Latest Review

Lyricism, Dark Nostalgia, and Vulnerability in Willie Perdomo's The Crazy Bunch

The Crazy Bunch  Willie Perdomo Book was designed by Elise J. Strongin, Neuwirth, & Associates.

The Crazy Bunch
Willie Perdomo
Book was designed by Elise J. Strongin, Neuwirth, & Associates.

Willie Perdomo Public Domain Photo Credit: Oscar B.

Willie Perdomo
Public Domain
Photo Credit: Oscar B.

Willie Perdomo's The Crazy Bunch, snakes up on you like a twisting code of portmanteaus and allusions that exemplifies some early lines as told by Papo/Skinicky: "Bro, poems were falling from rooftops, flailing out the/windows; sometimes you'd pick up the corner pay phone and a/poem would be calling collect" (xiii). The nod to Pedro Pietri's telephone booth poems is not just a nod. It is documentary, for within the vivid language in this poetic bildungsroman, we are given back doorway into the very real poetic imaginary of crews that carry secrets to the death. This is not poetry about a world; this is a world that lives and speaks in poetry because there is no other way to decipher it or survive it.

There are three ideas that I explore in this review. The first has to do with its lyricism. Early reviews of the collection have made much of its homage to hip hop (Abdurraqib; Publisher's Weekly) and Perdomo himself acknowledges his love of the art form. However, I would like to pose that this collection is not influenced by hip hop. Instead, it records moments when hip hop is created, meaning that the collection reflects and records the phenomenon, the people, the actions that manifested hip hop. hat is to say, the work remembers that hip hop came from somewhere and it places the who, what, where, and why. The second idea I explore here is what I call dark nostalgia. We often think of nostalgia as sweet or bittersweet, often smoothing over edges and casting a sunset filter on memory. However, over the course of the weekend depicted in The Crazy Bunch, the look back is an excited frenzy couched in pool dips, fire escape adrenaline, junk food, high school crushes, and blood. T When the mix is gloomy, I argue the pull back is stronger. The final concept I explore is the vulnerability of our black and brown men, shown as a tableaux in what amounts to a poetic memoir. Right now, when so many African American and Latinx men are being shot, and then accused as an afterthought in order to justify these shootings, we desperately need a text that reveals that running boys with hard muscles en el barrio have soft hearts, too.

Some of us will read The Crazy Bunch and interpret one thing, but I swear that Perdomo's crew from back in the day will read something on top of, or perhaps underneath, the something the rest of us read. The pretext and subtext will be different for its varied readers, depending on whether you are from a barrio, or el Barrio, or whether you were part of the inner sanctum of the crew. Perdomo said in an interview that this book was a response to his homeboy Baby Los asking when he would write about their crew (Charney), and the poems themselves confess to us, "But there's some shit I promised to take to the grave. Y'all know/how that go" (xv). Regardless of your velvet rope status, the poetics communicate how this gathering of Black and Brown folk weaved "wild style" (3) and "masticated benches" (7) into the gold that became the world's rhythm.

The titular name of the crew was born on a day when two dozen friends were planning to "crash Josephine's sweet 16" and select members set up "a Florsheim guiso" or cooked up plan to get some shoes for free (7). The juxtaposition between the saccharine celebration and the economically-driven desire for kicks—both for selling and stylin'—sets the tone for the moniker. Skinicky, who is the central character, responds to Nestor's suggestion of calling the crew The Crazy Bunch, with a non-chalant, "Naturally" (7). Not, yes, that's great, or sounds good. Naturally. Yes, naturally because that is the beat, the rhythm, the vibe. The feeling isn't the crazy bunch electricity alone. It must include the casual, everyday acceptance of the crazy bunch static and its melodious crackle. Of course, naturally, that's just what we have here. Poetry droppin' everywhere.

Some of the poetry drops in the form of interrogations, which, unfortunately, are part of the locale's tapestry, but Perdomo's Poetry Cops are "Consolidated Poetry Systems," so in this imaginary those doing the questioning are the embodiment of word artistry. The neighborhood has come together to form an interconnected mechanism that brings together creative aspects of genius and wordplay, all to figure out what happened that weekend when three friends met their untimely end and left others with the puzzle. The answers are in the soundwaves of syntax. Dying too soon is an echo of Gwendolyn Brooks, reformed in the words:

Body Shot
Chop Shop

Black Hole
Myths Sold

Break That
Like This

Black Cat
Death Kiss (10).

House-heads will also hear Chip E's "Like This" remix spinning in the background as the friends wonder if they will be next. At this point, I remember, these are boys, the age my son would be, if I had one. Sons of nature and concrete, specifically sons of pineapples, grapes, and daisies (13), just the same as "cracks in planks" and a "rumble down a fire escape" (22-23). One begins to hope that the frutas are sweet enough to counteract the bricks that break the night (89). Nothing is certain except the pulse of language. When the barrio sages speak, even they say language is "a lemon running/up the stairs, a piano plink, an uppercut & a right cross" (90). Perhaps there is the salvation, the fact that here no one merely moves or speaks, they "electric boogie past that old hot dog stand" and "rock your Lees right" (25). Life itself must be a conglomeration of poetic action, in everything from naming your crew to the search for "Juice & Butter," juice being "a wink underwater,/a finger snap in a dark hallway,/…a club of coded fists" and butter being "leather bombers,/Virgin Mary medallions, Starfire/rubies" (18). Juice=power; Butter=the profits. All of it a campy painting of what it takes to create music when under pressure.

This dark nostalgia is perversely entertaining, a very guilty pleasure that borders on obsession. What happens when all of a sudden you are face-to-face with how dangerous your surroundings are, when you thought you were just having an illegal midnight swim with your homies? Perdomo writes, "We could've been six feet under for all we knew, so we hopped/the public pool gates, & swam 400-hundred-meter relays/in our soaked boxers" (91). This moment, three days, is all-consuming and it feels like a year. Isn't that what it feels like when you are shaken from the day-to-day to see what is actually before you? What has been taken from you? The first encounter with death is through Nestor, who was left so mangled on the crime scene, his "bile/the shade of old butter" echoes the power he would no longer be able to cop (47). The bravado changes here, Perdomo explaining, "Who was there to see what became of us at the touch/of blood?" (47). How can someone feel nostalgic for such moments? My response to that question is, "How can one not?" Anyone who goes through such heartbreak will become tormented by it. It will hound the thoughts, begging for a rewrite, as shown in the lines: "None of us wanted to exit this world without a sense of/procession" (47).

The series of deaths occur at the same time these young men are learning to shape their love. "That's My Heart Right There" explains to the reader that the phrase reveals a metonym for someone who is dear to you. Perdomo uses a prayer beat to explain:

We used to say
That's my heart right there.

As if to say,
Don't mess with her right there.

As if, don't even play,
That's a part of me right there. (37)

For young people who need to carve a space for tender sentiment to counteract the grind of the daily hustle, the reverence is not overstated. This nascent love in combination with the harshest losses is an acute trauma that results in "PTHD. Post-Traumatic Hood Disorder" (94), a trauma that simply isn't forgotten. However, the love isn't forgotten, either, hence this dark nostalgia that won't loosen its vice. The beauty within the tragedy brings you back even though the signs of logic flash, "forget." The view is distorted, "As in,/the best way to watch was the/other way./To see before they could say, I saw./You lean to the side & recline, only to see/Who else is hurting (69). And the danger is in staying in the distorted view of the past so that you might not have a future, as Perdomo explains, "The thing is, though, not to/stay behind &/take the Life/that was taken/from you" (73). This stanza begs the questions, who took these lives, and didn't a part of all the crew's lives go along with them when they were taken? One might fear that forgetting might be tantamount to taking the lives away again, therefore keeping the dark nostalgia by one's side is the only way to bear the past.

Which brings me to the last part of my exploration: creating space for beautiful, flawed, human Black and Brown men. How we need this space, and it is done here on their own terms. We do not want a space for the White Idea of a Black Man. We want to know that our crazy bunch sons, brothers, fathers, cousins can have a hand in being beauty's father (104), and Perdomo confirms it (although some of us already knew it, just to be clear; this collection just paints the knowledge in technicolor letters). Glory be to "A brother named Jose…[who] will tap out a happy hour blues with his rolled-up/Daily News (81). Thank you Brother Lo, who "was a story master, a library without a card, a cuento" (79). Let us remember that these men "practiced [their] lives in lobbies & layaway, ganders & goofs" and they "were god bodies…had God in [their] bodies" (101). We want to remember the wicked humor, the honorable struggle, the ritual and spiritual. Perdomo sublimes the memory into a vapor that we can breathe and feel, one which I hope will cause more of us to understand what is lost when someone is lost. However, it would be a mistake to think that the work romanticizes Perdomo's experience. No, there is great warning against forcing young men to scrap for cash, or juice, in this way. There is no way one can read this text without coming to that understanding. The reader is left wishing that every crew member had taken flight like Papo/Skinicky, if only to see each one of them dance to make a point (5).

All the words dance on the pages of The Crazy Bunch. It is a text I will be able to read over and over for years because of the unique language but also to help understand my own upbringing in a similar hood, Chicago's Logan Square of the 1970s and 80s. I know these crazies. I still think of the ones who disappeared and wonder if they made it. Part of me feels as if I found them on these pages, and it hurts to admit that this map shows me that everyone's story had a different ending.

Bio: Dr. Grisel Y. Acosta is an associate professor in the English Department of the City University of New York-BCC, where she teaches creative writing and Latinx literature. Her articles, short fiction, and poetry are published widely. She is the editor of the anthology Latina Outsiders Remaking Latina Identity (Routledge, 2019), which features over 30 Latina contributors from throughout the U.S. 

Grandmother’s Red Carpet Review for Pearls on a Branch

Grandmother’s Red Carpet Review, Pearls on a Branch Compiled by Najla Jraissaty Khoury Translated by Inea Bushnaq

Grandmother’s Red Carpet
Review, Pearls on a Branch
Compiled by Najla Jraissaty Khoury
Translated by Inea Bushnaq

There is a popular contemporary genre of retellings of the canonical fairy tales: take a narrative known by the entire population of former children and reframe or rewrite the structure of the tale in order to fundamentally alter our understanding of the normative assumptions that lie at the core of the stories we tell. Hundreds of ‘feminist fairy tales’ have been published since the mid-20th century, rewriting classic stories like Cinderella or Snow White to allow the women in the stories to be more than a passive object of the desire for the prince who sweeps them out of poverty or mystically prolonged dozing. The recent film The Lure (2015) provides a starkly feminist retelling of The Little Mermaid as a punk rock horror-musical set in a seedy Polish nightclub in the 1980s, drawing out the injustice of the sacrifices asked of women conforming to society to gain the love of human males only to be betrayed by those very men.

In another mode, novels like Gregory Maguire’s Wicked provide a focus on female villains in fairy tales – Maguire’s novel takes the story of The Wizard of Oz and shifts the narrative to focus entirely on the life and times of the Wicked Witch of the West, in order to draw into question the trope of the evil woman dedicated to monstrous evil and ask why so many unmarried women in fairy tales are painted as evil anyway!

While this genre of ideological reframing the canon has a great deal of value – it’s good to question stories defending patriarchy or racism or feudal orders! – I sometimes get a sense that these collections are produced so that there can finally be stories for a marginalized population to see themselves in. And this project of refitting classic fairy tales into non-patriarchal, non-western-centric fairy tales is troublesome for two reasons: 1 it assumes that the stories which have been judged problematic can be saved by prudent editing and 2 it fails to ask what stories the marginalized communities have been telling themselves. For if a marginalized group doesn’t see itself recognized in the mass popular culture, they don’t just sit at home in silence. They turn around and tell stories themselves. Instead of working to save stories which might not be salvageable, storytellers and adapters would do well to remember they are creating art for living and breathing communities, and sometimes there is more value in asking your audience what stories they are already telling themselves, rather than assuming a gap of mass popular representation is paired with a lack of narrative representation overall. If no stories are being written for women or non-white audiences by Hollywood or Broadway, then what stories are being told by those women when the evening winds down and people need entertainment, when children play with dolls or toys, or when disparate communities start to form over new modes of mass communication less limiting than film or television production? How might those stories be captured, if no one is putting them on a stage?

A joyous example of an artist/archivist carrying out this work of cross-cultural recording and interpretation is the happy publication in English of “Pearls on a Branch” (2018, Archipelago Books), a set of oral tales from Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine, collected by Najla Jraissaty Khoury and translated from the Arabic by Inea Bushnaq. Khoury began her work during the Lebanese civil war by touring refugee camps and rural communities, asking her interviewees to tell stories they remembered being told as children. Khoury and a theatrical troupe she founded – the Sandouk el Fergeh, or Box of Wonders – would then perform these stories exactly as delivered by her elderly storytellers, travelling throughout the Levant, even as the civil war raged from 1975 to 1990, bringing these stories to camps of Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese refugees, performing them with shadow puppets when the only stage available was a canvas and a lantern. Eventually Sandouk el Fergeh closed down, but rather than let that be the end, in 2014 she selected her favorite 100 stories to publish in book form, in order that the works she and her collaborators had collected and brought to life could be shared with a new generation of listeners and storytellers.

These stories, nearly all centering on young girls figuring how to make their way in a patriarchal world which often treats them unjustly, are excellent examples of a popular culture produced and delivered from below. Khoury describes realizing after several interviews that there were some stories which would be told quite differently if men or children were in the room. As she writes “certain stories told by women were for women only” (12). Khoury asks whether this was a way for women to assert their presence and independence in a deeply patriarchal society, particularly before the middle of the 20th century, when these stories were first told to the majority of Khoury’s interviewees as children. As Khoury describes it, at this time –

“Women, once their housework was done, were confined…to their homes. The men could go out to the coffee house to hear the Hakawati, recite the old epics before a strictly male audience. The women visited each other and told stories; stories in which men are dependent on women who are sharper and more intelligent than they are, where women become the true heroines if only through their patience in the face of oppression” (13).

In these stories, adventurous young girls defy their fathers who have unjustly locked them in rooms to keep them from marriage and run away to seek their fortune outside of the home, but even demure girls who do not make such dramatic gestures show determination and wily scheming to attain their desires. As Khoury writes – “In a society where the men dominate, women use 1001 wiles to assert themselves.”

These dynamics of feminine agency within a patriarchal society show most clearly in the title story – “Pearls on a Branch”. In it, the young princess Husun Kamil (Loveliness Perfected) seeks to marry a nearby king, named Lulu Bighsunu (Pearls on a Branch). He refuses her request in such an insulting manner that she immediately steals out into the dead of night, sells herself as a slave to Bighsunu’s household, and grows close enough to make small bets over the playing of a game. If Husun Kamil wins, she can make one request. The first night, she wins and ties Lulu Bighsunu’s hands together until morning. The next night, fascinated by Husun Kamil, Lulu Bighsunu asks her to come to his chambers and serve his dinner. Husun Kamil comes at his request, but as she peels an apple over his palm, she intentionally cuts into his hand. She rushes to bandage his wound and then leaves the city without saying another word. When Lulu Bighsunu does not find her, he searches everywhere he can think of, until he unwraps the bandage, revealing a letter placed directly over the wound –

Lulu Bighsunu will not be coming to sit at Husun Kamil’s hearth?

The first night with her belt she tied your hands

And let you sleep as if on firebrands.

The second night she cut your palm and made it bleed

You’ll never be the one that Husun Kamil needs.” (94)

Aroused but humiliated, Lulu Bighsunu goes off to seek his own revenge by asking Husun Kamil’s hand in marriage, only for Husun Kamil to be told when she arrives that he will in fact be marrying someone other than her! She bows her head and seemingly accepts this and reenters Bighsunu’s household as a servant. But when Bighsunu directs Husun Kamil to sleep with his black-skinned servant Saiid, Husun Kamil, in order to avoid this sexual activity with a man not of her own choosing, demands that Saiid complete impossible tasks which he 1 cannot finish before morning and 2 will not be able to describe to Lulu Bighsunu without Bighsunu assuming the job was carried out.  The first night she asks Saiid to separate out an enormous bag of white and black beads into black and white piles. When Lulu Bighsunu asks how his night went, he can only say “as God is my witness, my Master, between black and white, I was up all night!” When Husun Kamil orders Saiid to fix an unfixable door, Saiid can only report to his master “By God, it was push and pull, push and pull, hour after hour, my Master” (99). Husun Kamil tricks her way into Lulu Bighsunu’s bed, with the aid of Bighsunu’s other wife, and gives birth to a child so beautiful and so obviously Bighsunu’s son that he is forced to overcome his need to dominate Husun Kamil, since she will obviously come out ahead of any further battles! He agrees to marry Husun Kamil and they live “happily to the end of their days” (104).

These events begin when Husun Kamil asks her father to bring back “Pearls on a Branch” on the advice of her maid, even though she does not know what the phrase means. Her father does his best, but when this object asked for as a gift turns out to be a human male, and this male immediately insults her and refuses to come to her, her pride demands she work and scheme until she has acquired this Pearls on a Branch , even if she has to go out herself into the wide and treacherous world. She becomes a slave and works her way to become Lulu Bighsunu’s wife, leaping up and down the economic hierarchy of his kingdom. Husun Kamil does not simply beat Lulu Bighsunu at games of chess and wit, she grows familiar enough with his servants and his other wife that she can make bargains or demands without them telling Lulu Bighsunu what’s been really going on. She proves to be a master of spycraft and intrigue without ever acting in a way which would give her opponent and desired husband any evidence of acting shamefully.

There are other stories in this collection which do not provide as many opportunities for clever ploys for young girls. In the story “The Sun Her Mother, the Moon Her Father”, a young girl born with the sun for a mother and the moon for a father is courted by the king’s son. She finds him pleasant and accepts his offer of marriage, but her aunts warn her as she leaves to join his household – “Because he is the king’s son you have to maintain your own position. Don’t say one word to him until he mentions your mother the sun and your father the moon” (47). She follows this advice and the king’s son puts her through terrible trials trying to get her to speak to him, but until he recognizes her descent from the sun and the moon, she speaks not a word! Of course, he does so, after overhearing this secret from some enchanted tableware, and when she immediately runs to his side we are told that “he kissed her and she kissed him” (52). She takes the demure silence demanded of women in so many spheres of the world of the story’s original listeners and turns it into a means by which to sustain her position as an equal of her husband. The girl is in a position of legal and cultural weakness, but as every good reader of Clausewitz or Sun Tzu knows, there is strength and advantage in even the worst position!

In “Sitt Yadab”, a young girl named Yadab respects her family and her teachers so very much that when she sees the Sheikh who teaches at her school is in fact a horrifying ghoul who eats small children in the dead of night, she tells no one as this would be disrespecting her teachers! The ghoul tries to trip her up by coming and asking her if she saw him eating children, because if she speaks against her teachers he will be able to eat her up next. But she is not fooled and even when the ghoul threatens to eat her family’s cows, her family’s camels, or her parents, she says only that she saw her teacher “preparing tests/To help his students do their best” (191). She runs from her hometown, but wherever she goes the ghoul follows and eats her loved ones when she does not admit that she saw her teacher eating her classmate. She marries a prince and bears two children, but the ghoul appears and, after she refuses to admit what she saw, eats her children and leaves a mark of blood upon her lips. Yadab’s husband locks her in a prison cell as the killer of her own children, and in this cell she grieves and cuts marks in a Stone of Patience with a Knife of Sorrow procured on a Hajj from Mecca. As she cuts into the stone she cries out all the sorrows she could not admit to the ghoul without disrespecting her teacher. After an entire night and day of weeping and declamation in total isolation, her ritual attains its purpose:

“the ground at her feet split open and the Sheikh appeared. He addressed her with these words:

‘O Sitt Yadab, no human has existed

Who defied my orders or strength resisted

Until your patience and your tears

For the first time in all my years,

Sapped my strength and conquered me!” (199-200) 

Whereupon her entire family, its camels and cows, her children and everyone else the ghoul had consumed throughout Yadab’s trials all appear in Yadab’s small room, and the ghoul disappears back into the ground. The prince hears about the magical commotion, everything is revealed, and Yadab is reinstated as princess. Her wedding celebrations are renewed to allow her parents to celebrate and recognize this second beginning, and the couple “then lived together in happiness and peace” (201). This is a didactic story, firmly advising young women to respect their elders and their teachers, but the lesson is pushed to such an extent that in living according to the maxim “respect your teacher”, Sitt Yadab allows her parents and children to be eaten by a ghoul. This requires a deep and abiding subjective fortitude in the face of literally inhuman attacks. The quiet, abiding patience of Sitt Yadab is evidence not of a blind unthinking adherence to a schoolbook lesson, but rather of real subjective courage as she upholds the virtues she demands of herself in a hostile world.

These three women, Husun Kamil, the daughter of the sun and the moon, and Sitt Yadab, are active members of their society, toying with and becoming masters of the deeply patriarchal rules they must live within. They turn deeply unfair requirements of silence and obedience to their own advantage, whether that advantage be a desired sexual partner in the case of Husun Kamil, mutual respect as an equal of her husband in the case of the daughter of the sun and the moon, or a meaningfully life defined by ethical virtue in the case of Sitt Yadab. And this is all done without explicitly decrying the injustice or arbitrariness of these customs and orders.

Given that these customs and laws are so much a part of the worlds of these stories, some readers might well wonder whether these stories will be unintelligible to an American without any grasp of 20th century Lebanese history. I can tell you this is of no concern. The translator Inea Bushnaq has rendered these tales in an English which echoes the prose of most children’s stories in this language without erasing either the Muslim faith of the storytellers or the Jinns and Ghouls of Arabic spirituality. The stories leap from raucous comedy to delicate melodrama to truly frightening moments of horror; stories filled with astounding magic and talking animals exist side by side with tales featuring nothing more surprising than a young girl who stands for what she wants in the face of masculine petulance. Additionally, there is another entry-point into this collection for the wary American child - many of these stories will be immediately recognizable the stories of Cinderella, Rapunzel or Snow White, shifted and translated into Arabic audience. The Snow White figure, placed into a mysterious sleep by her jealous step-mother, is protected here not by 7 dwarves, but rather by Ali Baba and his 40 thieves, and must sleep until a virtuous sultan speaks a magic phrase to wake her from her slumber. The sultan marries her as his wife and live joyfully together, causing the wicked step-mother to become so angry that she bursts into a thousand pieces! If the stories here require some moments of translation on the part of the listener, we should remember that stories always have. Even the most isolated of rural communities or marginalized populations have taken stories from other cultures or more powerful groups within the same community and reworked them to fit their own needs.

But the crowning glory of this collection, as well as of the translation by Bushnaq, lies in the farshehs - a rhymed framing device placed before the prose stories in the book. Readers of English fairy tales will be familiar with the phrase “once upon a time”, which tells us that we will now be hearing a story in the half-pretend world of King Arthur or Mother Goose. These tales have an Arabic equivalent which begins most stories proper – the wonderfully conceptual “It was or it was not” – but the farsheh, a word referring to a pillow brought into the center of the living room at the end of the day to create the sleeping space, is a luxurious sequence of rhymed puns, filled with nonsense words and goofy images mixed together into an opening movement to a night of storytelling. The farsheh sometimes primes the listener to what the story will be about, but often is nothing more than an occasion to revel in the talent of the storyteller as the community gathers around to listen to the story. As Khoury describes it in the beginning of the book, “the purpose of the farsheh…is to catch the listeners’ attention and announce that they are heading into an indeterminate elsewhere. ‘This is what the story will lie upon,’ says the storyteller” (13). Bushnaq’s rendition of “The Sun Her Mother The Moon Her Father” reads:

It happened or maybe it didn’t.

Let us tell stories that amuse and delight.

Even if we sleep a little later tonight

Some on pillows stiched with pearls and coral rings;

Some on pillows full of lice and crawling things.” (43)

Whereupon the story begins. Bushnaq describes the farsheh in her introductory text as “the equivalent of a red carpet rolled out for the stories about to be heard” (17). In this book, most of the farshehs are less than six lines long, but when these stories were told live, storytellers could go on at astonishing length, until they nearly ran out of words to rhyme! These tales come to us fully prepared with a joyous and unmistakably oral poetic form attached, whose entire purpose is to ease the audience, whether they be children or adults, whether they speak English or Arabic, into the world of the story, that glorious zone of indeterminate existence found directly between “it was” and “it was not”.

As always, when reading a collection of such charming folktales, I feel a temptation to rhapsodize on the imagination of these un-Disneyfied narratives, to ‘go back’ to this rural life filled with linguistic invention and rustic virtue. But this desire to return to a perceived ‘simple’, ‘rural’ life is itself a failed engagement with Khoury’s work! By holding this book as the answer for the ideal set of stories to sell to feminist parents, I’ve asked precisely the wrong question. Instead of proclaiming  Khoury’s collection of intergenerational oral tales as the True Feminist Stories to be stamped as the Official Children’s Literature of the Modern World, we should be following the example Khoury and her interviewees have set us.

What stories are told in your worlds that are not being translated or transcribed or recorded, whether because of a lack of time or a perceived lack of interest in the wider audience? Instead of taking the massively distributed narratives from the wider culture (blockbuster films, animated television shows, etc) and retooling them to represent marginalized populations or promote liberatory ideals – I repeat that these are worthy goals in their own right! – we should take Khoury’s text as a prompt to look for the stories which are already being told by those marginalized populations! Ask your family members and the strangers around you what stories they tell themselves and their children. Ask yourselves!

Certainly, for anyone born in the United States in the last century, the films of Hollywood and the books published by British or American publishing houses have been the major prisms of childhood narratives. But as hegemonic as these narrative structures have been, anyone despairing at the lack of popular engagement in the creation of stories and ideas would do well to look in the odder reaches of the internet, where entire communities form around fandoms of just about every novel or film or television show imaginable. These fandoms gather to write criticism and get to know each other, but most of all to retell the stories under discussion, drawing out minor characters or utterly revamping the world of the fiction to fit communal needs and desires. We live in perhaps the most absolutely mediatized time in the history of human civilization, with our every interaction taking place via some multinational corporation or other, whether as the foundation of our imagination or the medium of its communication, but the blossoming of fan-fictional and communal narratives online provide a profound counterargument to the idea that there are no new stories being told or no new storytellers taking the time to tell them.

This is not to say that corporate control over our popular imagination isn’t a threat to the emancipatory powers of storytelling, or that stories can’t ultimately disappear. Khoury’s project of collecting these stories took place in a time of massive displacement and exile, as the stories here and the peoples telling them through generations were passing into new, less coherent forms of communal being. Most archival projects only come about as to respond to an imminent threat of informational dissolution, to grab hold of some body of culture before it is gone. Khoury herself, since 1997 has been working with the NGO Assabil Libraries to establish and expand public libraries throughout Lebanon, to create institutions working against the disappearance of popular culture.

On one level, this erosion of narrative memory is nothing more than the basic experience of living as a finite being in a finite world. Every story will pass away, just as every storyteller will pass away. But on another, this erosion is a reminder that this does not have to be the end. Erosion is the experience of time, yes; but if you experience it then you are still alive, and so can still pass your story on! If you do so, along with a farsheh and its power for opening the intimate theatrical space of communal storytelling, then perhaps another audience unused to such a generous experience of narrative might be brought to its unique joys. Perhaps this story will be the one that future audience needed to hear!

And if you don’t have a story to tell, ask yourself whose stories you have never heard. If you treat them with respect and show you are an earnest listener seeking only to translate for the good of the story, they will love to tell it to you, as there can never be too many librarians asking for stories in this war-torn world so driven to forgetting.

Review for Problems by Jade Sharma and the House Stark Women

Photo: ‘Problems’ by Jade Sharma

Photo: ‘Problems’ by Jade Sharma

As soon as I saw episode 4 of Game of Thrones, I came across Jessica Chastain’s tweet slamming it with the sentence: “a woman doesn’t need to be victimized in order to become a butterfly.” I agree with Chastain’s statement, however I also do not feel that Sansa Stark’s character construction glorifies rape and abuse as a tool to empower women. When the young Lady of Winterfell tells the Hound that, “Without Littlefinger and Ramsay and the rest, I would’ve stayed a little bird all my life,” I immediately thought about Nietzsche’s quote: “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.Game of Thrones presents a violent world from the very first season, where both genders (think of Theon Greyjoy’s brutal emasculation), have to navigate a survival of the fittest. This is the same gut reaction I had while reading Jade Sharma’s ‘Problems,’ that was published a few years ago in the USA and was just released in my country, Italy. Perhaps, being a European who was lucky enough to live for a while in New York, I had the chance to nurture my personal matriarchal ideals from both cultural perspectives.

Feminist historiography is important to deconstruct patriarchy, but we should aim for an inclusive world where neither gender prevails on the other. This can be achieved by reminding ourselves that in fiction, as much as in reality, both men and women can either be frail and be destroyed by tragic events, or embrace a combative spirit to emerge as phoenixes from their ashes. Along these lines, Jade Sharma, presents this crude reality through her female protagonist. ‘Problems’ unveils the story of a troubled heroine who is overwhelmed by drug abuse, but seems to fight like a warrior through a world of perdition she has chosen to helm.

The Indian-American author introduces us to Maya, “a thrifty, generic brown” woman full of self-destructive complexities. She has a low self-esteem and is a lymphatic bulimic, heroin junkie and is addicted to a zillion other drugs. Maya is also an unrealistic writer and bookseller, who is married to an alcoholic and has an affair with a professor who is over sixty years old. The literary style adopted, for this harrowing coming-of-age tale, is a stream of consciousness that is fiercely physical, both from a lustful and scatologic standpoint. The way the writing flows almost seems to be taken from a stand-up comedy stage: it’s sardonic, irreverent, raw and current with millennial psychology.

‘Problems’ is fraught with sharp thoughts, that obviously pertain to those struggling with addiction, but also to people pondering upon the challenges of intersubjectivity. For instance Maya brings to the readers’ attention the weariness that can come out of an unhappy marriage when she says: “Seeing the same person so much it makes you not see them at all.” She also struggles with body appearance when she declares: “Age is meaner than death,” and reminds us all, how conflict sometimes can be a trigger for people craving for attention, when she admits: “I can’t handle not having someone around to tell me I look hot or get mad at me or just acknowledge my existence. It’s like, what’s the point of being alive if no one is there to see it? If there’s no one to disapprove of my behavior, then why bother doing it?

Those who have pursued a career in the arts, moving to New York City, without necessarily being addicts will definitely identify with Maya’s reflections on the subject matter: “You live in New York, and you’re cool. You have an apartment in the East Village, and you call yourself an artist. But after a while, you forget what it was you were excited about. There is nothing here for you. You feel like a sucker every day paying fourteen bucks for a pack of smokes. You take stock of your resources, and you don’t have anything. You call yourself an artist, but you work fifty million hours a week just to sleep in a room where only a bed fits. You go to bars where you can sit down or hear anyone talk. You’re a hipster in New York City. There are a million of you, and it doesn’t matter that you believe you’re talented, because no one cares and you’re only getting older. The thing you didn’t realize when you were fourteen and thought Kurt Cobain was God was that not every weirdo with an ironic tee from Urban Outfitters makes it. There are a lot of people in their sixties, toothless, broken and poor, who have stories of almost making it. At what point do people hear ‘loser’ when you say ‘artist’?

Our narrator truthfully grasps the struggles of living that New York artists have to confront. She equally dissects mercilessly and authentically the life of a junkie: “One of the greatest myths of addiction is that it’s interesting. It’s the most boring thing anyone could ever do. There is a slight glamour in the beginning, a feeling of doing something wrong, of indulging in a weird world populated by ghosts who used to be struggling musicians but don’t make music anymore, or writers who need write. And then your whole life is getting high and being numb, and there’s absolutely no reason to leave your bed except to get more money. Your life becomes a triangle of elemental needs: get money, get drugs, get home. Dope is a tease. It makes you not want anything else. There’s no freedom in the end, it’s just another jail.” Maya, besides the profound observations also manages to be humorous about life in rehab, venting out: “Sometimes it feels like you are being punished, and the real program is to make you so miserable that you don’t try to use or off yourself again because you may fail and have to come back. That’s pretty much the lesson you take away: next time kill yourself properly, or don’t try.

The conclusion of this psychotropic chronicle is summed up with Maya’s query: “When did I confuse hedonism with lousy old self-destruction?” But whether we have addictions or not, the ultimate lesson Maya teaches us is to embrace the hardships knowing that the ebb and flow of life will knock you down, only to teach you to stand up again and not give up. As the book beautifully ends: “You will feel waves of sadness and you will let them run through you because that is what they are: passing waves.” To stay in line with Game of Thrones our Maya seems to adopt Arya Stark’s mantra to the question “What do we say to the God of Death ?”… “Not Today!

From Behind a Kitchen Window: A Review of Memory for Forgetfulness

Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982 (Literature of the Middle East)  by Mahmoud Darwish (Author), Ibrahim Muhawi (Translator), Sinan Antoon (Forward) ISBN-13: 978-0520273047

Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982 (Literature of the Middle East) by Mahmoud Darwish (Author), Ibrahim Muhawi (Translator), Sinan Antoon (Forward) ISBN-13: 978-0520273047

I was first exposed to Mahmoud Darwish through an Israeli-Palestinian Literature course; his poem “In Jerusalem” was the first that I read. The poem, whose narrative voice perhaps transcends between sleep and wakefulness, chronicles his journey through the epochs of Jerusalem. As he wanders, remembering and not remembering the pathways, the mysticism of Jerusalem seeps into his narration. He expresses his love for Jerusalem, for its holiness, and his love is undying—even if he is displaced from those walls. It was with this eye, already exposed to the hypnotizing writing and familiar themes of Mahmoud Darwish, that I dove into Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982.

It is one of Darwish’s most notable works, and for a reason. It was first published in March of 1995, masterfully translated by Ibrahim Muhawi. Its newer edition, published in May of 2013, includes a forward by Sinan Antoon, offering an extensive introduction to Darwish’s previous works and the historical context from which he writes. This collection of essays—really, a set of prose poems—reflects on Darwish’s experience during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. In a meditative rendering, the collection touches upon the political and historical dimensions of the Palestinian exile, and particularly on “Hiroshima Day” during the Lebanese Civil War: witnessing the barrage of Beirut in August of 1982. Through recurring symbols of death, coffee, wakefulness, and memory, Darwish explores fear during conflict: a sentiment which is, as he recounts, constant, pervasive, and disturbingly routine.

The essays are war-ravaged, recreating the violence of a city under siege from behind Darwish’s kitchen window. It is hauntingly mundane, illustrating a ‘day-in-the-life’ of an individual during wartime; as he yearns for his coffee, his “morning silence,” (7), he evaluates whether the walls of his home will protect him from the bombshells. As he listens to the morning birds, awake at daybreak, he wonders “for whom do they sing in the crush of these rockets?” (9). Thoughts of death for Darwish, for a man encumbered by the normalization of war, are thoughts as commonplace as his morning coffee, as the 6am bird songs. It is this normalization - the disturbing interweaving of uncertain death among regular elements of life—that makes this collection so unsettling.

I thank God everyday that I’m unfamiliar with the distresses of war. Moreso, as an Israeli, much of the Palestinian narrative is muffled behind distortions of emotion, of cultural sentiment. On both sides, there is an overwhelming tendency to approach the conflict through biased eyes. When such a conflict involves family and identity, it’s easy for personal narratives to overpower those on the opposing side. But that’s why reading work like this is so deeply important. Beyond understanding from the standpoint of an Israeli, this work offers all readers insight behind the walls of Darwish’s kitchen. It translates experience - a distinct kind of suffering - across all borders, regardless of perspective. The reader is called upon to question the extent of their awareness, and to regard the experiences of those living in one’s periphery. I would argue that that’s the point of this kind of work, this striking, scarring poetry. The transmission of experience. And though I pray I’ll never be burdened by the normalization of war, never be wrought by fears of falling rockets as I brew my morning coffee, I am grateful to consider these burdens through Darwish’s haunting readership.

On Image, Steve McQueen and Renegotiating our Relationships with the Dead

I’ve considered very much the business of curating family photo albums. It’s a messy affair. We consider, when framing an image, how that moment integrates into an ongoing narrative. A narrative often devoid of a reliable narrator. This isn’t to suggest that we are with the intent to manipulate, but it is to suggest that how we prioritize the representation of memory is predicated on a nostalgic sentimentality. Nostalgia operates as colors for which we use when painting the empty spaces of our memory. Each brush stroke, a sensation that we prescribe to a smile, a kiss or the tears swelling in the eye of an unknown pallbearer. If you’re Black and you’ve sifted through a family photographic album, you know the inevitable page turn to the photograph of the man, or woman, in a casket. Maybe you know them, and your relationship to them, or maybe you’re unaware of where they fit in the gumbo that is your Black folks. Regardless of whoever that person may have been, in life, in this visual compilation of your familial lineage, they are positioned in the same context as the living. Their contribution to memory is immortalized, just as your parents’ wedding or your nephews’ first birthday party. If I’m inquiring how that photograph arrived in its place, I’m asking what was the intent in curating the photographic album. And If I am directing that question at someone with the same face as I, then I am acknowledging our collective obsession with death. Death and the curation of our dead.

Photo: Steve McQueen

Photo: Steve McQueen

I will continue to use the term curation, given that there is an artistic language required to successfully narrate the history of man through still imagery. In the interview with Kass Benning, artist John Akomfrah comments on the morbidity of Black artistry, specifically film-making. “I think necrophilia is at the heart of black film-making. Not in the literal sense but in a postmodern sense in which people are invoking figures, there is an act of feeding off the dead….There is a kind of level morbidity which I think people have to realize in the quest for identity.It is a morbid business”. Whomever undertakes the task of curating a Black family photographic album is of the same obligation as the filmmaker and considers their responsibility to aesthetic. For the Black family photographic album curator, as Akomfrah may agree, it is the assumed responsibility to a digestible aesthetic, of the dead, for the consumption of the Black voyeur. We, as observers, are in effect voyeurs,  when turning the pages of these photographic albums. We imagine the inner thoughts, and private lives, of the unknown faces in each photograph and all within the frame we imagine as a stage where these lives interact. Even if we, ourselves, are the subject, in the frame, we remain ignorant to the interior of other bodies surrounding our own. Thus, we apply stories to the faces, of others, and the process of memorializing concludes with an achieved sentimentality that allows us to accept the narrative, of the album, as a functioning record of our emotional histories. We do the same for our dead. We craft stories about whomever lay, embalmed, prepared for burial to fit into the puzzle of affections that are the surrounding images of the living. Often, their exploits are shrouded in mystery. The keys of discovery, of which, are locked behind the conscious of an unidentifiable source, generally our elders, who’d rather let unresolved matters of shame, guilt or frustration decompose with the corpse, of the dead, than find resolution. But, it matters not how the person died, nor how they lived, only that we must long for them, in death, in the same as we long for the memory of baby showers and family reunions.  I do not mean that we wish for their presence, but our affections for their lived experience, even if we are absent this knowledge, must be merciful. We must be kind to our dead. This I agree, but am not without concern.

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When looking at the work of British visual artist, Steve McQueen, there is a gentle, albeit brutal dissection of the present, informed by the past, most notably, his early installations which saw him attempt to memorialize, with moral rigor, African and African Diasporic bodies having been morphed  by space-time. In a published collection of still frames, from McQueen’s installations, Carib’s Leap (2002) and Western Deep (2002), the former find’s McQueen, and long time cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, documenting the meanderings, labor and destitution of Grenadians along the shoreline of the same beach where, in 1652, Caribs, of Grenada, committed mass suicide. The act itself, of the Caribs throwing their bodies onto the rocks below what is now regarded as Carib’s Leap, has become historicized as a measure of defiance against the then French sponsored genocide of the indigenous Kalinago, or Carib population of Grenada. McQueen has little desire to curate memory here, instead inhabiting the station of witness. The history of atrocity is explicit and requires little from imagination. The dark bodies and faces are tethered to something historic and bear little room for one’s imprint of imagination. Jean Fisher, author of Imitations of the Real: On Western Deep and Caribs’ Leap, contends the point. “In Caribs’ Leap the Caribs are absent in actuality; and yet, we could say that they remain as a virtual past co-present, perhaps in the memory of an obscure image-thought floating in limbo until tricked into consciousness; or, as a displacement , in the way the African descendants re-inhabit the space-time of the island, doing what Caribs presumably always did when they weren’t being aggressed by colonialists - hanging out on the beach, attending to their boat’s, dying. Time passes, and yet is simultaneously strangely immobile.” And it is here, in the immobility of the unseen, as Fisher suggests, that McQueen reimagines the experience of nostalgia.

McQueen’s evocation of sentiment, and memory, is uncannily married to the origin of the word, nostalgia. Nostalgia finds its origin in two Greek root words, nostos and algos. Nostos translates to the English phrasing, returning home, and algos translates to the English term, pain. This is to suggest that McQueen’s narration of space-time, as a witness, requires a morally rigorous excavation of the historic and the prevailing legacies of trauma to procure the equitable  memory of the viewer. For McQueen, the only way to establish a truth, especially of death, is to reveal the often disturbing components of that truth, in an effort to embrace the veracity of truths delecation’s. To discover a prevailing truth in that final act of the Carib’s, one must acknowledge that which led them to that cliff and the troubles which would befall their descendants, in order to properly, and justly, preserve the memory of their deliverance-in-death.

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I am in no way indicting anyone for soliciting pleasure through the photographic image. I cherish the familial, and familiar, joy associated with exploring, from cover to cover, the family photographic albums stored away at my Grandparents’ South Carolina estate. I adore the images of my mother’s adolescence, my many cousins’ arrival to puberty and the discovery of relational details I hadn’t observed prior. I find myself engrossed with the motions, the positions of bodies embraced, the humourous posing in preparation for being immortalized by the lens. But inevitably, I’ll turn to find that body in a casket. It never summoned of me, inquiry about my relationship to lineage. The encounter is an unsettling one and not for the reason that I was in view of death. I remain disquieted, in fact, due to the image’s distance from death. There is rarely context and the body is an often ahistorical one. The remains are only that-remains. But death is something of reverence, fear and fetish for the sons and daughters of humanity's’ greatest injury-the Transatlantic Slave Trade. We are in a transgenerational tango with the grim reaper and it reflects in our lyric, our food, our sex, our delights and our sorrows. Thus, It would behoove us to renegotiate how we, familially, memorialize our dead.  Addiction, abuse, brutality, disease, poverty, medical neglect and other harms have contributed to the demise of so many whose deaths are trivialized only to include the body in it’s burial state. What of the truth in their names or of their tales? We cannot honor the memory of the dead without unraveling the veil’s of our shame given the conditions of global Blackness. We are ashamed of our lineage, familially and historically. We loath succumbing to the condition of the victim, but as with the final act of the Caribs’, as Fisher describes, “Death here is liberation: a turn towards immortality through a return to a generative signifier, the ocean, which must have been as important to the sea-faring and fishing Caribs’ as it was to the later African survivors of the Middle Passage.” The stories of our dead may not read as melancholically robust, or worth some triumphant mourning song, but they are knitted into the same fabric as any other story of the Black body in death. A sole Polaroid image, of a body, embalmed, is mere erasure of the unseen. I do not suggest capturing, in documentary form, the precise details of the every day, but if we are to appropriately memorialize our dead, we must consider the intent for which we memorialize, and document, their lived experiences. All that isn’t seen in the pages of our photographic albums, pictures along our walls or spoken with their names on our lips. If we do not, their deaths remain hollow and our narrative; disempowered. As McQueen suggested, responding to an inquiry about the agitation of Black audiences towards the production of 12 Years a Slave,  during an interview at the Walker Art Center, “In order for one to go forward, we must embrace that shame and master it, in order to move on, just as other groups have done within their unfortunate pasts. It’s a must.” McQueen's appeal, I do concur. We are storytellers, only our tales serve as archive of, as we know but may not admit, great horror. To neglect any detail is to maim our histories and to be complicit in assuring we amount to solely decaying bone and tissue. That, more than mastering the memories of our deceased, is damning the dead.