, Baniwa mixes the surgical or hand-sewn pleated masks and bandannas that have become our new everyday around the world with woven crowns, feather headdresses, baskets, and jaguar heads that evoke Indigenous forms of protection and communication with the invisible world. These ritual masks are a way to negotiate with the God of Maladies, the code name he offers so as not to give away the Amazonian Baniwa people’s name for the spirit who takes the form of a sloth. The bright headdresses and face coverings with cheerful patterns like potted succulents and diamonds with stars morph from photo to photo, while Baniwa wears the same white T-shirt with his own silk-screened design, a stylized roaring jaguar with the words, “Floresta de pé, fascismo no chão,” a slogan seen and heard at Indigenous rights protests, which translates roughly to, “Up with the forest, down with the fascists.” Some of the headdresses trade the usual feathers and thread for electrical wire and the jagged teeth of long, thin hacksaw blades broken in pieces to form crowns and a halo. These unexpected juxtapositions shape the playful, absurdist, and activist tone of Baniwa’s work, which mixes memories of his people’s traditions from the Rio Negro region of the northwestern Amazon with the modern-day artifacts and practices of an artist based in Rio de Janeiro. Before the pandemic, Baniwa walked the streets and museums of São Paulo and sites like the Biennale of Sydney with a mask and cape as the Pajé Onça, a powerful shaman who takes the form of the spotted jaguar, a figure that appears throughout Baniwa’s street murals, wheat-paste posters, museum installations, and performances, displayed on his site and on Instagram. COVID-19 has hit communities in the Amazon especially hard, with the widespread loss of loved ones, elders, artists, healers, and shamans, like Feliciano Lana, the Desana artist whom Baniwa cites as a major influence, and Vó Bernaldina, a spiritual and political leader of the Macuxi people. For Baniwa, it brings up memories of plagues brought by past colonizers, and the ways Indigenous people had to update their sacred rituals to include vaccines, antibiotics, and other medicines that intervened with the unseen world. The present mask and hand-washing rituals are yet another update. He writes, “May the God of Maladies see that we are fulfilling all the rituals, and soon be soothed. May our people survive this, one more end of the world.” —Katrina Dodson
These days I have been enfolded in Adeeba Talukder’s beautiful collection of poems, Shahr-e-Jaanaan, City of the Beloved. Like a graceful arabesque the collection soars into Urdu poetry and swerves back into English. Lines like these leave me breathless: “Longing, air spent / travels the length of age, then receives / a faint reply: / You have a conquered a curl, at last.” Talukder’s poetry captures the exquisite pain of the lover; the Urdu ghazal glimmers behind the English and invites me to dwell in both worlds. Walking alone in empty streets, I’m drawn to her contemplations on loneliness and companionship, “Come walk with me / by the lake’s empty benches. / Tell me, dressed in roses / we need some air.” Her collection of poems has been my companion and my lover, the one I reach out to when I need a place to breathe. — Krupa Shandilya
Alanna Reeves, a visual artist and writer from Washington, D.C., is an emerging voice in contemporary American art. When Reeves and I went to school together growing up, everyone wanted to model their handwriting after hers. But it was in art class with the printmaker Percy B. Martin that it became clear she was much more than her fastidious script, that she was the real deal. Five years after receiving her B.F.A. in illustration and art history from the Rhode Island School of Design, Reeves has indeed made her mark. Last week, she partook in a virtual conversation hosted by Strathmore, offering an overview of her recent work and the theory behind it. The first piece discussed, Límon, was perhaps the most striking: a black-and-white photograph of her paternal grandfather overlaid with yellow embroidery floss in a design inspired by cross-stitch patterns. In much of her work, Reeves reexamines her girlhood pastimes, such as cross-stitch and paper dolls—activities with sets of prescribed patterns and rules. One audience member observed that the stitching looked almost like a chain-link fence, barring uninhibited access to the subject yet inviting the viewer to peer through nonetheless. Reeves agreed, noting that she purposefully left his eyes untouched. Only the corner and lid of one eye are embroidered, delicately stitched in a freehand that deviates from the otherwise geometric pattern. Now Reeves has been doing more printmaking, which, to me, recalls the early influence of Martin. The pandemic has not stopped her momentum, and she will be exhibiting work with D.C. Arts Center in the fall and Strathmore in January. In the meantime, you can keep up with her work on Instagram. —Elinor Hitt Read More