As a very small cog in the vast, grinding literary-industrial complex, I’m always happy when literature makes the front page. The big prizes, and the juicy backstories (like the hints of plagiarism that surround Yann Martel, the winner of this year’s Booker prize), the public dustup between Oprah and would-be literary heavyweight Jonathan Franzen … it all helps minor lit-crit types like me feel like we’re part of a cool, socially relevant endeavour.
Now, literature has really made the big time: it's been enlisted in the War on Terror. The U.S. State Department has assembled a crack literary unit and commissioned a book of essays on What It Means to be an American Writer, to be distributed around the world. I’m guessing that the President didn’t have anything to do with the selection himself, given that he’s famously not much of a reader (reportedly, asked what his favourite book was as a child, he picked The Very Hungry Caterpillar – even though it wasn’t published until 1969. It’s now officially listed on the White House children’s pages as his "favourite book for children" – nice save, George!).
In any case, the sixty-page anthology is an intriguing collection, with some surprisingly good writing. And in case you're wondering, it's not propaganda at all, says contributor Bharati Mukherjee in an interview on National Public Radio. On the contrary, it's just an effort towards "transforming the hearts and minds of people who either don't know us, or without cause, are disproportionately angry." (What would they be disproportionately angry about, do you think? This toy, for example, a miniature rendition of a military command post in a bombed-out house, manned by a heavily armed plastic soldier? Barbie meets Rambo under the Christmas tree…).
Anthologies always invite a spot of bean-counting, of course. The fifteen contributors (who were paid the slightly odd sum of $2499 each) include nine well-known white men along with five women -- two Arab-American women writers (Elmaz Abinader and Naomi Shihab Nye); Julia Alvarez, a Dominican novelist; Native American (Chickasaw) writer Linda Hogan, and the Calcutta-born author Bharati Mukherjee who asserts her identity as an un-hyphenated plain old American – and, in the Colin Powell/Condi Rice corner, distinguished African-American author Charles Johnson.
If you're interested in having your heart and mind transformed, you can pick up a copy at your local American Embassy (and they're translating it into thirty or so languages other than English), or read the whole thing online. The online version is especially useful for US-based readers: thanks to a law that prohibits the domestic distribution of propaganda aimed at foreigners, the anthology itself is banned here. Wouldn't want the government telling people what to think, now, would you…
What else I’m reading at the moment: The Book of Iris, Derek Challis’s monumental biography of his mother, Iris Wilkinson, better know as Robin Hyde. Begun in the late 1960s by Gloria Rawlinson, then abandoned for almost three decades, this is a hugely detailed account of the extraordinary and difficult life of an extraordinary and difficult writer. Like Virginia Woolf or Colette or any number of modernistas, Hyde’s persona was larger than life: she treated the world as a stage and wore her art like a costume. I’m only a couple of chapters into the biography, but enjoying it immensely. Maybe I’ll follow it up with Roger Horrocks’ biography of Len Lye, another world-class artist from the homeland.
And I just finished a marvelous book called Babycatcher, by Peggy Vincent, a California based homebirth midwife, who caught some two and a half thousand babies during her long career. We all know where babies come from, of course, but it’s easy to forget (even if you’ve recently been on one end or the other of a delivery). This book recounts dozens of births, in hospitals, hippie houses, and, in one memorable case, on a fishing boat in the middle of a huge storm. It’s bloody fascinating reading (pun sort of intended), and seems pretty damn seasonal to me: what is the Christmas story, after all, if not an account of a blessedly uncomplicated homebirth-on-the-road? Talk about your spiritual midwifery…