“And by diversity I don’t just mean white writers including other places and races in their fiction – that has its importance, but I don’t consider it here.
What I am really interested in is the fiction of authors from different countries, cultures, races, genders, sexual orientations, physical abilities and experiences. The former is – emphatically — not a substitute for the latter. We are still in a situation where the origin (in a geometrical/ Cartesian sense) of the global SF scene is firmly planted in the West, and the ‘norm’ thus defined.
If speculative fiction is about dealing with otherness, with difference, then these voices should be an integral and essential part of the body of speculative fiction, not pushed to the margins.
Once again the restless English teacher turns to Tobias Wolff’s 1995 miracle in short story form, “Bullet in the Brain,” to rouse his class. Who is this protagonist, Anders, practically begging the bank robber to kill him? Why are we miserable, and when were we not? What does life mean to us? What truths have we hidden away stubbornly in our memories? The bullet is already in the brain; it won’t be outrun forever, or charmed to a halt. In the end it will do its work and leave the troubled skull behind, dragging its comet’s tail of memory and hope and talent and love into the marble hall of commerce.
When I look through the folder of photos on my computer from the past five years, there’s this one that is especially sad. At the time it was taken, the picture made me happy. I even had a big print made of it, and I hung it up in my classroom. It was a picture of “100 percent compliance” — a Doug Lemov teaching strategy that had been reiterated to me throughout multiple professional development sessions to the point that it had basically become part of my personal dogma. (“I believe in peace, love, equal rights for all, that salted caramel is the best flavor of ice cream, and that children should always demonstrate 100 percent compliance.”)
Oh hey! Our EIC wrote this. And now it’s all over the Tumblr!
On an average day there are some 14,000 people living on Rikers Island, a 413-acre piece of land that sits in the armpit of the Long Island Sound formed by the south Bronx, northwest Queens and the northeastern bulge of Manhattan. They live in a community that my student, whom I will refer to as Damocles, called “like a retirement home” yesterday when I visited him there. “Everyone moving slow, relaxed… that old-person shit.” I imagined the 24 year-old Damocles lying on his bed all day, watching the television that blared round the clock, occasionally going outside to play skelly with some of the others, the rest of the time just eating, sleeping and feeling bad about himself. Those 14,000 people are supervised and controlled by a staff of 9,000 New York City correction officers; according to Wikipedia the city spends $167,000 on each inmate annually, or about $14,000 a month—seven times what I earn per month as Damocles’ teacher.
We sat in a cafeteria-like room at opposite sides of a table that neither of us could cross. Damocles smelled bad—he had been there three days so far and hadn’t been given amenities like soap or toothpaste or underclothes. He shifted between expressing disappointment in his situation and optimism rooted in the hope that they would soon let him get back to his life. He’s still hoping to apply to community college for the fall, still hopeful that he might find a job through his internship at a local newspaper that we’d set him up with. He was still thoughtful, still honest, still motivated to break out of “that hood life” that encapsulates his first 24 years.
Rikers Island is a trip—there’s no other way to put it. It is a three-minute swim from LaGuardia Airport, and in many ways feels exactly the same—long lines to get through security checkpoints and metal detectors; grungy clusters of immovable seats in massive waiting rooms; televisions everywhere to keep you stimulated; guards everywhere that somehow project sleepy boredom and perpetual intimidation simultaneously. But then it is also a tranquil place if you look out the window of the visitor’s bus, full of green fields, quiet parking lots, enormous brutalist combines every 500 feet or so fenced in by a literal ton of barbed wire. The visitors queues, locker areas and waiting rooms are populated by young women with babies; the housing facilities full of their men. For visitors there are very few signs or instructions posted—everyone just seems to know what to do. My friend and I ask constantly where to go, how to proceed, what to say, what not to do, what will happen. Everybody we ask knows, because everybody we ask has been there before. There are perhaps unwritten rules of conduct to visiting this place passed down from older siblings to younger ones, mothers to daughters, nephews to sons to fathers to granddaughters. Everyone knows when the bus will come. Everyone knows when to bring quarters for lockers in your pocket, and when to keep them in the locker at the checkpoint, and when you definitely will not need them anymore. Everyone knows when you must knock on a door behind which an officer stands, and when to never, ever knock. Everyone knows exactly how to roll down their socks halfway. How to lead someone who’s always had metal in their body through a metal detector, painstakingly slowly. How to reach across a table to hold your son for a short period of time.
David Foster Wallace long ago warned about the cultural snark that now defines popular culture. It’s time to listen
I’ve been dissecting this article for the past week, and still don’t feel smart or cultured enough to fully understand all the evidence the writers, Matt Ashby and Brendan Carroll, are using to make their argument. A few posts previously on our Tumblr Willa posted a famous interview of Gabriel Garcia Marquez in which Marquez decries intellectualism in the creative process in favor of using intuition, and I suppose this Salon article could serve as something of a rebuttal. I haven’t read enough of Marquez to know for sure.
Ashby and Carroll do have something here, though. They cite three major 21st century novels—McCarthy’s The Road, Robinson’s Gilead and Gaitskill’s Veronica (which I need to read)—as courageous works of art in how they confront their tumultuous, apt-to-depress world with writing that is unabashedly sentimental and that attempts redemption. This in contrast to what the writers (and David Foster Wallace) assert to be a trend of ironic, nihilistic and demoralizingly self-conscious art that has taken prominence since the 1960s. I don’t know if I agree that all our art has become these things, but I can get on board with their desire to see more artists working to take risks, leave themselves vulnerable and make the audience feel catharsis and redemption, rather than just “comment”, “poke fun”, and other forms of unproductive or destructive exploitation.
Directed by Lotfy Nathan The 12 O’CLOCK BOYS are a notorious urban dirt bike pack in Baltimore — popping wheelies and weaving at excessive speeds through traffic, the group impressively evades the hamstrung police. In Lotfy Nathan’s wild, dynamic documentary (three years in the making), their stunning antics are envisioned through the eyes of young adolescent Pug - a bright kid from the Westside obsessed with the riders and willing to do anything to join their ranks. Premiering to critical acclaim at the SXSW and Hot Docs Film Festivals (where Nathan won the HBO Emerging Artist Award), 12 O’CLOCK BOYS provides a compelling and intimate personal story of a young boy and his dangerous, thrilling dream.
This weekend I set aside an hour and fifteen minutes to watch the documentary film 12 O’clock Boys, directed by Lotfy Nathan who spent three years interviewing and hanging out with now 14 year-old Pug of West Baltimore. The film tracks Pug’s coming-of-age in a ghetto neighborhood that ails from a perpetual lack of economic opportunity, constant violence and physical disrepair. Pug aspires to join the 12 O’clock Boys, an aggressive dirt bike gang antagonized by the city of Baltimore and representative of black rebellion against the oppressive status quo.
I’ll be showing the film in my class in the next couple of weeks in an ongoing attempt to empower my court-involved students, all of whom come from NYC neighborhoods equivalent to West Baltimore, with sociopolitical awareness, oppression education and the language of social justice. This film is so much of what I want in my art; it is smart and unassuming, politically bold yet challenges the viewer to make meaning him/herself.
Check out how the late Roger Ebert embarrasses his legacy in an astonishingly superficial and misunderstood review:
In the post office it is tense and drab and arid. There is an undercurrent of deception. I have moved from the main queue line to the self-service machine line to the money orders, stamps and certified line, all on my own accord, and now I am plotting a fourth maneuver back to the main line, and no one seems to find this strange. Aside from the drone of feet shuffling to an uncanny rhythm, my ears feel hyperaware, like in a nature preserve. There is the far-off conversation of a postal worker speaking through the reinforced double-glass windows to a woman waving a limp dollar bill in one hand; the sudden, amplified, cartoonish ding-dong! to signal the opening of a booth; an infant screaming in abject misery; a man muttering curses and making his way to the door, idle apologies of people backing into one another, the scribbling of a pen on hard Formica, and all the while the pervading hush of conflict inevitable as the violence and gore in act five of a Shakespeare tragedy.
I can see through the windows two postal workers spread over eight booths, and a third pacing back and forth from the mailbox room to the package room and back, her head always down. One problem is that the package room has overflowed into the main room with the booths, and there are great brown towers of boxes everywhere, creating that romantic underground feel, nooks, caves, natural staircases and landings—the type of place a couple of six year-olds would love to spend an afternoon. There are two stations in the front of the post office for you to select your USPS-brand box and package sleeve and assemble it yourself, but the cardboard and paper piles have been tossed all over the place or have long since been exhausted, and I take a quick sojourn to Walgreens to purchase a manila bubble-wrap sleeve for $1.73, where a man in a suit greets me at the door, the cashier calls me “guest” and a marimba jazz tune plays paradise over the PA system. Then I’m back at the post office, caught for the third time trying to open the wrong entrance door, the one that is bolted shut from the inside.
Someone has left their printed twenty-dollar sticker on top of the self-service machine; a good Samaritan has been waiting to show it to a postal worker now for the last five minutes. A man is standing at the change-of-address, fill-out-your-envelope, etc. counter, staring out the window toward Atlantic Avenue. Ding-dong! Two patrons troubleshoot the self-service machine, trying to figure out why it has charged them ten dollars for a small parcel. “What line is that?” a woman in the main queue calls to the woman at the front of the package line. “Can I mail a package from that line?” “You can’t do anything from that line,” someone says. A man exiting drives his pushcart into a garbage can, which slides several feet but does not tip over. He ponders for a moment, then leaves it there, wheeling around it. “Thank you sooo much,” the old woman in front of me says to the postal worker, having just made a transaction. “God bless you.” She walk past me. “It’s your turn, my love.”
I took 18 students up to Bronx Community College today, to break the monotony of our program. A couple of them have applied already, or are thinking about applying. We took the E to the D all the way up to 183rd St.
I hadn’t made an appointment for an actual college tour, or anything. I’d been playing phone tag with the admissions officer; I would call and email her, then she would call me two weeks later while I was teaching a class, then I would call her back and she wouldn’t be around, then a week later she’d call me, and so on. So I just decided to take them up there myself. I’d been there before. I’d seen the sculpture garden with the American presidents and inventors and other Successful People, overlooking the East River and Inwood to the west and the Palisades way over in Jersey. I’d seen the brand new library with nobody in it. I knew how to get to the echoey rotunda and what to say about it. At the entrance a guard stopped us. We all waited, having a photo op and blasting 18 different songs out of 18 different headphones while he listened for how he should proceed over the walkie-talkie. Finally he let us go, told me about the map at the top of the stairs.
When we invaded the library, and all my students rushed to the couches, the password-less computers, and made loud conversation in the foyer, the police officer smiled at me and said nothing. When we barged in on a talk en espanol concerning the study-abroad program to Puerto Rico, the facilitator stopped his lecture to welcome us and ask how we were doing. Another woman presiding over the talk was not alarmed when we came in rowdily but when we decided to leave because we couldn’t understand what was being said. When two of my students went into Admissions to see about applying, an admissions officer invited them into her inner chamber to motivate them. The rest of my students waited patiently outside. I felt good about Bronx Community College.
I did not manage to get any money for lunch, so we just walked back to the train. We got back to the program late in the afternoon and ate old sandwiches out of the fridge.