New English Reading Circle for 2013-2014

The International Institute library will have a new English Reading Circle cycle for 2013-2014. Please follow us  at http://bibliotecaiie.wordpress.com/ or contact us (biblioteca@iie.es).

Posted in General Information | Leave a comment

“Once in a Lifetime,” by Jhumpa Lahiri

The short story I have selected for our June reading, Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Once in a Lifetime,” provides us with a pleasant read and a neat synthesis of many of the themes we have been discussing as a group throughout the year. First published in The New Yorker in 2006 and later included in Lahiri’s 2008 collection of stories, Unaccustomed Earth, “Once in a Lifetime” is, formally speaking, a relatively unproblematic narrative that tells the story of Kaushik Choudhuri and his parents as witnessed by Hema and her parents. Hema is the narrator, and the narrative she transmits is directed to Kaushik, using a glaring you as a way of transposing reader and listener. What we as readers don’t know, however, is why these memories are being related to one of their protagonists. (Here’s a hint: there are two more Hema-Kaushik stories). Lahiri, in my opinion, has a certain gift for storytelling, and if I can momentarily ignore the rather conventional crush motif, these gifts are easier to discern and appreciate. But more on this at our Reading Circle meeting.

I’d like to return for a moment to a casual comment I made earlier. When I use the term “synthesis” to refer to the story’s relationship to the unifying concept of this year’s Reading Circle, I am simply referring to the fact that in the foreground is the experience of a child of Bengali immigrants to the United States, an experience profoundly marked by contradictory desires: to be different (American? Indian?) and the same (with a united identity). More than their parents, Hema and Kaushik embody this difficult territory to navigate – that no man’s land of belonging to neither the native culture, nor to the culture of one’s elders. Our culture collector will surely be able to extract a decent number of examples from the story to illustrate how this conflicted and conflicting consciousness plays out in the lives of these characters, whether the examples are of hospitality, food, drink, language, traditions, manners, childrearing, clothes, or class. At the root of the particular examples present in “Once in a lifetime,” I think there is a grain of truth for most immigrant peoples from any country to any country. On a related note, and as always, I encourage you to think about the story’s readers, or about those who read Lahiri’s fiction in general. We can speak more about this topic at our meeting, but I’ll just say for now that I suspect there is at least a bit of Orientalism at work here – probably not as far as the author is concerned (her interviews don’t give that impression), but in the imaginary of the readers who catapult her work to the top of fiction bestseller lists. Sorry, sorry – I digress. In any case, we can see clearly illustrated in this month’s story the idea I wanted to bring to the Reading Circle this year: that these contradictions are also the typical American experience, even if they have not yet been canonized as American literature.

One of the stylistic elements that pleasantly surprised me was the description of bodies. If we pay close attention to Lahiri’s many descriptive passages in the story, many of them paint a portrait and then focus the reader on an image of a person through his or her body. On the first page, there are the party preparations, complete with vivid descriptions of Hena’s bath, dressing, and application of perfume. Later on, this scene:

I was ushered into the fitting room, your mother watching approvingly as I took off my coat and sweater and tried on the bra. She adjusted the straps and attached the hook at the back. She tried things on as well, topless beside me without shame, though it embarrassed me to see her large, plumcolored nipples, the surprising droop of her breasts, the dark patches of underarm hair that gave off a faintly acrid but not altogether unpleasant smell. “Perfect,” your mother said, running her finger below the elastic, along my skin, adding, “I hope you know that you’re going to be very beautiful one day.”

And then there is the moment when Kaushik goes out into the snow with Hema, “touching the snow with your bare hands, studying it, looking happy for the first time since you arrived.” Passages such as these fill the story, and surely they are part of what makes the story enjoyable and generally easy to identify with.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts and impressions. The only thing I would ask you to briefly consider in preparation for our meeting is the relationship between “Once in a Lifetime” and the theme that has implicitly or explicitly united all of the stories we have read together this year, that of the border between cultural belonging and cultural exclusion, and how this border is not fixed. Having come full circle, you could even relate it back to the first story we read, Junot Díaz’s “Miss Lora.” Remember? Happy reading, and I hope to see you at the last meeting of the (school) year of our English Reading Circle.

Posted in Cycle 2012/13 June Reading | 1 Comment

Ninth Reading for Cycle 2012-2013

Cycle: Other Voices and Other Cultures in the Contemporary American Short Story

June reading: “Once in a Lifetime” by Jhumpa Lahiri

2006_05_08_p323

“Short story about an Indian family who comes from Bombay to stay with another Indian family in Massachusetts; the daughter of the host family, Hema, gets a crush on the son, Kaushik, and he confides in her that his mother is dying of breast cancer…”.

Read it online at the New Yorker’s website.

Colloquium: Wednesday, June 12th 2013 at 14:30 h.

Previous discussion online here! Included your comments under this or next Peter Savaiano’s post about this short story.

See also:

(Short story Reviews)

http://www.inflibnet.ac.in/ojs/index.php/JLCMS/article/viewFile/1083/1103

http://engl106.blog.sbc.edu/2012/04/19/jhumpa-lahiri-once-in-a-lifetime

http://dayswork.wordpress.com/2006/05/16/jhumpa-lahiris-once-in-a-lifetime/

http://thebastardtitle.wordpress.com/2013/03/17/short-story-sunday-jhumpa-lahiris-once-in-a-lifetime/

(General Reviews)

http://nymag.com/arts/books/profiles/45571/

http://elpais.com/diario/2010/03/13/babelia/1268442735_850215.html (In Spanish)

(Bio)

http://www.randomhouse.com/kvpa/jhumpalahiri/bio.php

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jhumpa_Lahiri

(Interviews)

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/04/jhumpa-lahiri/306725

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=97418330

Posted in Cycle 2012/13 June Reading | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Eighth Reading for Cycle 2012-2013

Cycle: Other Voices and Other Cultures in the Contemporary American Short Story

May reading: “Alone” by Yiyun Li

14379-01

“Short story about a woman who meets an older man at a ski resort and tells him about a childhood tragedy in her past…”

Read it online at the New Yorker’s website.

Colloquium: Wednesday, May 22nd 2013 at 14:30 h.

Previous discussion online here! Included your comments under this or next Peter Savaiano’s post about this short story.

See also:

(Reviews)

http://perpetualfolly.blogspot.com.es/2009/11/new-yorker-alone-by-yiyun-li.html

http://threeguysonebook.com/alone-by-yiyun-li

https://alumni.stanford.edu/get/page/blogs/post-view/?ciid=685

(Bio)

http://yiyunli.com/bio.php

http://english.ucdavis.edu/people/directory/yiyli

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yiyun_Li

(Interviews)

http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2012/apr/13/yiyun-li-life-writing-interview

http://asymptotejournal.com/article.php?cat=Interview&id=14

http://therumpus.net/2009/01/interview-with-yiyun-li/

(Bibliography)

http://heariyiyunli.wordpress.com/2011/10/12/hello-world/

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/bios/yiyun_li/search?contributorName=Yiyun+Li

Posted in Cycle 2012/13 May Reading | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Seventh Reading for Cycle 2012-2013

Cycle: Other Voices and Other Cultures in the Contemporary American Short Story

April reading: “Nawabdin Electrician” by Daniyal Mueenuddin

Steve Power - Nawabdin

“Short story about an electrician named Nawabdin in the Pakistani desert. He flourished on a signature ability: a technique for cheating the electric company by slowing down the revolutions of its meters. In this Pakistani desert, behind Multan, this trick guaranteed Nawab’s employment, both off and on the farm of…”

Read it online at the New Yorker’s website.

Colloquium: Wednesday, April 24th 2013 at 14:30 h.

Previous discussion online here! Included your comments under this or next Peter Savaiano’s post about this short story.

See also:

http://inotherrooms.com/

http://www.npr.org/2009/03/06/101484912/pakistani-american-writer-bridges-two-worlds

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniyal_Mueenuddin

http://wardsix.blogspot.com.es/2007/08/daniyal-mueenuddins-nawabdin.html

http://2manybooks2littletime.wordpress.com/2010/01/21/nawabdin-electrician-from-in-other-rooms-other-wonders/

Posted in Cycle 2012/13 April Reading | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

“The Five Wounds,” by Kirstin Valdez Quade

Kirstin Valdez Quade is very young by publishing industry standards, but has nevertheless begun to find her place on the literary scene. This month’s story, “The Five Wounds,” appeared originally in The New Yorker, and another story of hers has been included in the 2013 edition of Best American Short Stories. She obtained an MFA in creative writing, and now teaches it at Stanford University. We, the readers of her stories, ultimately know little more about her, but this information is not essential – nor should it be the key to understanding the work of any author. In any case, the motif and general aesthetic of “The Five Wounds” certainly fits thematically with the title we have given this year’s Reading Circle: “Other Voices and Other Cultures in the Contemporary American Short Story.” I think that most readers of The New Yorker probably wouldn’t be able to identify with the small, marginal community in New Mexico that Valdez Quade depicts in her story, nor would the image of a bloody, agonizing Jesus resonate (spiritually) with many people outside Spanish-speaking sociocultural contexts. The author does, however, use a number of techniques that make the story more attractive to its potential readers: the use of Spanglish, which is reminiscent of Junot Díaz, and a “creative writingese” style that many university-trained authors and their readers seem to favor recently.

Hopefully we will have time to discuss these two issues at Wednesday’s session, but for now I would ask you to reflect on a question that I repeatedly come back to, especially when considering pieces of fiction published in The New Yorker: what does an upper-middle class American reader “get” from this story? Why do they like (or simply finish) it? Does it resonate with them? Why or why not? I would like to propose we frame our discussion with these questions in mind, and I am sure this month’s Culture Collector will have something to say about them.

I would like to briefly outline a few of my general observations about “The Five Wounds,” beginning with the themes of forgiveness and redemption, which I believe are the central ones to this piece. A good portion of the story is dedicated to enumerating Amadeo’s faults and shortcomings in life, both as an individual and as a father, partner, son, and worker. Playing the role of Jesus is “his chance to prove to them all – and God, too – everything he’s capable of.” About halfway through the story, when Angel asks her father why he wants to experience the pain of a staged crucifixion, he is at a loss for words. “He can’t say it, but the answer is this: he needs to know if he has it in him to ask for the nails, if he can get up there in front of the whole town and do a performance so convincing he’ll transubstantiate right there on the cross into something real. […] Total redemption in one gesture, if only he can do it right.” In the end, Amadeo does ask for the nails, and is subsequently illuminated with true insight. What exactly is the nature of this insight, particularly pertaining to his relationship with his daughter, Angel? I think this is a good topic for discussion at our meeting – it tests our ability to perform a close reading. As for forgiveness, it’s fair to say that Amadeo is forgiven for his past sins, as foreshadowed in the third sentence, “People are saying that Amadeo is the best Jesus they’ve had in years, maybe the best since Manuel García”, and the poignant last phrase of the story: “Amadeo twists in agony on the cross, and below him the people applaud.” Who are these “people?” Perhaps the (small, rather closed) society he lives in. Even before the time of the story (the time of his atonement) begins, the “people” are prepared to forgive him. Only he doesn’t seem prepared to forgive himself.

This brings us to the question of time. The way the narrative distributes a notion of time over the entire text is certainly one of the elements I refer to when I use the term “creative writingese” to describe the style Valdez Quade deploys. This designation is not a disparaging remark, but rather seeks to identify a rather formulaic way of constructing the narrative time of the story. As one commentator remarked in one of the links provided in the announcement post of “The Five Wounds,” the use of the present tense provides an interesting way of accompanying Amadeo, who lives primarily in the present, while he traverses a sort of coming-to-terms with his daughter and carries out his “performance” as Jesus (or as the first line reads: “This year Amadeo Padilla is Jesus,” emphasis mine). There is a balanced mix of description and dialogue, including a significant, and almost cinematic, flashback. This largely chronological development helps the reader advance effortlessly through the narrative, which starts on Holy Tuesday and ends on Good Friday. We “get to know” Amadeo and Angel, and witness their development, at a very comfortable pace.

I imagine we are going to have an interesting time discussing the different characters of the story and the Biblical figures they correspond to, since the main characters are few (Amadeo and Angel), yet relatively complex, and “The Five Wounds” is essentially the story of their relationship with one another. But for me, the one that most stands out is Manuel García, who “[…] is old, but still a legend: in 1962 he begged the hermanos to use nails, he hasn’t been able to open or close his hands since.” He was the last Jesus to (actually) be crucified in the community’s reenactment of the Passion, so when he begins to follow and observe Amadeo, his phantom-like presence is not entirely unexpected: “[…] only Manuel García is qualified to judge this new Christ […].” I wonder how much of Manuel is actually in Amadeo from the beginning. They are compared in terms of their roles as Jesus in the very first paragraph. And when Manuel touches Angel in one of the more puzzling episodes of the story, Amadeo gets rather upset, for reasons he does not quite understand:

                        Manuel extends a gnarled brown hand, places it against her belly. Reaches out with the other. Cups her belly in both his hands, moves them over the surface of it. Angel stares at the Romeros’ yard.
                        Amadeo could go outside now, put a stop to the terrible thing that is happening, but he stays, one hand touching the pink lace. His legs are weak. When the old man closes his eyes, so does Amadeo.

There are only two occasions on which Amadeo himself touches his daughter, and they are both pokes on the shoulder, delivered only so that she will stop crying. When Manuel touches her belly, however, Amadeo begins to feel uneasy, and this could be considered the catalyst for the rest of the story, both in his attitude toward his performance as Jesus and the way he sees Angel. Manuel certainly helps transform Amadeo, by scrutinizing him, by insulting him, by calling Angel a whore. My question is (and hopefully you can help me answer it): to what extent is Manuel Amadeo? To put this another way: is Manuel (in the narrative, not as a spatially differentiated character) a part of Amadeo? What parallels can we draw?

This brings me to the ending of the story, gruesome as it is. The final images are hard to see through, and almost drown out the emotions of Amadeo and Angel. The cinematic suspension of time between the nail being driven into Amadeo’s palm and the very believable physical agony resulting from it, provides a perfect occasion for revelation.

                        In a moment, pain, but for now he thinks, This is all wrong, and he has time to clarify the thought. I am not the Son. The sky agrees, because it doesn’t darken. Amadeo remembers Christ’s cry – My God, why hast thou forsaken me? – and he knows what is missing. It is Angel who has been forsaken.
                        All at once he sees her. He is surprised by the naked fear on Angel’s face. It is not an expression he knows. And she feels not only fear – Amadeo sees that now – but pain, complete and physical. Nothing he can do will change this, and soon it won’t be just her suffering but the baby, too.

What does this realization mean, exactly? I have a few ideas, but I would like to hear yours, either here on the blog or at Wednesday’s meeting (but preferably both). I sense there is a connection between Amadeo’s pain and Angel’s. The suspension in time allows Amadeo to realize what it is that he must atone for, a realization without which the pain of the crucifixion would be in vain and would not purify his conscience/consciousness. In the end, does the pain free Amadeo from what ails him? I suspect it does, but in an unexpected way.

I hope you find Kirstin Valdez Quade’s story as engaging as I do. I must confess that when I first read it, while selecting the stories for this year’s Reading Circle, I knew that I had to include it as our reading for the month March. Since most of you, the participants, are Spanish (and as such, are at least more used to graphic religious imagery), I will be quite interested to hear your perspectives. What do the final images of Amadeo/Jesus on the cross mean to you (culturally), and what do you think they could mean to an American reader of The New Yorker? I look forward to hearing your thoughts on Wednesday. Happy reading.

Posted in Cycle 2012/13 March Reading | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Sixth Reading for Cycle 2012-2013

Cycle: Other Voices and Other Cultures in the Contemporary American Short Story

March reading: “The Five Wounds” by Kirstin Valdez Quade

5 wounds

 “Short story about a man who plays Jesus in a passion play and his relationship with his pregnant teen-age daughter.”

Read it online at the New Yorker’s website.

Colloquium: Wednesday, March 13th 2013 at 2:30 p.m.

Previous discussion online here! Included your comments here or under next Peter Savaiano’s post about this short story.

See also:

http://may-on-the-short-story.blogspot.com.es/2009/07/five-wounds-by-kirsten-valdez-quade.html

http://www.portifex.com/ReadingMatter/New%20Yorker%20Story/2009/QuadeFiveWounds.htm

http://perpetualfolly.blogspot.com.es/2009/07/new-yorker-five-wounds-by-kirstin.html

http://creativewriting.stanford.edu/people/kirstin-valdez-quade

http://www.narrativemagazine.com/issues/fall-2012/nemecia

Posted in Cycle 2012/13 March Reading | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

“Reading Lessons,” by Edwidge Danticat

It seems contrary to our generally chronological logic to begin a discussion of this month’s short story, Edwidge Danticat’s “Reading Lessons”, by talking about its ending, but I’d like to try anyway. Much (but not all) of the narrative tension comes to a head in the final scene, in which Danielle is called to a meeting with “Principal Boyfriend”, Chantal Cazeau, Paul, and his mother, Lorvane. This confrontational environment in which Danielle is to be held accountable for her actions is a perfectly constructed – if not predictable – narrative climax, but the second slap of the story, the one Lorvane plants on Danielle’s cheek, only provides closure or release for the most superficial tensions in the narrative. The final sentence does not appear to generate any sense of resolution: “A droning sound, like a telephone dial tone, was ringing in Danielle’s ear, but she thought she heard Principal Boyfriend ask once more, ‘Are you O.K.?’” The confrontation between Danielle, the pupil she slapped, and his mother has been resolved, for better or for worse, but the other tensions we notice in “Reading Lessons” remain. This final sentence could very well be the first sentence of a new story. At this point we need to ask ourselves what exactly are those other tensions are, and if we think they are – or ever were – on their way to being resolved.

Now I think we can revisit the beginning of the story, where one of these fundamental pressures is most evident: Danielle’s femininity, embodied in her relationship with her breasts. “The first time Danielle remembers ever being aware of her breasts…” provides a point of entry into the first two paragraphs, which describe how adolescent Danielle related to her mother’s advice that rubbing a certain type of crushed butterfly on her breasts would make them grow. In contrast with these dream-like childhood recollections, which I imagine for most readers of The New Yorker evoke a pre-modern and exotic space of innocence, the third paragraph provides an end to this idyll. The reader then also receives almost all the relevant information about the present-day Danielle, the main character of the story:

“[…] her mother was shot by a young man no older than Danielle […] And, because she’d taken her mother’s advice, her breasts did grow, so much that, years after she had left adolescence and left Haiti with her father and was working as a first-grade teacher at a small experimental school in Miami’s Little Haiti, she discovered in the shower one morning a chestnut-sized lump in one of them, the right one, which seemed to have bloomed overnight, as if her mammary glands had been soaked in a butterfly bath while she slept.”

I know this is a long passage (and my profound apologies go to our Passage Collector for this month’s meeting, hopefully I haven’t taken one of yours); I highlight it because it illustrates brilliantly how the Danielle-mother-breast-lump connection is constructed and from then on represents the deeper conflict(s) I mention above. Danielle’s unstable sense of identity always comes back to some problem or contradiction in this interrelation, brought forward in the narrative by the lump and brought to the reader’s attention via the (much juicier) story of the slap.

The lump. “Reading Lessons” is, to my mind, the story of Danielle and the Lump. She describes it at one point as “a strange presence in a familiar place,” one which disrupts the order of things, first on her body and then on her mood. She checks and registers it regularly. At the end of the day she finds it, the narrator tells us, “She was beginning to think of it, this thing inside her, as a fragile egg that might crack. It was essential that he [Principal Boyfriend] not touch it, especially with amorous intent, as loving touches might nourish it or release it from its shell to roam freely to other parts of her body.” At this moment she shuts herself off from her partner and from the world, as she assumes the lump into her subjectivity, making it a part of herself that she must care for, precisely by way of shutting others out. The next morning, Danielle decides not to go to work. She makes the resolution that “On this day, this new day, she would neglect the lump, not check for it at all. She would pretend that in her sleep some magic clock has been turned back to the days when her body was her own” (emphasis mine). Although her aversion to going to work this day is clearly framed by her fear of being discovered as a slapper of students, her fear of being confronted about it seems a much greater motivation for seeking solace in her father. I highlight the last phrase of the previous quote because essentially, due to the appearance of the lump, Danielle is alienated from her body (her physical self) and by extension, from her own emotions. This is the primary reason she loses control of her reactions. When she becomes frustrated in class and strikes an unruly pupil, without being fully aware of what she’s doing, the repressed energy of being almost completely alienated from herself a few hours earlier “boils over”, or erupts, and manifests it ugly head at Paul’s expense. The Lump is not mentioned again, but this alienating bodily experience provides Danielle with a disposition that creates the conflict in the narrative (i.e. the reason we have a story in front of us) and forces her to (begin to) confront her interconnected Danielle-mother-breast-lump problematic, the only possible way to recover an integral sense of self.

But what are these returns of the repressed? Apparently, Danielle has forced the memory of her mother being killed by one of her young classmates out of her consciousness, and this anger erupts forth when her sense of being is disrupted, a fact not unknown to her father: “She had become a teacher, her father knew, in order to find these types of boys early, to detect and save them. But the moment she slapped Paul she’d felt neither guilt nor remorse but retribution, justice.” In this return of the repressed, her unconscious identification of what she sees as a type of boy (the violent type that took her mother away from her and truncated the development of a uniquely feminine subjectivity) with one in particular (Paul) surfaces in the form of a slap.

Similarly, it is a slap that brings Danielle out of the lethargy of her alienated state, returning her to the present, to the immediacy of the here and now. When she is called to the meeting that provides the final scene of the story, she is able to identify the elements of her classroom, but it is impossible for her to identify with them, including the presence of her partner, “Principal Boyfriend”. Lorvane’s slap gives her feeling, a bodily pain that immediately calls her attention to her physical self, and therefore to her person. This does not come without a sense of redemption, in a Biblical sense of the word: “Now she understood the concept of turning the other cheek. It wasn’t so much directed at your neighbor, it was allowing yourself to experience further pain. Acted out, it would indeed be an extraordinary sacrifice.” The physical pain of the slap activates in Danielle both a feeling of remorse and a more intimate contact with herself, feelings or desires which hitherto have been hidden from (her) view. Now perhaps she is now more receptive and open to active reflection and consolation. In a phrase: she returns to reality.

In this introduction, I have tried to identify some of the main tensions that drive the plot of “Reading Lessons”, and it seems as though they are on the road toward resolution. To finally return to our beginning, the end of the story, the “Are you O.K.?” that Danielle hears through a fog evidences a partial recovery of her physical and emotional senses, which in turn signals the probability of an immanent act of openness and honesty, with herself and with others. A good idea to consider in preparation for our meeting this week could be to ask yourself how you think Danielle’s story would continue.

I’m sorry to have left out of this post any prolonged considerations regarding Principal Boyfriend, a genuinely good and sympathetic character, despite the unenthusiastic treatment accorded him by the narrator, so I hope to be able to continue the discussion of him and his relationship to Danielle at our meeting. The Culture Collector, as always with this year’s round of stories, will have plenty to inform us of this month. Both writer and characters of the story are immigrants to the United States from Haiti, and this experience is richly and extensively reflected in this month’s text. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the story at our meeting on Wednesday, and of course, reading some of them here on the blog beforehand. I hope you have enjoyed Edwidge Danticat’s “Reading Lessons”.

Posted in Cycle 2012/13 February Reading | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Fifth Reading for Cycle 2012-2013

Cycle: Other Voices and Other Cultures in the Contemporary American Short Story

February reading: “Reading Lessons” by Edwidge Danticat

Reading Lessons

“A Haitian immigrant elementary school teacher, a resident of Miami’s Little Haiti, is asked by her boss – and lover, “Principal Boyfriend” – to tutor the illiterate mothers of two of her students.”

Read it online at the New Yorker’s website.

Colloquium: Wednesday, February 20th 2013 at 2:30 p.m.

Previous discussion online here! Included your comments under this post and/or under next Peter Savaiano’s post about this short story.

See also:

http://voices.cla.umn.edu/artistpages/danticatEdwidge.php

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edwidge_Danticat

http://youtu.be/k5c84vfuFYE

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/backissues/2010/01/back-issues-danticat.html

http://topics.nytimes.com/topics/reference/timestopics/people/d/edwidge_danticat/index.html

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/bios/edwidge_danticat/search?contributorName=Edwidge+Danticat

Posted in Cycle 2012/13 February Reading | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

“The Noble Truths of Suffering,” by Aleksandar Hemon

Aleksandar Hemon’s short story, “The Noble Truths of Suffering,” will give us plenty to discuss at this month’s meeting of our Reading Circle. Originally published in 2008, and subsequently included in Hemon’s short story collection entitled Love and Obstacles in 2009, this outstanding piece of fiction could probably be attributed rather easily to its unique author, since his work generally focuses on characters whose predicament is similar to his own: they are Bosnians who either live in the United States (or more specifically, in Chicago), or who have otherwise been personally affected by the dissolution of the former Yugoslav Republics and the brutal war that ensued. Personally, I find the fact that Hemon learned English only in his late twenties (and perfected it!), and shortly thereafter went on to enjoy considerable literary success in his non-native language, to be the mark of an individual with a unique command of the written word. In this respect, we could liken his personal situation and literary talent to those of Lara Vapnyar, the author of last month’s text, only that Hemon had been published in his native language before emigrating to the United States. Some of the readers who commented on his work on the websites recommended in the previous informational post claim to have noted certain metaphors and images as signs of a distinctly foreign voice, using phrases and comparisons that would seem out of place to a reader whose native language is English. This may or may not be true, but I don’t think such stylistic questions are relevant to any discussion of the value of this story.

Although it is only partially related to his command of the English language, Hemon employs a narrative structure in “The Noble Truths” that lends a certain complexity to the story as a whole. While recounted entirely in the past tense, the story is comprised of several different “times” and registers: the nameless narrator’s contact with the writer Richard “Dick” Macalister in Sarajevo several years before the moment of enunciation; the results of his initial internet research into Macalister’s work, including quotes from it; a point in time a few years later in which the narrator is a struggling writer in Chicago and has become a follower of Macalister’s work; and a personal reading in Chicago by Macalister from his most recent novel; and perhaps the most confusing element of Hemon’s story, which is the narrator’s summary of this novel, coincidentally the moment which lends a coherence to the (narrator’s) story as a whole. This coherence, more than a series of anecdotes surrounding an encounter between a successful writer from the United States and an aspiring one originally from Bosnia, it is a more general reflection on the profession of writing, the search for a literary voice that incorporates life experiences, and the nature of admiration.

One does not need to be a particularly astute reader to observe that Americans (both the individual characters of the story and the people in general) are not portrayed in an especially flattering light. But neither are the Bosnians, for that matter. The representation of both countries and their respective peoples is distanced and embittered, but always ambivalent. The culture collector for this month’s meeting will have a field day “collecting” descriptions of Americans and other commentaries. The character of Macalister, for instance, seems to bring together a number of these qualities generally associated with United States citizens. His white tube socks, worn with sandals, are one of the most striking images at the beginning of the story. He also wears a Hawaiian shirt to the reception given in his honor at the residence of the American Ambassador in Sarajevo, an emblem of the so-called bad taste often attributed to a stereotypically American fashion sense. But Macalister is also soft-spoken, a vegetarian, and spiritual. He keeps his promise to call the narrator the morning after the reception, and even confounds him with his politeness. These quirks could also be labeled as typically American, but are by no means negative.

The Bosnian characters of the story are presented in an equally ambivalent light. The well-to-do members of Sarajevo’s high society who attend the reception for the prize-winning writer are portrayed as materialistic social climbers in search of status via association with the United States. A Barbie-like woman all but throws herself at the physically unremarkable Macalister. The next day, the narrator brags to his family that his author friend is a famous author, a comment in sharp contrast with the writer’s humble demeanor. The narrator’s father directly asks Macalister if he is rich, and serves him alcohol when explicitly told that he doesn’t drink. This tremendous lack of tact notwithstanding, Sarajevo is portrayed as a beautiful city with a tragic recent history, and its people as generally simple and well-intentioned folks (think of the last-minute preparations that go into the lunch, or the sincerity underneath the narrator’s father’s “interrogation” of his guest), who are ultimately victims of the war that devastated the Balkans, hence the narrator’s occasionally contradictory impulses towards criticism and nostalgia. He wants to show Macalister (and the reader) the best of what his native city has to offer, even if his manner of doing so comes off as blunt or pushy at times.

Another element of Hemon’s story that I find noteworthy is the implicit contemplation of the effect that violence has on societies, individuals, and by extension, on cultural production – in this case, on writing. For all the differences between the nameless narrator (the writer) and Macalister (the Writer), as the true readers, we can observe many similarities in tone between them, even if they hail from different corners of the globe. First, an attitude towards humanity that could be characterized as existentialist, or even nihilist, is everywhere apparent. Before accepting the invitation to the gala at the Ambassador’s residence, the narrator stumbles upon a list of notable quotes from Macalister’s work, and is struck by one in particular: “One of these days the thick chitin of the world will break open and shit and sorrow will pour out and drown us all. Nothing we say can prevent that”. Such a perspective, especially out of context, leaves little room for worldly hope. Macalister is a veteran of the war in Vietnam, the narrator displaced by civil war in his native Bosnia, and both live in a society in which the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are ever present. In fact, the atrocities committed by American soldiers who participated in the occupation of Iraq, as well as the horrific psychosocial consequences of the occupation, provide both the plot and the theme of the novel whose final dialogue ultimately reconciles the narrator with his own admiration of (and identification with) Macalister and brings him one step closer to finding his own voice as a writer. The nihilistic title of Macalister’s novel, “The Noble Truths of Suffering,” is in turn the title of Hemon’s (or the narrator’s) short story.

If you enjoyed this month’s story and the tone in which it is written, there are two more pieces of short fiction by Aleksandar Hemon which can be read for free on the New Yorker website. Personally, I recommend “Love and Obstacles,” the title story of Hemon’s most recent collection. You can access it by clicking on the following link: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/11/28/051128fi_fiction

I encourage everyone to take another look at the story, and I look forward to seeing you and hearing your thoughts at next Wednesday’s meeting. And don’t forget to leave a comment or two beforehand here on the blog!

Posted in Cycle 2012/13 January Reading | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments