Category: Lit Hub

Ralph Ellison’s Tragicomic Soul

Alejandro Nava for Lit Hub
Ralph-Ellison

In an essay for Lit Hub, Alejandro Nava uses the rhythmic balance of tragedy and comedy in Ralph Ellison’s works to elucidate his concept of ‘soul’:

Although there is an extraordinary, Gatsby-like capacity for hope exhibited in Ralph Ellison’s work, optimism is certainly the wrong word for it. In fact, Ellison’s version is propped up by the flying buttresses of both tragedy and comedy. It swings wildly between the two, like the swinging rhythms of jazz in Stanley Crouch’s eloquent description:

‘What I refer to is the expression of sorrow or melancholy in a melodic line that is contrasted by a jaunty or exuberant rhythm, that combination of grace and intensity we know as swing. In jazz, sorrow rhythmically transforms itself into joy, which is perhaps the point of the music: joy earned or arrived at through performance, through creation.’

In identifying these oscillations of sorrow and exuberance in jazz, Crouch taps into what Ellison named “soul.” Crouch essentially parses and explains Ellison’s grammar of soul, noting the way a high-spirited rhythm can transform a melancholic line into a stirring and uplifting performance.

Here and elsewhere, Crouch takes cues from Ellison on when and how to add tragic and comic elements in the right proportions. An excessive focus on one element could ruin the rhythm. If tragic lessons are erased from memory, we end up with banal and artificial sounds, like elevator music, a ditty for advertising, or the most trifling forms of pop music; at the same time, without the comic sense we will be left with cheerless and drab sounds, music that turns the living soul into stone and causes it to sink and drown in gloom. For the soul to grow to its fullest temple-like potential, Ellison required elements of each: the comic sense would be a leavening grace to lighten the gravity of suffering, allowing the American soul to rise to its fullest potential. With both ingredients in the right balance, soul is attained, a kind of multigrain bread of life.

Ellison defined soul as such: “It is its ability to articulate this tragic-comic attitude toward life that explains much of the mysterious power and attractiveness of that quality of Negro American style known as ‘soul.’ An expression of American diversity within unity, of blackness with whiteness, soul announces the presence of a creative struggle against the realities of existence.” As we can see here, Ellison’s concept of soul is born from the conjunction of tragedy and comedy; it skates and slides between the two like the careening legs of James Brown, carrying us from the Apollo Theater to the church, from barrelhouses to the bedroom. In the process—one of the many lessons of the resilient history of black music in America—it displays, even flaunts, an existential toughness and ability to survive no matter the troubles it sees. It’s no wonder that Ellison speaks of an “apprenticeship” when educating us on soul: “Here it is more meaningful to speak, not of courses of study, of grades and degrees, but of apprenticeship, ordeals, initiation ceremonies, of rebirth.”

As an apprenticeship and initiation by fire, soul cannot be achieved in a scholastic manner; it requires the kind of verve, daring, courage, resilience, and shrewdness shown by the main character in Ellison’s Invisible Man. Though the protagonist is a scholarship recipient, his real education occurs outside the walls of the university, in the course of the numerous “battles royal” and contests of nerve that mark his life. He ends up living in an underground room—he speaks of being “clubbed into the cellar,” in point of fact—and must find his voice and perspective in this confined basement.

The narrative begs for allegorical elaboration. Whether one is driven into the underground like this young man or ingested by a whale like Jonah, Ellison implies that being black in America automatically puts one in the darkest dungeons of life, so that the gestation of soul will have to occur in Sheol-like spaces, in the face of death. Thus, there is a sepulchral or mausoleum-like quality to the cellar that Ellison’s invisible protagonist must enter and endure before he can be reborn, as if he were a seed that must fall and sink into the earth before germinating and blooming. (Early Christian baptisteries were shaped like mausoleums with this exact logic in mind.)

Besides possessing this phoenix-like ability to raise black lives from the ashes, Ellison’s concept of soul also casts a dark shadow over the American psyche. By speaking from the American underground, Ellison adds a blues-like color and prophetic edge to his concept of soul; it is a force of dissent against vain and jingoistic versions of American greatness. Ellison’s “soul” is not unlike biblical understandings—vital spirit, life force, or essential self—but he clearly adds the particular shibboleths of black history and culture to the religious account. Consistent with many romantic portraits, “soul” is accordingly a vital spirit and life force but now applied to African American traditions, a symbol of the “spirit of a race,” to quote José Vasconcelos (1882–1959).

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Pursuing the Artfully Naked “I”: The Myth-making of Kathy Acker

Chris Kraus for LitHub
kathy-acker2

An extract from Chris Kraus’s new book After Kathy Acker appears in LitHub:

The trauma of the disappeared father is a theme Kathy Acker pursued throughout her writing, from The Childlike Life to her last published novel, Pussy, King of the Pirates. In The Childlike Life,

My mother tells me my “father” isn’t my real father: my real father left her when she was three months pregnant and wanted nothing to do with me, ever. This husband has adopted me. That’s all she tells me.

The story is told exclusively from the daughter’s point of view in all its many iterations. But then again, perhaps the greatest strength and weakness in all of Acker’s writing lies in its exclusion of all viewpoints except for that of the narrator. As William Burroughs wrote, with great precision, in his blurb for Grove Press’s 1983 publication of Great Expectations, “Acker gives her work the power to mirror the reader’s soul.”

How does she do this? Acker had no shortage of female contemporary writers throughout the 1970s. Outside the downtown New York scene, Jayne Anne Phillips, Margaret Atwood, Ann Beattie, Alice Munro, Janet Frame, and dozens of others published semiautobiographical novels with strong female narrators. But, shaped by their interactions with others in naturalistically described situations, the presence of their narrators was wholly relational. While these women were widely respected for their achievements as writers, they never sought or attained the iconic status of Great Writer as Countercultural Hero that Acker desperately craved. Until she achieved it, no woman had.

In Great Expectations, Acker worked deeply under the influence of such Beat-era icons as William S. Burroughs and Alexander Trocchi and the French modernist writers and thinkers Georges Bataille and Pierre Guyotat. Sometimes described as “philosopher-artists,” these writers conveyed their narrators’ internal lives with startling primacy. And so, by extension, whatever pain and emotion they felt was not theirs alone. They offered themselves as receivers for cosmological information transmitted via their works. “In my writing I am acting as a map-maker, an explorer of psychic areas,” William S. Burroughs wrote.

Defending his work at the 1962 Edinburgh Writers’ Conference, Trocchi proclaimed himself “a cosmonaut of inner space.” Written against history and time, Trocchi’s 1960 novel Cain’s Book dispassionately records a few months in his life as a remorseless heroin addict. His narrator states, “When I write I have trouble with my tenses. Where I was tomorrow is where I am today, where I would be yesterday. I have a horror of committing fraud.”

A special issue of Sylvère Lotringer’s journal Semiotext(e) devoted to Georges Bataille appeared in 1976, and Harry Mathews’s translation of Batailles’s 1928 classic Blue of Noon came out with Urizen Books the following year. Acker and Lotringer were close friends and lovers between 1977 and 1980. Years later, she would credit him widely for introducing her to French theory and “giving her a new language” through which to explain her existential and literary sense of fragmentation, multiplicity, and disjunction. Lotringer taught Georges Bataille in his Columbia University “Sex and Literature” graduate seminar; no doubt he and Acker discussed Bataille’s work and thought.

The first line of Bataille’s Story of the Eye could easily have been written by Acker herself: “I grew up very much alone, and as far as I recall I was frightened of anything sexual.” I don’t write to express anything, she’d write in a 1979 self-interview in the French literary magazine Dirty, named after the “Dirty” character in Bataille’s Blue of NoonEverything is material. . . culture is more and more a rag-bag. . . I use material that is commonly described as “autobiography.” There are lots of emotions to draw from, and I love working with emotion because I love shock. Acker was the first female writer to so relentlessly pursue the artfully naked “I” of French modernism. In fact, she’d go on to “plagarize” Bataille in Great Expectations:

I never wanted you, my mother told me often. It was the war. She hadn’t known poverty or hardship: her family had been very wealthy. . . My father, a wealthier man than my mother, walked out on her when he found out she was pregnant. . .

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A Report from the First-Ever Asian American Literature Festival

Kyle Lucia Wu for LitHub
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Kyle Lucia Wu reports on the first Asian American Literature Festival for LitHub, and talks of how important it is that it exists:

“No one is immune to the fantasy of authenticity,” Paisley Rezkal said. It was the last panel of the second day at the first-ever Asian American Literature Festival. I’d already gotten my tarot cards read, spoken on a panel, participated in a speed-mentoring session, eaten too many carbs, and slept in a dorm room that resembled, as a friend said of the picture I texted her, a World War II hospital. I probably should have wanted to take a nap, but I was leaning forward with my chin in my hand, quite literally sitting on the edge of my seat, because I felt like she was talking to me. Over the course of the whole weekend, I felt like people were talking to me more directly than they had in a very long time.

The festival, which focuses solely on Asian American literature, is the first of its kind. It’s put on by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center in collaboration with a number of organizations, including Poetry Magazine, Kundiman, and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. The initial day was held at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, the second day at The Phillips Collection, the last at the Library of Congress. The fact that it’s called a festival, not a conference, is demonstrative of its communal, celebratory spirit.

Though the general spirit felt lighthearted, the words and intention were weighty. This kind of nurturing environment is rare, which I mentioned to Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis, the curator of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center and editor-in-chief of Asian American Literary Review. “We are not living writ large in a welcoming space,” he said. “Many of us move through violent spaces all the time and are subject to all kinds of awful treatment and conditions, so it’s our responsibility to work against those and to create caring spaces.” It sounds both natural and difficult, but either way, the intentionality behind the festival shone through.

My schedule for the first day included a talk on Vietnamese diasporic literature featuring Vu Tran, Linh Dinh, and Cathy Linh Che, a reading by queer Asian writers Wo Chan, Peggy Lee, and Rajiv Mohabir, a fiction reading by Don Lee and Akhil Sharma, and the Poetry magazine summer issue launch. There were stations set up from various organizations, from Kaya Press to Bamboo Ridge to AAWW, in the ‘literary lounge,’ where attendees made self-care cards, memes and child-to-parent letters.

The following day offered one-on-one mentoring sessions with Nicole Chung and Jennifer Chang, and though I’d neglected to sign up, I heard that Nicole had an opening and was lucky enough to sit down with her in a bright side room at the museum. I had just read Nicole’s latest essay online and was thrilled to meet her and talk about representation, fiction vs. nonfiction, and literary community in person. “I always love the chance to talk with writers at all levels, young writers especially,” she told me about the mentoring sessions that day. “A lot of writers need just a little bit of encouragement—honestly, I know I still need that—so it’s a privilege to be able to offer that feedback and that kind of encouragement.”

After that, I saw Kazim Ali and Franny Choi give a literary address with a large audience squeezed into the bookshop of the Phillips Collection, inverted umbrellas hanging overhead; Writer-Scholar speed dating went on nearby in the Carriage House. The AAWW Margins Fellows for this year (myself included) then read our work. One of the fellows, Yanyi, said it felt amazing to read in a space where his poems related one of many diverse Asian-American experiences. “I didn’t have a second thought about whether the audience would ‘get’ what I was writing about, nor did I have to worry if I was speaking for anyone but myself,” he explained.

Following that, Ryan Lee Wong moderated the Kundiamn/AALR Mentoring Reading, which featured Alexander Chee, Paisley Rekdal, Grace Jahng Lee, and Justin Monson; he began by asking us all to take a collective deep breath. I was particularly struck by something Alexander Chee said about what he would like to pass along to his students:

The idea that the white imagination is the only thing that’s limitless is this idea that we’re always fighting, if not in ourselves, in other people. When I was presenting my manuscript to publishers, I felt like I wasn’t legible to them because they had never met anyone like me. It was like they couldn’t believe I existed, much less that this book had been written that was in front of them. That cured me of any idea of that imagination as limitless—it was so incredibly limited that I was shocked. But what I did understand completely from that experience was that they felt they had the power to define what was real and what was not. That was what I would be trying to take back from them for the rest of my career, so when I think about what I’m trying to pass on, it’s a sense of confidence to face that.

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What I Learned Editing Hunter S. Thompson

Terry McDonell writing for LitHub
HunterS.Thompson

Hunter S. Thompson’s editor Terry McDonell writes about the author and the origins of “gonzo” for LitHub:

There are conflicting stories about the first use of the word gonzo to describe Hunter’s journalism but all credit fellow journalist Bill Cardoso. Maybe it was on the press bus during the 1968 New Hampshire primaries, maybe it was in a letter praising Hunter’s 1970 Kentucky Derby piece, maybe it was just one night in a bar, but it was definitely Cardoso who used gonzo first, and he and Hunter agreed on that. It came to mean more than the lack of objectivity in the amped-up first-person voice that Hunter’s work personified, but Cardoso would say only that he meant the word scatologically—as in crazy shit—and that he had used it many times before he applied it to Hunter’s journalism.

Cardoso rose at the Boston Globe to edit its Sunday magazine, quit to open a jazz club in the Canary Islands, then returned to journalism and famously become the most unfamous practitioner of the New Journalism among the New Journalists. I wish that sentence were as sharp as it is true in the way Cardoso wrote that the Tournament of Roses Parade on New Year’s Day in Pasadena was “the meeting ground of Babbitt and Costello.”

Cardoso and the journalist and promoter Harold Conrad painted layers of polish on the word hipster—or, as Cardoso sometimes put it when describing himself, wordhipster. Conrad was less unfamous, since his friend Budd Schulberg had based the cynical fight press agent in The Harder They Fall on him, and Humphrey Bogart had played him in the movie. Conrad introduced Cardoso, Thompson, George Plimpton and Norman Mailer to Muhammad Ali, and put them in ringside seats. His idea was that if you get important journalists to cover the fights, the rest takes care of itself—especially after a toke or two.

All of the writers mentioned above wrote careful, crafted pieces that came in clean. Unsurprisingly, not Hunter. Likewise those same writers helped to speed the editing process while Hunter turned it into theatre, saying that there were far fewer good editors than good writers, and that he had learned some nasty lessons from their incompetence. He had a riff about it, about how he would suck editors into his pieces as conspirators, all of us wanting to prove ourselves good enough—hip enough—to edit him.

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Maggie Shipstead on Being Alone (But Not Lonely) in Paris

Maggie Shipstead for LitHub
cleo

Extract in LitHub from Maggie Shipstead’s text in the edited collection A Paris All Your Own:

I sat motionless at my desk, breathing shallowly, my fingers resting on my laptop’s keyboard. He knocked again, waited, knocked a little louder, waited. Under the apartment door, his feet cast shadows on the dark green linoleum. I didn’t make a sound. Finally, he went on his way, footsteps receding. After a minute, the hall lights, which were on a timer, clicked out, and there was only darkness under the door.

The phone had rung a few times the previous day, and I hadn’t answered. I knew who was calling. It was the same man who had just knocked: not a stalker or a creep, actually, but the Swiss composer who lived across the hall, an affable, fortyish guy with a mop of dark curls. I’d met him in the elevator earlier in the week. According to Google, he composed operas—not just any operas: underwater operas. (In related news, it turns out there are underwater operas. The world is a marvelous place!)

I had no friends in Paris and no reason to turn my nose up at someone who might or might not have been part humpback whale, but friendship, at the time, wasn’t something I was after. In fact, when faced with a friendly overture, I was capable only of evasive maneuvers. I was alone, you see, which for me isn’t a moment-to-moment condition, easily changed, but a way of being. Solitude is a well I fall (or jump) into from time to time and don’t try to climb out of. I sit down there and enjoy the quiet.

This was the end of January 2012. I had been in Paris for almost a month, with two more to go. The Swiss composer and I were both residents at the Cité Internationale des Arts, a complex of 270 live/work studio apartments for artists in the trendy 4th arrondissement neighborhood of the Marais. Most of the apartments, or ateliers, were underwritten by arts organizations or universities or entire nations that also chose the residents, though a small number were managed by the Cité directly. Mine belonged to Stanford University, where I’d spent the previous two years on a writing fellowship, but the plaques on the other doors along my hallway mostly identified chilly European countries not known for garrulous people: Norway, Finland, Austria, Switzerland. Being the standout hermit in such company was, I think, something of an achievement.

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Post Identity

Carmen Giménez Smith for LitHub
CARMEN GIMÉNEZ SMITH

Excerpt from a new poem by Carmen Giménez Smith on LitHub.

am I reclaiming separatist
or redefining epithets
fiction fable or fact
a shift or a sharing
who leads this tango
the thief or the judge
the huckster or the king
can I trust the momentum
or is it pure performance
will I be claimant or
defendant there
plough or oxen
is this like any other insistent
duality are we going to get
ahistorical because of
the thing with the thing
covered up with things
quashed and censored
unnameable inexpressible
untame hard to pronounce
things better left in the past
sounds like shrimperial
I could just leave the grid
leave it behind me
for some tentative exile
but what island might
I become where would
my allegiance be
and how would I construct
reasonable interventions
into culture or where might
I occupy where might I find
the suitable therefore inferior
slot meant for this labor
and could I live there
interminably and how
civil would I have
to perform like arboretum
or like the city public statue
of a settler or like skate park
or sanitarium or fallow field
with a pile of burning tires
and then how would you define
what I was or if I was
what you had hoped true
erotically or temperamentally
therefore intrinisically
how should I transfigure
and where should I locate
the self because it’s loose
and hot and deranged
it’s hot and ill-tempered

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How to Write About Authoritarians Without Getting Arrested

Saba Imtiaz for LitHub
lahore-news-stand

Saba Imtiaz writing for LitHub on truth, fiction, and fake news in Pakistan.

Every time I travel through Karachi airport, I stop by its bookshop. It’s not the best organized store in the world. The titles are jumbled together. Fiction merging with non-fiction, biographies next to self-help; books that travelers have opened, flipped through, and put back in the wrong section. Sometimes, I surreptitiously hide a biography or two in the fiction section.

Occasionally, the staff will recommend a book about a topic with a selection of fiction and non-fiction. It’s all the same, piled together on one rack, and treated the same way: If it’s written and it is published, it must be true.

In Pakistan, people are constantly looking for some version of the truth, browsing through their smartphones and the fiction racks of bookstores. There is a stream of rumors repeated on talk shows and forwarded on WhatsApp by people citing “sources” claiming to know the “real story” behind a militant attack or a political controversy. There are missives about impending doom: imminent security threats, crime statistics, and public health crises; tailored to suit one’s preset narrative. If you believe in x, y message—or novel—makes perfect sense.

In his latest novel The Party Worker, the Pakistani cop-turned-writer Omar Shahid Hamid depicts a political strongman called “Don” and a linchpin member in his network determined to bring him down. It has all the makings of a crime novel: cops on the hunt for blood and glory, Mafioso, bloody crime scenes, loyalties and betrayals.

But this isn’t an ordinary crime novel. The Don is a thinly-veiled caricature of a real-life Pakistani politician who lives in exile, and whose political party ruled Karachi for decades because of its broad urban appeal—and alleged violent tactics. Allegations against the party range from targeted assassinations to extortion, and writing about the politician, until recently, was largely off-limits. Reportage that critiqued the party’s exiled leader or mentioned the allegations led to sharp rebuttals and full-fledged tirades. Journalists covering the party were limited to reproducing sanitized press releases and transcripts of speeches. It was the party’s facts, period.

The Party Worker crosses that line drawn in newsprint, depicting the Don as an obese, power-hungry figure with a proclivity for sex workers and ice-cream soda mixed with vodka, whose party uses brutal tactics to control Karachi, while he is protected in exile and has a soft corner at the CIA. Hamid combines the tactics and behaviors of political strongmen to turn the characters in the novel into surreal figures. The book takes on from where reportage ends, imagining how to bring the Don to justice, creating a number of revengeful characters to take on the task. One of them, in truly irreverent Karachi fashion, is called “sisterf***er uncle.”

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Realism and Fantasy

Louise Glück for Lit Hub
Realism

Louise Glück writes for Lit Hub on different interpretations of realism: 

It is entirely possible that I have never had an accurate sense of what is called realism in that I do not, as a reader, discriminate between it and fantasy.

My earliest reading was Greek mythology. As with my prayers, nothing was ever deleted, but categories were added. First the Oz books. Then biography, the how-to books of my childhood. How to be Madame Curie. How to be Lou Gehrig. How to be Lady Jane Grey. And then, gradually, the great prose novels in English. And so on. All these made a kind of reading different from the reading of poetry, less call to orders, more vacation.

What strikes me now is that these quite disparate works, Middlemarch and The Magical Monarch of Mo, seemed to me about equal in their unreality.

Realism is by nature historical, confined to a period. The characters dress in certain ways, they eat certain things, society thwarts them in specific ways; therefore the real (or the theoretically real) acquires in time what the fantastic has always had, an air of vast improbability. There is this variation: the overtly fantastic represents, in imagination, that which has not yet happened (this is true even when it locates itself in a mythic past, a past beyond the reach of documented history). Realistic fiction corresponds roughly to the familiar and present reality of the reader; its strangeness is the strangeness of obsolescence or irrecoverability. Regarding this obsolescence one is sometimes grateful, sometimes mournful. Though the characters in their passions and dilemmas resemble us, the world in which these passions are enacted is vanished and strange. In the degree to which we cannot inhabit that world, the formerly real becomes very like the deliberately unreal.

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Secrets of the Designers: On Creating the Look for a Literary Journal

John Freeman writing for LitHub
Freemans-Home-final-cover

John Freeman in conversation with Michael Salu about the conception of a literary journal’s visual identity, for LitHub:

John Freeman: I’ve worked with you before on a brand (Granta) which was already well established. I’m curious how this differs, basically creating a visual identity from scratch.

Michael Salu: It was interesting trying to gather a starting point for the look of a new journal (Freeman’s). I supposed I’d begun with thinking about what might hook into the strong literary tradition of the journal and your own rather lucid, oak-distilled Americanness, if you don’t mind me saying? I wanted to create a feel to the journal that I suspect had quite a part in raising you and maybe get a touch of a bygone idea of America, but also create a fresh contemporary brand that could cloak the intended international perspectives that fill its pages.

So I began with looking at The Beat era, Ginsberg, Kerouac et al. Walker Evans and other artists from that era and the paraphernalia surrounding them during and soon after their respective heydays. I think of the scenes, the journals, the academic publications, the poetry and photography books. The typography of this time carries a certain robustness, directly inspiring the Freeman’s masthead. There’s such myth and movement through images more recently, so working with young photographers seemed an interesting way to go.

JF: Well you threw a bulls-eye dart there. I grew up driving distance from City Lights, which was my MFA and also how I found a more modern collision between aesthetics and ethics. Planet News could be a book for untruthy times. You’ve worked with me before though and must have known the journal would have a global list of contributors. How’d you figure you would signal that or do you feel like all the ways of signifying in that regard are too broken to employ?

MS: I’d say there’s a visual vernacular that’s universal. Particularly when it comes to magazines. It’s something we question little, the formula road-tested for optimal impact. The image as a signifier for something you want to or need to identify with. Using this formula in a literary context playing with that signification is I think a way to draw on the grouping of ideas you seem to aim at both now and before.

JF: One thing I know is you always wanted your covers to speak to readers’ intelligence and skepticism, can you give me an example of how that interaction grows out of questioning the vernacular you just described?

MS: I suppose I spend a fair amount of time examining the semantic data that exists within images, how they shape our narratives and there are certain strict codes we adhere to certainly for “commercial” purposes. What do they mean to the individual and our societal hierarchies? These codified archetypes of being, or saying that we imbibe and occasionally those life myths are disturbed and we struggle to react. Thinking about Charlie Hebdo and the recent Trump cover by Der Speigel, yet the likes of Vogue arguably carry more power as their tropes of propaganda are consistent and far-reaching. I’ve always been interested in subverting those codes. Remember Granta 110 and 115? In fact I’ve always wondered how you read images given your granular engagement with words.

(…)

On Fidel Castro’s Relationships with Literary Giants

The Good, the Fake and the Ugly
hemingway-and-castro

The divisive Cuban leader Fidel Castro died last week at the age of 90. Emily Temple examines his relationships with some of the top literary figures of the twentieth century. The full article can be read on the Literary Hub website:

Notorious Cuban revolutionary and long-term leader Fidel Castro died on Friday at age 90 after a long illness, leaving a complicated legacy—some heralding him as a liberating hero and others decrying him as a ruthless dictator. Whatever else he may have been, it seems that Castro was an avid reader—“ours is an intellectual friendship,” Gabriel García Márquez once said—and he has been tied to a number of literary figures over the years, with varying degrees of importance, not to mention veracity. Below, a brief history of Castro’s relationships, whether good, bad, or not actually very real, with some of the most famous writers of our time.

Fidel Castro + Ernest Hemingway

It’s a widely known fact that Fidel Castro and Ernest Hemingway were friends. Just look at all those cozy pictures of them, right? Well, the truth is that all of those cozy pictures were taken on the same day, because that was the only day they met—and they didn’t even say much to each other.

As Jacobo Timerman explained in The New Yorker: “The revolutionaries never viewed Hemingway sympathetically; he had taken little interest in Cuba… Although it’s never stated explicitly, the tourist gets the impression that Hemingway supported Fidel Castro, that the writer is part of the Revolution. The truth is that… the regime never managed to establish a solid link between Hemingway and Castroism.”

And all those pictures? They all come from one day in May of 1960, when a fishing contest was held in Hemingway’s honor. “There are numerous photographs of that meeting,” Timerman writes, “but nothing noteworthy in the words that were exchanged before witnesses—mere formalities, really.” In fact, Hemingway was probably mostly trying to get Castro to keep from confiscating his land.

So when you visit, remember: all that Hemingway + Castro stuff is just tourist bait (read: money). That shouldn’t keep you from enjoying your mojitos, though.

Fidel Castro + Pablo Neruda

This is a case of a friendship that could have been—should have been, even—but, well, wasn’t. Pablo Neruda, himself a communist (he was even, briefly, a Senator for the Chilean Communist Party) was a major admirer of Fidel Castro—and an ardent lover of Cuba in general. In 1959, he visited the country and met the newly powerful Castro in Caracas. As he writes in his memoirs:

Fidel spoke for four uninterrupted hours in the huge square of El Silencio, the heart of Caracas. I was one of the 200,000 people who stood listening to that long speech without uttering a word. For me, and for many others, Fidel’s speeches have been a revelation. Hearing him address the crowd, I realized that a new age had begun for Latin America. I liked the freshness of his language. Even the best of the workers’ leaders and politicians usually harp on the same formulas, whose content may be valid, though the words have been worn thin and weakened by repetition. Fidel ignored such formulas. His language was didactic but natural. He himself appeared to be learning as he spoke and taught.

Later, Neruda describes a secret meeting he had with Castro:

He was a head taller than I. He came toward me with quick strides.

“Hello, Pablo!” he said and smothered me in a bear hug.

His reedy, almost childish voice, took me by surprise. Something about his appearance also matched the tone of his voice.

Fidel did not give the impression of being a big man, but an overgrown boy whose legs had suddenly shot up before he had lost his kid’s face and his scanty adolescent’s beard.

Brusquely, he interrupted the embrace, and galvanized into action, made a half turn and headed resolutely toward a corner of the room. I had not noticed a news photographer who had sneaked in and was aiming his camera at us from the corner. Fidel was on him with a single rush. I saw him grab the man by the throat and start shaking him. The camera fell to the floor. I went over to Fidel and gripped his arm, frightened by the sight of the tiny photographer struggling vainly. But Fidel shoved him toward the door, making him disappear. Then he turned back to me, smiling, picked the camera off the floor, and flung it on the bed.

In 1960, Neruda published Canción de gesta, a collection that included the poem “ A Fidel Castro,” which to my eyes at least appears to be a strong-voiced message of support for the leader.

But in 1966, after Neruda visited the United States (and the anti-Castro Peru), Cuba turned its back on him. In July, a group of Cuban intellectuals—on orders, it was said, from Castro himself—published a scathing public letter condemning Neruda for betraying their Communist principles by associating with the enemy. According to biographer Adam Feinstein, Neruda felt that the letter had been written because “Castro had not taken kindly to his only half-veiled warning [in his poem “A Fidel Castro”] to the Cuban leader to avoid making a cult of his public persona.” Neruda, insulted, angry, and feeling that Castro hated him personally, never went back to Cuba, though he was invited only two years later.

(…)

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