Op-ed in the LA Times

Look for my piece on "Emerging Identities" in the Los Angeles Times on Monday. It's a response to the Census Bureau's report that there are now more "Hispanics or Latinos" than "Blacks or African Americans" in the land. It is also a plug for my book, Hispanic Nation.


Writing and selling

I now have to confront two very different problems: selling something that's written, and writing something that's sold.

What's written is the novel, A Gift for the Sultan. (For more on that, scroll down to the entry for 1/18. I'll be reading two chapters at the Brooklyn Arts Exchange this Saturday.) I may have trouble selling it, due to (as one reader put it) "the plethora of unfamiliar proper nouns (from the archaic to the simply exotic)." The novel is set in 1402, in the waning days of the Byzantine empire, which was a long time ago and pretty far away, so I have to decide whether archaic and exotic are assets or defects in the telling. My aim was to make the story authentic, meaning as true as possible to the way these characters would have experienced the world. And their world is pretty strange to us. Submitting a couple of chapters to an audience this Saturday will be an important test.

The thing that's been sold (to W. W. Norton) is the book Latin American Architecture and Urbanism, which I'm co-writing with Susana Torre. She's made more progress than I, and deadline is looming, so I have to get cracking. Right now I'm focusing on the pre-colonial period, especially the Andean architecture of the Incas and the Meso-American of the Mexicas and Mayas. And now, to work.

It was so cold...

...that the amber light at Astor Place and Lafayette froze, and cars had to negotiate their crossings by horn blasts and feints. It was so cold that a water main burst at the corner of Broadway and 4th Street, where I live. The pipe had been exposed for days by an excavation for some other repair, and denuded of its protective asphalt, had been covered only by big planks of steel to let the traffic pass over. It was as though you had gone out to do battle on the frozen Neva clad only in your armor and not your furs. No water also meant no heat, in our building or our neighbors'. It lasted only a few hours -- city workers got right to it and patched the pipe. But it was a reminder of how fragile our urban ecosystem is.

Census miscounts

Monday's reports ot new US Census findings that "Hispanics" were now a larger "minority group" than African Americans stirred me to action. Such confusion about changes that are so important I took as a direct provocation. This is because I dealt with all those issues pretty thoroughly, I thought, in Hispanic Nation (1996; paperback 1997; see link on my main web page). Yesterday and today I wrote two op-eds about it. If they don't make it to print, guess I'll put them here. Meanwhile, I just found this angry, cranky article with which I mostly agree strongly, The 'race' question on the U.S. census is racist, by Bob Curtis.


The city beautiful, the city dangerous

Canberra, Australia's capital, is one of several areas hit in the past few days by devastating fires causing great property damage and loss of life. An Australian colleague forwarded letters to the editor of the Melbourne Age discussing the connections between the city's much-praised design and the special severity of the devastation there. Here's one of them.
21 Jan 2003 p. 15
Crispin Hull, 'The surprising dividend to be found among the ashes'

'Canberra has the best infrastructure of any city in Australia. It is the best planned city in Australia. Yet the bushfire at the weekend claimed hundreds of homes and let a community stunned.

'Why? The key lies in the word itself - bushfire.

'In Australia, bushfires often claim the odd rural dwelling or a few houses when they reach the edge of a town or city.

'But Canberra is different. It is known as the Bush Capital. And if your city is bush, then it will be subject to bushfire in a way that other conurbations will not.

'In other places, the fire hits the edge of town and stops. In Canberra at
the weekend, the very fact that the city has been so beautifully planned was its nemesis. The flames did not meet a fire-resistant slab of urban development - of tar, cement and bricks. Instead they met trees.

A funny travel book on Italy
By my friend Don Monkerud, Italy Uncensored. The endorsements by noted celebrities (some of whom you may have heard of) will make you want to run out and buy a boxful.

anti-war demo

Big anti-war demo in San Francisco

This is a photo-free weblog. Not because I like it that way especially, but because I haven't learned how to load photos. But do go see this handsome composition, Everything is at Stake, and other photos taken by Daniel del Solar at Saturday's big demo in San Francisco.


Freelancers' travails

A colleague in the National Writers Union forwarded this NYT column by Abby Ellin. When you can't think of anything to write, write about writing, or not writing.

Another NWU colleague writes:

When first investigating an unknown publisher or agent, always check at
least these three places:

National Writers Union (naturally)
Preditors and Editors
Writer Beware

It also wouldn't hurt to plug the name into the Google search engine, both for the web and for groups, especially groups, to see if there are any bad reports.

Another good place to check and to post a query is the sff.net newsgroup, sffNet WebNews.

Mediocre like us

Last night we invited "Cristina" into our home. Not our own beloved Cristina, she of the tango and the stained glass (see below), but Cristina Saralegui, star and hostess of the show "Cristina." We don't have much of a TV habit in our house. In fact, the only TV we can receive now that the true believers have knocked down the World Trade Center towers (where New York's major broadcasting antennas were perched) is Channel 41, the Spanish-language Univisi�n, whose antenna was always on top of the Empire State Building. That's just as well, because the only show we normally watch is the Univisión nightly news at 6:30. And that's why we made an exception last night to watch the 10 p.m. show of silly, blonde Cristina Saralegui. She promised us intimate portraits of the people we see every night on the Univisión newscast.

I feel a special connection to those people. I interviewed Jorge Ramos and María Elena Salinas (the long-time co-anchors) for my book, Hispanic Nation, and I still occasionally exchange an e-mail or two with Jorge. (I got to know Blanca Rosa V�lchez, their NYC Bureau Chief -- or actually, the entire bureau -- much better, but she wasn't featured on last night's show.) I was looking forward to hearing more stories of the problems Jorge and María Elena had had to deal with on the job. But Cristina's aim was to produce "un programa motivacional" -- uplifting, I suppose you would say. She repeated that odd word, "motivacional," several times, so you can guess what kind of self-help books she has been reading. So she spent most of her program interviewing Teresa Rodríguez, whose great dramatic story is that her husband (a Univisión executive) died suddenly a few months ago, and another couple -- corpulent Fernando something the sportscaster and his thin blonde wife (does some kind of goofy interview show I never watch) whose "motivational" story was that they'd just adopted a cute Russian infant. Nice, but not very enlightening. As for Jorge Ramos, he wisely avoided talking about the kinds of serious professional challenges he and I discussed when I interviewed him (take a look at that chapter in my book), but mentioned that once in Afghanistan a guerrilla chieftain pointed a gun at his head and would have blown him away if he hadn't forked over the $15 in singles he had in his pocket. That's it? Hell, scarier things have happened to me! And probably to most of the people in his audience. And María Elena, who could also have told a dramatic professional story (again, see the book), recalled having to go on the air in Texas right after she'd learned that a hurricane had blown away her house in Florida. Well, yes, that's dramatic, but it's not particular to people working in the media.

Cristina Saralegui's aim was to show that the glamorous people on camera are just ordinary people like you and me. See? They're as mediocre as you are, so maybe you too can imagine yourself as glamorous. It just ain't true. Professionals are professionals, and they are where they are because they worked to get there (or had some extraordinary luck).

The program motivated me to continue avoiding "Cristina."

Recent research findings

The equality of the sexes has been much exaggerated. I have had a woman under close observation for over 25 years. Prior to that, I had occasion to examine closely several other specimens, some in brief laboratory encounters and others in prolonged investigations extending to weeks, months, even (on two occasions) years. I can confidently report that women in general are not naturally competent to load a dishwasher.

As a byproduct of this research, I can also confirm today's reports of scientific findings that love-making is more effective than chocolate for producing a sense of well-being. It is of course also less fattening.


Greenhouse in the sky

A Certain Person (of whom you have seen mention here before) has been most annoyed by the biased reporting and lack of architectural acumen regarding projects for rebuilding at the World Trade Center site. Most recent annoyance was today's NYT editorial, which inspired her to fire off this guided missive to the Editor:
Re: Next Steps for Ground Zero

Crucial decisions will be made about schemes for Ground Zero without a considered public discussion about the context for the memorial, the public space at street level and the proposal�s contribution to the skyline. For example: in looking at Daniel Libeskind�s scheme, could someone please explain why the memorial should share its site with the rattling trains and rather large PATH station, why should it be entered from a museum hovering overhead, and why New York City needs a 40 story high decorative greenhouse that will require substantial admission fees, and skyscrapers whose tops ape Johnson/Burgee�s 1976 Pennzoil Place in Houston, TX?

Susana Torre
New York, January 21,2003

Hearts attack

My friend Lale Eskioglu runs a rapidly growing site that I've mentioned here before, Read Literature, where she invites readers to contribute reviews and to suggest new titles. (Go ahead! Try it.) And there she has included several of my brief comments about books. (I'm delighted. Crankiness always seeks an audience.) Problem: She wants me to rate Saul Bellow, Seize the Day, Don DeLillo, Libra and Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage with up to 5 "hearts." (Why not pens?) She proposes 2 for "Day," 4 for "Libra" and 2 for "Badge." But my opinions on these things are complex, unstable and always open to debate. And what does a single, over-all heart-rating mean, anyway? Crane would get top rating for visual detail, DeLillo for witty, biting dialogue, Bellow for introspective noodling, and so on. I like Francis Coppola's system for rating screenplays and stories (he uses it on the Zoetrope Virtual Studio): separate ratings for character, dialogue, writing flow, etc.
More on Venezuela news bias
AP's One Sided Venezuela Coverage - by Dan Feder -- (December 26, 2002)

Looking for e-zines

For the past few months, all my fiction energies were going into my novel, A Gift for the Sultan. Now it's time to come back up and try to get other work published. So I've been checking out the e-zines. Starting out with the ones I know because they've published me in the past: In Posse Review continues to be very attractive. Editor Rachel Callaghan published a fable of mine there in Issue 9, "Melliflua and the Fauns." The fable was written for a particular pre-adolescent girl, but with an adult subtext. Besides fiction and poetry, they publish short literary essays, so I just sent Rachel the note below, on the "fiction factory." Exquisite Corpse continues its manic existence. The Corpse published a short story of mine, "A lua no céu da Baía," in Issue 5, but it's not currently accepting submissions. But you don't want to hear all this. I'll just do what I have to do, and make a note if something happens. But check this out: When Literature Goes Multimedia.


Laboring in the fiction factory

Continuing my program of reading famous works that I'd been avoiding, I got through Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage (1895) recently. It was a big disappointment. Why then, asked She Who Must Be Answered, is it so famous? (This is the problem of living with articulate people. They're never satisfied with an opinion such as "I loved it" or "Ugh!")

I'm sure there are literary historians who could tell you. I suppose the novel made a big impression because it highlights the gory, ugly details of combat, de-glorifying the heroic gilded myth of America's greatest conflict. The protagonist panics in his first skirmish and runs for his life, fantasizing various means of desertion. He only accidently finds himself in battle again, and his mad rush toward the enemy is presented as a kind of delirium rather than sober heroism. All the details of mud and blood and confusion at the battle of Chancellorsville (May 1-3, 1863) came from attentive research, imagined by a writer who had never been to war. (For a clear account of the reception and background of the novel, see this unsigned three-part essay from the University or Virginia.

So I must admit: it is an important book, and my disappointment with it was strictly personal: I didn't find in it what I had hoped to, which was story-telling technique I could use. It's overloaded with adjectives, the subjects of many of the sentences are inanimate things or abstractions, and it's got more atmosphere than story. Not the sort of thing I want to emulate.

In the first volume of his memoirs, Vivir para contarla (2002), Gabriel García Márquez writes (this is my translation),

my library has never been much more than a working tool, where I can consult instantly a chapter of Dostoyevski, or verify a fact about Julius Caesar's epilepsy or about the mechanism of an automobile carburetor. I even have a manual for commiting perfect murders, in case one of my poor characters ever needs one.
He also says of the North American novelists he was reading while writing his first novel, La hojarasca (1955; translated as "Leafstorm"), that he read them with "insatiable curiosity" to discover how they were written. He read them first "right side up, then backwards, and I submitted them to a kind of surgical disemboweling until I uncovered the most deeply hidden mysteries of their structure."

I think any serious fiction writer reads other fiction he or she admires that way. That was the way I treated García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude when I had to "disembowel" it for a Monarch Note. Red Badge of Courage doesn't invite that kind of operation. It's not complicated enough.

¡Pobre Argentina!

María Cristina was visiting us from Tucumán. (She returned home last Friday.) One day last week she was on the sidewalk in front of the Empire State Building, looking into a store window full of tschatschkes -- ceramic miniature Empire State Buildings and the like. The store owner rushed out and drew her into the store to show her his merchandise. When he discovered she didn't speak any English, he broke out into New York shopkeeper Spanish (it's a dialect similar to Moroccan bazaar merchant's English -- lots of numbers and synonyms for "Gorgeous!"). He pulled out gaudy ceramics costing $70, $90 and so on, while María Cristina just stared. What she had been looking at in the store window was something else entirely, a work of stained glass that wasn't for sale. María Cristina teaches classes in making stained glass, and she was studying its construction.

The store owner, seeing he wasn't making a sale, switched to asking where she was from. "Argentina," she said. "Oh, Argentina! Then, look!" And he bent down to the bottom shelf of his display case and pulled out the cheapest of his merchandise, chintzy statuettes for two or three dollars.

When she told us this story, María Cristina had to laugh to keep from crying.

The nation's consumer reputation has plummeted, but at least one of its citizens is gonna go down in style. She taught us to tango, and for a change of pace, milonga. Muchas gracias, Cristina. ¡Qué vuelvas pronto!

Changing history

Kate Coe wrote me today to point out an error in my note on Ralph Lauren and Jay Gatsby (actually a note about a witty article by Cathy Horyn in the NYT). I had written, "It seems that Ralph, not a noted reader, saw the 1974 movie and liked the clothes." (You'll have to click the "Archive" link to the left to find it; it was way back on Jan. 12.) I wasn't paying close enough attention when I read the article. As Kate points out, and Cathy Horyn had made clear, Ralph designed the clothes for the male leads in the 1974 movie.

I thought I could go back and correct it, and it looked like I could. "Blogger" let me open the old note, edit it and republish. But when I looked in the archive, it was still the original text, with its glaring error. I'm glad. Otherwise, we could be going back and back, never admitting to any error. It would be tempting to go back and insert prophecies of things that had already happened.

Speaking of prophecies, Andreas Ramos predicts that the attack on Iraq will come on the night of February 1, regardless of anything the UN or Saddam might do. The reason: It will be the first available moonless night, closely following Bush's Jan. 27 speech, and the air force will prefer bombing on a moonless night. GWB won't want to wait for the next one, March 3, because the desert will be too warm and the issue might be too cold. (Andreas has been fooling around with his astronomy software. He's also been looking at the weather reports in Dante's Inferno, to see if conditions were really as he reported them on those dates. So far, he says, they check out.)


MLK, Jr. & the UAW (& me)

A friend and colleague in the National Writers Union, Local 1981 of the UAW, forwarded this link on Walter Reuther and Martin Luther King, Jr. from the UAW website. The article quotes my old friend Steve Babson, at Wayne State U., in Detroit, and describes how Reuther mobilized union resources to support King in a test-run for the 1963 March on Washington.

About this time, it must have been just a few months before the Washington march, I met Reuther. I was dating a girl from Boston whose parents were friends (and I think financial supporters) of his, and he dropped by their apartment one evening when I also happened to be there. I was a Harvard senior, studied in nonchalance, and also president of the Harvard Socialist Club, inclined to dismiss a "labor bureaucrat" like Reuther as a mere "liberal." Prematurely jaded though I was, he really impressed me. He was a man who transmitted energy and gave the impression that he was intensely interested in knowing you. (I had a similar impression when I got into a nose-to-nose chat with Hugo Chávez last year. Am I just impressionable? No, I think there is something to the notion of "charisma," and it has to do with that keen, energetic focus.)

Check out the National Writers Union. To find out how I happened to be chatting with Chávez, take a look at a note predating this weblog.

Note to users:"Archive" function is now active. Link opens an index to posts going back to just before the first of the year 2003.


"¿No tenés abuela, vos?" asks the Accomplice after reading the essay below. She's right. I can't say the novel is "very good" -- I should let "grandma" (or somebody else) say it for me. I hope it is, and I think it may be. But how can I foretell the reaction of readers new to the story, unfamiliar with all the unspoken thoughts that went into it? That's why the public reading of the first chapters next Saturday will be so important.

Writing 'A Gift for the Sultan'

Next Saturday, January 25, I will be reading the first two chapters of my new novel, A Gift for the Sultan, at the Brooklyn Arts Exchange, BAX, 421 Fifth Av. (near the 4th Ave. subway stop) in Brooklyn. Admission free. The program runs from 8 to 10, and I have a 20 minute slot. I don't know who the other readers/performers will be, but it should be fun.

Here's my proposed jacket copy for the novel:

In the summer of 1402, Constantinople, the greatest city in the Christian world, is betrayed to the Islamic horde at its gates, but a young princess vows to save it while other nobles, merchants, clergy, aristocrats, juvenile street fighters and foreign mercenaries prepare to profit, yield for a price, fight, or die in its defense. The fate of the city and its civilization depends on all of them and on the Turkish frontier raider who has sworn to deliver the city and the princess to his sultan, in time to prevent a fateful clash with an even more terrible Muslim challenger from the East.
This all came together in my head on the plane trip back to New York from Istanbul, after three weeks in Turkey, in 1996. I had to write this story. The city, Constantinople/Istanbul, and our sojourn through central Turkey had filled me with colors, gestures, and evidences of ancient pasts that had to be told. I had known almost nothing about the Ottomans beyond what I'd read in T. E. Lawrence (Seven Pillars of Wisdom), who projected his sadomasochistic desires onto them, and less than that about the people we call the Byzantines (Rumaoi, in their own parlance; they regarded themselves as the true Romans).

Two bits of history determined that my novel's critical moment had be July 28, 1402, the Battle of Ankara, when Timur ("Tamerlane") defeated the Ottoman sultan "Thunderbolt" Bayezid, and thereby saved Christian rule of the city for 51 years. The first historical bit was that, before the battle, Emperor John VII had secretly sent ambassadors with the key to the city to surrender to sultan Bayezid; the surrender was aborted by Timur's victory, which destroyed the entire Ottoman horde. The second historical bit was that on several occasions, Orthodox Christian emperors had sent their daughters to be married to Muslim emirs.

But why write about something that I knew so little about? Why not stick to the Latin American topics I knew well, and where I could read the relevant languages? The research alone, I knew, was going to be an enormous job.

Hard to say why. Part of the reason must have been that I was enchanted by the city of Istanbul, especially, and all of Turkey that we saw. Those ancient walls, the Hagia Sophia turned mosque turned museum, the whole urban palimpsest. Another part was that I had written my sixth book on Latin America and it was time for a change. Going to Turkey had been the Accomplice's idea (she especially wanted to see Hagia Sophia), and I had been so focused on final editing of Hispanic Nation that I hadn't even read a guide book. I'd presented HN at a conference in Mexico just a week before I arrived in Istanbul, and I was ready for a break from social analysis and from things Latin American.

There's another, deeper part of the answer. I had to prove myself, to myself, as a writer of long fiction. It's been something I've been trying to do for a very long time.

I'd written two earlier novels, neither of them published, both on Latin American themes. The first was very ambitious and experimental -- I'd been reading Pynchon and Barth, among others -- with a complex structure of two parallel stories. I called it "The Liberators." One of the stories was a fictional version of myself, a young American social worker in a Caracas barrio in the 1960s; the other was of another young man the same age, but a mulatto working-class Communist in the same barrio. I finished it on schedule, on my 40th birthday, in 1981 (I tend to literalize the concept of "deadline"). Some established writer friends who read it admired it. However, the agents said such things as "It's too Latin American" or "I don't like experimental fiction." I was very disappointed, though I was able to recycle several pieces from the novel as short stories. Some are in my collection Welcome to My Contri, and two others appeared in the now-defunct, once lovely journal Yellow Silk: Erotic Arts and Letters.

Welcome to My Contri got such a rave review in The New York Times that I felt sure I would be able to sell The Liberators. Didn't happen. I tried other things, and then wrote another, much shorter and simply structured adventure novel, Gerry and the Contras. It's very violent and angry, based on real atrocities of the Nicaraguan "Contras," but told from the point of view of a New York-reared Latino street tough who gets recruited into Contra ranks. I thought of him, Gerry (Gerardo), as "Huck Finn as a terrorist." I did have an agent interested in this novel, the same agent who sold Hispanic Nation for me, but she wasn't successful in selling it.

So I was ready for something completely different. I think the work is very good, better than I sometimes had expected. I really have a lot riding on it. Not just the six years it took me to write it (and learn everything I could about Constantinopolitan urban culture, Ottoman military practices, Turkish shamanism, women's roles in both cultures, and how much weight a camel could carry) but the effort in learning how to structure a very complex story, with half a dozen ethnic groups (English Varangian guards, a Frankish knight, several Serbians, a Russian slave, an Armenian merchant, Muslim and shamanist Turks, etc.). And my whole life's project.

So I hope many people will be there Saturday night, Jan. 25, to hear the first two chapters. You will be my first test audience.