Day Residue

On Danzy Senna's NEW PEOPLE.
If you read the reviews—like this one, this one, or this one—you’ll see Danzy Senna’s new novel New People described as a “social satire” or a “comic novel”—albeit, perhaps, a “darkly comic” novel—and verbs like “lampoon” and “parody” will be used to punctuate the point. What we are reading is funny, a “comedy of manners.” The reading makes sense, and these are good reviews: Senna has often framed her work as a rejection of the sentimental “tragic mulatto” genre—in which the curse of being mixed race is the inevitable bad end that follows—and wouldn’t a novel that rejects tragedy, naturally, be comedy? Indeed, if the “tragic mulatto” is a person out of time, out of place, and out of race—a person who, being neither black nor white, can never be integrated into a society built on the schism between—then the first thing… Read More...

Conceiving the Kingdom

...now carries the weight of what hadn’t yet happened, but now seems like it always would have...
Though they were published in English out of order, the sequence of three novels that Yuri Herrera has sometimes called his “border trilogy” adds depth and complexity as it goes along. Signs Preceding the End of the World—his second-written, but first-translated—is a masterpiece, a journey into the underworld that is also a voyage of rebirth, noir fiction that’s also cosmological millenarianism, excavating the Mexica afterlife. The Transmigration of Bodies—his third written, second-translated—concerns the flows and circulations of social life and death, and the work done by bodies to keep the streams going (as well as the work done to bury them when they stop). You could say that in both novels, he is fascinated by death, but that just lifts the lid of how he turns noir conventions into something much richer and more ancient-feeling; because his work lives in… Read More...

Novel News

Rather than asking why the New York Times—the paper of record, a bastion of free inquiry, and champion of the fact-based community—would employ Bret Stephens,…
Rather than asking why the New York Times—the paper of record, a bastion of free inquiry, and champion of the fact-based community—would employ Bret Stephens, a troll whose relationship to facts is that of a kitty to its litter, it might be better to ask: why does a newspaper employ opinion columnists at all? What has “journalism,” with its scrupulous attention to accuracy, verifiability, and the checking of facts, to do with “opinion” writers whose apparent lifetime tenure rests on representing an ideology? Put it that way, after all, and you are describing a very surprising schism at the heart of the thing we might otherwise call a “newspaper.” On the one hand, a newspaper is where people write only what can be verified, facts that are known as such because they can be checked. If a fact is found… Read More...

Life Is Too Much Like Real Life

Life is a bad handshake.
Ostensibly set in the present day, Daniel Espinosa’s Life didn’t, at first, feel much like any “present day” that I recognize. Before the main events of the movie begin—before it becomes an Alien-style monster-on-the-space-station movie—we see a basically united and well-balanced humanity, exemplified by a happy family of American, British, Russian, and Chinese astronauts, male and female. As the crew advances boldly into the unknown, struggling to bring to life a long dormant fragment of a Martian life-form, we see an earth apparently populated by dreamers and idealists who follow along with the wonder and awe of a child dreaming of the stars. It’s what Star Trek occasionally fashioned itself as being, minus all the magic technology and military hierarchy, the best of humanity: social, empathic, curious. It’s mostly gestural, of course; there are no info-dumps to tell us that… Read More...

My Soul Has Known Rivers… of Beer!

Retconning America.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HtBZvl7dIu4 The right-wing backlash against this Budweiser commercial is the best praise you can give it, like when Fox News described “No Fascist US” as “anti-Trump graffiti.” The ad is a ludicrous load of ideology, but if it makes Trumpsters angry, then, frankly, it has already exhausted the revolutionary potential of a Super Bowl beer commercial. That Budweiser has denied any political intent (“There's really no correlation with anything else that's happening in the country”) is the icing on the cake; it’s corporate PR, but it’s also, accidentally, a hilarious bit of gaslighting, droll trollery. “Correlation” is a carefully chosen word, a synonym for “not causation.” But context is not optional and there is no such thing as coincidence in film. As any good communist film theorist knows, the true kernel of film is the cut—the place where the decision… Read More...

Buffalo Skulls

Whiteness is a thing because white supremacists needed a name for their violent subjugation of others, and so they gave it one. In this way, whiteness is a uniquely virulent and pathological form of social identity. It cannot survive its loss of supremacy; it cannot abide competition or mixture or “impurity.”
When Raphael Lemkin first coined the term “genocide,” it was a word for what he was against. But the direct, programmatic, and industrial murder of an ethnic group—as has come to be exemplified by the Holocaust’s trains, gas chambers, and crematoriums—was not the only, or even the primary meaning of the term; it was not the only thing he was against. Today, for better or for worse, most people understand a genocide to be mass killing, organized and state-sponsored, with the Holocaust the original for all the other holocausts which must Never Again. Genocide is mass-killing, full stop. But Lemkin had begun thinking about legal protections for sub-national groups well before the second world war—starting with the Armenian genocide—and the crime to which he would eventually give a name was something more broad and expansive: any systematic and organized destruction… Read More...

None of You

Doing the impossible in the Anthropocene: Henrietta Rose-Innes' Nineveh.
Doing the impossible in the Anthropocene: Henrietta Rose-Innes' Nineveh. Katya, an ethical pest removal specialist, has an impossible job. Rich people hire her to remove pests from their homes, as they once hired her father, Len, a more conventional (and less subtle) exterminator. But Katya has introduced a wrinkle into the family business: she extracts the range of “unloved and unlovely” creatures that hide and survive in the nooks and crannies—the “caterpillars, snakes, frogs, slugs, cockroaches, baboons, rats, mice, snails, pigeons, ticks, geckos, flies, fleas, cockroaches, bats, and spiders,” as she enumerates for a client—but she does it without actually killing them. She moves them and dumps them in parks or in the wilderness outside the city limits; she coaxes them out of wherever they are, and transports them to new hiding places, as gently and humanely as she can. She… Read More...

Thanksgiving is Bullshit

But you already knew that.
But you already knew that. Thanksgiving might be the most intuitive holiday, the least strange, the least alienating. A non-ecumenical holiday, all are welcome; though it isn’t not religious, there is no religious content to disagree with, or be excluded by; if Thanksgiving were to intersect with another holiday—say, a Jewish Holiday like Hanukkah—it will consume it, gladly, absorbing potato pancakes into its bloodstream as easily as it absorbs everything else. There is really not any ritual content at all to Thanksgiving, in fact, which is precisely what makes it so unstoppable: you eat turkey (or don’t), but not for any particular reason. You can watch the football if you want, but not doing so wouldn’t even signify as a lack; there are parades, but there don’t have to be. There’s a story about the first Thanksgiving, which most people… Read More...

Undivided Essay

Forget the story.
Forget the story. What animates Bae Suah’s A Greater Music is the question of whether there are greater (and lesser) forms of art. Or perhaps “question” is the wrong word; perhaps “compulsion.” Perhaps “need,” or “hope,” or “memory.” Perhaps love. Perhaps grief. Perhaps what animates this little novel is the question of the capital letter in Art and how Love might mean more than a word, beyond sentiments; how a greater music might index the presence of a soul beyond death, an art beyond life, or a Love that can survive the ending of a love affair. It’s a novel about the persistence of something in the meaningless void, the faith that there might be something, and also the loneliness of living in the uncertainty. Or maybe it’s just a tone poem set to language, a dream of the lovely,… Read More...

The innocently readable novel

Ge Fei's The Invisibility Cloak
The Invisibility Cloak by Ge Fei (translated by Canaan Morse) begins and ends in the same place: a humble audio technician named Cui building a sound system for rich people. It’s a short novel about China today, about the two decades of feverish economic growth that have transformed Beijing since the 1990’s. In the dwindling of our protagonist’s craft and fortunes, amidst the explosion of new wealth and new values that have made the New China whatever it is, there is a story about the downfall of labor: betrayed by family, by friends, and by his business, our protagonist Cui finally makes a tiny play for a modestly large score, with very mixed results. But despite the tragi-comic plot that would seem to move the novel forward—taking a character defined by his stuck-ness and placing him in motion—the fact that… Read More...

Ars longa, vita brevis

oceans are big. ripples fade.
Elena Ferrante’s work is oceanic, and this is a stone thrown in it. This is important to remember, because ripples are splashy but fade away. The reporter—and four newspapers, in four languages—that devoted "a months-long investigation" to doxing Elena Ferrante have done so because they think she is small and that they can diminish and comprehend her by asserting her real name and history. This is what makes it a violation, and a desecration. But this is also what makes them wrong, why it’s important to hold on to her story of herself, and to treat theirs with the contempt it deserves. They want to make her small, by making her a real person with a real history and real name and real background. They want to assert control over that person, and what it represents, by revealing it. But Elena Ferrante isn’t small because… Read More...

Search Terms

"African fiction" contemporary -NYC
"African fiction" contemporary -NYC *** What Tope Folarin has been missing from “much of the African fiction [he's] been reading of late” is: “This restlessness, this stopping and starting and landing on something new, then moving past the new to something almost incomprehensible but not quite, this initial inaccessibility that coalesces into something almost transcendent.” It’s a lovely sentence. I’m not completely sure what it means, and that might be why he uses the work of an installation artist as a figure for what he wants from African fiction. The barrier to be cleared—between one media and another, between things known and strange—is the point of the metaphor, and in an essay “against accessibility,” he wants an “initial inaccessibility” in the work itself. He wants fiction that breaks through, and goes somewhere new. In his judgement, today, “much” of it doesn’t.… Read More...

African Poetry: Gbenga Adesina

That and this
(This is the second of eight chapbooks from this collection that Keguro Macharia and I are reading and thinking about. Read Keguro on Gbenga Adesina here.) As with most chapbooks, there is a general singularity of purpose to Gbenga Adesina’s Painter of Water, a short book of poems which mostly focuses on the plague of war in northern Nigeria. That purpose—for which the speaker is the reference point—is the work of mourning which must be done, and for which—the speaker seems to fear—he will be inadequate: with some exceptions, nearly every poem very visibly struggles to make burning silences into songs, to find ways of making the unspeakable absences of loss and violation into something musical, something poetic. But that struggle comes to the fore in these poems, in a way that the pain and grief and loss itself does… Read More...

African Poetry: Ngwatilo Mawiyoo

How else would we learn?
I’ve been thinking about how the most tedious “authenticity” debates are the ones demanding that writers be Africans, or whatever authentic thing they must be; I’ve been thinking about how such demands put the burden on the writer, because what’s really going on is an effort to tell writers what they can and can’t write; I’ve been thinking about how rarely we ask someone to read Africanishly, and how silly it sounds when we do. The more interesting question is: how to read this book of poems, what helps, how to help? I don’t know if it helps to read Africanishly. It helps that I met Ngwatilo, once, and we had doughnuts and coffee in a weird Vancouver doughnuts-and-coffee shop that she suggested (she made this google-map walking directions thing for me to find it; I think I had a… Read More...

The Novelty of African Poetry

Does “African poetry” exist?
Does “African poetry” exist? It’s the worst sort of question, because the answer is too easy to be interesting: Yes. There are poets who are African—lots of them—and when Africans make poetry, that poetry is “African poetry.” There are poets who are Africans, today; there have, also, always been Africans who were poets. So, yes. And yet, what is it that exists? This is a harder question, and one worth asking... even if an answer is impossible. In a way, African poetry is older than “Africa” itself, and more African. “Africa” was a term first coined by Europeans, perhaps two thousand years ago, the Latin word for the norther rim of what is now Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia. Dating back to a time when Southern Europe and Northern Africa were closely linked by commerce and strife into a single Mediterranean civilization,… Read More...

Quiet on the Border

Because borders are so weird, words proliferate.
Borders are weird, bureaucratic spaces whose illogic unfolds under the sign of the Kafkaesque. Borders are an uncanny contradiction, an anarchic totalitarianism. On the one hand, a border is a frontier, a place where the nation-state ends, where the Weberian sense of “modernity” comes apart; on the other hand, borders are where the nation frays and becomes only the state, where a militarized sense of total security takes over. Because borders are so weird, words proliferate. Along with arbitrary, nonsensical violence—and strange, unpredictable exceptions—people talk a lot and lots of papers get filed, even as all of it is, in practice, evacuated of meaning. Nothing promised at the border really means anything, but it means it at least twice. Borders are tedious and boring and empty, but also you might die, you never know, anything can happen. Borders are where… Read More...