Thursday, April 30, 2009

New York missive no 50 - Le Clézio

Jean-Marie Le Clézio has to be the most humble Nobel-prize-winning author. Ri and I heard him last Friday, being interviewed by the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik. He has the distance of adult wisdom but sees the world through the thrilled eyes of a child. And he has a deep sense of privilege – he’d describe, for example, seeing abuses in colonial Nigeria where his father worked when he was young – a procession of Nigerians led “like a chain gang” to build a colonial official’s swimming pool, the official overseeing them in his shorts and white socks and wide-brimmed hat – and said that while such scenes made him angry he still felt intensely privileged to have born witness to them. He’s fascinated (as you’d expect) by words. Yet in an almost mystical way. “Each word is a world by itself – each word contains a world.” I thought of this the next day when I explored Brooklyn Botanical Garden where each of the plant names contains world upon world of meaning…

Blue Atlas Cedar
Schiedecker Crabapple
Toringo Crabapple
Scarlet Oak
Chinese Fountain Bamboo
Carolina Allspiece
Saucer Magnolia
Weeping Pagoda Tree (it was)
Snow Azalea
Virginia Bluebells
Weeping Hemlock
Hybrid Oak
Narcissus Poeticus
Nodding Virgin’s Bower
Siberian Fritillary
Bosnian Pine
Interrupted Fern
Wild Bleeding-Heart
Nodding Onion
Eastern shooting star
Wild oats!

And that’s just a handful of them. Material for a multitude of stories.

Le Clézio is anti-affirmation (to the extent he can be "anti" anything!). Rather than novels presenting truths to the world he sees them as birthing questions. He talked about a humanism that isn’t human-centric, that tries to express, as far as possible from within the confines of a human mind, not only the dreams of humans but the dreams of animals and the dreams of plants as well. In the Botanical gardens I thought of all those plants dreaming away at night.

So much more to say…but rushing (comme toujours!) to a wedding in Puerto Rico. To be continued…

Just noticed on posting this that in blog-entry terms it's EWINY's golden anniversary.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

New York missive no 49 - Where Frederick Douglas landed

“There’s no room in the human rights business for pessimists. We have to be a pessimist of the intellect, but an optimist of the will,” (à la Gramsci), says Sharon Hom of Human Rights in China, in this interview.

And a very different interview which also belongs here...Irish Times has just published this article on the Writers Studio director Philip Schultz. It highlights the irony of his winning the Pulitzer last year for an anthology called "Failure" (based on the "failure" that was his father's life).


Springtime’s coming out onto the streets of New York and with it New Yorkers and tourists in their thousands are coming out onto the streets too, flouncing as-yet-un-sunned bodies of all shapes onto the Christopher Street Pier, cramming into the square by Bleeker playground to scoff overrated Magnolia cupcakes, getting brushed if they're lucky by falling white pear tree blossom (there are lots of blossoming pear trees which is funny because I don't remember them from last year - these ones don't bear pears apparently, which makes me wonder if they can really call themselves pear trees), congregating at sidewalk cafés, photographing each other in front of much-photographed New York symbols – yellow taxis, police cars, jagged skylines. This afternoon I lay for a while in a Sunday sun-daze on the pier. From there the statue of liberty looked, as I scribbled in my diary at the time, like a misshapen missile pointed at a jaunty angle to the sky. Its trajectory was destined to descend somewhere in the Gobi desert. That is to say, off whatever its target may have been.

The previous weekend I ambled further down the river in search of a quiet place to finish reading Last Exit to Brooklyn. (Accomplished, in North Park, a patch of presumably reclaimed land jutting out into the river just North of the World Trade Center site – an incongruously calm place to finish that book with its relentless riff of violence). On the way, in an echo of the Cambria play, I happened to pass the place where Frederick Douglass’ boat came in when he first arrived in New York. A plaque marking the spot is inscribed with a quote from an article he wrote in July 1848, after attending the Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls: “Standing as we do on the watchtower of human freedom, we cannot be deterred from an expression of our appreciation of any movement, however humble, to improve and elevate the character and condition of any members of the human family.”

A little girl walked passed me with her Dad towards the river while I was reading the plaque. “That’s the ocean!” she said.
“No, that’s a river,” he replied.
She insisted. “No, it’s the ocean.”
“Well it connects to the ocean, but here it’s a river.”
“It is the ocean.”
I liked her persistence and her foresight.


Weekends have got pretty nocturnal recently – time for a spring-time shift to more diurnal habits, getting out sailing again, venturing on excursions outside the city. There’s been one of Sam’s epic dinner parties that ended with survivors finding themselves on a West Village bar-hop till the early hours, Ji’s Colombian fundraiser in Brooklyn, slam-poetry at Nuyorican Poets Café and last night, many deliciously sweet caipirinhas at D’s…


My bedroom window slides down to close itself unless there’s something stuck in the bottom to hold it open. So I’m using books, different ones depending on how much I want to keep the window open by. Belize Lonely Planet guide for just a little gap of air, Satanic Verses to let in more.