Last fall, I walked out of a Kara Walker exhibit because the white couple beside me kept taking selfies. I’d gone to the Broad Museum in Los Angeles to see African’t, Walker’s black paper silhouettes depicting a dreamy and disturbing antebellum South. I felt jarred watching the smiling pair pose in front of horrifying images: A dismembered white explorer roasts on a spit; a plantation owner rapes an enslaved woman; a white girl fondles a black boy while another shoots air up his ass.
Later, I wondered why I’d walked away. The couple meant no harm; people take pictures in museums all the time. But I resented, or maybe envied, how easily they delighted in the spectacle of Walker’s art, while I found it hard even to look.
If images of slavery make you uncomfortable, then good luck going to the movies. Over the past decade, the entertainment industry has shown a renewed interest in telling stories about the lives of slaves. TheDaily Beast declared 2013 “the year of the slavery film,” anticipating the release of 12 Years a Slave, based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 autobiography,and Belle, which followed a mixed-race aristocrat in eighteenth-century England.An interest in slavery narratives has also extended to television this past year, with Underground, a WGN America series about the Underground Railroad, and a reboot of Roots.
The internet arrived as the Eastern Bloc was collapsing, promising a future of freedom and community. Now, in the era of post-internet art, a born-digital generation of artists from the new east is on the rise. In this collection of multimedia articles, the Calvert Journal explores digital art in a region the world doesn’t get to hear enough about.
The Chernobyl disaster rocked the work in 1986, hastening the eventual fall of the USSR. Thirty years on, the Calvert Journal explores the powerful legacy of the meltdown in art, cinema and the post-Soviet mindset.
Read this excellent multimedia series exploring new fascinating sides of the story.
On a Monday night in March, Jarir Bookstore in downtown Riyadh is bustling. Shoppers test out digital cameras and laptops, while upstairs they flip through paperbacks. At checkout, they can pick up a coloring book and the markers that go with it.
A walk around the back of the building, through unmarked doors and an elevator that smells of cigarettes, leads to corporate headquarters. From there, brothers Muhammad and Abdulkarim Alagil preside as chairman and CEO, respectively, over Jarir Marketing Company. It owns Jarir Bookstore, one of the most recognizable brands in the Gulf.
Alagil, 64, and his four younger brothers have built the company into a giant, selling Arabic and English books, office supplies, and electronics in 41 superstores in four countries, including Kuwait, Qatar, and the U.A.E. Jarir sells roughly half of Saudi Arabia’s laptops and a third of the market’s tablets.
‘When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? To surrender dreams – this may be madness,‘ says Cervantes in his wondrous Don Quixote.
Writing fiction is an act of faith. You have to believe that the seed of a story planted in the valley of your mind—if only given a chance to grow—will someday in the near or distant future, bear magical fruits. You must believe that the story you are working on–day in, day out for months, years–will someday connect with people you have never met, and probably never will. Like all acts of faith, this, too, is a journey that ventures beyond the boundaries of the self.
But writing fiction is equally an act of doubt. You will disbelieve and question and challenge yourself at every step along the way. You will be pelted with anxieties and panic attacks that come out of nowhere. It makes no difference whether you are writing your first book or fifth or tenth, you will still watch your soul bleed on the whiteness of the page. You will find yourself doubting not only your characters, but also your own skills. You might even ask why on earth are you doing this, plunking away at a computer keyboard or holding a leaking pen as though your life depended on it–though it won’t stop you, the darkness of your thoughts, you will continue writing, for how can you not continue breathing.
Writing is the waltz of faith and doubt. Both are sorely needed.
And you must dance this waltz, night and day, for as long as it takes.
FOR OVER HALF a century, passionate pilgrims have been drawn to a four-story Belle Epoque building in Paris’s elegant sixth arrondissement. Some still come to see the final home of Albert Camus, the Algerian-born absurdist who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957. But today, the most fervent among them come to pay homage to Etel Adnan, an artist and writer whose vitality and curiosity belie her 90 years. Like some Delphic cardigan-wearing yogi, Adnan sits in a poufy red chair with her feet barely grazing the floor below and gives her full attention to her interlocutors. Of mixed Greek and Syrian heritage, she speaks at least five languages, in a stream of ambiguous Mediterranean cadences. Conversation tends to hover around her holy trinity of love, war and poetry-the primary subjects of her nearly dozen books. The arc of Adnan’s own life, punctuated by the fall of an empire, affairs of the heart and mind, tectonic political shifts, exiles and returns, is the stuff of Russian novels.
On the first day of Saudi Arabia’s intervention into Yemen’s civil war in March of last year, warplanes bombed a residential compound on the outskirts of the capital Sanaa, killing dozens of people inside.
A Yemeni human rights organization said a coalition led by Saudi Arabia killed 27 civilians, including 15 children, in the strikes on the Bani Hawat neighborhood on March 26, 2015.
Yemeni artist Murad Subay headed to the compound with a group of friends a few weeks later, and together with local kids painted 27 flowers on its walls, 15 of them with just one leaf to symbolize the children whose lives were lost.
Svetlana Alexievich was at home in Minsk when the phone rang. For some years, she says, rumours had swirled that the Swedish Academy was considering her name. She had already received many honours. Still, it had been more than half a century since a non-fiction writer – Winston Churchill in 1953 – had won literature’s top award. The news from Stockholm was indeed stunning: Alexievich had won the 2015 Nobel prize in literature.
“This is such an important prize, such an enormous prize, you’d have to be a complete idiot to expect to win it,” she tells me. Over the next few hours the phone at her modest two-room flat in Belarus’s capital rang unceasingly. Callers included Mikhail Gorbachev, the French and German presidents, friends and well-wishers. Thousands of people wrote to her.
Sign up to our Bookmarks newsletter Read more One person, though, “kept silent”. This was Belarus’s implacable dictator of 21 years, Alexander Lukashenko. Lukashenko faced a dilemma: the award was self-evidently a major honour for Belarus, and yet Alexievich was one of his most prominent critics. At home, officially at least, she was an unperson. Her books are unpublished, available only from Russia, or smuggled in via Lithuania in small underground editions. Her name is missing from school textbooks.
Last spring, when the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano made some rueful comments about his classic anti-globalization, anti-imperialist history Open Veins of Latin America (1971), the Economist was delighted. At last there could be agreement that “capitalism is the only route to development in Latin America,” the magazine crowed. Galeano’s recantation could hardly have been more significant: “it was almost as if Jesus’s disciples had admitted that the New Testament was a big misunderstanding.”
Indeed, in the forty years since its publication Open Veins had achieved semi-mythic status. Uncompromising and accusatory, the book told of a centuries-long capitalist plunder operation, in which fruit companies, oil drillers, slave traders, and conquistadors collaborated to despoil the Americas. That story, containing more than a little truth, resonated with populist movements. The book became an international bestseller and the scourge of right-wing governments. It may have reached the height of its notoriety when Hugo Chavez gave Barack Obama a copy at the Summit of the Americas in 2009.
Nighttime was the right time for Winsor McCay, whose early 20th century comic strip about a little boy’s dreams proved forever that comics could be both mass entertainment and high art.
The trajectory of any new artistic genre—oil painting, the novel, video installation—is almost always to improve, or at least grow more inventive. Except in those rare cases when it might not. Edward Gorey, in one of his more esoteric opinions, once argued that cinema had reached its zenith before 1919. While it’s hard to agree, it’s equally hard not to concede the point at least a little once you’ve experienced some of that early riotous creativity. Another exception is the medium of newspaper comics, where two of the most towering peaks in the form date from before 1930: George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, the greatest tale of unrequited interspecies love and brick-throwing from any era, and Winsor McCay’s Nemo in Slumberland, possibly the most opulent feature of any kind ever to grace American newspapers and now available in an immense and immensely captivating Taschen edition, The Complete Little Nemo.
Nemo in Slumberland exists on a curious periphery of the cultural imagination; familiar enough for a charming Google Doodle but not quite for general awareness. Nemo is a flagrant favorite of many current artists from Alan Moore to Chris Ware to Neil Gaiman, but his broader impact is regrettably limited. There’s a 1989 Japanese animated feature collecting dust on VHS shelves. Tom Petty’s “Running Down a Dream” video borrows liberally from the strip. The name “Little Nemo” is often vaguely familiar even if its origins usually aren’t. So it’s difficult to call a $200 art book that boasts an Amazon shipping weight of 18.3 poinds a breakthrough for popular consumption. All that said, this is still the best opportunity to examine the strip literally since its original publication in the first decades of the last century, and given the relatively unknown quality of newsprint during the Taft administration, this may in fact be the best chance ever.
Early in “Life Class,” the first of Pat Barker’s three novels about a group of painters who meet while studying at the Slade School of Art, a young student named Paul Tarrant takes a girl to a music hall. Paul (based loosely on the British painter Paul Nash) prefers acrobats and jugglers to “one-act plays,” which “always struck him as being rather pointless—you’d no sooner worked out who the characters were than the curtain came down.” It’s a sentiment that Barker appears to share; she is best known for her “Regeneration” trilogy, set during the First World War, which follows the lives of several historical figures, among them the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen and the doctor William Rivers, who worked with soldiers suffering from shell shock. “Life Class” and its sequel, “Toby’s Room,” initially seemed to be advancing in a parallel track, as Paul and his classmates—including Kit Neville, whose inspiration is the Futurist C. R. W. Nevinson, and Elinor Brooke, a distant analogue to the Bloomsbury-affiliated painter Dora Carrington—moved from their studies at Slade just before the First World War to the hospitals and fields at the front.
With “Noonday” (Doubleday), the most recent book, Barker breaks the pattern of her previous trilogy, shifting the action from the First World War to the Second. In “Toby’s Room,” Neville was already established as “the great war artist.” Paul, too, had made a name for himself with his war paintings, and Elinor’s work, focussing on themes less overtly war-related, was beginning to sell. When we return to these characters two decades later, in “Noonday,” Neville has become known mainly as a critic, Paul is considered the better artist, and Elinor—now married to Paul—has gained a serious reputation, and has paintings hanging in the Tate. As war artists, they all suffer from a “strange predicament, to be remembered for what everybody else was trying to forget.”
It’s unclear what to call Annie Dillard, where to shelve her. Over more than 40 years, she has been, sometimes all at once, a poet, essayist, novelist, humorist, naturalist, critic, theologian, collagist and full-throated singer of mystic incantations. Instead of being any particular kind of writer, she is, flagrantly, a consciousness – an abstract, all-encompassing energy field that inhabits a given piece of writing the way sunlight slings to a rock: delicately but with absolute force, always leaving a shadow behind. This is an essential part of what it means to be human, this shifting between the transcendent self and the contingent world, the ecstasy and the dental bill. We all do some version of it, all the time. But Dillard does it more insistently. This month, she publishes “The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New,” a collection of pieces that spans her entire variegated career.
Since Atlanta, she had looked out the dining-car window with a delight almost physical. Over her breakfast coffee, she watched the last of Georgia’s hills recede and the red earth appear, and with it tin-roofed houses set in the middle of swept yards, and in the yards the inevitable verbena grew, surrounded by whitewashed tires. She grinned when she saw her first TV antenna atop an unpainted Negro house; as they multiplied, her joy rose.
Jean Louise Finch always made this journey by air, but she decided to go by train from New York to Maycomb Junction on her fifth annual trip home. For one thing, she had the life scared out of her the last time she was on a plane: the pilot elected to fly through a tornado. For another thing, flying home meant her father rising at three in the morning, driving a hundred miles to meet her in Mobile, and doing a full day’s work afterwards: he was seventy-two now and this was no longer fair.
The Jordanian movie Theeb has been nominated for a best foreign language film Oscar. It’s a beautiful, sweeping story set in 1916 in an area of western Saudi Arabia then known as the Hejaz. The film’s director, Naji Abu Nowar, says Theeb covers a pivotal moment in the region’s history.
“The First World War is kicking off … and the war is coming toward this area of Hejaz,” he tells NPR’s Kelly McEvers. “The British are … inciting the Arab tribes to revolt against the Ottoman imperialists. And so you’re on the brink of a massive change.”
The fall of the Ottoman Empire led to the borders of today’s Middle East being drawn. But rather than look at that moment from the perspective of Lawrence of Arabia, who famously helped organize the Arab revolt, or a grown Arab fighter, the film follows a young Arab boy. He’s the title character, Theeb; and like many in Hejaz at that time, he’s a Bedouin, or nomad. One day a British soldier comes to Theeb’s family tent looking for a guide to a well, and Theeb joins the trip across the desert.
The first time I called Umberto Eco, he was sitting at his desk in his seventeenth-century manor in the hills outside Urbino, near the Adriatic coast of Italy. He sang the virtues of his bellissima swimming pool, but suspected I might have trouble negotiating the region’s tortuous mountain passes. So we agreed instead to meet at his apartment in Milan. I arrived there last August on ferragosto, the high point of summer and the day the Catholic Church celebrates the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Milan’s gray buildings gleamed with heat, and a thin layer of dust had settled on the pavement. Hardly an engine could be heard. As I stepped into Eco’s building, I took a turn-of-the-century lift and heard the creaking of a door on the top floor. Eco’s imposing figure appeared behind the lift’s wrought-iron grating. “Ahhh,” he said with a slight scowl.
The apartment is a labyrinth of corridors lined with bookcases that reach all the way up to extraordinarily high ceilings—thirty thousand volumes, said Eco, with another twenty thousand at his manor. I saw scientific treatises by Ptolemy and novels by Calvino, critical studies of Saussure and Joyce, entire sections devoted to medieval history and arcane manuscripts. The library feels alive, as many of the books seem worn from heavy use; Eco reads at great speed and has a prodigious memory. In his study, a maze of shelves contains Eco’s own complete works in all their translations (Arabic, Finnish, Japanese . . . I lost count after more than thirty languages). Eco pointed at his books with amorous precision, attracting my attention to volume after volume, from his early landmark work of critical theory,The Open Work, to his most recent opus, On Ugliness.
In a letter written in 1871, the Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud uttered a phrase that announces the modern age: “Je’ est un autre” (“’I’ is someone else”). Some 69 years later I entered the world as an identical twin, and Rmbaud’s claim has an uncanny truth for me, since I grew up being one of a pair. Even though our friends and family could easily tell us apart, most people could not, and I began life with a blurrier, more fluid sense of my contours than most other folks.
My brother and I live in different cities, but I have never lost my conviction that one’s outward form – the shape of people, but also of surfaces and things – may not be what it seems.
Ursula Le Guin has brought mainstream recognition to science fiction in a successful career that has endured for sixty years, with books that include The Left Hand of Darkness, Lavinia, and the Earthsea series for young readers.
She says she doesn’t believe in a lot of do’s and don’ts in writing. But she does run writing workshops in which serious writers might test what works well, and what doesn’t quite do the job. Back in the ’90s, Le Guin wrote a manual for aspiring writers called Steering the Craft. And she’s just released a new edition of the book, updated for the 21st century.
Le Guin tells NPR’s Scott Simon that sound is often forgotten in a piece of writing. “Writing is a kind of way of speaking, and I hear it,” she says. “And I think a lot of readers hear it too. Even if they hear it in silence. And so the sounds of the language, and the rhythm and the cadence of the sentences are very powerful.”
When the Arab Spring started sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa, Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi became a go-to source for live updates on social media. An occasional columnist with 375,000 followers on Twitter, he is now a public figure and activist. Art has become his big agenda. Eventually, he explains, his interest in breaking news had died down and he shifted his attention to collecting and promoting modern and contemporary art from the Arab world. He sees it as a continuation of the ideals of the Arab Spring, he says, because the art tends to be political — and it defies traditional definitions set by the West. Qassemi actively promotes the Barjeel Art Foundation, which he founded in 2010. It contains more than 1,000 works of art that he has collected. He has buying power because he also happens to be a member of one of the ruling families of the United Arab Emirates — though he’d rather talk about art than his family history. He stopped by NPR’s New York City bureau to do that.
This week the largest comics festival in France announced its 30 nominees for what many consider the most prestigious prize in comics, the Grand Prix. Not one nominee was a woman.
Usually there are at least few women on the longlist for the Angoulême International Comics Festival (known in French as the Festival international de la bande dessinée or FIBD). Last year’s list included only Marjane Sartrapi. In fact, in the festival’s 43-year history, there has only been one female Grand Prix winner: Florence Cestac, who got the prize in 2000. But this year, there was a swift reaction.
David Bowie’s final record was a carefully-orchestrated farewell to his fans, his producer has confirmed. Lazarus, released on the Bowie’s 69th birthday just two days before his death, opens with the lyrics: “Look up here, I’m in Heaven!”
Its video, which will be viewed in a very different light by millions of fans today, features the musician in a hospital bed, and finishes with him retreating in to a dark closet.
The American thriller writer James Patterson has taken time out from dreaming up bloody ends for a series of characters to donate £10,000 to two flooded English bookshops.
Kate Claughan, The Book Case’s owner, thanks “the great man” Patterson for the donation, while The New Bookshop tweeted that the £5,000 will mean it “can make our kids’ book section very special again when we reopen later this year”.
My relationship with Italian takes place in exile, in a state of separation.
Every language belongs to a specific place. It can migrate, it can spread. But usually it’s tied to a geographical territory, a country. Italian belongs mainly to Italy, and I live on another continent, where one does not readily encounter it.
I think of Ovid, exiled from Rome to a remote place. To a linguistic outpost, surrounded by alien sounds.
I think of my mother, who writes poems in Bengali, in America. Almost fifty years after moving there, she can’t find a book written in her language.
There are many things to be learned from Studs’s 1960 interview with Simone de Beauvoir in her Paris apartment, but perhaps one of the most charming bits of trivia, is that even a philosopher and feminist icon like Simone de Beauvoir made up silly quizzes with her girlfriends when she was sixteen. Only this silly quiz had a profound result, it was one of the first moments Beauvoir realized writing was her destiny.
Writing about photography, reading about photography and thinking about how to take photographs are seamless activities for me. They inform one another in ways I can’t fully separate. A great photo book, even more than an exhibition, is where these things all come together. A photo book costs a lot of money to make and is unlikely to sell very many copies. But it is as essential a part of the culture as a good jazz album or a book of poems; and it possibly has as dedicated and fractious an audience as those modestly popular genres. There’s still such consolation and excitement in the swish of paper and the smell of ink, in the fact of stitching and the solidity of a hardcover. I didn’t acquire too many photo books this year — only about a hundred, all told — but I made an effort to seek out a wide variety. These are eight I particularly liked.
At long last, modern Turkey has been depicted in comic book form.
The work has a modest title, Dare to Disappoint, but its ambitions are large. Its creator, Özge Samancı, has produced a Künstlerroman that also recreates life in Turkey in the 1980s and early 90s, a time when the country’s secular heritage was enforced with a severity that has come under scrutiny in the era of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Here in Turkey, where her book is topping bestseller lists, Samancı has become the year’s most inspiring figure among comic artists, and a subject of intrigue for Turkish magazines, newspapers, and budding artists.