Friday, June 20, 2014

But you must write

Is it possible to be a writer and yet not write? Not writing, continually not writing, wouldn't you eventually have to accept that you are not a writer? Does it matter? The fact of it? Or the label? Surely not the label.

I've been quiet, for long stretches, and longer. I've had good reasons; I've had bad reasons. It bothers me. Why does it bother me, the silence? Presumably I feel some need? Some need not being met? Some need I am not meeting?
But then why do you write? -- A: I am not one of those who think with a wet quill in hand; much less one of those who abandon themselves to their passions before the open inkwell, sitting on their chair and staring at the paper. I am annoyed and ashamed of all writing; to me, writing is nature's call -- to speak of it even in simile is repugnant to me. B: But why, then, do you write? -- A: Well, my friend, I say this in confidence: until now, I have found no other means of getting rid of my thoughts. -- B: And why do you want to get rid of them? -- A: Why do I want to? Do I want to? I have to. -- B: Enough! Enough! (The Gay Science, Book II, section 93)  (Taken from Being In Lieu.)
I do feel this weird need to get rid of the thoughts I have, weird, I think, because I all too often don't do it anyway... and also obscurely feel that the project I've supposedly and half-assedly taken on here is somehow socially important.... why do I feel that? What do I mean by it? It bothers me even more that I'm not getting the thoughts out there, as if I'm letting them down, or time is running out on them, the ideas... why? it's not as though I feel like what I'd write could change anything of any size, expand any wider conversation, so what is it? just the need for the subjects to be taken up generally with any seriousness? As if I could impact that? Or is it not just that? It's not: they are personally important to me. The subjects matter, the writing matters. Yet the silence persists.

Last year I read volume two of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle. Among other things, this volume covers his move to Sweden, falling in love and having children with his partner Linda, and the writing of his astonishing second novel, A Time for Everything. He writes about taking care of the children so Linda could attend classes. He admits to some bitterness - and it is in some of these passages that the first real whiff of misogyny creeps in. Yet he is devoted to his children, or so it seems. He writes:
. . . He looked at me and said with the natural authority that was typical of him: "But you must write, Karl Ove!"
     And when push came to shove, when a knife was at my throat, this was what mattered most.
     But why?
     Children were life, and who would turn their back on life?
     And writing, what else was it but death? Letters, what else were they but bones in a cemetery?
Who would turn their back on life? The history of writing has, in many ways, been a part of the history of men off doing things while women maintain life, and children in particular. Writing is a solitary activity. It suffers from distraction. Children are distracting! Women who have tried to write have grappled with this problem, given that they are still expected to attend to life. My attention, here at the blog, has been trained not only on certain literary matters, but on socio-political matters. I am overtly feminist in my outlook and have written about that too. I have sought to connect these matters, but have rarely been capable of much more than gestures in that direction. My sense is that they are connected anyway.

Who would turn their back on life? This question nags at me, suggests things. Not writing is not a new problem for me, nor, to be sure, is it a new subject for a post - the linked post is from 2007, folks, so I'm not trying to blame my not writing on the responsibilities of life. Far from it, in fact; it runs deeper. Yet the question still presents itself. So consider it presented.

Given that, a possible thread for future posts: consider questions of trust and play, as found in Josipovici's fiction and literary criticism, and discuss with, or alongside, storytelling and play as producing meaning for children.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

"What do we want? That our children may dwell in peace."

[I read Assata Shakur's excellent autobiography, Assata, in the Spring of last year (2013). This post was begun soon thereafter, but I never got around to finishing it.]

Until very recently, I knew next to nothing about Assata Shakur. She was only brought to my attention when the FBI recently increased its bounty (from $1 million to $2 million) for her capture, and placed her on its "most wanted" list. This prompted lots of discussion online; among other things, in response to this move, an Assata Teach-In was organized (see also this one page comic, which summarizes things nicely, and this two-part - one, two - interview with her regarding her treatment upon her original capture, courtesy of the utterly essential Prison Culture blog—you should follow her on Twitter at @prisonculture for daily awesomeness). This was how I ended up reading her autobiography, Assata.   

The book begins with her account of the events leading to her arrest, and from there alternates between chapters about her childhood and youth, and chapters about her prison experience and legal defense. In that way it is structurally not unlike Angela Davis' own autobiography. There is indeed much that could be said about Assata, but I want to talk about one aspect in particular. 

This passage appears toward the end of the book:
My mother brings my daughter to see me at the clinton correctional facility for women in new jersey, where i had been sent from alderson. I am delirious. She looks so tall. I run up to kiss her. She barely responds. She is distant and stand-offish. Pangs of guilt and sorrow fill my chest. I can see that my child is suffering. It is stupid to ask what is wrong. She is four years old, and except for these pitiful little visits—although my mother has brought her to see me every week, wherever I am, with the exception of the time I was in alderson—she has never been with her mother. I can feel something welling up in my baby. I look at my mother, my face a question mark. My mother is suffering too. I try to play. I make my arms into an elephant's trunk stalking around the visiting room jungle. It does not work. My daughter refuses to play baby elephant, or tiger, or anything. She looks at me like i am the buffoon I must look like. I try the choo-choo train routine and la, la, la song, but she is not amused. I try talking to her, but she is puffed up and sullen.

I go over and try to hug her. In a hot second she is all over me. All i can feel are these little four-year-old fists banging away at me. Every bit of her force is in those punches, they really hurt. I let her hit me until she is tired. "It's all right, " i tell her. "Let it all out." She is standing in front of me, her face contorted with anger, looking spent. She backs away and leans against the wall. "It's okay," i tell her. "Mommy understands." "You're not my mother," she screams, the tears rolling down her face. "You're not my mother and I hate you." I feel like crying too. I know she is confused about who i am. She calls me Mommy Assata and she calls my mother Mommy.

I try to pick her up. She knocks my hand away. "You can get out of here, if you want to," she screams. "You just don't want to." "No, i can't," I say weakly. "Yes you can," she accuses. "You just don't want to."

I look helplessly at my mother. Her face is choked with pain. "Tell her to try to open the bars," she says in a whisper.

"I can't open the door," i tell my daughter. "I can't get through the bars. You try and open the bars."

My daughter goes over to the barred door that leads to the visiting room. She pulls and she pushes. She yanks and she hits and she kicks the bars until she falls on the floor, a heap of exhaustion. I go over and pick her up. I hold and rock and kiss her. There is a look of resignation on her face that i can't stand. We spend the rest of the visit talking and playing quietly on the floor. When the guard says the visit is over, i cling to her for dear life. She holds her head high, and her back straight as she walks out of the prison. She waves good-bye to me, her face clouded and worried, looking like a little adult. I go back to my cage and cry until i vomit. I decide that it is time to leave.
My reaction to this passage was visceral—anger, deep sadness, despair, all of it. And having written most of the above last year, I couldn't decide what to do with it. I didn't just want to post the excerpt by itself, but I wasn't - and am still not - prepared to write at length about my reaction and the kinds of connections the passage brings to mind.

But the anger... it should be simple, but the ongoing history of white supremacy in this country makes nothing simple. That Assata Shakur's daughter should ever have been separated from her mother, that she should have believed that her mother did not want to be out of prison: these are great crimes, inexcusable crimes, all too common crimes. There has been much talk in recent weeks of reparations for slavery. It's not clear to me how a debt like that could ever be repaid. How even individual crimes, like those against Assata Shakur and her daughter, could ever be adequately atoned for.

Unsure how else to proceed, allow me to close with a quotation from Shirley Graham Du Bois, which I came across in an essay about her, by Gerald Horne and Margaret Stevens, featured in the Want to Start a Revolution? collection:

"I am only one Negro mother who has seen the doors of a great hospital closed against her dying son. . . . What do we want? That our children may dwell in peace."