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Social justice, arts and politics, life in New York City

An enlightening William T. Vollman profile in NYT

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I was going to blog about the 911 caller in the Henry Louis Gates, Jr. case because she just held a press conference, but decided it’s time to let that one go. Instead, a new profile of William T. Vollman in the New York Times.

I first heard of Vollman from a friend in graduate school. I was always curious what other people were reading, who were the writers who blew them away, what was the latest “must-read.” My friend Lacy listed a couple writers, including Vollman, and after reading some of his short stories, I was hooked.

Especially fascinating to me was Rising Up and Rising Down:  Some Random Thoughts on Violence, Freedom, and Urgent Means, which he wrote a couple years ago. This book is more than 3,000 pages, but is abridged for publication–as are many of Vollman’s works. He’s a literary lion with an encyclopedic knowledge. Listening to him discuss the book at B.U. a couple years ago, I was struck by how comprehensive his knowledge was: from the bones in a French graveyard to post-colonialism to cross-dressing (which he’s researching for a book now).

Here’s my favorite quote from the NYT profile:

Mr. Vollmann spent two weeks alone at the magnetic North Pole, where he suffered frostbite and permanently burned off his eyebrows when he accidentally set his sleeping bag on fire. But being eyebrowless has its advantages, he discovered more recently, while experimenting with cross-dressing to research a novel he’s now writing about the transgendered. He didn’t have to pluck his brows when getting made up.

This is some serious commitment to his art.

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Filed under: literature, , , ,

“The First Day of My Life”

I happened across this video by Bright Eyes, directed by John Cameron Mitchell a few years ago, and remembered how much I adore it. So many faces, so much love apparent.

The couples and the way they interact–kissing, listening, holding their toddler while she dances–are all fun in the video, but for some reason I’m moved the most by the forlorn man with the dark curly hair in the middle of the video. He dons this nearly expressionless expression where you know he’s moved by something extraordinary and it’s all internal. Mitchell’s way of filming the video seems like we, the audience, are eavesdropping as these folks listen to Conor Oberst. Like a tiny little sunburst for your Sunday morning.

Filed under: music, , ,

Burning Books in Wisconsin?

This story fired me up at first, then saddened me: West Bend, Wisconsin, is a community threatening to burn young adult books dealing with sexuality and other themes deemed “inappropriate” at the public library. Burning books? Come on. It’s 2009.

Not only is this a gay rights issue and a censorship issue, but one that imposes the religious values of a few on the books for an entire community. The book that started it all? The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which chronicles the awkward, heart-breaking adolescence of a freshman in high school.

According to a CNN report, this is an ongoing challenge for public libraries:

Book challenges aren’t new. More than 500 were reported in the United States in 2008, mostly in schools and public libraries, Deborah Caldwell-Stone of the American Library Association said.

But this one was attracting extra attention. Caldwell-Stone, who monitored the dispute, said moving any young-adult book to the adult section would have been a form of censorship, even if teens were free to check them out.

“The whole intent was shelving books not on the basis of age or reading ability, but because they disapprove of the content with the intent of restricting access. That’s a burden on First Amendment rights,” Caldwell-Stone said.

Let’s hope that some of the opposition to banning books in this community, including Maria Hanrahan, a blogger who opposes banned books in her West Bend community, garners the support they need:

“I’m against any other party telling me what’s appropriate for my child and what isn’t,” said Hanrahan, 40, who also created a West Bend Parents for Free Speech group. “We don’t mean to say these are appropriate for everyone, but we don’t feel they should be set apart from other materials or restricted from the young-adult section.”

It takes a whole lot of effort–and a whole lot of hate–to be so moved as to stir up controversy about a few library books. Is information that threatening to parents?

Filed under: censorship, , , , , ,

What does Jay-Z have to do with U.S. hegemony?

Jay-Z and Obama

Jay-Z and Obama

Great article by Marc Lynch, a political science professor and rap aficionado, drawing parallels between timely feuds in the rap world and the international political scene. Sound like a stretch?

The article has its roots in L.A. rapper “The Game”‘s attack on rap behemoth Jay-Z. Lynch’s comparison likens The Game to a small nation and Jay-Z to a superpower (the only remaining one) like the United States. He says that it’s a crap shoot whether The Game will actually make a dent in the Jay-Z’s hegemonic rap empire, but it’s the effort that will make a name for The Game. Kinda like a newbie politician who knows that he’ll lose his first campaign but gain name-recognition for future runs.

Jay-Z is entrenched in a prince-like seat of power in the rap world. Lynch notes that few rappers have challenged him:

As a young 50 Cent spat at him (twisting one of Jay’s own famous lines), “if I shoot you I’m famous, if you shoot me you’re brainless.”  He’s generally avoided getting embroiled in beefs since reaching the top, only occasionally and briefly hitting back at provocations from rising contenders like 50 Cent, Lil Wayne, and others.  Responding to every challenge does not become a hegemon.

We know that often our greatest success comes in the student surpassing the teacher. This may be the case for The Game, a rising young star who was once a protege of Dr. Dre. We’ll see how the feud–and its parallel to international politics–plays out.

Filed under: music, politics, , , , , ,

Police Drop Charges Against Gates

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Latest news: Cambridge police are dropping the charges against African American scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. for “disorderly conduct” after breaking in to his own home.

No doubt more analysis and articles about the repercussions of this event–racial profiling? lackadaisical police training?–will follow.

Filed under: boston, racism, , ,

Publications

BIOGRAPHY

RECENT PUBLICATIONS
» "Pinays," AGNI, Spring 2016
» "Dandy," Post Road, Spring 2015
» "Wrestlers," Fifth Wednesday, Spring 2014
» "Babies," Joyland, August 2011
» "Nicolette and Maribel," BostonNow, May 2007
» "The Rice Bowl," Memorious, March 2005
» "The Rules of the Game," Screaming Monkeys: Critiques of Asian American Images (Coffee House Press, June 2003)
» "Deaf Mute," Growing Up Filipino (Philippine American Literary House, April 2003)
» "Good Men ," Genre, April 2003
» "The Foley Artist," Drunken Boat, April 2002
» "Squatters," Take Out: Queer Writing from Asian Pacific America (Asian Am. Writers' Workshop, 2001)
» "Deaf Mute," The North American Review, Jan 2001
» "The First Lady of Our Filipino Nation," The Boston Phoenix, 1999
» "Paper Route," Flyway Literary Review, 1996
» "Brainy Smurf and the Council Bluffs Pride Parade," Generation Q (Alyson, 1996)
July 2009
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Ricco Villanueva Siasoco is a Manhattan-based writer and non-profit manager. More

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