Posts Tagged ‘authors i love’

Our Man Zinn

Howard Zinn died today.

There will be so many eloquent, insightful things written about him. I’m also sure there will be some inane things as well. Personally, Howard Zinn exemplified in my eyes what it means to be a historian.  A People’s History was like a sacred text growing up, his name mentioned with reverence and passion by my father. Zinn wrote about other perspectives unlike anyone else; he was responsible for keeping alive that voice which challenges the dominant and biased media-driven cultural narratives. Just as important, he didn’t just study and analyze history. He didn’t sit on the sidelines. He risked himself and spoke up wherever he saw wrong and injustice. I fervently believe one of the most admirable thing human beings can do is empathize with others, imagine things from their perspective, and do what they can for them. He did all these things beautifully and brilliantly, and was an exemplary human being: one individual who lived and worked for the people.

I will sincerely miss picking up books and seeing his recommendation on the jacket and then running to the cashier with it. I will miss a world without his voice.


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Okay, to be upfront about this, The Dud Avocado is a title that presents a lot of opportunities for witticism, but I’m not into it. I think it’d be rather a dud (see?).

Now, for my next insight which has little to do with the actual story: every single review I’ve seen includes something along the lines of “…and I had never even heard of Elaine Dundy but I was just enchanted by this book and Elaine Dundy was such a rebel and this book is actually something of a cult classic and I love avocados blah blah blah”.

Well, I guess all of  that is somehow relevant to the whole The Dud Avocado experience. It’s disgusting, but I have to be honest. I had never fucking heard of Elaine Dundy, I have a sickening obsession with avocados, it was really fucking cold while I was on a weekend excursion to New York and ohmygod I was standing in my favorite used book store on the Lower East Side and I saw this thing and bought it even though it was hideously over-priced and I am now a converted Elaine Dundy lover and who the fuck cares if its been said: this is a fantastic, charming novel, and if it’s good enough for Groucho Marx it’s goddamn good enough for me.

Cos honestly The Dud Avocado is enchanting. I’m a kinda overly-serious girl sometimes (this book came between Eichmann in Jerusalem and The Black Jacobins). Serious as in, (this is embarrassing), when I am delighting in the fictional revels of someone being a drunken disaster and drinking fifteen types of wine and being unemployed and wandering around doing nothing in particular, I feel shitty. Like, I’m being a self-hating middle-class brat with abundant disdain for people who actually don’t live paycheck-to-paycheck and rather just wishing I could be unemployed and have nowhere particular to be. But I mean, don’t we all?

And that’s sort of it. Our disastrous, sweetly cheeky and occasionally-flummoxed protagonist  Sally Jay Gorce was kind of bolting away from all that middle-class, go-to-college-and-get-yourself-a-career-in-a-nice-office-and-nice-house and all that. There are some glimpses into the smothering society of the 1950s, and I suspect Gorce/Dundy would be sympathetic to a reader wary and wondering if their delight comes from their own comfortable-middle-class-upright-young-citizen-laughing-at-the-late-night-messy-disasters-of-others. Gorce catches herself judging the mishaps of others,  labeling and categorizing all those brilliant young male artists of post-war Paris and their dowdy, bureaucratic counterparts back home; then she turns around and is hardest on herself. She hangs back after her revelries around the Champs Élysées and worries she might end up a librarian isolated from the passions and feelings of those daring to fail. She’s quite aware of all the middle-class people running from the middle-class, and then you forget all about it because who cares, this is about being young and alive.

So basically Elaine Dundy created a fantastic narrative voice in this novel, and I need to check out everything else she did. 1958, and this woman is describing young, unsupervised gals running amok in strange cities and getting in all sorts of dilemnas and she didn’t need to hear about feminism to simply to do what she wished. I really was astounded more than once, more than ten times, that this book was penned in the 1950s. Are you kidding me? I apparently have gotten the wrong impression of the times. Or at least, maybe some people were living one way… but Elaine Dundy seems to have been up to all sorts of fancy, unpredictable stuff.

And that’s about as interesting as the book. This woman! This woman came out of the 1950s scene, and all the years portraying that decade as a long exercise in dullness and oppressive sexism suddenly might not be quite as bleak as imagined. She wrote a book about Elvis… and his mom!! Her autobiography is entitled Life Itself! and she wrote some other novels after The Dud Avocado, which I now have to read. I’m not going to attempt to describe her or her work anymore though, because it’s so witty and joyful that I couldn’t do it justice, and I want to force everyone to go read her. Elaine Dundy! Gosh, why didn’t they give us this to read in English Lit, rather than Updike-Roth-Conrad-Heller-Hemingway blah blah blah? She was just as insightful, and far better able to have a laugh about it all.

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On June 14, 2009 The Washington Post’s Book World ran a beautiful collection of memories/vignettes by Latin American author Eduardo Galeano. I imagine I would have been entranced by the piece regardless, but I was in the midst of reading Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America which meant I spilt a lot of things in my excitement. The essay is a lovely introduction to an author who I had never heard of until I read The Shock Doctrine a few months ago. I ordered it on-line right after finishing Naomi Klein; a few days later I discovered Barack Obama was given a copy of the famous yellow book by Hugo Chavez, and its popularity skyrocketed. Then Thom Hartmann, a favorite person of mine, reviewed said book for BuzzFlash. At that point I was getting pretty excited for my own copy to come.

For people who do not know much about Eduardo Galeano, as I knew nothing till recently, he is a political and historical writer/poet who hails from Uruguay and focuses largely on the history of the Americas and of the oppressed. He writes about the pillaging of his home continent and is able to say why this has happened, who has benefited, and why it is still happening. This has meant, since life is the way it is, that he’s had to flee for his life and live in exile more than once. Since Open Veins was published in 1971 he has continued to explore the history of Latin America and the world through his work. His most recent achievement, Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone will be released this month.


There are several aspects of Eduardo Galeano’s style which I find immensely appealing. The obvious is Galeano’s incredible storytelling skill, which is bound up with one of my favorite traits in an author: his interest in others. Pause for a moment. It’s assumed that writers simply must be interested in other people and the world, because what else is a story? This is absolutely false. A great many authors (just like a great many people everywhere) are interested entirely in Themselves, and their writings reflect this. No matter how they may turn a pretty phrase, no matter how stinging their hilarious sarcasm may be or how accurate their analysis of a certain situation is, they are primarily writing about Their moods, Their troubles, the wrongs They have suffered, the indifference/superiority They feel, how They cope with the world and get by. They are writing to be adored, to be seen as brilliant, but not because they are burnt up about the way things are or should be. I would call them the anti-Kurt Vonneguts. They are so unlike the man who could write absurdly and be sarcastic and tell the truth and feel complete compassion for our species while deploring the state we’re all in. That is the sort of author who really has something to say of value. The best writers, in my opinion, are writers who are passionately interested in what it means to be human, in how society and humanity work and fail, in the pain of being alive, the injustice, the loss… and have this anger at suffering actually mean something because they are passionate about celebrating life. Eduardo Galeano is this type of writer.

He is a man who sees people, who takes an utter interest in everyone around him. Unlike people who lock their doors when driving through a crummy neighborhood, Galeano is the kinda guy who would hop out and start asking questions and making friends. Unlike our mass media which is devoted to keeping its eye on the lives of the wealthy, Galeano does his best to yank our attention to how the conspicuous luxury at the top rests entirely on the backs of others. As I’ve read our major newspapers and magazines through our Great Recession I’ve been thoroughly sickened by the obsessive focus on our elites giving up a yoga listen here or a cruise there. Only recently did the lives of our worst off get any significant attention, and as usual it was up to Barbara Ehrenreich to provide that voice.

The United States is a country with some of the greatest extremes between the rich and the poor in the industrialized world at the same time as there is the greatest divide between the two in human history. Normal people who think of themselves as good have been taught to ignore poverty; if they see it they learn to blame the poor for not pulling themselves up. The media encourages this attitude and works to exacerbate it by shows, news programs, and articles which demonize the poor, the minorities. It becomes so easy to forget the existence of people who have lives unlike our own, and easier to forget about our culpability.

The segregation between NW and SE DC is tied in to our country’s tendency to threaten, oppress, bomb, and intervene in other countries. A man like Hugo Chavez becomes an easy target to demonize because we know so little of the lives of the people he represents. We take so little interest in the lives of others in our own communities, and then we pay even less attention to the lives of the dispossessed around the world who make our lifestyles possible. Our elites attack anyone who does not show subservience to our ideal lifestyle, they chant their mantras about letting the free market decide and accuse anyone who wants to do things differently as being an agitator, a communist, a real mixer. I don’t mean to say the US has never done any good anywhere. That’s baloney. But there have been some real crimes, and they have not been redressed; many are on-going. Oppression and wrong-doing are not things which only Happen in the Past because We Have Good Intentions and Are Different. Because of this we need to hear someone like Eduardo Galeano, who goes through the world telling us the stories of people we’ve refused to listen to.

The highlight of the stunning essay that was featured in The Post provides a heartbreaking example of what I’m talking about:

The Bolivian town of Llallagua lived from the mine, and in the mine its miners died. Deep in the shafts in the bowels of the mountains, they hunted veins of tin and lost, in a few short years, their lungs and their lives.

I spent some time there and made good friends.

The last night, we were drinking, my friends and I, singing laments and telling bad jokes till just before dawn.

When little time remained before the scream of the siren that would call them to work, my friends fell silent, all of them at once. Then one asked, or pleaded, or ordered: “And now, my brother, tell us about the sea.”

I was speechless.

They insisted: “Tell us. Tell us about the sea.”

It was the most difficult challenge in all my storytelling life. None of these miners would ever know the sea; each was doomed to die young. And I had no choice but to bring them the sea, the sea that was so far away, discovering words that could drench them to the bone.”

That is why Galeano is a great writer. More than that, it is why Galeano is a necessary writer. He brings to the forefront the voices of men we’ll never hear, a reality intertwined with ours, a reality we depend on, and yet is mostly unacknowledged. Celebrate Columbus Day and go to the mall. Yeah, he didn’t really discover anything and he enslaved, raped, and murdered the people of Hispaniola, but that’s not cheery. Let’s make that a side note in 9th grade history, explain “sadly slavery was acceptable back then”, talk about cultural relativism and point out that Columbus was only acting in the way his hierarchical, isolated, racist, sexist had taught him to behave, and move on. We won’t have to draw a connection between those crimes and how we ignore , rationalize and marginalize them, and then see how they relate to the crimes and injustices of today. The subtle dangers of such thinking are a huge threat. By not calling things by their name and denouncing them we can pretend they don’t exist and keep going to megastores because clothing and food just pop up here like that don’tchaknow?

I have never understood people who found history boring, or those who didn’t understand why I could never read enough. When I set out to college I just wanted to study history, literature, learn more about philosophy and religious history. How could people not want to spend time studying what human experience has taught us, and what is has not? How could anyone not want to commune with past minds, to see how others found our world? Do people not realize how neat it is we are here, existing? Maybe not, since a great many of them seem eager to shut their minds and hearts down with whatever they find as quickly as they can. Perhaps history books have focused too much on the winners, on analyzing how people have risen to power without asking why, on following a sequence of events without asking what they signify. Perhaps literature classes have too often asked their students to focus on the style of the writer, to monitor what themes and motifs are employed. I know I’ve been frustrated repeatedly by professors who kept wanting me to write about how Hemingway or Morrison were doing something when I just wanted to talk about why they were writing, what they wanted to tell people, what their purpose was for each book. For sure there are those who write conscious of the symbols they employ, who use repetition to reveal something quite meaningful. But to miss the forest for the trees is a great and often-repeated crime when teaching literature and history. The best wonder why, and so many don’t ask. Maybe they don’t want to have to live with the answer.

Eduardo Galeano is writing spectacularly beautiful books that bridge the gap between history and poetry/literature. This is heartening. He looks at the marginalized, the disposable people of the world, all the Surplus Humanity. He dignifies them, he makes them more than statistics of tragedies, or tools/means to perpetuate our lifestyles. He summons up the power of a real artist and uses it to step into the role of a prophet. He’s what I think of as a connector, a person who points to something here and something there and explains why it’s like that. This isn’t rewriting history, and it’s not empty art, but living words which seek to break the grip that this bland, drugged, sanitized worldview has on so many.

As he says so poignantly in  Days and Nights of Love and War (translated by Bobbye Ortiz):

“One writes out of a need to communicate and to commune with others, to denounce that which gives pain and to share that which gives happiness. One writes against one’s solitude and against the solitude of others. One assumes that literature transmits knowledge and affects the behavior and language of those who read…One writes, in reality, for the people whose luck or misfortune one identifies with – the hungry, the sleepless, the rebels, and the wretched of this earth – and the majority of them are illiterate….Our effectiveness depends on our capacity to be audacious and astute, clear and appealing. I would hope that we can create a language more fearless and beautiful than that used by conformist writers to greet the twilight.”

Those are meaningful words, those are ideas to remember when we talk about reality if we want to describe it with any relevance. Galeano reminds us that there are those who will never see the sea, and whether or not it’s fair, the facts of our very different lives are bound together. We don’t live in a vacuum; rather, our every move and every act is connected to everything else. Whether we like it or not that’s the way it is. If we recognize that perhaps we can work to make some real good happen and end some of the injustices around us. The worst crimes happen because we refuse to admit we are involved and turn inwards. Galeano challenges us to change the way we see things and one another, and live in not just our own small world but with everyone else too.

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