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Archive for the 'Author Interview' Category

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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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…)

Monday, April 25th, 2016

An Interview with M. A. Orthofer, author of The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction

The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction

“There does seem to have been a definite move from larger publishers dominating publishing translations into English to smaller, more nimble independents and non-profits taking the lead in the field, and I think the future success of fiction in translation depends on their continued viability.”—M. A. Orthofer

The following is an interview with Michael Orthofer, author of The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction:

Question: Your site has become legendary in its ability to stay on top and find the most exciting new works in global fiction. How do you do it?

M. A. Orthofer: It all starts with reading as much as possible—though ironically, working on the site cuts into my reading-time (though I think I would complain about finding too little time to read, even if that’s all I did all day). I’ve also always read very widely—fiction in every category, from every corner of the world, from any language—and have always been eager to seek out new and different voices, approaches, stories. Many readers seem to find specific areas or periods or styles or genres they’re most comfortable with and concentrate much of their reading on these, but I’ll read pretty much anything, and I think that has made a big difference, as the site (and now the book) reflect that and offer something for everyone.

And while I’ve always tried to look beyond the merely local and familiar, the internet, with its easy access to information and writing from everywhere in the world, has obviously helped expand my own horizons tremendously.

Q: What are you seeing as some of the most noteworthy trends in global fiction?

MAO: One of the great things about international literature is that there is such incredible variety, and so not even hot trends like magical realism, “Da Vinci Code”-type thrillers, “Harry Potter”-like fantasy, or Nordic crime fiction can completely crowd out everything else. Success does breed a lot of imitation, locally and internationally, and there are certainly still too many instances of foreign writers trying to follow the formula of the biggest American and British best sellers, but I think there has been a distinct move back towards relying on local strengths—be that language, history, mythology, tradition—in foreign writing too. Crime fiction is probably where this is most visible, with other countries and cultures putting more of a local spin on stories again—which has certainly worked for writers from the Scandinavian countries.

A curious trend as far as books in translation in America (and the UK) goes does seem to be the rise of the short work of fiction, as I can’t remember ever seeing as many translated novels and even story-collections in the hundred-page range. There are still lots of big works being published—not least the multi-volume epics by Karl Ove Knausgaard and Elena Ferrante—but the small, slim volume of fiction in translation has become much more common. I don’t think this is a real global trend—it seems limited to the US and Britain—and I assume one reason for it is simply that publishers are more willing to take on short works because they are considerably cheaper to translate.

Q: What is your sense of what and how much of international fiction is the English-speaking world missing? Are there many authors and books that English-language readers don’t have access to because of lack of translations

The number of books published in English translation is still so low—less than five hundred new works of fiction in 2015, according to the Three Percent database—that it’s impossible not to conclude that we are missing a tremendous amount. It looks to me very much like a tip-of-the-iceberg situation—compounded by an uneven distribution of what gets translated. BecauseAmerican publishers are so reliant on outside financial support for the additional cost of translating works, those countries that are able and willing to subsidize the translation of their literature are far-better represented in translation. As a result, fiction from many European countries, or South Korea and Japan, is much better-represented than that from countries and languages that haven’t invested in subsidizing translation—or aren’t able to.


Monday, April 18th, 2016

Roy Harris on the Pulitzer Prize

Pulitzer's Gold, Roy Harris

With today’s announcement of the Pulitzer Prize winners, we are re-posting our interview with Roy Harris, author of Pulitzer’s Gold: A Century of Public Service Journalism. Recently Roy Harris previewed some of the possible winners and was interviewed by WBUR’s All Things Considered on the 100th anniversary of the awards.

Question: 2016 is the 100th anniversary of the Pulitzer Prize. In looking over the winners for public service journalism, what struck you most about what has changed in journalism during this period and what has stayed the same?

Roy J. Harris: What’s very clear is how the quality of the Pulitzer winners—the depth of the reporting and the powerful change they brought about—increased sharply after the first few years the prizes began to be awarded. That suggests that the very creation of a system for honoring top-notch journalism encouraged more great reporting to be done around the country. But also, the variety of the top journalism projects—a diversity greater in public service than any other category—began to expand during that century: another major change. What’s stayed the same is that the predominant characteristic of the winning reporting has been tenacity on the part of the journalists to tell a story that others don’t want told.

Q: In recent years, there has been a lot of talk about how changes in the news industry are threatening the kind of journalism that the public service journalism prize highlights. What is your sense of the future for investigative journalism of this kind?

RJH: First the positive view: A surprising number of young journalists continue to enter the profession; they’re learning quickly, and doing great work. They also seem to value the tradition of great reporting, as I learn from the students I speak with regularly. While the digital world makes it harder to determine real news from the chaff, budding reporters also find that the Internet greatly broadens their access to valuable, verifiable resources. On the negative side, the news infrastructure to support reporters financially is seriously failing. New structures—like those created by new online sites and by privately supported programs like ProPublica and California Watch—aren’t coming online quickly enough to make up for the deterioration of traditional newspapers. New sources of financial support must be found for public service journalism, which is often the most expensive kind, if these young reporters are to be kept on the job.

Q: Much like the justly celebrated new movie, Spotlight, your book tells the story behind the story—about how journalists do their jobs. What is the value for general readers of understanding the ways in which journalists and the news industry work?

RJH: Before Spotlight, I argued that the behind-the-story approach of the Watergate movie All the President’s Men was a great model. Both that great movie and Spotlight are realistic, and take an inspirational look at what the media can do for our citizenry. And both concentrate on projects that won the Public Service Pulitzer—the subject of my book. I found in my research that less-well-known winners offer the same kind of excitement, though perhaps on a local level rather than a national or global level. That applies to non-journalists as much as to journalists, although the result of the journalism may be more local or regional than the ousting of a U.S. president or the exposure of a global Church scandal. From researching the stories in Pulitzer’s Gold I also found that to trace these Pulitzer winners through the years is to expose readers to the twists and turns of American history over the decades. What happened historically is important as is the role of the First Amendment, which keeps our system strong, and our citizenry informed.


Wednesday, March 9th, 2016

Interview with Hyun Ok Park, author of The Capitalist Unconscious: From Korean Unification to Transnational Korea

The Capitalist Unconscious, Hyun Ok Park

The following is an interview with Hyun Ok Park, author of The Capitalist Unconscious: From Korean Unification to Transnational Korea

Question: The concept of “the capitalist unconscious” in the book indicates that you take the unification question out of the familiar box of the nation-state system. Can you explain what you mean by “the capitalist unconscious” and how it figures in your book?

Hyun Ok Park: “The capitalist unconscious” provides a conceptual framework for my approach. It places the global capitalist system at the center of historicizing the national question. The capitalist unconscious concerns the sociocultural symbolization of the capitalist system and the historical character of such representation. This book expands the understanding of the unconscious from Frederic Jameson’s political unconscious and its focus on narrative to incorporate corporeal, sensorial, affective, and mnemonic symbolizations. I bring the body, senses, involuntary memory, performative ethnicity, and longing for a stateless nation to understanding experiences of transnational migrants. In fact, the disjuncture among what migrants say, how they say it, what they remember, and what their bodies tell demonstrates their commodified subjectivity as anything but total.

The capitalist unconscious is the historical unconscious that involves the fidelity of the political and the historical. The book shows that one’s experience of capitalism, democracy, and their linkage is organized by the interpretation of crisis (e.g., crisis of industrialism, of socialism, and of migrants and refugees as epochal changes (e.g., the transition from socialism to capitalism, from dictatorship to democracy, and from industrial to financial capitalism). I juxtapose the transition theses of history harbored in democratic politics with migrants’ own flashbacks into history and my accounts of Cold War industrialism—both socialist and capitalist.

Q: How can the understanding of the capitalist unconscious explain your thesis, “Korea is already unified in a transnational form by capital”? This statement will come as a surprise or even a provocation to those for whom the routine questions about Korean unification are whether and when the two Koreas will be unified.

HP: This book proposes a paradigm change on North Korea and Korean unification. I explore the ways that the capitalist unconscious encapsulates the currently unfolding and yet unobserved form of Korean unification that I call transnational Korea. Bringing capitalism into the analysis of the nation-state formation illumines the largely forgotten original and utopian ideal of national unification. It also enables us to historicize ethic national sovereignty. Only when we bring capitalism into the analysis can we discern the otherwise hidden shift of the mode of Korean unification from territorial and familial integration to transnational Korea. The chiasmus in this book is, therefore, not so much between ethnic national sovereignty and territorial integration as between modern sovereignty and global capitalism.

Accordingly, I consider the national unification question a social question, which is irreducible to the return to an undivided Korea or the establishment of a single nation-state. From the beginning, nation and national unification concern social relations of the people. Koreans’ quest for resolving the Japanese colonial legacy and becoming independent from American rule was never separate from transformation of social relations of land, labor, and tenancy. Popular sovereignty, decolonization, and ethnic-national independence were one and the same. Although the rivalry of the two Korean states during the Cold War tethered the matter of Korean unification to the task of creating a single nation-state, the South Korean democracy struggle of the 1980s saw the critique of global capitalism as integral to realizing national unification. In the post-Cold War era, the politics of unification is, in an unexpected turn, articulated with the hegemony of neoliberal capitalism and the war on terrorism.

As a critique of the old and new modes of Korean unification, this book presents various border-crossing interactions among Koreans during and after the Cold War era, including family unions of divided families and diaspora’s experiences, which fall through the cracks of all modes of unification politics since the division. I historicize Korean unification so that we distinguish its current form and envisage a new political possibility. When Koreans in different moments and in various Korean communities state their wishes for Korean unification, they are not to be taken as habitual slips into a received ideology. Instead these statements are harbingers of a utopia desire whose meaning and effect are decipherable only in reference to concrete social relations.


Thursday, March 3rd, 2016

James Davis on the Life and Work of Harlem Renaissance Writer Eric Walrond

Eric Walrond

The always worthwhile New Books Network recently posted a fascinating interview with James Davis about his new book Eric Walrond: A Life in the Harlem Renaissance and the Transatlantic Caribbean.

In the interview with Alejandra Bronfman , Davis discusses the mystery of Eric Walrond as a writer who was very much in the thick of the Harlem Renaissance but had been somewhat forgotten by history. In addition to reinstating Walrond as a pivotal figure in the development of the Harlem Renaissance, Davis also discusses the transnational nature of his life and work as he worked and lived in Guyana, Barbados, Panama, Harlem, Paris, and London. Davis and Bronfman also consider the exceptional and distinctive nature of Walrond’s writing and its mixture of modernist techniques with Caribbean dialogue and locales.

Their discussion also provided a compelling look at the challenges of writing a biography and transforming an archive into a gripping narrative. Davis also considers the ways in which Walrond’s writing reveals aspects of his life.

You can listen to the full interview here and for more on the book, here is an excerpt from the book:

Tuesday, March 1st, 2016

An Interview with David J. Helfand, author of “A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age”

A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age

The following is an interview with David J. Helfand, author of A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age: Scientific Habits of Mind:

Question: Most people think we are living in the Information Age. Why the contrarian “Misinformation Age” in your title?

David J. Helfand: It is certainly true that the amount of information at our disposal is unprecedented, and the Internet democratizes access to this information in ways that are unique in human history. But we are now generating, worldwide, 2.5 quintillion bytes of data per day. If printed as standard characters, that represents the equivalent of 450,000 pages of text per person per day. Obviously, more than 99.99% of this “information” is not edited or vetted for accuracy. And the corollary of open access to the web for downloading information is that uploading information is equally unfiltered. The result? Unlimited opportunities for the propagation of misinformation, and unfettered access for individuals and organizations wishing to spread disinformation.

Q: Surely misinformation isn’t new, nor is the motivation of some to spread disinformation to advance vested interests. Why do you suppose the problem is greater today?

DJH: During the first 97% of the time members of the species homo sapiens have roamed the Earth, information was very limited but the important bits were generally of high quality. The member of the hunter-gatherer tribe who regularly led hunting parties toward the hungry lions instead of the zebras was quickly ignored (or eaten and eliminated from the gene pool; likewise with the one that gathered poisonous fruits). The sources of information—your clansmen—were unambiguous and there was an existential premium on good information.

Today the sources are anonymous, or at least often unknown to you, and their motivation for providing accurate information is negligible; there are no consequences for misinformation nearly as severe as the lions. Thus, if mis- or dis-information serves one’s purposes—either for accumulating money or power, or for the strong innate motivation of reinforcing group identity—there’s no barrier to broadcasting it. Couple this with the viral capacity of social media and the instant accessibility of nonsense for all, and you have what I think should rightly be called the Misinformation Age.


Tuesday, February 23rd, 2016

An Interview with Tahneer Oksman, author of “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”

Tahneer Oksman,

“What’s interesting about comics is that you have artists drawing versions of themselves over and over on the same page. You can actually see their serial selves, their past, present, and future self-portraits in relation to one another.”—Tahneer Oksman

The following is an interview with Tahneer Oksman, author of “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”" Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs:

Question: The graphic memoirists you write about in your book have complicated relationships to Jewish identity. What are some of the ways they express or articulate their ambivalence?

Tahneer Oksman: For someone like Aline Kominsky Crumb, her reflections on Jewish identity read, at least initially, like a general distaste for the Jewish Long Island community that she grew up in. Her memoir is saturated with visual and verbal stereotypes about Jews, and Jewish women in particular. But the more closely you examine her work, the more you recognize its complex push-pull: she incorporates those stereotypes in order to fully explore her own sense of self. In a way, she is continually mocking her own mockery.

Some of the other cartoonists I write about tend to be more overtly ambivalent. Vanessa Davis, for instance, expresses a clear adoration for various tenets of her Jewish identity, many of these associated with childhood and family. But within images portraying precious memories—of her Bat Mitzvah, for example—she incorporates words or body language that contradict the celebratory, engaged atmosphere depicted around her. Other artists, like Lauren Weinstein, express ambivalence indirectly, as when her young persona writes a letter to Mattel, complaining about how “All your Barbies look like Aryans!,” and then later laments her own so-called Jewish looks (including her nose).

Q: How does this differ from the ways in which Jewish male graphic artists might grapple with these questions in their own work?

TO: I don’t believe there’s any essential difference in the ways that Jewish women and men—or women and men more generally—portray identity in comics. In the book, I selected seven memoirists who, to my mind, successfully model this ambivalent Jewish identity that I set out to explore. There are plenty of other Jewish cartoonists who didn’t make it into the book, not because they don’t fit into this model but because I had to set limitations in order to effectively develop my ideas. The book is meant to introduce a way to start thinking about how identity functions in comics, and not as any kind of end point.

To my mind, crucial differences emerge when it comes to how different kinds of comics (and artistic and literary works more generally) are perceived. Certain subjects and styles are still considered amateur or frivolous both in and out of academic contexts. It’s still a very male-dominated medium in this way, no matter how many women skillfully assert themselves in various forms of print and online. This reception ultimately influences the ways that comics get made. In other words, there’s going to be an awareness, for artists and writers who have been marginalized, of certain critical tones, and that will inevitably find its way into the work, for better or worse.