I had my first day at the races today when I went to Santa Anita and bet on the horses. The San Gabriel Mountains hover over the far side of the track. It’s a beautiful track and it was a good time, despite the fact that I lost some money. In fact my only winning bet of the day was a trifecta that paid $15.40. My excitment about this was much tempered by the old Filipino lady sitting behind me who was laughing her ass off at me about how small the pay off was. But it was a nice enough day at the races.
The first time I read Huckleberry Finn, I must’ve been nine, because I remember padding down the staircase one evening book in hand, and taking a left into the living room where my parents were sitting on the couch.
We moved away from the house I’m remembering when I was in fourth grade, so ten years old might be the upper limit here. I remember the book too. It was one of those editions designed to look old and expensive, with a faux-leather cover that had a padded feel to it, like the back seat of my parents’ minivan. The edges of the thin pages were “gilt,” giving the book a faintly biblical aspect.
I was walking down the stairs with the book in hand because, though a fairly precocious young reader, I’d come across a word I’d never seen before.
I held up the book, open to one of the early pages, and pointed. What does this word “nigger” mean?
My parents, I think, had not planned on doing any more parenting that day — maybe there were glasses of wine sitting on the coffee table — let alone having to carefully explain to a nine-year-old the gravity of this particular word. It wasn’t “where do babies come from?”, but it was close.
Nonetheless, and sensing, I assume, that they had better fully satiate my curiosity lest I bring this word carelessly with me to school the next day, they explained. I paraphrase: “this is a very, very bad word that white people used to call black people. You must never, ever use this word; it’s one of the worst things you can call someone.”
They did not, I note now, take the book away from me.
I went back to my room and kept reading, and eventually, some days or weeks later I finished the book.
To the best of my recollection, despite it appearing six times in the text, I never went back downstairs, book in hand, to ask my parents what the word “slave” meant.
Last week I posted about the Gather.com contest to get into Amazon Shorts, and yesterday I got a note about another opportunity for writers that sounds interesting. This one is from the very cool online literary magazine Narrative:For any of you who may have overlooked the Editors’ Note in our most recent issue, we’re writing to let you know that we are looking for short short stories. In conjunction with Robert Shapard and James Thomas, who edit the popular anthologies Sudden Fiction and Flash Fiction, we’re planning a feature in Narrative to coincide with the publication of New Sudden Fiction, which will be forthcoming from Norton in January 2007. Our feature will present a collection of short short stories by both well-known and newer writers, and we’re inviting submissions of stories that run between seven hundred and fifty and two thousand words, or no less than three and no more than five pages in manuscript length.Concurrently, Narrative is also seeking book-length manuscripts for serialization in the magazine. The details are available on their Submission Guidelines page (You’ll need to register before you can see this page).There’s also a catch – isn’t there always? – Narrative charges a reading fee: $5 for the short shorts and $30 for book-length works. Not being particularly well-versed in the world of literary magazines, I don’t know how prevalent such fees are (feel free to enlighten me on this one), but for what it’s worth, my understanding is that Narrative uses such fees to pay contributors, fund a prize, and make the magazine free for all.
Like many American youths, I spent a number of years toiling pallidly in middle and high school French, the end result of which was being able to identify the opening strains of “La Marseillaise,” being aware of the mnemonic device “Dr. & Mrs. Vandertramp,” being able to inaccurately recite a poem by Jacques Prevert, and being able to conduct one halting conversation with a man in a bar, the highlight of which occurred when I boldly spoke of jus d’orange. I also remember vividly the mid-century expression for peeing the bed, courtesy of the oft-viewed classroom film Au Revoir les Enfants.
I could probably struggle through a French article about cats, written for children, but it would not occur to me to say that I am a French speaker. The decisive moment never came when I chose to say to myself and the world: “I speak French,” and by thus saying willed it so. You must make your linguistic statement of faith and mean it.
Through a series of happy accidents, I began learning Turkish when I was 21, first haphazardly, then in earnest, then not at all, then all the time, and now once a week for a prescribed number of hours.
Please don’t misunderstand me–I cannot speak Turkish the way that millions of people from around the world speak uncannily beautiful and idiomatic English. But I made my statement of faith and I’m sticking to it. I ride to school and whisper words like “threshold,” “doomsday,” and “willow tree.” I stop in the middle of sentences and turn red and start again.
Like many people who begin learning a language in the country where it is spoken, until lately I was in the position of knowing many breathtaking and largely unsayable obscenities, but could not read a book or newspaper.
Reading is not like speaking. You cannot look at a page and will yourself to understand, the way you can open your mouth and say nonsense and hope that someone kindly will do the work of comprehension. Illiteracy is terrifying; semi-literacy is agonizing. I knew Turkish words and grammar (which, viewed from English, is approximately backwards), but not how they went together on the page. I would start a paragraph and soon, my eyes would begin skipping across the paragraph at their accustomed speedy clip, apprehending nothing.
I bought Orhan Pamuk’s novel Kar (Snow) four years ago, when I had just left Turkey and felt myself, in the face of significant evidence to the contrary, a competent speaker. Confidence is important. A good way to feel optimistic is to acquire what Benjamin Franklin, the randy goat, called a sleeping dictionary. In Turkish there is an expression which communicates the same thing, an arch pun on dil, which means both “language” and “tongue.”
Unfortunately, most flings in foreign lands do not equip the besotted with the skills required for reading Nobel novels. As I have said before, I reached page 16 of Kar, which is actually page 8, by performing a very painful and ill-advised word-for-word transcription on the book’s actual pages, thereby ensuring that I would never be able to return to and read the opening chapter, or, for that matter, my own inaccurate translation. The pages, thus defaced, resemble something out of Paul Auster, or Pamuk at his most post-modern.
During my summer reunion with this elegant language, I took a class with a very patient professor who slowly coaxed us through excerpts of early republican stories, poems, and a Vikipedi article on jaguars (beneklerle kaplıdır–“they are covered with spots”).
Setting aside the dictionary I bought in my first week in Turkey, a tiny yellow Langenscheidt, the inside of which is coated with an archaeological film of loose tobacco, I obtained a big-league dictionary. A grown-up, non-smoking dictionary, which weighs 10 pounds and has words I don’t know in English, like “eryngo” (çakırdiken), and “schreinerize” (ipek efekti vermek), and “helve” (sap). It also includes a fair selection of unsayable things, which are important to know. I feel very secure with this dictionary, although I keep the yellow one in my purse, for the train.
When the summer class drew to a close, I returned to Kar, page 16, with my adult dictionary and a sense of purpose. For a moment, I saw the old chaos before me. But I forced myself to go one word at a time. Before long, rather than feeling as though I had been strapped blind to some infernal machine, I opened my eyes to find that I was actually riding a bicycle very slowly, peddling haltingly but definitively forward down an unfamiliar street. At first, the effort of keeping my momentum and balance prevented me apprehending the architectural features of this new territory:
The Kars Police Headquarters was a long three-story building that was an old building that was made from stone that was used for many government buildings that were arranged on Faikbey Street that stayed from the rich Russians and Armenians.
It took me a week of train commutes with the small dictionary to progress four pages, and to perceive what I was reading in a way that seemed distinctly literary. I am not a translator; I don’t begin to understand the alchemy of translation. But on page 26, for the first time ever, I felt moved by something I read in a language not my own:
In the empty lot next to the Yusuf Pasha District’s park, with its unhinged swings and broken slide, in the light of the streetlamps which illuminated the adjacent coal warehouse, he watched high school-aged youths playing football. Listening to their exchanged shouts and curses, which were swiftly muffled by the snow, he felt so strongly the distance and unbelievable loneliness of this corner of the world, under the faded yellow lamplight and the falling snow, that he felt the idea of God inside him.
In my head, this was beautiful.
At page 85, I continue to creep along.
I think I can, I think I can.
The “Best Books of 2003” lists are coming fast and furious now. I’ve grabbed the links to a handful of them for your reading pleasure. The New York Times selected just nine books to be dubbed “Editors’ Choice,” a prestigious honor. The Seattle Times put together slightly a quirkier list of best books, while SFGate does a more all-inclusive notable books list. I also dug up some lists from a couple of papers that are not known for being literary trendsetters, but whose lists are rather refreshing, and perhaps more in tune with the tastes of the broader reading public when looked at next to the heavyweights: here are the “best books” lists of The Star Telegram in Dallas and the Sun Herald out of Biloxi, Mississippi. There isn’t a book that appears on all five of those lists, nor even on four out of five. There are four books which appear on three out of five lists, and together they make an eclectic bunch. The best of the year? Perhaps not, but a good little quartet:Living to Tell the Tale by Gabriel Garcia MarquezDrop City by T.C. BoyleHow to Breathe Underwater by Julie OrringerThe Master Butchers Singing Club by Louise ErdrichAnd now, weighing in at 133lbs. is the BIGGEST book of the year… (and according to Guinness, it’s actually the biggest of all time)
It’s been a busy week, but I wanted to share a couple of things real quick. I enjoyed the Guardian story about the different psychologies of men and women based on what they read. I was not at all surprised by their conclusion that women are far more engaged in reading then men. I’d never thought about it before, but when I worked at the bookstore I was surprised to see that female customers were far more numerous than male. In fact, nearly all of our most dedicated and literary regulars were women. GalleyCat and Bookninja also commented.From Slate comes the story about how a word that is “a vulgarity for a condom” ended up being the answer for 43 Down in Monday’s New York Times crossword puzzle.
News has emerged from Poland that renowned journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski may have at one time been a collaborator with the secret police there. Apparently he is the latest of several prominent figures in Poland whose past ties to the Communist regime have been revealed.I’ve often wondered, when reading Kapuscinski’s books, how he was able to travel so far and wide and write with what seemed to be freedom. This collaboration would have likely made his journalistic wanderings more palatable to the government. As Reuters notes, between 1967 and 1972, when Kapuscinski apparently cooperated with the secret police, “it was almost impossible to leave the country without signing a document to co-operate with the regime.” Written after the fall of communism, Kapuscinski’s book Imperium would seem to betray his true feelings. The book is a poignant indictment of Communist atrocities that begins with a recollection of Soviet troops overrunning his town when he was seven, though it does not speak much of the Polish government during the Communist era.It seems clear that this was likely an impossible choice for Kapuscinski, either cooperate and write or resist and remain silent (or worse). Reuters quotes a friend and fellow reporter who says, “But Kapuscinski had to… If he didn’t agree, he wouldn’t have written his books. There would be no Kapuscinski.” It seems, as well, that Kapuscinski wasn’t a significant collaborator. Newsweek in Poland, which broke the news, quotes Kapuscinski’s file as saying, “During his co-operation, he has demonstrated a lot of willingness but he has not supplied any significant documents.” The revelations, meanwhile, come amid a wave of similar “purges” by Poland’s current leaders, who some have suggested are pursuing the issue with excessive zeal as a political ploy.Ultimately, the episode illuminates the terrible choices that many were forced to make behind the Iron Curtain, while also challenging our desire to identify the “good guys” and the “bad guys” under a regime where resistance of any kind was met with severe punishment. Given that Kapuscinski used his freedom, though it came at a price, to shed light on cruel governments in Iran and Ethiopia and on suffering and conflicts in many other parts of the world, it would seem that, based on what we know now, Kapuscinski achieved a karmic balance of sorts.See also: The Reporter: Ryszard Kapuscinski and The Fabulist: Ryszard Kapuscinski