Chris Abani Reads at the Good Luck Bar in L.A.

December 18, 2006

Went to see Chris Abani read at the Rhapsodamancy Reading Series last night. I had seen him twice at the UCLA/LA Times book fair last year, and was impressed by the way he spoke – with gravity, authority, and insight into the way that literature works.

What I knew about him before the Rhapsodamancy reading was that he wrote a prodigious amount of words on a daily basis, that he was hired as an associate professor at University of California Riverside before he even graduated from USC with his PHD in creative writing, that he came from Nigeria and wrote poetry as well as fiction, and that his work often contained Catholic elements.

What I quickly learned during the reading was that he played the saxophone, that the saxophone’s name was Janice, and that he could make a song called "Iraqi boy" sound soulful.

Aside from his musical talents, we all got to hear several of his poems, as well as a selection from The Virgin of Flames, his novel which comes out in January 2007 from Penguin. The Virgin of Flames displays Abani’s encyclopedic knowledge of Los Angeles, especially downtown, as the main character "Black" is taken on a quest around the city by the angel Gabriel, who appears as a pigeon. It’s a search for identity for Black, who is a muralist living in East L.A., and somehow this identity will be found through a transvestite stripper and the Virgin Mary who keeps on appearing. Strange sounding, I know, but Abani’s got the prose to pull it off.

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Dave Eggers reading “What is the What”

December 11, 2006

Dave Eggers has a strong streak of social consciousness, as can be seen through his 826 Valencia writing program for kids, the content of You Shall Know Our Velocity, where the character travels the globe looking to give people money, and in the 2005 book Surviving Justice: America’s Wrongfully Convicted and Exonerated, a book of interviews with people saved from the death penalty. The topic of his new book, What is the What, doesn’t swerve from this socially conscious path. It’s a novelized biography of Valentino Achak Deng, a survivor of the Darfur genocide, who is part of a group of children known as the Lost Boys because they walked for months trying to escape to Ethiopia. In another example of Egger’s social activism, all the proceeds from the sale of What is the What are going to Deng, who has a set up a foundation to use the money to educate the Sudanese.

When I went to the Hammer Museum reading with Eggers in LA last night, I expected an interview with Eggers, but it turned out Eggers was interviewing Deng. The talk was modeled after the three years Eggers had spent interviewing Deng, amassing all the information needed for the book, and seemed to have two purposes: First, to promote What is the What, of course, but secondly, and more importantly, to raise awareness for the genocide continuing in Darfur. Eggers perpetual hand-wringing did not interfere with either of those purposes, although it did make me wonder whether his fingers and palms would start bleeding by the end of the hour long talk.

The novel/memoir follows Deng as he flees Sudan, joins with other boys, escapes lions, heat, starvation, and persecutors, finally escapes the country, spends ten years at a refugee camp in Kenya, and then is resettled in the US just after 9/11, where he endured beatings for being Sudanese (Osama Bin Laden spent a number of years based in Sudan). As Eggers was reading passages, I found his prose was much more minimalist than his other books, very straight-forward and spare, probably trying to match Deng’s natural voice.

In the discussion with Eggers, Deng’s religious bent also came through as he thanked God for his transfer to the U.S., talked about forgiving those who had tied him up with a phone cord and robbed him, and said that all things work together for a reason. His specific faith orientation was never mentioned, but when I read the book I’m curious to see how much of his spirituality made it in.

A note on Egger’s genre straddling: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was a memoir, yes, but with fictional elements. And What is the What is a biography, but it has been novelized, which means Deng and Eggers recreated all the conversations that Deng couldn’t possibly remember. Publisher’s weekly calls it a "fictionalized memoir" while Booklist says it’s "mostly true." In bookstores it’s being categorized as a novel, but its marketing strategy is highlighting the real-life basis. In fact, Wikipedia has a colon after What is the What with the addition, "An autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng." What’s ironic is that a common technique in creative non-fiction is to re-create plausible dialogue, and those books still are categorized as non-fiction. In fact, what memoir doesn’t have re-created dialogue? Unless entire scenes or characters are created, I would think it would still fall in the non-fiction camp. In fact, I would guess that especially in pre-James Frey days, many creative non-fiction books took more license that Eggers takes. But in the aftermath of Frey, we now categorize the book as fiction while selling it to readers by assuring them it’s all true.

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The Loudest Voice with Glen David Gold

December 7, 2006

My good friend Bryan Hurt organized the second Loudest Voice reading at the Mountain Bar in Los Angeles last night. We packed out the second story, despite the sweltering conditions (management refused to turn down the heater) and a bouncer who continued to harass everyone even after they’d been carded. Cody Todd read a number of excellent poems, one of them Pushcart nominated; Katherine Karlin, a Pushcart winner, read a short story inspired by one of the poems read at the last Loudest Voice; and Andrew Allport crooned some tunes.

The highlight of the Evening was Glen David Gold, author of Carter Beats the Devil, who read from his new, as-yet-unnamed novel. He said it had been "kicking his ass for the last six years", and read us the first chapter, which included a lighthouse-manning mother who wished for a disaster to relieve the monotony, her son as a rebellious idealist, and the sighting of a man in a sinking craft at sea who appears to resemble Charlie Chaplin. Afterwards, Gold said that because of the editing process and the period before printing, the novel won’t be out for another two years, give or take six months, which is too bad because we all can’t wait.

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