Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Students on Isherwood: I Am George, a meditation on life and death in A Single Man.

Today marks the occasion of what would be Christopher Isherwood's 110th birthday (born on August 26th, 1904). To honor this event, Christopher Freeman and James J. Berg, editors of the forthcoming volume The American Isherwood (December 2014), have compiled exemplary essays about Isherwood's craft from their students to share on the Press blog on a monthly basis leading up to the publication of their book.

This essay is printed with permission from the author. It has been edited from the original version.


Student, University of Southern California

This past semester, I had the opportunity to intensely study Christopher Isherwood. Though I had read most of Mr. Norris Changes Trains and the classic Berlin Stories, much of Isherwood was unknown to me, as much of my reading comes from before the twentieth century. Could I learn to identify with or at least appreciate writers of the past 75 or so years? The answer was, resoundingly, yes. Reading Isherwood on Writing introduced me to the public Isherwood—and, more importantly, the storyteller with whom I felt I could connect, full of small stories both historical and simply personal. The Great Novelist Christopher Isherwood seemed far away, yet the lectures were personal and something human I could connect to. True appreciation of Isherwood came in the form of A Single Man. When professor Freeman assigned the novel, I admit I was skeptical that I could relate to a book written about an old, sad man. And I hated it at first. It was not until a class discussion that I had the epiphany that inspired the following essay. I hated this novel because I am George. As a 19-year-old straight female, I am George, a 60-year-old gay man living in a Los Angeles that was still building some of the freeways I now dread. I understood George and could draw from the novel what I believe to be its legacy—and what Isherwood’s legacy should focus on. It is a novel that understands love and loss, life and death, at a human level, stripping away the relevance (if there was any) of George’s sexuality; and stands as a reminder that the true Minority is simply made up of The Living as a single group—a reminder that most every member of today’s society needs.

The Grumpy Old Men and I: An Analysis of A Single Man Through Isherwood’s Diaries
On April 20, 1953, Christopher Isherwood wrote that he felt a “lack on inclination to cope with a constructed, invented plot.” As an author of numerous works of fiction by that time, such a lack of inclination could have sabotaged his career. But Isherwood continued to work instead, and a decade later produced what is arguably his masterpiece, A Single Man. Though A Single Man is, of course, a work of fiction, Isherwood drew from his own life at the time, surrounded by many friends and acquaintances dead and dying, and working through a rough period in his long-term relationship with Don Bachardy. The novel’s main character, George, almost perfectly emblematizes grumpy old men, their outlook on the doldrums of daily life and work, and surely their relationship with death and thoughts on growing old as they watch loved ones die and discover their deaths. Isherwood’s own rejection of fiction and developing fascination with reality clearly contributes to the almost perfect reality and psychological development of George and the interactions he has. This work subtly intertwines motifs of the contrast between minority and majority, living and dead, and pulls it all together through the main character’s often ironic recognition of his lack of inclination to cope with the constructed plot.

Through much of the first half of the book, George takes form into a recognizable human being as he goes through the motions of the morning to first recognize, then groom and feed himself, alone in the house he shared with a longtime lover. Of the little information readers learn about George, one thing is quite clear: he is a homosexual living in an increasingly homogenous and material world, regardless of well-intentioned neighbors reading so-called psychological studies on the subject of a sexuality that is neither their own nor accepted as a result of reading such studies.

Slowly, the reader learns that George is an English professor at a university, the students of which provide contrasts and even counterexamples to George’s worldviews. Though Isherwood provides the readers insight into almost all of George’s thoughts, George himself does not say much out loud until his monologue at the end of his class about minorities and majorities. George originally intended this monologue to be a response to a student question about Aldous Huxley (one of Isherwood’s acquaintances) and then as a lesson to a member of the class he suspects is gay. However, this motif George expresses for the class carries him through the rest of his day, and the reader through the end of the novel. George explains to his class “a minority is only thought of as a minority when it constitutes some kind of threat to the majority, real or imaginary” (70) and after leaving school to pay a hospital visit, realizes that he belongs to another kind of minority—“The Living. [He] knows—for a little while at least—because he is freshly returned from the icy presence of The Majority” (104). The members of The Living threaten the Majority, The Dead, by simply surviving one more day at a time. Though this threat to The Dead is both imaginary and inevitable, death seems to counter-attack every day as each person grows slowly older; ultimately, survival means death, simply at a later date.

The current members of The Living are clearly a numeric minority to the billions of dead, and the members of The Minority slowly become members of The Majority over time. Perhaps it is this slow acceptance by long-term members of The Living that resists death and threatens The Majority the closer the person gets to death while retaining membership in The Minority. This survival, then, is what George tells his students is The Minority’s “own kind of aggression [that] dares the majority to attack it” (72). The older one becomes, the more of a survivor one is, and the closer one comes to “enemy lines,” creating a mentality similar to any sport played on a field—the further into enemy territory one goes, the more one adopts both an anxious and a daring attitude. One does not wish to be caught, yet simultaneously, one knows it is a distinct possibility that one wishes would happen, to either get it all over with or to prove one’s worth. Either way, though the player must accept death, as all mortals must, he or she maintains a vitality against the constructed plot of growing old and accepting one’s fate tiredly by settling down with retirement activities.

Isherwood further demonstrates this choice to either “deal with the constructed plot” or not through George’s observations of the students, the young generation, juxtaposed with the portrait of George through his own thoughts as representative of the older generation. As George observes the students, he notes that “somewhere, in the midst of their servitude to the must-be, the mad might-be whispers to them to live, know, experience—what? … Will any of them make it? Oh, sure. One, at least. Two or three at most, all in these searching thousands” (47-48). Of all the students that surround him, George knows that maybe two at most will understand the conflict between the Minority and the Majority, and fewer still will combat the idea of death with the vitality of life, of breaking from the mold provided for them and entertaining the possibilities of the might-be.

George, on the other hand, understands the importance of “fighting back” for oneself, but only after George wallows in his loss of Jim and settles into pointless despair. After leaving the hospital, George asks himself, “who says I have to be brave? … Who depends on me now? Who cares?” (113). Each time, George’s own implied answer of “I do” resonates with the reader. 

George, unlike the students, understands and encounters the death of loved ones every day; George knows the pain of losing one’s partner in life. His life, knowledge, and experience have brought him to the end of his life—fittingly, alone as the “one” to make it through having embraced the might-be and rejected the mold society supplied to him. As George notes in the hospital, nothing can be brought, even oneself as a member of the Living, into the realm of the Majority. It is this knowledge and understanding that allows George to feel so strongly about death, that give him the insight into the game.

Here, George wishes that the game be over with, and in reaction thrusts himself back into the world, dangerously close to the Majority yet welcoming its attack, daring it to make a move. George notices two boys playing tennis at the university as he walks through campus, one of whom was clearly built to play a sport like tennis, the other clearly not and about to lose the game. What George notices, however, is that the blonde boy about to lose could easily tackle the other, an action he was clearly more built for, and win the game. Rather than do so, however, “the blonde boy accepts the rules, binds himself by them … Won’t he keep getting himself involved in the wrong kind of game, the kind of game he was never born to play, against an opponent who is quick and clever and merciless?” (53). This boy, a member of the generation after George’s, accepts all the rules of tennis, and by implication of life, as strict rules that must be observed and will cause him to lose. These rules of life compose the mold of how to become successful: earn a degree, get a job, get married, follow the traditional paths to be safe; but it is exactly this attitude that causes the boy to lose in the larger battle between the Minority of the Living and the Majority. However, George’s path that involves more choice ultimately leads him to the same place as the blonde boy’s path. This only lends more significance to the suggestion to break free from the approved dialogue, because nobody can bring anything with them to the Majority, concluding that one should live for the present, and live a life he or she considers worth living. 

Isherwood leaves his readers at the university with a paradoxical thought: “the very few who are simply beautiful, just cause they aren’t anxious or aggressive about anything; they’re taking life as it comes” (78). These people, the few who are simply beautiful, are part of the Minority because they are alive; yet they are not part of the minority in the sense that the members of the Minority dare the Majority to attack them. So, the simply beautiful do not figure into the discussion of the Minority and Majority, because they offer no threat to the Majority and do not live as members of the Minority of the Living. They are so far beyond the constructed plot they do not even perceive its effects. Though the discussion of this group is minimal, it seems to be the most beneficial group to be in, neither here nor there and therefore in no way a target for the Majority. Yet George is not one of the simply beautiful. He worries, he’s aggressive, and he is supposed to be the protagonist the reader looks to for guidance. George is also an older man. Perhaps he was once one of the truly beautiful, which gave him the perspective he has now through comparison between his former actions and the actions of today. If so, this novel gives younger readers as well as older readers a guideline for how Isherwood believes death should be confronted. In both cases, this is through non-conformity, breaking with the pre-constructed molds, and accepting life and death as they come.

Isherwood, then, sets out to demonstrate through his characters exactly how to deal with the most human problem of all: mortality. As a fiction writer tired of fiction, he turns to the reality of life and death to create a universal work of fiction that slowly builds on ideas he fostered for almost a decade before he wrote them down. In a decade like the 1950s, obsessed with conformity, it became clear that the answer was to break from the pre-constructed plot of life to understand one’s own art and through that, one’s own mortality—a concept that resonates even today in a material and conformity-driven society.


Monday, August 25, 2014

Lorna Landvik: Why I wrote Best to Laugh, Part 1.

Stand-up and improvisational comedian, public speaker, and best-selling author

This is the second in a weekly series by Lorna Landvik. Check out the first post, on destiny, here.

I was asked the other day why I finally decided to write about the time I spent in Hollywood doing stand-up comedy.

“Why now?” the inquisitor asked.

“Why was this the subject matter for your tenth novel instead of your first?”

There is that old saw, “Write what you know,” to which my reaction has always been, “Why?”

After all, the fun of writing fiction is making things up. The main characters of my first book, Patty Jane’s House of Curl, were two sisters (I don’t have a sister) and the setting is a beauty salon (my mom, proud of her thick wavy hair, did not keep a weekly appointment at Shear Magic like my friends’ mothers did and I wasn’t inside a beauty salon until eleventh grade, when I had my hair pouffed up and shellacked for the SnoDays dance).

My subsequent novels were based on characters who came into my head and I wrote about their lives, not mine. (Okay, so I’ve given little nods to my autobiography—most of my books include at least one Norwegian, someone who loves candy, and are set in Minnesota, and yes, I will give a passing minor character the first or last name of a friend, relative, or acting compatriot.)

I don’t know how long the idea for Best to Laugh simmered. I wish I had kept better records, as I would probably be the first to be eliminated in a memory challenge. Here’s what I do know: I have had a recurring dream—my only recurring dream—of Peyton Hall and its ultimate destruction since I left Hollywood. I put Candy, my heroine, in this most Hollywood of Hollywood apartment complexes, a complex that, yes, did have an Olympic-sized swimming pool designed by Douglas Fairbanks (I originally heard it was Johnny Weissmuller); did have embossed palm trees on the dining room wallpaper and rattan wallpaper on the ceilings; did have old tenants who could tell you how overpowering the smell of oranges and night-blooming jasmine was in the evenings and how you could get a steak dinner at Musso & Frank for forty cents. In this recurring dream of mine (the same one I give Candy), Peyton Hall is in the process of being torn down and me and a few other tenants still squat in the roofless, wall-less apartments in the back.

Back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, there weren’t a lot of women doing stand-up comedy, but there were a lot more than there were in the ‘50s and ‘60s. And (yahoo!) there are so many more now. Evolution is real.

However and whenever the idea came to me, I’m so glad it did, because it was so much fun to write.

I met my best friend in Hollywood at a Comedy Store workshop held on Sunday mornings filled with kids (i.e., people in their early twenties) who’d always gotten laughs in class, at home, on the bus, wherever. Kids for whom laughs were important; kids who wanted nothing more than to make a living doing what they loved doing: making people laugh.

Betty was a black woman from Detroit and I was a white woman from Minneapolis and we clicked in that open-arm, Hey, Pal! way you do with those who get you and those you get.

It was Betty who I’d stand with, waiting in line at the Comedy Store or the Improv to sign up for Amateur Night; Betty who I’d sit with watching other performers and whispering our snarky critiques or slumping in laughter (here’s to you, Larry Hudson, wherever you are: you were sublimely funny); Betty with whom I’d drive with in her old Mustang to the Denny’s on Sunset, where we’d order liver and onions (we both liked it—*&#@??!) and discuss whose act worked and whose didn’t, and why.

Betty could make me laugh in the way that hurts and while she had some success and was in a couple movies, she did not have the success she deserved. That’s the real heartbreak of Hollywood: sometimes the sublimely talented, the ones who spun your world’s axis in a way you didn’t think could be spun, wound up typing invoices in an insurance office, or doling out samples of pickle relish at Albertsons grocery store.


Lorna Landvik is the best-selling author of many novels, including Patty Jane’s House of CurlAngry Housewives Eating Bon-BonsOh My Stars, and Mayor of the Universe (Minnesota, 2014). Her most recent novel, Best to Laugh, is now available from University of Minnesota Press. Check back next week for more memories from Landvik.

"Landvik’s novel (Best to Laugh) is happily filled with a double dose of nostalgia—the protagonist’s for the golden age of Hollywood and the author’s for a lovably gritty 1970s Los Angeles."
—Kirkus Reviews

Best to Laugh is cheerfully outlandish, filled with ambition, love, adventure, kindness, swimming pools, nightclubs, and baked goods. Best of all, it’s laugh-out-loud hilarious."
—Julie Schumacher, author of 
The Unbearable Book Club for Unsinkable Girls

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Lorna Landvik: Do we really "choose" our destinies—or are they written in the stars?

Stand-up and improvisational comedian, public speaker, and best-selling author

This is the first in a weekly series by Lorna Landvik.

It’s a true story I often tell, about knowing that I wanted to be a writer when I learned how to read in the first grade. 

“See Spot jump!” “See Puff jump!” 

Oh, the thrill to read words about that crazy duo! In the same pivotal school year, I decided I also wanted to be a baton twirler. It was the fringed boots more than the baton gymnastics that got me, but that particular career goal didn’t last long enough for me to ever prep for it (i.e., get a baton).

I have a December birthday and when I was in grade school, you didn’t have to be 5 before you entered kindergarten; all you had to do was share the same birth year as your classmates. So I always was one of the youngest, if not the youngest in my class as well as the youngest in my family. Just as I pick and choose what characteristics my astrological sign (Sagittarius) imbues me with, I’m also selective in those traits my birth order has affected. I tend to think birth-order studies are piffle when they say things like youngest children have a tendency to pout; but I believe they’re right on when they claim we youngest sometimes have to fight for attention and are often drawn to artistic or creative pursuits.

In writing about Candy, the main character in my novel Best to Laugh, I never considered her birth order (an only child) or astrological sign (Taurus—I just looked it up). She believes that while her own sense of humor was encouraged by her own funny mother, it was present at birth, as ingrained genetically as her hair and eye color. I share Candy’s belief, but an inherent sense of humor and the desire to perform on stage are not always partnered traits. The class clown who cracks up everyone in math class might be the kid who freezes during his debut in the fourth-grade Christmas play, and the shy, quiet kid might be the one who turns into Lily Tomlin in the school talent show. In my unscientific but observational study, I’d say the majority of comedians court laughter in real life, but there is a definite minority who reserve their jokes and laughs-getting for the stage.

My dad was funny in real life; he was a good storyteller who’d use voices for comic effect but he never, as far as I knew, had a desire to perform. My mom, who came from a musical family (really, they were like the Von Trapp Singers without the lederhosen) enjoyed public performance and not only lent her pretty alto to the Morris Park Mother Singers, but grabbed the comic roles. Seared into my memory is the picture of my mom wearing a suit of feathers and a beak and racing up the aisles of the auditorium, pecking at audience members as her fellow Mother Singers sang, ‘Yellow Bird.’

I am my mother’s child. If there’s a bird suit, I will happily step into it, will position the elastic-banded beak over my nose, ready to peck.


Lorna Landvik is the best-selling author of many novels, including Patty Jane’s House of Curl, Angry Housewives Eating Bon-Bons, Oh My Stars, and Mayor of the Universe (Minnesota, 2014). Her most recent novel, Best to Laugh, is now available from University of Minnesota Press. She has performed stand-up and improvisational comedy around the country and is also a public speaker, playwright, and actor, most recently seen in an all-improvised, one-woman show Party in the Rec Room. Check back next week for more memories from Landvik.

"Landvik’s novel (Best to Laugh) is happily filled with a double dose of nostalgia—the protagonist’s for the golden age of Hollywood and the author’s for a lovably gritty 1970s Los Angeles."
—Kirkus Reviews

Best to Laugh is cheerfully outlandish, filled with ambition, love, adventure, kindness, swimming pools, nightclubs, and baked goods. Best of all, it’s laugh-out-loud hilarious."
—Julie Schumacher, author of
The Unbearable Book Club for Unsinkable Girls

"One of the things that accounts for Lorna Landvik’s immense popularity is the essential good-heartedness she brings to her work. But as much as this is a celebration of a very special time and place, it is even more a celebration of character, desire, friendship, perseverance, and love—oh, and hamburger hot dish."
—Elizabeth Berg, author of Tapestry of Fortunes and The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Understanding inequality—across ecosystems, species, and human populations.

Author of Total Liberation and professor and Don A. Martindale Endowed Chair of Sociology at the University of Minnesota

The concept of total liberation stems from a determination to understand and combat all forms of inequality and oppression. It is comprised of four pillars: an ethic of justice and anti-oppression inclusive of people, nonhuman animals, and ecosystems; anarchism; anticapitalism; and an embrace of direct action tactics. This is the framework I see animating earth and animal liberation movements, and I explore it throughout this book.

The total liberation frame also speaks to key issues in ethnic and gender studies because it invokes and expands the concept of intersectionality, suggesting that if intersectionality begins and ends with humans, then that concept is unnecessarily restrictive. Total liberation activists contend that one cannot fully grasp the foundations of racism, classism, sexism, and patriarchy without also understanding speciesism (an ideology supporting the dominance of one species such as humans over others) because they are all ideologies and practices rooted in hierarchy and the creation of oppositional superior and inferior subjects. The total liberation frame links oppression and privileges across species, ecosystems, and human populations, suggesting a theory and path toward justice and freedom—something missing in traditional models of intersectionality. Thus the concept of total liberation reveals both the complexity of various systems of hierarchy while also suggesting points of intervention, transformative change, solidarity, and coalition building across group boundaries. Total liberation is, above all, a cultural force because its greatest power lies in the strength and audacity of its vision. And while it may never gain widespread appeal, it is sociologically significant because the ideas embodied in the frame constitute a threat to the core of socioecological inequalities.

One particularly demonstrative interview I conducted was with scott crow, a community organizer, writer, strategist, and speaker, who advocates the philosophy and practices of anarchism for social, environmental, and economic justice. His decades of political activities across social movements with groups as varied as Anti-Racist Action, Greenpeace, Common Ground Collective, Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC), and A.C.O.R.N earned him the FBI label “domestic terrorist” and, from media sources, the more inflammatory label of “eco-terrorist.” Law enforcement tapped his phone, scoured his tax records, and deployed numerous informants who attempted to entrap crow in various illegal acts for years. The earth and animal liberation movements are made up primarily of white, middle-class, people and therefore comprise persons who—independent of their politics and actions—hail from privileged groups. However, when one takes into account these activists’ politics and actions, the story becomes more complex: that privilege is revealed as contingent. As scott crow told me, “I want collective liberation, and anti-oppression to me is the first step in that it’s recognizing the difference between privilege and oppression and recognizing that people like myself have privilege that we receive from being white males from North America, and all the things, achieving middle class, but that it can be conditional.” I contend that the language and legal apparatus of “ecoterrorism” momentarily places these activists outside the sphere of citizenship. By treating them as threats to national security and the American way of life, the state enables the neutralization of their movements. I therefore view state and corporate repression of earth and animal liberation movements as an example of the production and repression of racial deviants—those whites in the United States who refuse to conform to the nation’s cultural, political, and social disciplinary norms. They are deemed “not quite white” in the state’s political-legal discourse, even if only momentarily (here I draw on the work of feminist scholar Ann McClintock).

“All oppression is linked.” This is a claim often made by radical earth and animal liberation activists and is the foundation of what I call socioecological inequality; that is, the ways in which humans, nonhumans, and ecosystems intersect to produce hierarchies—privileges and disadvantages—within and across species and space that ultimately place each at great risk. Socioecological inequality (SEI), as a research approach, builds upon environmental inequality in a number of ways. While environmental inequality highlights the links between threats to humans and ecosystems with a primary emphasis on human well being, the focus of SEI is on the hierarchical relationships among humans, ecosystems, and nonhuman animals that produce harms across each sphere. In this way, socioecological inequality underscores that humans, ecosystems, and nonhumans are intertwined in the production of inequality and violence and that relationships that might privilege humans in the short run may also place them in jeopardy in the long term.

While activists embracing total liberation bring a host of views to this question, I should be clear about where I stand. The discussions and debates about animal rights often get mired in unproductive and poorly thought-out comparisons between the oppression of nonhumans to humans—particularly women, Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust, and people of color. I do not subscribe to the notion that oppression of one kind is the same or even remotely equivalent to another kind. I cannot claim to know what one species or population experiences, and I would never draw an equivalence between or among such phenomena. What I do conclude, however, as a sociologist, is that the ideological justifications among humans in support of racism, classism, patriarchy, heterosexuality, nativism, and speciesism operate using a similar logic. That is, while the above are distinct practices that create and legitimate hierarchies across social categories of difference (and certainly the categories themselves are not equivalent and are unique), they all are supported by the idea that one group is superior to another and therefore deserving of superior consideration, treatment, and life chances. This logic of domination and hierarchy is defined and deployed differently across each of these social categories, so that it appears in distinct forms and variations, but it is nonetheless an ideology that supports unearned privileges and advantages for some through the oppression of others. That point should be obvious but, sadly, requires emphasis because it is often lost or rarely if ever stated in these debates. My argument simply focuses on the human ideology of hierarchy itself.

What will surprise readers most about this book? The longstanding and enduring connections between ecological movements and movements for social justice. As an environmental justice studies scholar, I have often asked myself why I became interested in these largely white, middle-class, and relatively privileged radical movements. There are two reasons: first, I was drawn to the radical tactical and direct action work these activists practiced since that pushed the envelope well beyond what I had seen in the EJ movement in the United States. The second reason I became attracted to these movements was that after I began studying them, I realized that some—certainly not all or even most—of these activists were articulating a serious critique of hierarchy and oppression in all forms. Despite its many shortcomings, that combination of radical analysis and action was remarkable.

I am careful not to romanticize these movements. My position is this: I am presenting data and analysis that underscore why these movements are sociologically significant and of possible interest to anyone concerned with ecological politics. I am also critical of these movements for their many shortcomings but make those critiques from a position of solidarity. That has always been my position on the environmental justice movement, and in that regard, this study is no different.


David Naguib Pellow is author of Total Liberation: The Power and Promise of Animal Rights and the Radical Earth Movement (which can also be found on Facebook) and professor and Don A. Martindale Endowed Chair of Sociology at the University of Minnesota. He is also coauthor of The Slums of Aspen: Immigrants vs. the Environment in America’s Eden and author of Resisting Global Toxics: Transnational Movements for Environmental Justice and Garbage Wars: The Struggle for Environmental Justice in Chicago.

"David Naguib Pellow is a first-rate scholar, and this rich, carefully-researched book demonstrates that fact. His refusal to march lock-step with any given theoretical perspective but, rather, to employ a variety of them to illuminate his data (data from diverse sources) makes this effort all the more impressive. In numerous places I found myself admiring his insights into a movement I have studied for decades."
—Rik Scarce, Skidmore College

"This is a provocative book. Pellow’s notion of ‘socioecological justice’ broadens the focus of environmental justice theory and research, while his ‘total liberation frame’ captures commonalities across a wide range of diverse movements for justice. Both concepts are likely to spark debate and future scholarship."
—Riley Dunlap, Oklahoma State University

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Return to the Enchanted Forest: 'Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage'

Writer Haruki Murakami.

Professor of Japanese language, literature, and culture at Winona State University

In just a couple of days, the English translation of Haruki Murakami’s most recent novel, Shikisai o motanai Tazaki Tsukuru to, kare no junrei no toshi will be released (aka Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage). A title like that might make readers think of some kind of religious awakening, and after 1Q84, there is some justification in that. But Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is not so much about religious awakening as it is about waking up to the inner self, and in that sense it is like all of Murakami’s novels.

But it is also about growing up, and why we should take the trouble of doing so.

There are different kinds of Murakami fans, and some are going to like this book more than others. Those who went in for those long, dreamy visits to the “other world,” that surrealistic place inside the hero’s head in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, the scary hotel in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the enchanted forest in Kafka on the Shore, may find this one a little too realistic for their tastes. But the “other world” does have its role in this novel; in fact, it is closer than we think, always lurking just over Tsukuru’s shoulder, watching him, inviting him, urging changes onto him. In that sense the novel reminds me just a little of Norwegian Wood, which was supposed to be a realistic novel, but in which Naoko is constantly called by people in the “other world”—the land of the dead—to come and join them for good.

In fact, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki starts with death, with its hero staring death squarely in the face, and drawing back from the brink. His urge to death is precipitated by his sense of isolation, because he has been cast out, isolated, and the only way he can survive is to reconstruct himself into something else—something stronger, more self-reliant. In short, he has to grow up. This is achieved more or less at the beginning of the novel, and the real “action” of the story centers on how Tsukuru confronts the turning point in his life, and the people who brought that turning point about. His “pilgrimage,” finally, is a journey back into his past, an event (or a series of events) that occurred nearly two decades before, of which he was, at the time, wholly unaware.

In certain ways, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is a journey for the reader as well. It takes us back through the Murakami repertoire, shows us glimpses of past themes. Just as the protagonist of Murakami’s first three works (Hear the Wind Sing, Pinball, 1973, and A Wild Sheep Chase) went looking for the process by which he came to be disengaged from his society and his past, his youth and ideals, Tsukuru Tazaki also seeks the point at which his life changed permanently. Bizarre, metaphysical characters also make a return, including a friend who apparently has mastered the ability to split his mind from his body, wandering freely in astral form. Most important, perhaps, is that the classic Murakami structure returns, in which a kind of “perfect world”—a Utopian circle—is held up in contrast to the actual world of conflicts and contradictions. Which world is preferable? Tsukuru Tazaki and readers alike are invited by Murakami to make their own determinations. But behind this question is a deeper, more relevant question: in which of these two worlds does the contemporary human subject grow and develop?

This is no place to give away the ending of the novel, but I will say that regular readers of Murakami’s fiction will find plenty in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki to enjoy. The story is simpler than some—it focuses on a single protagonist, for instance—and at the same time more complex. There are embedded narratives inside embedded narratives, and the reader must remain alert. But for those who read to the end, there is a kind of enchanted forest, and as usual, much is revealed there. 

Is there a mystery in this novel? Sort of. 

Is it “solved”? Again, sort of. 

But for Murakami fans, that will be familiar, too.


Matthew Carl Strecher is author of The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami, out this week from University of Minnesota Press. He is professor of Japanese language, literature, and culture at Winona State University. He is also the author of Dances with Sheep: The Quest for Identity in the Fiction of Haruki Murakami and Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle: A Reader’s Guide.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Linda LeGarde Grover on the merits of time-honored oral tradition and contemporary fictional storytelling.

Recipient of the Flannery O'Connor Award and the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize; associate professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth

Although I didn’t know it at the time, The Road Back to Sweetgrass began during a visit to an elderly Ojibwe man’s house some years ago. Invited by the old man’s son, a friend and I arrived with a gift for the elder—a box of tea bags.

Like the fictional young Sweetgrass characters of the 1970s, we felt daunted by the demands in our young adult lives, desperate for direction and the privilege of spending time in the presence of age and wisdom. Uncertainly we knocked; shyly we tried the door. He welcomed us with the graciousness of royalty and the humility of a saint. Margie and Theresa, who would not make their presence known to me until years later, walked invisibly inside with us.

The elder, born during the Assimilation era, had experienced Indian boarding school life, two world wars, the Great Depression, and the birth of his own children into postwar peacetime. We visitors were born on the cusp of the federal Termination policy and had lived an existence that paralleled, and regularly intersected, that of America’s baby boomers. The occasion, in retrospect, was historic, the bridging of two eras and the passing of history and knowledge from one Native generation to the next by way of time-honored oral tradition. Yet what Ojibwe-style mawadishiwewin visit, filled with periods of comfortable and thoughtful silence, is not?

Not long afterward, the elder passed away. The tenderness of the afternoon, however, continues as a presence in our lives, including the recounting of history through the stories of the people and places in The Road Back to Sweetgrass.

The mythical Mozhay Point Indian Reservation is in northern Minnesota, a place of deep snow and shaded green summers; of wild rice, maple sugar camps, and duck hunting; of the lakes and land allotments of the Bois Forte, Grand Portage, and Fond du Lac reservations, to which the Mozhay people and terrains have similarities. Some things have changed during Margie’s and Theresa’s maturing (and my own), but the spirit and essence of days past are at least as real, or more real, than the occasional cell tower or parking lot added to the landscape since the 1970s or 1980s. Recreating small iron-mining towns, reservation border towns, and Mozhay Point homes in the Sweetgrass stories is a task that is not difficult at all but rather a pleasurable visit.

The characters in The Road back to Sweetgrass represent many Ojibwe people of their time, but they are fictional. The federal Indian policies and historical events, however, are real, and their effects on individuals, families, and communities profound and long-lasting. Having lived during those times, I have found that capturing and containing these events through fictional storytelling is the least painful and, possibly, the only way to recount them that maintains the dignity of the characters. I do believe that they should be recounted.

Surely the stories exist to be told.


Linda LeGarde Grover is associate professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth and a member of the Bois Forte band of Ojibwe. The Road Back to Sweetgrass (available next month) has been awarded the Native Writers Circle of the Americas First Book Award; Grover has received the Flannery O’Connor Award and the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, whose previous recipients include Ann Patchett, Anne Tyler, and Toni Morrison.

"With the grace of a dancer lifted by spirit and grounded in the well-worn earth beneath her feet, Linda LeGarde Grover tells a circular tale of life on and off the Reservation. Generous, ironic, and often gut-wrenching, The Road Back to Sweetgrass is at its large heart a book about the power of home and the inexorable connections between land, people, and stories."
—Danielle Sosin, author of The Long-Shining Waters

"History, humanity and humor—these things always impress me when I read Linda LeGarde Grover’s fiction. In this deeply moving and healing book, we are drawn into a communally told story that shows generations violently separated, yet held together by the cord of place and culture and by many, many acts of love."
—Heid E. Erdrich, author of
Original Local

"A gorgeous read, an extraordinary novel!"
—LeAnne Howe, author of Shell Shaker

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Sexuality in school: LGBT issues are not the exclusive concern of LGBT students.

Associate professor in the Faculty of Education at York University, Toronto

When lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues emerge in schools, it is often as controversy. Battles over sex education, worries about young children reading picture books about same-sex families, outrage at boys taking boys to the prom, lawsuits over gay-straight alliances, and concerns about transgender students finding appropriate bathrooms: all these examples suggest that LGBT sexuality and schooling don’t mix.

It is only under the blandest of covers that LGBT sexuality is smuggled into schools. Anti-bullying programs have made space for LGBT students but only on the condition that the gay student be identified as a problem that needs to be fixed. Depression, suicide, academic failure, bullying and harassment—if we follow the logic of anti-bullying campaigns, this is the experience of being LGBT in school. This construction of the lonely, suicidal gay teen props up educational programming, curricula, and legislation across the country.

There are many reasons to be critical of this formulation, even as we insist that LGBT students, teachers, and families deserve protection from harassment and bullying in schools. At the very least, we need to recognize that everyone in school, gay and straight, has a relationship to LGBT sexuality—gay issues are not the exclusive concern of gay students. Teachers, staff, parents, and students have lesbian and gay relatives, watch TV shows with LGBT characters, have opinions about the movement for marriage equality, struggle with their sense of boy-ness and girl-ness, and experience their desires as less fixed than the categories gay and straight might allow. This is the terrain of LGBT sexuality in schools and it is larger and more complex than anti-bullying campaigns imagine.

For those of us who do identify as LGBT, educational equality means something more than freedom from harassment. We deserve to see our lives represented in the curriculum, we need to be able to fall in love with our best friend and realize it was a terrible mistake, we need access to stories about our future selves that include the promise of love and acceptance—in short, we deserve the right to an ordinary life—full of love, loss, disappointment, crushes, friendships, and dreams of ordinary futures.

I began thinking about this right to an ordinary life in Sexuality in School: The Limits of Education. At the end of that book, I offer five ways we might expand our thinking about LGBT sexuality in schools. In the book, I name the list ‘a reluctant manifesto.’ I call it "reluctant" because I don’t normally like to prescribe actions. But, in this case, I felt like there were some small gestures of welcome that had the potential to create enormous change. Here, then, is a summary of the ‘reluctant manifesto’:

1. There is no magic bullet to cure schools of homophobia and transphobia; no one program, no matter how comprehensive, is enough.

2. And yet, everything counts—policies, programs, warm gestures, well-chosen readings, an unexpected smile, impromptu discussions, and formal professional development all have the potential to create positive change.

3. We need to hear the words lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender spoken out loud, in many different contexts. We need chances to practice saying lesbian and gay with each other, so that the terms themselves don’t feel like slurs.

4. LGBT issues need to be seen as larger than the problem of bullying. We need to talk about LGBT issues when we talk about families, falling in love, seeing movies, having friends, and surviving the trials of ordinary life.

5. Our efforts to protect and support LGBT youth and families need to happen in concert with improving the working and learning conditions of LGBT teachers.

When I read this list, it all seems so modest. But spending time in schools, most recently as part of a storytelling project called “Beyond Bullying: Shifting the Discourse of LGBTQ Youth and Sexuality in U.S. Schools,” I recognize how far we still have to go. When schools cordon off LGBT issues in sex education and debates over mental health, LGBT students might be safe from the most extreme kinds of harassment, but our imaginations suffer. We all need to work to create the conditions in schools for conversations about LGBT sexuality, love, family, friendship, communities, and cultures in ways that go ‘beyond bullying.’


Jen Gilbert is author of Sexuality in School: The Limits of Education. She is associate professor in the Faculty of Education at York University, Toronto.

"Sexuality in School is an excellent contribution to youth studies and sexuality studies, and provides a fine link between queer theory and educational studies, as well. Jen Gilbert’s use of psychoanalytic theory gives us challenging ways to grapple with and revel in the difficulties of education, the subjects of sexuality, and the uncertainties of youth and age. Her work shows that these difficulties pervade teaching and can invite educators to try to understand the challenges of desire, hospitality, and possibility. By combining her fine theoretical analysis of controversies (a term she problematizes nicely) and her intricate discussion of the relationships of desire that structure learning, Gilbert gives us a way to explore education in general, but also to more fully understand the particularities of youth and sexuality.
—Cris Mayo, author of LGBTQ Youth & Education: Policies & Practices

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Reflections on Jacques Derrida, born on this day in 1930.

Founding editor, Posthumanities Series at University of Minnesota Press

On this occasion of what would have been Jacques Derrida’s 84th birthday, it is worth reflecting once more on the resonance of his work for our own moment—a resonance that depends not only on his own remarkable body of writings, of course, but also on the continually changing contexts in which his work is read and reread. As Derrida himself often reminded us, the relationship between text and context is forever shifting, and it confronts us with the qualitative asymmetries and amplitudes of difference that obtain between the individual reader or writer and the manifold complexity of the text itself—its material, political, ethical, and affective dimensions, the historicity of its being written and (re)read.

Nowhere is this dynamic on display more intricately and suggestively than in the occasion of the republication of Derrida’s text Cinders in the Posthumanities series some twenty-seven years after its original appearance in French—a fact that relies in no small part on the unusual nature of the text itself, which has been characterized as a kind of prose poem, by turns beguiling and inviting: here a wisp of smoke, there a burnt fragment, leading the reader to an end that is also a beginning. That beginning, for Derrida, was his experience of being haunted, as he put it, by the phrase il ya a lá cendre (which translates, already a little beguilingly, as “cinders there are”)—a phrase that Derrida circles back to time and again in this text, tracing its first appearance in the front matter of La DissĂ©mination in 1972, and apparitions of the phrase earlier and later (and in different guises) in “Plato’s Pharmacy” (1968), Glas (1974), and The Postcard (1980), among others. Here, Derrida reveals that the cinder is “the best paradigm for the trace,” and “not, as some have believed, and he as well, perhaps, the trail of the hunt, the fraying, the furrow in the sand, the wake in the sea, the love of the step for its imprint.” The attentive reader will already hear in this declaration an anticipation of Derrida’s conjugation of “trace” and “track” in one his last texts, The Animal That Therefore I Am. And after the publication of Cinders, it wouldn’t be long before another important figural and conceptual topos in Derrida’s work—of flame, fire, ashes, and spectrality—would be explored on a much larger canvas, first in Of Sprit: Heidegger and the Question, and a bit later in Specters of Marx.

The weave of ashes, flame, fire, and ghosts that we find in is bound to have an even more profound resonance for us than its original appearance in 1987, not least of all because of the fact of Derrida’s own untimely death nearly ten years ago. In that light, these words (taken from roughly the mid-point of the text) are haunting indeed, as they bear upon and, as it were, personify Derrida’s complex investigations of archive, voice, the technology of writing and inscription, and the living: “He will of course die someday,” Derrida writes; “and, for however brief a time, the little phrase has some chance of surviving him, more a cinder than ever, there, and less than ever without anyone to say `I.’”

But the largest and most far-reaching change of all—one that makes this most writerly and gestural of Derrida’s texts take on a gravitas heretofore unknown—is the accumulation of an increasingly influential body of writings in the intervening decades under the rubric of what has come to be called “biopolitics.” That body of work by Foucault, Agamben, Haraway, Esposito, Sloterdijk, Butler, and many others—to which Derrida would later make his own contribution, of course, in texts such as “Faith and Knowledge” and Rogues—forms a kind of vast echo chamber for Derrida’s mediations on voice, testimony, flame, holocaust, and spectrality in Cinders, which now emerges (as I attempt to elucidate in in my introduction to the text) as a quite unique contribution to the biopolitical literature, even within Derrida’s own corpus.


Cary Wolfe is Bruce and Elizabeth Dunlevie Professor of English at Rice University. In addition to having written the Introduction to Cinders, his books include Zoontologies and What Is Posthumanism?, both from Minnesota.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Racial inequality remains etched into the very foundation of the U.S. interstate highway program and its cities.

A Los Angeles freeway in 2009. In his new book, Eric Avila digs into the
cultural history of the U.S. interstate highway program.
Image via Creative Commons.

Professor of history, Chicano studies, and urban planning at UCLA


Avila is the author of The Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City, which takes a hard look at the ways in which America's interstate highway program divided cities at the same time as it connected them, cutting through and destroying countless communities. Avila chronicles a wide range of urban experiences, including Los Angeles, San Diego, New York City, Baltimore, Miami, Boston, and St. Paul.


Contrary to what one might expect after reading this book, I actually like freeways—when they work, that is. Yes, I am mindful of how the glut of cars can degrade the urban experience and of how it exploits the planet and its resources, but as a native southern Californian, I still crave those rare moments when L.A.’s freeways aren’t jammed to capacity, when you can actually move through the city with awesome speed and convenience. Such moments behind the wheel, even if they don’t come that often, remind me why freeways were built in the first place: to enable drivers to bypass the city’s bustle with amazing speed and efficiency. The freeway and the automobile, after all, were built upon a uniquely American premise of freedom—a twentieth century freedom of the individual to move, to accelerate, and to maximize the technological potential for unfettered, autonomous mobility.

The pursuit of this very modern freedom is shared across the lines of race, class, and gender. Women, workers, and people of color use freeways just like everyone else, for the demands of work and the need for pleasure. Freeways, after all, were not built just for the rich and powerful. In theory, interstates were built for everyone, but the consequences of their construction were dealt unevenly and The Folklore of the Freeway emphasizes the disparate impact of highway construction upon diverse urban neighborhoods. Thus one of the most surprising discoveries of my research for this book is that postwar highway construction was not an innocent enterprise—that like other forms of state policy and practice, it actually contributed to the racial fracturing of American society during the 1960s and beyond.

The use of race and ethnicity as a means of segmenting and distinguishing the people of a nation or a continent was invented in Europe some five centuries ago, upon the first contact between European and non-European peoples. In the four centuries of American history, race and ethnicity became indispensable tools to distinguish citizens from non-citizens and to justify the conquest of indigenous lands. Only in the twentieth century did we learn that race is not this fixed, quantifiable thing that can be measured within individuals and societies, but rather that it’s an intellectual invention, a conceptual tool designed to enforce difference and establish hierarchy. This concept has been used in pernicious ways throughout American history—to justify slavery, usurp western lands, restrict immigration, and as this book shows, to shape the landscape of our cities.

So in today’s cultural climate, when ethnic studies programs and scholarship are accused of fueling differences and divisions in American society, or when scholars and pundits plead for a “post-racial” society, we need to remember the enduring legacy of racial thinking and practice, especially within the concrete context of the urban built environment. Today’s cities were built upon yesterday’s assumptions and though it sometimes seems like we are moving towards a more just and equal future, racial inequality remains etched into the very foundation of our cities.

I wrote The Folklore of the Freeway to help us see the American city—and its history—from the bottom up, from the very communities that bore the burnt of urban highway construction during the 1950s and 1960s. I believe we need to understand what freeways did to people within these communities, through their unique perspectives. This form of organic wisdom is absent from the dominant discourse of planning and public policy. I see the blunt expressions of racial pride and solidarity that have amassed in diverse communities around the invasive presence of the freeway as responses in kind to the racial assumptions that shaped highway policy and practice throughout the interstate era. As a professor of Chicano studies, I confess that I sometimes get frustrated with the scholarly practice of singling out this group’s history from that group’s, or the staunch insistence upon the unique singularity of one group’s history and identity. Several years ago, the great George Lipsitz taught me that race can only be understood relationally and that in the context of American history, it’s impossible to isolate the experiences of a particular social group from those of other social groups. Thus the history of interstate highway construction provided the perfect opportunity to escape the familiar conundrum of ethnic studies scholarship. By showing how the experience of urban highway construction in postwar America cut across the lines of race, class, gender and ethnicity, The Folklore of the Freeway, I hope, provides a model for future scholarship in ethnic studies, one that recognizes the centrality of racial identity and ideology as an active force in American history, while at the same time synthesizing the disparate experiences of diverse social groups and recognizing their fundamentally intertwined histories.

Note to reader: of course not every instance of the freeway and its folklore is accounted for. Readers might find their neighborhoods or their cities missing from the analysis; others might recognize overlooked aspects of freeway folklore from their particular communities. In a study of this scale and scope, I couldn’t capture everything, so there are some necessary omissions. But my hope is that this book can provide an entry point for comprehending the hidden linkages between structure and culture, between the concrete fact of the urban built environment and its interpretation through the subjective prisms of identity, language, and place.


Eric Avila is professor of history, Chicano studies, and urban planning at UCLA. He is the author of The Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City and Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles.

"Eric Avila’s in-depth research and his sheer passionate commitment to the subject should make this one of the rare books that succeeds in replacing a widely-accepted narrative."
Robert Fishman, University of Michigan

"A must-read cultural history of the ‘invisible freeway revolts’ through which city people of color have demanded social justice in the midst of aggressive urban reforms. Avila provides timely lessons for scholars and urban planners, pointing us to pay closer attention to the aesthetic and expressive forms of these protests, so necessary to achieve spatial justice in American cities."
Arlene Davila, New York University