A Spring Fever of World Literature

A Spring Fever of World Literature

“The progression from a critical reading of literature to an expansive conception of politics proved not only increasingly persuasive intellectually, but also compelling.” – Stuart Hall, Familiar Stranger

Looking at the last century through the lens of literature (and what it tell us about the present moment and those moments that are soon to come).

G. by John Berger (UK)
The Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville (UK)
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (India)
GraceLand by Chris Abani (Nigeria)

“Only in fiction can we share another person’s specific experiences. Outside fiction we have to generalize.” — John Berger, The Success and Failure of Picasso

“…when I write my novels, I’m not writing them to make political points. I’m writing them because I passionately love monsters and the weird and horror stories and strange situations and surrealism, and what I want to do is communicate that. But, because I come at this with a political perspective, the world that I’m creating is embedded with many of the concerns that I have. […] I’m trying to say I’ve invented this world that I think is really cool and I have these really big stories to tell in it and one of the ways that I find to make that interesting is to think about it politically. If you want to do that too, that’s fantastic. But if not, isn’t this a cool monster?” — China Miéville

“It didn’t matter that the story had begun, because Kathakali discovered long ago that the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings.”— Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things

G.
Berger sets the story of G. against the turbulent backdrop of Garibaldi and the failed revolution of Milanese workers in 1898, the Boer War, and the first flight across the Alps, making G. a brilliant novel about the search for intimacy in history’s private moments.

Giovanni – G – the product of an Italian merchant’s adulterous fling is sent to cousins on a farm in England, where a piano-playing governess awakens the lust that proves the keynote in a series of fragmented episodes set during the years before the first world war – a prospect G relishes on account of all the women it will widow.

The Last Days of New Paris
China Miéville
1941. In the chaos of wartime Marseille, American engineer—and occult disciple—Jack Parsons stumbles onto a clandestine anti-Nazi group, including Surrealist theorist André Breton. In the strange games of the dissident diplomats, exiled revolutionaries, and avant-garde artists, Parsons finds and channels hope. But what he unwittingly unleashes is the power of dreams and nightmares, changing the war and the world forever.

“So there I am, wondering what to do, and I see you, and I see what you’re carrying. And that is why I came running after you. Because I do not believe in coincidence.” 

1950. A lone Surrealist fighter, Thibaut, walks a new, hallucinogenic Paris, where Nazis and the Resistance are trapped in unending conflict, and the streets are stalked by living images and texts—and by the forces of Hell. To escape the city, he must join forces with Sam, an American photographer intent on recording the ruins, and make common cause with a powerful, enigmatic figure of chance and rebellion: the exquisite corpse.

The God of Small Things
Arundathi Roy
“It didn’t matter that the story had begun, because Kathakali discovered long ago that the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings.”

In addition to commentary on Indian history and politics, Roy evaluates the Indian post-colonial complex, or the cultural attitudes of many Indians toward their former British rulers. After Ammu calls her father a “[shit]-wiper” in Hindi for his blind devotion to the British, Chacko explains to the twins Rahel and Estha, that they come from a family of Anglophiles, or lovers of British culture, “trapped outside their own history and unable to retrace their steps.” He goes on to say that they despise themselves because of this. Nearly all of the relationships in the novel are somehow colored by cultural and class tension.

GraceLand
Chris Abani
GraceLand is a 2004 novel by Chris Abani, which tells the story of a teenager named Elvis, who is trying to get out of the ghettos of Lagos, Nigeria. Chris Abani depicts the poverty and violence in Lagos and how it affects the everyday lives of Elvis and his family. Having emigrated from Nigeria himself as a result of the Biafran War, Abani’s novel touches on many issues relevant to corruption, poverty, and violence within the country. Elvis’s story also touches on issues related to globalization, and how Nigeria’s impoverished communities are affected by this phenomenon. The main focus of this story is on Elvis and how he survives in the often harsh environment that is Nigeria’s largest city; Elvis himself is a complex and sympathetic character who clearly cares for his family despite a turbulent upbringing. However, this is complicated by the numerous illegal and morally questionable jobs he takes part in with his friend Redemption.

 “The rain had cleared the oppressive heat that had already dropped like a blanket over Lagos; but the smell of garbage from refuse dumps, unflushed toilets and stale bodies was still overwhelming. Elvis turned from the window, dropping the threadbare curtain. Today was his sixteenth birthday, and as with all the others, it would pass uncelebrated. It had been that way since his mother died eight years before. He used to think that celebrating his birthday was too painful for his father, a constant reminder of his loss. But Elvis had since come to the conclusion that his father was simply self-centered. The least I should do is get some more sleep, he thought, sitting on the bed. But the sun stabbed through the thin fabric, bathing the room in sterile light. The radio played Bob Marley….”

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African Literature: Post-Colonial Struggles

A 9-week reading group
Thursdays, April 27 through June 22, 7:30 to 9:30 pm
Organized with the Indigenous People’s History and Literature Group

“Real misfortune is not just a matter of being hungry and thirsty; it is a matter of knowing that there are people who want you to be hungry and thirsty.” ― Ousmane Sembène

During this term we will begin with Egypt with Mahfouz, visit West Africa with Chris Abani then travel south to South Africa with Zakes Mda then conclude in June with NoViolet Bulawayo in Zimbabwe. Again we examine four different areas of Africa as the peoples there emerge first from European colonization, then face the forces of global domination in the long neoliberal phase we yet endure.

Respected Sir
Naguib Mahfouz
Egypt, 1975
With this portrait of a misanthropic civil servant, Mahfouz devises a cunning send-up of egregious ambition, stodgy bureaucracy and cloying piety. The novel’s overblown language mirrors the grandiose aspirations of protagonist Othman Bayyumi, an archives clerk who schemes for a lofty appointment as Director General, expounding that “a government position is a brick in the edifice of the state, and the state is an exhalation of the spirit of God, incarnate on earth.”

Song for Night
Chris Abani
Nigeria, 2007
Song for Night is the story of a West African boy soldier’s lyrical, terrifying, yet beautiful journey through the nightmare landscape of a brutal war in search of his lost platoon. Our guide is a voiceless protagonist who, as part of a land mine-clearing platoon, had his vocal chords cut, a move to keep these children from screaming when blown up, and thereby distracting the other minesweepers. The book is written in a ghostly voice, with each chapter headed by a line of the unique sign language these children invented.

The Heart of Redness
Zakes Mda
South Africa, 2007
In Mda’s novel, there is Camugu, who left for America during apartheid, and has now returned to Johannesburg. Disillusioned by the problems of the new democracy, he follows his “famous lust” to Qolorha on the remote Eastern Cape. There in the nineteenth century a teenage prophetess named Nonqawuse commanded the Xhosa people to kill their cattle and burn their crops, promising that once they did so the spirits of their ancestors would rise and drive the occupying English into the ocean. A failed prophecy split the Xhosa into Believers and Unbelievers, dividing brother from brother, wife from husband, with devastating consequences. 150 years later, the two groups’ decendants are at odds over plans to build a vast casino and tourist resort in the village, and Camugu is soon drawn into their heritage and their struggles for a future worth living for.

We Need New Names
NoViolet Bulawayo
Zimbabwe, 2012
Darling is only ten years old, and yet she must navigate a fragile and violent world. In Zimbabwe, Darling and her friends steal guavas, try to get the baby out of young Chipo’s belly, and grasp at memories of Before. Before their homes were destroyed by paramilitary policemen, before the school closed, before the fathers left for dangerous jobs abroad. But Darling has a chance to escape: she has an aunt in America. She travels to this new land in search of America’s famous abundance only to find that her options as an immigrant are perilously few.

The Indigenous Peoples’s Reading Group, which has grown from the enthusiastic call for the need of greater understanding of the long history of the peoples of North America and other continents of the world who were of those continents before and remain after the European colonists came to settle and bring this capitalist relations to every corner of the globe. Our group began following a stirring presentation by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz September of 2014 where she introduced An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States.

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