Bolaño on working writers

No one forces you to write. The writer enters the labyrinth voluntarily—for many reasons, of course: because he doesn’t want to die, because he wants to be loved, etc.—but he isn’t forced into it. He’s no more forced than a politician is forced into politics or a lawyer is forced into law school. The great advantage for the writer is that the lawyer or the politician, outside his country of origin, tends to flounder like a fish out of water, at least for a while—whereas a writer outside his native country seems to grow wings. The same thing applies to other situations. What does a politician do in prison? What does a lawyer do in the hospital? Anything but work. What, on the other hand, does a writer do in prison or in the hospital? He works. Sometimes he works a lot (not to mention poets). Of course the claim can be made that in prison the libraries are no good and that in hospitals there often are no libraries. It can be argued that in most cases exile means the loss of the writer’s books, among other material losses, and in some cases even the loss of his papers, his unfinished manuscripts, projects, letters. It doesn’t matter. Better to lose manuscripts than lose your life. The point is that the writer works wherever he is, even while he sleeps, which isn’t true of those in other professions. Actors, it can be said, are always working, but it isn’t the same: the writer writes and is conscious of writing, whereas the actor, under great duress, only howls. Policemen are always policemen, but that isn’t the same either, because it’s one thing to be and another to work. The writer is and works in any situation. The policeman only is. And the same is true of the professional assassin, the soldier, the banker. Whores, perhaps, come closest in the exercise of their profession to the practice of literature.

Bolaño, Roberto. Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles, and Speeches, 1998–2003. Translated by Natasha Wimmer, New Directions Books, 2011: 57.

James Forman on cop gangs

 

[D.C. police] aggressiveness [in the 1990s] came at an appalling human and eventually financial cost. A 73-year-old retired postal worker was beaten after officers mistook him for a suspect; the man ended up with a broken arm. A 56-year-old-woman was beaten with a nightstick after challenging officers involved in an altercation with two of her children; another woman was cursed at, hit, and maced outside of the restaurant where she worked. Much like Staten Island’s Eric Garner, a 31-year-old deaf man named Frankie Murphy stopped breathing while an officer held him in a choke hold;  he died in police custody. After a dangerous ride in a police wagon–much like the one suffered by Freddie Gray in Baltimore–a 28-year-old former US Marine named James Cox won two separate lawsuits against the police. As a result of such incidents, D.C. paid out about $1 million per year to victims of police misconduct during the early 1990s. Yet the abuses continued.

At the same time, a culture of impunity flourished with regard to less violent but more common police intrusions into the daily lives of black citizens. Swearing and yelling, making belittling remarks, using illegitimate orders, conducting random and unwarranted searches, demanding that suspects “get up against the wall”–these behaviors rarely led to lawsuits or newspaper coverage. But for residents of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, especially young people, this treatment became part of the social contract, a tax paid in exchange for the right to move in public spaces. Police mistreatment became part of growing up.[1]

Whatever their individual intentions or motivations, officers were bound by a system that was the source of their orders, training, and beliefs. Their job was to make teeth rattle, “arrest those s.o.b.s,” and to prove that they were the biggest gang in town. In cities across America, they still do.[2]


[1]  Forman, Jr., James. Locking up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2017: 171.

[2] Ibid: 183-184.

Teju Cole on American Racism

American racism has many moving parts and has had enough centuries in which to evolve an impressive camouflage. It can hoard its malice in great stillness for a long time, all the while pretending to look the other way. Like misogyny, it is atmospheric. You don’t see it at first. But understanding comes.

“People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.” The news of the day (old news, but raw as a fresh wound) is that black American life is disposable from the point of view of policing, sentencing, economic policy, and countless terrifying forms of disregard. There is a vivid performance of innocence, but there’s no actual innocence left.

 

Cole, Teju. Known and Strange Things: Essays, Random House, New York, 2016: 15-16.

Angela Davis from Marin County Jail, May 1971

In the heat of our pursuit for fundamental human rights, Black people have been continually cautioned to be patient. We are advised that as long as we remain faithful to the existing democratic order, the glorious moment will eventually arrive when we will come into our own as full-fledged human beings.

But having been taught by bitter experience, we know that there is a glaring incongruity between democracy and the capitalist economy that is the source of our ills.

*

There is a distinct and qualitative difference between one breaking a law for one’s own individual self-interest and violating it in the interests of a class or a people whose oppression is expressed either directly or indirectly through that particular law. The former might be called a criminal, but the latter, as a reformist or revolutionary, is interested in universal social change. Captured, he or she is a political prisoner.

The offense of the political prisoner is his/her boldness, persistent challenging—legally or extra-legally—of fundamental social wrongs fostered and reinforced by the state. He/she has opposed unjust laws and exploitative, racist social conditions in general, with the ultimate aim of transforming these laws and this society into an order harmonious with the material and spiritual needs and interests of the vast majority of its members.

*

In Black communities, wherever they are located, there exists an ever-present reminder that our universe must remain stable in its drabness, its poverty, its brutality. From Birmingham to Harlem to Watts, Black ghettoes are occupied, patrolled and often attacked by massive deployments of police. The police, domestic caretakers of violence, are the oppressor’s emissaries, charged with the task of containing us within the boundaries of our oppression.

The announced function of the police, to protect and serve the people, becomes the grotesque caricature of protecting and preserving the interests of our oppressors and serving us nothing but injustice. They are there to intimidate and persuade Blacks with their violence that we are powerless to alter the conditions of our lives.

They encircle the community with a shield of violence, too often forcing the natural aggression of the Black community inwards. The courts not only consistently abstain from prosecuting criminal behavior on the part of the police, but they convict, on the basis of biased police testimony, countless Black men and women.

*

The [current] movement is presently at a critical juncture. Fascist methods of repression threaten to physically decapitate and obliterate the movement. Dangerous ideological tendencies from within threaten to isolate the movement and diminish its revolutionary impact. Both menaces must be counteracted in order to ensure our survival. Revolutionary Blacks must spearhead and provide leadership for a broad anti-fascist movement.

 

Davis, Angela. Political Prisoners, Prisons and Black Liberation, written from Marin County Jail, May 1971. From If They Come in the Morning…Voices of Resistance. Verso Books, London, 2016: 27-43. First published by The Third Press, 1971.

coronavirus blues

Daydreaming in aisle five

toothpaste and shampoo

silent sparkling commerce

air conditioned

red arrows on scuffed white tile

a guide in the labyrinth

whole aisles are wastelands

handwritten signs: OUT OF STOCK

no one looks at me

not masked employees

shuffling

ignoring everyone

afraid

not shoppers

some unmasked

aggressive

center-of-the-universe

others kind, warm

smiling behind masks

at the absurdity

a blackbird loops above the bakery

scouting crumbs

I’ve been here too long

they don’t have what I need

 

back in the car I

sanitize

mask down

never dreamed I’d need

masks for my family

 

through deserted streets

atomic sunlight

paranoid and guilty

for what I might now carry

 

Bolaño’s literary kitchen

BetweenParentheses

“In my ideal literary kitchen there lives a warrior, whom some voices (disembodied voices, voices that cast no shadow) call a writer. This warrior is always fighting. He knows that in the end, no matter what he does, he’ll be defeated. But he still roams the literary kitchen, which is built of cement, and faces his opponent without begging for mercy or granting it.”

— Roberto Bolaño

Churchill on landlords

IMG_4060

Roads are made, streets are made, services are improved, electric light turns night into day, water is brought from reservoirs a hundred miles off in the mountains — all the while the landlord sits still. Every one of those improvements is affected by the labor and cost of other people and the taxpayers. To not one of these improvements does the land monopolist contribute, and yet, by every one of them the value of his land is enhanced. He renders no service to the community, he contributes nothing to the general welfare, he contributes nothing to the process from which his own enrichment is derived…The unearned increment on the land is reaped by the land monopolist in exact proportion, not to the service, but to the disservice done.

— Winston Churchill, 1909

De la Pava’s greatness

Singularity

Sergio de la Pava is a New York attorney. Attorneys don’t normally set out to write novels, and certainly not great ones. Or so it seems. And yet that’s what de la Pava has done. His novel A Naked Singularity, winner of the 2013 PEN/Bingham prize for a debut work, was written in 2008 and published by de la Pava himself. His second novel, Personae, also self-published, was picked up by the University of Chicago Press along with A Naked Singularity after people began to read Singularity and notice how good it was/is.

Writers like de la Pava (I know of none) are anomalous. Publishers and the major houses in particular have created an archetypal (and exclusive) environment based on a specific business model. Literary agents act as middlemen between writers and publishers and it works well enough for the publishers to be able to publish books and still make a profit. Booksellers get paid and the writer gets paid and thus the agent gets paid and everyone is happy. Unless writers object to this model and choose to wade into the publishing world alone and self-publish, which creates all sorts of problems for publishers and sellers.

Naturally the publishers and agents (and even some established authors cemented neatly in the archetypal model) abhor self-publication. It renders their role in the process irrelevant and removes their share. Thus, when a self-published novel written as well as A Naked Singularity comes along and threatens to sell a load of copies, the major houses cry foul and either look to evolve the business model or continue to crusade against artists. Self-published novels are most often unread and become obscure and nonexistent. With A Naked Singularity, Sergio de la Pava has written a novel so undeniably good that he’s managed to circumvent the business model adopted by the major houses, and he’s the first major voice to do so since the model’s metamorphosis into its current state.

De la Pava is a serious talent whose voice commands attention. He’s earned the PEN/Bingham award, and Personae firmly establishes what readers of A Naked Singularity thought to be true: that de la Pava is the rarest of literary surprises, a writer who doesn’t appear to have set out to write a great novel but has, and a writer who can’t help but make his contemporaries envious of his lexicon, his acute intelligence, and his exemplary storytelling ability. He’s a previously unheard-of writer (he’s an attorney, for god’s sake) who puts his contemporaries to shame and whom, if the major houses had their way, wouldn’t have been discovered, wouldn’t have sold nearly as many copies, and wouldn’t have received the attention his talents warrant. At least not yet.

The publishing world would like readers to believe that there are two types of North American writers: those whose works are worth reading, and those whose aren’t. I posit two completely different classes: Writers who aspire to be great, and writers who ARE great. De la Pava is now entrenched in the latter category. His works give hope to readers who also write literature and likewise aim to challenge the limits of ambition, consciousness, and the status quo.