Dear M.,

I’ve been working on a novel for a few years. It is very much about this:

It’s an embarrassing thing, to admit the attempt of a novel. But that’s not the point. I wanted you to see this film because it is really lovely. And it’s a surprise window into what I’m writing about, something that is finding the pockets I have been feeling for. Something that is keeping my fingers crossed.



Film via @Brainpicker

Dear M.,

Here is a famous writer quote:

The task of an American writer is not to describe the misgivings of a woman taken in adultery as she looks out of a window at the rain but to describe four hundred people under the lights reaching for a foul ball. This is ceremony.

–John Cheever

To which I say: SHENANIGANS.







On Programmes/Fictions

Waiting to Be Milked

Of the quiet pleasures work sometimes brings me, the loudest is hearing a familiar but different and ever-surprising English. It drives home how forceful our cliches really are—and how young.

A Ph.D loses whatever modicum of relevance it has if you can’t stop and yawp! once in a while without trying to make an argument. So, in a grown-up version of Show and Tell, I’m bringing you my seventeenth-century worms in a sandwich bag and making you smell them. Today! Two great dead pieces of language from the Anonymous Life of Milton (possibly written by Cyriack Skinner). Two leaky-lady gems from a time when the act of writing hadn’t been Hemingwayed and Mailered into penishood.

Exhibit A: Milton’s grandfather disinherited his father when he was caught with a Bible in his room (Granddad was a Catholic, and Dad’s reading indicated a dangerous Protestant tendency). Milton’s dad was raised by a relative, a scrivener, and made a decent living for his family so that Milton had access to a good education:

Thus his eldest Son had his institution to learning both under public, and private Master; under whom, through the pregnancy of his Parts, and his indefatigable industry (sitting up constantly at his Study till midnight) he profited exceedingly.

Exhibit B: A famous one, but still worth rehashing. Skinner writes that Milton’s later life, when he was blind and past his political best, had a routine:

He rendered his Studies and various Works more easy and pleasant by allotting them their several portions of the day. Of these the time friendly to the Muses fell to his Poetry; And he waking early (as is the use of temperate men) had commonly a good Stock of Verses ready against his Amanuensis came; which if it happened to be later than ordinary, he would complain, saying he wanted to be milkd.

Those italics aren’t mine, by the way. They’re straight from the manuscript. They indicate a direct quote.

Isn’t it something, to imagine Milton waiting in the morning, full of verses he’d composed in the night, begging to be milked? Hard to imagine a more apt metaphor, eh?

Yawp! and moo!


PS: Just had to include this shout-out to Gaudy Night: in the 1694 Life of Milton, his nephew Edward Phillips talks about Milton’s crew of “young Sparks” (i.e., bros), with whom “he would so far make bold with his Body, as now and then to keep a Gawdy day.” (Gawdy day=One of up to four days per year of celebrations at the universities.) Harriet Vane would be tickled.

There is A Joke In Here About A Certain Kind of Great American Novelist …

… who leaves home to see the world and writes about what he sees.


‘In den Zillertaler Alpen’ is a series of paintings by Hank Schmidt in der Beek, where he  stands in nature surrounded by mountain scenery and paints the pattern of his shirt on canvas.

Oh Stein! O Toklas! Biographies and Autobiographies

You know, titling things as something other than they are might be my favorite tired metaliterary joke. I guess Eggers started the recent iteration of that trend with his Heartbreaking Work. Then there was Willett’s book, then Banksy’s movie, and this morning I’ve been flipping through Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, that Escheresque ourobouros of nonfictional genres. It’s an “autobiography” of Toklas which is actually a “biography” of Stein, except that it’s written by Stein in Toklas’ voice. I want Shari Lewis and Lambchop to read the entire thing out loud.

The Autobiography is ridiculously fun and parts of it are magical, megalomaniacal exercises. Sample view (in Toklas’ voice, obviously):

The three geniuses of whom I wish to speak are Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, and Alfred Whitehead. I have met many important people, I have met several great people but I have only known three first class geniuses and in each case on sight within me something rang. In no one of the three cases have I been mistaken. In this way my new full life began.

What virtuosic panache! Establishing Toklas as the authority guaranteeing her (Stein’s) genius! Writing yourself as the instrument of someone’s “full new life!” Imagine imagining your lover’s inner life this way! What verve! What delicious, delusional hubris!

And maybe fake, but maybe not. One story claims Stein begged Toklas for years to write her autobiography. When she wouldn’t, Stein announced that she’d buy the flowers herself, so to speak. Another story holds that Stein needed money and wrote the piece in six weeks, intending it to be a commercial hit. It’s rife with tabloid fodder—a cleverly fictionalized expose of the art world would fly off the shelves.

Whatever the real story behind the story is or was, what’s true is this: the name that shows up the most is Gertrude Stein. Not Gertrude, not Stein, but Gertrude Stein, always and forever, and always in a reverential tone.

A 1934 review of the autobiography addresses the pitfalls of this approach with kindly restraint:

“Altogether the most challenging estimate found in the book is that which the author makes of herself. ‘She realises,’ so the reader is informed, ‘that in english literature in her time she is the only one. She has always known it and now she says it.'” He calls this opinion “preposterous” but says the Autobiography “mirrors the vigorous mind and the strong and engaging personality which have left their imprint on those with whom she has associated.”

My favorite part of the Autobiography might be this:

“In the story Ada in Geography and Plays Gertrude Stein has given a very good description of me as I was at that time.”

Outdoing Leonard Woolf, who heavily edited Virginia’s diaries, and Ted Hughes, who destroyed much of Plath’s unpublished work, Stein omits Toklas altogether. She praises her own description of Toklas without actually giving it.

Brava, Firecracker. Brava.

Tsunamis and the Survivors’ Tell

A friend of the blog remarked, after watching Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe, that the ending—in which the US is forced to drop a nuclear bomb on New York City as a “good faith” gesture so as to show the USSR that the bomb that hit Moscow was deployed in error—was devastating in a way that annihilation of the whole world by nuclear war somehow wouldn’t be.  It’s an effect made worse, he said, by ten quick scenes that capture New York City street life the second before the bomb hit.

I remembered that remark as I watched a documentary on the 2004 tsunami’s effects on Phuket, and I’ve been thinking ever since about different classes of disaster and how we tell them. The kind of disaster I have in mind isn’t nuclear. It’s large-scale, protracted, rife with survivors, and messy enough that it had to go mostly untelevised and was reconstructed in retrospect. In other words, if I’m not talking about nuclear war*, neither am I thinking about 9/11, an event that included both a bizarre specificity (people reporting from the building across the street) and a bleak absoluteness of result. Like the nuclear ending in Fail-Safe, it was also quick.  One of the strangest things about that day was how it shrugged off our definitions of disaster relief: millions of blood donations went unused but ashes hung over the city for weeks. We rushed to offer a liquid solution to a gaseous problem and had no access to the monumental change of phase that was really under way.

I’m interested in a different class of disaster—a disaster with a surfeit of survivors and an absence of agents. Such a disaster, without its US and USSR, produces acute narrative problems. Take the tsunami and its companion-piece, the earthquake. They make for addled storytelling because battle tropes don’t apply and heroism can’t swim. Good and evil sit marooned and watching from Orlando’s lunatic moon, alongside terrorists and bombers and civilians and countries, all waiting patiently for the casting call that will make them relevant or the event legible. They don’t, obviously. In a tsunami, the difference between up and down (or shore and land or vacation bungalow and fisherman’s hut) is academic.

Here’s how Ammianus, in his Res Gestae, described a tsunami and the earthquake preceding it on July 21, A.D. 365:

16. Slightly after daybreak, and heralded by a thick succession of fiercely shaken thunderbolts, the solidity of the whole earth was made to shake and shudder, and the sea was driven away, its waves were rolled back, and it disappeared, so that the abyss of the depths was uncovered and many-shaped varieties of sea-creatures were seen stuck in the slime; the great wastes of those valleys and mountains, which the very creation had dismissed beneath the vast whirlpools, at that moment, as it was given to be believed, looked up at the sun’s rays. 17. Many ships, then, were stranded as if on dry land, and people wandered at will about the paltry remains of the waters to collect fish and the like in their hands; then the roaring sea as if insulted by its repulse rises back in turn, and through the teeming shoals dashed itself violently on islands and extensive tracts of the mainland, and flattened innumerable buildings in towns or wherever they were found. Thus in the raging conflict of the elements, the face of the earth was changed to reveal wondrous sights. 18. For the mass of waters returning when least expected killed many thousands by drowning, and with the tides whipped up to a height as they rushed back, some ships, after the anger of the watery element had grown old, were seen to have sunk, and the bodies of people killed in shipwrecks lay there, faces up or down. 19. Other huge ships, thrust out by the mad blasts, perched on the roofs of houses, as happened at Alexandria, and others were hurled nearly two miles from the shore, like the Laconian vessel near the town of Methone which I saw when I passed by, yawning apart from long decay.

That last sentence shows astounding restraint. If confronted by a similar

Receding tsunami waters at Kata Noi Beach on 26 December 2004.

ship that had been deposited two miles inland by a tidal wave, I’d have a LOT more to say about it. I’d be inclined to stick a hand up it and make it explain, the way Jerome does in his Life of St. Hilarion, where he directly links the 365 tsunami to the death of Julian, who had died two years earlier:

At that time there was an earthquake over the whole world, following on the death of Julian, which caused the sea to burst its bounds, and left ships hanging on the edge of mountain steeps. It seemed as though God were threatening a second deluge, or all things were returning to original chaos. When the people of Epidaurus saw this, I mean the roaring waves and heaving waters and the swirling billows mountain-high dashing on the shore, fearing that what they saw had happened elsewhere might befall them and their town be utterly destroyed, they made their way to the old man [Hilarion], and as if preparing for a battle placed him on the shore.

After making the sign of the cross three times on the sand, he faced the sea, stretched out his hands, and no one would believe to what a height the swelling sea stood like a wall before him. It roared for a long time as if indignant at the barrier, then little by little sank to its level. Epidaurus and all the region roundabout tell the story to this day, and mothers teach their children to hand down the remembrance of it to posterity.

Sixteen hundred years later, in 1960, Hilarion’s miracle would be repeated in Chile by a group spearheaded by Raul Saez, who saved a hefty chunk of the country from flooding. Granted, the Great Chilean Earthquake wasn’t nuclear war, but it could have been, and for many who lived through the 1960 quake, that was their first thought:

José Argomedo was 22 years old and living on a farm outside Maullín, Chile, where he got news of the world from his radio. Early in May 1960, the big news was the tension between the United States and the Soviet Union-a Soviet missile had downed an American spy plane.

On May 18, the Soviet leader, Nikita Khruschev, suggested treating the United States like a cat that had stolen cream. “Wouldn’t it be better,” he said, “to take the American aggressors by the scruff of the neck also and give them a little shaking?”

A few days later, on the afternoon of May 22, while out riding his horse, Mr. Argomedo felt more than a little shaking. As the ground beneath him shook hard for several minutes, he was forced to get off his horse. Mr. Argomedo thought the Cold War had turned hot. However, like everyone else in the area of Maullín, Quenuir, and La Pasada, he was actually living through a magnitude 9.5 earthquake, the largest ever measured.

That earthquake culminated in several landslides that blocked the outflow of Rinihue Lake, the lowest of a chain of lakes that receive a constant inflow from the Enco River. The blocked river (San Pedro) threatened to flood Chile’s oldest city, Valdivia, and every other town along the river in less than five hours. If the dam broke, things would be much, much worse.

To avoid the destruction of the city, several military units and hundreds of workers from ENDESA, CORFO, and MOP started an effort, called the Riñihuazo, to control the lake. Twenty-seven bulldozers were put into service, but they had severe difficulties moving in the mud near the dams, so dykes had to be constructed with shovels. A proposal by some US military to blow up the dams with missiles from an helicopter was rejected.

Chilean engineers fixed the problem.

Here, by the way, is a list of tips on how to survive a tsunami, courtesy of the US Geological Society:

  • Heed Natural Warnings
  • Heed Official Warning
  • Expect Many Waves
  • Head for High Ground and Stay There
  • Abandon Belongings
  • Don’t Count on the Roads
  • Climb a Tree
  • Climb on Something That Floats
  • Expect the Waves to Leave Debris
  • Expect the Quakes to Lower Coastal Land
  • Expect Company

Then there are the survivors of the 2005 tsunami, which is known variously as the Asian Tsunami or the Boxing Day Tsunami in what seems like a hokey reprise of other politically motivated nameoffs. (No victors here.) The documentary I saw focused on white, British survivors who’d been vacationing in Phuket when the wave hit. It struck me as a self-serving and insensitive lens, but the tsunami complicates the usual case for Oppression Olympics. There are things money can fix: the couple that was scuba-diving when the wave hit had the means to fix her pelvis, which snapped in two under the pressure, and his legs. But the woman whose seven-year-old daughter was torn from her arms when the wave broke through their bungalow lost her. I’ve scoured Youtube in vain for footage of that particular woman because her interview shocked me. Watching her speak you never suspected, not even for a moment, that the daughter would be gone by story’s end. That she was seemed to surprise her as much as it did me. It was astoundingly sad.

I did, however, find this footage of the only survivors’ account of the 1958 “Super Giant Tsunami” in Lituya Bay in Alaska, which ends with the older man’s boat deposited a good way up a mountain. The BBC tries desperately to illustrate with scary shots of turbulent water. The man is with his son, who was eight years old at the time, and remembers the weird things kids remember about events like those. The BBC’s visuals are utterly distracting. Understandable; it’s a documentary and they need some kind of visual, but their efforts to reproduce elements of the story are pathetic (at one point they show a big chain to illustrate the fact that there was a chain). The effect isn’t  “Super Giant;” it’s small. It’s much more interesting to listen to the details the teller chooses. This particular documentary feels weirdly like a struggle for literary power or narrative dominance.

I don’t know why. One guess? The first-person account is never not limited, but more often than not, literary power derives from ignoring your particular limitations and adopting a universal voice. Milton negotiates this by claiming he’s merely channeling God’s words. Dante sticks to a first-person account but loudly proclaims his debt to Virgil. The end of the amazing film “An Education” suffers, I think, because the final voiceover cancels out something appealingly omniscient. It’s interesting to think about an opposite case in which it’s the first-person account that carries authority.

That’s an incomplete answer, complicated in all kinds of ways, most significantly, to my mind, by Arko Datta, who took the iconic photograph for the 2005 tsunami of an Indian woman mourning a dead relative. The BBC reports on how he went and found her five years later. She’s become famous in the interim as a result of his photograph. She claims to remember him from the day he took the photo. (A day when she was prostrate on the sand mourning.) He talks about how he comes home every day and thanks God he’s still alive.

Neither half of this story adds up nicely. Fame messes with the schema and makes everyone just a touch more concerned with self than you’d hoped they’d be. She became too large while remaining mute, and he stopped photographing long enough to narrate his own subjective experience of the event in a way that highlights his good fortune. They overflow their parts in just the ways you hoped they wouldn’t.

Then there’s Michael Dobbs’ account for the Washington post, which is here. His readers take him to task for merely vacationing in a place where local residents suffered unmentionable hardships. His response to them is interesting, and the piece itself clearly suffers from a journalist’s double-vision. It’s distant, the way Ammianus might have written it: full of restraint and lodged two miles inland, even when the water’s swirling round.



*although Douglas Coupland’s “Survivor” does that pretty well, and in a similar region

The Remains of the Day

  • First off, my Christmas wish: Stephen Fry calling me madam every morning, and noting that the Prime Minister likes my shoes. Butler alarm clock, yes please! Birds tweet, the clock has six months worth of recorded messages in it.  And, it’s FRICKING JEEVES!
  • Other Brit wonders: Shameless.  A TV show starring a young James McAvoy, with lots of male nudity and neighbors who drink.  It’s the kind of comedy that wins drama awards, and the kind of writing that is a marvel. It’s not perfect, but it is a Netflix wonder.
  • In a memo sent out from Peter Carey to all those who have tussled with National Novel Writing Month, the writer gives the irritating advice of killing your television and writing every day.  He says “If you wish to watch TV, you do not wish to be a serious writer.” I say he can suck it.  There are many ways to approach the fountain, and it’s a cold view to think that the classic (and Mailerian) huff of “write every day and make art and behold my labor!” is the only path. My reaction to the memo wasn’t really “suck it.” It was “how dare you,” followed by “am I being defensive because I don’t write every day?” followed by “what if he’s right?”  then followed by “suck it.”
  • Great response on Jezebel from Latoya and Dodai about writing about race for the site, and the lackluster comments that follow. The conversation keeps going on the original post.
  • Lots of talk about the stolen climate change emails from the University of East Anglia, but almost no talk about who stole them or if the theft itself is something to be investigated.
  • And what do we do with this? There might be a gang of murderers beheading people and rendering their fat for sale to cosmetics companies. The Canadian radio show I was listening to last night suggested that it all might be a corrupt police department’s claim to fame…and that selling human fat is kinda hard. But there are no real answers yet, just lots of administrators stepping down, and a supposed two liters of fat.  Plus, the group has been dubbed the Pishtacos after a legend of tall white man that hunted travelers for their fat. As Wikipedia rightfully notes, not to be confused with pistachio.
  • This month the UK reassigned the one officer who answer emails and a hotline about UFO sightings for the Ministry of Defense. They decided that over 55 years, the UFO departmen showed there was no defense threat from UFOs, and they could save 44,000 pounds a year by shutting the operation down.  Here’s a link to their archives of sketches done by UFO witnesses—notice they have an actual form with directions.
  • It’s December.  Be sure to pick up the Pfeffernusse from Trader Joe’s.

American Writers

“There exists a great politesse around women’s poetry,” Courtney Queeney writes, “and to write critically is, in some ways, to betray one’s feminine self (the part that’s supposed to blink a lot and sigh into the shadows when the menfolk start talking politics at the dinner table).”

In solidarity with Kamy Wicoff’ and the SheWrites call to action, I’ve already bought Francine Prose’s Gluttony and just bought Adina Hoffman’s My Happiness bears No Relation to Happiness, which looks like a historical and biographical tour de force.

That’s not enough, of course. I think it’s worth thinking long and hard about the problems, internal and external, that seem to keep women in what Adina Hoffman herself comes to call a “ghetto.” Here’s an interview with Mya Guarnieri where she talks about the problem of hybridity that plagues me daily (and Alarcon too, if a little less).

Guarnieri: So you’re an American writer? Not a Jewish writer?

Hoffman: I should probably just say that I’m a writer, no adjectives attached, but I suppose I used the term “American writer” because it’s both more neutral and expansive than any of these others; it doesn’t necessarily imply anything specific, beyond one’s place of birth and the use of an American idiom. And perhaps I also meant to say that no matter how long I live in the Middle East, I’ll never be an Israeli writer. To call yourself a “Jewish writer,” meanwhile, is to put yourself in a kind of ghetto, as if your concerns are only Jewish. The same is true of the term “woman writer,” which I also don’t use. Of course I am Jewish and I am a woman, and both of these things matter to me, but I’d like to think my imagination extends beyond such categories.

It’s interesting that Hoffman thinks of “American writer” as the most general label available to her. The term is not in practice “neutral” and “expansive”—we don’t need to look at the Publishers Weekly Top Ten list to establish that the American Writer has both a structure and a gender, and that the Great American Novel tends by definition to be about a boy’s life. (For a great account of why this is problematic, see Zunguzungu’s post “On Repressive Anti-Sentimalism” here.) But of the labels available, American Writer is clearly the most powerful, and she’s free to choose it. It’s hard to be the  best “American” writer if you’re “ghettoized,” as Hoffman puts it, into a subcategory.

(Ghettoization. What a word to use in this connection. Whew.)

I started this post with an excerpt from Courtney Queeney’s article “The Kings Are Boring: Some Thoughts on Women’s Poetry”, from the August 2009 issue of Bookslut, because it reminded me of prior talks we’ve had about some of the features of Jezebel and DoubleXX that make them problematic discourse communities. Queeney’s piece is honest about the risks that attend projects like She Writes and WILLA—great projects born of a moment of crisis that  offer members shelter from the storm, but which run the danger of confirming in some larger way that the only solution to a segregated society is to create a secondary one outside it. Let’s resist that, WILLA and She Writes: let’s keep women’s writing from turning into women’s sports.

(I say that, by the way, as someone who a) despises ALL sports and b) nonetheless resents the way in which women’s sports have been marginalized, except when it comes to tennis. I’m using the comparison advisedly: unlike sports, where women are statistically smaller and weaker, there is no biology limiting our ability to record-break along with the big boys.)

This may require a move away from the “politesse,” and it may involve developing a way for us to talk about aesthetics and politics in a way that doesn’t let friendship, or the good feeling that comes from uniting behind a cause, interfere with our ability to disagree.

I hope, in other words, that She Writes and WILLA don’t become another set of shelters from the storm. I hope they’re where the storm happens.

Queeney turned me onto Arielle Greenberg’s really interesting 2003 essay “On the Gurlesque,” which describes a trend in poetry written by women that involved clashing different definitions of “girl” or “grrl”-ness. Greenberg defines the “Gurlesque” as partly a response to “victim tales” or modes that are merely confessional. It’s something else, a perspective that exist at an indefinite remove from (for example) the oft-used traumatic event:

Instead, the poem mocks the very notion of victimhood in a way which is even more disturbing than a straightforward version of the same tale, because the speaker seems as taken by the melodrama of the scene as she is wounded by the pain. This honest assessment of the perverse pleasures of horror—even horror so closely associated with women’s suppression—is one of the key markers of the Gurlesque.

Other key markers include a Whitmanesque desire to contain all contradictions, to be simultaneously ungendered and all girl. Greenberg sees the Gurlesque is a very specific reaction to a time of transition—an in-between stage, in fact:

Gurlesque poetry takes its cues from all of these things: subversive and angry but flirty and sweet, owning and critiquing sexuality in candid ways. Its origins in the turbulent years after the women’s movement of the 1960s and 70s make it a poetry which documents a psychic schism; if, as John Berger wrote about depictions of women in art in Ways of Seeing, “the social presence of women has developed as a result of their ingenuity in living…within such a limited space…at the cost of a woman’s self being split into two,” then the Gurlesque poet watches herself and is herself at once, both punishing and promoting what she sees, rejecting the notion of herself as object while trying it on for size.

That last bit seems like it describes something we see all the time, no?

“Can women poets really afford the luxury of writing this way, with the patriarchy still in such power?” one male audience member asked me recently. This reply came from a young woman in the audience: “Yes, but we are the first generation who can, and that’s why this is so exciting.”

I like the male audience member and the young woman who replied, but I think they’re having the wrong conversation. American Writerhood includes us. It’s a mistake to proceed defensively because it leads to bad art. Our first responsibility is to the stuff we’re writing, and it’s frankly impossible (for me, anyway) to write well when I’ve stuffed my world view into a particular aesthetic canister or find myself thinking in a merely reactive or reactionary way. It might be poetry accommodates political affiliations in a way that fiction definitively can’t. Queeney, for one, doesn’t think so: as she sits down to dutifully review a group of women poets she’d sat herself down to like, she finds that  “despite my copious notes and the hours I spent staring at pages, I was fundamentally uninspired by most of what I’d been given.”

She never writes the essay on those poets and neither should we. I’m buying books by women today because it’s the right thing to do. Dollars count. But I want to point out the difference between timing and content. These aren’t spurious purchases motivated by a desire to statement-make; they’re books I would have bought anyway that happen to be written by women. That I bought them today is where the activism happens, not that I bought them at all, and it’s vitally important that we keep that distinction healthy.

As someone who, when angry, can only think of a character named Meat Messions who meets an unsavory end, I want to note the activist impulse, mark this as a moment of crisis to which we will respond in terms to which we do not subscribe (here, the tyranny of the market and the power of the all-mighty dollar), and then note too that anger, however righteous, can’t interfere with the real work the members of She Writes and WILLA are here to do, which is to be American writers.

Daniel Alarcón Pirated My Life

Dear CF,

Just got back from hearing Daniel Alarcón—author of War by Candlelight (which I’ve read) and Lost City Radio (which I haven’t, for reasons that will become apparent)—talk about book piracy in Peru. You’ve seen the stands, you’ve read your Calvino: the subject is the fast cheap reproduction of original books and the readers and nonreaders who buy and sell ’em. Trafficking in translations: it’s a darker and more sordid world than you’d guess.

Alarcón’s got big hair, a reading voice more interested in its subject than itself, and great stage presence, especially when not reading directly from the ms. He’s good at making a monologue delivered at a room feel conversational and offhand. He seems like your cousin’s friend.

Tonight he read from a long and refreshingly wayward essay on how overground and underground publishing works in Lima, and the special role books occupy in a culture whose relationship to the literary vacillates between worshipful and mercenary. It was good.

But there was a moment when the problem of being Daniel Alarcón came up. Come question-time, a Peruvian man in the audience raised his hand and said, with some irritation: “Peruvians know all about this. What’s the point of writing it?”

My jaw dropped metaphorically and I just as metaphorically picked it up because this is the key question, the life question, the question I ask myself every time I write and a variant of the question I get asked every Wednesday afternoon when I ritualistically try to convince my peers that there really is a way to reconcile contemporary neuroscience with readings of Milton.

The question is this: how do you write for two audiences?

Corollaries to the question: Can it be competently done? And what happens when they talk back?

I’m coming clean: my feelings about Alarcón are complex. He’s good. But I fault and envy him for occupying a position I’ve been too inhibited to inhabit: the role of a Latino writer raised in the US whose writing language is English, who resists the flatness that results from an overeager commitment to identity politics (Cisneros, Sapphire), who harbors intense interest toward and an anxious relation to his parents’ mother country (the language of which he speaks fluently), a country to which he does not and will never quite belong.

It’s a bizarre headspace to occupy for any period of time, and God knows it’s a textbook American problem and territory many—Lahiri, Diaz, for instance—have explored well.

But the Southern Cone? That was MINE.

(The South too, though Alarcón was raised in Birmingham, so I’ll grudgingly admit that, where Alabama’s concerned, he has the prior claim.)

I’m sort of joking! But not really! The fact is I’ve buried most of the stuff I’ve written about Chile. There are lots of reasons for that, one being that it wasn’t awfully good. But the main reason was practical: when you start writing about the country you want to belong to, it starts to talk back. And it hurts to be told that you’ve gotten it wrong. Or that the issue you’ve chosen to spend several thousand words on is unimportant. Or that your entire extended family has somehow translated and read the piece you published in an obscure little magazine no one in the US has even heard of, the piece about your eccentric great-uncle, who even now is making calls and taking down names.

Which is more or less what happened to Alarcón tonight. (Not the uncle bit, though.) And he acknowledged the validity of the objection with grace, and it was clear he’s done some serious thinking about the question. But it was equally clear that he couldn’t really answer it.

Alarcón’s problem—besides having a fabulous career at a young age—is that he’s trying to do the impossible by writing for both an American and a Peruvian audience. As the outsider he is, he sees angles to the story that make it interesting (and let’s face it, exotic) to an American audience that strike the Peruvian as commonplace and blase. And vice versa.

In his first project he explicitly adopted a Peruvian viewpoint, understanding that the book would be bought by American audiences. When the book became a success and got translated, I’d bet he felt more than a twinge of discomfort because as a whatever-he-is, he’s never an insider; he’s something else. And so, when he writes stories about Peru (which not all of them are) from a Peruvian perspective in English, there’s an almost automatic question of authenticity. It would be easier all-round if his book were translated to English rather than written in it. In the piece he read tonight I detect an overcorrection. It seemed like he was writing from a definitively American perspective. (Of course, he might have solved this by writing two different versions.)

It’s a problem with no solution since there isn’t one authentic place from which he can write. He isn’t Peruvian. Neither can his voice be exclusively American. Both postures are subtly wrong. I don’t know what it takes to occupy hybridity authentically and write it well. It’s like the idea of seamless code-switching; it’s appealing to think about an honest and utopian in-betweenness, but the best you can do is achieve an equitable average.

The Peruvian man’s question points to a larger issue, though: there’s something disingenuous about adopting an anthropological stance toward a country you want to document and understand. Sometimes it can’t be helped. Isabel Allende gets away with it in Mi Pais Inventado because it’s partly memoir and is intended for an American audience. The Chileans who like it—and they’re likely to be ex-pats themselves—enjoy it precisely because they understand it as a guidebook for foreigners that manages incidentally to get quite a few things right. They’re pretty hungry for something that even partially mirrors their memories and experience.

Alarcón’s piece was great, but it was good because it assumed ignorance of something Peruvians already know, and discussed it in stakes Americans understand. I’m honestly stumped by the Peruvian man’s question, and I think he might have been too. In the meantime, I hereby declare friendly war by candlelight on Alarcón and humbly ask that he leave me a corner of the cone to cut my teeth on. Daniel, you know those signs on the lawns of public parks—Prohibido Pisar El Cesped? Hands off Patagonia and Santiago! And Valparaiso. Dejate de piratear! Dejame mi pastito interior! In exchange, I’ll read Lost City Radio to see whether the novel I’ve been working has, in fact, been scooped. Deal? Deal? (No, really. Can we shake on it? Please?)


Territorially, but in the nicest, most debonair way,


Dear CF,

Just got back from hearing Daniel Alarcón—author of War by Candlelight (which I’ve read) and Lost City Radio (which I haven’t, for reasons that will become apparent)—talk about book piracy in Peru. You’ve seen the stands, you’ve read your Calvino: the subject is the promiscuous repackaging and reproducing of books.Trafficking in translations. It’s apparently a darker world than one would think.

Alarcón’s got big hair, a reading voice more interested in its subject than itself, and great stage presence when unglued from the manuscript. He’s good at making a monologue delivered at a room feel conversational and offhand. He seems like your cousin’s friend.

Tonight he read from a pretty exhaustive essay on how overground and underground publishing works in Lima and the special role books occupy in a culture whose relationship to the literary vacillates between the worshipful and the mercenary. It was good.

But there was a moment when the problem of being Daniel Alarcón came up: come question-time, a Peruvian man in the audience raised his hand and said, with some irritation: “Peruvians know all about this. What’s the point of writing it?”

My jaw dropped metaphorically and I metaphorically picked it up because this is the key question, the life question, the question I ask myself every day when I try to write something and a variant of the question I get asked every Wednesday afternoon when I try to convince my peers that there really is a way to reconcile contemporary neuroscience with readings of Milton.

The question is this: how do you write for two audiences?

I’m coming clean. My feelings about Alarcón are complex. He’s damned good and I’m trying to forgive him for occupying a niche that I’ve never overcome some nervousness about inhabiting: the role of a Latino writer raised in the US whose writing language is English, who resists the flatness that can result from an overeager commitment to identity politics (Cisneros, Sapphire), who harbors intense interest toward and an anxious relation to his parents’ mother country (the language of which he speaks fluently), a country to which he does not and will never quite belong.

It’s a bizarre headspace to occupy for any period of time, and it’s certainly not unique. This is territory many—Lahiri and Diaz, for instance—have explored well.

But the Southern Cone? That was MINE.

(The South too, though Alarcón was raised in Birmingham, so I’ll grudgingly admit his claim to Alabama is better than mine.)

I’m sort of joking but not really. I buried most of the stuff I’ve written for the simple reason that when you start writing about the country you want to belong to, it talks back to you.

Which is what happened to Alarcón tonight. And I could see in his face

too, so I can’t help but resent thte as I am jealous and I feel cheated. e’s managed to exploit the wormholes I’