I always have projects going…but for once, I’m actually at loose ends! I’m waiting for comments on Witches, Healers, and This Thing Called the Future this week before I attack it with a vengeance and revise. My agent is sending Killing IsaacÂ out to a round of editors at the end of this month. And I’m gearing up for a quarter teaching Health, Healing, and Sexuality in sub-Saharan Africa Â at Stanford, plus a summer researching witch killings and witch hunts in South Africa for a nonfiction project. So project wise, I have tons going on but tonight I’m just kind of hanging out, listening to Emily Wells. Happy Monday, folks…
Last week, I read Witches, Westerners, and HIV: AIDS and Cultures of Blame in Africa by Alexander RÃ¶dlach (Left Coast Press, 2006). Rodlach argues that societies undergoing rapid destruction–such as cultures in Africa ravaged by AIDS–search for explanations that make sense, that help them to get out of bed in the morning. “Understandings of disease produced by this search for meaning do not necessarily match biomedical explanations,” he claims. “This is reflected in the classic distinction between disease, which refers to abnormalities in the structure and function of body organs and symptoms, and illness, which refers to the human experience of sickness that is shaped by cultural factors governing perception, labeling, explanation, and valuation of the discomforting experience” (p. 4). Is this just another way of saying that one culture labels a particular sickness demon possession, while another labels it psychological madness, while yet another labels it prophetic or something else? Maybe, but I think it also helps to explain how people could have two very different explanations for the same phenomenon co-existing within their mind. Example: how a South African might variously explain HIV as sexually transmitted but argue that AIDS is a witchcraft-related affliction. (At the moment, I’m ignoring Thabu Mbeki’s infamous declaration that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, and the impact that must have had on South African society as a whole.)
Had an interesting conversation with my little brother about this topic of witchcraft-as-explanation-for-AIDSÂ over the weekend. He often thinks about why we, as humans, seem to need these kinds of supernatural explanations, rational or not, testable or not. He suggested that the ability to imagine the things we haven’t experienced allows our societies to grow. Somebody who was cold but had never seen a house had to realize thatÂ binding sticks or rocksÂ together would provide shelter from the wind and the rain. People had to imagine democracy before it existed. Mathmatically, we know the 6th dimension exists but we can’t experience it–we have to imagine it. In this case, witchcraft explanations for HIV are part of that necessary imagination. Is it possible to suggest a particular belief may be harmful without damaging the ability to believe?
Earlier today, I was revising an interview I did with Dennis Loy Johnson of Melville House Press, which will hopefully soon appear on New Pages. One of the things that struck me was a comment he made on blogs–how few blogs actually are worth visiting because they tend to be too self-centered. He wants to see blogs that make true literary contributions–commentaries on culture or literature–but too many of them are really just about the author’s life. Even if they start out well, they devolve rapidly.Â Of course, my own blog falls into the category of blogs he condemns, and sometimes I feel bad about that. I wonder if there’s a topic I could revolve around, like Cynthia Leititch Smith, whose blog is truly a resource for those interested in children’s and y.a. literature. But my problem, a truly writer’s problem, is that I’m interested in so many different things–one day, AIDS in Africa; another day, the problems with publishing; yet another day, violence or religion or truly local news or even homeless kids (see today’s earlier post)–and I would get bored if I was limited to one topic. And I also don’t limit my reading or my writing to one genre, to y.a. or to adult nonfiction or to history, nor would I want to limit myself just to become an expert (although I understand perfectly why people do it, I guess I just like being a jack of all trades, master of none, a.k.a. renaissance woman). So maybe I should do something about this and maybe I shouldn’t.
In earlier eras, many people kept diaries in which they recorded the minutiae of their day, Samuel Pepys being the most famous example. The blog is just the modern-day version, I guess.
I don’t advise trying this, but today I discovered a new way to get shit-faced really fast, really cheap: a vodka (or wine or other alcohol) enema. Apparently, if you take a turkey baster and you…well, you get the picture. It goes directly through the membranesÂ and so works much quicker than drinking. The kid who’d tried it said it “really f-ing burns” but, he added, Â it works in seconds, that is, if your goal is to get plastered. And if you don’t have tons of alcohol to waste.
Amazing, the things you learn when you volunteer with homeless teenagers!
I finished Deer Hunting With Jesus by Joe BageantÂ while I was in New York last week– a weird place to read about the ways that urban educated wealthy liberals have betrayed their principles to help the poor and oppressed in the country, because of course NYC isÂ one of theÂ quintessentialÂ examples. And I might add that when you mention his argument to the wealthy educated liberals who live in places like NYC, they roll their eyes and say, “What a lie.” I think they assume then that Joe Bageant is just another Fox-style foaming-at-the-mouth raging Republican, instead of the committed socialist that he is.
Here, essentially, are my thoughts on the book: Kudos to Bageant for writing a really necessary book, for pointing out the multitude of ways that both conservatives and liberals have created and perpetuated an underclass of poor people in the U.S. who are, in his words, only one or two paychecks away from being homeless yet who strive to live the “American Dream” and believe that they can do it on $8-9 an hour. His anger is palpable, real, and probably deserved. His perspective is really unique and he really did make a lot of sense with the way he tried to explain how people in this class and parts of the country feel about things like owning guns, for example. His facts may be indisputible but I don’t know because he didn’t provide any information about where he got said facts–and that is my biggest and most fundamental problem with his book. I am the sort of reader who always checks where people go their facts. I check the bibliography and/or Â the footnotes. I want to know if I’m reading reliable things. And with this book, I just couldn’t tell. That’s a big problem, in my book.
Earlier today, I told a good writer friend that I was “recovering” from the AWP and wasn’t so sure about going to any more conferences for awhile. She wrote back, wondering what a smart girl like me was doing at the AWP. I said that yes, I metÂ many nice people, but somehow the atmosphere made me feel horrible–lonely, unimportant, empty, strangling on the stale air of academia. Ha! Okay, melodrama queen has been in academia far too long, my friend. Far too long. Read More
The AWP is arranged like a typical conference, in a hotel, with a bookfair taking up a few large rooms and, scattered throughout the hotel, Â tons of boring panels plusÂ some reallyÂ interesting panels or talks, which somehow manage to be interrupted by fire alarms right when they’re getting good. At night, there are readings around the cities, all in bars so that if you happen to end up at a bad reading, at least you canÂ down shot after shotÂ because being drunk and listening to bad poetry is better than being sober and listening to good poetry.Â Okay, not really. I actually got to hear some really great poets read and also play instruments so I feel pretty lucky. (But getting drunk does seem to be part of the deal. The first day, a gentleman asked me to smell him to see if he smelled like an alcoholic. The next time I saw him, he was too drunk to remember he’d asked me to smell him!)
You usually end up back at your hotel at about 3:30 or so in the morning, and then you have to get up at 6:30 to get ready and get to the hotel in time for the hordes of people going to panels and visiting the bookfair tables. In this sleep-deprived, hungover haze, you meet some really interesting and very nice people (like Richard Peabody), who gets his ear talked off because, after spending all day trying to catch people’s attention with flashy talking, you can’t shut up. At least, I found that by the end of the day, I was just jabberingÂ and jabbering about just about anything that came to my mind. I think it’s because most days, I spend all day by myself, alone in a room, writing. And alone in that room, you forget what it’s like to interact with real people because the only interactions going on are the ones in your head that you are creating and putting down on paper.
If that isn’t bad enough, I truly did make a foolÂ of myself the very first day. I was visiting Black Classic PressÂ and talking with two nice men who were standing there at the booktable. All of a sudden, I noticed that one of the gentlemen was Walter Mosley. Holy baloney shamoley! Walter Mosley! Â This doesn’t happen, where you suddenly realize you’re talking to one of the most famous writers alive. Read More