Category Archives: Literature

“Literature is as old as speech. It grew out of human need for it, and it has not changed except to become more needed.” -John Steinbeck

Edible Ekphrasis

babette's feastLast week, I had the pleasure of watching the 1987 Danish film Babette’s Feast, directed by Gabriel Axel. Based on a short story by Karen Blixen, Babette’s Feast is set in a small village in the nineteenth century, focusing on two sisters in a strict pseudo-Puritan sect and their French cook Babette, whom they took in as an act of charity after she fled violence in France (as we all do from time to time). Her mastery of French cuisine contrasts the bland, simple food the sisters eat. Babette eventually inherits 10,000 francs, and decides to cook an elaborate, “real” French dinner for the churchgoers, who wrinkle their noses at the appearance of her imported ingredients (live quails, a turtle, various wines and champagnes), vowing not to mention the quality of the food to maintain their piety. Their decision to refrain from commenting on the food becomes more and more difficult as they eat, and the wine certainly complicates things, too.

It was one of the two last films that I watched on a Sunday night tradition that has become known as Single Guy Movie Night, hosted by a kind and brilliant PhD student and attended by myself and a fellow second-year MA student (and sometimes a married honorary single guy when he’s available). Since August, I have enjoyed our host’s meals and taste in movies, and he has occasionally tolerated the movie tastes of his guests.

This last year, I have watched more films on Sunday nights than I can remember: The 400 Blows, Road Warrior, Mad Max: Fury Road, Moonlight, Elizabeth, Halloween, Carrie, Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, Rogue One, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, Spartacus, ParaNorman, The VVitch, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, among many others. It was fitting, I think, to end with a soft film about food, and perhaps the best film about food I have seen.

There is a small canon of food films. Ratatouille remains my favorite Pixar film, and I enjoyed Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott’s 1996 Big Night, about Italian cooking. Jon Favreau’s Chef belongs in this canon, and though it is about many other, disturbing and beautiful things, Peter Greenway’s 1989 The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and His Lover is a fantastic movie centered around the act of eating/consumption.

These movies are ekphrastic, in that they are about other forms of art. Most ekphrastic storytelling tends to be about painting or music. Putting the focus on food, and therefore taste, forces the audience to think about their own taste. The visual emphasis is on preparation, ingredients, cooking, and of course eating, a meta-narrativized mirroring of what audiences do when they watch movies, not literally eating the film but taking it in, enjoying its flavors, the blend of sweet or savory scenes, bitter or vibrant dialogue. As such, these films subtly ask their audience to reckon with the art they consume, the difference between taste and appetite, the difference between taste and quality, and do so in ways that invite variation. There is plenty to choose from on the menu; what will you watch tonight?

Babette’s Feast is different. At the forefront is gentleness. Rather than for competition or financial success, the film’s protagonist chef wants to give her patrons a free, perfect meal to show her gratitude. Her patrons, again contrasting from most food films, want to lower their expectations and resist enjoying the meal. The climax is the feast, but the pleasure of this long, drawn-out scene is watching the characters resist their own pleasure, and in subtle ways fail. The audience gets to see them lose, which means for them enjoying wonderful food. Babette brings them to their satisfaction by what she offers on the plate, giving them permission to enjoy life.

I prefer gentle movies, and that is a matter of taste. I like atmosphere, music, scenery, and subtle character developments that are easy to miss. But this is taste, and I give myself permission to enjoy everything on the menu. Life is short, and if I stuck to the same kind of movie, I’d miss out on the dozens of excellent movies I’ve had the gift of watching this past year with friends. It is too late to prepare a real French dinner for them to show my thanks. This has been an obscenely difficult and unpredictable academic year that left me paranoid, disillusioned, and feeling far from gentle. Babette’s Feast reminds me I am allowed to enjoy what I consume, whatever it is, and there is nothing wrong with taking pleasure in things, in as many things as possible.

The year is over for me. What comes next is new and uncertain, but I would prefer to go into it with an expanded pallet and the energy to enjoy generously.

-jk

Regional Writers in a Globalized World

pen

“When I speak of writing from where you have put down roots, it may be said that what I urge is ‘regional’ writing. ‘Regional,’ I think, is a careless term, as well as a condescending one, because what it does is fail to differentiate between the localized raw material of life and its outcome as art. ‘Regional’ is an outsider’s term; it has no meaning for the insider who is writing about life.” -Eudora Welty, The Eye of the Story

When I write, I try to pay close attention to where I write and where I’m writing about. My nonfiction so far has focused on Arizona and the American West, where most of my life has occurred. But I had never thought of myself as a regional writer until a nonfiction instructor encouraged me to look into my university’s Place Studies program. I don’t think of myself as a regional writer, but I can understand how someone could read the hundreds of stories I’ve written about how great Flagstaff is and think I’m a regional writer.

I’m guilty of this too. From my vantage point, Ted Kooser, Mohsin Hamid, Eudora Welty, and Michelle Cliff are regional writers because they focus on places (Nebraska, Lahore, the American South, Jamaica) which I have few, if any, firsthand experiences with.

Eudora Welty offers a more useful observation when she writes, however briefly, about the perspective of the insider. She points out that the term “regional writing” is useful only for readers who are outside the writer’s perspective. Decades after she penned those words, the literary community has become wholly global, working in physical and online spaces. No one writer’s insider perspective is independent of outside influences.

Globalization’s consequences are rapidly becoming more visible for those who do not experience it directly. Climate change, free trade agreements, military investments, and world trade organizations force more and more people to emigrate. Similar forces are behind the reactionary anti-immigration ideologies that have proliferated or, more accurately, become more active again. Many writers are aware of this fact; many writers and even more readers are immigrants or the children of immigrants. One of the limits of defining writers regionally is that, more and more, literature is transnational.

Sometimes readers refuse to acknowledge this. Sometimes readers use their lack of experience with a given writer’s region as an excuse to exoticize and categorize. Doing so risks reinforcing a kind of literary colonial gaze, making a spectacle of subaltern writers for the colonial center to consume and monitor, shelving authors based on place of origin (nationality, immigration status, religion, race, ethnicity) rather than subject matter, genre, or form. Again, I have also been guilty of shelving authors this way.

More than ever, literature is a transnational affair. Many writers have inherited a multitude of regions. Their lived experiences, their insider perspectives, often reflect the broad expanse of roots these writers claim.

Eudora Welty adds that “whatever our place, it has been visited by the stranger, it will never be new again. It is only the vision that can be new; but that is enough.” If this is true, then no truly regional writer exists. In a globalized world, no region is isolated enough for a writer to inhabit it independently.

This is not to suggest the literary community is a global village or that writers should act as free-floating clouds. I could not have written Fatimah Asghar’s wonderful poem “If They Should Come for Us” or Ted Kooser’s collection The Blizzard Voices or Reyna Grande’s memoir The Distance Between Us or Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist or any of the hundreds of short stories and essays published in 2017 so far by authors both rooted and rootless. I cannot write to inhabit another person’s space; to do so is to be a tourist because I can return to the safety of my own region the moment it becomes convenient. It is better, as Welty implies, to write from the murky inside I inhabit now, not for an outsider’s diet but for the global readership that any published work has the potential to reach.

-jk


Welty, Eudora. The Eye of the Story. Vintage International, 1990.

John Steinbeck’s Peach Upside-Down Cake

the-lone-survivorIn 1902 on February 27, John Steinbeck was born, kicking off a wonderful century of war and economic strife. To celebrate his birthday, you can either have a disgusting beer milkshake or delicious mush or even a glass of extremely fresh milk. Or you can be sensible about the whole thing and make peach upside-down cake.

First, lose your land to a bank and drive to California, where the good peaches are. You should lose one or two family members on the trip, which means more cake for you. Lucky you. Find work at a peach orchard and collect four to five un-bruised peaches that you can take back to the rusted-out boiler you live in with your seven remaining children back in Monterey. Sell one of those children to buy 1/2 cup of butter, 2/3 cup of brown sugar, 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon, and use whatever is left to buy as much bourbon as possible. Slice the peaches, melt the butter, add the brown sugar and cinnamon and a little bourbon if there’s any left after you’ve coped with the Great Depression that is living in California.

Work a few shifts at an apple orchard as a scab while a strike occurs and make enough to buy 2 cups of flour, one teaspoon of baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt, two sticks of butter, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, 2 eggs, 3/4 cup of sugar, 3 teaspoons vanilla, and several more cases of bourbon because one of your children broke into your stash and is no longer with us, which means one more child who doesn’t have to live in California. Beat the butter and sugar together, the way the system has beaten you, until smooth and creamy, unlike you. Mix in eggs, vanilla,and cinnamon. Add flour and baking powder and mix together. Meanwhile, you have probably lost a few more kids in the police raid on the striking apple pickers.

Take the hubcap of a Model T Ford and place the peach slices at the bottom with the butter-sugar mix. Pour the cake batter over it and cook at 350 degrees Fahrenheit or over an open fire on the side of the road for 35 minutes or until the bosses catch you and have you sent to jail with your one remaining child.

Enjoy the cake barefoot at the side of a river while you contemplate modernism and the horrors of living in America and probably a turtle or some worthless birds or some other obvious metaphor. Also, you’re probably a metaphor for Jesus by now, so change your initial to JC.

Also, happy birthday, John Steinbeck.

-jk

Genre, Nostalgia, and The Love Witch

I don’t normally do film reviews/analysis on this blog, but a recent viewing of The Love Witch with its “aggressive strangeness,” as a friend described it, warrants a a closer look.

witchAnna Biller’s 2016 The Love Witch begins as a parody of late 1960s/early ’70s sci-fi/fantasy sexploitation B movies such as Barbarella (1968) and A Touch of Satan (1971). Biller’s film establishes a concrete cinematic nostalgia that it then goes to great lengths to critique.

Spoilers and such: The main character, Elaine, is a witch utilizing her witchiness to seduce men in her supposedly endless search for love. After having killed her husband, Elaine quickly finds a new partner (Wayne) and uses her excessive witchitudes to convince him to take her to his getaway cabin. There, she gives him a “potion,” which causes him to “feel love” too intensely and die. (Audiences can recognize that taking beverages from strangers is also a possible way to die). Elaine attributes Wayne’s death to men being unable to cope with their emotions, and moves on from there, as we all should when someone feels emotions to death.

When Elaine finds  Griff, “the right one,” the film has veered from its established genre, becoming at different points a Hallmark romcom and a buddy cop drama. Disappointed that he fails to feel love for her (and also happens to be the cop who finds that she is guilty of “loving” people to death), Elaine stabs Griff in the chest. The film ends with a disturbingly quiet fantasy of Elaine marrying Griff in a Renaissance setting, interrupting the campy tone and ending with a serious meditation on the consequence’s of the film’s own logic.

The Love Witch exploits viewers’ nostalgia for a unique cultural moment that existed only after the emergence of birth control and before the HIV/AIDS epidemic, an era that felt like it was going places and might have were it not for the sudden death of hope that came with Reagan and the moral majority.

Elaine’s treatment of men is cynical and essentialist, and the film’s male characters buy into it just as much as she does. Audiences are meant to see her views as a product of her frustration with social expectations for happiness and monogamy, and she turns to witchliness to prevent further disappointment. Witchcraft here functions as a cult-like ideology: Elaine seeks improvement in relationships and cedes her agency to something beyond her (a program/product/cult), but as a result of that program/product/cult, she only ends up killing people (which, to no surprise, ends up hurting her relationships). Witchcraft is a stand-in for any commodified, pre-packaged self-help ideology, such as Sedona’s vortexes, Scientology, or the books of Rob Bell (all of which, I’m sure, have resulted in someone’s death).

Marriage appears most colorfully in a scene at a Renaissance fair, pulling back the curtain on Elaine’s personal investment in the program/product/cult. Elaine, like many Americans, is drawn to witchcraft simply for the nostalgia of a pre-globalized Europe, one without the intrusion of Christianity but all the aesthetics of a Pagan religion without the human sacrifice and patriarchy. All the fun without the historicity. Tolkien made even whiter and somehow less sexy. Halloween ruined by Medieval and Renaissance Studies majors. The list goes on. The film critiques the audience for participating in nostalgia for a style it portrays as commodified, pre-packaged, and self-consuming.

The Love Witch dissects the way many Americans imagine the sexual revolution, which existed between two periods of extreme repression, the 1950s and 1980s, and captures the strangeness of that moment of hope while simultaneously undermining it just as violently as it was subverted historically.

The film’s generic experimentation acts as a mechanism exploiting viewers’ nostalgia. The Love Witch tricks audiences the way time and politics often do, by taking its viewers on a trip they never signed up for but feel unable to step out of, forcing them to walk away with questions and pretentious blog post ideas about witch hunts and the 1970s or something.

-jk

In the Tradition of Poems for Dogs

IMG_0128

Recently, I read Andre Alexis’s novel Fifteen Dogs. Among the many delightful things in the novel (that it starts with the gods Hermes and Apollo in a bar in modern-day Toronto, that the characters are mostly sentient dogs, that it’s filled with excellent descriptions and dog-drama) is that one of its main dog characters, Prince, becomes a poet who uses a unique poetic form intended to make sense to both humans and dogs.

The French poet Francois Caradec invented this form of poetry for dogs, and Alexis lends him credit for its invention. The form requires the sound of a dog’s name to be embedded in the poem. In this way, dogs will hear their name if the poem is read aloud, and respond in their dogly way by wagging their tails and analyzing the poem from a critical dog studies perspective.

An example from the novel, for the dog named Prince, is as follows:

“Longing to be sprayed (the green snake
writhing in his master’s hand),
back and forth into that stream–
jump, rinse: coat slick with soap” (Alexis 81)

The name Prince can be heard in the words “jump, rinse,” and supposedly a dog named Prince will hear it in the poem. The rest, apparently, will be the usual human nonsense Prince is used to hearing by now.

I wrote a poem in this form for my own dog, Pete, who has seasonal allergies and enjoys scratching his face on various surfaces, including people:

Rough carpet scratches
snatch up every face-itch
on the floor, sensations
to make easy sleep. Eat, sniff, dream
until the next itch, then scratch.

Do you have a dog? A pet? Write them a poem and see what they think.

-jk

Alexis, Andre. Fifteen Dogs. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2015

Reading Terry Tempest Williams in Zion

Zion 2This week, I had the pleasure of joining one of my best friends for a trip through parts of southern Utah, starting in Moab and ending in Zion National Park. We went for the usual reasons (viewing nature, camping, hiking, burning a dictionary and cooking quesadillas over it). After hiking the Wildcat Canyon Trail (a good ten miles of limb-crunching views), we went to our campsite and read our selected book in the fading light, both collections of short pieces on the Southwest and West, Getting Over the Color Green and Northern Lights.

In Northern Lights, I stumbled upon an essay by Terry Tempest Williams, “The Clan of One-Breasted Women.” Williams grew up in Utah in the 1950s when fallout from nuclear testing in Nevada drifted beyond the test sites. As a result, many people downwind of the tests, including her family, suffered from radiation. Williams meditates in her essay on the many women (many in her family) downwind of the test sites who developed breast cancer from the radioactive fallout.

 

At the peak of the hike in Zion, I could see far, far out into the distance. I was surrounded by a place brimming with life; the whole area is a complexity of ecosystems overlapping, intertwined: red and tan oceans spotted green or lush with ponderosa and aspen or colored with sand and pale sunlight. Much of the Southwest doesn’t look alive to the untrained eye. Deserts play tricks on us by hiding their life, but life is always there. Overlooking Zion, I was overwhelmed and haunted by its history.

Zion

In the 1860s, Mormon pioneers founded a town near Zion, Springdale, and named the nearby canyon Zion. To Mormons, Zion refers to a gathering place for the faithful, and naming the canyon was an act of claiming the land for Mormon culture. But while pioneers were in the process of colonizing the area, the region was home to Southern Paiute communities pushed out by U.S. settlement. Like much of the Southwest, Zion is part of overlapping histories and state-sanctioned narrative revision.

The place was shaped by geologic hands, the fingers of rivers, a mind of clouds and rain, then engulfed with diverse flora and fauna, indigenous communities, overrun by Spanish colonization, Mexican statehood, Mormon expedition, and U.S. authority that ignored all previous layers by deeming the Southwest an absolute desert, a place so deserted they could safely test nuclear weapons there without harming anyone or anything worth mentioning. But Williams contests, as many do, that all of it is worth mentioning, worth respecting and preserving and revering.

After reading Williams’s essay, I stargazed with my friend in the desert where the stars are aggressively visible. The Southwest is misleading to those unfamiliar with it. The stars are brighter here, the air is heavier with scent, the land is rougher, and the going can be tough. Zion, a place of peace, a place of eternity, may be an apt name. The whole Southwest may be a kind of Zion, a refuge for wanderers and romantics. Its beauty is rare and atypical, taking on strange shapes and colors, rich sounds and haunting narratives. Its beauty is misfit and misleading, but in its presence it’s impossible to miss.

-jk

Dear Harper Lee,

TKAMBWhen I heard of your passing, I went to my bookshelves to find my copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, to flip through your words, your characters,  your gracious writing. I was surprised to find it was absent from the novels. It was nowhere in my shelves. Somehow, I’d forgotten to bring it with me when I moved.

I dearly wish I’d brought it. Long ago, I was one of the many high school freshmen who read To Kill a Mockingbird, and I couldn’t put it down. I returned to it again and again in high school and college, reassessing the meaning each time. Your characters still speak to us in ways we never seem to expect.

Literary canons are uncontrollable, amorphous little creatures regularly consuming or abandoning texts, but your place in the American Canon is, I think, difficult to dispute. You’ve shaped my idea about the novel as a form, and you’ve shaped so many other great writers. You’ve also shaped my idea of how to be an American citizen when it seems that so little has improved over the decades. There is gentleness in your writing, something so absent in today’s literature and today’s America. In Atticus, Jem, and Boo Radley, you gave us a refuge for gentleness.

My bookshelf is incomplete without To Kill a Mockingbird. There is, and always will be, a place on my shelf for you, Harper Lee. You are one of the reasons I am not a complete cynic (as I’m still only three-quarters a cynic).

Rest in peace, Harper Lee.

-jk