Sunday, January 30, 2011

Cartagena Hay Festival 2011: Joumana Haddad, Philip Glass, Michelle Paver

Friday 28 January

I Killed Scheherazade: There is nothing admirable about the acquiescence of a woman who has no rights.
Joumana Haddad, interviewed by Juan David Correa

Lebanese poet, translator, and journalist, literary editor for the newspaperAn Nahar and director of the review Jasad, Joumana Haddad wants to turn the Western world's notions about Arab women upside-down, and clarify that the entire Arab world is not Muslim.

She started her conference by reading from her poem "I Killed Scheherazade." Why would Haddad want to figuratively kill Scheherazade, who is known as a clever, educated women, who spins the 1,001 stories to keep from being killed? Because the entire bargain is perverse. Why should a woman have to keep her man amused in order to save her life? Haddad maintains that there is nothing admirable about the acquiescence of a woman who has no rights. "I Killed Scheherazade" is Haddad's conscious extirpation of those values and practices from her subconscious. Her underlying message is that everyone needs to take charge of their own life.

She came from a comfortably established conservative home life, where a premium was placed on education. At the age of 12, as she was starting to read voraciously, she discovered the "forbidden books" at the top of her father's bookshelf. The book that she specifically mentions as discovering there was Justine by the Marquis de Sade, and while it was harsh and shocking, it was liberating because it brought the realization that through writing it was possible to express anything no matter how outrageous, and that she too was free to imagine. This was a turning point and one of the results is that in her writing she is explicit and calls things by their name, which has caused some controversy.

She talked about how the war in Beirut influenced her life and her writing, where the constant presence of death meant that every day was a battle for survival. She acknowledged that having lived in these circumstances has stripped her of the defences that isolate us from what goes on the world, and leaves her vulnerable.

To finish her conference Haddad read from another poem. A poem of the world's woman: the woman that each of us is, once was, will be, might be, could have been. Unlike Bee Rowlatt, whose book tells the experience of two women, Haddad encompasses the universe of women, and that makes her relevant. Unlike Scheherazade, Hadded is not negotiating her life with an authority; she has subverted the process to tell her own stories for her own ends. I will be buying her book of poetry.

"Music is about listening"

Philip Glass, interviewed by Peter Florence
In the 1950's Philip Glass's father was a mechanic who also sold records at his automotive repair shop. Eventually the records came to dominate the business. His father noticed that some records --some kinds of music-- didn't sell very well, and he began to bring these albums home to listen to them to figure out why. In a world where people listened to classical music or else lounge singers like Frank Sinatra, this was the young Philip Glass's his introduction to modern classical composers like Shostakovitch and Bartok. The more he and his father listened to them, them more they began to understand this music.

Always a talented pianist, Glass graduated from Julliard, and continued to study under renowned international teachers in Paris. It was while he was living in San Francisco that he started writing music for theatre. Glass asked himself who wanted, who needed, music: dancers and theatre; he began to compose for them. Branching into music for film was a logical step.

Glass comments on who ultimately has artistic control in different genres: the choreographer makes the decisions in dance, the director makes the decisions in film, and the composer makes the decisions in opera. Glass himself has written 24 operas, as well as collaborating on a wide range of projects.

Glass says that he has found these collaborations very enriching, particularly as one starts to envision the project from the perspective of the other individuals who are responsible for different aspects for the artistic content. As director Godfrey Reggio with whom he worked on Koyaanisqatsi, famously said, "You have to see the music with your ears and hear it with your eyes;" very apropos for considering music in film. Glass talked about how on one project he gave the technical crew the music for scene to listen to as they were setting the scenes, lighting, and filming, and how having the music affected the way that they conceived of the scene. In the same way, the way a scene is to be played in a film or performance can also necessitate making changes to the music.

In response to a question from the audience about "finding one's voice" as a composer or musician, Glass says that if you are practicing what you do, you will eventually, inevitably, find your voice. In the meantime, he emphasizes the need to learn technique and interpretive skills, so that when you do start to create and develop your own voice, you will have adequate tools upon which to draw. For the budding composer, he recommends writing music for oneself and one's friends to play. "Why write a symphony if you cannot get an orchestra to play it?" he asks. He recommends working with young musicians, one's own age.

Glass says that it was not until he was past 30 that he began to consider himself as a performer, as well as a composer. It changed the way he viewed his music: his music was the same, and yet each time he performed it, it was somehow different. He notes that playing in front of an audience is a different experience from playing alone, and that when he was a child and his mother was nearby cooking, he would practice better when he knew that there was someone listening.

Reggio's film Koyaanisqatsi may deal with the ordinary world, but it addresses the subject of how we see and interpret that world. Glass comments that drawing is about seeing, dancing is about moving, poetry is about speaking, and music is about listening.

Woman Who Runs With Wolves
Michelle Paver, interviewed by Peter Florence

Michelle Paver has written a successful series of six books for children set in a hunter-gatherer society in prehistoric times, Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, of which the first in the series is Wolf Brother

Paver, a successful lawyer, had always been writer, and since childhood she had a fascination for the stone-age and for wolves. The series began to crystallize after a close encounter with a bear in southern California. The incident left a deep impact on her, and becomes the starting point for her story, as the father of Torak, her main character, is killed by a bear.

For those who think that writing children's books would be, well, child's play, it's not. At least not if you are writing a good book, the sort that is not dumbed-down. Writing her series required creating a world about which there are no historical records. Paver traveled extensively, getting to know aboriginal hunter-gatherer cultures. With the different cultures she visited she learned about the values and belief system: nomadic cultures do not value possessions, nor are they concerned about inheritance laws, they live with profound respect for other living things, many have the notion of a three-faceted soul: the individual soul, the clan soul, and the world soul. This is unfamiliar terrain to the modern reader. We are introduced to this world through the eyes of Torak, who is 12 as the series begins, as he begins his journey through life and discovers the world's spirits, and his place in this world.

Paver resists being classified with fantasy writers. Although her book contains fantastical elements, they are all based on researched reality, even if their cosmovision is foreign to our experience. Historical fiction? Prehistorical fiction?

She spent seven years writing the first series of six books, and observes that about 1,000 hours of writing went into each book. One of the hardest parts of writing, she says, is paring down the text; cutting out the inessential so that only the elements necessary to tell the story and understand the context are left. After all, the book is not supposed to be an ethnographic treatise, it is a child's adventure story; but being a children's author is not child's play.

Is Your Glass Half Philip or Half Empty?
Philip Glass in Concert

Philip Glass's music is instantly recognizable, with its persistent, subtly shifting bassline, familiar to the non-musical connoisseur from the many film soundtracks he has scored.

The first piece he played was six études. In his interview earlier in the day Glass explained that he had written these pieces as exercises to address certain technical difficulties and to improve his playing. The object reminded me of the Goldberg variations. But whereas Bach sounds mathematical and precise, Glass sounds organic, as if the pieces were not musical compositions but rather the sounds of earth, air, fire and water; made out of silica, fire and air, cooled in water…like glass. They gave me the feeling that if I were to put my hands on the piano keyboard, the notes would simply spring from it. They sound "natural," which is an absurd statement because anyone who has ever played, or tried to play, a musical instrument knows that the perfectly formed notes don't spring naturally, they have to be skilfully coaxed out. That is the performer's gift: to make something technically complex, look and sound easy. In fact Glass had some awkward moments during the performance and hit a number of sour notes, underscoring why composers are often not performers.

The Wichita poem, with a recorded soundtrack spoken by Alan Ginsberg, was a glorious close and underlined Glass's ability to collaborate and an example of how he has worked to incorporate music into different media.

For a guy who is frankly not sexy (sorry Philip) the music is strongly sensual. The deep, intense bass notes are like having your thighs insistently caressed while being kissed repeatedly, and just as you are about to say something or change the pace, you find your mouth shushed as it is enveloped in another kiss as the base line continues to throb, persistently, relentlessly…

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Cartagena Hay Festival 2011: Rubén Blades and Bee Rowlatt

The Hay Festival gets off to a slow start

Thursday 27 January 2011

Rubén Blades
The first conference I attended was with Panamanian singer, film star, and now Minister of Tourism Rubén Blades, interviewed by former Cambio Magazine director Roberto Pombo.

Blades, known for both his salsa and his ballads, describes his work as a singer as "an act of self-defense," an attempt to describe and validate the world from which he comes. His perspective in his song-writing is eminently urban, describing the culture of the streets.

Blades did not set out to be a singer; he has a degree in law. The fact that he was singing in bars to earn pocket money was something of a point of contention between him and the dean of the law school, who called him into his office and demanded that Blades make up his mind about whether he was going to be a lawyer or a singer, I suppose on the grounds that singing in bars is unseemly for a member of the legal practice.

His music has always been described as having a political edge, although he declines to be classed with the protest singers and the nueva trova movement. He distances himself from them on the grounds that they protest but do not propose alternatives. With his political interests, it is not altogether out of place that he would currently find himself serving as Panama's minister of tourism. It was disappointing that he did not talk about this job, what he sees as his objectives, and what he feels that his personal history and philosophy contribute to the role of furthering the interests of his country. He did mention that he would rather have been justice minister; with his legal background, and having a fascination for the workings of the penitentiary system and the underlying question of how to "reform" someone who hasn't been "formed" in the first place.

He had some interesting anecdotes about contacting La Fania (subsequently La Fania Allstars) and working in the band's mailroom at the start of his musical career. Through La Fania he had to opportunity to work with salsa heavyweights such as Johny Pacheco, Richie Rey, Bobby Cruz, Willie Colon, Hector Lavoie, Che Feliciano, names that, if you are any kind of salsa fan, should send shivers down your spine. He was always a writer, and it was by writing songs for some of the other band members that he got a foot in the door.

At this point in his life Blades continues to write and perform music. He is currently recording 15 (!) albums for different projects, having recently returned from a session of recording tangos in Prague. He also continues to remain active in film.

All things considered, it is difficult to see how he has time for politics. In terms of his political aspirations, he shakes his head at the politicians who are trying "to recreate the paradigms of the 19th century" (I'm not quite sure what he means by that). He says that contemporary politics need more coherence between ideas, plans, and actions. He also stresses a need for more "spirituality."

The interview was a bit all over the place, without any sort of logical progression or development. It conveyed diverse experiences and interests, but there was no sense of evolution. I guess that is why Rubén Blades is tourism minister and not a literary author.

Bee Rowlatt – Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad
From the title of this conference, one might infer that Bee Rowlatt was somehow involved in teaching or discussing Jane Austen in Baghdad; she wasn't and she didn't.

Rowlatt was working for the BBC World Service Radio in January 2005 when US and British troops invaded Iraq. Her assignment: Start calling Baghdad and find English-speaking Iraqis in the country who would be willing to talk to the BBC about what was going on. Not easy. After a bit of searching, she ended up in contact with May Witwit, a professor of 19th Century Literature at the University of Baghdad. This turned into an ongoing email correspondence, and Rowlatt was eventually able to help Witwit and her husband escape from Iraq.

The first half hour of the Hay Festival conference consisted of Rowlatt reading excerpts from the book by the same name that was published of their email correspondence. Then she took questions from the audience.

The conference title had very little to do with the content of the talk. Furthermore, first person biographical narrative is ultimately of very little interest unless it is used to address larger issues, for example: the treatment of women under Saddam Hussein's government, the lives of women under fundamentalist Islamic rule in general, international justification for the war in Iraq, the difficulties and the role of the media in providing coverage of this sort of incident. Too bad these were not addressed.

Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran and Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel were eye-openers for me. A question that springs to my mind is whether this genre of literature that talks about women's lives under fundamentalist Islamic regimes will serve to deepen the gulf or close the breach of cultural differences.

Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad is not going to answer these questions. Or anything else that you perhaps might have wondered about the relevance of talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad. It is the story of a friendship and an escape, but that is all it is.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Mid-life Traveler

I used to be fearless. Once upon a time I was ready to go out and explore and conquer the world. At 21 I was jaunting around Europe on my own with a Eurail pass. I stayed in the hostals, met other young people, would hook up for a few days and travel with them; then we'd go our separate ways, depending on where we were heading. When you are young and traveling on your own, you are not on your own for long. I don't think this applies to the mid-life traveler. Many hostals don't even accept people over 30 and, let's face it, neither the 20-somethings want to hang out with you, and nor do you want to hang out with them. After going on a student exchange to Calgary in the 1980's, four of us decided to hang out and hitchhike around, camping, hiking, and climbing. It was one of the best times of my life.

One of the things that impressed me about Eat, Pray, Love was the fact that Elizabeth Gilbert was able to take off and do what she wanted for an indefinite period of time. This requires a certain amount of disposable cash, and no dependent children. In my case, I have a deficit of the former and a surfeit of the latter.

The window of opportunity to travel on my own is limited: basically I can travel in July while my boys are on vacation with their father. During the year they live with me fulltime and see him every other weekend; an arrangement that is not exactly conducive to a jet setting lifestyle.

So where and how does a person of a certain age (too old for the youth hostals, too young for Elder Hostal) travel?

Most of my recent travels have been with my children: Paris, New York, Quebec City, Ottawa, Toronto, and last year London (oh yeah, Disney World too). The boys are excellent cultural and historical travelers. I'd like to do more camping-style traveling but only one of the two is really inclined, and I can't stand the thought of traveling with a whiny adolescent who really doesn't want to be there.

The other obvious travel option is the friend and family network. In the late 1990's Colombia was in the throes of an economic crisis, and a number of friends up and left. Cathy went to France; Gaby and Frank went to Mexico; Doris and Mauricio went to Spain. Invitations to visit all of them are pending. And there are others: Liz and Paul are in Houston; Lori in Toronto; and Jenny and Marshall in London (Ont.) have also extended invitations recently.

My friend Robert has travelled with I love this idea. People voluntarily open their homes and welcome travelers for a few nights at a time. This strikes me as an amazing way to meet people as you travel. Some places take children too, but I don't know that my kids would be inclined. I wouldn't mind receiving guests either. Having lived here for years, I've become a bit of an expert at dispensing Bogota travel, tourism and survival info. Mind you, there is no where to put miscellaneous travelers in this apartment. This is a backburner plan.

There is another reason that keeps me from packing my bags and heading for the airport. A friend loaned me a guide to Portugal. As I was leafing through it and picturing myself enjoying a drink at a charming, quiet out-of-the-way café, watching the sun set over an azure ocean, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the thought that I don't want to do this on my own; I'd rather have someone to share it. This realization stopped me in my process of vacation planning. It suddenly felt like too much effort. Somehow, somewhere along the way, I had lost that fearless edge. I don't know that I necessarily want to go back to my footloose hostal days, but I do want to reclaim that ability to go out and explore the world.

This doesn't mean that I don't travel at all. This week I am off to the Hay Festival in Cartagena with my friend Sally. Sally is my top all-purpose (todo terreno) friend; game for theatre festivals, literary festivals, and demanding hikes. We are staying at a house owned by a friend of hers in the old city. The location could not be more perfect. We went to the festival last year and had a fantastic time.

So I'll be away for the next while, enjoying the Hay Festival. Be on the lookout next week for the reviews! The world awaits, but I haven't decided how I am going to deal with it.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Mill on the Floss

George Eliot's novel The Mill on the Floss is a museum piece from another time. The writing is richly descriptive and the characters are drawn with fine and perceptive sensibility, and considerable irony when Eliot's wants to point out their human foibles. She establishes her novel with a strong sense of historical and cultural context, with a keen awareness of the subtleties conveyed by pronunciation and the use of language.

The main character in the book is Maggie, an overly smart, bold and impulsive, "ugly duckling" of a girl who grows into a sensual and perceptive woman, whose dark appeal, challenges the stenotype of conventional blond attractiveness, and whose inquiring mind is all too aware of the limitations that she faces in life as a woman whose economic situation is far from secure. As far a novel-writing goes, this is a promising start. Too bad Eliot doesn't quite figure out what to do with her character, whose main love interest is her devotion to her brother Tom, who frankly does not do anything to deserve her affection, making her utter adoration somewhat inexplicable. Tom is dedicated to restoring the family's economic stability and control of the mill, and upholding his father's grudge against Lawyer Wakem.

A lot of potentially interesting issues are raised: the impact of economics on society, conventional morality and the consequences of challenging that morality, family relations, fidelity to friends, family, oneself. But the author never fully develops her ideas, and after many many pages of introducing her story and the characters, Eliot literally sweeps it all away and ends the book. Just like that.

It is really a disappointment that the conflicts and the relations do not get resolved in a more satisfactory manner. Let me clarify that not every story needs to have a happy ending, but I would have preferred an ending with some sort of relevance deriving from the actions or the nature of the main characters. Eliot's ending is random and facile.

My second objection to the book is that the exploration of class, social standing, and newfangled economics is no longer relevant to the modern reader, at least not in the same way. Nor is the provincial morality. As a museum piece this book is interesting, but it is no longer relevant today and it has not withstood the test of time.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Christmas and New Year's Eve in Colombia


In North America Christmas Eve is mainly a family celebration (although I do remember escaping for a beer with my sister when tensions were running high in the house). New Year's Eve is the big party. In Colombia, the traditions are reversed: Christmas Eve is a party but New Year's Eve is a family event. So here are two of my most memorable Christmas and New Year's Eves:

In 1991 I went with my friend Estela to her family's farm in the rural area of Manta, Cundinamarca. Manta is a tiny town tucked along the slopes of a jutting knife of the Colombian Andes. It is only an hour and a half outside of Bogota, but the drive to get there is breathtaking and when you arrive you have reached another world.

Coffee beans drying by the roadside.

1991 was a very dry year. Colombia, an exporter of hydroelectric energy, was in crisis. Because of the lack of rain, the reservoirs were dry. Electricity rationing was introduced, meaning energy cuts at certain points during the day. Cesar Gaviria's government put the country onto daylights savings time, for the first time ever, in order to gain an extra hour of light in the evening. In the city, people adopted the new time standard, but in the countryside it was irrelevant. The roosters crowed, the cows needed to be milked at the same time as ever.

Estela at the front of the house (side view).

Estela and I arrived around midday on December 24, standing all the way on a packed bus from Bogota. Her mother was bustling about the house, making envueltos (ground cornmeal from their cornfield, with fresh cheese and butter from the cow, a bit of sugar and salt, mixed together and steamed inside the corn husks). Estela and I went out to visit the neighbors, bringing little gifts for the children and used clothes. My best friend grew up in a region inhabited by subsistence farmers, eking a living off of the land. If your farm does not produce, you go hungry. Estela's family was something of an oddity in the region. Her father sent all the children to school, even though eight of the 10 children were girls. "Why are you bothering to educate the girls?" the neighbors asked. Everywhere we went we were greeting with affection and respect. Estela had been instrumental a number of years earlier in petitioning the authorities to get the community connected to the national electricity grid. Now she was here, and with a foreigner. Many of these neighbors had never met a foreigner before. They asked me questions: Are there cows in Canada? Do you have potatoes? How does Canada deal with its guerrillas? Because we were La Visita, they served us Vino Cariñoso de Manzana and ponque Ramo, or if they didn’t have that, the ubiquitous black coffee sweetened with raw cane sugar (tinto con panela). I felt guilty about receiving hospitality from people who have so little. It took all afternoon to make the rounds and enquire after all the neighbors and their extended families. The afternoon was drawing to a close as we got back to the house.

The back of the house.

After a snack and before it got dark, Estela announced that it was time to go down to the corner store by the main road, because that is where the neighbors gather on Christmas Eve. We put on our sweaters to protect against the coolness of the gathering dusk, grabbed a flashlight, and headed down through the coffee groves, across the footbridge, and then up the hill to the store by the roadside. Estela and I read and sang the novena with Doña Blanca and her family.

Doña Blanca's nativity this year.

Other neighbours began trickling in. With each new arrival, a new round of introductions was made. Estela and I ordered a round of beer for all. As each new neighbour arrived, another round of beer was ordered. A cold beer was being put in my hand about every 15 minutes. I would clank my bottle with the new arrival, have a sip or two, and then put the bottle under my stool. By the end of the evening I had a good dozen beers with a couple of sips out of them under my chair. At 11:00 o'clock, or midnight under daylight savings time, people started setting off their fireworks to welcome the Christ Child. Considerable drunken debate ensued about whether it was actually midnight or not. Just because the central government had decreed a time change, that didn't mean that time had actually changed. So was it midnight now, or an hour later, or an hour ago??? It didn't matter, there were plenty of fireworks. After a while Estela and I bid our farewells to the neighbors and heading back up to the house. Once there we set off the fireworks that we had brought with us from the city. It was a lot of fun, but I can see how people lose their fingers doing this.

We went to bed and slept in the absolute peaceful darkness of the remote country night, peaceful except for the sound of fireworks popping in the distance.


New Year's Eve

The New Year's Eve I spent with the family of my first boyfriend in Colombia, Carlos Alberto, was an introduction to another new set of traditions. Although I was not family, it seemed indecent to them that anyone without family should spend New Year's Eve alone. New Year's Eve in Colombia is not a party; it is a family celebration, of togetherness and hopes for the New Year. Here are some of the Colombian traditions: Wear something yellow (often underwear) inside out for good luck (huh?). Burn the "seven sweet herbs" house (rue, basil, threeflower ticktrefoil, chamomile, myrrh; I know this isn't seven) as incense to purify the house. Eat 12 grapes at midnight and make a wish on each grape. Go for a walk around the block with your suitcase so that you will travel during the New Year. Hang aloe behind the doorway of your home or business to keep bad energy away. Hang a bunch of wheat sprigs over your doorway to ensure that you will not go hungry. Put dry lentils in your pocket to ensure prosperity. And there are many others.

Lucky yellow underwear.

Colombians are big believers in lucky rituals. As I walked past the grocery store early in the evening on December 31 this year, the street vendors were doing a brisk business in aloe, sprigs of wheat, and bundles of herbs. The New Year's Eve celebration is completely different from the frenzied, drunken partying and desperate resolutions of other latitudes. Interestingly, resolutions don't seem to figure heavily in the traditions here. I guess that once you have appealed to the spirits and the universe, you can just sit back and watch your luck unfold.