A Monday Quote

"How, if art is essentially a gift, is the artist to survive in a society dominated by the market? Modern artists have resolved this dilemma in several different ways, each of which, it seems to me, has two essential features. First, the artist allows himself to step outside the gift economy that is the primary commerce of his art and make some peace with the market. Like the Jew of the the Old Testament who has a law of the altar at home and a law of the gate for dealing with strangers, the artist who wishes neither to lose his gift nor starve his belly reserves a protected gift-sphere in which the work is created, but once the work is made he allows himself some contact with the market. And then--the necessary second phase--if he is successful in the marketplace, he converts market wealth into gift wealth: he contributes his earnings to the support of his art."
--Lewis Hyde from The Gift

Please Stop Ogling Me

This week many critical eyes landed on the body of black women. Washington Post fashion writer Robin Givhan published a piece criticizing Michelle Obama for the shorts she wore as she descended from Air Force One during a recent vacation. Although Givhan—who is black, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and a Detroit native—did not mention race in the article, that topic appeared blatantly and in the subtext of many of the readers’ comments on WAPO and on The Root.com where the article also appeared. Readers referred to Mrs. Obama as a primate, Aunt Jemima and more. The argument that she should step up her fashion game because she “represents the race” was also made by a reader who wrote: “As a proud, professional black woman (in DC), I am appalled by the image that she is projecting to the world. She is being held to a different standard than she would be if she were another ethnicity…”

Givhan wanted to talk about fashion, pleasing aesthetics, and American culture, but she should have known that it wasn’t just the aesthetics of Obama’s shorts that got some people upset, but the black body that was visible in those shorts. She’s too muscular, not muscular enough, her butt’s too big and on and on the readers wrote.
Even if we remove race from the discussion, I think Givhan’s argument about aesthetics is wrong. Givhan wants a more polished (her word) aesthetic for the first lady because “Hers is a life of responsibilities and privileges. She gets the fancy jet. She has to dress for the ride.” Ok fine, so an occasion or office dictates an aesthetic. But who gets to define the aesthetic? Givhan? Fashion critics? Maybe Michelle Obama rejects traditional and ultra-feminine aesthetics. Maybe it’s time for the institution of the first lady to evolve.

Also this week, the New York Times ran an article about the politics of black hair, specifically black women’s hair. Last time I looked it was the Number 5 most read article on that site. That’s a lot of folks interested in black women’s hair. I don’t know, that topic gets a big yawn from me. I’ve worn my hair in many styles (straight and long, straight and short, locks, afro, twists) and while I recognize that there are politics that people associate with my hairstyles, I just don’t care what anyone thinks. I refuse to limit my options one way or another.

You can understand why women have so many issues with appearance when you see how much pressure we put on women to conform to certain norms. If you want to read a good blog on women and issues related to the body, go to Made Nekkid. It’s a new blog, started by a friend, Want Chyi. The first post, "A Day at the Zoo," is a good example of how messages about how women should look can get into your head and seriously mess with you.

AZ Readings + A Lit Mag on Motherhood

On October 8, novelist Leslie Marmon Silko will read from her forthcoming memoir, Turquoise Ledge. Reading begins at 7:00 p.m. at the Heard Museum in Phoenix,

On October 9, poet Naomi Shihab Nye will present a lecture, "Our Shared Humanity: Place Making and Sustainability," at 7:30 p.m., Tempe Mission Palms Hotel. FREE.

On October 14, poet Kimiko Hahn reads at 7:30 p.m. in the Recital Hall at ASU's School of Music.

And a friend sent me info on Brain, Child, a literary magazine about motherhood which publishes fiction, essays and reviews. It looks like a smart read.

From the website:

“Work from Brain, Child won a Pushcart Prize in 2003 and was listed under "Notable Essays" in Best American Essays 2002. Brain, Child is distributed in independent bookstores, Barnes & Noble superstores, Borders, and select grocery stores around the U.S. and Canada. Circulation stands at 36,000, with subscribers from every state and as far away as Sweden, Egypt, and Hong Kong. The Washington Post says "A good read is what Brain, Child is all about."

Past contributors include Barbara Kingsolver, Jane Smiley, Barbara Ehrenreich, Antonya Nelson.

Summer's Gone

Trying to wrap my brain around the upcoming season:

The school year.


The approaching holidays.

I’m still stuck in May, wanting to move slowly and plan vacations, but summer’s gone as evidenced by the many college students who crowded onto the light rail yesterday on their way to the first day of classes.

* * *

Our first family is taking one last vacation to Martha’s Vineyard and the POTUS revealed his vacation reading list. Plainsong is a good book, glad Obama’s reading it. I hope we see women writers on his list next time.

One of my favorite blog posts from this summer. No words, just three writers dancing.

And a poem that I heard at a reading this summer that made me shiver. The poet is Sam Wylie, a senior at Blue Ridge High School in Northern Arizona:


a pale mane dangles like

willow branches down your temple,

curving inward to wash their hands in

the faintly sallow shallows of skin

fingertips tarnished by fishing worms fumble

night-dampened denim for

flame and filtered sin, draping our noses

in a nicotine veil

your bones and cologne

stretch drum tight beneath a

t-shirt and pause, arced

over the tackle box, displaying

each ridge in your spine,

mountains jutting across a

dark cotton valley

living room lights

Monet down in sunflower

and lemon dabs across the

expanse of golf course and pond,

stitching a gleaming patch into your eyes

as your feet rest in

your shoes rest on

the lawn rests under

the butter-soft moon

sprinklers whimper

sorely at hole eight as

we stand together but

not touching, waiting

for god to appear

from across the water and

salvage us from the wreckage

of cheap gin, defiance

and Marlboro 27s

but the rotten plum of evening

soon drips off of our scalps,

rinsed by the licorice night and

finally, you catch a trout,

ending his life the way

all men should die—

with their eyes facing the

stars—because everyone

deserves to be certain that

no one is coming to save them

~copyright Sam Wylie 2009

Reports From A Galaxy Far, Far Away

I’ve been busier than usual with proposals, grants, a syllabus, back-to-school stuff, trying to finish a story that keeps speaking to me and won’t shut up.

And Ava attended her first day of preschool with lunchbox, backpack and everything. The first day report was that Ava was a “natural preschooler.” (*cue sniffles*)

Blogging has fallen off as a result. Conversations have gotten weird in my house, too, like everyone is in an alternate universe with a different language. Hence the crude sketch of me and the kids.

The Southwest Arts conference last week was a good break for me. Chris Jordan’s speech answered the question I had about writers and sustainability. He said that scientists have been wringing their hands trying to figure out a way to make the public care about their statistics on global waste. He said that artists (writers) can make the public feel something about statistics so that we remember and care about the facts. His photography really does that. It pulls you with an intriguing image or design, and then you get up close and learn the ugly statistics that he used to create it. Check out his work.

Writers can do the same thing.

Jordan’s speech also made me think about our present debate on healthcare reform. Proponents of healthcare use personal stories to get people to invest emotionally in their ideas. How many times have we heard politicians tell stories about people who were seriously ill but denied health care? This anecdotal reportage works for me and for many others, but it clearly ain’t working for those against reform. I’m wondering what difference art might make on such an issue.

Which brings me to Obama’s visit to Arizona on Monday. It was great to see hundreds of healthcare supporters marching the streets of downtown Phoenix with signs and instruments at 8 in the morning. It was a spirited rally. I know the media put a spotlight on the dude with the gun, but what I saw was more positive and meaningful.

Read Any Good Blog Posts Lately?

Creative Nonfiction magazine is looking for narrative blog posts from 2009 to publish in an upcoming issue. From CNF's Facebook page: "Must tell a story and be able to stand alone. 2,000 words max, from 2009. To nominate your own blog, a friend's blog, a stranger's blog [go to] http://www.creativenonfiction.org/blog_nomination_open.html". Deadline is August 31.

The Sustainable Writer?

Today and tomorrow I’ll be attending the Southwest Arts Conference in Carefree, Arizona where the theme is sustainability. The keynote speaker is photographer Chris Jordan. Jordan is known for his pictures of mass consumerism and waste, like the reproduction of the Seurat painting pictured above that he made with the the image of thousands of aluminum cans. He has published four books that feature his work, Intolerable Beauty: Portraits of American Mass Consumption, Running the Numbers: an American Self-Portrait, Running the Numbers II: Portraits of Global Mass Culture, and In Katrina's Wake: Portraits of Loss From an Unnatural Disaster. His work has been widely exhibited and he's been featured in many interviews.

Jordan was also a corporate attorney who chose to leave that profession to become an artist and activist. His speech at the conference is supposed to touch on how he moved from disengaged lawyer to a creative defender of the environment.

Jordan’s story is similar to my own and to the story of many artists who once pursued money, status, and validation from other professions. The reason people leave is always the same: one wants to do work that is meaningful, that inspires others. Jordan has become successful as a photographer and so many people will listen to what he has to say and reevaluate the work that they do. But in this worldwide recession I sense a shift away from stories like Jordan’s. I’m hearing more stories about people leaving the arts or teaching to pursue professions like law. The Washington Post featured an article by Sarah Fine who trained as a teacher through Teach for America only to quit after a couple of years. She had many reasons to walk away from teaching but among them was the lack of money and status.

So, I’m looking forward to hearing what Jordan has to say about his decision to remain an arts activist. It may have been an easier choice for him since both of his parents were artists. I’m also looking forward to hearing ideas about what sustainability means for writers. It’s easy to see how the issue impacts visual artists and architects, but what does it mean to be an environmentally aware writer?

Quote of the Day

“To live for art, is to live a life of questioning. And if you believe, as I do, that to live for art demands that every other part of life be moved towards one end, then the question, 'How shall I live?' is fierce."

––Jeanette Winterson/Art Objects

New Journal for Short Stories

Electric Literature is a new journal for short stories. The first issue released in June 2009. EL will publish five stories bi-monthly and copies are available for $5 on Kindle, eBook, or iPhone/iPod Touch. For $10 they will print paperback copies on demand. And get this: they pay writers $1,000 for stories.

According to the website, EL's staff believes that "by publishing gripping narratives from America's best contemporary writers and embracing new forms of distribution, we hope to facilitate a renaissance of the short story."

The current issue features stories by T. Cooper, Michael Cunningham, Lydia Millet, Jim Shepard, and Diana Wagman.

No poetry or essays, just stories.

Freedom to Write Links

Anyone who values the freedom of speech had to feel inspired by the news yesterday that two journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, had been released from imprisonment in North Korea. Ling and Lee are employed by Al Gore’s news channel Current TV. Earlier this year, the women were working on a story on the China-North Korea border when they were apprehended for allegedly entering North Korean territory. On June 8, they were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor and imprisoned. Yesterday, former president Bill Clinton negotiated the release of the women and they returned with Clinton to southern California.

Describing their release, Ling said yesterday:

“Thirty hours ago, Euna Lee and I were prisoners in North Korea. We feared that at any moment we could be sent to a hard labor camp. Then suddenly we were told that we were going to a meeting. We were taken to a location and when we walked through the doors, we saw standing before us President Bill Clinton. We were shocked, but we knew instantly in our hearts that the nightmare of our lives was finally coming to an end. And now we stand here home and free.”

I can’t imagine what it was like the moment these journalists saw the former president, and realized that they would be freed.

Back in June, news sources were reporting that Bill Richardson and Al Gore were involved in possible diplomatic negotiations to free the women, but apparently Kim Jong-il requested that Bill Clinton come to North Korea and personally apologize for the journalists’ actions.

I don’t think I’ve ever agreed with anything Maureen Dowd has written, but she had a point when she wrote that the request for Bill Clinton seemed like a calculated slight to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, given the recent sexist remarks that N. Korean officials made about her. It smells of racial bias, too, like the North Korean government wanted to embarrass President Obama by using Bill Clinton. I’m just glad we have a president who is confident enough to ignore slights and who acted, in this case, in the best interest of two deserving Americans.

Here are a few links in honor of writers and journalists who act with courage:

Isak has videos of Laura Ling’s investigative work.

Formerly imprisoned author Chris Abani in a TED talk he gave in December 2008.

PEN American Center has recognized and encouraged the freedom to write since 1921. Why not support PEN?