Category Archives: Edwidge Danticat

Links: Through the Cradle of the Civil War

Graceland versus Rowan Oak.

I read Alex Shakar‘s debut novel, The Savage Girl, in 2003, but I have no strong memories of it. (I had to consult I note I scribbled in an endpaper to remember when I read it.) Regardless, he spins a great yarn about how the best-laid promotional plans for the novel collapsed.

Edwidge Danticat on editing the story collection Haiti Noir: “We don’t always have to create pretty pictures around Haiti, but we are obligated to reflect or create fully realized human beings and that’s what our seventeen fiction writers did. I am really proud of that book. It’s not a rosy picture of Haiti, but it is nuanced and complex one. We are neither angels nor savages. Maybe that’s what fiction does best, define that middle ground.”

“While a full account of the role God plays in [David Foster] Wallace’s writing would probably take a monograph to flesh out, I’d like to point to a few moments in his work that one should pursue if one were to write that monograph.” (Chapter 22 of The Pale King welling up again; seriously, it should be sold as a Byliner-ish excerpt, or novella, or some other standalone publication.)

Jim Shepard talks up some of his favorite short-story collections, and his own work: “[W]riting about other things, if you’re doing so in the right way, is a great way of tricking yourself into writing about stuff you most care about. It can be a back door into difficult emotions. Especially if you’re a guy, you might have difficulty dealing with particularly vexed emotions to begin with. And particularly vexed emotions are the sort that power literature.” (via)

Harvard University Press has freed up the Ernest Hemingway chapter from A New Literary History of America, which discusses the influence of a family cabin in Michigan on his work.

Mad Men, John Updike‘s Maple stories, same diff.

Reader’s Almanac, the Library of America’s blog, recently turned a year old; it tallies up some of its most popular posts.

J.D. Salinger
, 1994: “I work on. Same old hours, pretty much.”

Roger Ebert is in a huff about an ESL version of The Great Gatsby; Jessa Crispin doesn’t see what the fuss is about.

Dinaw Mengestu goes to the Greek isle of Patmos and finds a waystation for migrants.

On Louisa May Alcott‘s brief stint as a Civil War nurse.

How Vladimir Nabokov stage-managed his interviews.

In defense of Jonathan Franzen‘s underappreciated second novel, Strong Motion.

“[Larry McMurtry] described The Last Picture Show as a ‘spiteful’ book that took three weeks to write and was intended to ‘lance some of the poisons of small-town life.'”

Arthur Phillips on Moby-Dick: “When we…went out to sea, it was something in between a realistic sea adventure and some other dreamlike lunacy – then I felt like I was in the hands of somebody who was inventing the novel as he wrote one. That same wonderful feeling. This is not exactly a sea adventure or a sea melodrama with an evil captain. There’s something much weirder going on.” (Nathaniel Philbrick‘s forthcoming Why Read Moby-Dick? has some thoughtful observations on these points, about which more soon, probably.)

Some elements by which to judge the success of an expat novel.

Legislators are trying to make a Mark Twain commemorative coin happen. No word on whether it’ll be embossed with the phrase, “Within certain judicious limitations we trust in God.”

Links: Kitchen Duty

Saul Bellow: “We all carry the same load of unwashed plates from life’s banquet.” His widow, Janis Bellow: “It wasn’t just the 80-year-old elder statesman who gave ‘em what for, but also the young man who didn’t hesitate to tell a publisher, “If that’s all you got from reading The Adventures of Augie March I don’t want you even looking at my next book and I’ll go elsewhere.”

Lorin Stein recently spoke about literature at Yale, inspiring bright young minds: “I want to be a writer and my first reaction was, ‘Wow, I need to pick up a book that’s not a textbook from Yale,'” reported one attendee.

I wished that Edwidge Danticat‘s new book of essays, Create Dangerously, felt less like a grab bag, but Scott McLemee finds a connecting thread: “Some of the pieces are personal essays; others are critical reflections on the work of Haitian writers and artists who worked as emigrants. The difference in focus does not involve a difference in tone, however. In either genre, Danticat registers an acute awareness that dislocation or relocation are, after all, common experiences.”

Toni Morrison receives the French Legion of Honor award.

Essays From the Nick of Time, a collection of nonfiction pieces by Mark Slouka, is one of my favorite books of 2010. Though his interview with the Rumpus is mostly focused on politics, he does discuss wearing two hats as an essayist and a fiction writer: “I can’t tell you anything about myself—why I got married, what I had for breakfast this morning—that isn’t a story. So, aside from certain conventions of voice, a certain stance toward ‘fact,’ I’m not sure the line exists. One side bleeds into the other all the time.” (I’ve read none of Slouka’s fiction; recommendations welcome.)

Dennis Lehane in the Wall Street Journal: “If I have to be labelled, I want to say my books are about the ethos of a city. I’m not a mystery novelist, I’m definitely not a literary novelist. I think I’m kind of an urban novelist.” (Buried in the story is the news that he’s writing an HBO movie with fellow Wire writer George Pelecanos.)

John Irving on critics: “Many practicing critics don’t write novels; I’ve written 12. What can someone who hasn’t written one novel—or has possibly written a couple of mediocre novels—teach me about my writing? Nothing. I will keep saying this till the day I die: when you’ve written a number of novels, the process of being reviewed is often an exercise in being condescended to by your inferiors.” If only the point of book reviewing were to teach John Irving something about writing…

Links: Crisis Mode

Following this week’s devastating earthquake in Haiti, the main spokesperson for the nation from the world of American literary fiction has been Edwidge Danticat, who’s spoken to the Wall Street Journal about the catastrophe and provided the paper with a brief primer on Haitian culture. A little surprisingly, I’d heard nothing from fiction writer Ben Fountain, who famously visited the country more than 30 times while researching his excellent short-story collection, Brief Conversations With Che Guevara. But Texas Lawyer caught up with him:

I expect that recovery will be long, difficult, expensive and complex. It may well be that the country never recovers in this generation. On the other hand, I think there’s a possibility, however hard it may be to focus on at this point, that the earthquake provides the impetus for a sustained, concerted and well-planned effort by the international community to help Haiti overcome its problems. In any event, Haiti certainly won’t be the same country that it was on Jan. 10.

My new favorite litblog: Years of BASS, in which a Virginia researcher makes his way through the Best American Short Story series.

Films inspired by the films described in David Foster Wallace‘s Infinite Jest will screen soon at Columbia University.

Joyce Carol Oates: “It’s very clear to me now—as I’d always supposed—that we can’t really choose what we write about in any passionate way: the material chooses us.”

Just because Twitter forces you to be concise doesn’t mean it’s going to make you an Ernest Hemingway.

Jill McCorkle goes off-Broadway.

Christopher Hitchens on Gore Vidal going off the rails.

Jaws meets Deliverance, with bears“—the elevator pitch an author needs to catch a publisher’s attention grows ever shorter.

On a related note, here’s Charles Bock on pursuing fiction writing as a career: “A teacher of mine once told me that as a writer you’ll be humiliated, then you’ll be humiliated again, and when you think you can’t be humiliated any more, they’ll find new ways to humiliate you.”

The Nonfiction Turn

A couple of days ago the New Yorker writer Susan Orlean noted on Twitter that she was preparing to teach a course in nonfiction writing and was looking for great examples of it. The list of responses she received is a long one, which is heartening, though the fact that so many of the examples come from previous generations isn’t—-much as I like Royko and Kidder and Didion and Mitchell (not to mention Orlean), it’s a familiar hit parade. (I contributed to the problem by recommending Norman Sims‘ two great anthologies, The Literary Journalists and Literary Journalism, both a few decades old at this point.) All this may simply be a function of people being inclined to recommend books instead of individual pieces, and it takes forever for good nonfiction to earn its way into hardcover; when it comes to magazine articles, heaven knows there’s still lots of great, great, great stuff being published.

Orlean’s list also got me thinking about good examples of fiction writers who’ve successfully transitioned into nonfiction. It’s a dodgy category—Nicholson Baker‘s Double Fold and Haruki Murakami‘s Underground both take on serious subjects but have a surprising lack of narrative thrust, swallowed as they are by the parade of details; though I’ve tried to crack both William T. Vollmann‘s The Atlas and Poor People, both felt so loosely formed that I couldn’t keep going (the latter mainly reminded me of how much I preferred Ted Conover‘s Rolling Nowhere).

Fiction writers seem to do better when they’re talking about themselves and their craft. First-person features are rarely as funny and thought-provoking as when David Foster Wallace stepped on a cruise ship or into a state fair; Tobias Wolff‘s This Boy’s Life and Joan Didion‘s The Year of Magical Thinking both address transformative moment’s in a writer’s life, albeit at very different points on the spectrum.

All three of those writers are mentioned on Orlean’s list. In the interest of expanding that list and getting a few more suggestions, a handful more by writers better known for their fiction: Edwidge Danticat‘s Brother, I’m Dying, an excellent piece of reportage about both her childhood and her uncle’s ill-fated attempt to escape Haiti’s turmoil; Paul Auster‘s Hand to Mouth, still one of the best portraits of the white-knuckle fear that comes along with trying to make it in publishing; Francine Prose‘s Reading Like a Writer, among the most thoughtful and analytical writer’s guides available (sharper than Stephen King‘s On Writing, less persnickety than James Wood‘s How Fiction Works); and Nelson Algren‘s prose poem Chicago: City on the Make, a beautifully turned but brutal critique of his hometown.

Links: Elder Wisdom

That post I wrote on Susan Bell‘s essay about revising The Great Gatsby? The Elegant Variation has the full text of it.

That post I wrote on Charles Taylor‘s essay about Donald E. Westlake? Sarah Weinman has plenty of thoughtful follow-up comments on The Ax.

Marilynne Robinson has a few thoughts on reading Edgar Allan Poe as a child.

Ethan Canin figures the future of American fiction is increasingly in Madagascar.

I wasn’t able to make it to BookExpo America this year. I feel a little more bummed that I wasn’t able to make it to the Calabash International Literary Festival, at which Edwidge Danticat tag-teamed with Junot Diaz and Robert Pinsky expounded on the history of the saxophone.

Guitarist Ry Cooder has just published his first book of fiction, Los Angeles Stories. You’ll have to attend one of his shows to pick up a copy.

Planning a summer road trip? Here’s everything you need to know about visiting Flannery O’Connor’s farm in Milledgeville, Georgia.

Edwidge Danticat Makes a Case

Yesterday Edwidge Danticat was at a press conference where two groups, the Florida Immigration Advocacy Center (FIAC) and Human Rights Watch, registered serious complaints about how immigrants to the U.S. are treated while detained. If you know Danticat’s excellent 2007 book, Brother, I’m Dying, you have a sense of how serious the problem is; her uncle Rev. Joseph Dantica died in the custody of U.S. Customs and Homeland Security officials, who she describes as slow to provide him with medical treatment after he escaped to Miami from Haiti.

Rev. Dantica’s story is at the center of FIAC’s report on the problem, Dying for Decent Care: Bad Medicine in Immigration Custody (PDF); in fact, the report is dedicated to him. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reports that Danticat spoke at the press conference, and that she has little reason to believe American authorities have changed their ways:

“When one has a loved one die in this situation, what you hope for, what you pray for is that it never happens to another family, another child, another loved one,” she said at the press conference. “But it keeps happening again and again.”

Miami New Times, which also covered the press conference, received a release yesterday from an ICE spokesperson, which said that new Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is on the case and laid out some baseline medical practices regarding immigrant detentions.

Roundup: Boy, Are My Arms Tired

  • Catching up with a lot of things after returning from NYC last night. It was a good year for books I actually read (and liked) at the National Book Critics Circle awards: Alex RossThe Rest Is Noise won in criticism; Edwidge Danticat‘s Brother, I’m Dying won in autobiography; and Junot Diaz‘s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao won in fiction. The NBCC’s blog, Critical Mass, has a complete list of winners.
  • George Saunders pokes a few holes in the notion of realist fiction.
  • And discusses Lost, hard-ons, and other sundry matters with Etgar Keret.
  • The Guardian has an extensive study of Carson McCullersdark side(s).
  • Absalom, Absalom: Still impressing college professors.
  • “To be a significant American writer you need to be an engaged citizen of the world,” says poet Scott Cairns in an interesting piece on the growth of literary translation in the U.S.

NBCC Winners

For what I imagine was the first time in history, the announcement of finalists in the National Book Critics Circle annual awards was about as sophisticated as the Golden Globe Awards. The finalists are listed below. (The NBCC’s blog, Critical Mass, liveblogged the whole thing.) Following that list is the ballot I submitted; not much overlap. (I considered The Rest Is Noise to be a nonfiction book, more a critical history than a book of criticism, and I thought of Brother, I’m Dying more as a reported personal history than an autobiography, but making tough calls like those is what the NBCC is for, I suppose.)

Autobiography
Joshua Clark, Heart Like Water: Surviving Katrina and Life in Its Disaster Zone, Free Press
Edwidge Danticat, Brother, I’m Dying, Knopf
Joyce Carol Oates, The Journals of Joyce Carol Oates, 1973–1982, Ecco
Sara Paretsky, Writing in an Age of Silence, Verso
Anna Politkovskaya: Russian Diary: A Journalist’s Final Account of Life, Corruption and Death in Putin’s Russia, Random House

Nonfiction
Philip Gura, American Transcendentalism, Farrar, Straus
Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America 1815-1848, Oxford University Press
Harriet Washington, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, Doubleday
Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA, Doubleday
Alan Weisman, The World Without Us, Thomas Dunne BKs/St. Martin’s

Fiction
Vikram Chandra, Sacred Games, HarperCollins
Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao, Riverhead
Hisham Matar, In The Country of Men. Dial Press
Joyce Carol Oates, The Gravediggers Daughter. HarperCollins
Marianne Wiggins, The Shadow Catcher, S. & S.

Biography
Tim Jeal, Stanley: The Impossible Life Of Africa’s Greatest Explorer, Yale University Press
Hermione Lee, Edith Wharton, Knopf
Arnold Rampersad, Ralph Ellison. Knopf
John Richardson, The Life Of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932, Knopf
Claire Tomalin, Thomas Hardy, Penguin Press

Poetry
Mary Jo Bang, Elegy, Graywolf
Matthea Harvey, Modern Life, Graywolf
Michael O’Brien, Sleeping and Waking, Flood
Tom Pickard, The Ballad of Jamie Allan, Flood
Tadeusz Rozewicz, New Poems, Archipelago

Criticism
Acocella, Joan. Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints, Pantheon
Alvarez, Julia. Once Upon a Quniceanera, Viking
Faludi, Susan. The Terror Dream, Metropolitan/Holt
Ratliff, Ben. Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, Farrar, Straus
Ross, Alex. The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, Farrar, Straus

Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing

Sam Anderson — winner

Finalists:
Brooke Allen
Ron Charles
Walter Kirn
Adam Kirsch

Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award
Emilie Buchwald, writier, editor, and publisher of Milkweed Editions in Minneapolis

My ballot: 

AUTOBIOGRAPHY
1. Shalom Auslander, “Foreskin’s Lament” (Riverhead)
2. Stacey Grenrock Woods, “I, California” (Scribner)
3. Robert Stone, “Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties” (Ecco)
BIOGRAPHY
1. David Michaelis, “Schulz and Peanuts” (HarperCollins)
2. Dennis McDougal, “Five Easy Decades: How Jack Nicholson Became the Biggest Movie Star in Modern Times” (Wiley)

FICTION

1. Ha Jin, “A Free Life” (Pantheon)
2. Daniel Alarcon, “Lost City Radio” (HarperCollins)
3. Vendela Vida, “Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name” (Ecco)
4. Junot Diaz, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” (Riverhead)
5. Andre Aciman, “Call Me by Your Name” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
NONFICTION
1. Edwidge Danticat, “Brother, I’m Dying” (Knopf)
2. Alex Ross, “The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
3. Ann Hagedorn, “Savage Peace: Hope and Fear in America, 1919″ (Simon & Schuster)
4. Paula Kamen, “Finding Iris Chang: Friendship, Ambition, and the Loss of an Extraordinary Mind” (Da Capo)
5. Peter Schmidt, “Color and Money: How Rich White Kids Are Winning the War Over College Affirmative Action” (Palgrave Macmillan)