October 28, 2009
My friend Sue Bernstein who owns Bernstein Artists, an arts management company, invited me to see a show called “Two Men Talking” at the Barrow Street Theater. Though I am an indigenous New Yorker and have lived here many years since returning from a sojourn in Europe, I had never been to this theater. New York –all five boroughs—is a treasure trove of unexpected pleasures, a mecca of talent and innovation.
When she is not traveling, Sue is out in the city most nights keeping an eye on her clients or evaluating new ones. The two men –Paul Browde and Murray Nossel--are new clients. They are both originally from Johannesburg, South Africa and grew up under the apartheid regime. They are both Jewish and they are both gay. It was easy to be white and Jewish in apartheid South Africa, not so easy to be gay. Both men eventually emigrated to the United States. Paul is a psychiatrist and Murray, a trained psychotherapist, is now a documentary filmmaker. They have a theatrical background also—actor and playwright respectively.
They had been in the same class in grade school but did not run in the same crowd or like each other very much. Then, one day in 1974, a teacher broke the class up into pairs,they were paired off together, and told to tell each other a story. Murray complained that he had no story to tell so Paul encouraged him. “Everyone has a story, Murray," Paul said. So Murray told a story and then Paul told a story. When they left school and then South Africa, they did not see each other again for a very long time. Years later, they ran into each other in New York, the mecca.
Now it was Murray’s turn to prompt Paul into conversation. He’d written a play and as he talked to Paul realized they both had interesting stories to tell, that the stories were bursting out of them, and that they should make a play together by telling their stories. So that’s what they did. The play is a result of their collaboration. Much of it is improvised as they perform depending on the stories they want to tell that particular evening. They sing acapella in African languages, in Afrikaans, and in Hebrew. The narrative meanders back and forth in time, is often very funny, sometimes painful, always endearing. They’ve also started a narrative story workshop—real life storytelling —which they take all over the world.
In a Q&A after the show, I asked Murray and Paul whether the African oral story-telling tradition—passed on to them through their African nannies—and the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission had influenced them. People were invited to the Commission to tell their stories of horror and redemption; it was modeled on tribal traditions of justice. Murray smiled and said, “I would not be here today without it. We began this collaboration just after apartheid fell and the Commission began its work. The play is our own personal reckoning."
For more information about the workshops and a schedule of upcoming performances:
October 19, 2009
My daughter told me the other day that she no longer prints out photographs. I was alarmed. I’m sure there is no cause for alarm as all the photographs she takes are stored digitally, right? But how will future generations retrieve them? How will historians retrieve them? Would an historian want to retrieve them? Like the thousands and thousands whose photographs somehow find their way to flea markets, we are, after all, just ordinary people. Still, I look at these baskets of photos—25cents each—with great curiosity. Who were these people? How did their photographs end up here?
I suppose every generation eventually worries about extinction, in the most generic sense of that word. We save what we perceive is most important and toss the rest only when we have to. Four years ago, I moved. I threw out twenty years of journals and many letters. A friend in London had sent me postcards whenever she stepped out of her neighborhood. I had all of them. Should I donate them to an archive somewhere? Recycle the paper? Are they part of a permanent record or ephemera? Is it hubris to think that anyone would ever want to read these personal messages ever again?
I have written about this conundrum before in this blog. It seems to be a motif. Who am I writing for? Myself, certainly. Others? The future? Of course, I am superstitious about the permanence of the blog and keep copies on my hard drive and my flash drive. I have, as yet, not printed anything out.
I’ve been reading Victoria Glendinning’s biography of Trollope. That great writer loathed the “melting into open truth” as he called it in personal letters. The trove that remains of his letters, and it is a trove, is all “business.” Nonetheless, he was a fine letter writer though he didn’t know it or wouldn’t admit it. All the letters are in his novels; his characters write them in abundance. Indeed, says Glendinning, he became his characters as he wrote these fictional letters. But in real life, he did not think that letter writing “bolstered” a friendship or was of much use to anyone other than the writer or the recipient. I am sure Victoria Glendinning and Trollope’s other biographers disagree.
October 13, 2009
Last Sunday, I went to the Museum of Arts and Design at Columbus Circle. The architects have done a fine job of renovating this once-derelict building; it was empty for decades. Mia Pearlman, a Music & Art classmate of my daughter’s, has three pieces on show there, part of the “Slash Paper Under Knife,” exhibition opening tomorrow. This is not work on paper, it is work of paper. The use of light and negative space to create art has always intrigued me. What is the analogy in writing? What one doesn’t say? The space/breath between sentences and paragraphs? On and on I go trying to figure it all out in the midst of the exhibition.
Three artists were in the gallery finishing up their site-specific installations and I spoke to one of them, Michael Veliquette, from Wisconsin. His candy-colored totem was flush on the wall and did not use the light in the gallery or from the slit windows. Most interesting, oddly, was his ability to interrupt his work and then get right back to it with intense concentration. This is an important attribute to cultivate for all artists and writers. Michael had it in abundance.
Mia wasn’t in the gallery, unfortunately, but her work was a big presence, compelling and life-affirming billows of feathery light--lines that are sharp but not disturbing--all exquisitely executed, “a weightless world in flux frozen in time, tottering on the brink of being and not being,” she writes in her poetic artist’s statement. http://www.miapearlman.com/
For some reason, I thought of Haruki Murakami’s book, “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running,” while I was in the gallery. Murakami is a marathon, ultra-marathon and triathlon athlete who writes and trains with equal intensity and concentration. Each sentence is a flower unfolding in the light, each step on the road a meditation. I am not sure if his life is entirely in balance, but the level of his devotion and concentration, like the artists at the Museum, is as inspiring and impressive as the work itself.
October 4, 2009
I went to a book club gathering last night with my husband. It’s a club I started some years ago and then abandoned for another more focused on “reading for writers.” But the original core group of the “old” book club remains viable and active. With several new members, including a strong contingent from out of the city, the club now numbers about ten. They allow me to be a guest if the book they are reading is of interest to me which I much appreciate.
Immersed in all things Afghan these last couple of weeks for a project I am working on, I took the opportunity to read the chosen book for the club: Afghan-American Khaled Hosseini’s “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” a sequel to “The Kite Runner.” I had not read that book though I did see the film.
Right now, there are only two other professional writers in this discussion group though all are well read and well rounded in their reading habits, interests and concerns. The discussion is fairly orderly. It begins with an introduction by the person who chose the book, highlights of the author’s biography and some background about the book itself; sometimes the order is reversed with a round robin of initial observations, biography and background, and then a more open free discussion usually over food that honors the ethnicity of the author.
Hosseini’s book is exceptional in many ways, most notably the author’s deliberate decision to write a book from an Afghan woman’s point of view. Why did he make this deliberate choice? In my opinion, the answer is not very complicated. Hosseini is heartsick about Afghanistan and he wants to continue telling its story from every conceivable angle until his readers understand and feel the plight of its people, and do something about it. He’s a good story teller but he’s also an activist. His books are more than novels; they are documentary novels.
After the success of The Kite Runner, Hosseini stopped practicing medicine, became a spokesperson for UNHCR and set up a foundation: http://www.khaledhosseinifoundation.org/. All this is part of his biography. And so it was surprising to me when a couple of people in the book club were offended by what they considered emotional manipulation by the author. They had to put the book down. They found themselves crying. The expository inserts felt contrived. And so on.
If a writer has succeeded in evoking empathy, shall we not sing his praises? Especially if the purpose is not gratuitous? Are we so numbed by gratuitous violence that we cannot respond to real violence when it is skillfully demonstrated? One person even doubted the book’s credibility? “This is fiction. How do we even know it is true?” he said.
He was shot down, an appropriate linguistic image considering the violence we had all experienced through Hosseini's evocative prose. Afterwards, thankfully, the conversation got deeper. What is the future of this beleaguered country? What will President Obama do? We repaired to an Afghani restaurant where we talked into the night.
Suggested further reading: Jon Krakauer’s, “Where Men Win Glory,” about the life and death of Pat Tillman who died by friendly fire in Afghanistan. In addition to an investigation of the cover-up of Tillman’s murder, there is a lot of solid reporting about American involvement in Afghanistan. The book is patched together from interviews and journals handed to Krakauer by Tillman’s wife, Marie. She made a good choice.
Stephen Tanner’s “Afghanistan,” a history of the country from antiquity to the present time.
George Packer’s article about Richard Holbrooke, special representative to Afghanistan: