Sunday, January 6, 2019

O Maine, addio

In the last week, I ended my seven-year sojourn in the State of Maine, a period that had, until now, been coterminous with my literary career. After several years of unemployment and underemployment, my spouse was offered a good position in her field at an institution in Poughkeepsie. This also opened the possibility of living much closer to her parents, that is, two of the beloved grandparents of my two children. (The third beloved grandparent, my mother, is in Florida, a state I avoid as much as possible.) Since my spouse's field is librarianship, I still need to find work in order to make the finances of this move work, but I have some prospects, and so, overall, it seemed worth the risk. Maine has inspired many, but not all, of my stories, and the corner of New York State in which we find ourselves has inspirations of its own. For example: right now, over my laptop screen I can look through the kitchen window, over the deck of the rental house in which we are living, and see the height of land known as Storm King. So I think we made the right choice.

In the chaos of the move, however, I lost track of publication schedules, and thus overlooked that the book Geek Out: Queer Pop Lit, Art & Ideas, ed. Sage Kalmus, is now available as an ebook or a paperback. In this book one can find my short story "O terra, addio" (quotation marks are part of the title, as it is an allusion to Verdi's Aïda). Much of the story takes place at Lincoln Center in the City, a place I will be able to visit more often now than I did during my Maine exile. I encourage you to order the book. I will, as soon as we are done unpacking our existing library.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

2018 Nebula Nominations

My literary income this year was good enough (mostly from translations) to justify rejoining SFWA, which means I can nominate things for the Nebula award. But I have not read quite as much contemporary science fiction and fantasy this year as in some recent years, and with my upcoming move I do not have much time for catch up reading, so my nomination slate is full in only one category, Short Story. Here we go:

Novel

  1. Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller
  2. The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley
  3. The Emissary by Yoko Tawada: I should note that this one, I am not 100% sure whether to classify it as a novel or a novella. It is 138 densely packed pages long.

Novella: None (unless I'm wrong about the Tawada)

Novelette

  1. "Widdam" by Vandana Singh
  2. "The Department of Happiness and Reimbursement" by Karen E. Bender

Short Story

  1. "Walking" by Der Nister: The only entry in which I have a hand, albeit as translator rather than author
  2. "The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington" by Phenderson Djèli Clark
  3. "Domestic Violence" by Madeline Ashby
  4. "A Night Out at a Nice Place" by Nick Mamatas
  5. "Hainted" by Ashley Blooms

Friday, December 14, 2018

A Paean to Bureaucracy

For the last not-quite-seven years at Bates College. The following text was composed and delivered as an address at a farewell party organized on my behalf, somewhat against my will. I ended up surprised and pleased by what I wrote, and so I share it.

I decided to prepare remarks because while, as you all know, I have no trouble with improvised public speaking, sometimes others have trouble with what I end up saying when there’s no script to guide me. I would have preferred to individually thank and praise each person in this room, and some who are not here but apologetically warned me of their inability to make it, but since I wasn’t exactly sure who would be here, that would have entailed improvisation, dangerous improvisation, in which what I intend as thanks and praise to one might be construed as cutting satire of another.

Earlier today, one of you sent me a quote from David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King that I believe perfectly encapsulates this strange job of mine, whatever one chooses to call it, whether “grants officer,” “sponsored programs professional,” “research administrator,” what have you. I’m not a fan of Wallace’s style, which I find bloated, so on the page, I’ve put ellipses where I think there should be cuts, over which I will elide in reading it out.

“I learned that the world … as it exists today is a bureaucracy. This is an obvious truth … the ignorance of which causes great suffering…. I discovered the key. This key is not efficiency, or probity, or insight, or wisdom. It is not political cunning, interpersonal skills, raw IQ, loyalty, vision, or any of the qualities that the bureaucratic world calls virtues, and tests for. The key is a certain capacity that underlies all these qualities…. The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom…. The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unborable…. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.”

To become immune to boredom requires the disposition (thank you, Lauren Ashwell, for that word) to find the fascinating, the novel, the thing you did not understand before about nature, history, or the given ensemble of social relationships, within the absurd origami of statute, regulation, policy, and procedure. Most academics despise bureaucracy and yet every academic organization, as far as I can tell--and I have worked in and with a good few--is one. Provided with powers and responsibilities of self-governance that are the envy of most American workers, you build infernal machines of your own devising. Then, realizing that you need more resources, you go to foundations, corporations, and yes, especially, government agencies, bureaucracies of greater refinement and power which impose further elaborations on your own native convolutions, with gestures, and paperwork, mirroring their own. You hate bureaucracy, but you need bureaucrats, and here I am, at your service.

Usually at these sorts of events, we are celebrating someone venturing forth to something that, within the careerist and meritocratic system of values common to bureaucratic organizations of all types, can be regarded as “something better.” As it stands, though, I am the proverbial “trailing spouse,” for while my wife is pursuing an opportunity at Marist College to be and, perhaps more importantly, be recognized as, one of the best damned cataloging librarians on the North American continent, no sane mind sets out with the ambition to be and be recognized as a master bureaucrat. Things are not yet settled, but the most probable outcome is that, within a month or so, I will be doing a very similar job at a very similar institution. In other words, I will be called upon, in the next few years, to do much the same sorts of things that I have accomplished at Bates over the last seven: To establish policies and procedures, identify strengths, opportunities, threats, and weaknesses, align institutional priorities and faculty expertise with sponsor missions and guidelines, design budgets ranging from four figures to seven, and to have the arrogance necessary to polish the prose of certified geniuses.

(I did imply earlier that I’ve improved David Foster Wallace’s prose, so why not yours as well?)

Don’t pity me, though, because if things work out that way, I will love it every bit as much as I have loved it here, and if I succeed, it will be as a result of all I have learned from working with--or in some cases, around and through--each of you. And if it doesn’t work out quite like that, well, there are plans B and C. Because the bureaucratic mind always has at least two backup plans.

Since the announcement went out about my departure, a number of people have said variations on, “What will Bates do without you?” And my response has always been, “Bates will be just fine.” And that is not only because Theresa is excellent at what she does and will grow into new responsibilities, or that Malcolm will put together a great job description and a search committee that will select an excellent replacement. They will. But a bureaucrat’s greatest virtue, unlisted by Wallace and which derives from the key disposition of unborability, is to be replaceable. Here I’ll quote more fully, from someone whose style and insight I like better than Wallace’s, the sociologist Max Weber, for whom “bureaucratic leadership” created a tendency toward “formalistic impersonality: … without hatred or suffering, and therefore without love or enthusiasm … ‘without regard for personality,’ formally the same for ‘everyone,’ and therefore in the same practical manner despite various given interests, the ideal [bureaucrat] carries out their duty.” (Yes, that is my own translation from the German, so it may vary a bit from what the sociologists in this room recall from their graduate seminars.) The Weber seems to be in contradiction to the Wallace, just as it may seem to contradict how I have carried out my duties at Bates. Here is my synthesis:

The ideal bureaucrat creates the conditions necessary for impersonality, for the work to be carried on one way or the other, with or without love or enthusiasm. The love or enthusiasm described by Wallace describes merely the conditions for the survivability of bureaucracy by any one individual human organism. For example, the ability to discover a neat trick for streamlining the issuance of subawards, and for one’s response to that discovery to be life-affirming excitement rather than grinding ennui. Bureaucracy as such is indifferent to whether the individual bureaucrat experiences excitement rather than boredom. What matters is that the subawards are issued, in conformity with the Uniform Guidance, on a timeline that can be defined as timely, not whether or not the individual bureaucrat enjoys or even appreciates the process; with the utterance of that statement I have divided the sheep from the goats, the bureaucrats from those who merely live through bureaucracy, based on whether or not you rolled your eyes.

So if you miss me, what you may miss will be my love or enthusiasm, whether it is for the research or teaching that animates your spirit, or for the behind-the-scenes processes that attempt, not always successfully, to minimize your administrative burdens. But if I have succeeded in what I set out to accomplish, that love and enthusiasm, whether it is replicated in a new Director of Sponsored Programs or not, will become progressively less important, as the processes take on lives of their own, shaping the office in the image of the formal, instrumental rationality that is the necessary and sufficient condition for its existence.

And so, with amore ac studio, I hope to have undone the necessity over the long term for both. And that is why I say, Bates will be just fine. Thank you all for your help over the years in making it so.

Friday, November 16, 2018

A Newly Published Story, and a Note about Awards Eligibility

My story "Simple Present" has been published at "Igxante: An Ontology / Becoming: An Anthology" (scroll down for my piece) by Kate Morgan / Human Decency Is Key. Though fictionalized, this is also the most personal piece I have published yet. It also serves as a reductio ad absurdam against Orhan Pamuk's rape-apologia in the form of a philosophical novel, The Museum of Innocence. And the person who inspired it is now 11 years old.

This is the time of year when writers of science fiction and fantasy start doing "awards eligibility" posts, with an eye toward nominations for the Nebula and Hugo prizes. "Simple Present," while it is "speculative" in the philosophical sense of the word, is not part of either of those genres of fiction, and so, even if you like it, this is not an awards eligibility post for that story, which is the only piece of my own fiction to be published to date in 2018. Another story of mine has been accepted for publication in the Geek Out! anthology forthcoming from Qommunicate Publishing, but I am not certain when it will appear, and thus do not know whether that story will be out in time for 2018 awards eligibility.

Something I did have a bit to do with, that would be eligible for awards, is the story "Walking" by Der Nister, which I translated from the Yiddish. The translation was first published in March 2018. I loved it enough to translate it; perhaps a few readers might love it enough to nominate it for some honor or another.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

A Note in Favor of Polemical Vignettes

Opposed to the philosophical novel--the bloated doorstop of prose in which two thousand years of patriarchal clichés take on the lyrical weight of a dubious story--is the polemical vignette, which peers into a corner of the universe that the novelist has deemed unworthy or uninteresting and finds there a probative counterexample to one or another grotesque generalization. Like Hamlet to Horatio, it says, here is something, from heaven or on earth, not dreamt of in your philosophy, take account! I have written a few such things, and I want to write more, but I find that they tend to be a bit hard to sell.

In any case, one such piece of writing, "Simple Present," has been accepted for publication in the project Becoming: An Anthology. As a tenacious Hegelian, I had to submit something to a project with that title! The anthology is scheduled to be published in November of this year, and if you who are reading this happen to be the sort of person who thinks and writes and thinks about writing and thinks by way of writing, then you might want to look at it carefully.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Catching Up: Der Nister, and more books

Illness, family obligations, and miscellaneous dramas have limited my time and energy for writing. Here are some quick updates:

Der Nister

The first of my Der Nister translations to be published is "Walking," my translation of the story "Geyendik." I've been able to trace the story's bibliography to the 1929 Kiev edition of Gedakht; if anyone knows of earlier appearances, please share the bibliographic information. Its appearance is thanks to the excellent Samovar project by Strange Horizons. You can read my translation here, and if you have Yiddish, here is the original text.

There is even more exciting Der Nister publication news pending, but I have to keep it embargoed for now.


Other People's Books

I have continued my project of reading books off my shelves that are as-yet-unread by me. (Some days, it was all I had the energy for.) These are the ones that I consider worth commenting on, for reasons good or bad:

Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Chabon did not come to my attention until The Yiddish Policeman's Union, which I loved. Since I read it, I have made a point of buying any copy I encounter of one of his books, even if I do not immediately have time to read it. So this is one of those books that I did not read until well after seemingly all my friends--the Jews, the lefties, the queers, the comic book nerds, and the overlapping intersections of those sets--had read it and loved it. If you are a member of any of those sets, then you will probably like it, though the strongest correlation for loving it appears to be an appreciation for comic books, which are not my thing. Chabon's loving descriptions of its evolution as an art form, through the actions of his fictional characters and the cameos of their historical counterparts, left me with more appreciation for it. The fictional comics penned by the characters that I wish were real, so I could read them, are Luna Moth, the Citizen Kane-inspired pre-war editions of The Escapist, and various works by Rose Saxon.

Paulo Coelho, The Witch of Portobello. Coelho is an author who, when I hear third-party descriptions of his works, I think, "I should read him." Fabulist, literate, etc. My delay had largely to do with the fact that Portuguese is one of my languages, and I tend to be undecided about reading works in translation when it is theoretically possible for me to read the book in the original. Apparently, I should not have worried about it, since if his other novels are anything like this one, he is a waste of time, in English or Portuguese. I'll sum up why in two words: Mystical gypsies. (Yes, that is the word he uses.)

Charles Dickens, Hard Times. Forced high school readings of Dickens' most popular books--Great Expectations, Tale of Two Cities, and, egad, Oliver Twist--ruined him for me well into my twenties. We have a fair amount of Dickens on our shelves because my wife, at an earlier time of her life, aspired to become a scholar of Victorian literature. So from time to time, I resolve to give his lesser known works a chance. Previously, with his collected short fiction, and with Bleak House, the resolution has been worth it. Bleak House, in particular, I suspect may be one of the best English-language novels of the 19th century. But Hard Times, though worth reading for its almost Engelsian depiction of "the condition of the working class in England," is not, overall, a good novel. It has a message, and every character interaction must bend before its implacability. And that message is awful. It boils down to, "Hey, um, fellow rich people--maybe we should teach the poor some feeble sentimentalism, because if they get as calculating as we are, they might decide to eat us."

Nawal El Saadawi, Woman at Point Zero. This is a painfully sharp, fact-based novella by one Egypt's best known feminists. Content warnings: FGM, CSA, rape, sex work, and murder, but the murder is the least offensive part because it's a pimp who gets killed.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Seeing Ramallah

Can poets be great prose writers? Can a writer's quality be judged in translation? After having read I Saw Ramallah by the Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti, my answer to the first question is, "Why not?" And to the second, it is clearly yes if one is fortunate to have Ahdaf Soueif as one's translator.

The experience Barghouti describes--a displaced person is allowed to return to the hometown from which he was forcibly separated, not in conditions of freedom, but in an awkward power-sharing arrangement wherein the conquerors retain power--is not unique to Palestinians. And it is far from universal among Palestinians, being a privilege reserved to a minority of the displaced, and now effectively closed to nearly all. Prolonged statelessness is now a condition of being for Syrians, Rohingya, Somalis, Sri Lankan Tamils.... It does not seem likely that the now growing list of groupings will begin to diminish any time soon. Worldwide, there are more refugees and other displaced persons than there are Britons.

Nor is Israel the only agent of oppression. It was the police of Anwar Sadat who saw to it that Barghouti would be separated from his wife, the Egyptian novelist and literary scholar Radwa Ashour, and their son Tamim for most of the latter's childhood. In another generation, Ashour might have dutifully followed her husband in his wanderings, but Barghouti's feminism leaves traces throughout his narrative and seems sincerely felt--better to let her have a career, and for their child to grow up in a place that is at least partially home, than to make her into a camp-follower. He is critical throughout, not only of states and powers, but of political parties, social movements, and not least of all, himself--his old poems, his fateful choices, his rages, and his responses to feelings of loss.

The memoir is powerful, but leaves one with a desire to read him in his preferred medium, and that is something I should do soon.