Archive for October 2012
After missing Junot Diaz’s performance at Book Court in Brooklyn on Tuesday, I consoled myself by reflecting on his new short story collection. Before I cracked the spine, the odds were long that Diaz could meet the high standard of his debut collection Drown, or his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, or his recent MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, which even super fans conceded was belated and perhaps gratuitous. And after being inspired by Drown to study fiction writing in graduate school, teaching the book for years to high school and college students in literature and creative writing classes, and raving about Diaz to anyone who would listen, the new book felt like a referendum on my credibility as a writer, teacher, and human being. I hesitated for several weeks before buying the book, rationalizing that if I didn’t read it, I wouldn’t be disappointed. Fortunately, Diaz delivered. Like its predecessors, This is How You Lose Her is technically dazzling, culturally challenging, and emotionally devastating. Line by line, page by page, story by story, it is a book that breaks and mends your heart.
Junot Diaz is perhaps the best fiction writer in America, having won the hearts and minds of readers over nearly two decades with his three books: the short story collection Drown, the novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which won the Pulitzer Prize, and his new story collection This is How You Lose Her, a series of linked short stories, mostly about infidelity, mostly narrated by Diaz’s ghetto geek alter ego Yunior, and set in the three places the author has called home: the Dominican Republic, New Jersey, and Boston. The book features Diaz’s now signature style of deceptively simple prose that mixes lofty language and street talk, English and Spanish, and high and low culture. As if all that weren’t enough, Diaz recently won a MacArthur Foundation Award, netting him half a million dollars and the label of genius.
On Tuesday night, Diaz regaled a packed house at Brooklyn’s BookCourt, one of the city’s finest independent bookstores. Rather than opening with a reading, he began by taking questions from the audience. Writer, librarian, and Diaz fan Krissa Corbett Cavouras was on hand to record the dialogue. Disclaimer: the following was transcribed on a smartphone, may contain slight inaccuracies, and has been lightly edited for clarity. Also, there are a lot of swear words.
On creative writing programs (MFAs):
“Creative writing programs are the best way to get young people into a hundred thousand dollars of debt. I mean, is there any connection between the proliferation of creative writing programs and the collapse of people actually reading any of these books, and the collapse of bookstores? And how about what this does, it creates one-hit novelists, where you get one shot against the bottom line. You don’t get a second chance.”
“Creative writing programs have become the lottery machine for the intellectual set. Young writers should wait until, I don’t know, 27? What’s the hurry? Deep down in your heart if you’re serious about being artists, it doesn’t matter if the work comes early or late. It’s the ones who are in a rush who aren’t actually artists; they just want approval.”
“Do all the wrong things, make a ton of mistakes in your life; you’ll find that you actually bring news from the world to your art. Don’t graduate from college and go straight to an MFA. It’s a pyramid scheme and it doesn’t necessarily improve your art.”
I’ve known photographer Dan Farnum since pre-school in Saginaw, Michigan. We grew up sharing many of the same experiences, and in college we both turned to artistic pursuits. And although we hadn’t always remained super close throughout the years, we’ve kept in touch, mostly meeting up with friends back in town for the holidays. After seeing his photographs on his website, I realized that he was wrestling with many of the same issues that I was in my poetry: the American experience, landscape, and culture, especially as viewed through the lens of our hometown, which is poor and violent and stands in the shadow of a failed auto industry.
In his most recent series Young Blood Dan turns his eye toward Michigan’s urban youth. Over the years, he has shown his work in exhibitions and galleries in San Francisco, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and New York. He received his MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and BFA from the University of Michigan, and is now a professor of photography at the University of Missouri. Recently, I caught up with him to discuss Michigan, skateboarding, and the art of photographing strangers.
Frontier Psychiatrist: Your Young Blood series features portraits of Michigan’s urban youth. Where did the idea come from?
Dan Farnum: As you know, I was born and raised in Saginaw and have personally witnessed how the economy affected family and friends. So I have an investment in this region that I feel allows me to view the location in a more intimate manner. I focus on youth in particular in this region since they are the primary people who either have the ability to change urban communities or perpetuate the problems. Something positive that is happening in some urban neighborhoods is community farming and gardening. On the other hand, my hometown is known as having the most violent crimes (per capita) in the country for almost a decade. Much of the crime is associated with young people.
My background as a skateboarder is also an influence. I used to skate in several of the places I now photograph. I feel as though I am documenting a personal history as well as making a broader cultural statement. There is a lack of supervision in these kinds of locations that is great for skateboarding, but tends to also facilitate mischief. My teenage experiences serve as a common thread to open discussions with many of my subjects. This ability to bond with people helps them feel more comfortable while I take their portrait.
“Okay, I think by now we’ve established that everything is inherently worthless, and there is nothing in the universe with any kind of objective purpose.” Thus opens Local Business, the newest record from New Jersey punk band Titus Andronicus, out today on XL Recordings. The record picks up where The Monitor—their flawless Ken Burns-esque Civil War concept record—left off: a nation/central character ravaged by the polarized nature of the contemporary world finally comes to terms with its elemental duality, only to be faced with the next daunting phase of adulthood. Local Business explores the personal reconstruction after a monumental crisis, and how to define responsibility in a world more interested in gross sales than personal integrity. Oh yeah, and guitar solos.
If The Monitor is the punk rock soundtrack of the Civil War—as it most obviously is—Local Business is the Industrial Revolution. As industry continued to spread from the northeast throughout the country and the world, the Western doctrine of capitalism came into its own, finally giving our nation an identity separate from Great Britain ’s little brother. Similarly, after a tumultuous young adulthood, Patrick Stickles and band have found tangible success and buzz, and they now realize they have work to do in order to grow (or just sustain) their presence and reputation. Opting for a more classic pub rock sound and a significantly less overblown recording process, Local Business finds Titus Andronicus establishing their identity within the scene.
While it was raining when my plane landed in Beijing, it was in the 70s and sunny most of the next two weeks. I was staying on the 24th floor of an apartment building and could see the surrounding mountains nearly every day. The haze that the city has become known for wasn’t completely absent, but was generally never an issue. But with good weather combined with the National Day and Golden Week that followed, areas of the city grew to even more phenomenally crowded than what is normal. I had initially contemplated trying to travel outside of Beijing, but after hearing horror stories from travelers about overbooked trains, no hostel availability, and sleeping in a karaoke room for the night — I decided to stay put.
Sometimes I feel like the official spokesperson for unloved vegetables. I implore you to adopt this lonely kohlrabi! And please find a dish for that suffering daikon radish. But I can’t help myself, and there’s yet another vegetable that deserves your undivided attention, and that vegetable is okra. BRING. IT. ON. Read the rest of this entry »