Friday, May 28, 2010

You had me at Arafalo ...

A while ago, Ben Spurr who writes for posted this very pleasant entry for a (Not So) Nice Italian Girls & Friends reading that I co-organized ... 

Michelle Arafalo is a busy gal. Between time working as a co-editor at prestigious Canadian literary quarterly Descant, she's also a blogger and author in her own right. Her well-received 2008 book Made Up of Arias delved into the life of an Italian immigrant family, and her cultural background as an Italo-Canadian is her favourite source material. She helms a bill of like-minded Italian girls tonight for a reading of poetry and short stories.

Ai yi...much as I appreciate the kind words, I kind of wish my last name had been spelled correctly. He linked to this blog but the spelling of my last name is a mystery.

And it's interesting what's out there that's not exactly correct.

I volunteer with Descant (prestigious true) but, alas, I am not a paid employee. I am merely a minion, one of many.

My book Made Up of Arias (of which I am enormously proud) received very little critical attention because it was published by a small literary press which doesn't have much of a distribution channel (they are working on that though). I did get a very nice blurb from Nino Ricci, a colleague and a literary superstar here in Canada and around the world. So that was an enormous boost for me.

"Her cultural background as an Italo-Canadian is her favourite source material" - yeah, I will cop to that. But I'm trying to break free of that...after all, I am more than a female, more than Italo-Canadian, no? I hope I am. It's funny to be identified that way as I had striven so hard as a teenager and young adult to be free of that label. That's why I like the "(Not So) Nice Italian Girl" moniker so much - it's a cheeky subversion of the stereotype - an acknowledgment of what we aspire to be at times for our families and what we are truly.

The poster above says it all ... we so much want to be loved even for our transgressions as writers and artists. We fear the disapproval of familyand friends yet feel compelled to write in this fashion, to express what we really are: not so nice Italian girls.

Back in the day (this was the nineties), myself and a friend, LD, organized two readings: one was called "Nice Italian Girls" with female writers and the other was "Nice Italian Boys" with male writers at the Green Room in the Annex. It created a bit of a stir in the Italo-Canadian community and we got a lot of great press at the time.

LD and I became estranged. A baby and a career change later and the series was never continued.

Now carrying more than lipstick and a mortgage I moved on to trying to find financial stability for the famiglia and trying to write in a more consistent fashion.

When I had a landmark birthday recently I started thinking...when was I going to do those things that I had been thinking about but not acting on - like resurrecting the reading series? What are you waiting on girl, get a move on I thought.

So I sought out the assistance of friend and poet GR to organize the series. I asked the husband to help with posters and started to plumb the depths of my literary friendships. So far so good ... the series has been a satisfying experience - organizing readers, creating the posters, placing adverts, being the emcee on occasion. I've enjoyed it all.

Stay tuned for more "Not So Nice" literary action...

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Ke$ha's Currency

Trying to navigate the barrage of images of women in pop culture is more than a little unnerving for the parents of a teenage girl. You are trying to instill a sense of self-respect, independent thought and style in her and perhaps steer her away from the more negative portrayals of young women in the media.

And then there is the pop singer Ke$ha. Yes, Kesha with a dollar sign - that's how she spells it. Ke$ha.

You may recognize her from the video/song "Tik Tok" where she talks about brushing her teeth with a bottle of Jack before going out for a night of drinking, carousing and trying to keep guys from touching her "junk". Her other big hit is "Your Love is My Drug" where she compares herself to a crackhead because of the way she feels about a guy. I have exposure to her music because I have a teenage daughter and because I love dance music.

Ke$ha takes a lot of heat from pretty much everyone - some but not all critics, derisive listeners/spectators, the media. Is she the talentless "skank" that she is made out to be by some? Does she represent the death of pop music?

Among the gentler observations are these: "Just about the only thing Ke$ha makes convincing on Animal [her debut album] is that the current crop of party girls are every bit as soulless as they let on." and "It’s hard to remember the last time an album so flat and vacuous generated such a buzz." Her recent eccentric SNL performance either delighted with its weirdness or invited derision. Much much worse has been said (usually on music or celebrity blogs) and we don't need to repeat those criticisms here.

But is she better or worse  than other male singers - regaling us with stories of getting high or drunk, chasing "hos", and the general antics of boys gone bad. No, likely not, yet we reserve a special scorn and revulsion for the Ke$has of the world. Is she worse that Lil Wayne? Pete Doherty? Chris Brown?

As I've tried to explain to my daughter - your intelligence and talents pale before your sexual antics when you are in the public eye - they define your public persona. Whatever you are, will be viewed through the lens of your perceived sexual "digressions" as a female. I'm not sure it's that different for the average girl either. It's both absolutely unfair and absolutely true.

And every aspect of the female image is up for examination: hair, make-up, weight, breasts, clothing, jewelery, size of one's lips - no area is left unexamined and/or assessed for its desirability. You can hardly say that boys and men are evaluated in that manner in the music industry.

Welcome to the dominant representation of female sexuality in the 21st c. brought to you by youtube, the ubiquitous webcam now equipped on every computer, gossip blogs and celebrity culture. Ke$ha is likely just one 21st c. manifestation of the "Brothel without Walls" that Marshall McLuhan envisioned in the 1960s. Then, he referred to photography and the germs of celebrity obsession as “the brothel-without-walls". This was comprised of images of celebrity that “can be bought and hugged and thumbed more easily than public prostitutes".

A few weeks ago, R and I saw a CONTACT photography exhibit at the University of Toronto Art Centre by the same name - "Brothel without Walls" - that encompassed many photographic images that interested me. For me, among the most disturbing were the JonBenet style portraits of young girls by Susan Anderson (some as young as five years old) from various parts of the U.S. - made up for beauty contests complete with false eye lashes, elaborate hair weaves, lipstick, spangles and high heels. These images of little girls are as alien to me and my daughter as extra-terrestrials. The curators' notes state that Anderson is "documenting the parents' desire to measure up to the image of the world that surrounds them". I wonder.

But what hit a little closer to home were the staged photos of teenage girls by the young photographer Evan Baden (too graphic to post here or describe in great detail) in various poses of enticement: taking photos of themselves half naked in the safety of their bedrooms with their own cameras, self-pleasuring for a webcam and, thirdly, a shot of what appears to be pre-coital engagement by a young couple who are videotaping themselves for the camera, obviously to be broadcast or posted on the internet.

Baden has created and staged fictional scenarios with volunteers but what of the girls who do this in real life? Why expose themselves like this? Isn't it demeaning to these girls? Why willingly participate in this game?

Unfortunately, I would venture to say their sexuality is sometimes the only currency some girls have to is both potent and highly sought after. They know instinctively that the period during which they will be perceived as desirable is short.

What power do these girls exert in their lives? Even if they are talented, intelligent, skilled athletically? What is that compared to how they are praised, perhaps compensated and rewarded emotionally, and possibly monetarily, for their physical attributes and sexual favours?

I think there is a point when many young girls realize that certain dreams will not be realized - some too absurdly hopeful to recount aloud. They are not impossible dreams but they are mostly shall we say...unlikely, improbable. I certainly had these aspirations and they soon evaporated. If I were the scion of a rich family with endless means living in Rosedale or the Upper West side of Manhattan they might have been more easily realized. They had a greater chance of realization had I not been the eldest daughter of a working class widow with three mouths to feel in the east end of Hamilton. That's not self-pity (though it may sound it), that's just reality.

I did know at a certain point, as a young girl, that I had something desirable that others (men) wanted. Did I use those gifts wisely? Likely not. Did I fathom that this period would end soon? I think I had an strong inkling although it was never verbalized or fully articulated. That's why school and getting to university were so important for me. I'm not sure that this is an option for all girls today, even here in modern, progressive Canada.

Please don't perceive this as an endorsement of the sort of "no holds barred" sexual behavior/misbehavior that I am describing in these photos and images - merely an observation and hopefully, some insight as to what these girls are thinking when they behave in ways that might be perceived as transgressive.

And that is something that the Paris Hiltons, Lindsay Lohans, Britney Spiers, Heidi Montags, Kim Kardashians and all the webcam hotties recognize - that their power is ephemeral and it is time for them to make hay while the sun shines. Before the glare of the camera's eye - or elsewhere.

Monday, May 17, 2010

May Reading

Wednesday May 19, 2010
Annex Live
296 Brunswick Ave, North of Bloor St.
Michelle Alfano, Erika DeVasconcelos, Monica Rosas, 
Noreen Shanahan, Andrew Smith, Kathleen Whelan
with Giovanna Riccio as emcee

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Rudderless Brooklyn

Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem (Random House Inc., 1999) 311 pages

This is a very tough path to follow as a fiction writer...trying to replicate and document a narrator with a serious medical condition like Tourette Syndrome. In this instance, Lethem's protagonist Lionel Essrog is a "detective" (I will explain my quotation marks in a moment) with the condition. He says on page one: "If I was a Dick Tracy villain, I'd have to be Mumbles..."

Lethem treads a fine line between making Essrog believable and sympathetic and being annoying on the page. I have to say that R, my husband, felt more of the latter than the former when he read this book sometime ago. The verbal tics do begin to grate ... as a reader we need enough detail for it to be believable as a condition but not distracting to the reader.

All the classic noir elements are here: an unexplained murder (Frank Minna); a mysterious, beautiful woman - preferably a widow (Julia Minna); the stooge who is trying to kill our hero for some unknown reason (the "Polish giant"); a flawed but ultimately virtuous detective (Lionel Essrog) trying to solve the case...yet it never comes together for me as a plot.

Whether Lethem is able to capture the interior monologue of someone with Tourette's, I can't say. He certainly captures the outer mannerisms - the compulsive touching, the expletives and outbursts of seemingly nonsensical chatter. I once had a friend with Tourette Syndrome and this describes S's behavior very accurately. S did a bit of acting too and could be seen in the opening scene of the 1990 film Awakenings with Robin Williams. I remember that Williams even mentioned S in promotional interviews about the film.

Lionel is an orphan. He ends up in the St. Vincent's Home for Boys in Brooklyn (a real institution at one time it appears) with Tony, Danny and Gilbert. The four boys are "mentored" by Frank Minna (and thereby dubbed "Minna Men"), a small time criminal and head of a rag tag limo service cum detective agency which is obviously mob connected. Oh yes, and as the story opens, Frank is also a murder victim.

Minna is foul mouthed and abusive but loving with the boys in his own fashion - paying them somewhat generously and feeding them on occasion at his mother Carlotta's home, alternately offering advice and verbal abuse to the boys. Frank's favorite term of endearment for Lionel is "freak show".

The Minna boys start with seemingly low level tasks ... moving stolen equipment, guarding a car that they presume contains a dead body in the trunk, and eventually the group slowly evolves into a band of "detectives" primarily servicing two clients - the wealthy and mysterious Rockaforte and Matricardi. Are they relations? Lovers? Criminal conspirators? It's hard to tell.

Essrog and his fellow orphans, jokingly referred to as "motherless Brooklyn" by Frank's brother Gerrard were closely tailing Minna on a job the day of his murder, at his orders, only to find Minna after a frantic chase, deposited in a dumpster, fatally stabbed by an unknown assailant - possibly by "Ullman", possibly the "Polish giant". Although conscious when found, Minna refuses to reveal who the killer is and soon dies.

The four Minna Men are horrified and bereft as the profane Minna represented the lone father figure in their lives, whom they both seek to emulate and revere. With Minna's wife Julia purposefully disappearing, the men take on the task of solving the murder.

Tony, now the defacto leader of the four, is acting oddly. Gilbert is arrested for the murder of yet to be seen Ullman (even though it is clear he is not Ullman's murderer) and Danny withdraws into a sullen silence. Someone, it appears, is picking off the Minna Men ...

Lionel returns to the scene that Minna was venturing into when ambushed and killed - the unlikely location of the Zendo, a meditation hall for Buddhists in Brooklyn. Is this a sly commentary on modern Brooklyn? Never mind the flop houses, speakeasies and brothels of film noir and old detective yarns, Minna meets his demise by someone affiliated with this place of cushioned Zen silences?
Lionel meets Kimmery, a lowly Buddhist practitioner tasked with sweeping up the joint and is instantly smitten. He thinks she has a calming effect on this tics and she is seemingly unfazed by his "eccentricities". Later he is menaced by four hapless doormen in suits who throw him into a car and seem more afraid of him than he is of them ... why?

Soon summoned by Rockaforte and Matricardi and asked to abandon his quest to find Minna's killer on his own and align himself with Tony, Lionel becomes suspicious - is Tony behind Minna's murder? Did he sleep with Julia? Why do the two men want him to pursue this course?

Two thirds into the novel the story devolves into some intricate plot involving members of the Zendo who appear to assume multiple identities and are complicit in the murder of Minna. Pseudo Japanese monks, Brooklyn mobsters, estranged brothers ... the plot is convoluted and not particularly believable.

I like my noir straight...and adding these seemingly modern twists to the plot only bore or annoy me. For some old school, mid century noir try David Goodis - short, sweet and nasty.

I would like to be more sympathetic to Lionel and his fate but found myself very disengaged from the plot and, frankly, bored. What is wrong with this character - not wrong but unappealing? He lacks the heroic dimension, the sexiness of the classic "dick". It's not really the Tourettes - it's the goofiness, a fondness for sandwiches and food in general? An attraction to Buddhism? Where is the cynicism, danger, flawed humanity, which makes these characters appealing? Lionel has zero charisma.

I should have paid heed to the husband. Once in a while, I would say, he is absolutely right!

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Or ... Down and Out in Hamilton and Toronto

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell (First published 1933; republished by Penguin Books, 1940) 190 pages

This book, George Orwell's first full-length work, re-ignited an internal debate I have about how to write about the poor and downtrodden. This has become a persistent theme for me as I try and puzzle out the character of Billy in my new yet to be published novel. In Vita's Prospects, Billy is an aboriginal man who is mentally ill, homeless, violent and misogynistic ... oh yes, and gay. Talk about asking for trouble as a writer in these politically sensitive times. And yet he haunts me, the way a dead relation or lover might.

How to make Billy real? How to make him - not sympathetic exactly - but written in such a manner that he is seen compassionately and have the reader understand why he is what he is? I have no interest in being politically correct but I do want an honest representation of his life. His life, as depicted in my novel, is as important to me as the fate of some of the dearest people in my life. What he suffers and endures in the book I feel acutely.

So I turn to Orwell, a hero of mine, who had more than a little experience with living in the rough and amongst the poor.

As Orwell makes his way through Paris and London he assumes various guises. His observations are uncensored and keen and even bigoted at times - castigating the perceived parsimony of Jewish vendors in anti-Semitic slurs or the unsavory aspects of a particularly unpleasant unfortunate he meets in his travels. Of Paris' slum inhabitants he concludes that poverty "frees them from the ordinary standards of behavior" and he cites fairly odd and unconscionable behavior. Orwell is unsentimental and sharp-eyed about the poor. He does not elevate the poor to sainthood but keenly seems to feels the destitution of their day to day existence because he actually lived it for years at a time.

In Paris, he passes the majority of his time with Boris, a former Russian military man disenfranchised by the Russian Revolution of 1917 and now reduced to waiting (as in being a waiter) in some of the most forlorn cafes and restaurants in Paris. They sell their clothes, and every material possession they own, to buy bread and drink to tide them over from day to day. They go days without eating or eating only a scrap of bread. They wander from one eating establishment to another searching for employment. Boris is lame and unlikely to find work. Orwell is a foreigner, although being English in Paris does have a bit of a cachet for some it seems. Both suffer rejection upon rejection for weeks on end living hand to mouth in utter destitution as Boris chases down one hair-brained scheme after another which lead to nothing. One plan involves petitioning former mistresses for financial aid.

When Orwell finds work it is in a vast hotel with hundreds of employees, simply labeled Hotel X in the book, as a plongeur, a position considered to be the lowest of the low among hotel workers and as Orwell puts it "a slave of the modern world...he is no freer than if he were bought and sold."  Washing dishes, clearing the waste, cutting up vegetables, making coffee and tea, working horrendously long hours without breaks or food or a place to sit down for a rest, cursed and vilified by chefs, waiters, managers - anyone with status above him. The cellars of this vast institution are dark, dirty, chaotic and even sometimes violent as tempers flare between overworked and exploited workers scrambling to complete their given tasks. All those stereotypes about working in a restaurant under a tyrannous and abusive chef are magnified tenfold.

Of these abuses after a hundred pages or so Orwell concludes that the job is useless and should be eliminated. If the richer populace did not decide to visit "smart" restaurants and hotels, a "useless luxury", there would be no need for the plongeurs to suffer so. A fanciful thought - may as well wish for the moon, I thought as I read this, as expect the rich and affluent to live without luxuries. Where there is money, there will be a host of services, some essential, some frivolous, to cater to them.

But at least he and Boris are able to make a living wage, that is, until Orwell decides he wants to leave for England where he is promised a job caring for an "imbecile". This job appears like a heavenly reprieve from the suffering he endured in Paris. Once he arrives in London, the job does not come about as quickly as he had hoped so he is cast adrift scrambling to find food and accommodations - quickly devolving from working poor (plongeur) to tramp in the space of days.

He finds himself looking for shelter in "spikes" also known as casual wards, our equivalent of homeless shelters. However, the law stipulates that he may only stay in one spike one day per month so he is forced to tramp all over the city from spike to spike seeking shelter and food every day, traveling miles and miles with Paddy, a displaced Irishman with a penchant for collecting discarded cigarette butts for the miniscule amount of tobacco they yield. If he tries to violate this law he will be thrown in jail.

Experiences vary but generally in order to receive food and shelter the men are subjected to enforced exposure to religious instruction, prayer or hymn singing - literally performing for one's bread in order to survive. The worst examples cited appear to be those spikes run by the Salvation Army which try and instill a military like precision to the running of the spikes. Dirty beds are infested with bugs. Food (usually bread and margarine, thin soup) is inedible, tea undrinkable, treatment is harsh. Overcrowding, violence, sometimes homosexual overtures upon the unwilling, he details all. Even those who travel the tramp circuit despise each other for their misfortunes.

In one vivid scene, he recounts the group of homeless men becoming raucous and disrespectful during a church service that they are forced to attend. Largely, the men are docile and cowed by their circumstances when facing authority - here, in this scene, they are rebellious and rude and on the edge of revolution it seems.

As a natural born reformer, Orwell cites remedies to aid these men which seem possibly workable and sensible. The men seek employment, he argues. Their lack of employment degrades them and they feel it keenly. If these shelters were set up with proper kitchens and gardens the men could work in exchange for accommodations and stay for extended periods instead of being turfed out after one night.

Orwell was an idealist, not a foolish one, but one who tried to offer practical, concrete suggestions about how to improve the plight of the poor. He assumes that most would agree with the logic of his sensible arguments. The truth is, now and likely almost eighty years ago when this was written in the early 30s, people have little interest in situations in which they cannot imagine themselves. They may have sympathy but little inclination to change what they perceive as something that is not their problem.

The origins of the character Billy in Vita's Prospects:
Many years ago, when I lived in the downtown core in the first home that I shared with my husband, my sister and I were strolling near our condo close to the St. Lawrence Market. We passed this young Indian man who was crouched beside a building, obviously in pain, who was begging for money. He was youngish with long sandy coloured hair, a mustache, likely bi-racial, and he did not look like he had been on the streets for very long. He had on a decent looking carmel coloured jacket and some sort of dark stoned necklace around his neck. I couldn't tell if he was ill or suffering from withdrawal - he had trouble speaking or didn't want to talk to us (that could have been it too).

For me it was bit of shock as he resembled, quite a bit, a boy named R who I had known when I was seventeen and who had lead a pretty dicey life in Hamilton where I grew up - short term in prison for various ill fated criminal ventures, getting involved in violent altercations on the street, stealing merchandise, womanizing - and then R eventually died of a drug overdose, likely accidental, under mysterious circumstances at a friend's house. But it struck me, what if R had lived, would he have ended up like this man on the street?

My sister and I felt at a loss as to how to help. We went to the nearest supermarket a few doors away and bought him a drink and some food. Then we kept walking - we thought what can we do? We walked right past the Fred Victor Mission on Jarvis St. which was near my home and stopped inside and spoke to a man there. He was a little condescending when we explained the situation; no doubt he had other more pressing concerns. He said something to the effect that: "It's very nice that you girls are concerned about this guy but there is really nothing you can do and neither can I."

Frustrated, we left and walked back to where we had last seen this young man and he was gone. And I never saw him again. Vita's Prospects is an imagined continuation of what this man's life would be like on the streets set in the course of one June day as encountered by Vita.  

More on Billy and Vita anon ...