The Rumpus interview with Dinaw Mengestu

October 19, 2010 at 7:24 am (read)

I have an interview up on arts/culture website The Rumpus today with author Dinaw Mengestu.

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Dinaw Mengestu’s name may be hard to pronounce (dih-NOW men-GUESS-too), but you’ll soon be hearing it a lot more. Earlier this year, the Ethiopian-born author was named to The New Yorker’s list of the top 20 fiction writers under age 40, and his second novel, How to Read the Air, was published last week. Like his acclaimed debut, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, the new novel explores the dislocation of African immigrants. This time around, the narrator is Jonas Woldemariam, a withdrawn and slippery character who, following the death of his father and the collapse of his marriage, retraces a road trip his Ethiopian immigrant parents took through the Midwest 30 years earlier. Just don’t believe everything he says.

I caught up with Mengestu last weekend before a reading at The Booksmith in San Francisco, where he talked about the importance of imagination, responded to his “ridiculous” recent New York Times review and lied to my face (by request).

***

Check out the interview here!

 

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Say it again, Sam*

September 25, 2010 at 6:48 pm (read, watch)

One of my least favorite things about being a journalist in the era of 800 million news outlets is that you end up interviewing people who have been interviewed a dozen times before, asking them many of the same questions that all the other journalists asked them. I’ve had stories where I think I’ve gotten a good quote, and then I see the exact same one in another article.

But hey, it happens to the best. In the run-up to The Social Network, the Aaron Sorkin-scripted, David Fincher-directed film about the fraught founding of Facebook, New York magazine and The New York Times are among the publications writing about the movie that “defines the decade” (or so says Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers).

Here’s David Fincher to Mark Harris, in New York magazine’s Sept. 27 cover story, “Inventing Facebook:”

“I know what it’s like to be 21 years old and trying to direct and sitting in a room full of grown-ups who think you’re just so cute but aren’t about to give you control of anything,” says Fincher. “I know the anger that comes from when you just want to be allowed to do the things that you know you can do…”

Fincher to David Carr, in The New York Times’ “A Zillion Friends, and a Few Enemies:”

“I know very subjectively what it’s like to be 21 years old and sitting in a room full of adults who are all taking about how cute your passion for your vision is and how angry that makes you,” he said.

At Jonathan Franzen’s City Arts & Lectures appearance in San Francisco last week, he took a long pause before answering one question about family in his writing. He said that he’d been answering so many questions that he’d found himself repeating answers, and wanted to avoid that, but there were only so many ways to respond.

You can’t fault the press for asking relevant questions, and you can’t fault interview subjects for these semi-canned answers, because they want the press, and there really aren’t that many ways to impart the same information. Most people won’t read multiple articles on the same subject, unless they have read everything by Franzen and/or think Jesse Eisenberg (who plays Mark Zuckerberg) is very cute. There’s just the nagging question, what’s the point of 100, or even 10, articles about the same movie? I defended (or rather, had Lydia Davis defend) multiple translations of classic novels last week. But when I go to, say, the press page of the movie Touching Home, and see the links to 52 articles (not counting TV and radio interviews), one of which is mine, it starts to feel a little pointless. What to do? A) Only write about really obscure things, or B) keep writing until you can write the best damn article out there.

(Here’s looking at you, kid.)

*yes, I know “Sam” has nothing to do with this, but “David” messes up my not-that-funny joke.

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The latest literary adaptation: “Baster” and “The Switch”

August 25, 2010 at 11:09 am (read, watch)

I have an essay on The Millions today about The Switch, the recent film adaptation of the Jeffrey Eugenides short story “Baster.” (Eugenides is best known for his novels Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides, but “Baster” is a sharp, funny little story.) 

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In 1999, Sofia Coppola adapted Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel The Virgin Suicides into her debut film. The movie was remarkably faithful—perhaps too faithful—to the book, preserving the languid mood, reverential but impersonal treatment of the doomed Lisbon girls, and unusual, first person plural narrative voice.

Last Friday a very different Eugenides adaptation, The Switch, hit the big screen. Based on a short story called “Baster,” which was originally published in 1996 in The New Yorker, the film stars Jennifer Aniston as Kassie, a 40-year-old single woman who decides to get pregnant using a handsome sperm donor. What she doesn’t know is that Wally, her neurotic best friend (and one-time boyfriend), played by Jason Bateman, has replaced the donor’s sample with his own during the drunken party to celebrate her insemination. 

Adapting a short story is a different animal from book-to-movie adaptations, and a challenge I’ve been thinking more about after spending the summer working at Zoetrope: All-Story. Francis Ford Coppola founded the magazine with the idea that short stories are more akin to film (and perhaps better source material) than are novels, as both stories and movies are meant to be consumed in one sitting. Each issue of Zoetrope includes a story that has been adapted to the screen: Steven Millhauser’s “Eisenheim the Illusionist” (The Illusionist, 2006), Alice Munroe’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” (Away from Her, 2006), and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008’s movie of the same name), among many others.

“Baster” is a good opportunity for an adaptation. It’s funny, with a high-concept plot, and it’s not impressionistic or experimental. (Neil Burger, who wrote and directed The Illusionistcalled the Millhauser story that was his source “unfilmable.”) The story lays solid groundwork, but its length—only 6 pages—and unresolved ending gives the screenwriter freedom to make it his own. And individual short stories rarely have a large audience, so aside from, uh, people writing on literary websites, there aren’t fans of the original telling the writers/directors how they messed up or didn’t honor the source. …

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Read the rest over at The Millions!

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In Praise of Precocious Narrators

July 29, 2010 at 7:38 am (read)

I have an essay published today at the literary criticism website The Millions, about my love for novels with precocious child narrators:

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1.
In Dan Chaon’s story “Prodigal,” from his collection Among the Missing, the narrator says: “When I was young, I used to identify with those precociously perceptive child narrators one finds in books. You know the type. They always have big dark eyes. They observe poetic details, clear-sighted, very sensitive… Now that I have children of my own… I think of that gentle, dewy-eyed first person narrator and it makes my skin crawl.”

New York Times review of the recent novel Mercury Under My Tongue praised the book by saying of its protagonist, “Fortunately, unlike the precocious child narrators that populate so much fiction, there isn’t a whiff of gee-whiz wonderment or innocence about him.”

I love precocious narrators. Of course the child narrator is not a new construct, but some of the most buzzed-about novels of the 2000s, such as Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics, have featured memorable young leads. The books have met with both exuberant acclaim and accusations of being cloying, gimmicky, mannered, precious, faux-innocent, forced, unbelievable, exasperating, show-offy, or just plain annoying. But I admire the books’ inventiveness, and I love the characters’ idiosyncratic voices, unapologetic intelligence and bold curiosity. And, like Chaon’s narrator, and probably like many lifelong readers, I see a bit of myself in them.

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Read the rest over at The Millions!



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The pleasures and perils of meeting favorite authors

June 30, 2010 at 1:29 am (read)

Since I am an enthusiastic reader, there are a lot of authors with whom I would love to be friends. We’d meet at a reading, hit it off, grab coffee—and voila! I’d have a glittery and talented new companion who would not only tolerate my endless discussion of books and reading and the literary life, but welcome and enrich it. So it was with great interest that I read a couple of recent essays that chronicle disastrous meetings with literary heroes.

At The Paris Review’s newish blog, Justine van der Leun writes about meeting her (unnamed) literary hero, whose work she had been reading since age 15. She struck up an e-mail correspondence, then wanted more:

“If MLH [My Literary Hero] and I got along famously over e-mail, I figured, we could potentially be best friends in real life. So when I took a cross-country trip several months after my first e-meeting with MLH, I wrote to tell him I’d be passing through his outpost and asked if I could buy him a drink. By ‘passing through’ I meant ‘driving thirteen straight hours out of my way.’ ”

Alas, their encounter was highly awkward:

“The more I tried to impress MLH, the less impressed he was. The situation spiraled downward rapidly: My mounting insecurity obscured any charm I might have mustered. I blathered. I blabbed. I prayed for the power to shut up.”

Her general takeaway is, stay away, and don’t let the reality ruin the fantasy. But the temptations are many. Most authors are fighting for attention and readers and therefore have websites with “contact me” links, calling out for e-mails. And imagine the e-mails the author would send! Literate, witty, filled with the lyrical/ funny/ emotional/ sharp/ insert adjective here writing that made you fall in love with his or her books in the first place. But instead of being mass-produced, they would be just for you.

After that initial contact, the possibilities seem endless. The slippery slope—the idea that a relationship with your favorite author could progress from an e-mail or meeting at a reading to a drink to dinner to a whirlwind affair to marriage—is uncomfortably explored in Elizabeth Ellen’s piece from June’s Bookslut, called “Stalking Dave Eggers.” She lays out her tale of obsession and delusion:

“Dave Eggers and I were in love. The fact that no one else knew it did not bother me. I was similarly unbothered by the fact that my communications with Dave were limited to e-mail exchanges, the great bulk of which occurred between the hours of 8 am and 4 pm, Monday through Friday, or that Dave did not e-mail me from his McSweeney’s account, or from an account registered in his name, but instead wrote me from a Hotmail address which incorporated a Tragically Hip lyric and entered my inbox as “Homeless Funambulist.” I figured Dave had his reasons. He was, after all, a self-described genius who in the aftermath of his parents’ death had managed to raise his little brother by himself, start two magazines and write a bestselling memoir. Who was I to question his methods?”

Several times during the piece, she inserts this warning from a friend: “You realize, of course, that you come off sounding completely insane in this essay.”

Yes. Yes, she does. But though her delusions run deeper than I imagine most readers’ do, who among the truly book-loving has not fallen for an author, either in an abstract intellectual-crush way, or because their jacket photo looks like Johnny Depp with sexy glasses? (And then you read Modern Love one weekend and find out that his wife died and left him a single father of a young daughter, and it’s so touching and now you feel like you really know him, because that’s the power of words—to bring you deep into a person’s life and brain and heart.) Books feel so intimate—as van der Leun writes, “The allure of a literary idol is, in large part, the unspoken conviction that you and this brilliant stranger understand each other.”

For Ellen, falling prey to that unspoken (in fact, entirely unacknowledged) conviction of a connection with Eggers made her feel deeply ashamed. Nicholson Baker, who wrote U and I, a literary memoir of sorts about his obsession with John Updike, talked in an interview with Salon about grappling with his own humiliation, like admitting that he felt hurt that Updike, who he did not know, golfed with Tim O’Brien instead of with him.

Since Baker’s book, published in 1991, popular culture has become quite enamored with memoir and self-exposure. Sharing highly personal details with the public is commonplace, and in fact is a pretty good way to get attention. I think what distinguishes these authors’ shame from, say, that which many reality show stars should be feeling, is the element of delusion. It makes people suspicious; it hints at mental imbalance, rather than poor taste, and comes with a side of pity. But fantasy is the playground of the creative writer.

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Though I have never stalked authors across state lines, I have written to several. Writing is such solitary business, and so often underappreciated, that the authors—all of whom wrote back—seemed genuinely grateful for my kind words. Then again, they are fiction writers.

The first author I wrote to was Amanda Stern, mostly to tell her about a specific moment I loved in her book:

In The Long Haul, the protagonist and her mother look at a picture:

“I love that picture of you,” she says.

“What picture?” I ask.

“That one,” she says, pointing to a picture of the Alcoholic. She picks it up, presses her finger on a blur in the background. The oil on her finger marks the glass over the unfocused girl, over me. I squint, press the glass to my face and examine. I see then that it is me. A foggy gray wind. My face is faint underneath, like panty lines.

I found the image of panty lines so offbeat yet dead-on that I made a painting based on it, using elastic cut from the edges of underwear. It was meant to evoke a fingerprint, a portrait, an absence. I used pale blue, because in middle school I had a pair of capri pants that color that gave me the worst panty lines ever, and I don’t think I’d yet discovered thongs.

Next I wrote to Rudolph Delson after enjoying his novel Maynard & Jennica, as well as his sparse yet amusing website. He wrote back, and told me that his next novel was about a troll. I eagerly await it.

J. Robert Lennon wowed me with his collection Pieces for the Left Hand, and I just wanted him to know that. When I came back at him this spring with a “So, I wrote to you before…” e-mail, he graciously agreed to an interview.

My favorite author—the author I talk about so much that friends and loved ones know to send me links to articles by and about him and make me birthday cards featuring blow-ups of his handsome (and mocked) headshot—is Jonathan Franzen. Several years ago, I spent a summer living in New York, and I had an epiphany: I am in New York. Jonathan Franzen lives in New York! I should write him a letter, and then maybe he will write back and then we will get coffee and then I already explained how this slippery slope works. I sent my letter off to his publisher, then waited. And waited. And the day I left New York, while sitting in the airport, I got a call from my ex-roommate that a postcard had arrived.

Reading it now, there’s a layer of sadness. I had mentioned that I had seen him read at my college, on my birthday. “I remember that Pomona reading well,” he wrote. “I was nervous with Dave W. & his wife there, and I flubbed about ten lines.” Dave W. is David Foster Wallace, a Pomona professor and a good friend of Franzen’s, who committed suicide in September 2008.

*            *            *

A reader may engage with writers and their characters through simply reading, or by e-mailing, painting, going to talks or imagining love affairs. Understanding may go two ways, but probably only one. Yet holding someone’s heart in my hands and feeling connected as I turn the pages is what keeps me reading every day.

Plus, Franzen is coming to San Francisco in September, so maybe I still have a chance.

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Grammar police take on Twitter

April 28, 2010 at 8:36 pm (read)

I love grammar and punctuation. In high school, I thought the standardized tests that asked you to correct sentences were fun. I use semicolons in text messages. My job involves proofreading. I have a visceral reaction to mangling of the English language. I don’t understand what is so damn difficult about distinguishing its and it’s, your and you’re, their and there and they’re, and I admit to judging people who seem incapable of doing so or simply don’t care.

For these reasons, the internet often pains me.

So imagine my delight in reading today’s New York Times article about people who troll Twitter for grammar and spelling mistakes and publicly chastise the guilty tweeters. I’ve had to rein in my tendency to correct or point out errors (not on Twitter, just in general), because nobody likes a critic. Luckily, fearless linguistic leaders such as Grammar Fail, Grammar Hero, Your Or Youre and CapsCop are trying to clean up the website. (Grammar Fail and Grammar Hero actually aren’t very good–i.e., as often happens, the style section may be exaggerating a trend–but I’m more jazzed about the fight than the individual sites.)

One complaint. In a piece about valuing correct English, there is no room for this sentence:

“They see themselves as the guardians of an emerging behavior code: Twetiquette.”

Barf. Unlike “twitterati,” “tweetup,” “twitterature” and all the other obnoxious fake combination words, “twetiquette” isn’t even a clean rhyme.

The article mentions a couple of celebrity offenders, John Cusack and Kirstie Alley. I love this exchange and little zinger from the writer, John Metcalf:

“GrammarCop, one of several people who seem to exist on Twitter solely to copy-edit others, recently received a beatdown from the actress Kirstie Alley, to whom he had recommended the use of a plural verb form instead of a singular. ‘Are you high?’ Ms. Alley wrote back. ‘You really just linger around waiting for people to use incorrect grammer? you needs a life.’ (One of Ms. Alley’s people said that the actress was too busy to comment for this article.)

A life, indeed. While some of us may live to host weight-loss shows, others find solace in pedantry.”

In the comments on the article, “get a life” is a predictable refrain. “They literally need a life,” writes one reader. Uh huh. Because they are dead. And trolling Twitter from beyond the grave.

A few people express relief that at least they’re not alone, and that someone else out there still cares about grammar. (I should mention that I wrote this post in Microsoft Word first, and the grammar check suggested that I change “there” to “their.”) Brooke from San Francisco is especially eloquent:

“Do people tell mathematicians to stop being all fussy about numbers? I cringe at bad spelling, grammar, punctuation – and I’m an editor. Some people dig that precision, and we become editors. And editors are important! … No one makes fun of precision in accounting, or architecture, or carpentry — but language? Apparently we need to ‘get a life.’ I object strongly to this derision of what I take seriously. A world without editors = the New York Times reading like a Cusack tweet.”

But perhaps the most useful comment was this: “It is sad that the New York Times has given credence to self-righteous twits like these jr. grammar cops. If these ninnies want to change the world, they might consider becoming real teachers rather than simply running amok with virtual rulers.”

Good idea. If people who rant about terrible grammar (that includes me) put that energy into volunteering at an after-school program or tutoring kids, that would probably have more of a real, positive impact than adding to the cacophony of 50 million tweets per day.

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Talking politics and unicorns with author J. Robert Lennon

April 25, 2010 at 4:47 pm (read, Uncategorized)

Some books just grab me, and I become one of those well-meaning, perhaps sometimes annoying, literary evangelists who tells everyone I meet, “You have to read this!” Such was the case when I discovered J. Robert Lennon‘s brilliant story collection Pieces for the Left Hand several years ago. Set in upstate New York and made of up 100 “anecdotes,” each about two pages long, the book is funny, unsettling and simply mesmerizing. I’ve been a huge fan since.

Lennon’s most recent novel, Castle, which comes out in paperback on Tuesday, similarly blends matter-of-fact style and morbid spirit, but is much more ambitious in its themes. It is about Eric Loesch, a middle-aged man who returns to his hometown in rural New York to buy 612 acres of land. When he discovers that a small portion of the land does not belong to him, and finds a castle built on that plot, details of his traumatic childhood and military service begin to resurface. (Both Castle and Pieces for the Left Hand received an enthusiastic review from the New York Times.)

Early in the novel, Loesch says: “People, in my long experience, want to talk. They may believe they wish to keep secrets, and they may believe that they are capable of doing so. But the truth is that secrets exist to be revealed; and it is usually very easy to find the combination of words that will cause them to emerge.” By the end of the book, the ominous undertones of this statement come to the forefront, and readers may be left with a bit of PTSD.

Though Lennon keeps busy teaching at Cornell, blogging, rocking out as Inverse Room and, of course, writing, he kindly answered a few questions via e-mail about the book–and unicorns!

Q: Of your works that I’ve read, this book is the most political. Did Castle come specifically out of the Bush Administration and its torture policy, or had you previously been interested in the military and the psychological wounds that it can inflict?

A: No, I used to be pretty apolitical.  I’m a Democrat, but I never got particularly angry at Reagan and Bush 1, though I didn’t like their policies.  Then, like a lot of people, I got kind of radicalized by the Bush years, and was quite worked up about the war.  I tried several approaches to writing about it, most of which failed miserably.  It’s hard to write about political things in a literary way. Even now, when people don’t like Castle, it tends to be because of the political content.  But I had to do it.

You get into the head of protagonist Eric Loesch, writing a minutely detailed first-person account. But as the story progresses, the reader realizes that Loesch has concealed or repressed some vital information. What were the challenges of writing in the voice of an unreliable narrator? Did you struggle over how much to reveal, or when and how to do so?

It was tricky–he started out as an amnesiac, then evolved, over many drafts, into a liar, and then simply a guy who was telling himself a story that he needed to hear.  The narrative is self-serving; it leaves out a lot and accidentally reveals a lot more.  Loesch has a pedantic, almost infantile way of speaking–it was a challenge to strike the right balance.

I think it’s funny that the cover of Castle features the silhouette of a mysterious white deer (an animal that figures prominently into the novel), and in the author photo on the back flap you’re wearing a shirt with the silhouette of a white unicorn. Do you have a special fondness for mystical white creatures? Is there any story behind the shirt?

The shirt is an in-joke for some internet friends–I spend a lot of time on a private messageboard for off-duty musicians, fooling around and telling jokes.  And that’s our t-shirt.  But, believe it or not, I never noticed the connection between the unicorn and the deer!

This may be an impossible question, but what is your favorite sentence that you have written? It can be fiction, essay, love letter, whatever.

I think maybe that is impossible.  The most important sentence I’ve written must be the text I sent last week to the Joint Chiefs of Staff; I believe the exact wording was “The leaves are turning. Omar is at large.  Execute Project Sigma Tangent.”  If this sounds like nonsense, just wait a few weeks.  Events will make everything clear.

What is your favorite sentence that someone else has written?

A line from my wife’s [Rhian Ellis] novel After Life: ” ‘I love cake,’ I lied. ”

What are you currently working on?

I finished a novel about a documentary filmmaker, then shelved it.  It didn’t work.  Now I’m writing a book that involves a parallel universe. What with Lost wrapping up, somebody has to fill the gap.  I have some new short stories coming out, too, in The Paris Review and Salamander.

You can read his new story, “The Impossible Man,” from The Paris Review‘s Spring 2010 issue, here. Enjoy!

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Living and Writing in Spanglish

April 11, 2010 at 11:39 pm (read)

When I browse amazon.com, read book reviews or go into bookstores, I’m always struck by the sheer volume of volumes out there in the world. “How can there be anything left to write?” I think. “How is there any story left to tell, or any new way to tell it?”

Then I find a writer like Susana Chávez-Silverman. To be honest, I didn’t have to look that hard—she was my Spanish professor in college, for three semesters of literature and poetry. But equally as interesting as the stories and poems on the syllabus was Chávez-Silverman herself, a fiesty cultural omnivore with a passion for language and all its possibilities, and author of the new book Scenes from la Cuenca de Los Angeles y otros natural disasters.

Chávez-Silverman was raised bilingually, living in California, Spain and Mexico, but her experience with language is far from the “Spanish on the left side, English on the right” layout of bilingual textbooks. She has written of the “otredad that has dogged/blessed me toda la vida,” and that perpetual otherness—of not being able to pick, and belong to, one language/country/side or the other—led to the choice to not choose. Instead, she works in Spanglish (academics call it “code-switching”), peppering the combined languages with her own ticks and quips.

Like her previous memoir, Killer Crónicas, Scenes is composed of personal missives, which began as gossipy, funny, heartfelt, descriptive and/or contemplative e-mails, letters or diary entries and are usually addressed or dedicated to friends and family. This style draws from the epistolary tradition, as well as from the chronicles written from and about the newly “discovered” Americas.

The February issue of The Believer includes a roundtable discussion among three Latino novelists about writing in Spanish versus English. The moderator, Daniel Alarcón, says that the language he loves most is Spanish, but specifically its spoken form:

“It is impossible not to be awed by the inventiveness of language as it exists all over Latin America and Spain, the breadth and diversity of it, the way each local and regional vernacular traces a particular history, honors it, then subverts it, transcends it.”

Eduardo Halfon agrees, adding that while “spoken Spanish is eclectic and thrilling and beautiful[,] written Spanish or Literary Spanish is obedient and proper and cautious.”

In her books, Chávez-Silverman breaks out of “proper” language and writes the way she speaks and hears language spoken. She traces her own history from Guadalajara to South Africa to California to Buenos Aires to Madrid to Australia (not necessarily in that order), bringing along favorite phrases (chévere!), invented spellings (“shuvia” for “lluvia”—rain—to capture the accent in Buenos Aires) and fake translations (“Pero anygüey” for “but anyway…”). She respects language, but isn’t afraid to have a little fun.

Now I’ll stop talking and just let you read something she wrote. Here is an excerpt from the first chapter of her new book, describing a walk through the grounds of a northern California arts center, where she was an artist-in-residence. It encompasses her special fondness for flora and fauna, astrology and memories:

“I did find, sin embargo, como engarzadas en las ramas muertas del bottlebrush, a cache

of those little round, spiny, sea urchiny, hollow, stemmed pods. Se habían caído de un

árbol vecino, and gotten lodged in the lower thicket of bottlebrush branches. Hot tears

saltaron, instant and automatic, as I reached up for one. These pods were, quizás,

Mom’s most idiosyncratic (bizarre, perfect for a Scorpio) Christmas decoration: we’d

collect them for her, in the Valley, y luego los hacía spray paint con esa laca. Silver and

gold. Y luego los metía entre las ramas del Christmas tree.”

It helps, of course, to speak both languages. But, though she might lose a few readers, Chávez-Silverman’s refusal to conform to one “correct” language is an act of carving out a space for herself between the two worlds. There is a growing culture of inbetweeners with whom this resonates. For my college thesis, a video about middle schoolers and reading, I gave Killer Crónicas to a girl of Mexican heritage, living in LA. She read a few sentences, looked up and smiled. “This sounds like me,” she said.

To translate into a single tongue would be to lose something essential about Chávez-Silverman’s voice, and her identity. Even if you can’t parse everything, I hope you think it’s chévere.

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Two Rooms of One’s Own

February 17, 2010 at 12:02 am (read)

I recently wrote an essay for the Pomona College Magazine’s winter issue, themed around “shelter,” about how long college grads should hold on to their childhood rooms. The magazine is finally out, and you can download a PDF here. I encourage you to check out the whole issue, but to be simple, you can read my article below. Have any experiences of your own you’d like to share?

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My dad loves The Beach Boys. When I was young, he taught my sister and me how to harmonize to the high, pure melodies that celebrated surfer girls and little deuce coupes. We also sang “In My Room,” a paean to the private world within a bedroom, and to the importance of a place to call your own.

Upstairs at my parents’ house in Sacramento, on the door at the end of the hallway, is a blue-painted sign with wobbly carved letters. The product of a seventh-grade woodshop class, it declares “Anne’s Room.”

That bedroom is one of nine I have had in my life. It’s not hard to give up a college dorm with standard-issue furniture and cold linoleum floors, or a room in Madrid belonging to a host family who ate dinner in near silence across a long glass table, or one without AC rented from a young couple during a sweltering summer in New York. But I’m not nearly ready to close the door on my childhood room.

This reluctance knows no age limits: Last year, 85-year-old Gloria Vanderbilt and a designer recreated the room she lived in at 16 for a decorator’s show house. Hers had silver leaf wallpaper and a 19th century grandfather clock. Mine has softball trophies and cardboard-framed pictures from a Hawaiian-themed school dance, a desk with a pile of 104 movie ticket stubs, and a mini trampoline that I would respectfully never bring to my second-story apartment, even though the downstairs neighbors throw parties that devolve into freestyle rap competitions at two in the morning.

I live in Sacramento, 10 miles from where I grew up. I love having my own place, but spend many Saturday mornings at my parents’ house. As we drink coffee and chat, I slide into home life so easily that sometimes I feel like there’s a part of me that never left my old room. My shadow self puts on the worn zebra print slippers, curls up on the bed and grabs the February 2004 Vogue from the nightstand drawer. Maybe she goes out on weekends carrying the vintage clutches and metallic purses that dangle on hangers in the back of the closet. Because if she’s not using my stuff, why do I need it?

When I was three my parents threw out all my pacifiers on the advice of a buck teeth-fearing dentist, and I cried until my dad retrieved them from the garbage. I didn’t need braces anyway, so I trust that I can make it to adulthood well-aligned and well-adjusted even with satin-skirted Madame Alexander dolls crowding my bookshelf. It feels childish and even selfish to still want that room and those things, especially against a backdrop of foreclosed houses and rising homelessness. But if my parents asked me to clear out I’d be an infant again, wailing because my anchor had been yanked away.

“It was horrible,” my friend Evan Pardo told me of giving up his room when his mom moved during senior year. As they packed up Lego models and unearthed childhood memories—some apparently better than others—he and his mom had their single biggest fight. He lost a second room, at his dad and stepmom’s house, when they turned it into an office the very day he moved out after college. “It’s totally a fair thing to do,” he said, “but the abruptness of the whole thing meant there was no mourning period.”

Still, seeing your old room converted may be better than finding out it’s been forgotten. “My ceiling collapsed and nobody noticed for days!” exclaimed Brittney Andres, my freshman year roommate, when I asked the state of her room in Illinois. Her parents had shut off the room, and after a bad storm last winter the attic floor broke through, spilling boxes of cat toys and other junk onto her bed. “It was all wet and smelled funny,” she recalled.

For those who haven’t been flooded or officed out of our rooms, how long do we hold on? Is there a helpful equation to set an end date, like [(age + salary) x miles from home] ÷ square feet of current apartment? Some people, like Ramsay Edwards-McNear, simply take things bit by bit. “Whenever I come home, my mom asks me to remove something or clean out somewhere,” he said. “At this rate, I will be totally moved out by 2024.”

Many recent grads occupy this vague space of in-between-ness and transition. We’ve gotten jobs and apartments and navigated the frustrating waters of non-family-plan health insurance, but haven’t cut the rope to float untethered into an uncertain, frankly kind of scary future.

So my old room is not just a storage space, or something I’ve been too lazy to deal with while I clutter up a new location: it’s tangible proof that I can come home again. There’s a tricky balance between a safety net and a restraint—it’s hard to apply for jobs in New York or move to Buenos Aires when you’re still rooted in family—but ultimately I hope I treat my room as a license to take risks. Dreaming big, traveling far, and chasing challenges could pay off, or might leave me broke and bruised. I’m lucky to know that if I need a room—a world to “lock out all my worries and my fears,” as The Beach Boys sang—there’s one with my name on it.

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Just call me a critic

April 20, 2009 at 5:44 pm (read)

You can call me self-involved, too, because I was googling myself, which I do sometimes to make sure nothing weird comes up, and I found that an article in El Pais (a spanish newspaper) from December quotes one of my Pomona newspaper articles from a few years ago. I’d written about the Hollywood trend of remaking very recent foreign films, and this article is about remakes in general.

Here’s the paragaph: Para críticos como Anne Shulock lo malo no es sólo que los grandes estudios dejen de buscar historias sino que “oculten el origen de las que están adaptando”. Como ejemplo cita el caso del director español Alejandro Amenábar y su película Abre los ojos. “Roger Ebert, probablemente el crítico de cine más célebre de los Estados Unidos, no citó ni una sola vez al original español en su pieza sobre Vanilla Sky”, se quejaba Shulock.



Which means (roughly): For critics like Anne Shulock, the problem is not only that the big studios have stopped looking for new stories, but also that “they hide the origin of the movies that they are adapting.” As an example she cites the case of Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar and his movie Abre los ojos. “Roger Ebert, probably the most famous movie critic in the United States, doesn’t mention the original Spanish version even once in his review of Vanilla Sky,” complains Shulock.



Funny.

abre-los-ojos

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