Friday, August 24, 2007

Amazing Grace

American short story writer and poet Grace Paley died Wednesday. If you've never heard of her, you've never lived.

The first and last of a generation, Paley was a street-corner agitator, a poet of everyday speech, a fantasist of the porch stoop. She was one of the few remaining voices of the Bund, the Jewish Socialist unions who brought Yiddish humour (and food) to the tenements of New York.

In her stories, the Big Apple is its own country, half American but half Eastern European, and half purely itself. She did that kind of math, brilliantly. She was a mistress of the shrug, the pause, the glinting eye, the ear as keen as a journalist's pen, the absurd punchline that had you in tears.

Her stories were like Chagall paintings more than a little: a woman climbs a tree in Central Park to think; an American tourist decides she prefers China; a very overdue library book holds the secret of a failed marriage.

In my favourite story, a Jewish preschooler gets to play Mary in a nativity play - a matter of complex pride, shame and surprise to her parents, a microcosm of what is means to be a secular working-class Jew in America summed up in the neighbour's question after the play:

"Nu, so how's the Virgin?"

I can't think of any better tribute than that I'm going to hunt down my Collected Stories, signed by Paley at a reading in 1996, and re-read every story, treasuring them. Then I'm going to hoist my soapbox under my arm, go out and protest the war, and listen in on the lives and dreams of passers-by as I do.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Instant Nostalgia

It's a moment that could have come from a novel by the great adopted Canadian himself: the same month that Spook Country (a novel that has its own blog, that's how avant it is) is published, the restaurant where the protagonist of its prequel, Pattern Recognition eats dinner on her first night in London closed up shop.

I have a particular affection for Galangal that's entwined with geek god William Gibson descending from the cloud forests of Vancouver to notice a so-so Thai restaurant opposite the Odeon on Parkway. It was the site of many lively dinners with some of my best friends, one of whom also became friends with a writer-director called Giada Dobryzenksa who persuaded Gibson to appear in her short film Mon Amour, Mon Parapluie.

She stayed friends with Gibson, and kept him updated about her life in London - so weird aspects like Galangal and Mega City Comics, which Tom introduced her to, show up in Pattern Recognition. Tom, a filmmaker, lived on Parkway for a long time, as does a filmmaker character in the novel...

I bought Pattern Recognition at Heathrow airport as I was flying back from London to Toronto, the day after a Galangal dinner with Tom and our merry band. Reading about Cayce Pollard's transatlantic flight (she was in First, I was in cattle, but the principle was the same) I was struck with the Gibsonian emotion of "instant nostalgia," a sense of loss not for the distant past but for the previous moment. Time magazine uses it to describe the particular quality of pop art, which puts a sheen of kitsch melancholy over instantly recognisable brands and dead celebrities. Blogger Shit Happens was inspired to instant nostalgia by seeing the Transformers movie.

It's the emotion of the postmodern condition - a continual ache of loss for the empty present, a sense of entropic decay as what makes the vibrant moment come alive. Gibson would probably call it "nano-nostalgia," or use the example of feeling sad when - for example - playing an interactive game the previous day's state of affairs, scenarios and posts have been superceded by the new day's. Cyberloss is all the more painful for the illusion that the Web "remembers it for you wholesale."

Galangal will be just one of the ghosts that haunts Spook Country when I get around to reading it. Another will be the long-lost alt thread where I discovered an earlier Bill (beta-test version?), a hippie draft dodger dealing weed in Toronto's Yorkville. In the way of the gradual instutionalisation of the web, you can now watch this choice titbit, this covert discovery, on the CBC archives. Despite this fresh-faced countercultural charm, Gibson says that the future he was responsible for inventing, as the Capo of cyberpunk, just isn't living up to his specs.

You know what they say: those who can't find history on Google? Condemned to watch Big Brother repeats.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Word Power

At Harare's Book Café, getting booed off stage ain't the worst thing that can happen to a poet. Italo Calvino has an essay in Cosmicomics where he writes that the fear broadcast by the censors remind us of the power of the word.

I'm trying to think of a joke about "getting booked," but there just isn't one, so -- read, be inspired, spit some words of protest. And if you're lucky enough to be at the Edinburgh festivals (whichever of them) this week, check out my good friend and heroSandra Alland spitting into the wind of war at Word Power's anti-war reading tomorrow (10th).

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

A Malian Moment

The great library of Timbuktu is about to be restored, depending on the political will (and aims) of Libya and South Africa. Meanwhile Rokia Traoré is touring her stage show Wati, which imagines Mozart as a griot at the court of 13th century Malian emperor Soundiata Keita. Keita was the Charlemagne of Africa, but his name meant little to puzzled audiences at the Barbican. With Touareg bands like freedom fighters Tinariwen and Timbuktu-based Tartit insurgent, and drawing crowds to the annual Festival in the Desert, is this Mali's moment?

2007 also sees the resurgence of Mali's film industury - following in the path laid down by the great Souleymane Cissé - with Faro: Goddess of the Waters screening at the Edinburgh Film Festival, and making the new Artistic Director, Hannah McGill's, top five picks for her first fest.

Are there Malian writers about to build on the recognition of African writers in Britain this year, with Chimananda Adichie Ngozi winning the Orange prize, and Chinua Achebe winning the Man Booker International Prize? Any suggestions or recommendations for Malian reads?