Monday, February 27, 2006

It's Coming: Literature from the Axis of Evil

From the folks who brought you Words Without Borders, a new anthology of fiction by writers from the Axis of Evil and other enemy countries: Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Cuba, Libya, Syria, and Sudan. The anthology includes stories by Houshang Moradi-Kermani, Muhsin Al-Ramli, Saadi Yousef, Kang Kwi-mi, Salim Barakat, Ibrahim El-Koony (translated by yours truly), Laila Neihoum, Tarek Eltayeb, Anna Lidía, and many others, and you can pre-order your copy today.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Concordancing in the streets

Is anyone else obsessed with the Concordance feature on Amazon? I love it. It almost looks like a poem, I think. Look up your favorite books and watch their most consistently occuring words float in a box, their size commensurate with how often they occur in the text.

When you look up most books written in the third person, the name of their protagonist tends to be the biggest word in the concordance box. I quickly became interested in what other books' biggest, most reccuring word would be.

In Sir Burton's rendition of A Thousand Nights and One Night, the word is thou. In the anonymous version, the word is King.

In Joyce's Portrait of the Artist, the word is Stephen, and in Ulysses, it's Bloom.

In Mrs Dalloway, Clarissa almost ties with thought (thought wins by 4 occurences), but in The Waves, the most reccuring word is now.

In Swann's Way, the word is Swann, followed by time. Unfortunately, there are no concordance stats available for all of Remembrance of Things Past.

I looked up the concordance on three lesbian coming of age novels: Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina; Jeannette Winterson's Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit; Audre Lorde's Zami. In all three, the most recurring word is mother. Which I find very intersting indeed.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Rockslinga's Recent Reads

Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes

One of the earliest "lesbian novels," Nightwood is actually just a perfect piece of prose. I loved its doll imagery, and the idea that these depressed and fucked up people who fell in love with Robin were basically going to bed with a lifeless doll. A heads-up, though: It was written in the early Thirties, and it's brazenly racist, which I found distressing. Some say this was Barnes's critique of Europe's treatment of Jews and gays, I say, it's still racist.

Dreamers, by Knut Hamsun

This book rocked my world. Like a snow globe that changes seasons, the town in Dreamers is magical and self-enclosed. Hamsun's prose is light and his characters are whimsical, plus his subtle treatment of heavy themes like love, work, money, environment, and God is enviable.

Envy, by Yuri Olesha

A drunken intellectual is picked up off the street by a Food Industry Regulation Big Shot in Pre-Bolshevic Russia and given a sofa to sleep on. What ensues is Gogol meets Dostoevsky on mushrooms. I Loved it. And there's a priceless scene with a sausage (mind out of the gutter, now).

Martin & John, by Dale Peck.

A novel-in-stories penned by a character named John, who's coping with his abusive past and his partner's death from AIDS, the novel features chameleonic characters named Martin and John, Bea and Henry, and Susan. The language is beautiful, and the arc is built in a cool way-- the stories are about childhood, then adolescence, then adulthood-- and the stories are grouped according to class/setting: Country, working class, upper middle class. I liked how Henry first occupies the father role, then the role of anonymous torturor, and how Bea, the mother character, dissappears altogether, and is somewhat replaced by Susan, who ends up being a mother, too. Peck plays on the idea of reader-fidelity: how loyal are we to character and story, and how willing are we to let go of them? For a novel about letting go of the thing we love, I find that really genius.

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, by Jeannette Winterson

I can't believe I've hesitated so long to read this. If Joyce were born a dyke to Pentecostal Evangelists, he might have written a novel like this.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Moby Dick References, Already

My son's been into eating his cereal out of a mug in the mornings. This morning, he was struggling with his last corn flake, and said, "It's like fishing out Moby Dick. Now I know what Ahab must have felt like."

Million Writers Award

This year's Million Writers Award - an award which aims to showcase online fiction-- is underway. You may send your favorite short story nomination to millionwriters at yahoo dot com.

My story, "You Are A 14-Year-Old Arab Chick Who Just Moved To Texas" won the inaugural award in 2004 by over 1,200 votes. This year, there is a cash prize...

Monday, February 13, 2006

Latest on publication of Children of the Alley in Egypt

El-Ahram on Mahfouz's lastest scandal:

...Dar Al-Hilal announced that it planned to publish the novel and Al-Fagr newspaper went so far as to print its final chapter. Then came the surprise, not from the Brotherhood or Al-Azhar but from Mahfouz himself. The novelist would agree to publication of the book on two conditions: that Al-Azhar signal its approval and prominent MB member Ahmed Kamal Abul-Magd write the introduction.

Outraged secularist intellectuals accused Mahfouz of abandoning the principles of enlightenment and freedom of opinion and expression. In Al-Ahram of 26 January Mahfouz clarified his position. His refusal, he explained, was a personal decision taken on the basis of his commitment to an agreement he had concluded with the publishing house's former director, Hassan Sabri El-Khouli. He stressed that he was not yielding to any ban issued by Al-Azhar, which had not issued any pronouncements and did not have the right to do so.

As serious as the situation is, what concerns me most are the contradictions and inconsistencies it throws into relief with regard to the three parties immediately involved: Naguib Mahfouz, the Brotherhood and Egyptian intellectuals.

I was particularly struck by the indignant, self- righteous tone of the intellectuals whose position displayed a lack of awareness of the personality of the author and his role in Egyptian cultural and political life. Unfortunately there is nothing new in this.

Read the rest here.


Here's a form of speed dating I can get down with.
(Link via bookninja)

On Hate

Nonie Darwish writes about her take on the cartoon BS. Here's a snippet:
My father was killed as a result of the Fedayeen operations when I was eight years old. He was hailed by Nasser as a national hero and was considered a shaheed, or martyr. In his speech announcing the nationalisation of the Suez Canal, Nasser vowed that all of Egypt would take revenge for my father's death. My siblings and I were asked by Nasser: "Which one of you will avenge your father's death by killing Jews?" We looked at each other speechless, unable to answer.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Aidy on the Cairo Book Fair

The International Cairo Book Fair wrapped up last week, and Rockslinga pal Ahmad el-Aidy reported on it, hilariously as ever:
This year the Cairo Book Fair has a new head, Nasser El Ansary, who has carried out thoroughgoing reforms. With God's help he was able to separate the kushari stands from the beefburgers and doughnuts. After all, the rich don't want to eat with the poor. And he had large banners hung up with the names of famous Egyptian writers: Naguib Mahfouz, Taha Hussein, etc. The banners are so big they cover the stands in the open air section. People were even threatening to strike because the banners covered the names of the publishing companies. These dummies simply couldn't understand that Mr. El Ansary hung the banners to protect them from the evil eye.
Read the rest here.

On Agency and Irony

Ever since I first heard about the riots against the Muhammad cartoons, I've been shaking my head and wondering about irony. I grew up around Arabic newspapers. I grew up seeing cartoons-- in Arabic, "caricatoor"-- of Jews with massive noses and Americans with razors for hands and tanks for legs; of Western women as greedy whores and Arab women as stupid fat ones. In other words, I witnessed the anger, revolt, and frustrations of a few literally turn images of entire populations into caricatures. And today, I am watching it again. The irony of the cartoon revolts is multi-tiered: there's the Western press caricaturing a prophet. Then, there's an Eastern population reacting in an exaggerated and grotesque manner. Then there's a global press caricaturing their revolt. And it goes on and on.

The whole thing has made me remember my childhood around cartoons, specifically, the first time I saw this cartoon of Jesus throwing a rock in Palestine. The cartoon reminds me of the Danish one because it, too, portrays a prophet engaging in terroristic/violent behavior that is not approved by the powers that be. I know it's not a straight comparison: unlike Muslims, Christians celebrate and surround themselves and/or their places of worship with images of Jesus/crosses. Still, I find it to be close: Representative of a people/Religious Figure commits violent act, a la very few of his followers, in a cartoon.

The man who made this cartoon, Naji el Ali, is greatly admired in the Middle East. He attacked everone in his cartoons: Muslims, Jews and Christians, and as a result, in 1987, was shot by a lone gunman in London as he was leaving the newspaper's office, going home from work. His death is an example of the powers that be silencing the cartoonist, rather than the masses doing so-- there is strong speculation that Arafat ordered the hit.

Today, with the furor around the Danish cartoons surounding me, I wonder: would this cartoon of Jesus have ignited a fury had it been done in a different context: If the West wasn't predominantly Christian, and a Western journalist had made this cartoon, or, if the West were the downtrodden and were in full sympathy of the Palestinian intifada, and a Muslim or Jew or Zoroastrean made this cartoon? What would have been the consequence?

I ask these questions now because, along with ideas about irony, I am preoccupied with ideas of agency. One can't remove the fact of dichotomies of power-- the West is more prosperous and predominantly Christian, the East is poverty stricken, occupied, and Muslim--from the equation of the cartoon revolts. And yet, I can't help but return to the very definition of caricature: literally a pictorial representation, in which the subject's distinctive features or peculiarities are deliberately exaggerated to produce a comic or grotesque effect. And I can't help but think-- both when I read what the cartoon displayed and when I read that 300 Palestinians, out of millions, set fire to a Danish settlement in "retaliation"-- what a shame that so many will see this photo and buy into this caricature of an entire people.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

This review of Javier Marias's Written Lives makes me feel so much better about myself.

Some examples of disastrous behaviour:
Once Arthur Conan Doyle, who was known to get into fistfights when young and who identified with knights of old, was traveling by train through South Africa:

"One of his grown-up sons commented on the ugliness of a woman who happened to walk down the corridor. He had barely had time to finish this sentence when he received a slap and saw, very close to his, the flushed face of his old father, who said very mildly: 'Just remember that no woman is ugly.' "

Throughout, Marías tosses off the sort of facts and turns of phrase that linger in the mind: Kipling's "The Man Who Would be King" was the favorite story of both Faulkner and Proust. "The death of Yukio Mishima was so spectacular that it has almost succeeded in obliterating the many other stupid things he did in his life." Joseph Conrad's "natural state was one of disquiet bordering on anxiety." Violet Hunt, at age 13, offered herself to John Ruskin, later refused a marriage proposal from Oscar Wilde, seduced the homosexual Somerset Maugham, was seduced by H.G. Wells and lived for some years as the putative wife of Ford Madox Ford. Marías reminds us that William Faulkner, who once worked for the University of Mississippi post office, hated to be interrupted in his reading by "any son-of-a-bitch who had two cents to buy a stamp."

Monday, February 06, 2006

Your linguisitic talents needed

In 2004, writer Jim Lewis traveled to Pakistan to cover the Indian cricket team's first tour through there in about a decade. He made these beautiful photos of a kite-flying festival;

of Naseer Soomro, one of the tallest men in the world;

of this crazy eye candy bus;

and of posters of Bin Ladin which were apparently all over Lahore at the time.

Can anyone read what it says on the Osama posters? You can click to enlarge it. I'd much appreciate your help.

Morning, Monday People

And a special good morning to the person who went on this site from "Palestinian Territory, Occupied/Palestine Telecommunications Company (PALTEL)." And to the person in Denmark who googled "Crazy Arab driver."

Some links you've probably already seen: Brokeback to the Future, a faux trailer, and a new Murakami story up at the New Yorker.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The past couple of days

The House

Z's friend Jochen came to visit from Leipzig with his girlfriend Doris. I asked J, over tacos, how he met Doris. He said she lived in his house. I told him that's every writer's dream: to meet someone without having to leave the house. He said his house was 4 stories high and had 8 rooms. I sighed. We talked about books. Doris asked if I had read a certain book. She only knew its German title. Jochen tried to translate it. The Change? The Transformation? I said, The Metamorphosis? They both nodded.


My son's art teacher is beautiful. She's in her forties and used to live in Naxos, Greece. I asked her if she painted a lot there. She said she was paralyzed by the beauty all around her. When she lived in San Francisco she used to paint with lots of color because outside it was always grey. In Naxos she was surrounded by the blue ocean and the blue sky, blue blue everywhere. She didn't paint for three years. I asked her what she did the last four years, and she said she got turned on to mica. Naxos is in a volcanic area and the mica all around comes in every single color. Orange and red and green and yellow and black that looks like jeweled asphalt and grey and brown. I am astonished, and I ask, does it come in every single color? Yes, she says, every color... except blue.

The Neighbors

The bachelors next door listen to bad Mexican polka and stay up on the patio chatting until 2 AM. They wake me promptly at 6 every morning when they honk at each other as they leave to work. I can hear the people they're on their cell phones with. I want to slide the window open and yell at them furiously, but instead I bite my pillow. I wish I lived in a house in Leipzig.

Where's Wittgenstein?

I read Iris Murdoch's first published novel, Under the Net. It never really comes together in the end, but that doesn't matter, because the narrator, a lazy writer with "shattered nerves," is hilarious. He's the kind of guy who falls in love at the drop of a hat and changes course with consistent passion. How could one not love listening to him, as he spends the entire book on a fruitless search? It's a search for his old lover, a search for a script, a search for dough, and above all, a search for his pal Hugo/Wittgenstein. Of course, when he finds what he's looking for, he realizes that what they actually are is not at all what he invented them to be.