London Feb 2012, Day Two: Behold the Man

“My name is Karim Amir and I am an Englishman born and bred, almost.” –The Buddha of Suburbia, Hanif Kureishi

Continued from Part 1.

On Saturday, February 25, 2012, my gf and I attended a conference at the University of Roehampton in London featuring the works of British author, Hanif Kureishi. The conference took place on Friday evening and all day Saturday. We arrived very late Thursday night, and then ventured out into Peckham on our own the following Friday—all of which I wrote about here & here. After those harrowing hours away from one another, we decided never to part again while I was visiting and spent the entire day of the conference glued to one another.

My gf presented her paper on Saturday morning, so we had the rest of the day to watch others present their papers, discuss novels, philosophy, literary criticism, etc., and chat with people from all around the world. In addition to the photos below, I wanted to highlight two interesting phenomena that occurred while at this conference.

First off, are you familiar with Hanif Kurieshi? I have only read The Buddha of Suburbia (1990), and I thought it a wonderful piece of fiction that I will not attach a label of ‘postcolonial‘ ‘immigrant’ ‘British migrant’ or any other lovely epigraph critics attach to  successful, yet subversive, novels. The thing is that this conference was focusing on one man. One singular author. What an amazing thing! Two days of people form Germany, America, Australia, England all joining together to talk about and discuss words one man wrote on a page. Brilliant. You should read The Buddha. It’s good & damned entertaining.

Later on during the Q & A session, when the moderator asked “Are there any other questions…?” and no one responded, I raised my hand. I’m not qualified to ask a question about Kureishi’s work. Let’s face that fact. Every other person who posed a question had at the very least published an article about one of Kureishi’s novels. I have not read much British migrant fiction, nor have I studied a great deal of postcolonialism—I focused on Marxist cultural theory, aesthetics, and feminism while studying Lit. So, I asked him something I thought would interrogate and yet illicit a generally interesting answer.

I asked, “How does it feel to come here tonight knowing that we have spent two days discussing, criticizing and (mis)interpreting you and your work?”

He replied that he found it very humbling, and that he doesn’t like to be thought about too much. He likes to sit at the side of the room. And if anyone focuses on him too much, then he is worried he’ll start to believe all the good things they say about him. He also mentioned that he wished his kids could see him, so that they don’t think he’s just a bum who sits at his computer all day while wearing pajamas. I liked this answer more than any others he gave that evening. Mostly because he was exposing his humanness. I like that.

My other quick anecdote was something my gf & I shared, and I don’t think others may have caught. When Kureishi first arrived that evening, it was in a grand room (seen from the outside in a photo above) with floor-to-ceiling windows, beautiful wood floors, and massive drapes, along with bountiful foods such as sandwiches, cheeses, fruits, etc. But he arrived for a spoken word performance piece that evening that was, apparently, an interpretation of Kureishi’s works. It was interesting. As all performance pieces, and this post, it went on a bit too long for my taste. I was sitting down near a window eating some cheese, blissfully ignoring the decorum which bespoke a social need to stand for the performance, and my gf was standing to my right. Around ten minutes into the seemingly endless performance, as we are all standing, except me, and gazing at this man on a slightly raised stage performing spoken word poetry and making what seemed random hand gesticulations, Kureishi reaches into his pocket to check his cell phone. It was glorious. Just beautiful. My gf and I seemed to be the only two who noticed, everyone else was focused on the performance. We looked at one another, opened our eyes wide and almost burst out laughing!

That one simple gesture cut through all the pretension in the room. Ecce Homo, behold the man. Behold the man checking his cell phone during a performance piece dedicated to him; behold the man, bored; behold the man, not a god, but a human who is conscious of time and the pretension of that performance piece. From then on I knew Kureishi would rather have a beer in a pub with a few of us then sit here and listen to some dudes Neo-Freudian interpretation of a novel Kureishi wrote when he was 22 years old, and brimming with lust for life and a fervent desire to understand his place in the world.

I remember one more thing Kureishi said. He said that living the creative life was the most fulfilling way to live a life. And that he wished it for his kids, and that if anyone has the opportunity or the moment to grasp a creative life for themselves, then do it. It is simply wonderful. I can see why.

Continued in Part 3: Zurück zu Deutschland

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Leaving Peckham, or An Attempt at Tourism in London

“We don’t care about no government warning / about that promotion of the simple life and the dams they are building”

-Cornershop, “Brimful of Asha” from the album When I Was Born for the 7th Time (1997)

Roehampton University

I went to London to see Marx’s grave. Well, I accompanied my girlfriend to a conference on the works of Hanif Kureishi at Roehampton University, but I went to see Marx’s grave. It was the one thing I wanted to do while in London. I was determined to see the man’s headstone. That’s it. That was my one touristy thing. It’s because I hate London. All I want is clouds, drizzling rain, fog, fish, chips, pub beer, and double-decker buses; but every damn time I go to London I get unseasonably warm weather, lost trying to find the bus stop, and really expensive food. The worst part is that no one speaks English in London. We just came from Rome, and I felt more comfortable with Italian. At the very least I can say, “Mi dispiace, non parlo Italiano,” flutter my blue eyes and look utterly charming in my ignorance. Or in Germany, where I was staying with my gf, if I try hard enough, then I can catch most of what the Germans are saying. But when you can’t understand someone in London, you cannot utter “I’m sorry, I don’t speak London-ese” and flutter your eyes. You might get punched.

Well, maybe it didn’t help that we were staying in Peckham—named by the New York Times as one of the “poorer sections of London” and, recently, the scene of the August 2011 London riots—where very little English is spoken. One of my former students spoke over six African languages. He told me that English was the toughest language he has ever learned. Maybe it would have been easier for me to try to learn a few kind words in one of the over 500 Nigerian dialects, instead of looking dumb and asking where to buy a bus pass from the bulging woman in a small shop who was diligently guarding the sacks of rice at her feet.

She came to the door in what seemed a massive effort on her part…

…and pointed behind me in the direction of what seemed a thousand different shops, internet cafes, fruit stands, hair salons, sports gambling casinos, money wiring centers, wig stores, African travel bureaus, and then became instantly frustrated by the direction of my gaze. She exited the shop and came very close to taking my hand, as you would out of frustration with a child who doesn’t see what you see, but she just kept pointing as she walked. Luckily, not more than five steps in the direction she had pointed, we found someone who spoke English (or the South London version at least) who pointed at the blue sign of a Newscafe, and told me to go there for a bus pass. I turned around to thank the woman, but she was already back in the small shop. The other woman gave me a confident glance one gives an outsider who has finally found his or her way, and I made my way to the Newscafe to get my Oyster card—London’s plastic, refillable travel card that I was now convinced was better than finding a bus pass each time I needed a ride.

I’m not completely ignorant. I don’t normally walk into small shops with 20 pound bags of rice, flour, and sugar on the floor, and a large woman in traditional African garb guarding them, and ask for a bus pass. It was out of sheer frustration that I asked her in the first place. The first person I asked, a bus driver with a clear cockney accent, whom I found at what appeared to be the Peckham bus station, told me to go to a “cornershop”.

Cornershop - Brimful of Asha DSC_9203

Cornershop – Brimful of Asha DSC_9203 (Photo credit: Plashing Vole)

God help my postmodern mind, but I could only sing the chorus to “Brimful of Asha” after hearing that word, and I forgot how purposeless my journey was becoming. What the hell is a cornershop? Well, anyway, I walked across the street and into a shop on the corner selling newspapers, packages of 19 different curries, fake plastic helicopters, “crisps,” gum, and lottery tickets—my logical definition of a “cornershop”. They were all out of bus passes. Yes, that’s an answer someone can give you in south London. I stood in line at the next shop, one corner down. This place had even more plastic crap on the walls, but fewer packages of curry. Maybe only 15 varieties this time. No bus passes. Try across the street. I must have crossed that street at least four times (back and forth, back and forth) dodging buses as tall as my home in the states—the very ones I should have been traveling inside—and cars that seemed to only come up to my waist.

I didn’t really know where to go. Well, not for a bus pass. I did have options though. I could have sent money to Nigeria or Ghana, if I knew anyone there. I could have purchased a very cheap flight to Cameroon. I could have purchased a rack of lamb and a package of that delicious looking curry. Or I could have gambled on a football team. It was out of desperation that I found the woman with the bulk bags of rice at her feet. I find that when lost, one should rely on middle-aged, heavy-set women for directions and guidance. Maybe because you get a dose of sympathy with that extended finger. At every shop before her, there was a man. And that man wouldn’t budge from behind his aerial perch where the counter was at my eye level. He couldn’t be bothered by this blonde-haired, blue-eyed, German-Swedish-American fool from the Midwest who was now stuck in south London trying desperately to get to Marx’s north London grave and say something profound, yet make it back in time to meet his girlfriend in front of the Peckham library before dinner. But this woman left her shop. She lumbered off of her stool, walked into the street with me, and made sure I got somewhere I wanted, or to someone who would help me.

It was nearly 3pm by the time I got to Marx’s grave in Highgate Cemetery East. I had to be back to Peckham by 3:30 so as to not worry my girlfriend, or leave her stranded as the only white woman in front of Peckham library not whizzing by on a bicycle, but it had taken me nearly three hours to get to Marx’s grave. I didn’t hurry though. With no phone or email access there wasn’t much I could do about it now. It seemed pointless to turn around without reaching my destination.

Marx’s grave is around a slight southern bend in the main road heading east. Although, you don’t really notice the bend; instead, one only notices the enormous and ostentatious bust of the man himself facing north.

The bust stands on the top of a nearly 6-foot tall, by nearly 4-foot wide rectangular, grey monument. If that same bust wasn’t printed on the map I purchased for £1 or the numerous brochures in the ticket office, I don’t think I would have missed its stature. Standing next to it with my 6’3” frame, I almost felt like giving it a big bear hug—if such a gesture was socially acceptable. To my surprise, there were a few roses lovingly placed near the base, and a white envelope and card bearing a single dove of peace. It felt odd that I hadn’t brought any trinkets as sacrifice.

In fact, I found that I did not have as much to say to the ginormous bust of Marx as I thought I would when I began this quixotic journey. As I was High Barnet bound on the London’s Northern tube line, I tried to remember pithy quotes from The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, but I couldn’t help eavesdropping on a saucy conversation between two Londoners wearing riding breeches and carrying equestrian helmets who were talking about getting “pissed” the night before a ride. Even though I had once spent hours underlining The Marx-Engels Reader for my Marxist Cultural Theory course two spring semesters ago, I couldn’t remember anything the man wrote. So when I arrived, I blundered and said the following while recording a quick video on my iPhone: “Well, (sigh) your dead and I’m alive. What you said and wrote may have meant something, but we all die in the end.” God! What tripe! And after all the crap I went through! It sounded like something a less-poetic, plebeian Nietzsche would say at Marx’s grave (”Also denn, Sie sind tot…”). But that was the only thing I could think to say.

Maybe I could only say those words because that bastard Marx was staring down at me like all those shop keepers who could not be bothered to come down and point me in the direction of where to buy a bus pass, or how in the hell to get across London. Maybe it was just Fight Club’s Marla Singer and her rational justification for stealing food from the elderly echoing throughout my postmodern brain: “Tragically, they’re dead. I’m alive and I’m in poverty. You want any?” Whatever it was, I wanted to be with the living at that moment and not with the dead.

Elephant and Castle, London

So, after fifteen gloriously morbid minutes with Marx, I left Highgate Cemetery East and headed back home to south London. The tube ride seemed faster this time and when boarding the #12 bus from London’s Elephant & Castle station to Peckham, I received a much headed lesson in capitalism: my Oyster card was empty. Actually it was negative £.50, and the bus driver would not let me on. I must have been an example for all the hundreds of London kids in plaid skirts and knee-high socks, carrying books and cell phones, trying to worm their way past him. I pleaded with the driver with my heavy Midwestern accent through the outline of hexagonal holes in the thick glass, trying to delay some inevitable judgment until he would finally give in and let me on. But he wouldn’t budge. I offered a £5, but he couldn’t make change—what exactly was this man’s function if not to extend a gentlemanly olive branch and let pitiable, earnest tourists on their bus in a time of need? No such luck. Reluctantly, I got off the bus and back into the crowd. I made my way back to the tube station and “topped-up” my card with £5—just enough to get me on the next #12 and out of this madness.

Coaster from Peckham apt.

The bus ride was quiet. I sat adjacent to the stairway on the upper level of the double-decker and checked my watch every 2-3 minutes. I knew she wouldn’t be mad, but I knew she would worry. I arrived at the library square, but I didn’t see her anywhere. I walked the quarter-mile concrete path hurriedly toward our second floor apartment, passing a dozen other various brick townhouses espousing the very picture of British similitude—excluding the variety of colored entry doors. When I arrived, I played my role of Romeo well—yelling up at the open window, probably interrupting some local resident’s peaceful lamb curry dinner—but to no avail. My Juliet was elsewhere. Halfway back to the library, I saw her dark purple coat in the distance walking toward me. She stopped, placed both her hands on her chest and, with a sigh, mouthed the words only a woman of Croatian-German Catholic descent would in this situation: “Oh, thank God…” We embraced like two refugee lovers, and agreed never to part again during our time together.

London Feb 2012, Day One

“It never rains, nor is it foggy, whenever I visit London… pop culture has lied to me.
Although, I did solve a mystery of theatrical proportions.”

While visiting my gf in Germany this past February (yes, for Valentine’s day—for which I received a red, heart-shaped sucker upon my arrival to the Frankfurt airport) we traveled to London, England for a two-day conference featuring Hanif Kureishi at the University of Roehampton. This is the first of a three part post documenting our stay in London.

The first day we decided to go our separate ways—an awful mistake that shall not oft be repeated! While she would finalize her essay, I crossed London (south to north) to visit Herr Karl Marx in London’s Highgate East Cemetery—a philosophical visit I wrote about upon our return to Germany, and I later posted to this blog: here.

We stayed in Peckham, which is located in south London. Not the best area in London, as it recently became famous for hosting the 2011 riots, but it was cheap and a wonderful & enlightening experience. I wrote about maneuvering my way through Peckham a few months ago, and I will post have posted it within the next few days to this blog. It was quite the cultural adventure!

Many of these pics are of graves—and that seems to be a theme for me (see my Boston 2012 page)—so, I will do my best to reconcile that asap! Too many pics of dead people and rocks are not good for the blogger’s spirit… unless you are blogging about death, of course.

Hope you do enjoy them. All pics were taken with my handy-dandy iphone 4s. I didn’t even bring my point-and-shoot with me.

Continued on Day Two: Behold the Man.

Book Review: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering GeniusA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Yes, 4 stars.
Let’s just get this out of the way: I liked this book. I hope to pick it up again in a few years and enjoy it for other reasons. So, if you don’t like this book, then you should either a) choose another review to read that supports/validates your opinion, b) read this review to see why I liked it so much (& maybe politely disagree with me), or c) read this review and wholeheartedly abandoned your previous conclusion. Go on… I’ll give you some time to decide.

I think something impressive is happening with Dave Eggers’ writing. First off, this is the first novel I have read of his and I did so only after reading a raving review of his latest novel in the NYT Sunday, July 29th Book Review, which I stole from a Starbucks (you know, that wire rack that people put newspapers after they are done with them? That place. It’s next to the fireplace). Eggers confronts the notion of fiction and non-fiction, whether he wants to or not. He refers to his work as “fiction” in the books catalog page, or “semi-fictional” or “semi-autobiographical,” and even once “nonfiction” during the Mistakes We Knew We Were Making section. All these labels really do not matter, simply because all the notes, appendices, etc. that many readers/critics refer to as “postmodern” is Eggers confronting the line between non-fiction and fiction, simile and reality, metaphor and fact. (This is, yes, postmodern, in its confrontation with what we know of as the Modern, plot-driven novel that we often come to expect from our education system of reading The Old Man and the Sea, All Quiet on the Western Front, or 1984 in high school, but that’s another discussion).

You see, there is no possible way for fiction to be eradicated. Any true memoir does not exist, but only in the mind of the author who purports it as such, and the readers who think this phenomenon possible. There is no such thing as non-fiction. Eggers knows this. (Sure, that statement sounded powerful, but how in the hell could I know that he knows that?). No story you tell me, or anyone for that matter, could possibly be a true account of what occurred. It is only a true account of what occurred from your perspective, and your perspective is colored by gender, race, class, sexual orientation, languages known, hair color, age, foot size, diseases had, family lineage, whether both grandparents are still alive, get the point? So, this is what ultimately fascinates me about this text: it’s desire to cling to non-fiction (real phone #’s, addresses, names, etc.), while acknowledging the inability of the author to remember everything and not take “artistic license” for most of the text (example: Bloodstream footnote on page 35 of the Mistakes section reads “This did not happen as stated… I changed and inserted this because it seemed like a good idea at the time”). Of course.

Eggers admitting the use of fiction in order to make a more cohesive story should be an “ah-ha!” moment for the reader simply because it is hilarious! The levity with which he treats a memoir should be duly noted and observed with the same levity. We should NOT take this book seriously as clinging to fiction or non-fiction, nor should we fall into the trap of wanting some break-neck narrative that grips our emotions, blaah, blaah, blaah. This book is much smarter (ugh, quirkier?) than a simple, straight-forward narrative. Again: something very interesting is happening with this text. It could easily have been a straight-forward narrative. Or it could easily have been David Foster Wallace with endless footnotes, small print, and meandering, if existent, plot lines. No. Eggers needs the narrative as a vehicle for his literary criticism; his challenge to genre classification.

Well, this leaves me with the Concluding Paragraph in this 5-paragraph schematic, doesn’t it? Well, you can skip ahead to this point if you would like, but you missed some cool italics and links. Honestly: don’t read this book. (Sorry, Dave!) Buy it, but don’t read it. (There, better?). Especially if prone to complaining about “self-awareness” or “pomo” in writing; and especially if you hate short, choppy sentences. Dickens can make a damn fine semicolon do the work of ten of Eggers’ periods.

P.s. Wow. You made it this far. Congrats. Now welcome to my rant for the reviewers of this book on GR. For those of you who feel this book is to “selfish” or “narcissistic”–all of you writing 17,000 character reviews spouting your opinion, bashing another person’s supposedly self-centered writing, criticizing another person’s “narcissism” on your blog devoted to your life–I have an exercise for you. Go to a mirror–any mirror. Look at the person in the mirror. Now pinch that piece of flesh on your neck, just below your chin. Tell me if it hurts? Yes? Good. That means that you are the only person who can feel your pain, your pleasure, your disgust, your happiness, etc. You are the only person who can tell me what it feels like to have your own neck pinched, or lose both your parents, or raise your younger brother alone. Getting up in the morning is the single most selfish act imaginable. Writing about it doesn’t change that. So quit complaining about another person’s successful ability to tell a story. Get over the fact that someone wrote about themselves. Everyone does. Every single character ever created possesses some trait of a real, live individual the author met, or imagined he or she met. So, trying to be honest about it and calling your book a memoir is just owning up to that phenomenon. And Eggers wrestles with that phenomenon very well. So, you can disagree with me. You can write a scathing review about Eggers’ book. But please, please don’t waste our time by criticizing Eggers’ supposed narcissism. Criticize the style, the language, the syntax, the plot; but shut up about your projected passive fear of your own beautiful narcissism.

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