Reading for Resistance

Book Reviews

You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.

— James Baldwin

On Trump’s inauguration day, we filled the streets in protest. The following day, we marched with an estimated 3 million women around the country. While there are no protests or marches happening today, the writing on the wall is apparent: now is the time to organize and mobilize against Trump, against fascism, against U.S. imperialism.

My feet are still aching but my heart is achingly fully. Two marches in two days is a new record for me but I intend to keep on going, for as long as the world I live in resembles the oppressive reality of the present. Today, an offering: reading for resistance.

Recent acquisitions: a lot of classics (that I should’ve read a long time ago), a book on mindfulness and a relatively new novel.

I’m finishing up Juan Felipe Herrera’s Notes on the Assemblage (Amazon | Indie Bound) and it couldn’t be more timely as he writes about the struggles of black and brown folks through poetry. He writes poems about immigrants and workers, odes to working-class heroes, and letters to intimate figures in a way that commemorates and affirms their work and influence.

Doing the work that’s needed at this critical time can only be strengthened by reading the kind of literature that aids the struggle for justice and liberation. Books that expand our consciousness, drawing from important lessons of the past.

To survive, democracy needs a truly radical, truly independent press more than ever before. We need to create a culture in this country in which reading and resistance go hand-in-hand.

— Howard Zinn

Haymarket Books compiled a list of books to make 2017 a year of resistance and it includes revolutionary literature that would continue to inspire us in the struggle. Here’s a few from the list:

Literary Hub also came out with a list of recommended reading by writers for the next four years, with recommendations from poets like Ocean Luong and Eileen Myles.

A local bookstore in San Francisco, City Lights Bookstore, also came out with their own pedagogies of resistance. What I love about this list is that it is more inclusive, with resources for organizing in the queer community.

I’m thinking of compiling all these resources in the blog at some point and make it an evolving list. The next four years is going to be a rough one, and we’ll need all the help we can get. If you have other resources, leave them in the comments below!

For now, read and resist!

James Baldwin on Martin Luther King, Jr: “For one thing, to state it baldly, I liked him.”

Sunday Spotlight
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James Baldwin and Martin Luther King, Jr. 

I think the first time I learned about Martin Luther King, Jr. was on MLK day in 2005. It hasn’t been a year yet since my family moved to the U.S., and I started working at a small business owned by my aunt’s ex-husband. Like many new to the country, I was infinitely curious about American culture and a holiday as big as MLK day prodded my young, immigrant mind to inquire.

Since then, I’ve seen his name quoted by several writers, read his name on many books, watched films that memorialized him. Given my own struggles as a queer, brown, immigrant woman in the country, I cannot not know who he is. His legacy meant survival for a lot of folks — for black folks, but for immigrants and people of color as well. People from the Third World like myself owe it to the Civil Rights Movement and black leaders for their work and struggle for justice and equality, which has continuously inspired us to struggle for self-determination ourselves.

Beyond his infamous speeches and his legacy, I wanted to know and understand his persona from a writer’s perspective. I found this through James Baldwin’s profile on him, “The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King” first published on Harper’s in 1961. The article can also be found in Baldwin’s collection nonfiction anthology The Price of the Ticket where I was finally able to read it. 

Baldwin seemed to know exactly what I wanted to know: “I wanted to ask him [King] how it felt to be standing where he stood, how he bore it, what complex of miracles had prepared him for it.”

What follows is a Baldwin’s account of meeting, listening and witnessing MLK from the church to the solitude of his desk, where he was working on a book. Baldwin wrote that he liked him, that he was “winning” (there’s really no other word for it). He described a man of modesty, of steady temperament, someone incapable of grudges. And because he himself wanted to be a preacher, Baldwin draws on MLK’s gift for speaking:

The secret lies, I think, in his intimate knowledge of the people he’s addressing, be they black or white, and in the forthrightness with which he speaks of those things which hurt and baffle them. He does not offer any easy comfort and this keeps his hearers absolutely tense. He allows them their self-respect — indeed, he insists on it.

This intimate knowledge of the people he’s addressing speaks to me on so many levels, particularly at a time of political uncertainties. MLK Day this year is just a mere four days away from the inauguration of Donald Trump as the country’s next president, a sure cause for alarm.

With the new president’s predisposition to spew racism, misogyny and bigotry towards everything he’s not, it is perfectly right to be scared. When I saw Zadie Smith at Book Passage in Corte Madera for a reading, I remember her saying that Obama must have loved his enemies because they were also a part of him. I can’t help but be reminded of MLK himself, as Baldwin was a close witness.

I overheard him explaining to someone that bigotry was a disease and that the greatest victim of this disease was not the bigot’s object, but the bigot himself. And these people could only be saved by love. In liberating oneself, one was also liberating them.

What does it mean, in our times, to know that people like Trump and his army of bigots, could only be saved by love? How does that look like, and how can that even be manifested?

It’s been one of the many questions I have as of late, as I navigate different movements centered on liberation. It’s either my own political consciousness hasn’t transcended anger yet, or that I am caged by what I think is the only solution. Nevertheless, his vision remains and while it is hard for me to grasp, I believe there is a continuum of light.

To read Baldwin’s profile on MLK, you can go here (p. 249).

Note: This blog post contains spoilers — read at your own risk!

It all started with Colson Whitehead’s book The Underground Railroad. After reading it and seeing Colson in person in San Francisco, I’ve wondered whether the book was going to make it into the big screen. The good news came after I found out Barry Jenkins closed a deal to adapt Whitehead’s masterpiece for television.

I’ve never heard of Barry Jenkins but soon enough, I started seeing his name on headlines again and this time, for a movie that’s been hailed as “best of the year” — Moonlight.

I saw the movie last night at the New Mission and I saw what everyone else has seen: a three-part coming-of-age movie with layers of brokenness and tenderness, with Chiron, a gay black man at the center.

I’ve always looked up to queer black writers for their genius and while I am a queer immigrant woman of color, I realized that so many of the film’s elements have influenced a lot of my own life in three particular ways, through three brilliant poets: James Baldwin, Danez Smith and Saeed Jones.

My bookshelf beckoned:

In Saeed Jones’s book Prelude to Bruise, I reread a few of my favorite poems like Blue Prelude and After Last Light. After a particularly hard day at school, after being made fun of his demeanor, his clothes, Chiron made it to the ocean where he met up with Kevin. The latter has been the former’s sole friend. By the water, Chiron was raw, honest, vulnerable.

A moonless night cliff-side steals the sea
from us. What was sapphire beyond churlish blue

is just howl now: waves darker than closed eyelids
wreck the rocks we also can’t see. Sunlight forgot

the two of us here. The taste of salt, an ungiven kiss
on our lips. And silence is the rush of blood

in our ears, a violet pause between your question
and what I will not say. I have no answer;

my throat is the ocean now.

 —Saeed Jones, After Last Light

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Chiron, Kevin (Moonlight, 2016)

When he was younger and ran away from a group of boys who was bullying him, he hid in an abandoned house where he was discovered by Juan, a drug-dealer-turned-father-figure. Every time Chiron felt like he couldn’t stay at home, with a mother who was addicted to crack cocaine, he ran off to Juan’s house where he and his partner Teresa (Janelle Monaé!) took care of him. Juan took Chiron to the beach one time, where he taught him how to swim. In spite of the dynamics of their relationship — Juan, being the drug dealer, his mother, the crack cocaine addict — the scene of teaching the young one how to swim moved me beyond words. I turned to James Baldwin with a poem from Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems.

Lord,
when you send the rain,
think about it, please,
a little?
Do
not get carried away
by the sounds of falling water,
the marvelous light
on the falling water.
I
am beneath the water.
It falls with great force
and the light
Blinds
me to the light.

–James Baldwin, Untitled

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Juan teaching a young Chiron how to swim (Moonlight, 2016)

Lastly, I turned to Danez Smith’s [insert] boy as I thought of Chiron’s relationship with his mother. It was a tumultuous relationship, punctuated by periods of respite with Teresa (Juan had passed at this time). When he was much older, he was able to reconcile with this mother and it was in these moments that I felt like he was finally at peace. She knew he was “soft,” she knew he was suffering but her own suffering was primary. I’ll never know how this feels — a black child and his mother in pain — but in Smith’s book, I found some answers.

1. smoke above the burning bush
2. nemesis of summer night
3. first son of soil
4. coal awaiting spark & wind
5. guilty until proven dead
6. oil heavy starlight
7. monster until proven ghost
8. gone
9. boy
10. phoenix who forgot to un-ash
11. god of shovels & black veils
12. what once passed for kindling
13. fireworks at dawn
14. brilliant, shadow colored coral
15. (I thought to leave this blank
but who am I to name us nothing?
16. prayer who learned to bite & sprint
17. a mother’s joy & clutched breath

–Danez Smith, Alternate Names for Black Boys 

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Chiron, in Atlanta (Moonlight, 2016)

Go see this movie — now. And after the movie’s done, this blog post will be here for with its poems and Chiron’s story, memorialized.

“You’re the only man that’s ever touched me.” 

I’ll be thinking and dreaming of this for days.

Must-Read Books After Watching MOONLIGHT

Sunday Spotlight

You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, and then you read.

– James Baldwin

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Happy belated birthday to poet, writer and beloved radical James Baldwin. Here’s a previous post I wrote about how I’ve been inspired by Baldwin and his work.

I finished Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman last week, a book about a woman in her 70’s in Beirut whose only companions (and family) were books that filled every nook of her home. It is, infinitely, a book lover’s delight (my review will be out on Tuesday).

Here are some Libromance posts that, in Baldwin’s spirit, continue to give us worlds:

Writing as Magic, with Stephen King
An Unlikely Currency: Books
A Different Way of Looking, with Marcel Proust and Alain de Botton
Sunday Spotlight: Filipino Literature
#IAmAnImmigrant: My Story in 5 Books

Happy reading!

Muse if You Must: And Then You Read

Sunday Spotlight

I visited the Pierre Bonnard: Painting Arcadia exhibit over the weekend, at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. I have never heard of Bonnard nor seen any of his works before, but as of late anything French has been a keen interest. The second part of the exhibit, curated by Esther Bell features the artist’s intimisme, painted works which detail domestic interiors with an intimate subject matter. He depicted scenes at the breakfast table, women reading the newspaper awashed in morning light, tables laden with food. What Bonnard does is capture these moments tenderly, reminiscent of the way the writer Marcel Proust proposed a different way of looking in Alain de Botton’s How Marcel Proust Can Change Your Life.

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The Breakfast Table (ca. 1925, Oil on Canvas)

The effect of these painted works on me was heightened, with Adam Gopnik’s book Paris to the Moon fresh on my mind. I got a used copy at the SF Big Book Sale in April, after seeing Alain de Botton’s (again) praise on the cover. I picked up it in a hurry without reading what it was about, and the book proved to be an exercise in good judgment.

Paris to the Moon details Gopnik’s move to Paris with his wife Martha and his son Luke from New York in 1995. He talks briefly about his childhood, blithely recounting the cardboard Parisian policeman he once had, family vacations in Europe to meeting Martha, who loved Paris as much as he did. I had to heave several sighs of wistful longing. After Luke was born, the family made its way to across the Atlantic to an apartment on the Left Bank street, second floor.

The odd thing in making a big move is the knowledge that your life will be composed of hundreds of small things that you will arrive at only by trial and error, and that for all the strikes and seminars you attend, the real flavor of life will be determined, shaped by these things.

 

My fascination with Paris, and France in general, started with literature (as do other things in my life). It wasn’t too long ago when I regarded France with a bat of the hand, scrunching up the side of my face after rolling my eyes and mouthing “colonizer.” But James Baldwin changed all of that.

When I read one of his books, Giovanni’s Room, I was glued to the characters of David and Giovanni’s lives in the tiny room that was ‘theirs.’  I started reading more about Baldwin after that, wanting to understand why France was ideal for him. When you hail from a Third World Country, it is usually the American Dream that permeates your ancestral and personal ideal. In an interview with The Paris Review, Baldwin states: It wasn’t so much a matter of choosing France—it was a matter of getting out of America. 

Nevertheless, France became a refuge for the writer, while I joined the nameless group of writers who think of France as a sort of literary mecca. While I have never been to the country, I think Gopnik summarizes what draws the Francophile in:

It is not an old or antiquated Paris that we love, but the persistent, modern material Paris, carrying on in a time of postmodern immateriality, when everything seems about to dissolve into pixels. We love Paris not out of “nostalgia” but because we love the look of light on things, as opposed to the look of light from things, the world reduced to images radiating from screens. Paris was the site of the most beautiful commonplace civilization there has ever been: cafes, brasseries, parks, lemons on trays, dappled light on bourgeois boulevards, department stores with skylights, and windows like doors everywhere you look.

 

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The Cafe “Au Petit Pucet,” Place Clichy in the Evening (1928, Oil on Canvas)

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La Place Clichy (1912, Oil on Canvas)

L’intimité de la vie quotidienne, with Adam Gopnik and Pierre Bonnard

Art + Creativity, Book Reviews

Sunday Spotlight: James Baldwin 

Sunday Spotlight

I read everything. I read my way out of the two libraries in Harlem by the time I was thirteen. One does learn a great deal about writing this way. First of all, you learn how little you know. It is true that the more one learns the less one knows. I’m still learning how to write. I don’t know what technique is. All I know is that you have to make the reader see it. –James Baldwin, The Art of Fiction No. 78 (The Paris Review)

The words of James Baldwin — essayist, novelist, poet, playwright and social critic — has always stayed with me ever since I read Giovanni’s Room. Reading Baldwin is a little like reading parts of yourself that you’ve never discovered, the kind that ignites and widens your emotional capacity to care, to grieve, to give what you thought you didn’t have in order to immerse yourself in the beauty of his work.

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I held Giovanni’s Room close to my chest after finishing it, aware that my body is mildly trembling, previously racked with sobs. The weight of his words coupled by a clarity that can only be articulated in Baldwin’s way pierces to this day.

I have never reached you. You have never really been here. I do not think you have ever lied to me, but I know that you have never told me the truth — why? Sometimes you were here all day long and you read or you opened the window or you cooked something — and I watched you — and you never said anything — and you looked at me with such eyes, as though you did not see me. All day, while I worked, to make this room for you. (Giovanni’s Room)

His poetry and essays have also influenced me as I continue to seek my own ways of writing, of being able to impart my experience as a queer immigrant. I read The Fire Next Time as the black community continued to face increasing state violence, bearing testament to the truths he has long written. With the murders of Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin, Baldwin’s A Letter to my Nephew came to mind.

To be loved, baby, hard at once and forever to strengthen you against the loveless world. Remember that. I know how black it looks today for you. It looked black that day too. Yes, we were trembling. We have not stopped trembling yet, but if we had not loved each other, none of us would have survived, and now you must survive because we love you and for the sake of your children and your children’s children. (The Fire Next Time)

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In Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems, poet Nikky Finney penned the introduction and spoke of Baldwin’s poetry and his position as a poet: “He wrote with an engaged, layered, facile hand. The idea being explored first clinched, then stretched out, with just enough tension to bring the light in.” While I was not familiar with his poems, it wasn’t hard to see what Nikky was referring to. There was courage in his poems, and a reliable language that lets us witness the ease of complicated things.

At the dark street corner
where Guilt and Desire
are attempting to stare each other down
(presently, one of them
will light a cigarette
and glance in the direction
of the abandoned warehouse)
Love came slouching along,
an exploded silence
standing a little apart
but visible anyway
in the yellow, silent, streaming light,
while Guilt and Desire wrangled,
trying not to be overheard
by this trespasser.
(Guilt, Desire and Love)

When All Those Strangers: The Art and Lives of James Baldwin by Douglas Field came out, I got my hands on a copy in order to know more about him. From hanging out with Jewish Trotskyites in New York at a young age to participating in a May Day rally, he became more of a human being to me more than an idealized icon.

What intrigued me though as I finished the first few chapters of the book was Baldwin’s own complicated definition of himself — from a revolutionary to a writer. The FBI even kept a file on him, as they deemed his writing dangerous. His conversations were frequently tapped and he was constantly followed, as Hoover equated any radical work as communist propaganda.

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The Bureau’s attempts at literary analysis suggests the ways in which agents struggled to read and interpret literature that was not plotted in line with conventional American ideals: works such as Baldwin’s, which deviated from acceptable parameters and tackled themes of homosexuality, race or violence were deemed alien or subversive. –Douglas Fields, All Those Strangers: The Art and Lives of James Baldwin

Field also goes into Baldwin’s radicalization as well as marginalization as a black, gay writer in the Civil Rights era. Cheryl Clarke writes that it was not easy for the middle-aged, queer Baldwin to gain membership in a movement that homogenized political views and identity categories. Still, he continued to write with Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone with Christopher as the main character — his ideal for the late 1960s: “a young and beautiful black man who combines tenderness with aggressive political action.”

Last Christmas, my sister gifted me with an essay collection of Baldwin’s later novels. The gesture warmed my heart. I admit that it is ambitious for me to even write about Baldwin because of the scale of his work, the depth of his influence but just as Field acknowledged in his book, it is truly an honor.

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Baldwin passed the same year I was born. Writer Toni Morrison wrote a tribute for him at The New York Times, citing three gifts that he had given her: language, courage and tenderness. I read this tribute frequently, along with Nikky’s introduction as much as I come back to his work often.

To Baldwin, and to a reverence for his being and his work, an eternal celebration from Toni:

Yours was a tenderness, of vulnerability, that asked everything, expected everything and, like the world’s own Merlin, provided us with the ways and means to deliver.
I suppose that is why I was always a bit better behaved around you, smarter, more capable, wanting to be worth the love you lavished, and wanting to be steady enough to witness the pain you had witnessed and were tough enough to bear while it broke your heart, wanting to be generous enough to join your smile with one of my own, and reckless enough to jump on in that laugh you laughed. Because our joy and our laughter were not only all right, they were necessary. –Toni Morrison, Life in His Language (The New York Times)