Off the Shelves
In Search of a Native Son
by Peter Thomas L’Official
James Baldwin and Sol Stein, Native Sons (Ballantine Books, 2004)
One imagines Sol Stein—”high school buddy” and editor to James Baldwin for Baldwin’s erudite and incendiary collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son (1955)—sifting through a life’s literary work long forgotten, the gathering dust and age clouding memories once crystal clear. What excitement he must have felt to find assorted correspondence between himself and Baldwin, his old classmate at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. One cannot blame Stein for wanting to share with the world the passionate, principled Baldwin—on the 80th anniversary of his birth—that he knew in this compendium of their letters, amongst other extras. We are all the better for it, now that Baldwin has long since passed. But it is for precisely this reason why, at the end of Native Sons, the feelings of frustration, regret, and discontent engendered are so strong. Stein unwittingly compels his reader to embark on a different discovery process, forcing one to sift though Stein’s seeming omnipresence only to bask in a brief ray of Baldwin’s brilliance. It leaves one to wonder, “What might have been?”
Stein devotes a lengthy introduction to recounting the ebb and flow of his and Baldwin’s friendship, eliding their “occasional differences,” which eventually emerge later on. Stein does offer a few irresistible stories about the early days of their friendship as editors of their school’s literary magazine, one involving Stein reading a poem written by a shy young man named Richard Avedon to their group. Avedon reveals, in a later conversation with Stein, that a few cold words of critique by their faculty mentor forever turned him away from poetry and towards photography. But Stein awkwardly establishes how he and Baldwin “came to [their] friendship” with differences: “He was black and I was white, he loved men and I loved women, he assumed his ancestors came to America in chains and I assumed my parents, who slipped over the border separately and illegally, came here because they had nowhere else to go.”
Stein shows Baldwin at his flippant best in an anecdote involving a magazine staff accountant who had moved into Stein’s office to keep tabs on him. Baldwin walked in and, “loud enough for the assistant to hear,” said, “Who is that mother and what the fuck is he doing eavesdropping on us?”
Entertaining anecdotes like these are always welcome; however, this is a collection of letters, and though there are ninety-two pages of correspondence listed in the table of contents in a book ostensibly dedicated to Baldwin, most are either blank, or sparsely filled with unsubtle obfuscations posing as headnotes that read as attempts to see Stein’s name, writ large perhaps, in the history of Baldwin’s success. The inclusion of two adaptations (filmic and theatrical) of Baldwin’s essay “Equal in Paris” seems an afterthought—interesting filler, but no match for the original. There is precious little Baldwin to go around; sadly, the book is too much in the Sol.
But how precious that little truly is—even in the briefest of glimpses behind Stein’s shadow, we see Baldwin’s raw, beautiful, and ferocious intelligence in his tender, graceful prose. If Stein has done us any service, it is to allow us these fleeting glances at such a singular emotive intellect. And there is something special about correspondence that captures not merely a feeling of temporality but time itself. Baldwin ends one letter, “But I’ve said too much and not enough and it’s late. I’ll mail this in the morning. Good-night.” The subtle beauty of rekindled thought emerges as he continues after an indentation: “Morning: apropos of the remarks about DuBois…”
Within that letter—a response to Stein concerning DuBois and other political and personal matters—is all the appeal, all the tension that makes such an exchange fascinating. Baldwin’s sharpness and sensitivity, his verbal acuity and vulnerability are on full display as he undresses each one of Stein’s poorly honed assertions: “Please get over the notion, Sol, that there’s some place I’ll fit when I’ve made some ‘real peace’ with myself: the place in which I’ll fit will not exist until I make it.” Then: “You say I’m inaccurate in saying that America and Russia are battling for the domination of the world. What, then, I wonder, would be accurate? What else have nations ever battled for?” And finally, in Baldwin’s classic, raw, uncompromising style, he offers ideas that have special resonance, even today: “People do not like to be ruled by strangers, they do not like to be made to feel inferior.”
The Media and the Message
by Hirsh Sawhney
Anthony Lappé and Stephen Marshall, True Lies (Plume Books, 2004)
“My job isn’t to assess the government’s information and be an independent intelligence analyst myself,” said Judith Miller, the reporter who promoted the Bush administration’s fallacious case for war in Iraq, to the New York Review of Books. “My job is to tell readers of The New York Times what the government thought about Iraq’s arsenal.”
Miller’s words serve as a painful reminder that the establishment media has become an innocuous middleman in the business of information, devoid of any investigative drive or willingness to scrutinize.
In True Lies, Anthony Lappé and Stephen Marshall provide countless examples in which mainstream journalists like Miller have failed the American public by parroting the words of those in power. Lappé and Marshall founded the Web-based independent media outlet Guerrilla News Network (GNN). In True Lies, they report on stories that corporate media outlets have excluded from the “national consciousness.” While much of their reportage will hardly be revelatory in this golden age of Web-based media and political documentaries, Lappé and Marshall shed light on underreported stories that are of unquestionable importance to the integrity of U.S. democracy.
In a chapter titled “Selling September 11,” we learn that General Mahmoud Ahmed, director of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, met with high-level congressional and intelligence officials on Capitol Hill during the week of September 11, 2001. While foreign intelligence officials often meet with Washington insiders, the Indian media reported that Ahmed had allegedly wired $100,000 to Mohammed Atta, the ringleader of the 9/11 attacks, prior to September 11.
Ahmed’s proximity to high-level government officials at least deserved superficial scrutiny in light of these claims. But only an Indian journalist was willing to raise the question during a May 2002 White House press briefing. Afterwards, the journalist’s question was scrubbed from the official White House transcript and marked as “inaudible” on CNN’s transcription of the same briefing.
With the 2004 presidential election now weeks away, the most alarming story here relates to what is called black box voting. While the media focused on problems with paper ballots during the 2000 election, electronic voting machines in Florida’s Volusia County installed by the Diebold Corporation “subtracted 16,022 votes from Al Gore, and…gave 4,000 erroneous votes to George W. Bush later that night.” Further investigation by GNN financially links executives from the two electronic voting companies that “will play a role in approximately 80 percent of all votes cast in the 2004 United States election” to a far-right Christian movement.
Although Lappé and Marshall identify instances in which corporate powers directly pressure mainstream newsmakers, they recognize that this “does not explain how the political, social, and economic biases of corporate owners impact the news-making process on a direct, day-to-day level.” Here, Lappé and Marshall ask a difficult question: what compels the media to act “monolithically” and complacently when corporate leaders aren’t directly prevailing upon them?
The GNN team turns to cognitive psychology to answer this question. Unfortunately, they fail to rigorously engage with the theories that they employ. As a result, readers leave True Lies armed with countless examples of big media’s unwillingness to criticize but uncertain of what Lappé and Marshall believe are the underlying causes of this behavior.
In its concluding chapter, True Lies offers readers something akin to a progressive media manifesto, which although slightly rhetorical, is praiseworthy as an exercise of self-scrutiny: “Clearly, we are in a crisis. Not just because corporate media has become an unofficial outpost of State propaganda, but also because the progressive, independent media have not found an adequate and powerful method of translating the values of their message to mainstream America.”
Lappé and Marshall claim that independent media needs to appeal to mass audiences by incorporating sexier MTV generation–friendly designs and focusing on less alienating messages. While GNN’s Web site gives evidence of their technological savvy, one wonders if GNN itself—the Guerrilla News Network—is up to the second task.
Lappé and Marshall’s nonpartisan reportage is at times marked by a rare tone of objectivity and a notable evenhandedness, as when they highlight the Indian government’s undeniable interest in linking the Pakistani government to 9/11. However, in other instances, it is all too apparent that they are partial to the theories of whistleblowers and skeptics, which will do little to bridge any political divides. For example, when reporting on the evidence behind the LIHOP theory—that 9/11 happened because the government strategically Let It Happen On Purpose—Lappé and Marshall do not incorporate the opinions of credible LIHOP skeptics.
Nonetheless, True Lies’ critique forces those of us who work for the progressive media to ask an important and often-avoided question: how do we write and report in a way that speaks to people who have different political beliefs and come from different communities and classes? In other words, how can independent journalists do more than just preach to the choir?
Foreign to Herself
by Bruce Benderson
Tsipi Keller, Jackpot (Spuyten Duyvil, 2004)
Tsipi Keller used to write in Hebrew and now writes in English, an adaptation as powerful as the manufacturing of a new personality. During my life I’ve known only two other novelists who succeeded in making such a fundamental switch. It requires a profound rewiring of the brain that can be as insightful as it can be alienating. Keller’s new novel, Jackpot, has the characteristics of something created by a linguistic survivor. In simple, precise yet enticing prose, it tells the story of a conflict between social convention and raw, dangerous appetite. Like a speaker of two languages, it exists on two levels: one appropriate and familiar, the other foreign and disturbing. Such a structure mirrors the immigrant experience. On the surface it is decorous, appropriate, and earnest; on another, muffled plane, all is anguish and confusion.
What Keller is tracking in this novel happens perpetually beneath the surface of awareness. Freud called it the subconscious; others ascribed it to the operations of demons. But Keller refuses to diagnose the hidden processes that lead to the final destruction of her main character. Instead she patiently details their consequences, until they have swallowed and annihilated her protagonist.
Maggie, the main character of Jackpot, is a fearful and mildly depressed urban woman in her twenties. Victim of an unsuccessful earlier marriage, camping out at a low-paying job as a textbook editor, she views libido—pleasure—as a vague, distant possibility. It lurks uncertainly in the dimly fantasized future, or dances unattainably on the glittering surface of a rich, buxom and sadistic friend, golden girl Robin, who uses Maggie as her drab sidekick and straight man. When the two end up on a Bahamian island called Paradise, Robin’s selfish, promiscuous behavior becomes the catalyst for envious Maggie’s “coming out.” But what emerges is an outlaw personality that is staggeringly self-destructive. In her search for a piece of the libidinal pie, Maggie loses her social identity. Like Jekyll’s Hyde, she becomes a grotesque, id-driven organism.
Ostensibly, however, Maggie maintains her bland stream of consciousness. Even when confronted with the harshest of appetites, she sugarcoats them into something palatable and childish. Reading a Sadean text by Dennis Cooper on the beach, she reinterprets it as something more decorous: “Curiously, fist-fucking takes her back to childhood, reminding her of exploratory games children might play.” She rationalizes her increasing alcoholism in a similar way, thinking of her “Bahama Mamas”—a drink invented by the resort—as an innocent pleasure, a momentary way to gain confidence or a few seconds of relaxation. Then, gradually and uncontrollably, they become part of a repetitive poisoning ritual. It conveys Maggie into the shadowy world of subconscious urges and transports strange men into her bed without her being aware of it, or even caring.
It is Keller’s double linguistic identity that allows her to create this double narrative. Because Maggie is chronically unaware that she is deteriorating, two stories unfold simultaneously: what she thinks is happening and what we think is happening. Like a pleasant, uneventful middle-class vacation, the story she claims to tell revolves around conventional events: gambling, singles dating, hairdos, resort wear, and lounging on the beach; but under all of this roils another tale of dangerous, desperate emotions: jealousy, fear, infantile longings, contempt, and desperation, none of which are ever mentioned. Keller masterfully sustains both worlds—the innocent and the demonic—as her Maggie sticks her head into the lion’s jaws of promiscuity, goes on benders, and even flirts with death. The tension between what is happening to Maggie and the way she describes it becomes increasingly eerie. We stay locked to her as she slides into hell, constantly assuring us that everything is OK.
Keller, then, is bilingual when it comes to the discourse of emotion: she understands both the language of bland social accommodation and the language of excessive despair. The former shouts at us like an alibi, jarring in its cheerfulness. The latter is inarticulate and sulking and overcomes us in its morbid embrace. It’s as if this book were written both by a Henry James and a Hubert Selby, Jr.: a glittering chronicler of social mores, where exterior and interior worlds interweave a rich tapestry, and a poète maudit, who savors the most abject and perverse treasures of the human condition.
Bruce Benderson is the author of several books of fiction and the memoir The Romanian, now published in France as Autobiographie erotique. He is also a translator and a journalist.
A Gordian Knot
by Elizabeth Hoover
Yusef Komunyakaa, Taboo (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2004)
Ralph Ellison argues that our unwritten history “looms as [an] obscure alter-ego,” and urges writers to reveal that secret history. Yusef Komunyakaa answers that call in his magnificent new book of poetry, Taboo. The title refers to the method—to speak aloud history’s taboos, which here, more often than not, means speaking about race. In these tightly crafted poems he touches on miscegenation, violence, personal and national betrayal, and hidden identities from the Court of King Zoser to the murder trial of Edmonia Lewis.
Taboo, Komunyakaa’s thirteenth collection of poems, is impressive in its range; here issues he explored in his earlier work, mostly in the context of 20th-century American history, are expanded over the millennia of Western history. In the Pulitzer Prize–winning Neon Vernacular and in Dien Cai Dau, he wrote about his experiences growing up in Louisiana and as a solider in Vietnam. Though biographical material is set aside in Taboo, a thread binding these books is their discussion of race. In Komunyakaa’s works, the stories of blacks and whites are tangled, even as they remain alien to each other, separated across a divide of silence and denial. For instance, in “To Do Street,” one of his earlier Vietnam poems, “Black & white/soldiers touch the same lover/minutes apart, tasting/each other’s breath.” The theme reappears in Taboo when Komunyakaa writes in the voice of slaves, “We made love/& died to transfuse Spain & Portugal.”
In the first poem of the collection, Komunyakaa announces, “These stories become flesh as these ghosts/argue about what’s lost.” And in the following poems lost histories indeed come alive in the stories of Jeanne Duval, Baudelaire’s mulatto mistress who ends up leaning “halfway/to a pauper’s grave”; Jefferson’s slaves, who “face/each other like Philomela/& Procne”; and the Crows of the Arabs, Arabian poets from 500 B.C. who were the children of unnamed Egyptian concubines.
Komunyakaa conveys the full weight of human tragedy with great storytelling and deft verses. In “Queen Marie-Thérése & Nabo,” he tells the story of a black dwarf from Dahomeny who was given as a gift to the queen to show off her pale skin. After Nabo’s death, she gives birth to a black baby who is spirited away:
The horse hooves
struck sparks from stone
as the royal carriage
rounded a hairpin curve
in the road, hurrying
a secret to the convent
Komunyakaa brings the story into the present at the poem’s conclusion:
if you stand
before her portrait
at the Library of St. Geneviéve
for fifteen minutes,
giving at the bottom
of chance & requital,
the vigil of her father’s
eyes you’ll see everything
known about love & death.
In addressing the reader, he urges us to recognize this exile’s story as a part of the pantheon of “classical” tales we read to tell us about the grand themes of love and death.
Taboo is a dense book, to be sure, heavy with references that can send a reader to encyclopedias and dictionaries. Is it fair to make the reader track down the story of Claudio Jose Domingo, a black violinist from the turn of the 19th century? A better question, and one the book asks, is why is it necessary to search for Domingo while Paganini is widely known? By discussing Domingo without explanation, Komunyakaa asserts that he should be part of our common cultural canon.
Sometimes, even after doing the legwork and locating the references, the poem remains elusive, as in “Lucumi,” which veers from Miami to Yoruban religious practices to Langston Hughes and contains an untranslated, unattributed quote. Occasionally the poems groan under the weight of the references, making them awkward and opaque.
Yet more often there are poems like “Nude Study,” about John Singer Sargent’s painting of a black elevator operator. Here, stunning language combines with a narrative intensity to create an almost painful intimacy.
Belief is almost
flesh. Wings beat,
dust trying to breathe, as if the figure
might rise from the oils
& flee the dead
artist studio. For years
this piece or work was there
like a golden struggle.…
So much taken
for granted & denied, only
grace & mutability
can complete this face.
Here the power relations (black and white, object and subject) are tangled, the gaze upended with an admirable economy of language.
Lucille Clifton’s poem “the mississippi river empties into the gulf” ends with someone “staring into time,/whispering mistakenly:/ only here. only now.” Taboo speaks directly to that person by drawing stories through the erasures of history into the present, from the ancient priest to the panhandler outside the bank. If their stories are not lost, we can imagine that we can imagine that ours won’t be, either.