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Monday, July 21, 2008

What I'm Reading This Summer

Jane Eyre--Have not read since I was a teenager and I suspect I did the same thing--stretched out on hot summer afternoons and gulped it down. I've decided I'm something of a Bronte lover over Austen--however melodramatic, I love the Gothic intensity.

The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz--Absolutely terrific, full of foul-mouthed and hysterically funny propulsion.

Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri--Have been slowly, slowly reading this quietly stunning collection.

Various books on the Indian indenture period, including poring over microfiche of The Argosy newspaper, from 1897.

Parts of the Ramayana

Sacred Hunger, by Barry Unsworth. An amazing, 19th century, epic-style book.

Next up, I think: The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto, Mario Vargas Llosa. I heard him read (not from this) at the PEN World Voices Festival, and was mesmerized.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Dynasties, Payback, and Debates South Carolina Style

Okay, so my last post feels a little dated now. Especially as we've had the "fairy tale" Bill Clinton remark, the preposterous insinuation that Obama is a supporter of Ronald Reagan's policies, and Oh yes, that silly remark about Martin Luther King Jr. versus President Johnson.


The problem is both Obama and Clinton's actual policy positions are not that different, and Hillary was trying to differentiate herself through dirty smudging. Indeed the silliest aspect to Hillary Clinton's insinuation that Obama is "less" than liberal is that the Clintons were--and are--masters of hewing a more centrist path. They are the masters of triangulation; they are the ones that made welfare reform palatable to their Democratic base. "Present" votes included, Obama's voting record in the Illinois legislature is solidly liberal and clear. We don't need to throw muck on his record to debate which candidate might be best.

One more thing: despite the media brouhaha about the heated 'personal exchanges' between Obama and Clinton, I didn't find those flashes dominated the debate. I thought the debate was an excellent showing by all three candidates--Edwards included. They all came away with something to recommend them. My husband, however, a more solid Clinton supporter, saw the strength of Obama for the first time. 'He's so confident and relaxed,' he kept saying. 'He's a boardroom guy. Doesn't break a sweat' And it hit us both: Obama is a combination McKinsey consultant and Martin Luther King. Confident corporate board room guy along with powerful orator.

That's why I've found it interesting who, as it turns out, are Obama supporters. Among the conversations I've had, what's struck me are the guys--white guys, that is--who like him. At a party one evening, I met an investment banker who was sure Obama could and should win. As someone who moves in powerful financial circles, he sees Obama as that relaxed winner who can deal with power. A neighbor and friend was glumly walking the dog the other day, after Obama's loss in New Hampshire. 'I just hate dynastic politics,' he said through gritted teeth. And just yesterday, I was walking out of class when one of my students revealed he's a huge Obama supporter and dreams of writing speeches for him. 'I heard him speak in Trenton, and man, I've been to I don't know how many rock concerts, and that guy was electric.' To him, Obama is the rock star orator.

Now on to family politics--Bill Clinton playing bad cop/hatchet man. No doubt poor Bill feels like he owes Hillary big time--a whole political career's worth. All those years she stood by her man, looked the other way at his dalliances, supported him, lashed out at the press that everything was a right wing conspiracy--well, he's incurred a damned big debt to her. So he'll do anything--even tarnish that Armani-clad, silver-haired statesman image he buffed up in the past few years.

Here's my problem with this dynamic. I just heard a fascinating interview with Jacob Weisberg, editor at who has recently published a book on George W. Bush--The Bush Tragedy--a Shakespearean, psychological portrait of Bush's Oedipal struggle with George Bush senior. The bad Prince Hal who both wants to veer the other way (Texas drawl Born Again Republican versus Establishment Connecticut Yankee Republicanism), prove his father wrong and yet be his father. The disaster of the Bush years is because we've witnessed, writ large, this father-son dynamic. As Weisberg put it, the failure of Bush's presidency is because "Bush didn't know his own limitations." In other words, we've had to live through foreign policy decisions that are no more than an extension of familial compulsions; that blinding, self-destructive will that we all have, as we inflict our private family dramas on others. Apparently, within the Bush family, the tragedy is that their clumsy, renegade Prince Hal has actually destroyed the Bush legacy, since Jeb Bush was supposed to be the groomed 'heir-apparent' until the rambunctious drunk showed up at the kitchen door and revealed he had ambition and drive, too. The Bush name has, in effect, been trashed by the delinquent son, who wound up crashing the family car, not driving it onward to success.

So I don't want the Clinton version of this. I don't want Bill and Hillary's compulsions converted into the public domain. Her need to prove herself and receive payback for her misery as First Lady; his need for salvation in his wife's steely arms. (Will Chelsea jump in too one day?) I've had enough of the family drama, on both party sides. That's another reason why I like Obama--he wrote his highly wrought memoir about his absent Kenyan father, flushed those Oedipal conflicts out of his system, and moved on to create a public persona that seems remarkably free of such demons. That's why, I am sure, he can create such a broad vision of hope that transcends him. That's why the investment banker and the college kid are drawn to him.

I have no doubt, as the New York Times states today in its endorsements, that Hillary is eminently qualified and prepared to take on the post of President. In many ways, my brain votes for her--I think she's forceful, detailed, and hardworking. But my gut, and my psychological radar, is wary of her. She seems incapable of self-reflection, of that added bit of self-awareness that draws a line between personal compulsions and public projection.

My biggest fear is that if Bill Clinton continues his hatchet job, and Hillary wins the Democratic nomination this way, there will be a boomerang effect in Democratic possibilities. All those independents, those freshly recruited young people energized by Obama, will be turned off and may not show up on Election Day. What the Clintons can't seem to master is fighting without leaving so many soured enemies in their path. They don't know how to fight clean.

Please don't drag us into family politics. We've all got enough on our own home fronts, as it is.

Monday, January 07, 2008

I'm A Barack Supporter, But Hilary's Getting a Raw Deal

Okay, so I watched a replay of the democratic NH debate--most of it. And the truth is, I think Hilary is a convincing candidate with a firm grasp of issues. Prior baggage aside--and I know that's hard to push away for some--she is firm, clear and pragmatic. She's an excellent executive and a hard worker. She comes to each question immensely prepared. Barack, at times, seems to be thinking out loud, a little less organized in his presentation--which I think is what people consider his asset--that's what makes him 'authentic.' My husband, who is less obsessed than I am with this race, dips into the debates, and every time he wants to like Barack, he comes away unconvinced. "I think you're all deluding yourself. He's a fantasy." Maybe it's generational, he admits. He just thinks Hilary's hard-nosed and seasoned enough to get the job done.

I feel a little badly for Hilary, I must admit. Something elusive has slipped from her grasp--likeability, they call it. A silver-tongued grace, which her husband has, a charismatic ease, an ability to be himself before a crowd. How much of this is the box that women politicians are put into in the U.S.? That earlier generation of shoulder-padded, corporate amazons not allowed to be a "personality?" (Or is that reserved for the Oprahs of the world?) Aren't we seeing, writ large, what those women complained about so much--that they always had to be "better," more prepared, more organized than their male counterparts to get attention and power? The guys could simply just "be" and exude confidence, mastery and male cuteness. And so the women are passed over because they are the good girls, the ones who multi-task and do everything right, and yet they're somehow not the one at the top.

Okay, I realize that Hilary is one formidable gal. And that she's hardly an overlooked phenomenon in American politics. I just want to record, for the moment, that I'm a bit guilty of falling for charisma and ease over the well organized striver.

And there was one moment in the debate where I could see it so clearly. When she said (I'm loosely paraphrasing here) "Talk is not change. Being able to deliver is change." At that moment--clearly directed at Barack--I could not help but feel that she was having a terrible moment of deja vu: it was the scolding she must have delivered to Bill countless times, in countless midnight kitchen heart to hearts. Enough talk, Bill. It's time to deliver. Get your act together, discipline yourself and follow through! She was once again the wife put in the role of the hectoring mother prodding her brilliant, rambling son to stop his lofty promises and finish what he started. The next day, on the campaign trail, Hilary apparently said of politics--it's not "poetry," it's "prose." That is, hard, hard work, often dull, not romantic at all.

Thanks, mom, I want to say (and this coming from a mom who has to prod her brilliant son to finish his homework) But the truth is, politics is poetry and romance and heart, too. People don't want to be reminded of prose--that's their hum-drum day-to-day lives already. They want ecstatic, hopeful, transcendent poetry that takes them beyond themselves. And on this, I suspect, she's losing.

But that doesn't mean I have to crow about it.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Barack's Iowa Win

For a while I've been wanting to put into words the phenomenon of Barack Obama, adding to the endless reams that have been said. But in short--despite admiring many characteristics and aspects of the other candidates--I can't help but feel: he's my guy. For me, he's the guy next door, someone I could have known in my childhood in Parkway Village, which I've written about elsewhere. He's the mixed up, mixed race kid with a complicated African-Hawaiian boyhood, touched by the sixties, but emerging into adulthood with a far different political vista. Someone who took his confusing and complicated background and forged a public identity that is no less complex and nuanced.

For the first time that I've voted as an adult, I don't feel marginal. I actually feel that something--and someone--who resembles me and my outlook is actually center stage. That alone is thrilling.

And then there was the moment where I watched his speech in Iowa. It was pure Martin Luther King, pure preacher, with an easy sense of grace. I realized it was also simply thrilling to have a black man so comfortable with himself, so at ease, to ascend to this historic place. And in a funny way, I almost feel as if America needs him. That, in many ways we need black America--we need it culturally, we need it to forgive us for what our country has wrought in the past, and we need that great tradition of healing and aspiration, that timbre of overcoming that has helped us see what our vision of American truly can be. He is taking us over to the mount that many of us have been trying to climb our whole lives. And for the first time, I felt the rest might follow. That, too was a new thrill.

It doesn't mean I don't have practical questions about his candidacy. I accept that he's something of a gamble. That not all of his platform is worked out. That I worry about some of his musings on foreign policy. That vague platitudes to working it all out can lead to mushy compromise. But he's smart and he's got smart people around him. It's his moment.

And selfishly enough, it's my moment, too.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Travels in India

Last January I was in India to give talks and readings at two events and to conduct research on an historical novel-in-progress. The first was a cultural event at the Indira Gandhi Centre in Delhi and the second was a conference on the diaspora at the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies in Kolkata. For more info: and

While there, I had the fascinating experience of traveling up the Hooghly in a boat and wandering around the Garden Reach area, to see the old depots that my ancestors departed from in the 19th century, when they emigrated to the West Indies. With me were several other conference participants, all of whom are descendants of this 19th century diaspora--some from the U.S. via Guyana, others from Mauritius. It was a magical experience--a kind of "Ellis Island" return for all of us, and it makes me wish there was some kind of historic plaque and curatorial explanation of this huge migration. (Over 1.5 million Indians emigrated to Mauritius, the West Indies, Fiji and South Africa during this period.)

On the other hand, I should also say that there is a lot uncertainty about these depots and whether the buildings we saw were part of the original complexes. Though at times, while traveling down the river, we could point to the docks and landing places, over the century addresses change, buildings are torn down or are re-used. Nonetheless, it was exciting, fascinating, and moving to traipse around these weed-filled lots and peer into the old brick buildings, trying to imagine the movement of lives that passed through here. Certainly that's why I was there, and I returned home with a reinvigorated vision for my novel-in-progress.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

What I'm Reading

Not so long ago, I picked up Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children, and found it a delicious read. I put it in the category of "books about characters who live by ideas." One of my favorite kinds of books, a penchant begun long ago, when I was a pretentious teenager devouring George Eliot, and half not getting it, but loving books about characters that aspire to live by ideas. There are great hazards to such books, especially when characters become simple mouthpieces for BIG ideas. But authors who have a kind of ease with the intellectual class can produce marvelously observed renditions of their lives. In fact what I love about such books is they are both celebratory of the life of the mind and yet critical and insightful in this lovely, winsome way.

There are contemporary authors such as A.S. Byatt and Zadie Smith (interesting that I keep picking the Brits--another bias of mine). In Messud's case, and I guess I would say she has some of the Brit sensibility I like, she's not as zany as Zadie Smith, and thus it doesn't fall prey to some of the antic satire. Hers is a more measured exploration of characters who see themselves on the verge greatness, and I like that she manages to be both highly realistic and yet she also does so with a bit of a gimlet eye, too.

Another book I recently finished is The Secret River, by Kate Grenville, which was rumored to be the favorite for the Booker, though Kiran Desai's Inheritance of Loss won. I became intrigued with the book because it is about ex-convicts inhabiting North Wales, Australia and their clash with the aboriginals. I'm working on an historical novel myself, which shifts to a colonial setting, and I'm always looking for literary novels that "reimagine" history in artistically and intellectually interesting ways. (Caryl Phillip's Cambridge is an excellent example of this--highly recommended) I think what Grenville does so well is both take us inside a very intense point of view of William Thornhill, the main character, and yet, the insight and perspective carries the weight and knowledge of the impact of this history and this brutal clash with another people. This is very hard to pull off, but it is exactly what I want from a literary re-imagining. I don't just want the recreation--that's all well and good. I want our current understanding or perhaps meditation on this history to inform the atmospherics of the novel. To balance that with a realistic portrayal of those characters' point of views, is really an artistic feat.

By the way, I quite liked Kiran Desai's Inheritance of Loss, too. I feel I need to read it again--I recall it as a very intense pleasure as I was reading it--though as it moves towards it painful end, I found it difficult to read. But I've had a hard time pinning down the impact of the book on me. I think that for some reason, I was very intent on reading her sentence by sentence, as her sentences have this kind of crooked fascination, and she builds a story in an unusual way. Thus I was less able to discern the overall architecture and ideas propelling the story in the ways that I could in the books I was just writing about. I suppose, bottom line, I'm speaking of a slightly less conventional approach that might need another read.

Next up, I think, is Doctorow's The March. I must confess I read the first two pages and cringed at the slave's voice, as it sounded so tired and familiar. But he's such a gifted writer, I know there has to be more ...

Monday, April 24, 2006

The Dream Act: Hope for Undocumented Teenagers

It's late April and Congress has just returned from recess to again take up the debate on immigration. Whether comprehensive immigration legislation does pass is uncertain. However, there is one bill which stands a good chance and is the beacon of hope for young people: the Dream Act, which would give undocumented teenagers a shot at a real future.

Like the characters in my book, undocumented teenagers have no real clear path to adulthood in America: in most states, they are ineligible for state scholarships or aid, and must pay out-of-state tuitions, which most undocumented families cannot afford. Even if they were to graduate from a university, their status still remains unclear. Every year, 65,000 undocumented teenagers graduate from high schools, unable to fulfill their promise as young people in America today.

To find out more about the Dream Act please go to:
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What I'm Reading This Summer

Dynasties, Payback, and Debates South Carolina Sty...

I'm A Barack Supporter, But Hilary's Getting a Raw...

Barack's Iowa Win

Travels in India

What I'm Reading

The Dream Act: Hope for Undocumented Teenagers

When Truth Follows Fiction

April 2006

November 2006

December 2006

January 2008

July 2008

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