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...

Choose, in the imperative (Carlos Labbé’s Loquela)

You must.
You are reading the Chilean novelist Carlos Labbé. According to the blurb on the front of Navidad and Matanza—his first book translated into English—he “begins to fuck with your head from the first page.” On the cover of Loquela, his second, you will read that Labbé “wreaks havoc on narrative rules from the start and keeps doing it.” How will you proceed? You must choose. One way to navigate these novels would be to think of this novel as part of the European avant-garde tradition. According to some of the blurbs, Labbé is “a literary descendent of Roberto Bolaño and Andrés Neuman” and also “a hybrid of Julio Cortázar and Paul Auster.” And sure, why not? But blurb writers love using these kinds of genealogies to create a sense of coherence for writers whose work leaves us grasping at straws,… Read More...

An Arbitrary Number of Theses on Donald’s Trump

my hands are normal hands
Violence is “the trump card of the stupid, since it is that form of stupidity to which it is most difficult to come up with an intelligent response.” Violence is not subtle. And this is not subtle: It is easy to ignore subtlety. It is not easy to ignore violence. It is hard not to talk about Trump’s meat (according to his butler, he likes his steaks cooked so well-done "it would rock on the plate.”) You can’t ignore phallic symbols. Silence is not an intelligent response to being told to be silent. Phallic symbols work when everyone sees It, but nobody says what they saw, when we carry the weight of the knowledge but we don’t speak it. Unspeakable knowledge is another way to talk about trauma. (Obedience is what the powerful call trauma.) When people say what they… Read More...

Our Star Wars Holiday Special

Star Wars is the gift of George Lucas' hair.
To criticize The Force Awakens for “recycling” the first three Star Wars movies—to complain that it’s “un-original” compared to that original work of genius—misses the point of the franchise so thoroughly and dramatically that this critical impulse seems more interesting to me than the movie itself. The one thing the original trilogy wasn’t was original. Similarly, The Force Awakens is great, but it isn’t interesting. The jokes are good, the action is organic and compelling, the characters are well inhabited by competent actors, and the cinematography and music is excellent and consistently inventive. But everything that puts you in the moment, when you’re watching it, falls apart as soon as you turn your brain back on. As experience, as ritualistic performance, as society-wide holiday, and as entertainment-industrial-complex, Star Wars is a strange and magnificent and disgusting enterprise. As original story,… Read More...

Baghdad, Beirut, Paris: Six Women to Think With

You could walk into the water and stay there. What was the problem?
(1) Guilaine Kinouani France is still a country which uses the everyday expression “du travail d’arabe” (literarily ‘Arab’s work’) to refer to botched or poor quality work. A country that is so removed from the violence it inflicts onto its racial minorities that it has no qualms using this expression as the title of one of its movies whilst simultaneously denying all responsibility for the hurt, tensions and offence this causes. A country where just a few years ago, the appointment of the first ever Black newsreader, Harry Roselmack, on the national channel TF1 (the equivalent of BBC1), caused demonstrations and uproar because, wait for it… he was Black. A country that still bans all-Black cast movies. “Hatred breeds hatred”: Charlie Hebdo, marginalisation and terrorism (2) Laila Lalami What happened in Paris on November 13 has happened before, in a… Read More...

Safe Space

An immature, overly-coddled Yale student lashed out after feeling that his “safe space” had been violated...
An immature, overly-coddled Yale student lashed out after feeling that his “safe space” had been violated. I’m talking, of course, about George W. Bush. Isn’t the War on Terror nothing but an attempt to maintain the safe spaces of the cosmopolitan elite? At a time when black college students are being called “fascist” and “immature” for trying to carve out a safe space for themselves on campus it seems worth while to ask this question. Both tasks are equally impossible, but one actually brought us closer to fascism by restricting our civil liberties and ensuring that we waged perpetual war for perpetual peace, while the other only brought about fascism in the minds of critics on the left and right whose minds imagined the slippery slope that would be created by taking student’s concerns seriously. As Malcolm Harris has shown,… Read More...

Best American Poetry Pseudonyms

Can Big Data save poetry?
Every time some clever white person puts on yellow-face or uses a black name (or any variation thereof) in order to benefit from some real or imagined affirmative action benefit, the thing they haven’t done is demonstrate that the system is skewed against white people. If anything, they’ve shown that adding a situational advantages of non-whiteness to the structural advantages of whiteness can lead to success. But it’s the ability to pick and choose, depending on the situation, which makes whiteness the real advantage. Only white people can play this “card,” the ethnicity that’s there when you need it, but disappears when you don’t. (more…) Read More...

Purity in Oakland

a supercut of Jonathan Franzen sentences in Purity that include the word "Oakland."
(In the spirit of the youtube sharing community, here is a supercut of Jonathan Franzen sentences in Purity that include the word "Oakland.") Some of her friends in Oakland also had problematic parents, but they still managed to speak to them daily without undue weirdnesses transpiring, because even the most problematic of them had resources that consisted of more than just their single offspring. I use the word spies loosely, of course, though perhaps not entirely inappropriately, given the fact that there are some thirty-five members of the Oakland Nuclear Disarmament Study Group, of which Pip and Stephen are by no means the least dispensable, and yet the house that the Germans have chosen to favor with their all too typically German earnestness and nosiness, for nearly a week now, is ours. Annagret would dump her boyfriend and move to Oakland and… Read More...

Against Students Stories

Students are the Worst.
On Friday, the Duke Chronicle—the student paper—ran a story whose headline declared “Freshmen skipping ‘Fun Home’ for moral reasons.”: “Several incoming freshmen decided not to read “Fun Home” because its sexual images and themes conflicted with their personal and religious beliefs.” Freshman Brian Grasso posted in the Class of 2019 Facebook page July 26 that he would not read the book “because of the graphic visual depictions of sexuality,” igniting conversation among students.” Since then, the story has been picked up by: CNN, USA Today, Salon, The New Civil Rights Movement, the Washington Post, the Onion AV club, Inquisitr, Slate, the Daily Beast, and a variety of other newsy-journalistic-ish outlets. But as far as one can tell, Claire Ballantine for the Duke Chronicle is the only journalist who has actually seen Freshman Brian Grasso’s inflammatory words. And this is as… Read More...

“The Sacred Mattress”

“The fortress-mansion has high walls built of ashblack-brown volcanic stone, the same stone cut into large bricks for the heavy, fortified-hacienda-style architecture inside, which included…
"The fortress-mansion has high walls built of ashblack-brown volcanic stone, the same stone cut into large bricks for the heavy, fortified-hacienda-style architecture inside, which included a massive watchtower with arched windows, topped by a crenellated mirador. To provide access during the fortress's construction, El Indio had to carve out a new side street, which he named Dulce Olivia after the actress Olivia de Havilland, whom he had some kind of thing for. Three seemingly separate residences—did secret corridors or sliding bookcases connect them?—faced the main courtyard, which had a dry fountain in the middle. A broad stone staircase led back into the rest of the mansion, always permeated by the chill of cold stone, and filled with staircases and corridors and rooms and galleries and halls that had once held huge parties attended by Marilyn Monroe and other stars but that… Read More...

We Are All Gawker Now

Who the hell knows what is really happening at Gawker, and who the hell cares? Answer: Gawker and Gawker. Which is the interesting thing to…
Who the hell knows what is really happening at Gawker, and who the hell cares? Answer: Gawker and Gawker. Which is the interesting thing to me about all of this, the way a story about Gawker has, primarily, been reported on Gawker. And without Gawker leaking internal Gawker memos to Gawker, would we know what’s happening at Gawker? And would we care? Probably not, and probably not. Which is to say, simply: this is how “the news” is made. Not “reported,” which would imply that it was already news before news-media decided it was, but “made”: news is news because the news says it is. This is why Nick Denton gets points for admitting that his litmus test for a story’s newsworthiness is whether it’s “interesting”: he is interesting in publishing stories, primarily, that he is interested in publishing, and… Read More...

Short Story Day Africa: Interview with Rachel Zadok

Water no get enemy
Short Story Day Africa is a wonderful initiative that was started by the South African novelist Rachel Zadok -- author of Gem Squash, Tokoloshe and Sister-Sister -- and in the three years of their existence, they've already managed to do excellent things. In the last two years, they've put out two of the best anthologies of new fiction I've read in some time (Feast, Famine & Potluck and Terra Incognita: New Short Speculative Stories from Africa) as well as a lovely looking anthology of young fiction by young people, Rapunzel is Dead, that I just purchased for $0.99 (and so can you). They're fundraising for their third anthology Water -- you can donate here -- and I anticipate it will be amazing. Did I mention that you can donate here? You can donate here. I had a chance to meet Rachel a month ago in Kampala, and interviewed her over… Read More...

Inside Out, Namwali Serpell’s “The Sack”

How should we read “The Sack”?
Namwali Serpell’s “The Sack” stands on its own, if it must. When I discussed the story with a classroom full of undergraduates—as part of my “Global Contemporary Short Story” class—I think they found it both rewarding and challenging, which is a nice way of saying it was frustrating, but that there can be something nice about being frustrated. There is a certain formal unity to the story, in that the beginning feels like a beginning and the ending feels like an ending—leaving the middle free to feel like itself—and yet, at the same time, that narrative arc does anything but resolve. It ends up where it began, yet inverted, like running your hand along a Möbius strip until you reach the same point (but underneath) and there’s nothing to do but keep going until you get back to the beginning.… Read More...

“A sort of post-colonial studies joke”: Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation

Do you need to read Camus before you read Kamel Daoud?
Do you need to read Camus before you read Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation? If you read The Stranger ten years ago, twenty years ago, do you need to re-read it? I had a Camus phase, in adolescence. I read The Stranger—and even bought L’etranger, with the ambition of using it to improve my French—as well as The Plague, The Fall, and others whose titles I don’t remember. I know that I read them, because while I bought those books new, they looked used when I gave them away. But books I read when I was a teenager didn’t stay in my brain, or at least these haven’t. Of The Stranger, I remember that mother died today, and ennui, and existentialism, I guess. Smoking. Killing an Arab because of the sun. The last time I thought about The Stranger was… Read More...

Writing a bodaboda to Rideavism

border-border
At the Writivism festival last week, in Kampala, Uganda, a certain conversational form played itself out over and over again: I know you from the internet, it’s so wonderful to finally meet you in person! I spoke variations on that theme to various people, people spoke it to me, and I overheard people speaking it to each other. Many of the guests at Writivism had already met each other, of course—there was a small reunion of some of the Africa39 writers, for example, who had all met at Port Harcourt last year, and many of the guests came with already-assembled cohorts (the Nigerians who came together, the Kenyans who took a bus from Nairobi, etc). But bylines and facebook profiles and author photos travel much faster and farther than bodies do, those sweaty meat-sacks which lag behind struggling to catch… Read More...