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Archive for the 'Author Interview' Category

Wednesday, November 16th, 2016

An Interview with Gayle Rogers, author of “Incomparable Empires”

Gayle Rogers, Incomparable Empires

“But we should ask ourselves why we (and anyone, globally) might wish to study foreign literatures? To make ourselves better, more well-rounded humans? That’s a lofty and often immeasurable goal. To understand better the cultures that we fear, the cultures of the markets our country is entering, to understand our own syncretistic pasts? All complicated, too. And then, how much is enough?”—Gayle Rogers

The following is an interview with Gayle Rogers, author of Incomparable Empires: Modernism and the Translation of Spanish and American Literature:

Question: What was the role of empire in shaping how Americans saw themselves and their culture over the past century?

Gayle Rogers: I have always had a profound interest in the Spanish-American War of 1898, the “splendid little war” that set into motion many trends that are still unfolding in our contemporary moment. I came across this amazing speech from 1899 by William Graham Sumner, a famous sociologist and anti-imperialist. It was called—and this is not a typo—“The Conquest of the United States by Spain.” Sumner believed that this new stage of American imperialism, marked by the country’s first overseas interventionist war, would ultimately ruin the country, just like imperialism had ruined Spain over the course of several centuries. He claimed that the United States had “beaten Spain in a military conflict” but was “submitting to be conquered by her on the field of ideas and policies.” In other words, we were on a course to become the new Spain—a formerly great empire that had gradually lost all of its foreign territories (including large swaths of the United States itself) and, at the turn of the twentieth century, found itself bankrupt, broken, and largely forgotten on the world stage.

This notion that a growing empire would cause America’s cultural ruin led me to the larger issues that this book takes up: namely, the relationship between geopolitical power (often exercised through imperialism) and literary eminence. A common narrative holds that the United States was a minor or second-rate literary scene at least until the late 1800s—that we were derivative, that we mostly imported British and French texts that held higher and more enduring cultural value. And then, we emerged onto the global literary stage right around the moment that we began acquiring overseas territories, consolidating our new territories and states in the west and southwest, and intervening all across the western hemisphere. In essence, against Sumner’s claims, American empire meant the birth of a globalized American literature.

Q: So, greater empire, greater literary prominence?

GR: The Spanish-American War looks like a well-placed axis in which the United States surges and Spain declines, with geopolitical and literary fortunes neatly yoked together in both cases. Of course, it’s not so simple, and as I knew from reading a good deal of literature of the early twentieth century, many leading authors believed that such a narrative was either horribly misleading or, if accurate, the signal of a terrible future for America in particular.

Q: To what extent are the imperial fortunes of Spain and the United States unique, or how do they speak to larger cultural or literary questions?

GR: I realized that this case study—the U.S. and Spain—actually framed a host of larger issues about the way we write literary histories: the models and assumptions we rely on, the trajectories and paths we follow in them. The modernist author John Dos Passos looked at the state of literature in the mid-1910s and concluded that great eras of empire actually strangle fruitful literary production, and so, he hoped that America’s new empire would quickly collapse in order to allow its literature to truly flourish. He saw a model in post-imperial Spain, where his peers like the novelist Pío Baroja were headlining what he believed was a new golden age of Spanish letters in the wake of an empire’s collapse.

(more…)

Thursday, November 10th, 2016

Interview with Donal Harris, author of “On Company Time”

Donal Harris, On Company TIme

“New media technologies and working conditions re-balance the relationship between journalism and literary writing.”—Donal Harris

The following is an interview with Donal Harris, author of On Company Time: American Modernism in the Big Magazines. In the book, Harris tells the story of American modernism from inside the offices and on the pages of the most successful and stylish magazines of the twentieth century, looking at the careers of writers such as Willa Cather, W. E. B. Du Bois, Jessie Fauset, James Agee, T. S. Eliot, and Ernest Hemingway.:

Question: How did your interest in journalism begin?

Donal Harris: My first white-collar job during and after college was at a local weekly newspaper. I started as a reporter and feature writer, and I eventually served in just about every possible capacity: copy editor, section editor, page designer, managing editor. I even made a couple (unsuccessful) advertising calls. I was better at some of those jobs than others, but they showed me that producing a paper every week is exhausting, exhilarating work that requires a special approach to reading and writing. It also exposed me to the wide range of work that gets lumped under a term like “journalism.”

Q: How did the literary element come in?

DH: That begins with James Agee, who wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Death in the Family, and co-authored an extremely strange book about Alabama sharecroppers, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Famous Men explicitly denounces how newspapers and magazines represented the plight of poor folks during the Great Depression, so I was surprised when I discovered that the original idea for the book was assigned to him as a story for Fortune magazine. Fortune was published by Time Incorporated, at the time the largest media company in the United States, and it turns out that Agee worked at Time Inc. in some capacity for most of his adult life. On Company Time, at least in part, began as my attempt to make sense of how Agee’s and other writers’ (including Willa Cather, Ernest Hemingway, W. E. B. Dubois, and T. S. Eliot) day jobs fed into their attitudes about “serious” writing outside of work.

Q: But Agee deeply resented working for Time Inc., right? Is that a common theme in the writers you discuss, that they disparage their experiences in journalism?

Donal Harris: We’d miss a lot of what’s interesting about the intersection of journalism and literature in the twentieth century if we took the writers at their word.

Agee did often badmouth Time Inc. and especially Henry Luce, its co-founder. But Agee also often bragged about how good he was at the job, and how generous the company was in regards to pay (and paid leave). While digging through his files at the University of Tennessee, I found an office memo, on Time Inc. letterhead, that touted a cover story Agee wrote as the ideal piece of Time writing. I think it says a lot about his relationship with Time that, first, the memo exists and, second, that he saved it.

Your larger point is valid, though. Agee’s showy anti-journalistic stance is one note in a long chorus about the terrible effects of journalism—or more generally “mass culture” writing—on literary writing. Journalism is commercial so it privileges sensationalism; it’s presentist so it doesn’t understand history; it’s focused on information, so the style is boring. It’s worth noting that the feeling of superiority works the other way, too. There are obvious claims one could make about the “usefulness” of journalistic work and writing – journalism is the fourth pillar of democracy, right? But, in the period I cover, there are also a number of arguments about the superiority of journalism’s style. It strives for clear and transparent language, while novels and poems in the early twentieth century are often purposefully difficult.

(more…)

Wednesday, October 26th, 2016

Interview with Jeremy Rosen, Author of “Minor Characters Have Their Day”

Minor Characters Have Their Day, Jeremy Rosen

“Genre is more than just a publishing category or marketing device…. Genres reflect the concerns of the historical moments in which they flourish. Minor-character elaborations reflect the interest of readers and writers in revisionist histories, in new angles on old stories…. They also demonstrate the playful, mischievous attitude toward the classics … [and] the sense that the classics aren’t simply there to be worshipped, but are books that we can take over, play with, and remake in whatever way we see fit.”—Jeremy Rosen

The following is an interview with Jeremy Rosen, author of Minor Characters Have Their Day: Genre and the Contemporary Literary Marketplace:

Question: What got you interested in contemporary novels that convert minor characters from classics into protagonists?

Jeremy Rosen: It started when I heard about Lo’s Diary by the Italian novelist Pia Pera, which retells Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita from the young girl’s perspective. Lolita is one of my all-time favorite novels, and I was intrigued but also a little skeptical about this retelling. I was in graduate school at the time, and taking a class on postmodern novels that included stuff like Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, which focuses on Rochester’s first wife, the so-called “madwoman in the attic,” from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.

And then, just like the new word you learn and then start seeing everywhere, books featuring formerly minor characters started popping up everywhere I looked. Wicked the Broadway musical based on Gregory Maguire’s novel premiered around this time. And Alice Randall published her novel The Wind Done Gone, which imagines that Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind had a half-sister who was a slave. Then Geraldine Brooks won the Pulitzer in 2005 for March, which makes a protagonist of the absent father from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and I could go on and on… What I realized was that I was seeing a vibrant phenomenon unfold, a genre that was “blowing up,” before my eyes, and I wanted to try to explain why that was happening.

Q: So why are so many contemporary writers focusing on minor characters from classics?

JR: When I tell students, and friends, and other people I meet about this research, they often say a couple things: that there must be no new ideas left, and that what I call “minor character elaborations” sound just like spinoffs and sequels in film. And I think these are right to an extent, but they don’t tell nearly the whole story. First, because seen from a certain angle, there have never been any new stories. From what little we know about Homer, he just wrote down and standardized what were already very old oral tales when they came to him. And the Greek tragedists like Sophocles and Aeschylus were likewise working with and transforming already ancient material. Rewriting, or what literary theorists call “intertextuality,” is really the oldest game in town.

On the other hand, some new things are happening here. Rewritings that focus on minor characters, especially on women and other socially marginalized groups, certainly have a new emphasis. Sena Jeter Naslund’s Ahab’s Wife, for example, takes the extremely masculine world of whaling and says: where were all the women? Naslund picks up on the single line in all of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick that mentions that Ahab was married. (And you think your partner has some bad moods!) Naslund takes that line and expands it into a grand narrative about what it would have been like to be the wife of a sea captain, who is at sail for years at a time, in the nineteenth century. A great many of these novels reflect a contemporary concern for the kinds of people—women, servants, slaves, non-Europeans—that were not often protagonists in classic literary works, in response to the wealth of stories we have that focus on the experience of white, male, upper class heroes.

Q: But you also suggest that there’s some merit to the comparison to Hollywood sequels and TV spinoffs, right?

JR: Absolutely. I chose the admittedly clunky term “minor character elaboration” because these books seem to me to differ from “spinoffs” in some important ways. When contemporary novelists seize on a minor character, we tend to get a picture of the character that is totally different than the brief glimpse we got in the classic. But when Joey from “Friends” gets his own show, we don’t suddenly find out that Joey was a much deeper, much more interesting person than we ever thought when we watched “Friends.” We just get more Joey.

That said, I think a lot of the forces driving the explosion of “minor character elaborations” are closely connected with the reasons we see such a rage for sequels and spinoffs in Hollywood, as well as all the “genre” films and TV shows out there: all the vampires, superheroes, zombies, and fantasy worlds. These phenomena all have a lot to do with transformations in media, in the publishing and film industries, which have undergone a major consolidation in the past several decades. The multinational media corporations that control much of the publishing industry like to minimize their risk. And totally unique books that have no connection with prior works are tough to explain and market. Whereas, “Like Harry Potter but sexier!” conjures up something we all know. Rewritings of classics tap into a known quantity, as well as prestigious literary names. And they have a genre formula that is easy to encapsulate in a few words: “Shakespeare’s King Lear from the court jester’s perspective!” (This describes Christopher Moore’s hilarious, bawdy novel Fool.) In the economic context of contemporary media consolidation, publishers have found familiar authors and genres to be reliable ways of grabbing readers’ attention.

(more…)

Wednesday, October 26th, 2016

The Seduction and Betrayal of Digital Technologies

Data Love

“[Data Love] does not reduce arguments over big data mining to the enemy-logic of ‘citizen vs. state’ but discusses data love as an expression of an undoubtedly fundamental but — bizarrely —insufficiently noted reorganization of society—a ‘quiet’ revolution initiated by software developers and implemented by way of algorithms; a revolution that, on the one hand, is subject to the drives of technological potential while, on the other, is reacting to the end of social utopias within a model of society dominated by consumerism.” — Roberto Simanowski

This week, our featured book is Data Love: The Seduction and Betrayal of Digital Technologies, by Roberto Simanowski, translated by Brigitte Pichon, Dorian Rudnytsky, and John Cayley. Today, we are happy to present a Q&A with Simanowski, in which he outlines his book project and the importance of questions about our love affair with data.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Data Love!

Why is data love the most troubling love affair of our time?

The love of big data has affected us all and is, without a doubt, the most entrancing and troubling love story of the twenty-first century. For better or worse and for many reasons, we happily choose to participate in the big data universe. We don’t worry much about data protection if we get something for less or even for free; we easily trade privacy for the narcissistic thrill of Facebook’s sharing culture. We can hardly wait for our fridge to talk to the supermarket and our calendar to converse with our car or house. That the conversation among “smart things”—that GPS, check-ins, or whatever sort of self-tracking device we use —are a data miner’s dream doesn’t deter us, we want it anyway and are convinced we can no longer live without it. (more…)

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016

Interview with Richard Plunz, author of “A History of Housing in New York City”

Richard Plunz, A History of Housing in New York City

“Beyond doubt the large question facing New York housing production today has to do with a market that can not provide for the half of our households that are low income…. One can hope that growing public pressure bottom-up can merge with a top-down realization that we need to innovate in order to grow and prosper as a competitive and cosmopolitan global urban entity.”—Richard Plunz

Tonight, Richard Plunz will be at The Museum of the City of New York to discuss the revised edition of his classic book, A History of Housing in New York City. Below is an interview he recently had with the State of the Planet, part of the Earth Institute:

Question: What prompted you to revise the history?

Richard Plunz: The book has had a long shelf-life and is still very much in use, such that it seems important to update it to include the period of the past two decades. As well, the changes that the past 25 years have brought seem especially important to keep in the public eye, as housing becomes a growing concern in New York. Indeed, housing production plays an essential role in forming our culture and economy, and at present is too little recognized as such. For example, housing should be considered “resilient infrastructure,” but is rarely considered as such. And “climate resilience” obviously must engage where and how people live, let’s say the “soft” side of the equation, in addition to heavy infrastructure. Amazingly, infrastructural discussion in the present presidential campaign is limited to roads and bridges and shorelines, rather than to city fabrics, even as every city faces “affordability” issues of one form or another.

Q: Looking over the past 25 years, what do you see as the most significant changes or trends in housing in the city?

RP: There are many changes, and many are substantial improvements in the quality of life in the city relative to the rather dark days of the 1980s, which is when the earlier edition ends its narrative. As Ken Jackson describes so well in his preface, the Bronx is no longer burning, the pathologies of crack cocaine are no longer with us, and all of the advantages of our density are apparent as we move into an age when urban resilience is synonymous with well-being both local and global. Yet there is a dark side to this transformation. Neighborhoods have gentrified to the great detriment of long-term residents who are displaced; the positive economics have not abated the homeless dilemma; the robust housing market is limited to the high end, [and] that leaves half of the city with little recourse. And if the growing lack of equity in terms of access to adequate housing will not abate, how will we be able to resolve our long-term economic and social viability.

Q: You say in your preface to the revised edition of A History of Housing in New York City that New York has had the most severe housing problems, and also been a center for innovation and reform. In updating the story, where now do you see the worst problems, and where do you find innovation, and perhaps reform?

RP: Beyond doubt the large question facing New York housing production today has to do with a market that can not provide for the half of our households that are low income. And while both Mayors DeBlasio and Bloomberg tried various measures to stimulate this production, it remains unacceptably flat. The last mayoral campaign was won based on this question of fundamental inequities. But our tools for stimulation are too limited, and therefore innovation must somehow break out of normative models. One can hope that growing public pressure bottom-up can merge with a top-down realization that we need to innovate in order to grow and prosper as a competitive and cosmopolitan global urban entity.

(more…)

Wednesday, September 28th, 2016

William Guynn on Film’s Depiction of Historical Trauma

Unspeakable Histories. William Guynn

“Recovery of experience can be harrowing and is particularly so in films that speak about traumatic events in the catastrophic twentieth century. All the films evoke unresolved historical situations—unresolved for the communities that experienced them and for the historians who attempt to understand them—situations that continue to inflict individual and collective pain.”—William Guynn

The following is an interview with William Guynn, author of Unspeakable Histories: Film and the Experience of Catastrophe

Question: How does film portray history in ways that are unavailable to more conventional historical accounts

William Guynn: Unspeakable Histories is my second book on historical film. In the first, Writing History in Film, I wanted to show that film is capable of representing historical events, authentically and in its own terms. A good many historians are loath to take seriously any historical representation in film. Historical films, they contend, always lapse into the mode of fiction, and historians have plenty of evidence in the historical film genre to support their allegations. To make my argument, I selected a body of historical films to analyze which did not adhere to fictional models and did not fall back on the easy tactic of a dominant voice-over narration. What I found was that, unlike written history, these films used symbolic strategies and artful editing to transform the concrete images and sounds of film into the basic characters of historical narration: social groups, not individuals, involved in collective actions that occur in a space and time that is more cognitive than material.

I was very much aware that film does not lend itself easily to historical representation. Images are not words and have none of the discursive power of language. Indeed, the innovative forms developed by the filmmakers I studied subverted, so to speak, the relatively effortless narration of the fiction film. I began to ask myself: Is there another way that film can relate to the historical past? Is the medium, with its tangible connection to the world it “captures,” capable of depicting the past in modes that are even more authentic than what historical interpretation can give us?

Q: What was the role of Frank Ankersmit’s work in shaping your view of film’s possibility to represent history

WG: In Sublime Historical Experience, Ankersmit makes a radical gesture: he sections off the two putative components of historical discourse that historians had always considered inseparable. On one side he places historical interpretation—historiography proper—in which the historian, from his “objective” perspective, produces finished narratives extracted from bodies of facts. On the other side he exposes what supposedly lies “underneath”: raw experience, that immense domain infused with emotion and mood, historical sensation, to use Johan Huizinga’s concept. Liberated from the constraints of interpretation, Ankersmit suggests that experience can speak its own “language.” Indeed, that is what I found in the films discussed in Unspeakable Histories—where the return of the past occurs in fragmentary images and sounds, embedded in concrete places and subjected to the unfolding of time. Historical experience speaks in intuitive flashes, disturbingly primal and atavistic.

Q: Why did you choose to focus on films that speak about the catastrophic events of the twentieth century?

WG: Because those events are still alive! Despite the passage of time, the gradual disappearance of witnesses, and all that historians have written, the Holocaust, Stalinist atrocities in the West and the East, the brutal Pinochet coup d’état, the Cambodian and Indonesian genocides are still massively unresolved. Not only for those who experienced them directly but for the generations that inherit them. Historically speaking, trauma is a social possession. Footage of the Warsaw Ghetto shot by Nazi propagandists, for example, reawakens terror and desire in the hearts of survivors, who are driven to recover their experience through the concrete traces the images provide. And trauma can be contagious. Subsequent generations of Jews often share the victims’ sense of dread when confronted with the traces of a still living history. Moreover, these same images may burn in the consciousness of the spectator who is exposed to something like an unmediated experience of the past. Historiography orders and classifies events, but it cannot neutralize those events that continue to smolder in collective consciousness.

As W.G. Sebald eloquently suggests, the past is not over and done with; it lies in wait for us. It is enough to enter a courtyard in Paris neglected by time to be struck by objects from the past that protrude into our present—this Sebald gives as an example of a triggering experience. The films I study are full of objects that trigger such uncanny moments: a desacralized monastic church alive with the spiritual yearnings of Polish officers held prisoner there; solitary women combing the Atacama desert for the bones of their massacred loved ones; the desolate walls and the neon lights of a Khmer Rouge prison; the rooftop terrace where Indonesian gangsters murdered countless victims by garrottage.

(more…)

Friday, September 23rd, 2016

A Look Inside a “Conversational Firm”

The Conversational Firm

“Most interesting to me was the fact that this company, which was so vocal about rejecting conventional bureaucracy, ended up adopting some bureaucratic practices over time—but this happened precisely because employees used their voices to speak up and say when certain conventional practices that had been rejected would not be useful. It struck me that a whole new model was emerging, one in which cross-hierarchical conversation was a central mechanism for confronting business challenges.” – Catherine Turco

This week, our featured book is The Conversational Firm: Rethinking Bureaucracy in the Age of Social Media, by Catherine J. Turco. Today, for the final post of the week, we are happy to provide a short excerpt from an interview with Turco conducted by Kara Baskin for MIT Sloan School’s Newsroom. You can read the interview in its entirety here.

What new approach to communication did you find inside TechCo?

What most excited me was the realization that there is a new organizational model that companies can shoot for today. I believe this model has become possible—and perhaps even necessary—on account of the communication technologies now available and the habits and expectations that today’s employees bring into the workplace. I call the model the “conversational firm,” and it’s the idea that organizations can have far more open dialogue across the corporate hierarchy than we ever before thought possible. (more…)

Wednesday, September 7th, 2016

An Interview with Carrie Preston, author of “Learning to Kneel”

Learning to Kneel, Carrie Preston

“My noh training in Tokyo with a master actor changed everything about Learning to Kneel.”—Carrie Preston

The following is an interview with Carrie Preston, author of Learning to Kneel: Noh, Modernism, and Journeys in Teaching

Q: Learning to Kneel examines the Western interest in the Japanese noh theater from many different perspectives, historical and scholarly, as well as via your own experiences as a teacher, student, and performer. How did these different vantage points shape your approach to the book?

Carrie J. Preston: I began thinking about this book as a fairly typical scholarly study of the noh theater’s influence on modernism. As I read previous scholarship on the topic, I kept encountering a disclaimer that went something like this: I tried to watch a noh play but understood next to nothing; that’s ok, there is no need for a deep knowledge of noh because W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, Bertolt Brecht, Benjamin Britten, and other Westerners knew nothing about noh. Aside from the homonym fun (nobody knows noh), this was a troubling and decidedly un-scholarly disclaimer. I set out to learn deeply about noh, and I soon realized that experts locate the essence of noh in training, always in private lessons where the student mimics the teacher’s chant and dance so as to memorize the noh repertory. I clearly needed to take lessons, and my experience as a performer helped me undertake this rather daunting enterprise. My noh training in Tokyo with a master actor changed everything about Learning to Kneel.

I decided that the story of my experience taking lessons in noh performance technique needed to be central to the book. I tried to interweave that personal story with the accounts of how the various artists I was discussing learned about noh. I treated us all as noh students who bring personal desires and goals to our studies that impact how we understand and use noh. This approach allowed me to face the disclaimer that none of us know anything about noh by acknowledging that there are always limits to a student’s knowledge. But students also develop unique and interesting strategies for learning. By focusing on the techniques for learning and teaching noh, I hoped to open up the rather esoteric topic of noh theater’s influence on modernism so that the book will be of interest to many students and teachers of cultures—and we are all students and teachers of cultures on some level.

Q: Yeats, Pound, Brecht, and Britten’s approach to noh is often viewed as an example of cultural appropriation. In what ways does your book alter this perception?

CJP: I don’t disagree that these figures were engaged in cultural appropriation and orientalism, but in some ways, that’s the least interesting thing to say about them. It’s easy to accuse them of cultural insensitivity and prove their guilt. At the same time, we often celebrate multiculturalism and diversity, believing that study abroad will produce cultural sensitivity in our students. I find the binary of good multiculturalism and bad appropriation to be particularly unhelpful. Who owns a culture? Who should be allowed to study and perform the theater of a particular culture? What is the difference between being inspired by noh and appropriating noh? If the answer is that only those born into a culture can study, use, or be inspired by it, what does that mean for study abroad, diversity requirements, and global studies?

These are difficult questions, and international/transnational teaching and learning is messy work. In Learning to Kneel, I embrace that mess and get down on my knees in the dirt, so to speak. And that taught me that all cross-cultural or global learning involves a degree of appropriation, whether we’re studying noh or opera. But, of course we don’t put those two lyric musical theaters in the same category because of unequal power relations between the so-called “east,” where noh originated, and “west,” the birthplace of opera. Was Ito Michio appropriating opera when he moved to Germany to become an opera singer? I recognize that power disparities are absolutely crucial to understanding cultural exchange and that some appropriation is regrettably malicious, but I also hope to recognize and question the habits of mind that make us treat noh so differently from opera.

Q: Ito Michio is one of the more fascinating figures in your book. How does his life affect the way we think about cross-cultural exchanges?

CJP: Ito’s life is the perfect example of the messiness of cultural exchange. He traveled to Europe as a young man hoping to become an opera singer and then a western dancer and slough off his stultifying Japaneseness. Upon reaching London, Ito was valued most as an “oriental” artist” by Pound and Yeats, who wanted him to help them translate noh plays and work on modernist noh adaptations. He claimed that they taught him to value his own culture, but they also taught him how valuable the popular fascination with Japan could be for his career as a performer. He began to advertise himself as an “oriental dancer” and exoticize his modern dance practice. When he arrived in New York during World War I, Ito began staging Pound’s translations of noh plays, even though he had no training in noh. And in spite of the fact that he was adapting Pound’s already adapted versions of noh texts, Ito advertised them as absolutely authentic. His tendency to stretch the truth and invent a powerful position for himself in Japan raised the suspicions of the CIA, and he was arrested shortly after the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor as an enemy alien. He was eventually repatriated to Japan, where he staged spectacular revues for the U.S. occupying forces and introduced American modern dance and beauty pageants (for better and worse).

(more…)

Wednesday, August 31st, 2016

An Interview with Jenny Davidson, author of “Reading Style”

Jenny Davidson, Reading Style

“Sentences are my obsession—I linger on them compulsively, it is the feeling of words in the mouth that got me hooked on literature in the first place as a very young child and I wanted to write a book that conveyed some of the magic of that way of reading.”—Jenny Davidson

The following is an interview with Jenny Davidson, author of Reading Style: A Life in Sentences, now available in paper:

Q: You’re a scholar of eighteenth-century English literature, a novelist, and a blogger; how did these three hats you wear inform your approach to writing Reading Style?

Jenny Davidson: From my point of view, those three hats—scholarship, fiction-writing, blogging—are part of a single fully integrated set of activities, and I wrote this book partly to show what that means for me as a reader and writer. The separation between scholarship and fiction-writing has always seemed to me largely artificial—I will write a novel because there’s a problem or topic that I’ve pursued as far as I can by scholarly means and want to think about further in a different medium, and the same thing goes in the other direction. Blogging is something I took up about ten years ago: it was largely for my own enjoyment, with some minor self-promotional aspect I suppose, but I found as I continued to do it that it became an excellent way to develop and refine an easy, fluent critical voice that I could then take back into the more formal kinds of criticism I also write.

Q: In an age of “big data” and “distant reading,” why have you decided to focus on the sentence?

JD: Not so much a choice as a compulsion, I think. Work by new media theorists and literary scholars like Lev Manovich and Franco Moretti is motivated in part by a sense of the insufficiencies of the kind of mainstream historicist literary criticism that predominates inside the academy in the United States. My own dissatisfaction with that kind of criticism increasingly stemmed from the sense I had that the kinds of interpretation I practiced in the classroom were at least as exciting and revealing as anything I was doing in my published scholarship, but that for some reason the professional protocol seemed to be that I couldn’t just “do” that kind of very close work with sentences in print. I’m kicking back against that here, and I’m interested in thinking more about how to explain and defend a methodology that is related to some older kinds of formalism—as practiced by critics like Roman Jakobson and Victor Shklovskii—and even to the New Criticism or Cambridge-style practical criticism in the tradition of I. A. Richards, but that also benefits from the insights of other more obviously historicized and politicized schools of criticism.

That is a fancy way, though, of saying that sentences are my obsession—I linger on them compulsively, it is the feeling of words in the mouth that got me hooked on literature in the first place as a very young child and I wanted to write a book that conveyed some of the magic of that way of reading.

Q: You begin the book by acknowledging that you’ve always been bothered by the notion that literature can “teach” us about life. What do we miss out on when we focus on the “lessons” of literature?

JD: That opening is a little bit tongue-in-cheek, in that obviously we do learn things about life from literature, and I have hugely enjoyed books like Alain de Bouton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life, Sarah Bakewell’s Montaigne biography and Rebecca Mead’s recent book about a lifetime of reading Middlemarch. But when it’s done with less sensitivity than these authors muster, it often leads to a kind of oversimplification—a lack of attention to what the books are actually doing, how they work—that makes me really annoyed. I will read novels by Austen or Henry James again and again neither because of the psychological insights they offer nor because of how those insights might illuminate aspects of my own experience in the world, but rather because the sentences are utterly ravishing, and because there is nowhere else on earth I can learn the things these books teach about narration and the techniques and conventions by which human experience is translated into language.

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Tuesday, July 12th, 2016

Interview with William Paul, author of “When Movies Were Theater”

When Movies Were Theater, William Paul

“How to arrange a movie theater might seem a fairly simple matter: a projector at one end, a screen at the other, seats in between. But it turned out not to be so simple after all.”—William Paul

The following is an interview with William Paul, author of When Movies Were Theater: Architecture, Exhibition, and the Evolution of American Film:

Question: Nowadays, we are used to watching movies anywhere and everywhere. Why should the space in which we view a movie make any difference?

William Paul: Beginning with the rise of television in the 1950s, the moving image became progressively divorced from architecture, but before that movies were for the most part associated with a specific architectural form. Given that early movies ran for less than a minute, showing a collection of them in a row could fit very nicely into the modular programming of the vaudeville theater. And so, in the United States, movies initially became associated with vaudeville, with each of the short films in the collection chosen for the sake of variety. Consequently, variety became a strong concern in American film exhibition. With the decline of live performance in the sound period, variety nevertheless continued to be an important concern in movie exhibition: programs of short films and double bills, two features for the price of one, made up in variety what was lost in live performance. And variety might well have been a governing aesthetic in American film production, leading to odd things like song numbers in gangster films or in film noir.

Q: So, theater programming at the time had an impact on film exhibition, but in what ways did the space of the theater impact on movies?

WP: How to arrange a movie theater might seem a fairly simple matter: a projector at one end, a screen at the other, seats in between. But it turned out not to be so simple after all. Vaudeville theaters in the 1890s, for example, were built on the dominant horseshoe form, which put a large proportion of the audience at extreme angles to the movie screen. The early design for purpose-built movie theaters recognized the problem of side-view distortion by an understanding that long and narrow was the best configuration for viewing a flat image.

The increasing dominance of the feature film throughout the teens coincides with the building of the great movie palaces. Architecturally these invoked live-performance theaters, but on a scale that went far beyond anything used for drama. While the theaters built in Times Square in the first couple of decades of the twentieth century ranged from about 600 to 2,000 seats, the palaces ranged from 2,500 to 6,000 seats. These enormous sizes were based on the belief, actually mistaken, that the optics of the motion picture image presented the same view to every audience member and democratized theater in the process. While early film theory sought to distinguish movies from theater, the architecture of these spaces announced that movies were an extension of theater, drama for the masses. These theaters stressed the continuity between movies and live drama in one other regard: the screen was located upstage, anywhere from twelve to twenty feet back from the curtain line, and placed within a theatrical set rather than the now familiar black cloth surround. The set was often a variation on a window in a garden, with the window being replaced by a screen when the show began, but it also might be a set specifically related to the content of the feature film. So, for example, performances of Quo Vadis (1913) had the image surrounded by a set that invoked ancient Rome. Although the image would be the brightest area on the stage, the set would be visible throughout the show and necessarily had an impact on how movies were shot.

Q: Does this mean that the theaters impacted on film style?

WP: There is ample evidence, from contemporary observers as well as the films themselves, that these palaces did have an impact on the development of American film style. Even as the architectural spaces kept getting bigger and bigger, the screen itself remained fairly small in order to keep the image sharp and brightly illuminated. In the early store theaters and nickelodeons that preceded the rise of the feature film, the screens generally ran from twelve to fourteen feet wide. In the palaces the screens grew somewhat larger, ranging from twenty to twenty-four feet wide, but they would be located on stages with proscenium openings from about forty all the way up to one hundred feet. Aside from emphasizing the theatricality of movies, one of the functions of the “picture settings,” the theatrical sets that surrounded the film image, was to make the image seem less small by expanding the visual field. Locating this small image on a very large stage had a number of consequences, but let me isolate the most obvious one here: as the architectural spaces got progressively larger, the camera throughout the teens got progressively closer in. The resulting style which became dominant in the twenties privileged close-ups as a way of making story points or revealing character. Clearly this style was in part a consequence of the grand spaces in which these movies were shown.

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Tuesday, July 12th, 2016

3 Questions for Anna Katharina Schaffner, author of “Exhaustion: A History”

Exhaustion: A History, Anna Katharina Schaffner

“To my surprise, I found that ours is far from being the only age to have perceived itself as the most exhausted—many people in the past have felt exactly as we do now…. anxieties about the exhaustion of our energies is a concern that reaches back all the way to the age of classical antiquity.”—Anna Katharina Schaffner

The following is an interview with Anna Katharina Schaffner, author of Exhaustion: A History:

Q: What inspired you to write a book on exhaustion?

Anna Katharina Schaffner: Like many people, I have experienced exhaustion in its various mental and physical modalities first-hand. I understand exhaustion as a state of being that can be broken down into a range of mental and physical symptoms, including weariness, hopelessness, and disillusionment; and weakness, lethargy, and fatigue. Exhaustion can also be manifest in behaviors such as restlessness, irritability, and the waning of engagement. In my book I am not so much concerned with purely physical exhaustion that is the result of bodily exertion and that can be alleviated by resting, but with chronic, less straightforward cases of exhaustion that are caused by a combination of mental, physical, and wider social phenomena.

A few years ago, I also noticed a significant increase in media debates about stress, burnout, and depression—diagnoses which are all structured around core exhaustion symptoms. Most commentators on exhaustion-related syndromes argue that modernity and its discontents are responsible for our collective exhaustion. They blame acceleration, the spread of new communication technologies such as the Internet, our 24/7 consumer culture, and a radically transformed neoliberal working environment for the vampiric depletion of our energies. They all seem to believe that ours is the most exhausting period in history, and tend nostalgically to glorify the past as a less energy-draining time in which people lived less taxing lives in harmony with nature and the seasons.

I wondered whether that was really the case, and started researching other historical periods in search of earlier discourses on exhaustion. To my surprise, I found that ours is far from being the only age to have perceived itself as the most exhausted—many people in the past have felt exactly as we do now. In fact, I found that anxieties about the exhaustion of our energies is a concern that reaches back all the way to the age of classical antiquity. The causes and effects of exhaustion are theorized in medical, theological, philosophical, popular, and literary sources in virtually every historical period.

Q: Why is the idea of the exhaustion of our energies so disconcerting?

AKS: Fears about the depletion of our energies are related to deep-seated and timeless anxieties about ageing, the waning of our engagement with the world, and death. These fears remain constant through history. What differs is how the causes and effects of exhaustion are explained. Exhaustion is a phenomenon that involves the mind, the body, and socio-political factors, and narratives about exhaustion can reveal very interesting insights into how the interplay of these forces is theorized at a given historical moment. Moreover, the theorists of exhaustion often blame very specific social, political, or technological developments for the perceived rise in exhaustion symptoms. In the eighteenth century, the consumption of exotic foods, spices, and other luxury goods was held responsible for an increase in exhaustion among the people, while in the late nineteenth century, it was attributed to a faster pace of life as a result of trains, steam boats, electricity, and telegraphy. Today, we tend to blame our exhaustion on the erosion of the boundaries between work and leisure brought about by smart phones, which render us perpetually reachable and which make it impossible for us properly to “switch off”. The technologies that were supposed to make our lives easier and to save our energies have brought in their wake a whole new range of psycho-social stressors that undo their benefits.

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Wednesday, July 6th, 2016

An Interview with Robert Wyss, author of “The Man Who Built the Sierra Club”

The Man Who Built the Sierra Club, Robert Wyss

“[David] Brower was a true bellwether, a man ahead of his time.”—Robert Wyss

The following is an interview with Robert Wyss, author of The Man Who Built the Sierra Club: A Life of David Brower:

Question: What was the status of the environmental movement when David Brower began as the head of the Sierra Club in 1953?

Robert Wyss: Weak. It was called the conservation movement and there was a plethora of volunteer organizations from (women’s) garden clubs to professional science organizations to a very few broad based groups like Audubon. But only a handful employed even a single full-time employee. Brower was the first at the Sierra Club. Washington D.C. was also far smaller in those days so it was possible for either prominent volunteers of these organizations (or their paid directors) to meet and have personal relationships with people who headed the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service. But they had very little clout in Congress. In contrast, a little known agency such as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for decades made massive changes in America’s landscape by erecting these massive dams. Dams created jobs and both voters and Congress appreciated those federal dam builders.

Q: How did Brower’s approach to environmental conservation differ from others?

RW: Brower was absolutely fearless. While his colleagues refused to directly challenge the Bureau of Reclamation, Brower took them on and soon he was also criticizing the Forest Service and even those who should have been his friends running the national parks. The incident that first began to build Brower’s national reputation occurred during the fight to oppose the construction of two dams in Dinosaur National Monument. Reclamation officials had made a very basic math mistake in their calculations to justify the dams but it dealt with an arcane issue few understood. Engineers told Brower that while the mistake was obvious, it would be foolhardy to confront Reclamation. No one would believe the dam builders made such a mistake. Brower ignored the advice, he publicly confronted the Bureau in a Congressional hearing, and ultimately Reclamation engineers backed down. Such reckless, plucky daring can be found throughout Brower’s career.

Q: How did he change the Sierra Club from the mission set by John Muir?

RW: John Muir founded the club in 1892 to encourage his friends in the greater San Francisco area to hike and camp in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Muir was a pretty radical conservationist for his era, but after he died in 1914 the club became politically conservative. It was a California-based hiking and social club that preferred to work through gentlemanly channels to protect natural resources. That was changing after World War II when a new, younger board of directors hired Brower. Brower expanded the club’s focus nationally and it became increasingly confrontational. Older members were immediately uncomfortable with this approach and as Brower (over the years) became more radical he began to lose the support that would contribute to his firing in 1969. But in many respects Brower was only following in the footsteps of Muir. They both strongly believed in protecting natural resources over anything else.

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Friday, July 1st, 2016

A Media Roundup for “The Evolution of Money”

The Evolution of Money

“The reason I think we need a new theory of money is because traditional theories either emphasise one side of money only (such as bullionism vs chartalism) or more or less ignore its properties altogether (like mainstream economics). And they take the relationship with number for granted, which I think is a mistake. It is the most obvious feature of money, and in many ways the most important.” — David Orrell

This week, our featured book is The Evolution of Money, by David Orrell and Roman Chlupatý. For our final post of the week, we’ve collected a number of the best articles and interviews by and about David Orrell, Roman Chlupatý, and The Evolution of Money.

First, you can read an adapted excerpt from The Evolution of Money at Evonomics:

Environmental conflict is therefore hardwired into the design of our monetary system—built for funding wars with kings and empires and now, as Klein documents, with the planet (one that, if it continues, the planet will win—it’s bigger). Dazzling us with number, it distracts us from the costs. This, rather than ideology, is why the GDP produced in a city like Beijing is booming, but people are leaving because they can’t breathe the air (and why, a little late, the National Congress of the Communist Party wrote the goal of an “ecological civilization” into its constitution in 2012). Like a toxic algal bloom on a lake, the economy is doing fine, but it is asphyxiating everything around it.

99Bitcoins has a great interview with David Orrell on cryptocurrency:

“The reason I think we need a new theory of money is because traditional theories either emphasise one side of money only (such as bullionism vs chartalism) or more or less ignore its properties altogether (like mainstream economics). And they take the relationship with number for granted, which I think is a mistake. It is the most obvious feature of money, and in many ways the most important.” — David Orrell

Adbusters featured “The True Value of Money,” an article by David Orrell:

A peculiar feature of orthodox economics is that money is treated as an inert medium of exchange, with no special properties of its own. As a result, money is largely excluded from macroeconomic models, which is one reason the financial crisis of 2007/8 was not predicted (it involved money). In many respects, when viewed through the lens of quantum physics, money behaves a lot like matter – and acknowledging that behavior promises to do to economics what quanta did for physics.

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Thursday, June 30th, 2016

Why Money Is Undermining Our Financial System

The Evolution of Money

“And this is exactly where the current problem lies: central banks – and their peers, commercial banks – still operate in a one-dimensional universe where readiness to spend has been muted. On the one hand, we now have those who have, who are thus trustworthy and who can therefore reach into the honeypot of cheap credit. But these largely own what they want and who instead of spending on things invest – thus the asset bubble and also the increasing gap between rich and poor. On the other, we have those who want to spend but don’t have the means or access to credit.” — Roman Chlupatý

This week, our featured book is The Evolution of Money, by David Orrell and Roman Chlupatý. Today, we are happy to present an interview with Roman Chlupatý from Euronews, in which Chlupatý explains why we live in “a world where one of a few certainties is that while we don’t know when the next [economic] crisis will come, we know for sure that it will.” Watch the video or read the text in full below.

We live in a time of great monetary abnormality. Not only are the European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan prescribing negative interest rates to prop up their failing economies but the Swedish central monetary authority is doing the same – despite the fact that its national economy is growing at a solid rate. And as if this were not enough, the Fed’s Janet Yellen, who was expected to increase rates three to five times this year on her quest for normalcy, has mentioned earlier this year that negative rates in the US – meaning banks charging interest from those depositing money with them – are still a possibility.

What does this mean? Seven and a half years after the so-called crisis broke out with the collapse of investment bank Lehmann Brothers, old recipes and ways of thinking are out of breath. They certainly did help to avert the worst – just imagine what would for instance have happened in the UK if ATMs had stopped giving out cash, a situation that was mere hours away – but they did so at the cost of a 57 trillion dollar-increase in debt, as consultancy McKinsey points out, and at the cost of inflating speculative bubbles all around. (more…)

Friday, June 10th, 2016

A Media Roundup for “Black Gods of the Asphalt”

Black Gods of the Asphalt

“Black men’s bodies are overdetermined by racism and poverty on the court, but to stop there is to strip ballplayers of agency and to overlook their lived experiences of the games. In a twist of irony that rivals the sleight of hand of a crossover dribble, social scientists have attempted to explain black basketball by setting aside the subjective experiences the players have of it. In their desire to remain objective and to adhere to disciplinary boundaries, scholars have reduced basketball to a set of rules predetermined by external conditions.” — Onaje X. O. Woodbine

This week, our featured book is Black Gods of the Asphalt: Religion, Hip-Hop, and Street Basketball, by Onaje X. O. Woodbine. For our final post of the week, we’ve collected a number of the best articles and interviews on and with Onaje X. O. Woodbine looking at his new book.

First, at Killing the Buddha, read an excerpt on the 2013 Fathers Are Champions Too basketball tournament and other streetball tournaments from Black Gods of the Asphalt:

Black men’s bodies are overdetermined by racism and poverty on the court, but to stop there is to strip ballplayers of agency and to overlook their lived experiences of the games. In a twist of irony that rivals the sleight of hand of a crossover dribble, social scientists have attempted to explain black basketball by setting aside the subjective experiences the players have of it. In their desire to remain objective and to adhere to disciplinary boundaries, scholars have reduced basketball to a set of rules predetermined by external conditions. The powerful socioeconomic forces of poverty, racism, and mascu­line role constrain black male bodies, push­ing them toward limited definitions of self as ballplayers, gang­sters, and hustlers. This “symbolic violence,” as Bourdieu refers to it, is often embodied and internalized by the players. But to stop there is to leave us with only a thin sense for the human and lived dimensions of these games. The experience of the court as a vehicle of self-emancipation is stripped away. The living dimension of this urban religion is lost.

Woodbine was interviewed twice at WBUR, Boston’s NPR news station. First, listen to Woodbine discuss how his desire to tell the stories that come up in his book led him to take Black Gods of the Asphalt to the stage.

“It was storytelling,” Woodbine says. “This was inner-city, street-level storytelling. And I thought, ‘Why not actually, consciously, do this on the stage and create a conscious, ritual space in the theater? And so, I wrote a script with my father and my wife to try to tell these stories in a way that can impact audience beyond the streets.”

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Thursday, June 9th, 2016

The Creation of “Black Gods of the Asphalt”

Black Gods of the Asphalt

“I want the book to elevate the conversation on black masculinity and sports…. I want people to recognize that you can find religion in strange places, that this community has its own innate healers, its own innate capacity to heal, that these young men have agency, and that there is freedom within this community in places you wouldn’t normally expect to find it.” — Onaje X. O. Woodbine

This week, our featured book is Black Gods of the Asphalt: Religion, Hip-Hop, and Street Basketball, by Onaje X. O. Woodbine. Today, we have excerpted part of an interview with Onaje X. O. Woodbine, conducted by Matthew Reed Baker, that originally appeared in Boston Magazine, in which Woodbine discusses his creative process and what he hopes the book will achieve.

At any point did you think that nobody could’ve written this book but you? It seems like the perfect match of author and book.

Howard Thurman, one of my favorite scholars and thinkers, has this phrase that we all have a “working paper.” The best scholarship is autobiographical. I’ve always viewed scholarship as a deeply personal project. In some ways, I do agree with you that only I could have written this particular project, but in other ways, part of the insight I learned from writing the book is that my self is made up of other selves. And so, if you dig deep enough within, you come out on the other side, you recognize the social world. Some of the best scholarship recognizes that society and the person are not mutually exclusive.

I think the experiences that are happening in Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan are happening across other cities because the social context is very similar. There may be some changes in style and variation in the way that it is expressed, but they’re dealing with societal challenges and poverty, and these basketball courts are spaces of refuge, especially for young black men who don’t have access to traditional buffers against structural violence. They don’t go to church as much anymore, they don’t have access to quality therapy, and as you can see in the book, the family is largely fragmented.

Black men have always been linked to the physical, so the myth has been that black men are bound in body but not in mind. Sports dramatize that myth in such a powerful way that many black men in inner cities are attracted to it. They may be attracted to it because they’re pushed by race or poverty or social narrative, but when they get on the court, the lived experience of running up and down the court, rubbing your body next to your brother, and expressing your pain…it transcends the reasons why you got there in the first place. It’s deeply personal and deeply social at the same time.

There’s such a weaving of style and form in this book. What was your approach?

I wanted to mirror the culture in my scholarship, but I didn’t want to strip the community of its language. In the history of African American culture, different genres of self-expression have always been complementary. During the Harlem Renaissance, jazz and basketball often were performed on the same stage on the same night. In the hip-hop generation, it was b-boy/b-girl dancing and rap music, while basketball was performed in the same park at the same time, and you’d have the boombox out there. So it was a confluence of different forms of African American self expression.

It was a labor of love, and I wanted it to be in a language that the academy and general public could understand, but also that the community would recognize as authentic. That required an interdisciplinary approach. On one hand I had to use social theory, the theory of masculinity and race to recognize the objectifications of the black male body. On the other hand I needed poetry. I needed religious studies. I needed the first-person account to call into question those things. You need all of those tools. That as the hardest obstacle I faced. It took a few years to really find the tools, understand how to apply them, and there was a lot of grappling in the dark.

When a book mixes ideas and genres well, it’s seamless. How do you do it?

When I read it for the first time in full after all those years of work, you know what was the metaphor I had in my head? A basketball. [Laughs] It really felt round. The book itself, it felt like there were no corners, nothing stuck out. It felt like a cohesive unit. I kept thinking of a ball, a basketball. I kid you not.

You mention in the book that you had to leave your community in order to write about it.

This book was also born out of personal trauma of experiencing the violence of the inner city. I myself embody the pain of living in a racialized and poverty-stricken community, and with growing up, I constantly felt as if my life was in danger. I’d walk out of my house, and there was a gang right on the corner in front of my door. I went through this. I was depressed for a while growing up. I had very low self-esteem. I wondered—because I was in the METCO program—why the students I went to school with out in the suburbs had nice homes and we didn’t. I also wondered about my past. I wondered if I really was just a slave or a descendent of a slave, if there was nothing prior to that.

When we’re born into that kind of world, you internalize it, you take it for granted, and often you turn the pain inward. You blame yourself or the people around you. And you can’t necessarily prove how the larger society, mainstream society, and dominant culture has created a society in which you are meant to feel that way. I needed to leave that environment to heal. I needed to see other people who looked like me, who weren’t angry all the time, or weren’t part of a gang, or weren’t depressed, or weren’t smoking drugs because something had happened in their life. I needed to see that I could be something else.

But at the same time, once I got to Yale and into university culture, I also didn’t fit in there. I realized there was a tremendous loss associated with being out there. On the one hand, I was safe, I wasn’t constantly worried about violence. But on the other hand, I had to leave all the people I cared for behind, and my culture. Living in two worlds and being in that middle space, in some ways, was a privilege. I see myself as a bridge and I’m very thankful. And yet you feel like you’re always an exile, you’re always homeless.

What do you want this book to achieve once it comes out?

I want the book to elevate the conversation on black masculinity and sports. I think that the old messages of trying to solve structural racism are important, but need to be expanded upon. Particularly unconscious bias, and the kind of racism and bias that lives in our bodies. My question is: How do you transform people’s consciousness, that both they and others are human beings? I think that requires getting into your body and recognizing the trauma and the history that lives within us. I want people to recognize that you can find religion in strange places, that this community has its own innate healers, its own innate capacity to heal, that these young men have agency, and that there is freedom within this community in places you wouldn’t normally expect to find it. The standard view in literature on sports and race is that these young men are determined by a desire for social mobility and socioeconomic status, and that’s why they’re on the court. Part of what I want to do is challenge that narrative and say, “No, there are deeper human reasons why they are on the court in predominant numbers.”

Read the interview and accompanying article at the Boston Magazine website.

Wednesday, June 8th, 2016

Listen to Onaje X. O. Woodbine on All Things Considered

Black Gods of the Asphalt

“What [often] gets missed is the level of meaning and feeling that is experienced in the game itself. And the feeling of freedom and transcendence can’t be really captured in social scientific language. You need religious studies, you need poetry, you need music to really understand how these young men are creating meaning in this space.” — Onaje X. O. Woodbine

This week, our featured book is Black Gods of the Asphalt: Religion, Hip-Hop, and Street Basketball, by Onaje X. O. Woodbine. Today. we are happy to present a fantastic interview with Onaje X. O. Woodbine on NPR’s All Things Considered on the new book, Woodbine’s history, and why we need religious studies, poetry, and music to understand how young black men create meaning through basketball and other sports.

Tuesday, May 24th, 2016

An Interview with Daniel Callahan, author of “The Five Horsemen of the Modern World”

The Five Horsemen of the Modern World, Daniel Callahan

“At the heart of the progress problem is that we usually do not want to stop progress, and don’t know how to do so even when we need to try.”—Daniel Callahan

The following is an interview with Daniel Callahan, author of The Five Horsemen of the Modern World: Climate, Food, Water, Disease, and Obesity

Question: Why did you write this book?

Daniel Callahan: Most people write books because they have something to say: a careful analysis, a heated conviction, or a message to spread. Most scholarly savants usually spend years thinking through a topic and then put it all in a book. I don’t seem to fall easily into any of those categories. I wrote The Five Horsemen out of sheer curiosity, knowing something about some of my five horsemen but almost nothing about others; and not knowing where it would lead me. My curiosity was stimulated by what seemed to me a troubling similarity: a rare group of global problems, each seemingly different, that were all getting worse not better. How has that happened, and could it be that they do share some traits

Q: Do you offer solutions to the global threats posed by the five horsemen?

DC: My flat, candid answer to that question is: no! Initially, I naively thought, I could, being the kind of smart guy who thinks he can solve all human problems if simply given the chance to do so. It soon became obvious that I could not do that, but was consoled to notice that no one else could either. I should have seen at once that problems festering for forty or more years, that had consumed billions of dollars in research and policy efforts, that evoke deep ideological and political differences, and that display a wide range of disparate convictions in public opinion, do not lend themselves to easy solutions. If you don’t believe that, read the book. That is not to say there is an absence of ideas. It is that most have not worked, and those that have are not sufficient.

Q: Why are they so hard to solve?

DC: At the root of each of the horsemen is the modern value of progress, but reaching back to the eighteenth century. At its core is the belief that through reason and science the human condition can be improved. There is no end of the possibilities. Global warming is the result of economic progress, bringing millions out of poverty and affluence to many more. It also pollutes our atmosphere. Food shortages are in great part due to population growth, a result of medical progress keeping people alive much longer. Waters shortages also result from population growth and great agricultural gains (70% of water consumption is for agriculture). Chronic illness is heavily due to aging populations, another fruit of medical progress. Obesity is a function of the availability of cheaper but less health foods. At the heart of the progress problem is that we usually do not want to stop progress, and don’t know how to do so even when we need to try.

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Wednesday, April 27th, 2016

When the Incident Occurred

The Lost Garden

“When the incident occurred, Zhu Yinghong was startled out of a deep sleep by a commotion somewhere in the house. The moment she opened her eyes she had a feeling that neither of her parents was in bed. As usual, she reached out to touch the thin blanket covering the plank bed, and felt nothing but a cold chill. Years later, she would piece together what little she remembered of that night with what she’d heard here and there, and concluded that it had happened sometime in April or May.” — Li Ang

Our World Literature Week celebration continues today with a focus on an inventive collection of short fiction from Ng Kim Chew: The Lost Garden: A Novel, translated by Sylvia Li-chun Lin with Howard Goldblatt. We are happy to present the video of a recent panel on The Lost Garden, featuring Li Ang herself, along with her translators and Columbia University Press Director and editor Jennifer Crewe, followed by an excerpt from the second chapter of Part 1 of the novel.

Li Ang and her “Lost Garden”

When the Incident Occurred

Tuesday, April 26th, 2016

The Complexity and Individuality of Contemporary Chinese Experiences and Perspectives

The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan: More Stories of China, by Zhu Wen

Our World Literature Week celebration continues today with a focus on Zhu Wen’s The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan: More Stories of China, translated by Julia Lovell, and newly released in paperback. We are happy to present part of an interview with Julia Lovell from the Los Angeles Review of Books, as well as the short story “The Apprentice,” excerpted in full from the book:

On Zhu Wen’s Stories and Other Works of Chinese Fiction: A Q & A with Julia Lovell

Jeffrey Wasserstrom: In an endorsement of the new collection, Jonathan Spence, who praised I Love Dollars in the London Review of Books, says that this “second volume of short stories” is “both darker and denser than the first.” Does that fit with your feeling about the new book or would you characterize the contrast differently?

Julia Lovell: I think that’s a perceptive comment by Jonathan Spence. There was plenty that was shocking and dark about the first collection – in particular, the kind of careless amorality that some of the stories diagnosed in 1990s China. But there was also, I think, a strand of humor, a strong appreciation of the farcical, running through some of the pieces. That’s less dominant in the new collection. Two of the stories that take a more conversational, absurdist take on life in the People’s Republic – “Da Ma’s Way of Talking” and “The Apprentice” – are also overtly tinged with sadness. The relaxed, humorous narration of the first story contrasts with its ending; in the second piece, the lightly sardonic tone blurs into the narrator’s sense of despairing melancholy as he feels increasingly trapped by his future in the socialist economy. At the same time though, I think that the new volume offers more thoughtful insights into human relationships, and into the impact of political pressures on day-to-day life.

But I’m still very drawn to work that showcases the more relaxed side of Chinese culture. At the moment, I’m working on a new abridgement of Journey to the West, a book from the imperial Chinese canon that fizzes with humorous irreverence. Stodgy Neo-Confucians, covetous Buddhists and libidinous Taoists – all are mocked in the novel; at one point, the book’s hero, the Monkey King, even urinates on the hand of the Buddha. (more…)