R.I.P. Michele Cliff

June 19, 2016 § Leave a comment

The New York Times is reporting that the Jamaica-American novelist Michele Cliff has died at the age of 69.

Earlier this year, after I enjoyed Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings, I completely forgot about an earlier Jamaica-set book I had read: Cliff’s Abeng, published in 1984. I had first read it in college, in a course on Caribbean authors, a course that also introduced me to Jean Rhys, whose novels I am reading now.

Abeng is the first of two novels by Cliff about Clare Savage, a light-skinned girl of mixed race born to a dark-skinned mother and white father. (The second, No Telephone to Heaven, was published in 1987.) In Abeng Clare is twelve, on the cusp of discovering powers both sex- and class-related in an environment that seeks to pull her in opposing directions, her name itself an indicator of the clash between her dark African heritage and the forces of white British imperialism:

“Emotionally, the book is an autobiography,” Ms. Cliff told the reference work Contemporary Authors in 1986. “I was a girl similar to Clare and have spent most of my life and most of my work exploring my identity as a light-skinned Jamaican, the privilege and the damage that comes from that identity.”

The action is set in motion when Clare steals a gun to hunt a wild boar but instead, startled by a gawking cane-cutter while sunbathing nude with her dark-skinned friend Zoe, she fires a warning shot that accidentally shoots her grandmother’s prized bull. She precedes the shot by yelling at the man: “Get away, you hear. This is my grandmother’s land.” Cliff’s narrator explains the significance of Clare’s switching of code: “She had dropped her patois—was speaking buckra—and relying on the privilege she did not have.”


Frog and Toad in a New Light

June 1, 2016 § Leave a comment

At The New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog, Colin Stokes has a delightful remembrance of the Frog and Toad books by Arnold Lobel, with a revelation from Lobel’s daughter, Adrianne:

Adrianne suspects that there’s another dimension to the series’s sustained popularity. Frog and Toad are “of the same sex, and they love each other,” she told me. “It was quite ahead of its time in that respect.” In 1974, four years after the first book in the series was published, Lobel came out to his family as gay. “I think ‘Frog and Toad’ really was the beginning of him coming out,” Adrianne told me. Lobel never publicly discussed a connection between the series and his sexuality, but he did comment on the ways in which personal material made its way into his stories. In a 1977 interview with the children’s-book journal The Lion and the Unicorn, he said:

You know, if an adult has an unhappy love affair, he writes about it. He exorcises it out of himself, perhaps, by writing a novel about it. Well, if I have an unhappy love affair, I have to somehow use all that pain and suffering but turn it into a work for children.

My experience of Frog and Toad came via one of those read-along record books. I know one of the stories was “A Lost Button,” from Frog and Toad Are Friends (1970). Toad loses a button off his coat and Frog and some friends try to help him find it, but he grows frustrated with them when the buttons they turn up are not the thick, white, round four-holed button that he lost—only to find it on the floor when he returns home.

Frog and Toad felt timeless to me even then, so that even now it’s hard to believe that they were still relatively new, a 1970s creation. I believe the record was voiced entirely by Mr. Lobel himself, and he rendered the two characters distinctly, portraying Toad the more high-maintenance of the pair, irked by Frog’s inappropriate measure of chillness. There was, I sensed, the insinuation of wonderment and spiral of questioning that takes off when the other member does something perplexing, the kind of reaction that tends to gets doused in straight platonic friendships. I find it wholly believable that Lobel intended for the characters to evoke a subtle and complex intimacy, creatures of grace wading through moments of fear, pain, and longing.

Low-Flying Panic

May 6, 2016 § Leave a comment

Radiohead made sure that the release of their new single, “Burn the Witch,” was an event, by going dark on all of their social media platforms and then posting two samples of the video on Instagram before the whole video went up on Youtube on Tuesday.

Today saw the release of another single and video, “Daydreamer,” and the announcement of the release of a new album, the band’s ninth, on Sunday.

“Burn the Witch” has apparently been in the vault since the days of Kid A, which was released the month before George W. Bush was elected, and it absolutely continues some of the themes of fear, isolationism, and oppression that the band’s best music from that era evoked. At The New Yorker, Amanda Petrusich finds in the song’s lyrics (e.g., “this is a low-flying panic attack”) a humanistic critique of the mob mentality that Internet culture perpetually rewards:

Yorke once gave wild voice to the dispossessed (“I’m not here, this isn’t happening,” he moans on “How To Disappear Completely,” from “Kid A,” a lyric so suffused with grief it’s hard not to press your hands over your ears), but now he’s assumed the point of view of the autocrat, the bully: “Avoid all eye contact, do not react, shoot the messengers.” The stop-motion video for “Burn the Witch” is set in a whimsical village where ordinary-seeming human beings do horrifying things to each other for reasons that remain largely unclear, except that they appear to be following the guidance of a demagogue-like figure, dressed in a uniform and medallion. The clip seems inspired, in equal parts, by the British children’s series “Trumpton” (the name of which does not feel coincidental), and the horror film “The Wicker Man,” from 1973.

The video’s allusions are coy. The whimsical village is pre-industrial, complete with a model of itself that would seem to be able to be manipulated in the way any user wishing to be in control would want. The visiting character makes notes on his clipboard; he is, essentially, a commenter from the outside. And it’s probably not an accident that the clip begins with a shot of a bird in a tree, literally twittering.

While “Trumpton” may be the more likely inspiration, to me the animation in “Burn the Witch” more accurately resembles the short midcentury animated films of Karel Zeman, starring the character known as Mr. Prokouk.

Mr. Prokouk became such an iconic character in pre-Prague Spring Czechoslovakia that he appeared in the title cards for the government film archive during what became known as the Czech New Wave.

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