NONFICTION: Thumbs Up
Terese Svoboda, Black Glasses Like Clark Kent (Graywolf, 2008)
For whatever reason, Americans still tolerate the thumbs up. Occasionally we expect it, like on the deck of an aircraft carrier, or we may even use it ourselves (think double-thumbs up for a missed layup). The thumbs up—a peace sign of the ,80s and the international symbol for awesome—changed forever in 2004 when it became the hallmark of photos taken at Abu Ghraib prison.
Those pictures: global outrage and sympathy, yet despite indignation, the average citizen moved on. But what about those who couldn’t? The memoir Black Glasses Like Clark Kent by Terese Svoboda explores one such case, the story of Svoboda’s uncle, a WWII-era veteran and paterfamilias who fell into a severe depression—ostensibly because of PTSD—some sixty years after his military discharge and simultaneous to Abu Ghraib pictures surfacing in the media. His depression was powerful, albeit short lived; after just a few months, he used a shotgun to take his own life.
“It is important to put the spirit to rest,” a Shinto priest told Svoboda, and in this case, Black Glasses Like Clark Kent attempts to reconcile not only Svoboda’s uncle’s spirit, but also her own. However, during this process of reconciliation, Svoboda unknowingly encounters the spirits of thousands of other victims—the result of a questionable time and place in history that remains flush with obfuscation even today.
Svoboda’s uncle was a guard at a prison for U.S. soldiers in postwar Japan. Most of the inmates were black. Elaborate gallows were built in the center courtyard of that prison. Hangings and other injuries and deaths in that prison can’t really be confirmed or denied. There are almost no records of the prison, its prisoners, or the criminal trials and convictions that landed U.S. soldiers there. “I grow angry that he’s left me such a mystery,” Svoboda wrote, “and neither the government, nor the guards, nor the relatives have solved it.”
Svoboda’s ultraclean prose successfully pushes the narrative through the hefty expanse of this inquiry, an essential in a book of mostly unanswerable questions. Also effective is Svoboda’s decision to treat the reader like a research partner, and, fortunately for readers, Svoboda is an excellent companion: consistently candid, razor sharp, unapologetically flawed, and passionate. She is exactly with whom one would want to discuss these difficult topics.
For some of Svoboda’s fans, the diction and syntax may not be what they expect: subject matter likely required a different approach than she’s taken with poetry and other prose. That’s not to say sentences aren’t precise and calculated, but with the constraints of heavy issues on nearly every page, it appears she had fewer opportunities for teasing with language. Nonetheless, Svoboda finds ways to question convention, such as by using an unusually placed short play, “Interlude,” sixty pages in, or by inserting images into the text, which is reminiscent of W.G. Sebald’s work both visually and thematically—questioning the assumed relationships between memory, history and truth.
Even so—and given the creative modes of expression, the constraints of the genre, etc. etc.—Svoboda still delivers stellar prose:
Dad drives on to review the handsome French sunflowers he’s planted in the next section. They are turned toward us. Really they are turned toward the sun, and bowed because the sun is too much to bear.
Thomas Burke was a British author.
Jay Caspian Kangs The Loneliest AmericansBy Rhoda Feng
NOV 2021 | Books
If youre a youngish Asian American like me, you can likely dredge up memories of being dragooned to test prep or tutoring sessions. Housed in spartan rooms with the obligatory Scantron machine, these may have been academies for the SAT, PSAT, AP, and ACT or aggressively accredited courses to give you an edge over other applicants to private or feeder schools. Acres of paper would be distributed, from pallets of practice questions to flash cards and take-home exercises. Classes were set to the metronome of drills. At some point, the instructor might airily toss off a bit of advice for the clueless: if in doubt, just bubble in all of the abovewhatever the question, there was a good chance that was the right choice.
Dear Friends and ReadersBy Phong Bui
MARCH 2023 | Publisher's Message
Many of us may still remember how the great Athenian statesman Pericles proposed to melt the gold from the statue of Athena, patron goddess of the city, when the war against Sparta was exhausting all of Athenss funds. Which leads us to think about how a symbol can elicit such strong emotional responses from the nations citizens when it is at the risk of being desecrated.
Miguel Abreu with Andrew Woolbright
MARCH 2023 | Critics Page
How did the show The Poet-Engineers come about? When I think of the Lower East Side, and I think about its difference and the texture of it, I think about Miguel Abreu Gallery, and I think about that show, in particular. Its a show that still stays with me and I still consider and think about. And I think part of the reason is it really articulated a philosophy or it believed in an exhibition that was a way forward, or an examination of the present, or a series of possibilities. And I think that that oftentimes gets lost in things. So I just, I'm happy to be sitting down with you and wanted to know, how did this show come about? What I think is the perfect show.
Guillermo Kuitca: Graphite Paintings from The Tablada Suite (1992) and Poema Pedagógico (1996)By Alfred Mac Adam
DEC 22–JAN 23 | ArtSeen
The Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes once quipped, We Mexicans, you know, descend from the Aztecs. The Argentines, well, they descend from boats. A facetious thought with serious consequences for the eight graphite paintings from the Tablada Suite and Poema Pedagógico, series by Guillermo Kuitca, currently on view at Sperone Westwater. Mexicans can feel autochthonous, linked to their land by blood, but Argentines, a nation of immigrants like the United States, rarely have the same experience. Where Americans generally feel bonded by their Constitution, a document that holds their nation together, that commonality, if it exists in Argentina, is attenuated by political and economic catastrophe.