Sunday, September 13, 2015

What's in a name?

A poet by any other must surely read as sweet... to badly paraphrase Shakespeare.

Except when said poet uses a female Chinese name Yi-Fen Chou to mask a pedestrian WASPish male name of Michael Derrick Hudson and submits the same poem only 9 times (instead of 40 as the WASPish) before it gets selected for publication.

The editor Sherman Alexie ( of Native American extraction himself) who was unfortunate enough to select the poem had this to say:

"But I had to keep that pseudonymous poem in the anthology because it would have been dishonest to do otherwise.
        If I'd pulled the poem then I would have been denying that I gave the poem special attention because of the poet's Chinese pseudonym.
        If I'd pulled the poem then I would have been denying that I was consciously and deliberately seeking to address past racial, cultural, social, and aesthetic injustices in the poetry world.
        And, yes, in keeping the poem, I am quite aware that I am also committing an injustice against poets of color, and against Chinese and Asian poets in particular.
        But I believe I would have committed a larger injustice by dumping the poem. I think I would have cast doubt on every poem I have chosen for BAP. It would have implied that I chose poems based only on identity.
        But that's not what happened. In the end, I chose each poem in the anthology because I love it. And to deny my love for any of them is to deny my love for all of them."
And throw into the mix the fact that Hudson 'borrowed' the Chinese pen-name from a classmate of long ago, whose family is now protesting the use of their daughter's name. 

And that an indignant writer of Chinese extraction pens this op-ed on NPR complaining about the cultural appropriation that Hudson has committed, by trying to take advantage of the slightest of 'ethnic minority' affirmative action to corner more of a literary market already overcrowded with the output of white male writers.

Except that for a writer of Chinese origin, he calls Hudson names indirectly in a patently incorrect last line
" And so what about the pen name Yi-Fen Chou, used by Michael Derrick Hudson? If you know Chinese, you know it actually means "a piece of stink.""
The real name Yi-Fen translates approximately to 'righteous indignation' according to online translators.

So what to make of the output of Yi-Fen Chou vs that of Michael Derrick Hudson in the anthologies. Read the examples below to make out any differences. Is the perception of the poem different if you think the poem is written by someone of Chinese vs. WASP extraction? 

Yi-Fen Chou in the Painted Bride Quarterly

"So here’s to all those pretty waitresses you’d break up over
who don’t really want to be

waitresses. You inchling! I over-tip three soggy dollars
and some silver and you’d think I’d screwed

an archduke’s monocle into my watery left squint, slapped
my thigh with an ivory walking stick

and strode forth in jodhpurs from the foxed
crosshatching and curlicues of an old English copperplate…

Toff! Blabbermouth! I sneeze green into a monogrammed
sky-blue handkerchief and elucidate my sorries over

another all-American soundtrack..."

Michael Derrick Hudson:

To think I used to be so good at going to pieces
gobbling my way through the cops

and spooking what’s left of the girls. How’d I

get so far, sloughing off one knuckle at a time,
jerking my mossy pelt along

ruined streets? Those insistent, dreadful thuds

when we stacked our futile selves
against locked doors. Our mumbles and groans!

Such hungry nights! Staggering through the grit

of looted malls, plastered with tattered
flags of useless currency, I’d slobbered all over

the busted glass and merchandise of America ...

Monday, July 27, 2015

Go Set a Watchman- The Review

Since everybody about knows now that Atticus Finch was just a tired old racist, from all the gazillion reviews and discussions out there, there are probably no other major spoilers in this review.  However, if you are planning to read the book, please take a look at the review after you have read it.

I must confess that on first read, I devoured the book avidly, looking for oddities in the book that might signal not-HarperLee's actual words, but was completely mesmerized by the first few chapters. This couldn't be anyone else other than Harper Lee, I decided. Words like 'enisled', references to 'Asquithian atttitude' couldn't have been used by anyone else other than her.

All the stage-setting was very nice, with gorgeous little episodes of childhood, then weaving back to a  grown up Scout/Jean Louise as a 20-something sophisticate returning from New York to  her family and beau in small-town Alabama. The pacing started to flag, crawling slower than a rabid dog moseying along a deserted street on a blistering afternoon.

Then, suddenly, wham.

The grand reveal occurs with Jean Louise eavesdropping on a meeting attended by Atticus, and she discovers him to harbor the racist attitudes only too common in that era, not being the shining knight that he was in To Kill a Mockingbird.

After much emotional drama and anguishing, interspersed with odd chapters involving trains-of-thought bitching about old classmates at a 'Coffee' thrown by redoubtable Aunt Alexandra, Jean Louise works out her angst and finally comes to some terms with Atticus, after a deux ex machina attempt at reconciliation initiated by her uncle John.

Etc., etc. It hardly matters when the rest of story starts to read more like a screenplay than an actual novel.

I finished the novel feeling - " Wow, it's over and it was quite a ride! Harper Lee seems so prescient and almost topical in her portrayal of race relations that still raise so many troubling questions about race and the justice system in this day and age."

Then the doubts started to niggle as I read a few more reviews and Facebook comments. I reopened the book and started to do random comparisons in style with the text from To Kill a Mockingbird.

1. TKAM has characters speaking in complete paragraphs in most chapters. GSAW has them speaking in very short sentences, which would definitely tie in better with a screenplay.

2. The 'moving scene' with Calpurnia moves the reader only if we think of it in context of the closeness of Calpurnia to Scout in TKAM, which doesn't fit right with the contention that GSAW's manuscript predates TKAM.

3. In the 'Coffee', one of the trains-of-thought has odd references for the era." When Jerry was two months old...toilet training should really begin...the cutest sweatshirt you've ever seen...little red elephant...Crimson Tide"  ( edited for brevity).
Sweatshirts as a male fashion staple did not come in vogue until around the early 1960's, having only been a mainstay for college athletes in the 1930s-50s. It most certainly would not be considered suitably 'cute' attire for the Diaper set that the moms of the 'Coffee' were discussing.
Consider that TKAM, written c. 1957 and published in 1960, mentions no sweatshirts for establishing the sense of contemporaneity. While GSAW is supposedly written before TKAM, it contains too many 'Look Ma no hands!' references of this kind and sounds more like a novel based on a screenplay, complete with costume research indicators.

4. In the climactic chapter where the big discovery of Atticus's real attitude to race comes, the language is laughably cliched.  "She felt sick. Her stomach shut, she began to tremble....Every nerve in her body shrieked, then died. She was numb." is too egregious to ignore. It reads like too many bad climactic scenes in too many dystopian Young Adult novels.

These are just a few examples. I suppose I could make a career out of analyzing each reference that sounded off color on second review. But that isn't the point of this review.

I come to bury the myth of Harper Lee's writing GSAW, not to praise her writing, after all.

It's my conviction that we are seeing another publicity/money grab by the publishing/media/entertainment conglomerates. Over 1 million copies sold without extensive marketing and publicity needed, for this is the 'output' of the legendary Harper Lee, or so the customer is led to believe.

The original writing of Harper Lee is still there, primarily in the first half of the book, but on closer examination, I land  upon too many odd little 'explanatory' snippets, oddities of style that indicate not-Harper-Lee.

 The publishers have pulled in an excellent team of ghostwriters and maybe even screenwriters to massage the original partial-at-best manuscript into a coherent book, but the dissonancies introduced by them are scattered all over. 

All we need now is for some academic to do a comparison of writing styles between TKAM and GSAW and find that approximately 60% of the latter is filler material. Or maybe not, for who would want to go against a media monster claiming a princess in sacrifice. The Cetus of the publishing/media conglomerate must have its Andromeda, after all.

Once the buzz over GSAW the book wanes, watch for the screen version to be announced within the next few months. It's very likely that the casting is already decided. Let me guess, Robert DeNiro will play a suitably aged Atticus,  while the line of actresses to play Jean Louise, Alexandra and Calpurnia is already too long out the door and is the only thing still preventing them from announcing the movie any time too soon.

Either way, the moguls and moneymakers will have their way and humongous profits in the end, and some of it might go towards keeping an old lady in Monroeville, Alabama more comfortable in her sunset years, and to line the pockets of a 'loving caretaker' lawyer into the bargain.

More links of interest:

Monday, June 1, 2015

The Selfie Compliment

I don't know what else to call it. It ought to rank up there with the latest addition to the dictionaries along with 'humblebrag' and 'backhanded compliment', among others.
It goes like this.

Proud parent "My child just got accepted into an exclusive program at X university for pre-med!"

Listener " Oh, wow, congratulations! You must be so proud of her. That's a great school. I know because my aunt's second cousin's niece graduated from there as a neurosurgeon with a 4.0 GPA at the tender age of 20!"

Proud parent looks deflated, Listener is blissful at having been able to suck out all the air from the former's sense of pride in her offspring.

For the want of a better description, I propose 'selfie compliment' as a name for this mode. The object is not to shower compliments on the 'complimentee'; rather, its purpose is to drag them down from their lofty pedestal while reflecting the utmost credit on the family pride of the 'complimenter'.

Highly common in competitive societies (ex. Indian, Jewish, Chinese ), this would sit well in academic descriptions like the one I found in Google books about The Primitive Mind and Man by John Alan Cohan about the giving out of compliments and the reactions to them.

Why can't a compliment be a simple appreciation of something that someone has done, rather than a mode to lessen their happiness by triggering envy?

Friday, May 29, 2015

One in a crowd

Graduation day arrived early for S. He finished up his B.F.A at New York University in 3 years instead of 4, after carefully hoarding credits for his high school courses and overloading a couple of semesters.Now on into the big (not yet bad) world for a gap year of sorts, after graduation rather than before.

He stays on in Manhattan, not too far from where we dropped him off as a freshman, pursuing internships and jobs in film. Opportunities galore, but who knows what will click for him.

At the Yankee stadium, cheers rose and fell in various sections, as the president of NYU conferred degrees on the one representative student from each of the many schools that constitute the university. S was a tiny black and purple dot in a sea of purple. 8000 graduates, and 27000 near and dear.

 You are special, graduate, but you are not. Remember that you are a unique individual, who has attained another pinnacle in your life. Go forth and do great things. But remember that you are also one of a great mass of humanity. There will be struggles, contests to survive, in a tough job market where thousands of others like you are vying for the same jobs. But there will always be opportunities, if you can seize them.

A couple of days later, we left NY with the pithy salty words of advice from Robert De Niro ringing in our ears.
Robert De Niro stated the truth at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts graduation on Friday: "You made it — and, you're f—ed."
At the Madison Square Garden-set ceremony, he bluntly noted that graduates with degrees in nursing, dentistry, business, law and education all have a future of stability ahead of them — a choice those other students made using reason and logic, but one that the crop of performers could not ever make.
"You discovered a talent, developed an ambition and recognized your passion. When you feel that, you can't fight it — you just go with it," he explained. "When it comes to the arts, passion should always trump common sense. You aren't just following dreams, you're reaching for your destiny. ... You're an artist — yeah, you're f—d. The good news is that's not a bad place to start."
Our consolation was the words he ended his advice with:
The actor suggested a mantra for the new grads: "Next!" a phrase to be shouted when "you didn't get that part" or "you didn't get that waiter's job at the White Oak Tavern. ...  There will be times when your best isn't good enough. There can be many reasons for this, but as long as you give your best, it's okay. Did you get straight A's in school? If you did, good for you, congratulations. But in the real world, you'll never get straight A's again."
So, S, and all other hopefuls on the world's stage out there, break a leg!

Friday, March 13, 2015

Mockingbird Uncaged?

"Nelle Harper Lee" by Unknown - ebay posting. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -
This is mostly my speculation,  based on the recent reports regarding the investigation into possible elder abuse of Harper Lee, of which one part has now been completed and closed.

 I am starting to see the publishing of 'Go Set a Watchman' as not a caging of the mockingbird, but rather, its release. A couple of reader comments on the NY Times story set off this train of thought.

In the comments, Rebekah from Birmingham wrote:
"In 1972 while discussing casting calls that had been or were to be held at town and gown theater by James Hatcher(he did the casting for the mockingbird )was told by stage crew who worked there and also at at Birmimgham Children's Theater that Harper Lee had written another book .However she was waiting to publish until after her older sister died.Supposedly this was because the book was extremely critical of Monroeville and certain recognizable people there at that time but also had negative things to say about Atticus.The later reason was the one her sister invested on a delayed publication as she felt it would embarrass the family.Hearsay from many years ago but it seems to fit." 

and Michael Currier:
"A lot of people hold back publishing letters until after family members die and are beyond being hurt. I always wondered about if Harper Lee's sister dominated her but was hurt by To Kill A Mockingbird (the sister and the mother are left out of the book!). Was Harper Lee unable to publish it until after her sister's death?
On one hand she never published it, but she also never threw it away and kept it in a secure bank box.

Was it Harper Lee that dis-liked the public attention, or was it the sister who disliked it?"

Would this account for the gleeful and thrilled demeanour of Harper Lee, as described by her lawyer and publishing agent? A final chance to see in print what a possibly over-domineering elder sister had prevented from being published?
Maybe the new novel will push Atticus off his pedestal ,and possibly reflect uncharitably on A.C.Lee, Harper Lee's father, who was considered to have been the inspiration for Atticus in some ways, and Alice Lee herself, who had been inspiration for Jem.

The new book becomes a must-read, not only for the eyes to be opened about old literary heroes, but the new light cast on Harper Lee, in all her glee at having finally outwitted her elder sister by the simple act of outliving her, and getting out the book that Alice insisted was never to be printed.

Update: And the saga continues...  Was the book discovered earlier and quietly pushed aside? Why bring it into the limelight so many years after the first 'discovery'?