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.”


Remembering Jenny Diski

April 28, 2016 § Leave a comment

The thing is, nobody is better at having cancer than me, in the sense that I like nothing more than sitting on the sofa doing fuck all and trying to write. – interview with the Observer.


I’d been impossible from the start. Asking questions that shouldn’t have been asked, thinking they had an answer. I’d sulked: I don’t remember about what, but I’m sure I did. I brought men home. I fucked men in Doris’s house. I wasn’t doing enough work at school (my new school) and for a while I had a boyfriend whose main wish was that I wore a uniform and who met me for a little fellatio before the school bell rang. I skipped lessons I thought didn’t matter and sat in the coffee bar across from the school smoking and drinking coffee, reading or sometimes with a friend. I didn’t work hard enough to fulfil my potential. I wasn’t grateful to Doris for the opportunity she had given me. – on her time with Doris Lessing in the London Review of Books.

The Guardian shares favorite quotes from the late Jenny Diski, who has died at the age of 68 after a battle with cancer.

Fasting Worth

July 9, 2015 § Leave a comment


Via Poetry Magazine: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse/132/5#!/20593137. RIP.

The Empty Sky of Morning

June 20, 2015 § Leave a comment

This blue, indolent town. Its cats. Its pale sky. The empty sky of morning, drained and pure. Its deep, cloven streets. Its narrow courts, the faint, rotten odor within, orange peels lying in the corners.

-A Sport and a Pastime (1967)

James Salter will wear the dreaded “writer’s writer” label forever now that the New York Times has used it in the backhanded headline of his obituary, and I suppose it is apt; I learned about his work from the praise he received from other writers. He is a writer best read in sentences rather than scenes or plots; still, his Paris Review interview leads off by praising him as a “consummate storyteller.” A Sport and a Pastime has a lot of close-up sex in it, but it also has lines like the above, which give weight in tight, clipped phrasings (“Its cats”) and uses adjectives the way they are supposed to be used. Salter had a word for his method, and appropriately it comes from the French:

I’m a frotteur, someone who likes to rub words in his hand, to turn them around and feel them, to wonder if that really is the best word possible. Does that word in this sentence have any electric potential? Does it do anything? Too much electricity will make your reader’s hair frizzy. There’s a question of pacing. You want short sentences and long sentences—well, every writer knows that. You have to develop a certain ease of delivery and make your writing agreeable to read.

–The Art of Fiction No. 133

Exhilarated All By Yourself

January 13, 2015 § Leave a comment

But it’s also very lonely. If you do something you’re really pleased with, you’re in the crazy position of being exhilarated all by yourself. I remember finishing one section of Dog Soldiers—the end of Hicks’s walk—in the basement of a college library, working at night, while the rest of the place was closed down, and I staggered out in tears, talking to myself, and ran into a security guard. It’s hard to come down from a high in your work—it’s one of the reasons writers drink. The exhilaration of your work turns into the daily depression of the aftermath. But if you heal that with a lot of Scotch you’re not fit for duty the next day.

–Robert Stone, from The Art of Fiction #90, Paris Review #98 (Winter 1985). R.I.P.

R.I.P. Doris Lessing

November 17, 2013 § Leave a comment


Were you around a lot of storytelling as a child?


No . . . the Africans told stories, but we weren’t allowed to mix with them. It was the worst part about being there. I mean I could have had the most marvelously rich experiences as a child. But it would have been inconceivable for a white child. Now I belong to something called a “Storytellers’ College” in England. About three years ago a group of people tried to revive storytelling as an art. It’s doing rather well. The hurdles were—I’m just a patron, I’ve been to some meetings—first that people turn up thinking that storytelling is telling jokes. So they have to be discouraged! Then others think that storytelling is like an encounter group. There’s always somebody who wants to tell about their personal experience, you know. But enormous numbers of real storytellers have been attracted. Some from Africa—from all over the place—people who are still traditional hereditary storytellers or people who are trying to revive it. And so, it’s going on. It’s alive and well. When you have storytelling sessions in London or anywhere, you get a pretty good audience. Which is quite astonishing when you think of what they could be doing instead—watching Dallas or something.

From The Art of Fiction #102, in The Paris Review 106, Spring 1988

R.I.P. Oscar Hijuelos

October 14, 2013 § Leave a comment

And who should come by when his date gets up to use the ladies’ room but that brunette, and even if she’s not a blonde, she looks seriously fly in a tight pink dress and bops toward him with a drink in her hand, and Dios mío, but she looks hot from dancing, with beads of sweat rolling off her chin, and onto her breasts, her stomach damp and transparent through the clingy material of her dress. And what does she say but, “Aren’t you Cesar Castillo, the singer?” And he nods and takes hold of her wrist and says, “My, but you smell nice,” and he gets her name, cracks her up with a joke, and then, before his date returns, he says, “Why don’t you come back here tomorrow night and we can talk some more and have a little fun”…

–Oscar Hijuelos (1951-2013), The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love

Bruce Weber’s obituary of Hijuelos, in the New York Times, praises the writer for chronicling the “conundrums of assmiliation,” and says, “His characters were not necessarily new arrivals — in Mr. Hijuelos’s books, which sometimes ranged over decades, they certainly didn’t remain so — but in various stages of absorbing the sometimes assaultive American culture while holding on to an ethnic and national identity.”

In the parts of Mambo Kings I have read, Hijuelos shows a distinctive ear for the American babble, the arrogant forward press of youth, and the critical weight of pop culture (e.g., I Love Lucy) and fame as yardsticks of achievement.  You can see his influence in Junot Diaz, among others. I’m also seeing hints of Dorothy Baker, and even though I don’t think she wrote about the U.S. much, Jean Rhys (e.g., Voyage in the Dark).

Never Open a Book With Weather

August 20, 2013 § Leave a comment

The Detroit News is reporting that famed crime novelist Elmore Leonard has died at the age of 87, of complications from a stroke.

In 2001, Leonard shared his rules for writing with the New York Times. True to his stark crime sensibilities, they are all about getting the author out of the way of his story, and therefore cruelly on spot about our faulty human habits:

1. Never open a book with weather.

If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s ”Hills Like White Elephants” what do the ”American and the girl with him” look like? ”She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

And then:

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

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