Ishmael Reed Tries to Undo the Damage ‘Hamilton’ Has Wrought

Lin-Manuel Miranda performs  Hamilton  in Puerto Rico, 2019.  (Photo by GDA via AP)  |

Lin-Manuel Miranda performs Hamilton in Puerto Rico, 2019. (Photo by GDA via AP) |

By Nawal Arjini

His new play, The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda, is an extremely earnest attempt to show Miranda the many errors of his blockbuster musical.

Ishmael Reed has spent much of his career rewriting American history. His best-known novel, 1972’s Mumbo Jumbo, is an ironic reimagining of 1920s Harlem as the focal point in a centuries-old battle between two shadow forces: a group representing European institutional order, and Jes Grew, a virus/movement/pleasure-seeking principle originating among black artists. A subplot about the much-speculated black ancestry of Warren G. Harding ends with his assassination once he’s suspected of being infected with Jes Grew. More real-life figures, as well as barely disguised stand-ins for Madam C.J. Walker, Malcolm X, and Carl Van Vechten, turn up in the course of the quest for a long-forgotten text from ancient Egypt.

It’s all part of what Reed once called “artistic guerilla warfare against the Historical Establishment.” In Mumbo Jumbo, Reed wants his reader to question how—or even if—we remember the US occupation of Haiti, the many facets of the Harlem Renaissance, and precolonial African culture and philosophy. The establishment, as he puts it, is too invested in the supremacy of white culture, white institutions, and white heroes to notice the contrary currents of black art, thought, and social life running underneath. “They can’t tell whether our fictions are the real thing or whether they’re merely fictional,” Reed observes; hence he rewires the past, transforming a stand-in for Van Vechten, the exploitative white patron of Harlem artists, into a 1,000-year-old veteran of the Crusades in disguise. “This is what we want,” Reed says: “To sabotage history.”

The (justified) paranoia animating Mumbo Jumbo is the forebear of the ghosts plaguing the creator of the musical Hamilton in Reed’s latest play, The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda, directed by Rome Neal at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe through June 16. In the two-act play, an Ambien-addled Miranda is visited by the historical figures from which Hamiltondraws, as well as the ones that it excludes: Ben, the enslaved man owned by Alexander Hamilton’s sister-in-law, and Ben’s unnamed mother; “Native American Man” and “Native American Woman”; an anonymous white indentured servant; a runaway from the plantation of Hamilton’s in-laws; and even Harriet Tubman.

A relentlessly cheery juggernaut, Hamiltonpromised to liven up the familiar textbook history, injecting song, dance, mild sexual intrigue, and—above all—color into the life of its subject. The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda, by contrast, takes the play, its creator, the biography it’s sourced from, and the founding father himself to task; by the end of Reed’s play, we’re supposed to believe the ghosts have convinced Miranda of the error of his project.

Read the full article here.

Review: ‘The Haunting’ Has a Big Problem With ‘Hamilton’

Jesse Bueno, left, and Monisha Shiva in Ishmael Reed’s “The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda” at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. | Credit: Tanja Maria (The New York Times)

Jesse Bueno, left, and Monisha Shiva in Ishmael Reed’s “The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda” at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. | Credit: Tanja Maria (The New York Times)

By Elisabeth Vincentelli

Lin-Manuel Miranda is a character, and his hit musical is a punching bag, in Ishmael Reed’s didactic play about historical correctness.

In the four years since his musical “Hamilton” first opened at the Public Theater, Lin-Manuel Miranda has become one of America’s most successful and ubiquitous entertainers. There he is, serenading President Obama at the White House, triumphantly taking his show to a recovering Puerto Rico, portraying a chimney sweep in “Mary Poppins Returns.” And, in a true sign that he has made it to the top of the celebrity mountain, Mr. Miranda has proactively counterpunched potential critiques by playing comedic versions of himself, most notably in “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

One way we have not seen him, however, is as a lazy, gullible dumdum — which is how he is portrayed in Ishmael Reed’s show “The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda,” currently at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe.

That’s actually a pretty sympathetic take, considering how little Mr. Reed thinks of “Hamilton,” which he accuses of, among other things, turning a blind eye to the Schuyler family’s ownership of slaves and soft-pedaling Alexander Hamilton’s elitist politics and his attitude toward slavery. Mr. Reed’s views are shared by a range of historians, but he is deploying them by using an art form, theater, that only sets up unflattering comparisons to Mr. Miranda’s work — at least judged purely in terms of form rather than content.

In the play, Lin-Manuel (Jesse Bueno), his senses possibly altered by Ambien, is visited by the kind of people left out of “Hamilton”: slaves, Native Americans, Harriet Tubman (Roz Fox). As if in a cross between “A Christmas Carol” and a trial at The Hague’s International Criminal Court, each of the witnesses lectures Miranda on the reality behind the audience-friendly Broadway razzmatazz. Mr. Bueno spends a large part of the show looking befuddled as his character is being schooled.

Read the full article here.

Alyssa Milano: Why the time is now for a #SexStrike

Photo: Alyssa Milano |

Photo: Alyssa Milano |

Calling for a sex strike as a way to protest restrictions on abortion has sparked a powerful response. Sure, it's been a mixed reaction, but it got the country talking about the GOP's undeniable war on women. And let's face it, with so much going on every day in the news, sometimes we need an extreme response to get national attention.

So now that we have your attention: Our reproductive rights are blatantly and systematically being stripped away before our very eyes. Abortion care is a normal and at times necessary medical procedure, but anti-choice activists have strategically chipped away at abortion rights and access for decades, with the hopes of overturning Roe v. Wade.

The attempts to treat women as second-class citizens have become increasingly brazen, and just last week Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed the "heartbeat bill," which bans most abortions as early as six weeks into pregnancy. The bill also allows a fetus to be counted in the census, and can be claimed as a dependent minor on income taxes.

Georgia is the fourth state to pass a six-week ban this year, and is one of 16 states working to pass such legislation. None of these bans have yet to take effect, and while they will be challenged in court, they are part of an alarming trend.

Read the full article here.

I Suppose by Serena Castillo

Suppose I stayed with this guy?

Maybe I would have a nice house and a fancy car

I wouldn’t have to work

I wouldn’t have to stress about unnecessary habits

and school

Suppose we didn’t break up?

I would be graduating by now

We would have been living together

It would have been six year in November

I don’t regret him

I don’t regret leaving

Suppose I never met him?

Would he have been my Prince Charming; would I have still been his princess?

There wouldn’t be heartbreak

Suppose I wasn’t stressed?

There wouldn’t be any more pain

Suppose I never got the chance to smell the Caribbean blends?

The chicken foot soup

The curry goat

The rice and peas

Suppose I never got the chance to hate someone the way I hated you?

If I hadn’t banged my hands on the dash board

Broke a few necklaces

Kicked my feet against the car window

Suppose I never got the chance to meet you?

Your short dreads at the time

Your smile

That jumpy pep in your step

Suppose I never got the chance to love you?

Gave you hugs in bed at night

Shared my headache

Showed you the true me

For you to give me a great beginning to a wonderful ending.

Suppose I had grey hair?

My eyes low


Sleepless nights

Missing you

Suppose I had only four fingers?

If the bursts of smoke flies from my mouth aren’t stressful enough

Suppose I didn’t have three children?

The sun filled joyous summers

Red, blue, purple, pinks all surrounding on my kitchen table

The fast breeze of the trees, flying past the windows

Suppose I never met you?

Where would life have taken me?

Your soft touch when you hug me

Your soft kiss

Your sweet lips.

The Art You Should See At The 58th Venice Biennial

May You Live In Interesting Times,’ is the theme and title for the 2019 Art Exhibit of the Venice Biennial. Undoubtably the hot topics of our era are expressed through diversified creative mediums, from sustainability and climate change, to growing disparity of wealth and gender inequality, from virtual reality and social media, to politics and resurgence of nationalist agendas. As the President of La Biennale di Venezia, Paolo Baratta said, “This title evokes the idea of challenging or even ‘menacing’ times, but it could also be an invitation to always see and consider the course of human events in their complexity.

The beauty of this 58th edition is that the artwork on display, besides being aesthetically spectacular, challenges viewers to  look beyond conformism and avoid oversimplifying attitudes. In times of great change, where certain political stances threat of bringing back civilization to a less democratic and multicultural world, it is vital to turn our eyes on art, that denounces the failures of humanity and tries to persuade it to embrace a brotherhood of man.

As curator Ralph Rugoff explained: “The proverb ‘May You Live In Interesting Times’ was first mentioned in a March 1936 article in The Yorkshire Post, reporting on a speech made to the Birmingham Unionist Association by the British MP Sir Austen Chamberlain, who addressed the serious threat to Europe’s collective security posed by the move earlier that month of German troops into the Rhineland. To underscore the drama of the situation, he invoked an ancient Chinese curse. But it turns out that there never was such a curse in China and was presumably fabricated by a British diplomat. This kind of uncertain artifact suggests potential lines of exploration that seem worth pursuing at present, especially at a moment when the digital dissemination of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ is corroding public discourse and the trust on which it depends. For an exhibition that in part at least, considers how art functions in an era of lies, it struck me as an apt title. At the same time, it is my hope that art can give us tools to reimagine the possibilities of these ‘interesting times’ in which we live today, and so transform this phrase from a curse into a challenge that we an enthusiastically embrace.

The exhibition opened to the public on May 11 and will run until November 24, set in the habitual venues of Arsenale and Giardini. Ralph Rugoff underlined the desire to enhance a split format betwixt these two exhibiting spaces, to epitomize the title of this edition. He said: “‘May You Live In Interesting Times’ is intended to evoke the parallel information landscapes that define our increasingly polarized public discourse. This phenomenon is exemplified by the term ‘alternative facts,’ first used by Counsellor to the US President Kellyanne Conway in defense of the Trump’s administration’s bogus claims about the size of the audience for President Trump’s inauguration. More and more public communication is divided into smaller and smaller bandwidths, with special interest groups largely talking only to themselves and reinforcing heir boxed-in perspectives. In this ‘post-truth’ era does art’s capacity to question established ideas and attitudes appear in a different light?

Ralph Rugoff has termed the Arsenale section of his Venice Biennale exhibition “Proposition A,” while in the Giardini’s Central Pavilion is “Proposition B,” and it includes the same artists, who in most cases are showing different kinds of work. This is the first time the Biennale has an exhibition that allows artists to express themselves at a double level. I personally favored some of Proposition A’s creations, but truly enjoyed finding those same artists expressing themselves in a different manner with Proposition B.

Here is the artwork that fully embraces problematic histories and social situations, that you should not miss.


Shilpa Gupta from India
Shila Gupta’s sound installation ‘For, in your tongue, I cannot fit,’ addresses the violence of censorship through a symphony of recorded voices which speak or sing the verses of 100 imprisoned for their work or political positions, from the 7th century to the present day. The title is inspired by the work of the 14th century Azerbaijani poet imavddin Nasimi. In the dimly lit room, a grid of 100 microphones suspended from the ceiling are reverse-wired to function as speakers. The recitations in multiple languages (including Arabic, Azeri, English, Hindi and Russian) create a soundscape that might, in turn, include and exclude the listener, depending on which languages they understand. Each microphone has its corresponding verse printed on paper, waiting to be read by one and then echoed by a chorus of disembodied verses.

Sun Yuan and Peng Yu from China
Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s installations often involve the staging of visceral, intimidating spectacles. ‘Dear,’ presents a white silicon chair behind a Plexiglas barrier, loosely based on the imperial Roman chair featured as a component of the statue in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. In Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s installation, the chair is kept company by a rubber hose that violently whips around the surrounding space in response blast-off highly pressurized air. In between these periodic eruptions of violence, the chair sits inert again, almost invitingly serene, until the assault recommences.

Photo Credit: Sun Yuan and Peng Yu from China

Photo Credit: Sun Yuan and Peng Yu from China

Otobong Nkanga from Nigeria
Otobong Nkanga has described landscape as body, which nourishes and provides, but which is plundered, scarred and poisoned. In ‘Veins Aligned,’ the vein in question is almost 26 meters long, formed of fleshy toned glass and marble, that recalls both a long hand-drawn line and a river, with the clouds coursing through the marble suggesting chemical pollution. Beyond the colonial and post-colonial exploitation of natural resources, Nkanga also finds in mining a metaphor for exploration into the great, cyclical sweep of time.

Photo Credit: Otobong Nkanga from Nigeria

Photo Credit: Otobong Nkanga from Nigeria

Cameron Jamie from USA
The folk tradition of the Perchten — an Alpine winter character associated with the Krampus — is the inspiration for the installation ‘Smiling Disease.’ These grotesquely grinning carved wooden masks reference the collections of tribal artifacts that were popular among surrealist artists in the early 20th century, thought to reflect contemporary ideas about the subconscious and the universal significance of dreams. This installation is similarly both frightening, humorous, and macabre.

Michael Armitage from Kenya
Michael Armitage’s series of paintings are the outcome of when he joined a group of photojournalists documenting the political rallies that led up to the Kenya general election. During these events, the artist witnessed staged campaigns of political agitation that incorporated carnivalesque elements and a circus-like atmosphere. In his artwork, he conjures the strange chaos and urgency of these events. Drawing from original footage and documentary images, magnifying issues of inequality and political uncertainty.

Liu Wei from China
Liu Wei’s recent large scale installation ‘Microworld’ evokes the formality and splendor of modernist stage sets, filled with geometric shapes. The artist has fashioned an assortment of outsized curved forms and spheres out of highly-polished aluminum plates — intended to invoke magnified and glossy versions of molecules, elements, protons and other microscopic particles. Liu Wei’s fictionalized portrait of the microscopic sphere, dwarfs the spectator, whose sense of awe-inspired distance is emphasized by the fact that we cannot enter the space, only view it through a giant window, as if looking at an exhibition in an oversized museum vitrine.

Alexandra Bircken from Germany
Alexandra Bircken’s practice is built around the human form. Her installation ‘Eskalation’ presents a dystopian view of what the end of humanity might look like. Forty figures, made from calico dipped in black latex, are suspended from ladders that extend to the ceiling. The work revolves around a sheer verticality, as the figures ascend to the top, arriving at obstacles and falling. This invokes an upward struggle between polarities: heaven and hell, success and failure, hope and despair.

Tarek Atoui from Lebanon
Bridging music and contemporary art, Tarek Atoui’s practice expands notions of listening through participatory and collaborative sound performances. He conceives and coordinates complex environments to cultivate sound, and through installations, performances and collaborations, breaks down expectations both for performer and audience. Combining visual, tactile and aural modes of perceiving sound, ‘The Ground’ is the result of Atoui’s travels in China’s Pearl River Delta, when he recorded his observations of contemporary and traditional agricultural, architectural and musical practices from the region. He later asked craftsmen and instrument-makers to respond to his notes and drawings. The resulting instruments were set up by Atoui to play separately and autonomously at exhibitions, where various artists and musicians are invited to respond to the forms and sounds of the works.

Photo Credit: Tarek Atoui from Lebanon

Photo Credit: Tarek Atoui from Lebanon

Lorenzo Quinn from Italy Hands
Building Bridges’ is contemporary Italian artist Lorenzo Quinn’s most ambitious project to date. Six pairs of monumental hands bridge the basin of the Arsenale as both symbol of our commonality and an expression of human aspiration. The project depicts six of humanity’s universal values — ‘Friendship,’ ‘Faith,’ ‘Help,’ ‘Love,’ ‘Hope,’ and ‘Wisdom’ — each symbolized by human hands coming together to overcome differences and build a better world. Famous as city of connection through its canals and crossings, as historic base of international trade, and ongoing hub of artistic exchange — Venice, a World Heritage Site with visitors from all over the globe, is an ideal place to spread a message of unity connecting societies, nations, communities and individuals through building bridges, not walls.

Photo Credit: Lorenzo Quinn from Italy Hands

Photo Credit: Lorenzo Quinn from Italy Hands

Vasily Klyukin from Russia
At Arsenale Nord, you will find ‘In Dante Veritas’ an exhibition by Russian sculptor Vasily Klyukin who makes a parallelism between the Italian poet’s Inferno and the distortions of our time, through diversified mediums that are harrowing and aesthetically beguiling at the same time.

CHILE Pavilion — with a special attention to The Hegemony Museum
The project by Voluspa Jarpa for the Chilean pavilion, is a conservation space that presents different case-studies of Eurocentric and colonial worldview from the 17th to the 20th Century. Her Museum presents this hegemony in six case studies of the European male, white, heterosexual, patriarchal, monarchial, culturally and economically “superior” and present in the very concepts with which the colonies were coined and conceived. European ways of doing, looking and analyzing are submitted to the public for study, in order to understand how the hegemonic psyche developed a whole series of complex mechanisms of oppression that emerged in concepts like race and miscegenation, subaltern male subjects, cannibalism, imperialism, gender conceptions, civilization and barbarism, and the conflictive relations between monarchy and republic.

GHANA Pavilion
The elliptically-shaped interlocking design of the pavilion by Sir David Adjaye, creates trajectories both across time and place, through the mesmerizing exhibit ‘Ghana Freedom’ curated by Accra-based Nana Oforiatta Ayim. The inspiration came from the wordsGhana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, proclaimed in 1957: “At long last, the battle has ended! And thus Ghana, your beloved country if free forever!” Nkrumah described this freedom as a reshaping of the country’s destiny, as an awakening, and as the birth of a ‘new African in the world.’ He linked Ghana’s independence with the rest of Africa’s, stating that is was meaningless without the liberation of the whole continent. As the first sub-saharan country to gain its independence from colonial rule, Ghana became a touchstone for many others from the continent and its diasporas. And yet, the country’s boundaries like so many others had been drawn by colonial hands, and its new freedom was predicated on the denigration of the cultural and spiritual foundations of the groups that now made up Ghana. The ensuing years saw a struggle to reshape, as Nkrumah had foreseen, not just political, but also cultural, social, and economic realities. For the first foray to the Biennale di Venezia, this country brought together artists whose individual works speak to each other in pluralities of medium and narrative and scope, as well as across generations through archives of everyday objects in large-scale installations by El Anatsui and Ibrahim Mahama; through representation and portraiture, both in the studio work of Ghana’s first known female photographer Felicia Abban and imagined by painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye; and through the relativities of loss and restitution in a 3-channel film by JohnAkomfrah and in a film sculpture by Seals Awusi Sosu.

Photo Credit: GHANA Pavilion

Photo Credit: GHANA Pavilion

INDIA Pavilion
In the ambient shades of sandstone and brick of building material and of the land, viewers encounter clusters of padukas (wooden slippers), cane armor and headgear, earthen pots and shards, painted posters/frieze, words dematerializing in a curtain of mist and wooden cabinets with objects and photographs, all transacting artistic responses to the exhibition’s theme ‘Our Time for a Future Caring,’ conceptualized under the broader thematic of 150 years of Mahatma Gandhi. Emphasizing the austerity of materials and the diversity of forms envisioned in simplicity and silence, the exhibition takes the viewer through eight artistic projects, conceptually mediating and translating the Pavilion as a sarai, a place of rest, inviting one to pause and ponder with each instance, separate yet linked, intersecting at various levels. The India Pavilion — curated by Roobina Karode — symbolically is a fragment of the pavilion put together at Haripura in Gujarat, envisioned by Gandhi and realized by Nandalal Bose. His Haripura Posters (1937), easily perceived as the first public art project in India aimed at cultural and artistic awareness through a direct engagement. MF Husain’s seminal painting depicting Zamin/Zameen celebrated the village republic, upholding its indigenous crafts. Taking further cue from Atul Dodiya and Ashim Purkayastha, a conceptual artist, the Pavilion creates intimate affinities as well as conflict, between fragment and the whole, individual and the multitude. The works of Shakuntala Kulkarni, Rummana Hussain, GR Iranna and Jitisch Kallat push on to interrogate one’s way of being and capacity to act in the world. The curatorial intention is implicated in the belief that Gandhi’s presence is far from being fixed in time and space and has its relevance in the everyday paradoxical charge of contemporary India. His propositions of passive resistance, peaceful protests, minimal consumption and ecological concerns continue to resonate.

Photo Credit: INDIA Pavilion

Photo Credit: INDIA Pavilion


VENICE Pavilion
A group of seven international artists with strong creative ties to the Italian art scene were elected to represent the city itself in the Venice Pavilion: Mirko Borsche, Lorenzo Dante Ferro, Sidival Fila, Ferzan Ozpetek, Plastique Fantastique, Fabio Viale, Giorgos Koumentakis. Curated by Giovanna Zabotti in collaboration with directors Alessandro Gallo and Stelios Kois, the Pavillion this year has ever more a choral nature, through works that are fruit of individual experience, that represent a collective vision. The name of the exhibit ‘Corpo Reale’ (Real Body) has the aim to utilize Bodies in Alliance to represent how equality among individuals is not only spoken or written but is performed precisely when bodies appear together in space. The concept of the exhibition is inspired by the urban fabric of the city, exploring its history and mythology, the plethora of narratives that weave into it, they perceive it as a multitude of inter-connected spaces and ecosystems that share a non-linear continuity.

RUSSIA Pavilion
The exhibition’s title ‘Lc. 15: 11-32,’ references both the bible chapters of The Parable of the Prodigal Son within the Gospel of Luke and Rembrandt’s painting of this subject, which has become a central masterpiece at The Hermitage Museum. Since 1848 ten Atlantes have welcomed visitors to the New Hermitage, exact replicas of which can be seen in the first room. The granite figures themselves have over time become a shrine in their own right, with pilgrims from all over the world coming to worshipers at their feet. Rembrandt’’s The Return of the Prodigal Son is the main theme of the installation by the celebrated film director Alexander Sokurov. It simultaneously represents one of the halls of the Hermitage and an artist’s studio with video installations showcasing the turmoil of war that lies beyond its walls. The inner staircase send us down the world of the Flemish School brought to life by artist Alexander Shishkin-Hokusai, which is dedicated to the intricate mechanisms in the Winter Palace such as the famous Peacock Clock. His signature plywood sculptures of cut out human figures move on mechanical constructions to create a theatrical mise-en-scène, blurring the boundary between reality and imagination.

AUSTRIA Pavilion
Discordo Ergo Sum’ (I dissent, therefore I am) is the title of Austrian artist Renate Bertlmann’s site specific installation for the Austrian pavilion. In this rephrasing of the philosophical principle Cogito Ergo Sum (I think, therefore I am), the artist attempts to cancel out the supremacy of reason and to describe herself within her insurgent worldview. With a further modification of this principle, the phrase Amo Ergo Sum (I love, therefore I am), Renate Bertlmann ironically signs the pavilion’s architecture. An installation of knife-roses in the courtyard, allows us to sensuously experience the dichotomy of our existence. Between this foundational movement in the exterior space and the pavilion courtyard, the exhibition space gives way to a cartographic view of Renate Bertlmann’s artistic practice, with a selection of her aesthetic and conceptual aspects exemplifies her multilayered oeuvre since the 1970s. The presentation of wall charts, sketches, photos, filmstrips, and drawing in a box inserted to fit into the pavilion creates contemplative zone where visitors immerse themselves in her artistic self-understanding.

ISRAEL Pavilion
Field Hospital X (FHX) is a new project by artist Aya Ben Ron. It is a mobile, international institution, an organization that is committed to researching that way art can react and act in the face of social ills. Learning from the structure and practice of hospitals, health maintenance organization and healing resorts, FHX provides a space in which silenced voices can be heard and social injustices can be seen. When visitors enter Field Hospital X they take a queue number. While waiting at the Reception Area, they watch the FHX TV Program and read the FHX Booklet to receive information about the hospital’s ideology, its Care-Ares and Care-Kits. Once their number is called, they go to the reception desk, choose a Rick-Wristband and continue to the Care-Areas. Visitors first go to Safe-Units, where they can learn through sound instructions how to produce a Self-Contained Shout. They are then guided to Care-Chairs, that are designated to affect the visitors’ physiological and emotional conditions, to generate attentive listening. Each Care-Chair consists of a personal screen and headphones for personal viewing of FHX Care-Kits. The video is preceded by an introduction and followed by two Second-Opinions by FHX experts. The pavilion tackles Anti-Transgender Violence: one of the main problems experienced by people who are going through gender transition is embedded in the social insistence on the gender binary.


By Greg Moglia

I got lost in Venice once

In the labyrinth of sides and sides of streets

With shop after shop that sells

Those little carnival dolls

Black circles about the eyes

No canals to be seen

A sense of death ready to slip out

of any of the tiny shops

grab me by the neck, pull me down

Say to me Did I need this walk?

In a sweat I turn this way and that

Still lost, but then up this lane and there

The cafes, the music - safe

Freed into the everyday - Venice for the visitor

Yet travel into the back streets

Where day light turns to dark,

something digs at me…something about dying

To be lost without trying…without choice

The 58th Venice Biennale "May You Live in Interesting Times"

Running: May 11 - November 24. 2019
Part One
By Lee Klein

Photo Credit: (Biennale Arte 2019 | 58th Exhibition)

Photo Credit: (Biennale Arte 2019 | 58th Exhibition)

Oscar Wilde, never did declare, that he had nothing to declare, but, his genius which is not to say he had nothing to declare...

It is fake news; alternative facts all over again, given a different name in a different context from satire or a byline owner attempting to proprietize a zinger from another word slinger. Therein when Ralph Rugoff the curator of the 58th Venice Biennale selected for his phrase of departure "may you live in interesting times", an ancient Chinese proverb which it turns was not an ancient Sino saying at all, he went straight into alternative practices, mirroring alternative facts, with one set of work by each main exhibition Biennale artist in each of the two main pavilions respectively; the Arsenale, and the Giardini.

This all sounded superb to this future viewer of the exhibition while watching the press conference on youtube while on an exercise bike at the New York Sports Club elite gym on East 23rd street after going on a thrift shop safari run and acquiring super size blue linen Ralph Lauren polo pants to be worn in Venezia.  Once onsite it just seemed like a neat way to repackage curation and offer an avenue to see a more in depth selection of each artist's works . .i.e. less artists more pieces per practitioner then in the exhibitions which immediately preceded this one....

Having been (being) an obsessive-compulsive wikipedian it goes that a few of the artists in the survey 's English online encyclopedia pages are ones which I created.  This gave this person onus to stay and watch Alex Da Corte's 57 varieties (title and numerical count taken from Heinz by an artist obsessed with Ketchup who did time in the Ketchup city of Pittsburgh and who doesn't love someone who loves ketchup look at me I am playing ketchup all the time) series of video vignettes.   Rugoff has described this piece as monumental (think perhaps in a manner ala Christian Marclay's "Clock" which turned back time at the 2011 Biennale or "66 Scenes from America" by Jorgen Leth which is very close to Da Corte's artistic heart as for it is from whence Warhol's Burger King Super Bowl ad came and you guessed it in which he is playing ketchup). This work includes, among other episides, Elphaba the wicked witch of the West joining a silent Oscar the grouch on screen to croon blue over you and a reclining daisy self plucking ...

But a Mexican artist brought a wall; Teresa Margolies in the Giardini pavilion implanted a found object taken from a school in the city of Juarez where four young women died in drug related gun violence.  This can be read as a reminder (as is the character based on Joseph Beuys in the stellar German film "Never Look Away" talking of the Berlin Wall and how it is [was] almost art) that it is a symbol of today which we cannot avoid. In the meantime the artist Laure Provost within her work "The Deep Blue Sea Surrounding You"  announced in her movie in the super popular French pavilion "welcome immigrants" while looking down and talking to tidal fish.

David Hammons at Hauser & Wirth

It’s been done before
This could be u

By Sola Saar

What is your authentic reaction to an art piece? What is your first impression, before reading what others have told you the work is about? The press release for David Hammons’ “Harmolodic Thinker,” a squiggly line drawing evocative of a composer’s hand motions, equally places the casual viewer, the art critic, and the student on the same plane to draw their own conclusions. It forgoes the theoretical context, the gallery’s interpretations, the artist’s educational background, the list of museums that have shown the artist’s work to lend credibility and give the art critic words to regurgitate, markers into which David Hammons, one of the nation’s top 10 selling artists, could easily play. At a certain point, don’t all press releases proffer the same format, check the same boxes of art world success? If stripped down to their main function, they feed the art market, not the artist.

David Hammons has not had a solo show in Los Angeles for 45 years, has eschewed large commercial galleries and who has long criticized the white, profit-driven art world, dedicated “Harmolodic Thinker” to the late Ornette Coleman, a jazz musician known for his spontaneity. Hauser and Wirth, a gallery with locations all over the world, would seem a surprising place for Hammons to make these kinds of statements, however the gallery’s location in the downtown arts district lends context. Hammons created a site-specific work: an encampment of tents with stenciled messages such as “this could be u” directly addressing the LA homeless crisis most visible near the rapidly gentrifying downtown arts district. Like his previous site-specific work, “Six Sites in Alexandria” in Egypt, Hammons continues to invites the viewer to deconstruct the boundaries between designated art spaces and the real world. Noticeably absent from the two gallery spaces were traditional artwork labels. Categories such as the year the piece was created, artistic medium, or a short blurb about the work, are forgone, forcing the viewer to more directly and viscerally form their own response to the work sans context.

David Hammons
Mixed media
Dimensions variable
© David Hammons
Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth
Photo: Genevieve Hanson

Instead open-ended phrases were handwritten on the wall in the place of titles such as “It’s been done before,” “this reminds me of…” parodying trite phrases people throw out when evaluating art and also giving new meaning to them when placed next to David Hammons’ work.

Hammons’ tarp series dominated the bulk of the two gallery spaces and underscored the exhibition’s theme of art world criticism. Initially he painted abstract expression paintings in the likes of William de Kooning, whose work is of high value in the art market, and cloaked tarpaulin, brown paper, patchwork fabrics, and clear plastic wrap over the paintings. The covering materials are reminiscent of freight shipping materials, yet draped over the paintings like Grecian robes, allowing only slips of the paintings to show through. Often placed on the floor, they are intentionally presented as though the exhibition hanging is in process, questioning the authority of curation and “finished” presentation in these spaces.

By including artworks by artists as versatile as Miles Davis, William de Kooning, and Agnes Martin, the exhibition challenges notions of authorship and authority in art. An expansive exquisite corpse created in collaboration with poet Ted Joans, includes contributions from artists, writers, musicians, and intellectuals from around the world, including William Burroughs, Ishmael Reed, and Paul Bowles. The exquisite corpse, a game invented by the surrealists in which each person adds to a drawing to create a collaborative work, underlies a desire for communal rather than ego-driven art.

David Hammons
Mixed media
© David Hammons
Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth
Photo: Genevieve Hanson

“Harmolodic Thinker” is also a dialogue with Ornette Coleman, the free jazz musician and composer who passed away in 2015. Coleman’s jazz philosophies were somewhat unorthodox but influential, especially to David Hammons. The essay on Ornette Coleman from Hauser and Wirth states:

“‘Follow the idea, not the sound.’ This statement by Ornette Coleman is an inspiration for David Hammons who reflects, ‘I was impressed with that. Follow how my ideas are put together, as opposed to whether the rainbow appears or the rain comes. I use this logic a lot. It moves in the realm of poetry as opposed to the actuality that people are used to or expect.’”[1]

With this sentiment, Hammons’ work is best taken in without the expectation of a finite conclusion of what the work is meant to convey, as with jazz or poetry, his is an art form intended to open up new modes of thinking rather than express an ideology. Throughout his decades-long career, Hammons has made art out of the ephemeral— selling snowballs on the street, or urinating on Richard Serra’s work. While neither of these concepts could be replicated at Hauser and Wirth, a single bowl of water in the place of a melted snowball with a note from an art collector who declined purchasing one of Hammons’ snowballs on the basis of it being too expensive to maintain, implies a larger problem in the art world— that it is preoccupied with the idea that art is ultimately a commodifiable object.

David Hammons
Orange is the new black
Mixed media
139.7 x 40.6 x 30.5 cm / 55 x 16 x 12 in
© David Hammons
Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth
Photo: Genevieve Hanson

Speaking about his installation in Alexandria, Egypt, Hammons wrote in Artforum, “I was more interested in shifting the idea of how artists think about producing art. Artists are often more interested in the act itself. I choose artworks that are ephemeral because, well, life is that. It’s such a temporary journey.”[1]

With this idea I wonder why with visual art and prose, the intent is always a finished unchanging product, whereas with poetry or music, the creation process is inherently ephemeral, open to change, and performative. As opposed to performance, a gallery space has historically been a one-way interaction between a viewer and object, but “Harmolodic Thinker” encourages the visitor to transcend beyond these distinctions by doing the work for themselves, forming a meaning not based on what art experts would want you to think, but by inciting a response you might not know existed and giving you permission to access those feelings as you would in daily experience.

For Miss Shirley LeFlore

For Miss Shirley LeFlore
(March 6, 1940-May 12, 2019)

By Kevin Powell

I want to say
thank you
Miss Shirley LeFlore
for being a supernatural word 
warrior who 
allowed your poet laureate tongue
to be baked and bronzed by
the smoke-y laughter of
sister-girl hair salons
and the ham-hocked hallelujahs
of ancient Black churches with
Black Jesus in their ancestral bones
just means you
done seen some things 
that you knew
as a little Black girl
resurrected there in the gumbo pot
of African soul they
baptized Saint Louis
that you were born
to witness 
the weary blues
of a people
who made high ways
from no ways
just means
you is fearless
Miss Shirley
you is mad cool
Miss Shirley
you is forever
Miss Shirley
like the sugary taste
of a ripened watermelon
busted open
the way 
your poetry
busted open
your womanhood and your Blackness
and your purple majesty
as the queen 
you were ordained to be
the way 
your momma and your grandmommas
were queens
the way
your daughters
are queens
the way
Black girl magic
is Miss Shirley LeFlore
swinging and bebopping
from World War 2
through the soul struts of Vietnam
and Civil Rights
to the boom baps of hip-hop
and orange monsters in the 
White House with crooked eyes
yes, the way
Ella Fitzgerald
Gwendolyn Brooks
Billie Holiday
Nina Simone
The wash lady
The numbers runner
and the school teacher were magical
‘cuz magicians dare, Miss Shirley
like you dared
you made a march to Washington
you made a commitment to poor people
and the arts and the telling of
like it is
because you dared to believe
that art was for the people
all people
your people
your beautiful lightredbeigebrownchocolatedarkblack
“I am the Black woman”
you said, Miss Shirley
and the people’s church said a-women a-men ashe
go on with your bad self, Miss Shirley LeFlore
teach us how poetry is 
Buddy Bolden cutting a rug
with the blues of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey
while Miles Davis and John Coltrane
blow segregated nightmares into the wind
move us, Miss Shirley
from Saint Louis to New York and back again
embrace the young poets of my generation and the young
poets of today’s generation like they are your equals
make me feel like you are one of my mommas
you Audre Lorde Sonia Sanchez Nikki Giovanni
Mari Evans Amina Baraka Camille Yarbrough Maryemma Graham
sister-girls who survived 
sick and tired of being sick and tired
to become, like that God they call her,
sacred healing women 
keepers of our culture
protectors of our sanity
believers in the spiritual voodoo 
we call freedom songs
Miss Shirley LeFlore is not
good enough for you any longer
you are now dancing with the ancestors
cool jerking and twisting your woman-child
around the sweaty nostrils of the sun
and you are now Saint Shirley
Shirley, yes, same name of my birth momma
you are
you are
you are
you are
Unapologetically free
a caregiver and a caretaker to the very end
I cried Saint Shirley when I was told
you left us
on Mother’s Day
but then I smiled
because Black women
like you
are the mothers
of this nation
are the mothers
of this universe
if there were no you
there would be no us
none of us
so take your bow
and your grand exit, Saint Shirley
I see you with your pressed and creased angel wings 
hovering over
Saint Louis
hovering over
hovering over
our sobbing hearts
reminding us
to kiss laughter daily
reminding us
that when we channel
rivers of women
we must drink slowly
from their eyes
we must swallow the juice from their tears
so that we can be
as you 
Saint Shirley
always were—

© Kevin Powell 2019

Kevin Powell is a poet, essayist, blogger, filmmaker, journalist, activist, public speaker, and author of 13 books, including his autobiography, The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy’s Journey into Manhood

Bret Easton Ellis’s White: Non-fiction Essays that Probe the Meaning of Art and Aesthetics

By: Katherine R. Sloan

photo by Ryan Pfluger for The New York Times

photo by Ryan Pfluger for The New York Times

Bret Easton Ellis’s new book, White—his first in nearly a decade and first non-fiction ever—is one that I’ve been hesitant to write on as it’s proven very controversial. What’s most appalling is that the media seems to view Ellis as some sort of Trump apologist, misogynist (due to a 2008 Tweet about Kathryn Bigelow) and bigot. Ellis would say that one should “Look to the art” and not the artist, that his personal and political leanings do not matter— it’s the writing that matters. I would not be reading his novels with such fervor if I believed him to be a Republican stooge or even sympathizer.

What interests me most about White is not Ellis’s views on the current political climate, millennial culture or his pseudo-friendship with Kanye West but freedom of speech and aesthetics. To Ellis, it is an artist’s duty to speak his or her mind no matter what the repercussion. His brilliant way of making me want to revisit certain titillating films from the 1970s and ’80s that are gritty, unflinching and very sexy is part of the book of interlocking essays that held my rapt attention. The way he speaks of an un-coddled youth where movies were the gateway to exotic, adult worlds reminds me of why I have been besotted with films my entire life. Ellis discusses—in great detail—Paul Schrader’s 1980 film American Gigolo and how watching it at fifteen had an influence that was “vast and undeniable” and “impossible to tally.”  Ellis agrees that American Gigolo was not a great film but that “It changed how we look at and objectify men, and altered how I thought about and experienced LA.” What’s so fascinating about Ellis’s discussion of this film in particular is that it’s not a cinematic masterpiece but it does have resonance in popular culture and proved to influence his fiction.

Ellis also goes on to do what, I feel, he does best and that’s to take his readers into completely faraway worlds, whether they’re of his own design or that of another artist (in this case it’s Paul Schrader). Ellis goes on to describe the film as “Set in 1979 Los Angeles, whose denizens dine at Ma Maison and Perino’s and Scandia and Le Dome—and Julian Kaye, the title character, is living in a chic Westwood apartment, adorned in Armani, driving the empty streets in a Mercedes convertible and making his living as a male prostitute for wealthy older women while haunting the Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel.” Ellis goes on to discuss his understanding of the “male gaze” and how the camera ogled Richard Gere, thus making the film very gay: it objectified its leading man, was “minimal and chic” and saw Los Angeles as a “brightly colored wasteland.” Ellis also talks about Gere’s blankness, his emptiness. All this harkens back to his 1985 novel Less Than Zero: a story of privileged, nihilistic youth in Los Angeles.

I think what I loved about Less Than Zero and immediately understood was that Ellis’s depiction of certain behavior is not an act of this behavior; he’s not even condoning it but, instead, criticizing it. This is why Ellis is such an effective satirist. At times, his work can even be considered absurdist; he was the Jonathan Swift of the 1980s and early ’90s. American Psycho (1991) was his ultra-violent, sexually explicit version of A Modest Proposal (1729), if you will. Ellis is a wonderful record-keeper of popular culture, especially films. He writes about the 1977 film Looking for Mr. Goodbar (starring Diane Keaton and Richard Gere) with such finesse that I immediately re-watched it—even though I was completely horrified upon the first viewing—stating that “Gere brings Keaton to orgasm in her apartment while Donna Summer sings ‘Could it be Magic’ and then performs a balletic mock-rumble kung-fu dance in his jockstrap while brandishing a glow-in-the-dark switchblade.” Ellis then goes on to say that this scene is “ludicrous” now but was “electrifyingly sexy” to his “eighth-grade sensibility.” This is what Ellis does so brilliantly: the nuance of his language trips off the tongue; the cadence sounds like a suggestive, playful bell that tolls for readers who want a thrill.

Ellis discusses his youth where he was able to go to the local movie theater and watch horror films without a chaperone and how this ignited his imagination. He also deliberates on how these violent films (which were then mostly rated PG) would most likely be restricted now but how, in the 1970s, the horror films he watched “Smoothed the transition from the supposed innocence of childhood to the unsurprising disillusionment of adulthood.” Some of the most satisfying excerpts from the book are when Ellis describes the world of pre-internet pornography and a society where instant gratification didn’t exist: people actually purchased dirty magazines, drove to a video store to rent tapes and watched endless television at odd hours to catch only a glimpse of nudity on screen. This is all almost unfathomable today because of the internet; we simply have to look at our smartphone for X-rated entertainment. Ellis’s musings on film remind me of James Baldwin’s expert film criticism in The Devil Finds Work. Baldwin— like Ellis—was an avid fan of cinema and wrote some of the most insightful film commentary ever published.

I think the crux of White is when Ellis states that “The greatest crime being perpetrated in this new world is that of stamping out passion and silencing the individual.” This “new world” he mentions is where we all seem to be getting bent out of shape and offended by the slightest thing. I actually do believe that, as a society, we cannot become silent or complacent and that people should get angry but I also agree that, in today’s climate of over-sharing and posting every opinion on the internet, people are increasingly upset over things that seem petty and unimportant. Ellis describes the past few years (especially since Trump got elected) as “An age that judges everybody so harshly through the lens of identity politics that if you resist the threatening group think of ‘progressive ideology,’ which proposes universal inclusivity except for those who dare to ask any questions, you’re somehow fucked. Everyone has to be the same, and have the same reactions to any given work of art, or movement or idea, and if you refuse to join the chorus of approval you will be tagged a racist or misogynist. This is what happens to a culture when it no longer cares about art.” He refers to this world as “post-empire” and this is pretty much the takeaway from White: it’s wrong to think that everyone must, somehow, be moved by the same things and, in turn, equally outraged.

I, as a progressive, believe deeply in freedom of speech and differing opinions. This, of course, means dealing with speech I don’t particularly agree with or even like (hate speech is a completely separate and problematic issue). I am also not a saint and have been angered by those who do not share my views but, as human beings are contradictory by nature, I also believe that one can have many opinions—and these opinions often waver. We are all mercurial, imperfect and guilty of making certain remarks that do not necessarily define us. Ellis goes on to discuss Trump and, because he does not vilify him, some seem to think that he’s condoning and, therefore, supporting him. I simply am of the opinion that Ellis got all his Trump hatred out when he eviscerated his lifestyle in American Psycho. He explains that he has never considered himself to be political and that he’s more focused on art and aesthetics: “A romantic by comparison, I’d never been a true believer that politics can solve the dark heart of humanity’s problems and the lawlessness of our sexuality, or that a bureaucratic Band-Aid is going to heal the deep contradictory rifts and the cruelty, the passion and the fraudulence that factor into what it means to be human.” Pondering man’s existence is the exact purpose of art and what Ellis continues to do, even in the genre of non-fiction.

Ellis is no stranger to controversy. After American Psycho was published (it almost wasn’t) he was deemed a rampant misogynist and even received death threats. The novel that detailed the decadence of 1980s New York complete with greed and unimaginable horrors brought on by a society based on status was such a successful satire that it was actually taken seriously. He writes about all of this in White but the big question here is: how do we separate art from reality and are they one and the same? Ellis tends to agree that art exists separately from reality and explains that art never offended him.

photo by Mario Kroes

photo by Mario Kroes

Ellis explains that he “Understood all works of art were a product of human imagination, created like everything else by flawed and imperfect individuals. Whether it was de Sade’s brutality or Céline’s anti-Semitism or Mailer’s misogyny or Polanski’s taste for minors, I was always able to separate the art from its creator and examine and value it (or not) on aesthetic grounds.” He also goes on to cite James Joyce as an inspiration when he said that “I have come to the conclusion that I cannot write without offending people.” As for my take on valuing a work of art simply based on its aesthetics, I can only recall D.H. Lawrence’s 1920 masterwork Women in Love when the character, Loerke says of his sculpture: “It is a work of art, it has no relation to anything outside that work of art.” So, what Lawrence is trying to say, at least in part, is that it is possible for an artist to view his creation as something that can only be defined in an artistic context.

White is a complex collection of essays filled with all sorts of topics ranging from freedom of speech, the author’s disinterest in politics, Twitter, literature, actors and films. I would say that, if you’re a fan of Ellis, give it a read but don’t expect it to be like his fiction (I prefer his fiction) and don’t read only one-sided reviews that use the word “Trump” as click-bait. Instead, read it for Ellis’s discussion of Joan Didion, shout-outs to Charlie Chaplin and his musings on writing his autobiography, random reflections on nearly-forgotten performances such as Yul Brynner as a robot in Michael Crichton’s 1973 Westworld and for the sheer pleasure of delving into a fascinating writer’s life.

Milan celebrates the genius of Leonardo da Vinci

Rendering of multimedial projection    Project by Culturanuova s.r.l. - Massimo Chimenti

Rendering of multimedial projection

Project by Culturanuova s.r.l. - Massimo Chimenti

Article by Chiara Isabella Spagnoli Gabardi

Milan is the city where Leonardo da Vinci stayed the longest, arriving in 1482 to work at the court of Duke Ludovico Sforza. The polymath’s presence permanently marked the history and artistic production of the city and the entire region of Lombardy. This is the reason why Milano celebrates 500 years from Leonardo’s death, with a series of events that will take place until January 2020, and will have the Sforza Castle as main hub.

The reopening of the Sala delle Asse, core of "Milan and Leonardo 500,” took place on  May 15th, presenting a rich and dynamic program of exhibitions and related initiatives. The restoration that began in 2013 has now come to completion, revealing a mulberry pergola, designed as a giant trompe l'oeil to turn the large room at the base of the Falconiera Tower into a representative hall for the Duke. It further portrays the mighty roots, known as the ‘Monochrome,’ named after its chiaroscuro painting technique. It is a remarkable graphic and pictorial depiction of the magnificent pergola made up of sixteen mulberry trees, characterized by detailed knotty trunks, landscapes, branches and leaves that keep resurfacing, thus changing the room’s perception.

Nature for Leonardo represented the subject of direct observation, investigations and the privileged topic of theoretical writings, paintings and drawings. This is why the natural environment is the prevailing theme in the Sala Delle Asse. Here, Leonardo painted a giant arboreal pavilion; with the mulberry tree — Morus in Latin — alluding to the nickname of Duke Ludovico Maria Sforza, who was given the epithet of Moro (Moor) by Francesco Guicciardini (one of the major political writers of the Italian Renaissance), because of his dark complexion.

The exhibition in Sala delle Asse, tributes the genius of Leonardo, catapulting it in the digital era, emphasizing how forward-thinking he was in terms of technology. Visitors begin their experience through the spectacular multimedia installation, "Sotto l'ombra del Moro. La Sala delle Asse,” (Under the Moro’s Shadow). Curated and conceived by Massimo Chimenti’s Culturanuova with the scientific collaboration of Francesca Tasso and Michela Palazzo, guests are immersed into a better understanding of the entire room and how it came into being. Projections and videos fill the vault and side walls, reconstructing Leonardo’s history with the ruler of Milan, allowing visitors to learn about the city’s history and the painter’s imitation of nature.

Rendering of multimedial projection    Project by Culturanuova s.r.l. - Massimo Chimenti

Rendering of multimedial projection

Project by Culturanuova s.r.l. - Massimo Chimenti

In these regards, Leonardo’s drawings are incredibly enlightening. For instance, the rooms of the Castello Sforzesco in Milan also host two other projects dedicated to Leonardo. In the Sala dei Ducali, the exhibition "Intorno alla Sala delle Asse. Leonardo tra Natura, Arte e Scienza" (Leonardo betwixt Art & Science), curated by Claudio Salsi, is a selection of original drawings by Leonardo da Vinci and other Renaissance masters showing iconographic and stylistic relations to the naturalistic and landscape decoration details found under multiple layers of limes in the Sala delle Asse. This scientifically and culturally significant exhibition was conceived by the Castle’s Direction in collaboration with some leading international museums, thanks to the loans from Her Majesty The Queen from the Royal Collection, the Musée du Louvre in Paris, the Kupferstichkabinett in Berlin, and the Gallerie degli Uffizi in Florence.

The indoor exhibit concludes with a multimedia tour, installed in the Sala delle Armi, designed by Culturanuova, with the scientific collaboration of Edoardo Rossetti and Ilaria De Palma: "Leonardo a Milano” (Leonardo in Milan). This show guides visitors through a virtual a tour of Milan, as Leonardo experienced it from 1482 to 1512. The itinerary features a geo-referenced visual map of what is still left of these places, both in the city and within local museums, churches and buildings: urban spaces, aristocratic mansions and churches, such as the Church of San Francesco Grande, Borgo delle Grazie, Castello Sforzesco, the ancient Porta Vercellina, Corso Nirone, and the thoroughfare of current Corso Magenta-contrada dei Meravigli- Cordusio.

The celebration of Leonardo da Vinci continues also outdoors in the courtyard of the Castello Sforzesco, with a real mulberry tree pergola in the Cortile delle Armi. This live reproduction of what Leonardo portrayed inside the Sala delle Asse, is a real architecture made of plants, designed and created together with Orticola di Lombardia. The aim is for it to grow through the seasons, as a permanent reminder of the polymath’s work, so that the millions of visitors who walk across the Castle courts every year can enjoy a different, and botanical point of view.

Jazz Film 'Bolden' Mixes Fact And Fiction To Capture A Legendary Bandleader

Photo: Bolden Where The Music Began

Photo: Bolden
Where The Music Began

Dan Pritzker's new film tells the story of Charles "Buddy" Bolden, a mythic jazz hero who burned so bright he burned himself out. Though striking and stylish, Bolden loses its grip in the final act.

Transcript (National Public Radio):


This is FRESH AIR. The new film "Bolden" tells the story of the legendary early jazz band leader Buddy Bolden. He's portrayed by Gary Carr, whose other roles include playing a mildly jazzy singer on "Downton Abbey" and a menacing pimp on HBO's "The Deuce." Our jazz critic, Kevin Whitehead, keeps a close eye on jazz movies and has this review.

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Charles Buddy Bolden was the original jazz hero. A New Orleans cornet player at the turn of the last century, the African American Bolden was famous for playing loud and earthy blues, his shirt open to expose a red flannel undershirt.

Some called him King Bolden. He captivated women and eventually cracked up, spending the last 24 years of his life in a mental hospital. Bolden was jazz's first mythic figure, who burned so bright he burned himself out. Decades later, jazz researchers heard a lot of hearsay about him, which they duly repeated as fact, including stories later discredited. He hadn't, for example, parachuted out of a hot air balloon as a promotional stunt.

Director Dan Pritzker's film "Bolden" freely mixes fact and myth. In the movie, Buddy does jump from that balloon, and it makes up still more stuff. The framed story leaves plenty of room for riffing on the bare facts. In 1931, an older and adult Buddy thinks back on and tries to piece together his old glory days. It's a life scene in fragments, shifting back and forth between Buddy's dark present and brilliant past. Within 1931, it shifts between Buddy's gloomy hospital ward and a bright New Orleans ballroom. There, Louis Armstrong is doing a live broadcast, which Bolden overhears on a nurse's radio. Louis is well-impersonated by Reno Wilson. His growl is one more ghostly voice in Buddy's head.

Read the full review here.

Ishmael Reed's new Play "The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda" Opens at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe

Ishmael Reed's new play "The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda" will premiere at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in May, after four sold-out readings and coverage from the New York Times, New Yorker magazine, the Observer, the Paris Review and more. Like theater in the time of Bertolt Brecht or the WPA, Reed's new work (under the direction of multiple AUDELCO winner Rome Neal) challenges the narrative of commercial theater and mainstream historical accounts. According to historian Ron Chernow and Lin-Manuel Miranda, Alexander Hamilton was an abolitionist, even though the real Hamilton was involved in the slave trade in a variety of ways.His policy toward Native-Americans was "extirpation." Reed's play brings to the forefront those characters who are absent from “Hamilton, The Revolution": slaves, Native Americans, indentured servants and Harriet Tubman. Witness this David vs Goliath moment, as the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, Reed and Neal speak truth to power via "The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda

Click here for tickets.

Advance Tickets:$25

Door Tickets (If available): $30/$20 w/ Student ID

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. 

Ishmael was mentioned on the daytime talk show "The View"

Video: Historians: “Hamilton” Whitewashes History | The View
Ishmael was mentioned on the daytime talk show "The View" discussing this fabulous play he wrote.

Celine Dion, at the Met Gala, Is No One’s Paper Doll

Photo: Celine Dion (Karsten Moran for The New York Times)

Photo: Celine Dion (Karsten Moran for The New York Times)

Hidden in plain sight for decades, the megastar steps out in eye-popping style for the Met Gala, reveling in her turn as a new favorite of fashion. “I’m never going to take it off,” Celine Dion said. Mugging for a reporter’s iPhone camera with a voice you might associate with Dalmatian coats and Cruella De Vil, she repeated herself. “I’m never going to take it off,” she said, head lowered, tone rising. “It’s mine! All mine!” The subject wasn’t what she was wearing at the moment — a green metallic silk jumpsuit from Isabel Marant and Alexander Wang ankle boots — but an outfit by Oscar de la Renta, the one she will have on when the paparazzi go berserk on the Met Gala red carpet on Monday night. It is a creation that would seem as if designed specifically to test the internet’s breaking point.

Read the full articule here.

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!