January, 2017

NBCC Reads Resistance Lit: Ilana Masad on Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Harmless Like You

by Ilana Masad | Jan-13-2017

What's your favorite work of resistance literature? That's the question that launches this year's NBCC Reads series, which draws upon the bookish passions of NBCC members and honorees at this time of cultural shift. (NBCC Reads from previous years here.) We're posting these in advance of the #WritersResist events to be held on January 15--Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday-- throughout the country, including an event on the steps of the New York Public LibraryAndrew Solomon, president of NBCC Sandrof-award winning PEN American Center and Trustee Masha Gessen will host; American Poets Laureate Robert Pinsky and Rita Dove will share original "inaugural" poems written for the occasion; and dozens of writers and artists including Laurie Anderson, Mary Karr, A.M. Homes, Michael Cunningham, Jeffrey Eugenides, and others will speak and read on the ideals of democracy.

In Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s debut novel, Harmless Like You (out in the UK, coming out in the US in February), resistance is a young woman decided to remain in the US and not return with her parents to Japan. It looks like a young woman floating through life and trying to understand herself through other people, and through her art. It’s a young woman trying her hand at photography, and being proud of her work even while she critiques it heavily and wonders if it is ever or will ever be good enough.

Resistance can look like refusing to be content with the cage that has been created for her, gilded and beautiful as it is. It can look like a woman leaving her husband and son and always meaning to go back, but never quite managing to. It can look like a woman deciding to find herself rather than define herself through marriage and motherhood.

Resistance can also look like a young man who grows up without a mother deciding not to care about her. It can look like a young man marrying a woman who fits him, who loves him, and refusing to be nice to her when his father dies. It can be his insistence that he has to keep his bald cat because she gives him comfort in a way that no one else exactly can. Resistance can look like a man not knowing how to love his child but trying, trying, trying. It can look like a man deciding to stay where his mother decided to leave. 

Resistance can look like a 27-year-old author giving life and love to characters who aren’t always loveable, but who resist their own flaws as best they can.

Ilana Masad is a fiction writer and book critic living in New York. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The New Yorker, The Los Angeles Times, Electric Literature, Broadly, Vice, McSweeney's, and more. She is the founder and host of The Other Stories, a podcast featuring new, emerging, and established fiction writers.


NBCC Reads Resistance Lit: Mike Lindgren on Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels

by Mike Lindgren | Jan-13-2017

What's your favorite work of resistance literature? That's the question that launches this year's NBCC Reads series, which draws upon the bookish passions of NBCC members and honorees at this time of cultural shift. (NBCC Reads from previous years here.) We're posting these in advance of the #WritersResist events to be held on January 15--Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday-- throughout the country, including an event on the steps of the New York Public LibraryAndrew Solomon, president of NBCC Sandrof-award winning PEN American Center and Trustee Masha Gessen will host; American Poets Laureate Robert Pinsky and Rita Dove will share original "inaugural" poems written for the occasion; and dozens of writers and artists including Laurie Anderson, Mary Karr, A.M. Homes, Michael Cunningham, Jeffrey Eugenides, and others will speak and read on the ideals of democracy.

Gulliver’s Travels cannot rightly be called “a book on the theme of resistance,” for it was itself an act of resistance — a political satire published anonymously at a time when sedition was punishable by torture and execution. In the days since the election, thinking of Swift’s masterpiece has brought me an astringent kind of psychological comfort — not so much cheer as a kind of  grim pleasure. England in 1726 was wracked by extraordinary violence and unrest — the country was only six years removed from a ruinous financial panic, and was under the heel of a war-mongering, dangerously unstable ruler of questionable mental facility, surrounded by ruthless, manipulative men.  At any rate, for me the scene that comes most immediately to mind is the famous passage wherein the royal palace catches on fire and Gulliver, thinking quickly, acts to put it out in the most immediate way imaginable: by urinating on it. It seems aptly suited to our time.

Michael Lindgren is a freelance writer and musician whose reviews appear in the Washington Post, among other places. He lives in Jersey City, New Jersey.


Brendan Driscoll on Hans Keilson’s Comedy in a Minor Key by Hans Keilson

by Brendan Driscoll | Jan-12-2017

What's your favorite work of resistance literature? That's the question that launches this year's NBCC Reads series, which draws upon the bookish passions of NBCC members and honorees at this time of cultural shift. (NBCC Reads from previous years here.) We're posting these in advance of the #WritersResist events to be held on January 15--Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday-- throughout the country, including an event on the steps of the New York Public LibraryAndrew Solomon, president of NBCC Sandrof-award winning PEN American Center and Trustee Masha Gessen will host; American Poets Laureate Robert Pinsky and Rita Dove will share original "inaugural" poems written for the occasion; and dozens of writers and artists including Laurie Anderson, Mary Karr, A.M. Homes, Michael Cunningham, Jeffrey Eugenides, and others will speak and read on the ideals of democracy.

It’s tempting in this time of high anxiety to grasp for narratives that indulge our fantasies of revenge and restoration, that respond to our woundedness and fear by romanticizing rebellion;  insurgency; principled violence. 

But for once let’s try something else: a story that depicts resistance through acts of basic human compassion, carried out earnestly, if sometimes clumsily, by ordinary people struggling to maintain decency and dignity in challenging circumstances.  For that I recommend Hans Keilson’s Comedy in a Minor Key (Komödie in Moll, in its original German), which despite its brief length and understated manner offers a nuanced portrait of a young married couple whose kindness to a stranger invites peril and reconfigures their lives in unexpected ways.  

Wim and Marie are young, Dutch, seemingly secure in their domesticity.  When they allow Nico, an elderly Jewish perfume salesperson, to hide from the Nazis in their attic, their concerns are as much about the awkward logistics of communal living with a stranger--laundry, smoking, how much soup to cook--as they are with the very real danger of being caught.  They want Nico to be invisible, but it’s also very important that he be comfortable.  

The couple’s situation becomes dire when Nico dies, not in a concentration camp, not in a hail of Nazi gunfire, but of pneumonia, in his bed, alone.  How are they to dispose of the body of someone who wasn’t supposed to be there in the first place?  Complications ensue.  If this is a comedy, as the book’s title suggests, this is where a dark slapstick emerges: the awkward struggle to relocate a corpse to an anonymous park bench in the dead of night; the absurd contortions involved with keeping up appearances when life has careened out of control.  The irony ratchets up when the couple must themselves go into hiding after realizing that in their haste they dressed Nico’s recently discovered body in clothes traceable back to them.

The story is structured as a thriller, but an unconventional one, in which everyday actions are fraught with risk and consequence, and familiar domestic settings become geographies of anxiety.  There are bombers overhead, and gunshots in the distance, but the camps are an omnipresent abstraction, unnecessary to describe or discuss.  The prying eyes of neighbors and the ambiguous trustworthiness of the postman are the real and present dangers. Soiled clothes hide in the hamper; coffee cups clatter into the sink.    

But Comedy in a Minor Key’s most memorable note may be its portrayal of Wim and Marie not as heroic figures but as ordinary, well-intentioned people who are prone to griping and bickering but nevertheless choose compassion and stick to their choice even when its consequences destabilize everything about their lives, including their marriage.  They can’t easily articulate even to each other why they are risking their lives for a stranger.  Perhaps it’s “the only way we can do anything at all to show that it isn’t all right,” suggests Wim.  It’s not to make money, Marie reminds him, and herself.  

But Keilson, who was himself sheltered by a Dutch family during the war, knows their true motivation.  His narrator explains, in one of the book’s most eloquent passages (and one of the few in which it detours from its otherwise spare tone):  

Marie understood that words like 'love your neighbor' or 'national duty' or 'civil disobedience' were only a weak reflection of this deepest feeling that Wim and she had felt back then: wanting to shelter a persecuted human being in their house. Like the way people veil a body in fabric and clothing so that the blaze of its nakedness does not blind too deeply the eyes that see it, people veil life itself with precious garments, behind which, as under ashes, the double-tongued fire of creation smolders. Love, beauty, dignity: all that was only put on, so that whoever approached the glowing embers in reverence would not singe his grasping hands and thirsting lips.

Wim and Marie’s actions arise from altruism of the most primal, pre-verbal sort: the simple impulse to protect a fellow human being from harm, for no reason other than shared humanity.  As a contemporary model for resistance, we could do worse. 

Brendan Driscoll's work has appeared in Booklist, The Millions, and other periodicals.  He is writing a novel about food, love and deportation.  Originally from western New York State, he now lives in Colorado.


NBCC Reads Resistance Lit: Erika Dreifus on Rachel Hall’s Heirlooms

by Erika Dreifus | Jan-12-2017

What's your favorite work of resistance literature? That's the question that launches this year's NBCC Reads series, which draws upon the bookish passions of NBCC members and honorees at this time of cultural shift. (NBCC Reads from previous years here.) We're posting these in advance of the #WritersResist events to be held on January 15--Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday-- throughout the country, including an event on the steps of the New York Public LibraryAndrew Solomon, president of NBCC Sandrof-award winning PEN American Center and Trustee Masha Gessen will host; American Poets Laureate Robert Pinsky and Rita Dove will share original "inaugural" poems written for the occasion; and dozens of writers and artists including Laurie Anderson, Mary Karr, A.M. Homes, Michael Cunningham, Jeffrey Eugenides, and others will speak and read on the ideals of democracy.

The NBCC's call for writing on favorite "resistance literature" brought to mind my friend Rachel Hall's Heirlooms. Selected by Marge Piercy as winner of the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize and published this fall by BkMk Press, Hall's collection of linked short stories is grounded in her family history. This includes the history of her mother's biological father—Hall's grandfather—a member of the French Resistance who was executed not far from Lyon in August 1944.

Heirlooms indeed features a character modeled on Hall's grandfather. And after similarly courageous deeds, the fictional hero meets his same fate.  In "Generations," one of the book's most memorable stories, Hall depicts the murder of this character—and fellow résistants—on that terrible day. 

That scene is revealed through the perspective of an onlooker—a Frenchman who just happens to witness the mass execution. Although we don't meet him again, the story leaves us quite aware that he won't ever be quite the same.

Of course, as the subsequent stories in the book make amply clear, the fictional résistant's family is also forever changed. And a few months ago, Hall published an essay on Literary Hub,  "My Grandfather,  the French Resistance Fighter." It's a terrific standalone essay. But in its focus on her grandfather's Resistance legacy it's also a worthy complement to Hall's book and to the "Generations" story in particular.

In an earlier phase of my life, I was an historian. My specialty was modern France; my super-specialty was the 1939-45 period. So I know a bit about the "resistance literature" associated with that country and that time. I've mentioned that Rachel Hall is my friend, but even without the affection and admiration that I have for her I'd want to recommend Heirlooms. I'm grateful to the NBCC for this chance to do so.

Follow Erika Dreifus on Twitter @ErikaDreifus, where she tweets "on matters bookish and/or Jewish."


NBCC Reads Resistance Lit: Paul Wilner on John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle

by Paul Wilner | Jan-11-2017

What's your favorite work of resistance literature? That's the question that launches this year's NBCC Reads series, which draws upon the bookish passions of NBCC members and honorees at this time of cultural shift. (NBCC Reads from previous years here.) We're posting these in advance of the #WritersResist events to be held on January 15--Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday-- throughout the country, including an event on the steps of the New York Public LibraryAndrew Solomon, president of NBCC Sandrof-award winning PEN American Center and Trustee Masha Gessen will host; American Poets Laureate Robert Pinsky and Rita Dove will share original "inaugural" poems written for the occasion; and dozens of writers and artists including Laurie Anderson, Mary Karr, A.M. Homes, Michael Cunningham, Jeffrey Eugenides, and others will speak and read on the ideals of democracy.

I first read Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle,  published in 1936, in high school, and it has stayed with me. An account of a strike by migrant apple workers in fictional “Torgas County,” standing in for a real-life labor dispute in Tulare County, it captures the disillusioned mood of Depression-era America. The infatuation with the Communist Party as a tool to mobilize those left out is portrayed here clinically, and, Steinbeck’s protestations to the contrary, sympathetically. Strike leader Mac McLeod and his young disciple, Jim Nolan, are clear-eyed about the consequences of their actions, but argue that the ends justify the means. 

“Listen...we’re probably going to lose this strike,’’ Mac tells a local picker he’s recruited to the cause. “But we maybe raised enough hell so maybe there won’t be a strike in the cotton… It doesn’t make any difference if we lose. Here’s nearly a thousand men who’ve learned how to strike…”

It’s a quietly furious novel, less magniloquent than The Grapes of Wrath,’ but more effective, for my money. Steinbeck’s loner stance puts him at a distance from the agit-prop work of the day, from Dos Passos to broadly drawn Popular Front fiction.

A sympathetic medic, Doc Burton, supplies counterpoint to the revolutionary mood, arguing that “violence begets violence… It seems to me that man has engaged in a blind and fearful struggle out of a past he can’t remember into a future he can’t foresee nor understand.’’

We may not see the future lying before us, but Steinbeck has provided a valuable roadmap to the lessons of the past. He may have fought kicking and screaming against the label of “engaged’’ writer – he’ll never be confused with Sartre, to his credit – but he understood the power, as well as the perils, of resistance.

Paul Wilner is a frequent contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle, Zyzzyva, and other publications.


NBCC Board Election Results

by Jane Ciabattari | Jan-10-2017

Results of this year's board election are in. Welcome to the newly elected board members:

Walton Muyumba
Tess Taylor
Mary Ann Gwinn
Daisy Fried
John McWhorter
Anjali Enjeti
Lori Feathers
Yahdon Israel
 

NBCC Reads Resistance Lit: Ron Smith on Arthur Miller’s The Crucible

by Ron Smith | Jan-10-2017

What's your favorite work of resistance literature? That's the question that launches this year's NBCC Reads series, which draws upon the bookish passions of NBCC members and honorees at this time of cultural shift. (NBCC Reads from previous years here.) We're posting these in advance of the #WritersResist events to be held on January 15--Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday-- throughout the country, including an event on the steps of the New York Public LibraryAndrew Solomon, president of NBCC Sandrof-award winning PEN American Center and Trustee Masha Gessen will host; American Poets Laureate Robert Pinsky and Rita Dove will share original "inaugural" poems written for the occasion; and dozens of writers and artists including Laurie Anderson, Mary Karr, A.M. Homes, Michael Cunningham, Jeffrey Eugenides, and others will speak and read on the ideals of democracy.

Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is designed to infuriate.

Those who find it a classic tragedy—one that provides a “cleansing” catharsis—are in the minority, I think. And they miss the point. Miller’s Death of a Salesman leaves most audiences wrung out, weeping more or less hopelessly. His Crucible, though, leaves most audiences weeping angrily. It didn’t have to happen, we say—if only those irrational people had listened—if only the rational, sensible people had acted sooner—

Miller wrote The Crucible in the spirit of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People, that earlier play about an ordinary, stubborn man becoming radicalized by the lies and injustice of his community. Like Hollywood’s High Noon, The Crucible is a call to resistance against the Communist Witch Hunts of the early fifties. But it is much more than that.

John Proctor is an individualist in the best sense of the word. He refuses to let other people think for him—and, at the end, he refuses to be used by his community for evil purposes. We come to understand that small conformities can lead swiftly to malevolent enormities. Proctor loves life, loves the physical world, and he does not believe in an afterlife.

The Crucible offers a number of role models for resistance. Proctor’s wife, Elizabeth, is strong and strong-minded. Elderly Rebecca Nurse, kind, patient, and warm-hearted, goes to the gallows a confident, untroubled Christian, ready to meet her Maker.

But John Proctor is this play’s flawed, all-too-human protagonist. Like Robert Bolt’s Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, Proctor does everything he can to avoid execution. Still, at the end, he is willing to die rather than be publicly humiliated. After months of self-disgust at his weaknesses, Proctor goes to the gallows at last proud of himself, consciously setting an example of courageous resistance for his sons.

And when he leaves the stage, I am filled with admiration at this genuine heroism, this fiercely reluctant martyrdom. I weep at senseless loss, and I feel rage that Puritan pygmies can cause such suffering. And can even cause the death of a man as strong, honest, and clear-sighted as John Proctor. Like Robert Bolt’s Thomas More, Proctor dies rather than sell his soul.

The Crucible inspires vigilance, blunt honesty, and moral exertion. The anger it engenders is our fuel for action.

Ron Smith was Poet Laureate of Virginia from 2014 to 2016. He has published three books of poetry with Louisiana State Press (including the forthcoming The Humility of the Brutes) and one with University Presses of Florida. Smith has taught poetry and poetry writing at Virginia Commonwealth University, University of Richmond, and University of Mary Washington, and is Poetry Editor of Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature. He is currently Writer-in-Residence at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Virginia.


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