In honor of National Library Week, which is almost over, here is a post about books. Hol and I have kept our books separate until now. But ten years in, it seemed time to organize, cull, and merge them. There were piles of books everywhere, and it was impossible to find anything. It was a big project. For the most part our libraries were very complementary—Hol has large swaths of botany, natural history, poetry, and Jung. I have more fiction, memoir, lit crit, and Freud. But there were a few points of overlap:
In these cases, one of us had to give up a book. I had signed copies of Sarah Schulman’s Girls, Visions, and Everything, and Judith Katz’s Running Fiercely from a High, Thin Sound. Hol had a signed Howl. So we’re giving away the unsigned ones.
For some reason we had three Moosewoods between us. We kept the one with the most notes and food spatters in it. Neither of us could part with our Hero With a Thousand Faces, or A Room of One’s Own. Or The Brothers Karamazov. I never read it, but it’s my dad’s Modern Library edition. Hol read it, and can’t let go of those well-thumbed Penguin Classics pages.
There was one other interesting point of complementarity. I have a boxed set of The Chronicles of Narnia that I got for Christmas when I was ten. Somewhere along the line I lost one book—The Last Battle. Bizarrely, Holly, owns one volume of the Chronicles of Narnia—The Last Battle. It’s a slightly later edition, but it fits neatly into the slipcase with the others. A complete set at last.
When I moved into my first apartment after college, in 1981, my friend Stefan gave me this can of water chestnuts as a housewarming gift. I kept moving it from apartment to apartment, house to house, throughout my twenties and thirties. I had a vague plan of writing a comic about it, as the one constant in all that flux, an eternal housewarming gift. It’s been kicking around my current home for twenty years.
Holly and I just did this massive purge of our books. I never thought I would ever get rid of books. When I read Mari Kondo’s “Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” and got to the part where she instructed you to toss your books out, I tossed her book out and kept all the other ones. But after a recent encounter with a hoarder, I can see that I really must let go of a lot of these books which are blotting out the sun. The can of water chestnuts got caught up in the purge. I’m going to open it now and see what nearly forty year old water chestnuts look like. Then I will compost them and recycle the can.
Maggie Jochild left the planet this morning. I dug back into the historical recesses of this blog and found this page where her comments created, as they always did, an elegantly digressive, looping colloquy with the other commenters. What an innocent time that pre-Facebook era was. And what a great connector we had in Maggie. She will be missed.
Sending white light out to Maggie Jochild, old blog pal from back in the pre-facebook era. She is very ill, possibly dying. Maggie met her partner Margot through this blog years ago. Margot has managed to get from the UK to Austin, TX, to be with Maggie.
This is a photo of Maggie getting her hair cut at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival back in the day. I ripped it off–hope that’s okay–from this post she made about her first time at Michigan. A highlight:
And I tell you: If I had had to deal with male socialization there on that land, I would not have found the freedom to become who I am now. It simply would not have been possible.
I am very glad Maggie became who she is now. The world is a better place. You can read more of Maggie’s work on her own blog, Meta Watershed.
Here’s Mo watching Amy Goodman on Democracy Now in a 2004 Dykes to Watch Out For strip. In case you don’t already know this, Democracy Now is where to tune in if you ever want to find out what’s really going on in the world. I have always regarded Amy as a bit of a secular saint. She tells the truth, she knows everything, she’s deeply principled—and off camera, it turns out, she’s kind of hilarious. I had the great honor of being interviewed by Amy and her colleague Nermeen Shaikh on Tuesday. They did a special segment about Fun Home on Broadway, with me, Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori.
Later that afternoon, I also appeared on Late Night with Seth Myers, along with some of the actors from Fun Home. I still think of Seth as the host of SNL’s Weekend Update, so that was a funny contrast with Democracy Now. He was really lovely, though, and it was amazing to see Emily Skeggs performing the lesbian love song “Changing My Major” on national television. What a strange day. (Here’s the full episode, with Ed Helms as the first guest, but unlike the Democracy Now clip, you will have to watch some commercials first.)
Well, I somehow find myself taking sides in the PEN Awards fracas over Charlie Hebdo. Here’s an article in today’s New York Times with links to key earlier articles, in case you haven’t been following this thing with bated breath since it erupted last week.
Art Spiegelman emailed me last Monday asking if I would be willing to come to PEN American Center’s gala tomorrow night. He was looking for cartoonists to replace the writers who had withdrawn from the event in protest of the presentation of the annual “Freedom of Expression Courage Award” to Charlie Hebdo. This was the first I had heard about the protest—or the award, or anything. I’m not a member of PEN though I keep meaning to join. Anyhow, I quickly looked it up and learned that all these great writers who I respect didn’t think Charlie Hebdo should get this award because they find the content of the magazine problematic.
In a letter to PEN, they write:
“To the section of the French population that is already marginalized, embattled, and victimized, a population that is shaped by the legacy of France’s various colonial enterprises, and that contains a large percentage of devout Muslims, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the Prophet must be seen as being intended to cause further humiliation and suffering.
Our concern is that, by bestowing the Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award on Charlie Hebdo, PEN is not simply conveying support for freedom of expression, but also valorizing selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.”
To be honest, if these people had come to me first, I probably would have signed on with them–not because I’m weak-minded and easily led (though I am) but because both sides of this debate make some really good points. But I got the call from Art, in an email whose subject line read “Cartoonists’ Lives Matter.” And I’m goin’ to the gala. What it comes down to for me is that it’s possible to separate the award—which is for courage, after all—from editorial content.
Like most Americans, I’d never heard of Charlie Hebdo until the massacre in January. So all my information about the magazine came from that context—from US news reports about the murdered writers and cartoonists which often included examples of Charlie’s cartoons, with English translations. Some charming, some crude. One that struck me as perhaps needlessly provocative showed a naked Mohammad from behind as he bowed in prayer. But the main thing I came away from these cartoons with was a sense that I just didn’t get them. Even if I could understand the words, there were too many cultural and political references I was missing. Satire is a powerful weapon, but it’s also extremely culturally specific, and often doesn’t work when it’s the slightest bit out of context.
I just discovered this great site that takes the trouble of translating not just the text, but the whole gestalt of some CH cartoons. Often something that looks at first glance like a racist or homophobic joke turns out to be making the opposite point. But it’s true that things can get pretty crude and sophomoric.
It’s not my kind of humor. But just because I wouldn’t do that kind of cartoon doesn’t mean I want to live in a world where no one is allowed to. Making space for this type of expression seems vital. Andrew Solomon, the president of PEN, said in a letter to the board defending the decision to grant the award, “There is courage in refusing the very idea of forbidden statements, an urgent brilliance in saying what you have been told not to say in order to make it sayable.”
But at the same time, the protesters are right when they point out that in an unequal society, certain unsayable things have an unequal impact.
The global response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre was huge, which was great. But there’s something askew in the world when the murder of twelve people gets exponentially more coverage and reaction in the West than the ongoing civilian casualties of US airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. There was a short article in this morning’s Times about a US airstrike on Syria that local activists say killed 52 civilians. It’s 250 words long—completely dwarfed by the media frenzy over PEN’s black tie dinner.
Of course there was also an article in the paper this morning about the attack on the “Draw Mohammed” event in Garland, Texas. This was just as reprehensible as the one on Charlie Hebdo, though it turned out differently, with the gunmen being killed. But the more I read about the organization staging the event, the more appalled I got. This goal of this group, the American Freedom Defense Initiative, really does seem to be to provoke. They use free speech rhetoric to advance their anti-Muslim agenda. If PEN were giving an award to these people, I would absolutely protest it. But Charlie Hebdo, even though it often offends, seems to be engaged in a very different enterprise.
Anyhow, it’s weird to have this big rift going on between people I think of as being on the same side. Salman Rushdie and Katha Pollitt are defending the award, and Teju Cole, Sarah Schulman and Rachel Kushner are opposing it. Andrew Solomon and Suzanne Nossel, the executive director of PEN, wrote this op-ed in the Times on Friday, in which they try to minimize the divide. “Our goal has been to avoid a reductive binary; this is a nuanced question, and all of these writers have made persuasive moral arguments.”
It’s good to have so much thoughtful conversation going on about the complicated dynamic between free speech and hate speech, between fundamentalism and xenophobia. I can’t say I am exactly looking forward to this little dinner party tomorrow night. But at the same time, I’m glad that I’m going. Violence is intended to polarize. I want to try and resist that.
Fun Home the musical opened this week on Broadway, and my life has been a crazy swirl. The play is amazing, though perhaps I am not the most objective reviewer. But the real reviews have been very, very good, so maybe I am right. Anyhow, it’s all very crazy and unreal. But here’s a great video by Eva Sollberger, who does the “Stuck in Vermont” video blog for my local VT alternative weekly paper, Seven Days. She came down to the city last week to see the play and interview me and also another Vermonter who’s in the play, Oscar Williams, who plays one of my brothers.
Watching Eva’s video has somehow helped me to feel a bit more grounded in all this hubbub.