Friday, March 19, 2010

Reading: Ngugi wa Thiong'o

Two African-American ladies in the audience cheered and applauded when Thiong'o mentioned Marcus Garvey.  Old radicals, I imagine.  Righteous.  We post-colonialists need to stick together. 

Ngugi wa Thiong'o reads more like a poet than a prose writer.  He selected a number of shorter excerpts from his memoir and linked them with reminisces and digressions.  He reminded me of an old English professor, delivering a lecture, but the deeper he goes into the material, the more he recalls scenes from his own life that coalesce off the page.  When a questioner asked about his reaction to the death of South African poet Dennis Brutus, Thiong'o recalled a story in which he and his wife were travelling with Brutus.  Thiong'o's wife went through without a problem, but Thiong'o and Brutus were held back.  Thiong'o was soon released, but as time passed, they began to worry about Brutus.  Eventually, they saw Brutus walking towards them, waving a sheet of paper.  "Look," Brutus said.  "I wrote a poem."

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Reading: Adam Haslett and Sam Lipsyte

Two hot young writers reading from their hot new novels.  I'm feeling not so hot at all, on the tail end of a cold.  For my "welcome back taste buds" meal:  pho. 

The audience seemed particularly keen on process questions:  how long did it take you to write your novel?  (5 years)  What's the difference between writing a novel and writing short stories?  (Length)  Is your work fiction or non-fiction.  (Fiction).  I wondered if the young woman who asked that last question had accidentally stumbled into the reading.  Adam, incidentally, is repped by Ira Silverberg, with whom I have a secret love affair.   

It occurred to me that many of the questioners -- most likely many of the attendees -- were aspiring writers themselves.  There were a handful of the older Philly literati who were drawn to this reading perhaps from Adam's appearance on the Today Show Book Club, but also a large number of late 20s/early 30s hipsters.  Also:  the occasional homo.  And my signing friend, Matt, who brought his son.

But when it came to question and answer time, one gentleman in the front kept needling Sam about studying with Gordon Lish.  What's the one piece of take home advice you learned from Lish or that you teach to your students at Columbia?  Both Sam and Adam gave the same approximate advice:  listen to your sentences.  Later, he had asked another Lish-related question:  what's the one piece of advice from Lish that you've had to forget or ignore?  And Sam, after relating the oft-told tale of Lish stopping students, mid-sentence, to tell them why they were fraudulent, said, "I've had to learn to let go of the fear."  The questioner revealed that he, too, had gotten a Master's in creative writing.

I think all young writers want the one-line answer to make writing seem that much easier.  The one piece of advice that makes everything snap into place. The truth of the matter is, however...

My post-reading, "welcome back taste buds" dessert:  star fruit and tart lime gelato from Capogiro.