Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Miss the bus

I miss my long commute. No, seriously. I used to take me forty-five minutes to get downtown for my job, though I'd leave well over an hour to get there. Inevitably, MUNI would break down halfway between two stations and I'd barely make my shift on time. I've since moved and find myself significantly closer to work.

The great thing about this commute was simple: I got so much writing done. Yes, I was trapped on a subway car. Yes, there were loud students, sweaty, stinky bodies, tourists with too much luggage. But I'd stick my ipod on, get the pen out, and get some good work done.

I have the most difficult time writing at home. With wireless internet, a great roommate, two curious dogs, and a house that needs some work, I've got all the excuses I need not to write. I can water the garden, make more coffee, fold the laundry...and if I'm trying to write, all of these things become imminently important. Stuck on MUNI made it easier to force myself to write. And it made me happy, when I got to work, to know I'd gotten the real work of writing done for the day.

These days I take two crowded buses and there isn't room to sit down, much less write. I've got to find a new technique to stop avoiding writing. Those of you stuck with long treks to school or work, take a minute to consider yourself lucky. The rest of you, any suggestions?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Blog is the New Black

Every time I blink these days, it seems a friend or acquaintance has created a blog. Whether it be a blog about meat, a blog about a summer in Ghana, or a blog about fashion, everyone's got something to say. And this isn't a phenomenon striking a small literary group in Boston--no, this new craze is spreading across the globe.

Celebrities like Kanye West and Michael Ian Black update their blogs daily, while writers like Tao Lin and Felicia Sullivan have built a strong reader base thanks to blogging. This somewhat indulgent NY Times Magazine piece attempts to break down the public's fascination with the lives and musings of complete strangers.

Is it that we're a generation obsessed with...ourselves? Or is it just that we're so excited to have a platform where we can broadcast our opinions to the world (ostensibly), no rejections or censors or boundaries to hold us back?

We breached the blogging discussion at a party I attended several weeks ago. A few friends expressed the sentiment that they wanted to start blogs of their own, but were "afraid people would read it." One friend even went so far as to start a blog, and then delete it when she thought too many people were reading it. I found this fascinating. I can understand fearing the implications if you were to blog about your personal life à la Emily Gould, but I think that as long as you're savvy enough to know where to draw the line, a blog about yourself can actually be pretty interesting. I myself subscribe to several blogs written by people I have never met because I am intrigued by what they have to say. In fact, I would love to start my own blog, but the reason I don't is I'm afraid people WON'T want to read what I have to say. So for now, I'll stick to the illustrious Fringe blog.

Oh, and Vernacular, a new blog written by Emerson students and alumni (myself included) about the Boston literary scene and beyond. Be sure to check it out. And, as always, thanks for reading.

The God of Small Things

Arudhati Roy's The God of Small Things is a superb book. Roy won England's Booker Prize the year the book came out, and it's easy to see why. Her physical descriptions of people are unrivaled. The characters are round and emotionally complex.

The book is truly Fringey in its portrayal of feminism, and in the complex way it wrangles with Marxism. The work lives up to its packaging, on which John Updike proclaims, "A novel of real ambition must invent its own language, as this one does." Roy's nimble linguistic inventions recall Ulysses in their lists, nicknames, and capitalization.

A Real. Good. Read.

The book follows the travail of a family in Kerala, India, particularly of two fraternal twins, Estha and Rahel, alternating between a past tragedy and its ramifications in the present. The family is Christian, of a touchable caste and owns a rubber plantation, rice fields, and (to my delight) a pickle factory.

Roy lays all her cards on the table early on -- the reader knows that the book's central tragedy involves the death of the twins' cousin, a half-British girl on vacation in India from England, as well as a local worker on the property of whom the twins are fond. And yet, this knowledge, and the way in which Roy tells and retells certain events serves only to heighten the tension as the dreaded tragedy approaches.

In a meta passage in the book, in the book's present where the adult twins visit a temple to see kathakali, Roy writes, "It didn't matter that the story had begun, because kathakali discovered long ago that the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don't deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don't surprise you with the unforseen.[...] You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don't" (218). This book lives up to the epic bar that it sets for itself.

The theme of colonialism runs gently through the book, as various characters remember and sing or recite bits of Shakespeare and other classic works.

Roy had my emotions dancing on a string until page 311. The last ten pages of her writing didn't resolve the plot or the emotional wounds she had opened -- she breaks a certain taboo in these pages, which is not in itself a bad thing, but it didn't feel rooted in character so much as an author's ploy to help one storyline end.

Overall, it's a wonderful, complex, juicy, can't-put-it-down, linguistically creative, politically savvy novel. Oh yeah. And besides writing this novel, Arundhati Roy happens to be pretty cool.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Welcome to Shirley Review

Welcome to Shirley tells the story of author Kelly McMasters' working-class hometown on Long Island.

I whipped through this book in a matter of days. McMasters uses her sharp eye for detail to create fully rendered and complex characters.

While much nonfiction is "simply the facts, ma'am," Welcome to Shirley exhibited a welcome literary sensibility that enhanced the story. Here's a physical description that stayed with me -- "His jeans hung from his hips as if on pegs, and his skin, always so tanned and pliant, drew across his temples in waxy white stretches." (84)

While the environmental destruction wrought by nuclear waste leaks at the Brookhaven laboratory provides the central focus for McMasters' narrative, she puts it in perspective, holding it up against smaller-scale tragedies -- deaths and misfortunes that are smaller in scope.

Welcome to Shirley is the first memoir I've read in recent memory, but I found McMasters' novelistic tone eased me into this new genre. Highly recommended for a beach read, but have a few tissues handy.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Drag Show: A feminist interpretation

A few weeks ago I had occasion to go to a drag show for a bachelorette party of a dear friend. In addition to being raunchy and a lot of fun, watching men clothed as lounge singers get dollar bills shoved in their bras by a ravening horde of various bachelorette partiers made me wonder why the joint was filled with women and exactly what enjoyment we were getting out of the event.

The stereotypical bachelor party includes strippers. Bachelorette parties are a newer tradition (thank you women's lib), and it seems that a drag show is for women what a strip bar is for men. Except instead of seeing men strip, we watched transvestites strip, straddle bachelorettes, and get dollar bills put into their skirts, bras and mouths as they shimmied to Cher, the Supremes and Beyonce.

The dancers' dazzling appearances, with elaborate costumes and oodles of makeup made me feel like I was watching the constructed ideal of femininity gyrate on stage, femininity divorced from inborn biology, so constructed that it seemed like the ideal to which airbrushed magazine vixens aspire. Several of the transwomen were hotter than I could ever be, even if I went on an all ice water diet and hit the gym 8 hours a day.

As a feminist, I'm a little uncomfortable with the idea of stripping, but I'm also uncomfortable passing judgment on women who choose to strip or are forced into stripping to get by.

Yet here we were, stalwart bachelorette partiers, rehashing the power dynamics of a strip club. Were we fetishizing a power dynamic that on its face, seemed sexist? Were our faces frozen in masks of delight because these women were doing the things we would not dare do ourselves, for fear of being labelled "slut"? Or were we enjoying being on the other side of a sex for money power dynamic that has traditionally penalized women?

In short, was this bawdy fun or a meta-feminist experience? I'm still not sure.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Free Speech vs. the Jihadists

“It’s not my role to set off bombs — that’s ridiculous. I have a weapon. It’s to write. It’s to speak out. That’s my jihad. You can do many things with words. Writing is also a bomb.”

So said Malika El Aroud, as quoted in a recent article in the New York Times. El Aroud is a Belgian woman using the internet to develop her "jihad" against the Western world, encouraging Muslim men to join the fight and women to support them in doing so.

If you could ignore the fact that she incites Muslim people to war against Western society, you might respect her for using her writing savvy to speak out. You might respect the fact that she is a woman unafraid to voice her opinion to a male-dominated society, and in fact tell those men what to do. IF you could ignore her message.

At Fringe Magazine, we are dedicated to publishing the words of writers outside of the mainstream, and we support all women in their efforts to voice their opinions and change the world. But as Suzanne Reisman noted in her blog, "how do we encourage women to share their views and experiences when we sometimes disagree with them? Who decides what is appropriate and what should be condemned?"

I believe there are times when words should be used as weapons - the words of abolitionists helped bring about the end of slavery; the words of feminists helped women get the vote in the U.S. But these "weapons" were used to include others in the conversation, not exterminate them.

Then again, maybe I would feel differently if I were on the other side of the argument. That's what freedom of speech does for us - we don't get to silence someone because we disagree with them so both sides maintain their rights to exist. But that's another thing that bothers me about Ms. El Aroud - she is on both sides of the argument. She purports conservative Muslim values (she said, "Women didn't have problems under the Taliban"), yet she is Belgian, and uses this Western side of her identity to her advantage - the very system she wishes to destroy protects her rights to speak her mind.

Is there ever a time when it's okay to preach the destruction of others? And is there ever a time when it's okay to stifle another person's right to speak?

Fringe 15 bursts onto the scene

Fringe 15, this year's second issue, contains two dominant thematic threads: the conflict between East and West, and the connection between past and present. As with so many issues, we didn't plan this, rather, the themes arose from the work we found most compelling.

On the East-West Tip:
  • Melissa Fiorentino's visual art of women in positions of ecstasy adds ambiguity and when I looked at them I felt excited, poised on the brink of discovery, like the women in her work -- twists on the conventional female nude.
  • With acute observations and lyrical descriptive passages, Kathy L. Nguyen brings the reader into the world of Vietnamese sex tourism in Honda Dream, a short story that also deals with the relationship between east and west, colonizer and colonized.
  • The nonfiction piece This is Not Warm and Fuzzy by Noel Dunn shows the difference between the author's image and the reality of an eco-tourism camp in Laos.

On the connection between past and present:
  • Wendy Taylor Carlisle's longer poem, Decocted Life decodes small talk between old friends.
So go forth, read, enjoy and post your responses here!

Picture: Leap of Discovery by Melissa Fiorentino