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My friend Nathaniel Popkin recently published The Year of the Return, an extraordinary novel in which he gives ten separate characters a first-person point of view. They range from young to very old, from a business owner to a truck driver to a journalist to a deeply troubled war vet. To me the undertaking seemed admirably ambitious, and his ability to pull it off impressive. The characters come vividly alive on the page, each with a distinctive voice.

The one technical problem that caused him the most worry? It was not merely technical but social: namely, that he’s white and about half of the characters are black. Here’s what he said in an interview with Mitzi Rapkin for First Draft: A Dialogue on Writing:

Rapkin: Did you have any trepidation at all about writing half the book in the voice of an African-American family, being a white Jewish man?

Popkin: I had terrific trepidation, I still have trepidation. I still worry. I still wonder if it’s the right thing to do or if it’s my privilege or my entitlement to do it. I wonder if it’s right.

As a fiction writer myself, I see two questions here: (1) Can white authors genuinely understand any African American’s perspective or experience? and (2) Even if the authors understand and create believable black characters, do they have any right to publish such work? Is it cultural appropriation?

The first question links to a larger problem for all writers, especially in fiction. Race is only one of many boundaries we have to cross to bring characters to life. Women often have to write about men, and vice versa. Older people write about younger folk, and Millennials take on the Boomers. Same for natives/immigrants. Upper/middle/lower class. Straight/gay/trans. Married/single. War veterans/non-vets.

At a reading once, I heard Elise Juska, who at that point had already published (I believe) three novels, express worry about her novel-in-progress, which required her to imagine the perspectives of older men. My reaction was—I don’t think I said this aloud, but I thought it—that old guys are just like everyone else, only crankier. And any good writer can do cranky. That novel-in-progress became The Blessings, which I consider one of the best American works of fiction of the past decade.

For me, the male-female boundary feels like the easiest one to cross. My male characters too often share my own neuroses, but a woman protagonist is more likely to become her own person. Age is a little harder, class even more so. Occupation often stumps me—when I imagine a character who has a job I don’t know much about, I wonder what that person does all day. The point is that we all have our limitations of experience, and unless we want to restrict ourselves like Jane Austen (who famously avoided male-only scenes because she’d never witnessed one), we need to let imagination carry us past our borders. Bravely or stupidly, we have to venture beyond the comfortable. If the result is a work like The Blessings, the risk will be justified. If we blunder, well, we move on, try something else.

After all, science fiction and historical fiction wouldn’t exist if writers stuck to what they knew. And as Kit de Waal has asked (The Irish Times, 6/30/2018), “Was Gustave Flaubert a woman who committed adultery before he wrote Madame Bovary?”

The second question—the one about cultural or racial appropriation—is trickier. As historically oppressed or undervalued groups raise their own voices, an outsider’s view seems less justified, especially if it comes from a patriarchal, colonial, or privileged background. Kit de Waal, in the article just cited, puts it like this:

So when people who have lost nothing, people from the dominant culture that has colonised half of the world, reigned over an empire, raped, butchered, enslaved, taken language, lands and people as cargo, when those people say there is no such thing as cultural appropriation and insist that we can do what we want, we need to think again of the impact of taking another’s story and using it as we want.

One writer put it this way. Do not dip your pen in somebody else’s blood.

The powers-that-be have told the stories for far too long; it’s time to invert the pyramid. My friend Popkin is a sensitive person who sees many sides of every question, so it’s no wonder he fretted over the matter of entitlement.

But how far should we take this? If we happen to be straight, should we omit LGBTQ characters from our fiction? Should a writer of European heritage shy away from portraying the thoughts and emotions of a Latinx character?

I confess to sinning in these respects, and I don’t think any fiction writer should need to defend the imaginative act of crossing borders, whatever they may be. The resulting work, of course, is ripe for critique. If we stray into new territory and fail to understand it, or leave muddy footprints where they don’t belong, we should get roundly scolded.

Another friend of mine, David Sanders, has published a novel, Busara Road, about a white Quaker kid in Kenya. He himself was once a white Quaker kid in Kenya, so in that respect he was writing what he knew. But for the sake of the novel he also had to create half a dozen major black characters, both old and young, male and female, and that could be considered a violation of boundaries. The result? On a return trip to Kenya, he was told he’d gotten the characters exactly right.

We shouldn’t forget, too, that the insight of an “outsider” can be useful. As Zadie Smith has remarked (The New York Review of Books, 10/24/2019), “For though the other may not know us perfectly or even well, the hard truth is we do not always know ourselves perfectly or well. Indeed, there are things to which subjectivity is blind and which only those on the outside can see.”

To sum up, consider this from Hari Kunzru (The Guardian, 10/1/16):

Good writers transgress without transgressing, in part because they are humble about what they do not know. They treat their own experience of the world as provisional. They do not presume. They respect people, not by leaving them alone in the inviolability of their cultural authenticity, but by becoming involved with them.

Becoming involved with people: after all, that’s what fiction is about.

Democracy and Frogs

June 29, 2019

In my day job, I’ve recently had the pleasure of doing layout on a new translation of an ancient Greek mock-epic poem, “The Battle Between the Frogs and the Mice,” a spoof of heroic war sagas. The new translation by A. E. Stallings, with drawings by Grant Silverstein and an introduction by “A. Nony Mouse,” is due out later this year from Paul Dry Books. The text and illustrations are both gruesome and hilarious.

To summarize the poem’s narrative: After committing a selfish and deadly error, the Frog King concocts lies to evade responsibility, and as part of his cover-up he leads his subjects into a war on false pretenses. Things go badly for the amphibians, and the entire race will be wiped out—until the gods intervene to stave off genocide.

Could there be parallels to the current day?

After pondering this matter, I’ve decided conditions are very different in our democratic era. Because we no longer believe the gods will intervene.

Time to Get Crazy

October 22, 2018

November approaches, and it’s time for one of my periodic screeds about voting. Few things perturb me more than Americans who don’t vote.

Well, President Twitterman gets top rank among bugbears, of course. And there’s the Saudi autocrat who’s finally being bashed in the press for murdering one journalist while his mass slaughter of Yemeni civilians continues to be ignored. Yet I don’t know that princely thug called MBS, he’s never bought me a beer, and my outrage at him merges with my general disgust for the fat-cat gangsters swarming the White House and other seats of government.

In comparison, my displeasure with nonvoters is much more personal. You know the truism that sibling feuds are the worst of all? Americans who don’t bother to vote—especially college-educated, middle-class types like myself—those people are family, and so I get really mad at them. There’s no excuse for their behavior. Voting is so simple—how can they not do it?

Do I sound like somebody’s grumpy old uncle?

I am.

Let’s survey some apparent reasons people don’t vote. I’m excusing, of course, those who are blocked from voting by electoral machinations (“you put a period after your middle initial on one form but not on another; therefore we can’t verify your identity”), and those who juggle three jobs and three children and have no time in between, and those whose polling place is conveniently located 153 miles away. Etc. (Although in the latter cases people might use absentee ballots.) I’m aiming this diatribe at people who could vote easily but somehow don’t. The people who elected Twitterman by abstaining. The people who make the United States notorious as a nonparticipative so-called democracy.

Reason for Not Voting #1: “I don’t like any of the candidates. They’re all flawed.”

My response: I hope you believe in a Messiah. Because your perfect political candidate will come along sometime after the Messiah.

Reason for Not Voting #2: “I’m sick of voting for the lesser evil. I can’t compromise like that anymore. From now on, I’ll stand on principle.”

My response: Congratulations on your moral purity. Have you considered moving to a place where none of your principles will be compromised, such as Antarctica?

Reason for Not Voting #3: “None of the candidates talk about issues important to me.”

My response: If you like that situation, keep on not voting. By not expressing your opinion at the polls, you make certain that candidates will disregard it.

Reason for Not Voting #4: “It makes no difference anyway. In my gerrymandered district, people with my views are so outnumbered that my candidate can never win.”

My response: Gerrymandering is a big, big problem. But the canny politicians who divvy up voters for their own advantage are counting on the continuation of established political patterns, including the pattern of people not voting. A sudden swell in ballots from groups they are trying to marginalize could upset their calculations—and maybe set the stage for legislative action to end gerrymandering.

Reason for Not Voting #5: “Votes change nothing. Politicians do whatever nasty things they like regardless of what the public thinks.”

My response: Um, politicians can’t do that nefarious stuff if they’re not in office. Vote them out and they’ll be reduced to making millions as lobbyists. That’s not quite as bad for the rest of us.

I’ve said all this before, in one way or another. But the other day, inspired by a conversation with a politically involved friend, I turned the problem around in my mind, reflecting on what it takes to become a committed voter, someone who turns out in every election:

  • A sense of morality or justice. People are said to vote their pocketbooks, and many do, but in our divided times what seems to drive citizens to the polls is a belief that certain actions and policies are right and others are disastrously wrong.
  • Faith. Not religious belief necessarily, but a conviction that there’s some hope left for the world and that human actions—our actions—can make a difference. Admittedly, if science says the Earth is likely to be uninhabitable in a few decades, faith stretches thin; but there have been Doomsday scenarios in the past that we managed to escape, and it wasn’t by hiding under our school desks to avert the atomic bomb. We must believe that our flawed and compromised democracy can be salvaged and that its fate is important to the world.
  • Irrationality. In the most local of elections, one vote can actually matter. In a 2017 contest Phillip Garcia won the post of judge of election in a Philly precinct because he wrote in his own name—the only vote cast for that office. Still, I have to admit that one vote, which is all each person can control, will change nothing in a statewide or national election. Making a point of casting a ballot is therefore irrational, or at best a stroking of one’s own moral sensibilities (cf. Reason #2 above).

It seems I’ve put myself in the position of urging people to be irrational. Okay, I’ll own up to that. I’ll double down, as Twitterman always does.

Get out there and go crazy, people! Against all reason, act like it makes a difference what you do. Vote for somebody! If necessary, embrace the lesser evil, the best of the bad choices.

Maybe there’s some hidden good there after all.

Bold Predictions

September 7, 2018

In such unprecedented (or unpresidented) times as ours, it’s difficult to imagine what comes next. But as concerned citizens it’s incumbent upon us to plan for the future. In that vein, here are my carefully reasoned predictions about likely trends in the next decade.

  • When the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade and states are once again free to ban abortion, women will migrate en masse from pro-life to pro-choice locales. Mississippi, for example, will empty out and Massachusetts will burgeon.
  • In Boston violent fights will erupt over parking spaces, and the city’s parking clerk will have to dodge irate commuters armed with tire irons. Electric bike-sharing companies will make a fortune. So will lawyers.
  • As women abandon pro-life states, property values there will plummet—increasingly so as the despondent remaining men litter their yards with empty pizza boxes. Country music will reach new heights of popularity as songwriters exploit the rhyming potential of lonely pepperoni.
  • Once property values have tanked in pro-life states, adventurous young gay couples (realizing abortion bans are irrelevant for them) will seize on the opportunity to homestead. They’ll buy houses on the cheap and settle in. They’ll need to acquire weapons to fend off the Klan, but being younger and smarter and unencumbered by clumsy hoods, they are bound to prevail. Within ten years, Mississippi will be the coolest place to live in America.

If any of this comes true, you can count on me to say “I told you so.”

Meanwhile, people who don’t want such things to happen can consider a radical alternative: voting.

Martin Armstrong, “U.S. Voter Turnout In Perspective,” Statistica, Nov. 11, 2016.

In the midst of America’s absurd, untenable political situation, my wife’s refuge is to watch MSNBC every night, where the anchors tell her over and over again how absurd and untenable the situation has become. That has a certain reassuring quality, she finds. For me, it’s just too repetitive and depressing.

One of my own escapes is to read books that have nothing to do with the present-day USA or its foibles. For instance, I just finished Joyce Cary’s novel-cum-memoir A House of Children (1941), in which he describes vacation stays with relatives in Donegal. Lots of scenes about boating on the water, gossip about the older girls’ suitors, night-time swims in the lough, donkey-cart rides with a hired hand.… A fine respite from the 21st century—until I come upon passages like this one, which describes the children’s reaction after a play they have produced proves hilariously inept:

There was great applause, and Frances came to congratulate us. But we had lost heart. We were not only ashamed and disappointed; we had suffered a shock. Deeper than the sense of failure, there was the feeling that we had misunderstood the situation; that plays were not so easy as they seemed. With this went, as always, the feeling that life, too, was not so easy as it seemed. Like most children when they fail in a grown-up enterprise, we were subdued and secretly frightened; we wanted to get away by ourselves, preferably out of the grown-up world and back into our own refuges, the school-room or the kitchen. [Chapter 48]

Immediately, on reading that, I was back in the USA, wondering how much of our present state could be characterized as shock and shame at the failure of our self-conceived, long-running play called “American Democracy.” Are we frightened that it’s not as easy as we thought? Would we rather retreat to our refuges, like the couch and TV?

Actually, despite time spent on old British novels, I’ve been doing something useful lately, namely, volunteering for Fair Districts PA, an attempt to stop gerrymandering in my fair state of Pennsyltucky. After ranting for years about people who don’t bother to vote, I’ve decided to help address one of the conditions that discourage voting. This does require certain compromises on my part. I’ve always been annoyed with the inefficiency of volunteer organizations. Also, any cause that counts Arnold Schwarzenoodle among its supporters is inherently suspicious to me. But I do believe that if we can do away with legislative districts that look like this—

PA's 7th Congressional District

—we’ll have less need to run away from the grown-up world and hide in our refuges.

By the way, that district shown above, PA’s 7th Congressional District—known as “Goofy Kicking Donald Duck”—is served (if that’s the right word) by the estimable Pat Meehan, who has voted to repeal Obamacare, to defund National Public Radio, and to ignore requests for President Twitterman’s tax returns. With borders drawn so well to suit their needs, he and his fellow Goofies can be re-elected forever.

Baby rabbits in nest. (Photo by Karen Foreman; from the National Wildlife Federation.)

A late Saturday afternoon in the suburbs at our daughter and son-in-law’s house, in the backyard with two granddaughters and three dogs, tossing a half-deflated volleyball around (the six-year-old thrashing it wildly), birds chirping, sun beaming, tree branches waggling in the breeze … An American idyll, especially with cold beer on hand. Our dog Fergus, the beagle mix who presides over this blog, plays his favorite game of pretending to dig a hole in the lawn so that we have to chase him away from it, which leads him to dash to another spot and pretend to dig there …

Then a ferocious barking as a neighbor couple and their terrier walk by on the sidewalk. The three dogs in the yard rush through the perimeter of trees and bushes to guard the chain-link fence. The girls run over to talk to the neighbors. Eventually the animals inside realize the one outside is harmless, and Fergus exchanges a snuff through the fence with his terrier counterpart.

But as Fergus strolls away, he steps over a shallow nest hidden in the spotty ground cover around the trees. Nose alerted, he digs in, and suddenly baby rabbits are scrambling in three directions. The girls run after one rabbit. Fergus keeps his nose in the nest, jaw working, until I pull him away.

Last year, when he found a nest in the front yard and emerged with a baby in his mouth, the girls and parents tried to nurse it back to health, unsuccessfully. After a day they buried it with appropriate ceremony. Ever since, Fergus has been watched carefully when he visits Rabbitville.

Yet, once more, he was too quick for us. With the advice of—what else?—Google, we knew this time to leave the babies alone and let the mother find them. In a couple of minutes she duly appeared, hopping with caution across the yard while Fergus hyperventilated in my grip. In the end it appeared that all the bunnies were alive, though one was injured.

The nine-year-old called Ferg’s behavior “evil.” We had to explain that he can’t be blamed because it’s his instinct to catch rabbits, his basic nature. Eventually the girls did accept this.

Yet any quick excuse of that sort makes me question why we reproach humans but not animals. Consider Donald Trump: Isn’t it his nature to get up early in the morning and bark ferociously, via Twitter, in defense of his territory? Isn’t it basic instinct that leads him to keep suspicious foreigners out of his yard? What about amassing great wealth while denying health care to millions—isn’t that like Fergus refusing to share his extra treats after dinner?

True, humans are supposed to have reason and some degree of free will, making them accountable for their behavior. But the more we learn about animals, the more credit they get for having thought, some form of language and a surprising amount of psychological insight. Even plants exchange chemical signals, science tells us. So can we still insist that humans are ethically different?

Whenever I read moral philosophy, its principles seem nice enough but founded on air. Only determinism makes sense to me. While hoping there’s more to our behavior than electrochemical impulses—and contending we should always behave as if there is—I lack faith in a larger paradigm.

Still, still … I do hold Trump more responsible than Fergus. Logic be damned—the guy’s an ass.

Or, at least, if he’s as driven by instinct as a dog, I’d like to believe in the same ultimate recourse. When a pet proves dangerous and incorrigible, we take him to the vet—for a needle.

Don’t worry, Ferg, no such fate for you.

#NFLDraft Closeup

April 29, 2017

The new function of Fairmount “Park”

More observations on the #NFLDraft Experience, which I have the privilege of viewing up close without leaving my front step. In the following notes I’ll try to be as unbiased and truthful as possible. This morning my wife took a potting class at a garden center and failed to bring home any pot, so you know I’m totally unmedicated and clear-headed as I write.

  • Around 9 a.m. about 75 police swarmed our neighborhood’s famous gilded Joan of Arc statue. It was interesting to see these beefy guys in blue surrounding slim little Joanie on her horse. She campaigned to protect a country and a prince that she loved from foreign invaders. Our cops are out there to protect NFL multimillionaires from their fans and the fans from themselves.
  • I never realized that choosing up players for teams required so many speeding black SUVs and siren-blaring motorcycle escorts. Back in junior high it was much simpler. The team captain just pointed and you stepped over next to him. I fondly remember the day I wasn’t the very last one picked.
  • The uniform for an NFL fan is a jersey with someone else’s name on it. The psychology is a little hard for me to understand. I mean, yes, you show allegiance to your favorite player, but at the cost of submerging your own identity? If I were going to wear a jersey with someone else’s name, I wouldn’t settle for any old All-Star runner or passer or tackler. I’d want to honor a rapist, girlfriend beater or dog torturer. Luckily there are plenty of those to choose from.
  • Despite the huge traffic jams clogging our streets, not many horns are blowing. This proves that most of the drivers are from out of town.
  • A traffic jam is actually entertaining to watch when you’re not in a car. Poor schlubs, hee-hee-hee. As long as no one has a heart attack.
  • People have been engaging in loud arguments on the sidewalk in front of my house, in the middle of the day. This, too, proves they’re from out of town. Philadelphians would wait till midnight.
  • Not even locals realized the iconic stature of our Art Museum. Because the mammoth stage constructed for the draft blocks the view of the Museum’s noble columns, the stage incorporates fake columns made of foam. Don’t believe that? Read about it here and here.
  • Realizing that exactly none of the estimated $80 million generated by this event will go to our impoverished, traumatized public schools, neighbors have brainstormed other fundraising options. For instance, what about the magnificent Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the boulevard leading up to the Art Museum that all these outsiders love to appropriate for mega-events? Noting that Franklin has done little for us lately, we’re proposing to sell re-naming rights to the street, all proceeds going to the schools. Corporations, think of this: with every televised event your name would be mentioned hundreds of times. We already have Citizens Bank Park and Lincoln Financial Field, so how about the Comcast Parkway? The McDonalds Mile? The Oprah Oval? Applicants, please write to Mayor Jim Kenney, and attach an appropriate political contribution.